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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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
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?
Like whatever you want. Personal taste in art is not the issue.
 

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Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
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.
A letter written to a published magazine from another country isnt a private conversation. Gygax knew his words would reach and last.

And, sexist remarks said to 3 guys in a room or on front of 10000 followers doesn't change the fact that is a sexist remark.
 

Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
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?
Not about you. Who cares what you love?

Are you on Twitter stating that the verified facts published are an attack on someone? I think not.
 

TiQuinn

Registered User
And I think what folks are not quite grokking is that there wasn't any particular reason not to publish these statements back in those days, because those ideas weren't as "out there" in relation to the median societal view as they are now.
And yet, 30 years later, nothing in him was stirred to recant any of this and in fact, he doubled down yet again when the topic came up in 2005.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
A letter to a magazine is an incidental conversation?
Compared to a tweet or something today, I'd say yes. There just wasn't that same sense of talking to the world where anybody could find it. Even these discussions here probably reach a bigger audience, or at least, we all know they could do so if someone were to find them and link to them.

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.
Two thoughts: first, racism didn't go away or even immediately become a social taboo in all circles when the Civil Rights Bill was passed. That took a few years to percolate. Second, as we all know, the Equal Rights Amendment ultimately didn't succeed.

And amendment that was proposed in 1923. 49 years earlier.
Why do you suppose it took as long as it did to get as far as it did?

Sexism wasn't the hip and cool thing to be or do in the 70s.
Never said it was. But it was more tolerated then then than it is now. I don't see how you can dispute that.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
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…
And yet, 30 years later, nothing in him was stirred to recant any of this and in fact, he doubled down yet again when the topic came up in 2005.
I mean if he'd been born in, say, 1988 rather than 1938. His views (both his opinions and his perspective on what one can and can't say) would have been formed in a very different environment.

And I've gotta go game, so I'm bowing out, at least for now.
 


CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing (He/They)
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?
I guess that depends. Are you able to distinguish between sexism and artistic expression? (It's not a trick question; lots of people struggle with that. You wouldn't be the first.)
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Compared to a tweet or something today, I'd say yes. There just wasn't that same sense of talking to the world where anybody could find it.
So, are we infantilizing Gygax now, saying that the person who was inarguably the biggest figure in the roleplaying industry -- then and now -- and who had a very healthy sense of self-esteem, could not have expected his words to have been recorded and passed on?
 
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Zardnaar

Legend
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.

Not disagreeing with that but you're also missing out the counter to that which started to get formulated within a few years. That's how we got the events of the 1980s.

And it did percolate down for decades and wasn't universal either. Might not stick either although USA and NZ have a better chance than most looking at the OECD.
 

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