James Egbert's mother said she had watched her son's unusual abilities grow from the time he was 3 years old and was reading whole books. She worried when in the third grade he become bored with schoolwork, and his imagination began to take over his behavior -- he pulled pranks and became difficult for the teacher to manage. She was pleased that moving ahead a grade made him happy and working at school assignments once again.

Now, as a 16 year old university student, and still moving faster than those around him, James Dallas Egbert may have fallen a victim to his own driving, vivid imagination.

He has been missing from his dormitory room at Michigan State University since Aug. 15.

And police, believing the disappearance may be connected with the popular fantasy game called Dungeons and Dragons, for two days searched the eerie, 10-mile network of steam tunnels that lay beneath the campus.

They believe he may have gone there, to play out a bizarre fantasy, or was led there by someone, or most likely that he went to a secret niche of his in the tunnel to die by suicide.

There are still half a dozen inconclusive leads -- secret groups that used to play fantasy games in the steam tunnels at night, a vote that asked to have the boy's body cremated, and a clue in a code which cannot be deciphered on the boy's bulletin board. But James is still missing, and the disappearance, suicide, or murder is still a mystery.

James Egbert was in the computer science department at MSU. His grades were above 3.5 on a 4-point system, and after his first year in the college he was already advancing to courses at the junior level.

He was taking summer courses at the university last month when he disappeared during exam week. Not long after that, the police received a tip from a young woman who said she was a player of the popular fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. She said several groups played the game at the university, and some played a bizarre version, completely outside the rules, in which the game players physically take the part of their designated character in the game -- such as a wizard, an orc, an elf or a variety of other mythical people or monsters -- and act out the battles, adventures and treasure hunts of the game.

The caller told police that these games were played in the hot, dark tunnels beneath the campus, and that James Egbert may have gone there as a part of the distorted game, or gone to one of the secret nooks to die.

The police have been searching, often while on hands and knees crawling through the muck, and sometimes in temperatures up to 130 degrees, through the partly-uncharted depths of the campus. They have found dens and nooks and passages that have litter from secret nighttime gatherings there -- beer cans, cigarette butts, graffiti.

So far, with most of the tunnel network searched, they have not found James Egbert.

The oddest clue they found is Egbert's bulletin board. About 1 1/2 by 2 feet, the bulletin board was covered with silver thumb tacks and clear push pins, arranged carefully into a pattern.

Captain Ferman Badgley of the Michigan State University campus police said he thought the message on the bulletin board was probably a code, probably connected to the Dungeons and Dragons games that Egbert had played, but that it also looked like a map of the campus and part of the steam tunnel system.

"I'm only guessing," the captain said, "I stand there and I look at it one way, and then another, and then a third. One way I can see our outdoor swimming pool here, at another place I see a campus building in the puzzle."

The only other clue at the moment is Egbert's connections to the gay community on campus. He was a member of the Gay Council on campus. He may have been in two gay bars shortly before he was found missing.

It is probable that whatever the solution to the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, his vivid, powerful imagination was a factor in it.

His mother, Anna Egbert, recalled that he moved rapidly through junior and senior high school, and ended up teaching a course at his high school, at age 14, before he graduated.

In high school, his mother said, Egbert began reading science fiction in great quantity. "He wouldn't read the garbage, the sleazy adventures, but only the ones that were complicated and elaborate . . .

"The first time he played Dungeons and Dragons was when we were trying to decide what college he should go to," his mother said. "We visited Northwestern University and they had a game in the dorm that night.

"He was very excited about it, and I was pleased that he could go off and have some fun," she said. "We found out that at Michigan State there are groups that play a different version of the game. They make it more exciting by taking the parts and acting them out instead of just playing on paper, or with little pieces . . . "

She said she doesn't think that the game was immediately connected to her son's disappearance, but was one of several clues to people and places that must be followed.

The game of Dungeons and Dragons as sold in stores in unusual in that it doesn't have a board or pieces. Instead, in it and a number of similar games, the players take the part of characters from J.R.R. Tolkien's books and from the history of the Middle Ages.

Anna Egbert said she has "known of people who play in full costume, and who carry on with names and titles outside the game. There are some people I've heard of who make the whole thing very dramatic. But I haven't heard of playing a game in real space instead of on paper."

The game was invented in 1974 by Gary Gygax, and now has sold about 80,000 sets around the country, according to a spokesman for the manufacturer. He estimates that 300,000 or more people are now playing the game in America, and the Washington area is one of the most active areas for it.

A "dungeon master" leads the game by describing to other players where their characters are -- in a castle, on a mountain, in a dungeon -- and what is around them. There are magic pools from which one may drink, statutes that come to life, spells that may haunt any place or person.

There can be battles, the results of which are decided by the predetermined powers of each combatant and local spells. Along the way, each character has the chance to acquire treasure, followers and greater powers.

William Wort, co-owner of a game and fantasy shop called Dream Wizards in Rockville, said he has played the game several times.

He thinks its appeal is strong. "It attracts people who are intelligent because it is a way they can use their imaginations, and use them very fully.

"It is like an impromptu film, or making up a novel as you go along through one scene and one adventure after another . . . "

He said it would be possible to play the game without the usual prop of graph-paper maps of the fantasy area covered, and actually play the game in real rooms, though the preparation would have to be elaborate and expensive.

Anna Egbert, speaking softly and haltingly into the telephone, says she really does not know what might have happened to James. "He was experimenting with so many things, some of them we did not even know about. He went to gay meetings, he went to human rights meetings, he knew people in the astronomy department, in the computer department, people of very different lifestyles."

She said "it was very difficult to track down his friends, they were so scattered in different subjects and interests, and none of them knew each other, although he knew all of them in this great criss-crossing of groups.

"But so far, no one in the group that played Dungeons and Dragons with him down there has come forward, or called us . . . I know they are very secretive, but I just don't understand it."

If it is all a hoax, by her son or someone else, she says that she desperately hopes that someone will contact her soon.

The police are still puzzled, she noted. "I don't know what to think . . . It could be anything. But I'm looking for a live boy. You always want to look for a live boy. There's hope."