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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mamba

Legend
I've never denied that feminist ideas were out there, though. I don't get why this is supposed to refute me.
we are not talking about a handful here, Gary was behind the curve in the 70s already. It certainly refutes the 'man of his time' thing you always bring up to defend him

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
for something that is not your point, you come back to it an awful lot, and you do not have to like what he said, that is immaterial

More or less. Let's go with that.
ok, let's
 

TiQuinn

Registered User
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’m sorry, were these yours?

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.

Sure. But most of that has happened in the time since the 1970s. We've got decades of accumulated social pressure now that simply didn't exist then. It's not a judgment, just a fact.

To be crystal-clear, I find his comments on women ruining wargaming to be beyond the pale. But for better or worse, it was the kind of thing you could say openly in 1975. Even in 1985, you could get away with it, especially if you were older, although the tide was definitely turning by then. (I'm more lenient on the one about Tiamat because it's more ambiguous, and because Tiamat is awesome.)

If you are frustrated, it’s because your argument is so highly nuanced as to be indistinguishable from arguing he was a product of his time. Furthermore, Gygax wrote as late as 2005 about women not being good RPG players, so he held these views well past the time that they were acceptable.
 

Steampunkette

A5e 3rd Party Publisher!
Supporter
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.


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.


"He"? 🤨 Try again. You're also extremely quick to ascribe unsavory motives to my way of breaking up a post.
I'm sorry I got your gender wrong. That's on me.

And yeah. Women's Liberation was just one phase of a continuing feminist movement that started -long- before the 1970s and had long built momentum in altering gender relations. It's even why we've got Flight Attendants and Postal Workers and the like, lamentable as some people find those terms.

The point is that sexism wasn't popular or accepted. More tolerated than today? Sure. But not to the degree that Gygax went. Trying to pretend that it was "Totally Normal" for someone to outright state that they -were- a sexist in the 1970s, rather than recognizing it as an outlier position, doesn't help anyone.

Do you get what I mean? Yeah, sexism was more tolerated then than it is now, but it wasn't tolerated to the point Gygax did it, which is why he got called out and why he doubled down on being a sexist.

In the same way that transphobia is tolerated, now, even in politics and media but engaging in transphobic violence or using transphobic slurs is "Too Far", even for most of the outright transphobic media personalities and politicians.

Like... On a scale of 1 to 100, Sexism in the 70s was accepted at about 30% or less. Gygax tossed a 50 and got called out for it and tossed out another 70 to prove the point that he was a sexist. Today tolerance for sexism is probably down in the 10-12% range.

Was sexism more tolerated? Yes. Was it tolerated to the point where Gygax's actions were considered normal for the time? No.

That's the point I'm trying to make.
 

SpaceOtter

Drifting in otter space
I never took the harlot table seriously. I've always found it funny.

Even if it was a joke (and it probably wasn't given all the other examples and Gary's own words), what kinda humour was it? I reckon you could combine "ist" and "sex" to get the answer. Just maybe not in that order. 🤣

Ultimately though, I guess it really doesn't matter if it was an attempt at humour or not, or whether anyone thinks it's funny or not, it's just another part of the whole bundle of sexist takes Gary put out there. A man, who quite literally self-described himself as sexist and said that girls shouldn't be in wargaming and can't enjoy RPGs.
 
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CandyLaser

Adventurer
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 think one issue here is that trying to explain things in this way looks basically indistinguishable from attempting to offer a justification or exculpation of Gygax. The very same argument gets deployed in both cases, and it is difficult-to-impossible to tell them apart, unless the person proffering the argument is clear. Note: I am not saying that you are trying to justify Gygax's more abhorrent views. Given what you've said, I think that you're attempting to provide an etiology—an accounting of where his beliefs came from. The statement that Gygax was a product of his time is, in the abstract, unobjectionable—of course he was! We all are! Similarly, it's obvious that the standards of the 70s were not the standards of today. Again, taken in isolation this is an obvious truth.

In fact, it's such an obvious truth that one wonders how it furthers the conversation to bring it up, unless it's being offered up as something more than a mere causal explanation for why Gygax was the way he was. Again, I'm not saying you're trying to do more than offer an explanation. What I am saying is that when I read someone saying "Gygax was a product of his time," I basically have two ways to understand it: either the person saying it is saying something so obvious as to be unremarkable and unilluminating, or they're offering it up as a way of excusing his conduct. And what's more, people who argue in bad faith will often start by trying to excuse the conduct and then move to "I'm just trying to explain it!" as a rhetorical gambit. Once again: I am not making any accusations here. I do not think that you, @Zardnaar , are arguing in bad faith. What I am doing is explaining why I, and others like me, react strongly to people saying "Gygax was a product of his time."

In this case, I'd also say that "Gygax is a product of his time" is unsatisfactory even as a mere explanation. That's because it doesn't tell us anything about how or why the culture he grew up in and lived in led to him adopting those beliefs. It doesn't explain why his reaction to being criticized in the 70s was to proclaim himself a sexist and say he didn't care about the rights of women, except in the vaguest possible sense. We know that many of his contemporaries managed to avoid adopting his attitudes, and we know that he continued to hold them into the 2000s and, most likely, until his death. By this time, the culture had changed, so if Gygax were a mere product of his time, a rudderless ship drifting to and fro, driven by the winds of prevailing opinion, he presumably would have changed with it—but he didn't. So if you're trying to explain why he held those beliefs, you'd ideally do more than just point to the broad cultural context he was raised in.
 

Steampunkette

A5e 3rd Party Publisher!
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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.

Here's a post from Gygax on these forums from 2004. Outright stating women can't enjoy D&D like men do and that he is a "Biological Determinist" as he has often said.

The dude was an avowed sexist. He believed that men and women were different on a fundamental level that made women incapable of enjoying D&D like men can. Oh, we can be good players, but we'll never -truly- understand why men like him enjoy it because of neuro(pseudo)science.

In short: We do know. Because he did. All the way to the end. His last post on these boards was February 21st, 2008. He died March 4th, 2008.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
we are not talking about a handful here, Gary was behind the curve in the 70s already. It certainly refutes the 'man of his time' thing you always bring up to defend him
But I'm not defending him! What I said is that his views probably sound more extreme viewed through the prism of today than they did in the 1970s because public opinion has shifted in the past 50 years. I don't mean to say that his statements weren't borderline in the 1970s, but today they're way beyond borderline, because the border has shifted. But pointing that out doesn't change what his views actually were, obviously, and I'm confused why people seem to think I think that it does.

you do not have to like what he said, that is immaterial
I mentioned that I don't like it in an attempt to refute the idea that I was excusing it.

If you are frustrated, it’s because your argument is so highly nuanced as to be indistinguishable from arguing he was a product of his time.
Well, let's see if we can come to a productive understanding here. What am I not making clear? Which parts of what I posted read as defense or approval to you? When I say that people might word things differently if there are social consequences, are you taking that as a statement that I don't believe he truly meant what he said?

Furthermore, Gygax wrote as late as 2005 about women not being good RPG players, so he held these views well past the time that they were acceptable.
I don't dispute that. And it sounded extreme in 2005, in a way that it didn't so much in 1975. Because mainstream opinion shifted in the intervening time.

Like... On a scale of 1 to 100, Sexism in the 70s was accepted at about 30% or less. Gygax tossed a 50 and got called out for it and tossed out another 70 to prove the point that he was a sexist. Today tolerance for sexism is probably down in the 10-12% range.
Okay, when we talk numbers, it's easier to see where the disagreements are. I think the tolerance level for sexism in the 70s was higher than 30%, if we define tolerance as what opinions you can express in public without being universally shunned as opposed to just meeting disapproval or contradiction. I'd put it closer to about 40% average across the whole US, and in certain circles you could easily get away with a 60-70%.

Was sexism more tolerated? Yes. Was it tolerated to the point where Gygax's actions were considered normal for the time? No.
I agree, not normal. But if we say he was at a 70% level, there were more than a few places in the 1970s where that would still fly. Today, there's almost noplace apart from certain insular internet communities where a person can express a 70% level sexist viewpoint without severe repercussions.

Even if it was a joke (and it probably wasn't given all the other examples and Gary's own words), what kinda humour do you think it was, mate?
Oh, he may have intended it to insult women. It just didn't have that effect on me.

In short: We do know. Because he did. All the way to the end.
I clarified what I meant in a later post and also went back and edited the original in an attempt to make it less ambiguous. What I meant was that if he had been born 50 years later, in 1988, and had been writing his opinion of women in 2024 instead of 1974, he might have either had a different viewpoint or at least have phrased it a bit more tactfully. But then again, maybe he would have felt exactly the same. We don't know and can never know, so I'm happy to just drop that speculative point, but I do want to explain what the point actually was.
 
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TiQuinn

Registered User
Here’s another fine Gygax quote about women and gaming - this one from an interview in 1998 for Icon Magazine (found via Wayback Machine because original link is busted).

What about the strains of sex and violence throughout D&D;? The fantasy women in the chain mail bikinis.

GG: It’s the same in comic books and on the front of the lurid covers of the old pulp magazines. Gaming in general is a male thing. It isn’t that gaming is designed to exclude women. Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.

Woman cope instead of men just going forward and slashing.

GG: Right. Men are the hunters and gatherers, and when a man is looking straight ahead that’s all they see. So that’s naturally what is involved in role playing and from the fantasy story roots. It’s pretty much a he-man kind of a thing.

Link: : RevolutionSF - RevolutionSF Remembers Gary Gygax : Sex, Drugs, and D&D; : Feature

I wonder what Gygax would’ve said if he lived to the time that 40% of D&D players (according to WotC) were women?
 

Steampunkette

A5e 3rd Party Publisher!
Supporter
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(Dragonsfoot Gaming Forum)
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Openly, broadly, willfully sexist 'til the end of his days. Complaining about "Politically Correct Persons" in 2005.
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And always eager to double down. All the way to the end.
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It gets worse, yet, though...
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Gary Gygax poo-pooing the idea that all people are created equal and should be treated fairly.
 

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