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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CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing (He/They)
But the social consequences for doing so were not the same as they would be today. Which is my point.

I don't deny that lots of people thought differently from Gygax in the 1970s. Like I said, it was a decade of disagreement. You had all shades of opinion battling it out. They were still in the process of determining where the center and the boundaries of this particular dialogue were going to be. But while they were working that out, sexism was more common in the 1970s, and it was more tolerated (by society at large, even though that was far from universal). So doubling down was comparatively easy--it didn't take extraordinary conviction.
If you're saying that the social consequences are the only things keeping certain people's hatred and bigotry in check, I agree with you. This is all the more reason to keep pushing for equality and representation, and it's why we need to keep holding bad actors accountable.

But it doesn't really help your argument though, because plenty of writers in Gary's age group still managed to avoid writing sexist material, and they published their works in the same years that Gary did, under the same social pressures that Gary lived with, and with the same amounts of bigotry and the same levels of tolerance and consequences that Gary had.
 
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Kitsune

Explorer
A lot of people sure do seem to think that having their incidental conversations recorded and then printed half a century later without much context to go with it will portray them as paragons of virtue, as fast as they are to point fingers. The hobby was minuscule back in the 70s; a zine might be read by double-digits of people, tops, a "convention" could be thirty nerds in a room. Gygax's random off the cuff comments were being made in an extremely casual setting of fellow wargamers, they were not something being done with the anticipation of the eyes of the future being on them to judge the man's character. Anyone who is bending down to pick up a stone should pause and recall everything they've said while hanging with friends at parties in their life and consider how those statements would look in print when read by strangers in 2074.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
If you're saying that the social consequences are the only things keeping certain people's hatred and bigotry in check, I agree with you.
Sort of. They are one thing among many.

But it doesn't really help your argument though, because plenty of writers in Gary's age group still managed to avoid writing sexist material
I think you misunderstand my argument. I have never said that he couldn't help writing sexist material or that no one else in his time would have written anything better. At most, I'm saying that the lack of social consequences meant that he took less care in phrasing his thoughts and perhaps if he were [the same age but] writing today, he wouldn't have put it in exactly the terms he did. But then again, maybe he would. We have no way of knowing.
 
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Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
What we are saying is Gary's views weren't that controversial back then. It depends on ones social circles and opportunities. People don't really change that much once they hit a certain age.

Even with those comments Gary would be father of the year material where I grew up. He wasn't a raging drunk, wife beater, or molested his kids. Alot of stuff gets swept under the carpet and even now in 2024 around 45% of America disagree either you. I suspect that number would be a lot higher 50 years ago.

We can cherry pick counter example no one's claiming these people weren't around. I'll use a high profile one. Rupert Murdoch. He's old but his father had him later in life in his 40s. His father was a product of the 19th century. And was a reactionary then. He grew up in Australia. IDK how much experience you've had with Australians but the older ones are worse verbally than older Americans. One of the most powerful men in the world raised by a 19th century Australian reactionary.

The guy who came up with the idea of Fox news came up with it contemporary to Gary's comments in the 1970s. Due to the Vietnam War and the way the press covered the war.

Same time 1975 iirc people sat down in a cafe and thought reheating the 1920s economics was a good idea. Deregulation, free markets etc. They had been sidelined since 1932. Then 1973 happened with the oil shock.

So yes one can cherry pick examples but the counter push was being formulated at the time Garry was writing D&D. Look at the electoral maps 1972-1988.


What I'm saying when I mean product of its time is stuff like that. As I said even with those comments Garry would be father of the year material where i grew up. You're focusing on one side of the coin. The other side was there not even in the shadows and there a direct link to now. Roger Ailes is another name involved. Another monster.

Theres a reason there's so many of them. You'll notice it consuming other contemporary media of the day. Hell Revenge of the Nerds was made a decade after some of Gary's comments. I heard worse in the 80s as a child saw some crazy stuff in the 90s and that was just the stuff not swept under the carpet.

Yes there was some nice shiny paint but it was covering the crap underneath. You're looking at the shiny paint and admiring it. All it did was hide the festering pile of crap underneath and here we are now
The Equal Rights Amendment passed the House of Representatives 354-55 with over 100 abstentions in 1972.

It passed the Senate with 84 out of 100 possible votes.

Sexism was controversial in the 70s to a degree that the overwhelming majority of politicians thought that the best way to resolve all the sexist laws was to pass an amendment to nullify them all in one shot.

And amendment that was proposed in 1923. 49 years earlier.

Sexism wasn't the hip and cool thing to be or do in the 70s. It was a form of bigotry and people recognized it and rebuked it to a massive degree.

Which is why Gygax, rebuked by his own fans in an incredibly small niche, felt the need not to defend himself in Europa magazine, but to double the hell down on being a bigot.
 


Queer Venger

Dungeon Master is my Daddy
wait, can I still love the art of Frazetta, Elmore, et. al without being sexist person? Can I admire beautiful, pumped, voluptuous bodies in fantasy action without being a bigot?

Can I love the art if I do not ascribe to the ism or bigotry or the politics of the artist?

Should I burn my art books?
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
wait, can I still love the art of Frazetta, Elmore, et. al without being sexist person? Can I admire beautiful, pumped, voluptuous bodies in fantasy action without being a bigot?

Can I love the art if I do not ascribe to the ism or bigotry or the politics of the artist?
You like to live dangerously ;)
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
A lot of people sure do seem to think that having their incidental conversations recorded and then printed half a century later without much context to go with it will portray them as paragons of virtue, as fast as they are to point fingers. The hobby was minuscule back in the 70s; a zine might be read by double-digits of people, tops, a "convention" could be thirty nerds in a room. Gygax's random off the cuff comments were being made in an extremely casual setting of fellow wargamers, they were not something being done with the anticipation of the eyes of the future being on them to judge the man's character. Anyone who is bending down to pick up a stone should pause and recall everything they've said while hanging with friends at parties in their life and consider how those statements would look in print when read by strangers in 2074.
Aside from the fact that the things being cited were very much not off-the-cuff comments from private conversations… do you not think it’s a bad thing that the war gaming community was a place where people felt it was ok to make such comments off-the-cuff? Would it not be better for the wargaming community if people who made such comments were unwelcome within it? Certainly it would make the community one less likely to repel women.
 

mamba

Legend
At most, I'm saying that the lack of social consequences meant that he took less care in phrasing his thoughts and perhaps if he were writing today, he wouldn't have put it in exactly the terms he did.
he took great care in his phrasing, just not in controlling his instincts…

As to whether he would be more careful today, we have writings from him into the 2000s and he did not really get much better…
 

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