Wednesday, December 14, 2022

This doesn't surprise me

Arneson (L.) and Gygax
One of my longtime readers sent me a link to a video here.   In it we learn that E. Gary Gygax and David Arneson, who created the famous and of much maligned roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, were Christian.  At least Arneson was.  Gagyx was technically a Jehovah's Witness, though in later years I believe he did convert to Protestant Christianity. 

By Gygax's admission, that's why the early versions of the game sported demons and devils as possible opponents, but there were no stats for Satan. Much less stats for Jesus.  It's also noteworthy that while such demonic foes were out and about, there were no angels.  Gygax said he didn't feel right since 'demon' can be a generic bad guy found in many cultures, but angels were more specific to the Judeo-Christian tradition.   

Now this wasn't a shock to me now, or when I first heard of it when I began researching the game ages ago.  I've said it meant little to me for most of my life.  It was that game the press attacked that was based on things like The Lord of the Rings.  Only years later did I learn Gygax himself insisted any connection to Tolkien's works was just cheap marketing.  According to him, he personally despised Tolkien's works (at least LoTR).  I actually don't believe it, and have concluded Gygax is to be trusted with his memories in the same way George Lucas is to be trusted when talking about Star Wars

When I first heard they were Christian, however, it didn't surprise me.  For that matter, when I read this little article, it made perfect sense.  Not only were they Christian, but the game itself was infused with an implicit Christianity.  Beyond the clear biblical or cultural Christian references, an underlying Christian look and feel was there.  The early art and references to pop Christian religious attitudes and items (such as crosses) were plentiful. 

That's because the game was first published in 1974.  That was the year I was in first grade.  Believe it or not, a sort of Christian residue was still the default religious cultural reference in America at that point.  In my public schools, the first few teachers I had brought a tremendous amount of 'Christian' into various subjects.  At Thanksgiving we learned much about the pilgrims' Christian beliefs.  At Christmas we learned about various Christian elements of the holiday, as well as learning and hearing the Christmas story itself.  

Christian looking clerics in 1978 Players Handbook
Two developments are noteworthy, however.  By the time I was in late elementary school, the Christian elements of anything were fading.  No more guest speakers presenting stories about the first Christmas.  No more lessons about mangers.  By the time I was in high school, the 'keep Christ out of Christmas' movement was taking hold.  We hadn't gone to BCE/CE yet, but we changed our homeroom Christmas decorating contest to our homeroom holiday decorating contest.  

It was at this time, in ninth grade, I first heard of the game D&D.  By then the recent editions of the game no longer had much in terms of Christian influence.  New editions invented pantheons of fictional gods and goddesses, and explicitly Christian imagery and references were fast being replaced.  Crosses were now generic 'holy symbols' and artwork was becoming more religiously, if not culturally, androgynous.   

Beyond the clear pushing of Christianity out of the social fabric, there were also generations at work. When I think of those teachers in my school teaching us about that baby in the manger, they were old.  I mean near retirement.  The first couple would retire only a few years after I had them as teachers.  That means they were likely in their late 50s, early 60s.  Meaning they started teaching when my parents were in school in the 1930s!  Meaning they were schooled around then as well.

It's worth noting my kindergarten teacher was young, and an exception.  In hindsight, we were likely her first teaching job.  And while I have vivid memories of that first school Christmas, I remember nothing about the religious part.  We read The Little Match Girl.  We did Christmas bell art (I remember that like yesterday).  We had a Christmas party with Santa.  But nothing about the religious side.  She would have been schooled in the 1960s.   After third grade, my teachers were all in their early 50s to late 40s.  None of them brought religion into the discussion either.     

Contrast: A modern cleric pic
That's because in the time from the early 70s to early 80s, America went from a vague Christian identity to that identity and all of its references being eradicated from the popular culture.  That's because somewhere between the 1930s and 1960s, we were taught to do just that.  If Gygax and Arneson had published D&D in the 80s would their Christian influence have shown?  By the 80s, even while Gygax was still there (Arneson parted ways in the mid-70s), it was already being stripped away from the product.  

Today, of course, it is the eradication of the whole cultural roots of the game.  New editions of the game make sure to avoid any faux European medieval setting, and to sever the literary roots of the game when those roots are deemed hateful or offensive today.  Specific references to historical or cultural items or monsters are purposefully edited out.  On the off chance an old game concept from the past remains, outrage ensues and the publishers quickly expunge the offending reference.  It goes without saying that anything remotely Christian is as far removed from modern versions of the game as they are from most modern church events held in a public setting.   

So no, I wasn't surprised when I learned Gygax and Arnseon were Christian or Christian influenced.  Nor did it shock me to learn just how seeped with Christian concepts the early game was.  By the time churches joined the media's assault on the game in the 1980s, however, that was already beginning to pass, as it was in our nation in general.  Perhaps that will teach them next time. 


  1. Yeah if you listen to the entire video, it was apparently the D&D controversy that drove Gygax out of the Jehovah Witness church. (Chuck doesn't go over where he went afterwards but I assume that's probably when he went Protestant.)

    I have no answer myself. It seems like a recognition that Christianity was waning was what sparked the drive to try and preserve it during that period, yet it also looks like the drive to preserve it killed it off even faster. Yet have we made much progress trying not to fight? Again I say, I have no answer. Only a wry observation that at these times, you can understand how the most religious towards God, ended up leading the charge to kill Him when He showed up in Person.

    1. I've said that the "Satanic Panic', as the RPG world calls it, was really a media driven hysteria. One that the media invited churches to take part in. It was likely the last time that traditional Christianity and the media worked together from the same point toward the same goal. But most parents and teachers I heard who began coming out against the game heading into the mid-80s didn't talk about devil worship or Satanism. They pointed to the mental and emotional trauma and problems the game could cause, how it could lead to bad behavior or even suicide. It was not the Devil in the details, but the doctors and experts and others the media found.

  2. I think it is safe to say Gygax was at best ambivalent about Tolkien while he was with TSR.

    1. The Estate cleared its throat regarding the earliest editions of the game, forcing the removal of "hobbit" in favor of "halfling."

    2. I remember reading a Dragon letter to the editor response from EGG where he said he did not think LotR was a good setting for FRP. He said Gandalf was basically just a 7th level Cleric who could wield a sword, and essentially Middle Earth did not lend itself to D&D.

    That is definitely defensible. I remember paging through Iron Crown Enterprises MERP material, and I thought the same thing. Interesting, but not high fantasy roleplaying.

    But I agree TSR was delighted to be associated with the Tolkien surge in the late 70s. To argue otherwise is protesting too much.

    And speaking of the Dragon: there was an article "The Politics of Hell" which statted the infernal hierarchy, including ol' Scratch. But Dragon was not considered considered canon in the Gygax era unless it was published separately under the TSR logo.

    1. He seems to have grown colder as the years progressed. I saw early articles of his to the tune of 'while clearly Tolkien is a big influence, it's not the only one.' By the late 70s he preferred 'Tolkien is clearly an influence in some cases, but it's not all Tolkien even if (Ranger class) it would appear heavily influenced by Tolkien'. By the 80s he was 'never liked the book much, a few things for marketing purposes'. And by the end, I remember an interview on the 25 Anniversary of D&D where he all but renounced Tolkien's works and even tried to insist such things as halflings and ents had their origins in other works. That alone makes me figure something was there. Plus, of course, Gygax, despite media portrayals, was not the only creative force in the early days. Arneson was, from what I've read, a much stauncher Tolkien fan. As was Eric Holmes, the professor who offered his services to edit the original rules and make them more presentable. In his forward he all but says Middle Earth is a good starting point in imagining the game. He also was one of many in those days influenced by Tolkien. I'd say the game was never meant to be a simple 'based on this book'. It was, as I once saw it described, a ball of creative Velcro rolled through the lint warehouse of Western culture. But ounce for ounce, it isn't hard to see that while Tolkien was clearly not the only influence, his works were more represented than any other one author or literary source.

  3. The influence of The Lord of the Rings on D&D is unmistakable. You can't have hobbits and say that you weren't inspired by it, and the mass combat of the game definitely draws on the epic battles from LOTR (though also from other sources including history; these were war gamers after all.) But at the same time, it's equally clear that it wasn't the biggest influence. The setting itself is perhaps closest to Vance's Dying Earth, with a good deal of Conan the Barbarian, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs mixed in. (The original rules even include an encounter table for Mars, with all of Burroughs's Barsoom races represented.) A full list of influences can be found in Appendix N of the 1st edition DMG, which includes everything I listed above plus a bunch more.

    I suspect that Gygax's ire towards Middle Earth came from generations of Dungeons and Dragons players who insisted that Lord of the Rings was the ONLY influence on D&D, when in reality it was just one among many and definitely not the biggest influence.

    There was also a definite implicit Christianity through first edition which mirrors the implicit Christianity of Lord of the Rings (though D&D is actually more explicit, including crosses and holy water to repel vampires and the like. A more interesting feature is that Gygax explained "alignment languages" by means of Jews knowing some Hebrew, Catholics (at the time) knowing some Latin, etc.) The OD&D cleric spell list is basically just a list of miracles that have occurred. I think the reason it wasn't made more explicit was actually for pious reasons; if you have God appear as a game entity then He will be under the control of the DM, which isn't right. There was a conscious effort to strip away this stuff later, which I think ironically came from attacks from Christians on the game. Due to accusations that D&D was a cult activity, they stripped away all religious aspects. The BECMI basic rules say this:

    "In D&D games, as in real life, people have ethical and theological beliefs. This game does NOT deal with those beliefs. All characters are assumed to have them, and they do not affect the game."

    Clerics then became effectively non-religious, only crusading for "the strength of their beliefs" or later for the abstract philosophy of their alignments. This continued through 2nd edition, which also refrained from using the terms "demon," "devil" or "angel." In 3rd edition the panic against D&D had subsided so they were willing to add religious terminology back into the game, but by that point the culture as a whole had become less Christian (and Wizards of the Coast in particular was proto-woke) so they replaced all the Christian mythology with pseudo-pagan stuff. (To be fair, this was building on stuff that had already begun in the Planescape setting.)

    1. As I said to Dale above, I think Tolkien was clearly not the only source or inspiration. But he was much more than Gygax admitted. And his account of Tolkien's influenced changed over the decades. In an article I found in one of TSR's magazines in the 80s, he actually praised The Hobbit, while by that time dismissing Tolkien as boring allegory. To me that's telling, because the discussion is always around Lord of the Rings, yes or no? If you take the Hobbit, and combine it with Lord of the Rings, you get the essence of D&D - at least in the early days. A multiracial (elf, dwarf, human) party (not a sole adventurer like Conan), traversing the wilderness, encountering friends (NPCs), monsters, finding treasure, discovering magic items, traveling through and exploring vast underground realms, adventuring in towns, getting to the dragon's lair and obtaining the treasure. There's even a nice battle at the end giving a nod to the wargaming influences of D&D. Again, there were a zillion influences, from myth to movies, classical literature, Bugs Bunny cartoons, Nightstalker and Hammer films, pop culture Christianity, the Bible, pulp fantasy novels and celebrated epics. But combine those two Tolkien works together, and you have pretty much ever D&D game in its early days. Far more than any other single source or influence.

    2. The Dying Earth is a much bigger influence than anything by Tolkien. It's most famous for having the magical system lifted from there, and there are many other specific references (ex. ioun stones.) But there's a lot more than that. The thief character class is almost a direct match for Cugel the clever (which explains things like why thieves can use scrolls.) The assumed D&D world fits the Dying Earth far better than Middle Earth. For example, a common D&D trope is for the party to run into a reclusive wizard who jealously researches forgotten magics, and who usually is quite deviously hostile towards visitors. This is a recurring character archetype in the Dying Earth stories, but does not line up with what we see of wizards in Middle Earth. Similarly, it would not be unusual for a D&D campaign to run across artifacts from a very advanced precursor civilization (either in terms of magic or technology.) This sort of thing happens frequently in the Dying Earth, while the only thing close to this in The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings is the one ring itself. The heroes of Tolkien's stories are either humble commoners forced into adventure or noble warriors seeking to reclaim what their birthrights. A D&D party is more likely to be a bunch of opportunists eager for adventure, but with no noble right to anything. Again, this sort of character is common in the Dying Earth (Cugel the Clever being chief among this sort.) The Dying Earth is definitely a bigger influence than the Lord of the Rings.

      You can also very clearly see the "standard" D&D characters in Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, far more than in the likes of Aragorn, Bilbo or Gandalf. (Likewise a D&D city is going to look far more like Lankhmar than Minas Tirith.) Conan is another great D&D archetype: a scoundrel out for treasure, but who is not entirely immoral and often ends up doing good (sometimes incidentally, sometimes intentionally.) Appendix N was not chosen randomly, the influence of each of those books is very obvious on D&D, and most of them have a clearer influence on D&D than the works of Tolkien. Again Tolkien definitely was an influence, but in no means the chief influence. If I had to rank them in order of influence I would go:

      1.) Jack Vance
      2.) Fritz Leiber
      3.) Robert E. Howard
      4.) Michael Moorcock
      5.) Poul Anderson
      6.) Edgar Rice Burroughs
      7.) JRR Tolkien
      (with more after that.)

      But what happened is that the second generation of D&D players were generally far less well read than the first generation. So the only influence they were universally aware of was Tolkien, and hence Tolkien's influence was exaggerated. I am sure that the majority of players think that wizards needing to restudy spells or thieves being able to read scrolls was done for game balance, rather than being directly lifted from Vance. Similarly the second generation was generally not wargamers, hence the wargame aspects of D&D gradually declined.

    3. I double checked the AD&D 1E DMG and (in Appendix N) Gygax explicitly states:

      "The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably [L. Sprague] de Camp & [Fletcher] Pratt, R[obert] E H[oward], Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL[ovecraft], and A[braham] Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game."

      This is immediately after a list including Tolkien as an influence. So in Gygax's own words at the time Tolkien was an influence, but a lesser one. I agree, though as you can see my personal assessment of the influence is different (though this is likely partially due to my own reading; I've read only a little of Abraham Merritt and nothing at all of de Camp or Pratt.)

    4. The first problem with Appendix N is that it comes from Gygax. In my research, I’ve learned his accounts of things aren’t always to be trusted. He had a knack for not taking blame for things, plus it was easy to see he was one to hold a grudge. Plus the DMG was written at a time when Gygax was trying to insist – for legal reasons due to the lawsuit from Arneson – that AD&D was a completely separate game from D&D, which had much more open and obvious nods to Middle Earth in its early runs.

      In addition, by then he was beginning to move more toward ‘sure Tolkien, but mostly as an aside for marketing purposes’ explanation. He wasn’t completely denouncing Tolkien yet, but clearly he was trying to insist any connection to Tolkien was at best a coincidence. For instance, I remember a Q&A sent to the TSR magazine ‘Dragon’. The reader pointed out that, given Gygax’s recent statements about Tolkien, the Ranger class was clearly an Aragorn knockoff. Not so, wrote the editor. Sure, the Ranger is a woodland warrior, with bonuses against orcs, an expert tracker, able to employ nature and healing spells and who can use a crystal ball style device – but otherwise?! It’s hard not to see the AD&D Ranger and not see anything but 90% Aragorn. That Gygax and Co. were bending over backwards to insist otherwise, even against overwhelming evidence, is enough right there to cast doubt.

      Plus, we must also remember that the early years were not entirely Gygax. IIRC, Rob Kuntz once wrote an article about this. He mentions the earlier Gygax version that while Tolkien is obviously well represented, Tolkien is not the only influence. But he also pointed out an important observation – for many other contributors in the early years, Tolkien was a major, if not the major, influence.

      In fact, in the early wargaming days, when it was still simply a Fantasy supplement to Gygax’s medieval wargaming rules, Gygax himself wrote for wargaming publications that obviously the rules were straight out of Tolkien and the Pelennore Fields and Battle of Five Armies. But other fantasy could certainly be used. Tracing the arc of that observation, to the last interviews Gygax did where he tried to insist even hobbits were derived from non-Tolkien sources, is telling.

      No, Tolkien is obviously not the only influence, and taken against all others combined, the other influences were more. And if the treasure hunting dwarves of the Hobbit are ignored, certainly Conan or the Grey Mouser seem more at home in terms of motivation than Gandalf or Frodo. Clearly Vance, Howard, Anderson, all have direct influences on particulars within the game as well. But the overall packaging and play of the game was, as Eric Holmes pointed out, an expansion of a Middle Earth feel and inspiration. And against any single source, Tolkien particulars and the whole ME feel – especially when The Hobbit is added (again, multi-racial and class party (not single individuals or pairs) over landscapes and multiple encounters in a very sandbox setting) – tends to come out ahead. At least IMHO.


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