Tuesday, March 15, 2022

D&D, Sci-Fi & Banning Books

Goose-stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them!”

Professor Henry Jones

I regret to see book banning and angry mobs back in the news again. (Apologies to those who don’t come here for my occasional descent into political issues, but if you keep reading you’ll find some mention of games in the context of this subject.) Now that the furor over “critical race theory” has slightly subsided after Virginia’s contentious gubernatorial election in November and public schools start lifting mask mandates, the right-wing has fired up its angry base against books they fear question their white-privilege morals, insisting schools ban these objectionable titles, or even burn them (yes, two Spotsylvania County, VA, school board members said particular books should be pulled from school libraries and burned). Fear of the angry mob has permeated schools to the extent that an assistant principal in a Mississippi elementary school was fired for reading I Need A New Butt! Unfortunately we’ve seen this all before in some form and to some degree, though more often from the top down, from governments officially banning books and free speech rather than vocal minority mobs aggressively forcing government policy to reflect their agenda.

In the 1930s Nazis banned books and burned “filth literature” like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The Soviet state maintained an iron grip on communication, banning such titles as Doctor Zhivago, The Gulag Archipelago, Animal Farm, even Robinson Crusoe (all deemed critical of communism in some way). More recently those of us who discovered roleplaying games in the 1980s might recall the “Satanic Panic” outcries against Dungeons & Dragons at school board meetings. In 2020 brutal police crackdowns sought to quell mostly peaceful social justice protests. Even today we see Russian state censorship measures and protest response against those speaking out about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But as a writer, avid reader, and gamer, the continued movements in America to ban books really hit home.

All this book-banning talk reminds me of the “Satanic Panic” about D&D in the 1980s. Thankfully I heard much of this controversy in my hometown second hand. My junior high school had a D&D club while I was there, though I didn’t discover roleplaying games until my last month or two. Clubs met once a week for about 45 minutes or so; I can’t imagine they got much done in that time beyond creating characters and perhaps running an entire adventure or two during the course of the school year. When I immersed myself in D&D during high school I read the local newspaper accounts of the D&D club’s fate. At one point it stopped because the teacher advisor left. It resurfaced a year or two later. But I read several accounts of parents objecting to the PTA, school administration, and the school board that such an abomination was allowed in the schools. I later heard stories of a fellow gamer’s mom who asked how many objecting parents had actually watched a game (as opposed to glancing through the seemingly lurid books); if they had, she said, they’d see a bunch of kids sitting around a table arguing about rules for hours on end (which was pretty accurate for our level of player maturity at the time). The D&D club disappeared anyway. Back then the crowds remained somewhat civil, working through the chain of command within schools; they took their complaints to PTA meetings, communicated with administrators, wrote the school board, and accepted the compromises. The outcry never reached the furious frenzy of angry mobs we all too frequently see screaming about cultural issues today; no doubt those 1980s parents went on to find some new windmill to fight, whether comic books, rock and roll, or (gasp!) the perfidy of nascent video games.

Of course these kids just went home and spent more time – entire days, weekends, even winter/spring breaks – playing D&D and other roleplaying games with their siblings, neighborhood kids, and friends. Still, many parents gave in to the fear-mongering and threw out or burned their children’s D&D books. But I was fortunately my parents and many of my friends’ parents saw the value in us immersing ourselves in this geeky hobby, rolling and adding dice, figuring out stats, writing adventures, drawing character portraits and new monsters, even publishing our own (horridly amateurish) gaming fanzines. Our families also encouraged us to explore other hobbies and interests; the school system alone did not dictate what we learned from our varied life experiences. (Somewhere I have an as-yet-unpublished missive about how public schooling remains only one part of a young human’s overall education...and how games can enhance it.)

For some of us it led to reading fantasy and science-fiction literature. I read a lot in high school, fueled by new titles from the local independent bookstore, Books on the Common, about which I’ve reminisced before. My senior year we had the obligatory half-year of British literature, but then could choose an English elective for the second half of the year. All the smart kids naturally took the highest level course, something that seemed to me terribly dry, like “Composition and Rhetoric.” But one teacher offered a course on science fiction. My parents had to write a letter to my guidance counselor – who obviously didn’t know me very well – requesting she allow me to take the course, since it wasn’t at the highest academic level. And I enjoyed that class more than I had any other high school class (though my American Studies English class comes in a close second). Despite having spent the summer reading fantasy and science fiction, I’d read none of the books for that class before. We read a short story anthology, Derinyi Rising, Childhood’s End, several other novels I can’t recall all these years later, even watched movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, George Pal’s 1953 War of the Worlds, and Alien (had to get a parental permission slip for that one...). And we read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in A Strange Land.

I didn’t know anything about it at the time. I didn’t realize it had been banned in the past. I don’t recall being bothered much by its characters’ occasional nudity, implied sex, portrayal of organized religion, or any other controversial elements. I found it a positive and ultimately sad commentary on the human condition. Today I’m amazed we read it at all; I’m surprised nobody complained to the school administration at the time (at least that I know about). It’s the kind of book-related controversy I’d expect parents might scream about, much like D&D. I don’t know if the English department ever offered the science fiction course again; at that point I was too busy with graduation and college. No doubt it fell by the wayside in the face of more serious academic priorities.

Since reading it for that high school English class Stranger has become one of those books I re-read every few years, along with The Hobbit, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and, regrettably, The Nazi Seizure of Power (not an instruction manual). Each time I re-read Stranger I come away with something new. A different perspective on innocence. A new view of society and how humans interact. Inspiration on how I might become a better person. Even a sense of Heinlein’s own prejudices and opinions. Words and phrases remind me of key, positive concepts I’ve gleaned from it, like the acknowledgment we are still learning embodied in “I am just an egg,” or the reverence for human creativity in “Thou art God,” the virtue of patience in “Waiting is,” the understanding and joy that comes with “a goodness,” “fullness,” “groking.” Literature – and indeed any experience even slightly beyond our usual comfort zone – offers a chance to consider something different, to re-evaluate ourselves, to improve our community, to look at the world with a new and more compassionate understanding.

Some blame Heinlein and Stranger for inaugurating the youthful counterculture movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Schools objected to his controversial ideas and scathing criticisms of establishment institutions; it was banned from school reading lists and libraries. It won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel anyway. Heinlein did not use Stranger to map out an ideal society based on free love, communal living, and cult-like religions. Like many creators, he intended the book to challenge readers to ask questions, to seek answers, and find something that resonated with their own lives:

I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers.... It is an invitation to think – not to believe.”

Books, even banned books – whether D&D, Stranger in A Strange Land, or the host of books modern mobs want to eliminate – offer new literary experiences meant to start us thinking, questioning, discussing various issues they cover. Those who seek to ban books, even just in school libraries, have the same choices as any parent: forbid them to read such books or talk with them about a book’s content (whether or not they read it) to put it in context (even if a biased context). But many mobs screaming to ban books don’t want anyone’s kids to read them. Opponents might fear these books from a lack of understanding, or an unwillingness to understand, or a concern more people will rise up through their understanding. Heinlein’s words about Stranger reveal to me another insight when I consider my experience with roleplaying games and science fiction as well as the banned book uproar: the people who fear kids reading certain books fear they will learn and think for themselves...and change the world with that knowledge. As members of a free society – and as gamers, readers, writers, and others who revel in these original and thought-provoking creations – we must protect everyone’s right to peacefully pursue knowledge and new experiences, so we and our community might grow in positive ways.

Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”

Heinrich Heine


  1. I work in a library. The thought of banning or burning books, even books I detest or find objectionable, infuriates me.

  2. I read Stranger on 2021, and was saddened by the current commentary on it, and how the whole book is judged by the actions of some characters. All in all, Jubal, along Atticus Finch, remains one of the greatest lawyers in fiction

  3. Narmer, you are on the front defensive lines of this fight; it's not easy, but we support you.

    Thaigo, while I'm not sure Jubal is quite on the level of Atticus Finch, his surly, sometimes outrageous antics challenge the characters -- and readers -- to ask questions (even about themselves) and seek answers. Stranger reflects some of the biases of its time...and yet remains relevant for those who can see past those biases.


We welcome civil discussion and polite engagement. We reserve the right to remove comments that do not respect others in this regard.