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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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
Just as an FYI-

I have never personally succeeded in converting a female to the hobby, including all three of my daughters. They played and enjoyed it for some weeks or months, but lost interest thereafter.

Gygax, 2005.

As I have often said, I am a biological determinist, and there is no question that male and female brains are different. It is apparent to me that by and large females do not derrive the same inner satisfaction from playing games as a hobby that males do. It isn't that females can't play games well, it is just that it isn't a compelling activity to them as is the case for males.
Gygax, 2004.

Again, I love old D&D. But for Kuntz et al. to say that there wasn't something gong on ... just doesn't match the facts.
 

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DarkCrisis

Reeks of Jedi
Gary is what I like to call “grandpa sexist”

It was a different time and that doesn’t make it okay but people believed stupid stuff back then. Different time and place.

If he was alive today and shared these views I’d have mor of an issue with it but he’s dead and I can’t walk a mile in his shoes.

Grandpa says old timey bad stuff. We learned better and move on
 


Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
If I had to criticise something, it's this line:

"The fact the TTRPG fanbase is no longer solely middle-aged Midwestern cis men of middle European descent..."

The D&D fanbase of the time wasn't middle-aged, it was teenagers. It still is (well, maybe more 20s, but certainly not middle-aged, which upsets many of those original teenagers who are now middle aged and hate that D&D is marketed at teenagers).

I was 11 when I started playing D&D. Definitely not a middle-aged Midwestern person.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I mean, it isn't hard to find examples in old D&D of sexism (he mentions some, like the Harlot table, Snarf gives one above, and EGG left around some doozy quotes as noted by the author and Snarf).

And that EGG made the women's lib remark is somewhere between childish and insipid and fits as a good example to use!

But this is the internet, it feels like I should gripe about something, I'm trying to avoid real work, and I hate when people I want to agree with make subpar arguments. Taking the choice of using Tiamat in the game as the Dragon of Chaos as a sign of misogyny and making it a centerpiece of the argument seems weak. Assuming Gygax was myth and thesaurus loving, what names show up in a thesaurus or myth book that would make good choices to base a dragon of Chaos on? The oldest Myth book I have, the Oxford Paperback Reference Dictionary of World Mythology from 1979 seems to fit in with what Google spits out today for Tiamat: "Tiamat is a Babylonian goddess who personifies the salt sea and is associated with primordial chaos. She is often depicted as a dragon or female serpent and is said to have created the first gods with her union to Apsu, the personification of freshwater." (Does anyone know if Gygax decided on the Dragons of Law and Chaos idea first and then found the names, or if he saw a description of Tiamat and decided a pair of dragons would be cool?)
 
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Parmandur

Book-Friend
Just as an FYI-

I have never personally succeeded in converting a female to the hobby, including all three of my daughters. They played and enjoyed it for some weeks or months, but lost interest thereafter.
Gygax, 2005.

As I have often said, I am a biological determinist, and there is no question that male and female brains are different. It is apparent to me that by and large females do not derrive the same inner satisfaction from playing games as a hobby that males do. It isn't that females can't play games well, it is just that it isn't a compelling activity to them as is the case for males.
Gygax, 2004.

Again, I love old D&D. But for Kuntz et al. to say that there wasn't something gong on ... just doesn't match the facts.
Kimd of weirder to be saying things like that in the Aughts, than publishing thst other stuff in the 60s when at least he was on drugs.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I mean, it isn't hard to find examples in old D&D of sexism (he mentions some, like the Harlot table, Snarf gives one above, and EGG left around some doozy quotes as noted by the author and Snarf).

And that EGG made the women's lib remark is somewhere between childish and insipid and fits as a good example to focus use!

But this is the internet, it feels like I should gripe about something, I'm trying to avoid real work, and I hate when people I want to agree with make subpar arguments. Taking the choice of using Tiamat in the game as the Dragon of Chaos as a sign of misogyny and making it a centerpiece of the argument seems weak. Assuming Gygax was myth and thesaurus loving, what names show up in a thesaurus or myth book that would make good choices to base a dragon of Chaos on? The oldest Myth book I have, the Oxford Paperback Reference Dictionary of World Mythology from 1979 seems to fit in with what Google spits out today for Tiamat: "Tiamat is a Babylonian goddess who personifies the salt sea and is associated with primordial chaos. She is often depicted as a dragon or female serpent and is said to have created the first gods with her union to Apsu, the personification of freshwater." (Does anyone know if Gygax decided on the Dragons of Lae and Chaos idea first and then found the names, or if he saw a description of Tiamat and decided a pair of dragons would be cool?)
I'd agree that in insolation that example is weak; except for the response to it. If they hadn't inexplicably added "Women’s lib may make whatever they wish from the foregoing" it would be more credible.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
I do wish we could move away from "sexist" as a character trait and toward sexism as an action. I feel like so many people's reaction upon hearing the accusation of bias like this is saying "The accusation of sexism is baseless because I saw this person be nice to a woman once!" or "It was no worse than other people at the time!", but none of that is really the point.

The point is that the thing the person did was harmful to a group of other people.

What's truly in your heart and mind don't really matter much in this context. I'm not a mind reader, I'm not a seer of auras, I don't know what's in your soul. What I see is what you do. And Gary did some pretty nasty stuff with regards to women in D&D products. And that deserves to be talked about, without having to try to prove he was A Bad Person or Hated Women like some kind of obsessive, insecure Calvinist. I don't care if he Really Loved His Wife And Daughter (tm) or was a Man Of His Times (R) or whatever. I care that he did the garbage things that he did that were garbage, about calling them garbage, and about acknowledging that we don't need that kind of thing in the hobby anymore.

You don't need to accept the statement "Gary Gygax was a sexist" to agree to the proposition "Sexist content in D&D is bad and we should call it out and not do it anymore."
 

mamba

Legend
This really should not be news today anymore. Gygax was sexist, it was pointed out in the 80s and he knew as much as well.

I do not expect people in the past to have lived up to today’s standards. You can have been a great person and still fallen short of them, I am sure everyone can think of some of those in US history and elsewhere.

Pretending he was not is not helping. Saying he was is not slander, reducing him to nothing but a sexist would be.
 

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