Who Was D&D Meant For?

Dungeons & Dragons is now firmly established as a game for young and old, men and women, boys and girls. But it wasn't always that way. D&D's earliest influencers started out far more inclusive than co-creator Gary Gygax may well have envisioned. And it all starts with Gygax's daughter Elise.

[h=3]That First Game[/h]According to David Ewalt in Of Dice and Men, the earliest Dungeons & Dragons players (in its draft form as The Fantasy Game) were Gygax's kids:
The first people to play it were Gygax’s eleven-year-old son, Ernie, and nine-year-old daughter, Elise. Gygax had created a counterpart to Arneson’s Blackmoor, which he called Castle Greyhawk, and designed a single level of its dungeons; one night after dinner, he invited the kids to roll up characters and start exploring. Ernie created a wizard and named him Tenser— an anagram for his full name, Ernest. 3 Elise played a cleric called Ahlissa. They wrote down the details of their characters on index cards and entered the dungeon. In the very first room, they discovered and defeated a nest of scorpions; in the second, they fought a gang of kobolds— short subterranean lizard-men. They also found their first treasure, a chest full of copper coins, but it was too heavy to carry. The two adventurers pressed on until nine o’clock, when the Dungeon Master put them to bed. Fatherly duties completed, Gygax returned to his office and designed another level of the dungeons.

Later playtesters would be Gygax's childhood friends, but that very first game was his kids -- and Gygax took their feedback seriously. According to Ewalt, Elise even named the game:
He read them aloud to his players, including Ernie and Elise, to gauge their reactions. The young girl’s delight at two of the words, an alliterative pair, confirmed the choice: the game would be called Dungeons & Dragons.
[h=3]The Original Target Audience[/h]Simply put, Gygax was after wargamers. This makes sense, given that Gygax himself was a traditional wargamer and had transitioned from those gaming roots. James Maliszewski quotes Gygax about the target audience of the original boxed set:
...he says that he believed the target audience of OD&D "was principally the same as that of historical wargames in general and military miniatures in particular."

Gygax had his work cut out for him. The wargame industry ranged from apathetic to openly hostile to the concept of polluting historical simulations with fantasy. Jon Peterson elaborates on the reaction to Chainmail, D&D's predecessor, in Playing at the World:

Nor could Gygax rely on a warmer reception for fantasy wargaming Stateside. In the November 1971 issue of Panzerfaust, that publication’s influential editor (and Gygax’s close associate) Donald Greenwood wrote: “Interesting though they may be to some, rules about dragons, wizards, ogres, etc., must appear somewhat foolish to the majority of wargamers.”

Eventually Gygax's instincts that fantasy was a valid genre for wargaming and later role-playing proved out. But the real explosion of the game's popularity didn't happen until kids picked it up. And that required the help of a "Good Doctor."
[h=3]The Trouble With Children[/h]And yet, D&D wasn't aimed at children. It took Dr. Eric J. Holmes to address the untapped audience, as explained by Gygax on the Dragonsfoot forums:
John Eric Holmes approached me to do an edited beginner's version of the D&D game at the time I was in the throes of designing the AD&D game. Eric's son was a dedicated D&D gamer, and after chatting with the Good Doctor and his son, I gave the go-ahead. When the ms was turned over to me for approval, I inserted a goodly number of the new AD&D game rules so as to upgrade the D&D system as well. The Basic Set sold very well, and it was to TSR's benefit that Holmes' did that version, and it cost the company nary a red cent.

Creative Advisor to the later Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortals rules (BECMI) Frank Mentzer explained in an interview I conducted with him:
In 1983, the D&D game was becoming a global sensation, but was almost exclusively printed in the English language. Once TSR had a mass-marketable commodity, carefully designed to teach *anyone* to play (especially non-hobbyists), the Translation program was begun by TSR International, and soon the game's rules, and adventures and more, were available in more than a dozen languages. The result -- peak popularity combined with global coverage -- produced a best-seller.

Then publisher TSR finally realized that D&D wasn't at all friendly to new players. Instead, kids found the game, as explained by Ewalt:
Some research suggests smart kids are drawn to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons because they need them the most: In a 2011 study of middle and high school students, education researchers Gregory Harrison and James Van Haneghan reported that gifted children experienced higher levels of insomnia, anxiety, and fear of death than their peers. The researchers also found that encouraging these students “to engage in fantasy game play such as Dungeons & Dragons” could be an effective therapy, allowing them to work out their problems “in stimulating and enjoyable ways.”

It took a long time before D&D focused on kids and then once the D&D phenomenon took hold, there was an inevitable backlash. D&D was accused of being a satanic influence on children, thanks to the fictional television show Mazes and Monsters. Ewalt recounts the madness:
In the summer of 1982, officials in Oklahoma banned the game from school districts, citing its “satanic nature.” In 1984, when San Diego, California, police officer Kirk Johnson was shot and killed by his own son, the boy’s attorneys tried to use his obsession with Dungeons & Dragons as an explanation in an insanity defense. Later that same year, British clergymen warned that letting children play D& D was essentially handing them over to Satan: “This is indeed only a game, but it is a game of life and death!” the Reverend John Hollidge of Gold Hill Baptist Church in Buckinghamshire said in a letter to parents.

D&D was so popular with kids that parents worried about it -- which only made it more popular. And yet despite the fact that Gygax played with his children, it didn't seem to be his primary audience.
[h=3]"Women's Libbers"[/h]There's one other peculiar characteristic about D&D that was prevalent in Gygax's early games but didn't carry over to D&D's target audience: women. Despite the fact that Elise played the first game of D&D and named the game, getting women to embrace the game didn't seem to be a priority. Peterson reports a humorous aside from Gygax:
Clearly awestruck by the endless possibilities of the system, Dapkus offers only one material criticism: the lack of roles for female characters in the rules. His interaction with TSR on the subject is priceless in its short-sightedness: “I asked Gary what women’s libbers think of the situation, and he told me that he will bend to their demands when a member of the opposite sex buys a copy of Dungeons & Dragons!”

If it's not clear about Gygax's opinion regarding women playing the game, his book Master of the Game unintentionally illustrates that they were relegated to mothers of players:
Woman's Day, for instance, would have to be approached with an article written from a female perspective, especially that of a mother, either concerned about the possible "harmful effects" of RPG activity or possibly the experience of a mother whose children were immersed in the activity and who wants to inform others like herself of the few drawbacks and many benefits of the entertainment. In either approach it is probably unlikely that the material would be accepted unless written from a basically factual background, i.e., the author was in fact a female parent with children.

And yet, D&D clicked with women. Peterson explains in his article on Medium:
Something unprecedented about Dungeons & Dragons rendered it more popular with women than prior titles marketed to “gamers.” Was it that it was a personal game, a fantasy game, a game that deemphasized competition? Whatever the reason, it converted many women into gamers at a critical juncture in history: the dawn of personal computer gaming. It was only in the late 1970s that companies began to sell game software to an existing base of personal computer owners. And many of those early computer efforts borrowed heavily from the innovations of Dungeons & Dragons — often not merely by adopting a fantastic setting, but simply by focusing the game on playing a character in a computer-generated world.

In hindsight it was inevitable that D&D would encompass all players. With the phrase "anything can be attempted," D&D was essentially arguing ANYONE can attempt ANYTHING. It took a few decades, but D&D eventually found its way back to children and women, which was only fitting since two different D&D milestones were established by a nine-year-old girl.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


My research suggests that in its early days D&D was aimed at a male audience. Rightly or wrongly and despite Elise Gygax's contribution to the game, Gary thought that gaming was mostly a male hobby. Specifically, he said: "[as] a biological determinant, I think men think differently than women do, and games are basically a male pursuit". In his book "Fantasy Role Playing Games", the same John Eric Holmes mentioned above expresses a similar opinion.

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