D&D Historian Benn Riggs On Gary Gygax & Sexism

D&D historian Ben Riggs delved into the facts.

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The recent book The Making of Original Dungeons & Dragons 1970-1977 talks about the early years of D&D. In the book, authors Jon Peterson and Jason Tondro talk about the way the game, and its writers, approached certain issues. Not surprisingly, this revelation received aggressive "pushback" on social media because, well, that sort of thing does--in fact, one designer who worked with Gygax at the time labelled it "slanderous".

D&D historian Ben Riggs--author of Slaying the Dragon--delved into the facts. Note that the below was posted on Twitter, in that format, not as an article.

D&D Co-Creator Gary Gygax was Sexist. Talking About it is Key to Preserving his Legacy.

The internet has been rending its clothes and gnashing its teeth over the introduction to an instant classic of TTRPG history, The Making of Original D&D 1970-1977. Published by Wizards of the Coast, it details the earliest days of D&D’s creation using amazing primary source materials.

Why then has the response been outrage from various corners of the internet? Well authors Jon Peterson and Jason Tondro mention that early D&D made light of slavery, disparaged women, and gave Hindu deities hit points. They also repeated Wizard’s disclaimer for legacy content which states:"These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. This content is presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed."

In response to this, an army of grognards swarmed social media to bite their shields and bellow. Early D&D author Rob Kuntz described Peterson and Tondro’s work as “slanderous.” On his Castle Oldskull blog, Kent David Kelly called it “disparagement.” These critics are accusing Peterson and Tondro of dishonesty. Lying, not to put too fine a point on it.So, are they lying? Are they making stuff up about Gary Gygax and early D&D?

Well, let's look at a specific example of what Peterson and Tondro describe as “misogyny “ from 1975's Greyhawk. Greyhawk was the first supplement ever produced for D&D. Written by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz, the same Rob Kuntz who claimed slander above, it was a crucial text in the history of the game. For example, it debuted the thief character class. It also gave the game new dragons, among them the King of Lawful Dragons and the Queen of Chaotic Dragons. The male dragon is good, and female dragon is evil. (See Appendix 1 below for more.)

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It is a repetition of the old trope that male power is inherently good, and female power is inherently evil. (Consider the connotations of the words witch and wizard, with witches being evil by definition, for another example.)

Now so-called defenders of Gygax and Kuntz will say that my reading of the above text makes me a fool who wouldn’t know dragon’s breath from a virtue signal. I am ruining D&D with my woke wokeness. Gygax and Kuntz were just building a fun game, and decades later, Peterson and Tondro come along to crap on their work by screeching about misogyny.

(I would also point out that as we are all white men of a certain age talking about misogyny, the worst we can expect is to be flamed online. Women often doing the same thing get rape or death threats.)

Critics of their work would say that Peterson and Tondro are reading politics into D&D. Except that when we return to the Greyhawk text, we see that it was actually Gygax and Kuntz who put “politics” into D&D.

The text itself comments on the fact that the lawful dragon is male, and the chaotic one is female. Gygax and Kuntz wrote: “Women’s lib may make whatever they wish from the foregoing.”


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The intent is clear. The female is a realm of chaos and evil, so of course they made their chaotic evil dragon a queen.

Yes, Gygax and Kuntz are making a game, but it is a game whose co-creator explicitly wrote into the rules that feminine power—perhaps even female equality—is by nature evil. There is little room for any other interpretation.

The so-called defenders of Gygax may now say that he was a man of his time, he didn’t know better, or some such. If only someone had told him women were people too in 1975! Well, Gygax was criticized for this fact of D&D at the time. And he left us his response.

Writing in EUROPA, a European fanzine, Gygax said:“I have been accused of being a nasty old sexist-male-Chauvinist-pig, for the wording in D&D isn’t what it should be. There should be more emphasis on the female role, more non-gendered names, and so forth."

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"I thought perhaps these folks were right and considered adding women in the ‘Raping and Pillaging[’] section, in the ‘Whores and Tavern Wenches’ chapter, the special magical part dealing with ‘Hags and Crones’...and thought perhaps of adding an appendix on ‘Medieval Harems, Slave Girls, and Going Viking’. Damn right I am sexist. It doesn’t matter to me if women get paid as much as men, get jobs traditionally male, and shower in the men’s locker room."

"They can jolly well stay away from wargaming in droves for all I care. I’ve seen many a good wargame and wargamer spoiled thanks to the fair sex. I’ll detail that if anyone wishes.”


So just to summarize here, Gygax wrote misogyny into the D&D rules. When this was raised with him as an issue at the time, his response was to offer to put rules on rape and sex slavery into D&D.

The outrage online directed at Peterson and Tondro is not only entirely misplaced and disproportional, and perhaps even dishonest in certain cases...

Part 2: D&D Co-Creator Gary Gygax was Sexist. Talking About it is Key to Preserving his Legacy....it is also directly harming the legacies of Gygax, Arneson, Kuntz and the entire first generation of genius game designers our online army of outraged grognards purport to defend.

How? Let me show you.The D&D player base is getting more diverse in every measurable way, including age, gender, sexual orientation, and race. To cite a few statistics, 81% of D&D players are Millenials or Gen Z, and 39% are women. This diversity is incredible, and not because the diversity is some blessed goal unto itself. Rather, the increasing diversity of D&D proves the vigor of the TTRPG medium. Like Japanese rap music or Soviet science fiction, the transportation of a medium across cultures, nations, and genders proves that it is an important method for exploring the human condition. And while TTRPGs are a game, they are also clearly an important method for exploring the human condition. The fact the TTRPG fanbase is no longer solely middle-aged Midwestern cis men of middle European descent...

...the fact that non-binary blerds and Indigenous trans women and fat Polish-American geeks like me and people from every bed of the human vegetable garden ...

find meaning in a game created by two white guys from the Midwest is proof that Gygax and Arneson were geniuses who heaved human civilization forward, even if only by a few feet.

So, as a community, how do we deal with the ugly prejudices of our hobby’s co-creator who also baked them into the game we love? We could pretend there is no problem at all, and say that anyone who mentions the problem is a liar. There is no misogyny to see. There is no **** and there is no stink, and anyone who says there is naughty word on your sneakers is lying and is just trying to embarrass you.

I wonder how that will go? Will all these new D&D fans decide that maybe D&D isn’t for them? They know the stink of misogyny, just like they know **** when they smell it. To say it isn’t there is an insult to their intelligence. If they left the hobby over this, it would leave our community smaller, poorer, and suggest that the great work of Gygax, Arneson, Kuntz, and the other early luminaries on D&D was perhaps not so great after all…

We could take the route of Disney and Song of the South. Wizards could remove all the PDFs of early D&D from DriveThruRPG. They could refuse to ever reprint this material again. Hide it. Bury it. Erase it all with copyright law and lawyers. Yet no matter how deeply you bury the past, it always tends to come back up to the surface again. Heck, there are whole podcast series about that. And what will all these new D&D fans think when they realize that a corporation tried to hide its own mistakes from them?

Again, maybe they decide D&D isn’t the game for them. Or maybe when someone tells you there is **** on your shoe, you say thanks, clean it off, and move on.

We honor the old books, but when they tell a reader they are a lesser human being, we should acknowledge that is not the D&D of 2024. Something like...

“Hey reader, we see you in all your wondrous multiplicity of possibility, and if we were publishing this today, it wouldn’t contain messages and themes telling some of you that you are less than others. So we just want to warn you. That stuff’s in there.”

Y’know, something like that legacy content warning they put on all those old PDFs on DriveThruRPG. And when we see something bigoted in old D&D, we talk about it. It lets the new, broad, and deep tribe of D&D know that we do not want bigotry in D&D today. Talking about it welcomes the entire human family into the hobby.To do anything less is to damn D&D to darkness. It hobbles its growth, gates its community, denies the world the joy of the game, and denies its creators their due. D&D’s creators were visionary game designers. They were also people, and people are kinda ****** up. So a necessary step in making D&D the sort of cultural pillar that it deserves to be is to name its bigotries and prejudices when you see them. Failure to do so hurts the game by shrinking our community and therefore shrinking the legacy of its creators.

Appendix 1: Yeah, I know Chaos isn’t the same as Evil in OD&D.

But I would also point out as nerdily as possible that on pg. 9 of Book 1 of OD&D, under “Character Alignment, Including Various Monsters and Creatures,” Evil High Priests are included under the “Chaos” heading, along with the undead. So I would put to you that Gygax did see a relationship between Evil and Chaos at the time.

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Look, folks, we know how a conversation like this goes on the internet. Because, internet. Read the rules you agreed to before replying. The banhammer will be used on those who don't do what they agreed to.
 

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In response to this, an army of grognards swarmed social media to bite their shields and bellow. Early D&D author Rob Kuntz described Peterson and Tondro’s work as “slanderous.” On his Castle Oldskull blog, Kent David Kelly called it “disparagement.” These critics are accusing Peterson and Tondro of dishonesty. Lying, not to put too fine a point on it. So, are they lying? Are they making stuff up about Gary Gygax and early D&D?

I love old D&D as much as, if not more that, the next person. I think that objects should be considered as part of their time.

But this "army of grognards" needs to stop helping. Please. Look, sunlight is the best disinfectant.


There is nothing bad about pointing out that things in the past don't match today's standards. But do you know what is bad? Ignoring the issues of the past, or claiming that they weren't there. Because that's behavior in the present.

I love old D&D. But I can acknowledge that parts of it are a product of its time, and I make sure not to include that when I play it today (gendered ability caps, harlot tables, the "good wife" who will make up crimes, and so on).

We know better now, so we should be better. Right?
Indeed. As much as I love MASH, every time I watch a re-run I cannot help but reflect the protagonist is a womanizing, sexually harassing-sexist. I still love Hawkeyes character in the context of that time period but realize in today’s standards it is cringe worthy and very disparaging of women.
 


greymist

Lurker Extraordinaire
Reynard nails my feelings, exactly. I agree with Riggs’ post, as it squares with my thoughts about EGG. I’m a bit surprised, because I don’t usually find Riggs’ commentary to have the rigour that I see from Peterson.

I’m curious what credentials are required to be a “D&D Historian”?
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
By the way, while the "harlot table" gets all the press, the "Good Wife" issue that I mentioned in the DMG is this-

Goodwife encounters are with a single woman, often indistinguishable from any other type of female (such as a magic-user, harlot, etc.). Any offensive treatment or seeming threat will be likely to cause the woman to scream for help, accusing the offending party of any number of crimes, i.e. assault, rape, theft, or murder. 20% of goodwives know interesting gossip.
AD&D (1e) DMG p. 192.

This is an an example of misogyny in the following ways (and I apologize if I miss any):
a) that a typical married woman is indistinguishable from a prostitute;
b) that women (not men) are the ones to get gossip from;
and worst of all c) women will make up accusations such as rape in response to offensive treatment.

Again, things like this are a product of the time. Just like 1980s movies (Revenge of the Nerds?). But saying it isn't there is ... well, it's something, and it speaks volumes about the people who refuse to acknowledge it today.
 

Oofta

Legend
If you want to talk about problematic lore and sexism, drow are the poster child for me. For a long time I just kind of ignored the whole "Here's a culture dominated by females so of course they're the epitome of chaos, evil and dominatrix outfits."

I've kind of figured out where they fit in my campaign world, but still.

At the same time I agreed that we can't just ignore the history of the game even if we can do better now. Sometimes we have to accept the past so we can overcome it.
 




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