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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Speaking strictly for DnD I never take the « lore » as an essential part of the game.
For me Tiamat, the Drow, the orcs are setting and campaign creations and flavor.
We can play without them, or changing them to fit our needs.
For the 1ed phb and DmG there was strength limitation for female characters.
Aside that I don’t find anything to mention.

I just find the GoodWife entry in the appendix C of random encounters of DMG. The description is kind of lame and stereotyped.
Page 191-192.
There is also an entry for Gentlewoman with a lesser chance than gentleman.
That are the only reference to Woman in the DMG I found.
 
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jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
God I hate when people dissect my posts to try and respond line by line rather than addressing the entire point...
I do it because I find it easy to organize my thoughts that way. But since it annoys you, I'll try to keep it to a minimum here.

You make a lot of points about how popular the (as it was called at the time) women's liberation movement was in the 1970s. I don't deny that it was popular, that it had a lot of momentum and a lot of supporters, and that public opinion broadly aligned with it over the course of the decade. But it's a vast oversimplification to speak as if the number of supporters was overwhelming from day one and contrary opinions immediately became unacceptable. I think it's easy for us to look back with the value of hindsight and see it that way, but the fact is that it was a genuine struggle and the outcome was not predetermined. And a struggle means resistance and ideas on the opposite side being voiced freely.

Was sexism and racism more tolerated in the 1970s? Absolutely.
If you agree with that, what's your problem with anything I've said? That's been my main point all along--that some statements from the 1970s sound more extreme to us today than they did at the time because there is less tolerance now for those opinions.

Sure... But he dissected a post into 3 lines to try and break out individual "Gotchyas" while ignoring the rest of the post, the post it was responding to, or the previous posts in the discussion.
"He"? 🤨 Try again. You're also extremely quick to ascribe unsavory motives to my way of breaking up a post.
 
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mamba

Legend
You make a lot of points about how popular the (as it was called at the time) women's liberation movement was in the 1970s. I don't deny that it was popular, that it had a lot of momentum and a lot of supporters, and that public opinion broadly aligned with it over the course of the decade. But it's a vast oversimplification to speak as if the number of supporters was overwhelming from day one and contrary opinions immediately became unacceptable
agreed, but if you look at the timeline @Steampunkette provided, that movement was way past day one by the time Gary was being born

If you agree with that, what's your problem with anything I've said? That's been my main point all along--that some statements from the 1970s sound more extreme to us today than they did at the time because there is less tolerance now for those opinions.
your main point comes across as 'poor old Gary, he was just a man of his time, give the man a break, he did the best he knew how to' when that is definitely wrong and he was behind the curve even for his time.

If you point is that he was a misogynist then and was being called out for it even during his time, but he looks even worse by today's standards, then I agree.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
Maybe, there are still bigots around today too, he could be one of those just as easily. It's not like he was born into a time and environment and could only helplessly watch what it turned him into.
When we say someone was a "product of their time," it's comparable to saying "he didn't know any better" or appealing to their ignorance. And if someone's ignorant, well, that's not their fault, right?
I don’t see the point in continuing discussion on this. The “product of his time” argument appears to be a carte blanche for some

I'm getting very frustrated with how you all are arguing against what you have decided I'm saying without listening to what I've actually said. Because I have explicitly denied holding any of these opinions. I'll quote myself again, from up thread.

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.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
agreed, but if you look at the timeline @Steampunkette provided, that movement was way past day one by the time Gary was being born
I've never denied that feminist ideas were out there, though. I don't get why this is supposed to refute me.

your main point comes across as 'poor old Gary, he was just a man of his time, give the man a break, he did the best he knew how to'
If that's what you're getting, then you're not actually reading what I'm saying. I've explicitly stated that this is not my point. I've said that I personally don't like the things he said (apart from the Tiamat thing, which I can shrug off). I don't know how to make this clearer.

If you point is that he was a misogynist then and was being called out for it even during his time, but he looks even worse by today's standards, then I agree.
More or less. Let's go with that.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Just to be clear when I say Gary was a product of his time I'm using it as shorthand to explain why he had those opinions and why he doubled down on them.
Look at other legacy media from the time.

I'm not claiming the ideas were universally popular or the opposing ideas were more popular. They were popular enough to not go away though and here we are.

It's not even a moral or te hnically true argument. It's about emotions and people's sincerely held beliefs. And why Gary had those emotions I would argue its when and where he was raised.

Riggs wasn't incorrect or wrong. Beats ne why you woukd Wade into a Twitter debate of all places. You're not going to win an argument there it's just kicking an anthill.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
I'm getting very frustrated with how you all are arguing against what you have decided I'm saying without listening to what I've actually said. Because I have explicitly denied holding any of these opinions. I'll quote myself again, from up thread.
Because sometimes it helps to hear - You are not alone in noticing or experiencing this.
 

SpaceOtter

Drifting in otter space
Speaking strictly for DnD I never take the « lore » as an essential part of the game.
For me Tiamat, the Drow, the orcs are setting and campaign creations and flavor.
We can play without them, or changing them to fit our needs.
For the 1ed phb and DmG there was strength limitation for female characters.
Aside that I don’t find anything to mention.

I just find the GoodWife entry in the appendix C of random encounters of DMG. The description is kind of lame and stereotyped.
Page 191-192.
There is also an entry for Gentlewoman with a lesser chance than gentleman.
That are the only reference to Woman in the DMG I found.

The Harlot table is the classic though. Big ol' collection of every synonym Gary found for "prostitute" in the thesaurus. No mention of male prostitutes, funnily enough.
 

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