How Dungeons and Dragons is actually not endorsing the darkest parts of the RPG community


Categories: Personal GeekStuff

UPDATE: New data showed up, and I've changed my conclusions on some aspects of this. Most noticably, Mandy Morbid has accused Zak of abusing her, and I have [posted some initial thoughts on that](/log/post/2019/02/14/the-zak-update/), but suffice it to say, I do at this point think I have credible evidence that Zak is in fact abusive in serious and important ways.

So, I’m revisiting this, because the more I look into it, the more impressed I am with the many layers of sleaze. Of particular note, the use of a “Read More” makes it surprisingly hard to quote the full text.

So, for instance. Say they wanted to change what the post said later. No one’s reblogs would have the actual original text to compare with…

I’m not the only person to notice, I might add. In fact, there’s been more than one.

EDIT: New material over here because one of the people involved decided to accuse me of being transphobic.

I’ve split this up with blockquote tags, but I’m preserving their text unaltered.


Note: The people named in this article have a history of harassing their critics. As such I have chosen to keep my sources and any traceable information they have given me anonymous to protect them.

This starts with manipulation. I mean, first, there’s the title; “How Dungeons and Dragons is endorsing the darkest parts of the RPG community”. Then we get this nice little intro paragraph, which simultaneously makes a very concrete assertion, and explains why there will be no evidence offered to support assertions.

Three weeks ago the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out. D&D is the iconic tabletop role playing game, so a new edition is a big deal. It’s one of the few times that the small, insular pen and paper community gets noticed by the rest of the world. Many game websites have talked about it, notably Polygon’s piece on gender inclusive language. Yet at the same time as D&D tries to appeal to those outside the gender binary, it has been driving them away by employing two of the most toxic personalities in tabletop gaming.

This is full of strange assertions. For one thing, I am not at all sure that the pen and paper gaming community is really “insular” in any meaningful way. Secondly, the general assertion that “those outside the gender binary” are being driven away is not really supported — and indeed, I know a number of people who would generally be regarded as “outside the gender binary” who are not at all being driven away.

Shortly after Wizards of the Coast released fifth edition game designers began sharing a picture of the credits page: a section called ‘additional consulting’. The list includes heavyweight designers like Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws but two names stand out as not belonging: “RPG Pundit and Zak S”.


While John “RPG Pundit” Tarnowski and Zak “Zak S” Smith have produced a few books between them they are more well known as bloggers and opinion formers within the RPG community. Specifically they’re part of the ‘Old School Rules’ movement: people who think everything since the earliest editions of D&D was unnecessary. I don’t agree with them, but I can see the appeal of the simple dungeon crawl. The problem is that the OSR movement contains some very nasty people. Zak and Pundit are two of them.

Okay, this is some fine work. First, we get the snide dig at the professional accomplishments Zak and RPG Pundit have as game designers… Without anything to assert that they were hired as game designers. There’s lots of ways in which people might consult on things. Then, a nice irrelevant jab at the “OSR” movement, a generic and meaningless claim (every movement contains some very nasty people, it turns out), and another assertion that these two people are particularly nasty.

Also worth noting that RPG Pundit has specifically asked that people don't use his name. It's a bit late to try to remove it here, and I said I wouldn't edit things, but... Poor style, folks.

I became aware of Pundit a couple of years ago. He’s a blogger operating out of The RPG Site, infamous for his paranoid rants about how outsiders are plotting to take over the hobby and destroy it. This is not an exaggeration, Pundit literally believes that there is an organised conspiracy to destroy the world of tabletop RPGs, a group he refers to as ‘the Swine’. His original rants defined ‘Swine’ as anyone who attempted to innovate beyond Old School Rules, particularly anyone involved in the ‘storygames’ movement (experimental narrative driven games). To Pundit, these games represented an attempt by outsiders who weren’t ‘real gamers’ to destroy the hobby. This is not an unusual sentiment in videogames either, but it isn’t usually voiced by someone working on in the biggest game in the world.

This description, and the previous one, can’t be meaningfully reconciled. The previous one says that the “OSR” people are opposed to “everything since the earliest editions of D&D”. The new one calls anyone attempting to innovate beyond those “Swine”… But that’s not at all what RPG Pundit says! For instance, he clearly recognizes the d20 system (3rd Edition) as being more like “gaming” again. So he’s absolutely not condemning any and all innovation beyond “the earliest editions of D&D”, unless we’re calling 3rd edition “earliest”, which seems pretty ridiculous to me.

It’s easy to dismiss this as harmless crankery, but conservative art often comes with conservative politics, thus it came as no surprise when Pundit’s Glenn Beck style rants switched targets from ‘storygame swine’ to attacking “Psuedo-activism swinery”. Again, this is not an exaggeration, one of the consultants on D&D literally believes that ‘social justice’ is a conspiracy by outsiders to ruin ‘real RPGs’ forever. Here he is comparing an expo instituting an anti-harassment policy harsh Islamic modesty laws, managing to insult both women and Muslims in one article.

So, hypothetically, say you were to go look at the “pseudo-activism swinery” article, and do a little experiment: Search the page for the word “social”. Okay, now try “justice”. Note how neither of these words appears at all on that page, let alone next to each other. So, we are told that he literally believes that “social justice” is a conspiracy, only the quotes give the impression that this was in some way a phrase he used, when actually it wasn’t. The article in question is pretty vague, and frankly, there are a whole lot of people out there who use social-justice-sounding buzzwords, and are in fact totally uninterested in anything that would make anyone better off.

So, what you’re seeing here is pretty misleading reporting, at best. For instance, you’re told that he compared “an anti-harassment policy” to “harsh Islamic modesty laws”. Well, okay. What did the policy say, specifically? There’s two quotes I can find in that thread:

"1.Your outfit must cover you at least as well as a modest swimsuit would. (No thongs or other minimalist bottoms. No pasties, tape, or paint in lieu of a full coverage top. Also, obviously nothing transparent for these areas.)"

"Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue."

You know what? That first one is, in fact, a “modesty” policy, not an anti-harassment policy; it prohibits cosplayers from dressing immodestly. And the second one, well. That’s a pretty significant restriction for a convention which presumably has adults involved.

Would I have used that example or tried to frame it in terms of the widespread hostility to Islam in the US? I wouldn’t. But on the actual substance of the claim, well. That’s not in any meaningful sense an “anti-harassment” policy. That’s an “anti doing things that make people harass you” policy, and that’s not at all the same thing.

EDITED TO ADD: Someone else pointed out that the repeated use of “conservative” is unsupported and irrelevant. I suspect it’s there because the target audience of the hatchet job is people who are LGBTQ, people of color, or “women” with the assumption that they will be hostile to “conservative politics”. Same deal with the Glenn Beck name-dropping. The “conservatism” is not really on display, and is irrelevant. If you want to argue that the post’s use of Islam and Arabic-sounding (or possibly Arabic; I admit I don’t know a thing about this) names is offensive or inappropriate, you can make that case without needing to bring up a totally unrelated political claim.

Zak S is famous for two things: Playing D&D with pornstars, both on his blog and for a little while in a web series for the Escapist, and being banned from half the major RPG communities on the net for derailing any and all discussion about diversity and discrimination. You can still see a long and thorough explanation of why RPG Net banned him, and it’s a pattern of behaviour that he still engages in. Zak presents himself as a sex positive feminist, but spends all his time derailing conversations on sexism, defending sexists and attacking real feminists by painting them as anti-sex conservatives. When called out on this he defends his words with a greatest hits list of derailing arguments: ‘I know women who disagree’, ‘You’re just anti-sex prudes’ and even attempting to debate what the word ‘sexist’ means.

This is a fascinating paragraph. “Famous for two things” implies no other accomplishments of note, but is that really justifiable? Wikipedia says Zak is “an American artist and alternative porn star”. Certainly, they mention at all that he’s an artist. He has a Master’s degree from Yale. One of the things he’s famous for is, get this, page by page illustrations of Gravity’s Rainbow. Yes, really.

So already we’re seeing a hugely deceptive bit of writing here. Seriously, this is absolutely dishonest. This is a serious artist whose work is being displayed in actual art museums; it is incomprehensible to omit that when listing things for which he is famous.

Well, okay, let’s look at what they did list. I’ll concede the “playing D&D with porn stars” thing. But being banned from “half the major RPG communities on the net”? Well, okay, maybe he’s gotten banned. But was it for “derailing any and all discussion about diversity and discrimination”? No, I don’t think it was. For that to be true, there’d have to be no discussions on those topics that he participated in without derailing them, and that doesn’t seem to be true. (Blog post with various relevant links.) So it seems to me that, no, he’s not derailing things.

But it gets better! Contrast; Zak “presents himself as a sex positive feminist”, but spends his time attacking “real feminists”. This doesn’t state, explicitly, that sex-positive feminists are not real. It just strongly implies that “real” feminists are attacked by Zak, and that the people Zak attacks are always “real” feminists.

The thing about derailing tactics is, itself, a derailing tactic. The reason derailing tactics can work is that they are at least superficially plausible or relevant arguments some of the time. Which is because sometimes those are valid arguments. I particularly admire the phrase (emphasis mine) “even attempting to debate what the word “sexist” means.” That’s because, of course, there’s not two or three or five different definitions in use, from casual usage to academic usage. There are people who will tell you, with absolute certainty, that there is no such thing as sexism against men; there are other people who will tell you that of course there is, but it doesn’t matter. There are other views. And therein lies the trickery here. See, the writers of the article didn’t tell you what the one true definition is. That’s because they know perfectly well that you might disagree with them. If they told you what Zak means by it, you might even agree with him.

Being a curious sort, I wrote him to ask. His response (I fixed a couple of typos):

The first one that comes up on google: “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.” sounds ok to me.

Sexism in a fictional object presented as fiction (like an art piece or gamebook) means one of two things or both are true:

1-The world overall becomes more sexist (discriminating against women) after and because the object was produced or some part of the world becomes more sexist in some way that was avoidable while preserving any unique benefit of that object.

(Example: If Sailor Moon overall was negative for women it’s sexist. If Sailor Moon overall was positive for women but we could prove that some element of it could’ve been changed to be less stereotyping—like Tuxedo Mask constantly saving the day—and it still would’ve had all the Sailor Moon goodness so many people know and love & respond to we can definitively call that element sexist even if the show’s net effect was positive.)


2-It was produced by a sexist person or one with sexist intent.

Like it? Don’t like it? The important part is that I’m not trying to make you assume that his definition is some idiotic unconsidered MRA view of “sexism”. I’m not relying on priming you with the idea of “derailing” tactics to make you assume the hypothetical arguments are baseless or insincere, or that he hasn’t thought about the issue.

Okay, back to quoting the other folks:

These are Zak and Pundit as I knew them when the news broke. It’s the image most were already familiar with: angry nerdboys who spent all their time trying to gatekeep the hobby. To me that was reason enough that they should never work in a game as influential as Dungeons and Dragons. But as the picture of their names in the credits spread, more information spilled out. Seeing their names there in black and white was just too much, and people began to speak out. Most did so in private, others posted publicly but without naming names. This, I became aware, was because anyone who criticised the pair found themselves subjected to harassment, abuse and real world stalking.

Okay, now we get to some of the substance of this. And, of course, it’s full of shenanigans. First off, “all their time”? No. Even if we stipulate that some of Pundit’s writing is “gatekeeping”, it’s clearly not “all”, or even “all that much” compared to all the other things he writes about. Zak’s got significant material up that seems to be specifically aimed at inviting people to play without any particular attempt to gatekeep. Of particular note: In general, when we hear about “nerdboys” trying to “gatekeep the hobby”, that means keeping girls out. So the reader gets the impression that perhaps that is what Zak and Pundit do. But Zak actually doesn’t seem to be doing anything to try to keep girls out of the hobby.

The claim about “harassment, abuse, and real world stalking” is a fascinating one. How would you prove or disprove such a claim? There’s no way it can be literally true, because if it were, Zak and Pundit wouldn’t be able to spend all their time gatekeeping, because they’d be too busy trying to keep up with their huge supply of critics to stalk. Of course, that assumes that they are the ones doing it. And it also assumes that no one’s lying about what happened.

You know what? I’ve seen a lot of people on tumblr report that someone is “harassing” or “abusing” them. I’ve seen people escalate their claims until they’re asserting that someone did things which are literally “sexual assault”. And then they spread that, and other people repeat it, and they come forward with the story because they know the person it happened to is shy. So, say, someone posts one obscene reaction gif on his own NSFW-flagged blog, and a few months later you have 20+ people saying he’s a sexual harasser and they have proof but won’t say it because anyone commenting gets “harassed”. You know what the “harassment” is? One or two people reblogging the accusations to say “uh, you do realize that’s malicious gossip and isn’t what happened, right?”

So I start out pretty skeptical of these claims, but it’s okay, we get clearer evidence later that they’re not particularly accurate.

Both have much the same MO. They publically attack someone for criticising them, speaking out about sexism and bigotry, or just liking the wrong game. That person then finds themselves under a sustained campaign of harassment from Zak and Pundit’s fans. They pair would then feign innocence despite knowing full well what would happen and doing nothing to discourage it. Even after the initial attacks die down things are not over, they will routinely return to attack targets that angered them years ago. Cross them once, and you are marked for life.

This is a beautiful piece of persuasive writing. Unfortunately, it’s also highly manipulative and completely dishonest. The beauty is that, by presenting an excuse for not giving an actual concrete example, they deprive you of any chance to evaluate for yourself what someone did that Zak or Pundit attacked them for. Well, I found an example of Zak criticising someone. I will go so far as to call it an attack. Here it is:

Bring Me The Head of 30-Dollar Dice Guy.

Yup, there you have it. Zak totally laying into some guy for… charging a woman \$30 for a box of dice because she’s too naive to know better. Well, actually, that’s behavior worth attacking. So nevermind.

There’s additional shenanigans here. “The pair” would then feign innocence. Obviously, they are working together. I’m sort of surprised this paragraph didn’t use “cahoots” because this is exactly where that word is perfect. Maybe it would have been a bit too obvious.

But then, the whole thing is pretty obvious. Seriously, a “sustained campaign”? “Routinely return to attack targets that angered them years ago.”? This is not even remotely plausible. Even apart from the total lack of evidence, there just isn’t enough time for such a thing to happen.

Furthermore, it’s obviously untrue; there are people who disagree with Zak and somehow, miraculously, live through it. Alex Mayo, for instance. Also worth noting that, in fact, there’s at least one post in which Zak unambiguously says that if anyone is doing that on his behalf to knock it off.

This is where Zak excels. He has in the past posted lists of people who he feels have displeased him in some way, complete with their real names. Those people then lists find themselves subjected to sustained campaigns of harassment. Not mere internet name calling, but phone calls to people’s houses in the middle of the night that say “This is where your children go to school.” To be clear, I am not accusing Zak or Pundit of making these calls, there is no evidence for that. What they do is point out targets and refuse to admonish their fans when they step over the line.

Nice use of vagueness. The only specific example I could find of Zak posting a “list” of people, it was a list of people who… Well, I guess “he feels have displeased him in some way” is a way of describing it. Specifically, they endorsed a false accusation that someone else had made rape threats. Zak’s claim is that: “The only thing I’d add is the purpose of my list was to let people who might’ve had the various people involved in their circles know that they weren’t to be trusted in any kind of debate. This was on the logic that: If somebody would lie or fail to do their homework about rape threats, they’d pretty much be willing to lie or casually accept anything.”

Note the clever weasel-wording. “feels have displeased him in some way” sounds like it’s over nothing. That’s not just concealing that the actual offense was perhaps a significant one; it’s concealing that it was an offense not against either Zak or Pundit.

We then get on to the “sustained campaigns of harassment” claim, which is unverifiable. And the claim that they “point out targets” (it’s not at all obvious that “targeting” was intended at all), and then the blatantly false claim that they “refuse to admonish their fans”. Of course, we don’t know that it was their fans doing it. It might have been fans of the person falsely accused of making rape threats. It might have been 4chan users who found a list and were bored. We don’t know.

While this behaviour is alarming, it the choice of victim that is the most telling. These attacks nearly always target women and LGTBQ individuals, mostly freelancers and independent designers. Zak and Pundit have taken pains to defend themselves against accusations of transphobia, but I know several transpeople who their fans have attacked and harassed. Zak described one of them as ‘mentally ill’, both he and Pundit told others they would be better off committing suicide. Recently, in a post defending Zak and accusing his detractors of misogyny, his girlfriend attempted to out a trans designer. (update - the post has now been edited to remove the designers new name)

More sleaze, and how. “Nearly always target women and LGTBQ individuals”. We’ve been told that anyone who criticizes them was subjected to abuse, harassment, and real-world stalking. But they “nearly always” target women and LGBTQ individuals. See how much just a few paragraphs can change? Having set you up with the belief that everyone is getting attacked, so you feel like there’s a lot of attacks, the writer now changes to a claim that the attacks are highly selective. Are they?

Well, let’s see. I can’t check for LGBT from names, but I can guess at gender sometimes. I found the famous list of names. I got 28 names that seemed likely male, 12 likely female, and 10 that I couldn’t guess. That’s… not very female-heavy. LGBTQ? Harder to check, but it seems really, really, hard to reconcile with the other evidence.

The topic-shift in the transphobia sentence is beautiful. Zak and Pundit are accused of transphobia, but the writer knows transpeople their fans have attacked and harassed. Note that there’s two shifts here. First, the shift from “Zak and Pundit” to “their fans”. Second, in the context of allegations of transphobia, you would naturally assume that the alleged harassment was in any way at all related to the people being trans. But we don’t have any evidence for that. We do have evidence against it, at least as regards Zak personally.

And, of course, anyone who uses tumblr quickly learns that “transphobia” is the catch-all accusation of being a Bad Person. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with anything.

EDIT: I also noticed another issue; "X takes pains to claim Y, but..." is a sentence structure which implies that there is now to be evidence against the claim, and that the claim is dishonest, but that implication is invalid if (as is the case here) the second clause doesn't end up supporting the claim at all.

The alleged “attempt to out a trans designer” is an interesting one. I have a pretty strong personal history of concern with “trying to out people”. So I tried to research this. It’s hard, because once someone noticed, all the references got cleaned up.

What I did find was a quote-of-a-quote-with-asterisks:

"the Something Awful veterans cluster around something called ****\* (game company redacted), headed by someone variously credited as **** or **\* when designing games,**, **** or **\* when trolling, and**\* on twitter."

Okay, so let’s say that this did in fact list both male and female names. There’s just one tiny issue: That doesn’t necessarily tell you anything, because people often write under pseudonyms. Referring to James Tiptree Junior as Alice Bradley Sheldon isn’t outing a trans person, so far as I know, it’s just pointing out that she used a pen name. In fact, in that same discussion, at least one person said they had no inkling the person was trans until someone complained about them being “outed”.

But it’s not at all clear that this would be intended as “outing”. Mandy’s updated blog post omits the first names, replacing them with “Lastname (various first names)”, and now says:

"(not trying to “out” this person, I don’t know how they identify, just providing a way to track their attacks over the years. They’ve copped to all these screen names)"

And of course, she’s now in trouble for removing the “new” name. Well, she removed both names; there’s just a last name now. And there’s references to screen names. But I have no idea whether any of the screen names correspond to any personal names before or after any name changes. The emphasis on removing the “new” name (and thus implying that the thing in there that looks like a first name might be the “old” name) is the closest I come to having any clue at all what gender this person might be.

This reminds me of a thing I saw in Rift chat recently, where someone made a comment which revealed that another player in the channel was probably trans, in the context of pointing out that someone else had been lying about a thing. The person who had been telling lies then spent 15 minutes harping on the “outing” of the person in question (who, when asked, said she didn’t really think it was a big deal, and no, she’s not closeted, although she’d prefer people not make a big news event out of it). But the person supposedly “defending” her privacy made her gender history the topic of discussion for fifteen minutes. This seems the same. If I had just seen a thing with two first names listed, even one obviously male and one obviously female, I wouldn’t have really thought about it. I might have thought it was probably a woman who used a male pen name because sometimes that’s easier to get published with. But instead, we got this huge drama thing about how it was trying to “out” the designer. Which was the only thing that told most people that anyone involved was trans.

So I think that one’s dishonest, too.

Anger surrounding their inclusion in D&D 5e began to mount. The anonymous tumblr Problematic Tabletop started cataloguing some of their more public behaviour. Fresh waves of hatemail forced designers to delete and hide social media accounts to escape. At the same time Zak put his setting book on sale, using promotional quotes consisting of people calling out his behaviour. This was not unusual, Zak’s business model revolves around publically being a jerk. He is, quite literally, a career bully.

I note that “wouldyouagreethat” is full of sleaze and dishonesty. I looked at a few of their examples of “cataloguing” behavior, and there was a significant amount of misrepresentation going on. We get more unverifiable claims about “fresh waves” of hatemail, and people “deleting social media accounts to escape”, but for all we know, these “fresh waves of hatemail” were from the people attacking 5e for including someone they don’t like. We aren’t given any information. We aren’t given evidence that the attacks have anything to do with Zak, or that they even have anything to do with people from his “side” of the apparent battle.

I am absolutely fine with the promotional quotes consisting of people calling out his behavior, because that is a pretty reasonable response to being harassed and demonized. But the switch from “a jerk” to “a bully” is more dishonesty from our narrator, because “bullies” are specifically people picking on those much weaker than themselves. Zak is some guy. He is not obviously particularly wealthy or powerful. He’s in at least one line of work that is, to put it mildly, not given the highest respect in our culture.

Eventually, halfway down a now deleted G+ conversation, Mike Mearls – designer of D&D 5e - responded:

  1. If anyone has any direct evidence of racism or sexism or any other form of discrimination on the part of people attached to D&D, please drop a line to me. Email is \[removed\]

  2. Consultants on the project were hired to tear the game apart and pull no punches, so being brutal was basically a job requirement.

  3. How we present race and gender in the game had nothing to do with anyone beyond me, Jeremy Crawford, and our art director, Kate Irwin. I have read up on issues of race, gender, and inclusivity in gaming and have done everything I can to address them. Will it be perfect? No. But I pay attention to this stuff because it’s important. The consultants had no role in that department.

It wasn’t the most confidence inspiring appeal, but nonetheless people leapt upon it. Told their conversations would be confidential they shared with Mearls all the stories I’ve shared with you, only with names, links, screenshots and other traceable information I have removed to protect my sources.

Okay, watch closely folks. “Told their conversations would be confidential”. That statement serves only one purpose; it’s there to communicate to you that in fact their conversations were not kept confidential. Which is a shame, because that communication is, so far as we can tell, a lie. There is nothing, anywhere, indicating that they were not kept confidential. That’s pure scare-mongering.

Days later Mearls responded. No-one had given him evidence that Zak or Pundit had not spoken any slurs, so he was throwing the complaints out. The allegations of harassment it seems, were secondary to whether they had ever spoken a bad word:

This description is completely inaccurate, and rises to the level of an outright lie.

  • I haven’t seen or received any evidence that Zak has made homo/transphobic or racist statements.

  • I have heard from a number of people who feel harassed and marginalized in the gaming community.

  • At the end of the day, the responsibility for working with Zak and RPGPundit, and more importantly **not** directly working with marginalized groups falls solely upon me

Failforward: “Had \[not\] spoken any slurs”, “had ever spoken a bad word”.
\ Mearls: “evidence that Zak has made homo/transphobic or racist statements.”

I’m assuming the \[not\] was a typo or editing error. The point is, Failforward is outright lying about what Mearls said, by stressing the notion that Mearls had suddenly shifted the goalposts and moved it to “specific words”. But that’s not what Mearls said. He said that he had seen no evidence that Zak had made statements which were homophobic, transphobic, or racist. That’s not restricted, at all, to “slurs”.

Meanwhile, Zak was publicly speaking on Mearls’ behalf, saying that WOTC had found the claims against him to be baseless. Those who sent Mearls information began to panic, had he just shared their complaints with their harasser? Mearls responded that he had told Zak the claims were baseless, but hadn’t shared any names or details with him. Nevertheless they were not pleased, nor did they feel safe. Why had Mearls consulted with Zak before replying to them? Why was it more important to re-assure Zak he was in the clear than respond to allegations of harassment? Mearls again replied, saying that he was not taking the accusations seriously because some of the people stating them where members of the Something Awful forums, which he claimed has a history of harassing Zak:

My impression is that SA folks are using gender and race issues to drive their personal grudges with people. It’s very damaging for making real progress on these issues. People getting in touch with me are pointing to that site to undermine the real issues we face in gaming.

Nice use of emotional language. “Began to panic”. “Had he just shared their complaints with their harasser?” This runs into the first rule of honest journalism: If the answer to the question is “no”, it’s a bad headline. It’s also a bad lead-in to the rest of the paragraph. Imagine what this would have looked like, had it been written with honest intent:

"Meanwhile, Zak confirmed that WotC had found the claims against him to be baseless. Some people asked Mearls whether this meant that Zak had seen their complaints, and were told he had not."

Similarly, “nor did they feel safe”. Not that there’s been anything offered which is even a hint of evidence that they are in any danger whatsoever, just that telling you they feel threatened lets us make it seem like something’s wrong. And the characterization of the last Mearls response is, again, totally inaccurate. He doesn’t say that he’s not taking the accusations seriously because some of the people stating them are members of SA. He’s saying that he thinks people from SA are trying to pursue personal grudges. He didn’t at any point say that he didn’t take the accusations seriously; only that, having investigated, he reached the conclusion that they were baseless.

Note also that it’s not at all obvious that Zak was “speaking on Mearls’ behalf”.

Zak and Pundit have accused Something Awful of harassment before. They take issue with the fact that they are both quoted in the catalogue of bad RPG behaviour that is

Grognards.txt (grognard means old warrior, but in the RPG community is has come to mean one stuck in the past). Meanwhile, The RPG Site, operated by someone Mearls hired as a consultant, currently contains such topics as: “Bruce Baugh can go fuck himself with a rusty spoon”, “Why I dislike feminism” and a thread defending the use of the word ‘Jap’ in WW2 settings.

I just want to say for the record, as a long-time goon: Accusing Something Awful of harassment is not exactly outlandish behavior. On the other hand, watch the trickery that comes up. We’re told they “take issue with” the catalogue of bad RPG behavior, but no specific evidence for that is advanced, even though evidence for it could easily be provided without revealing the names of any critics.

And then we get to the thing about the topics contained by “The RPG Site”. “The RPG Site” is offering public forums. Same as Something Awful. Both of them will have threads that absolutely do not align with the beliefs or ideals of the people running them. Presenting the threads on The RPG Site as representative of Pundit’s views or behavior is highly disingenuous. The sudden reminder of “operated by someone Mearls hired as a consultant” is itself deceptive; the extra clause gets you distracted from the fact that “operated by” doesn’t mean “fully approved by”.

Why do we not see things about the topics contained by “Something Awful”? Well, that’s because Something Awful is, at times, exactly what it says on the tin. So, let’s see. I’ll go look at the “General Bullshit” forum. Here’s a topic for you: why don’t people just abort every down syndrome baby. where to draw the distinction btwn sexual reassignment surgery and cosmetic. Vancouver schools add “xe, xem,” pronouns. You’d probably need to pay your \$10 to read them, but let’s just say, these are not the most uplifting comment threads I’ve ever seen. Seriously, you cannot use Something Awful as your example of a non-horrible forum, then complain about cherry-picked threads from other sites. I would never dream of accusing goons in general of participating in or supporting the random awful stuff you find in the forums sometimes.

As a privileged person, there is often an instinct to dismiss tales of harassment. We naively assume that our world is just, that someone we know couldn’t get away with abuse without us noticing. Mearls isn’t alone in this belief, over the past three weeks I’ve seen similar sentiments from senior figures in the RPG community. “This can’t really be happening”, they reassured themselves,”We’d have heard something”, “Someone must be exaggerating”. It is tempting to believe that the RPG community is not ‘that bad’, but it is, it is the worst community I have ever known. Partly because it harbours Zak and Pundit, but also because so many have reacted to this crisis by playing down legitimate anger and trying to find a truth in the middle where there is none. This reached it’s height two days ago, when Fred Hicks, co-creator of FATE, shared a link defending Zak and outing one of his favourite targets (update - Hicks has apologised and stated that this was not his intent). That designer has since left the industry, worn down by years of constant harassment from Zak and Pundit, compounded by the insensitivity of Hicks and others. Hicks has since deleted the post, but he has not apologised.

You know, this paragraph is unusual because I think it offers one of the few things I agree with: “trying to find a truth in the middle where there is none”. That’s true. There is no “middle” here. This whole piece is a hatchet job, built on lies, and manipulative language, and deceit. The digression into the behavior of Fred Hicks is particularly odd. Here’s what Hicks had to say about Zak:

"At the end of the day, in matters involving folks’ upsettedness over D&D, there is so much anger raised on all sides that if anyone tries to take a moderate position on any part of it out loud (instead of silently), they’re deemed the enemy. I’ve managed to get identified over the last few weeks as both an enemy of Zak and a staunch supporter of Zak. This is a little hilarious, given how clearly and plainly I’ve been saying that I think he’s a toxic presence in gaming, and that the value he does offer is thoroughly drowned out by the bad behavior both by him and by those in support of him."

And, of course, the “outing” appears to have been nothing but another repeat of the previous allegations about Mandy, because Fred shared that link. See the gimmick? You’re given a different set of names and different set of claims, to create the impression that there’s two cases where someone in conflict with Zak was “outed”. When, in fact, there was one case where Zak’s critics made a big deal about something that did not even communicate to uninformed readers that the alleged target was trans.

In investigating this story I heard the same tales over and over again. The RPG community is small enough that almost every woman, person of colour or LGTBQ individual seems to have had a run in with Zak or Pundit. The only reason I hadn’t heard about this before is because they are too afraid to speak out. Discussions happen in private, or with the names left out, because both Zak and Pundit are infamous for googling their own names and attacking their critics. Zak even now tries to portray these allegations as prudish conservatives out to smear him due to his involvement in pornography. Yet for that to be true almost every marginalised voice in the RPG community would need to be part of a secret right wing conspiracy. At a certain point you have to accept that that is implausible.

We’re back to the weaponized minorities, and I just gotta say, I am not happy about this at all. You know what? I’ve had a “run in” with Zak. I traded email with him. I disagreed with him about stuff. He was pretty civil, and I learned a lot from the conversation. But you know what he didn’t do? Not once? He didn’t invoke the faceless masses of “woman, person of colour or LGBTQ individual”. Remember that thing, up at the top, where we were told that anyone who criticized Zak got attacked? Remember how it morphed into “women or LGBTQ individuals”, or possibly “freelancers”? Now it’s changed again. Suddenly, race is brought up. Sure, there was no previous mention of it in anything but the quoted text from Mearls, but now it’s there. Furthermore, “have had a run in with” is not the same thing as “has been harassed or abused by”. I’ve had run-ins with a ton of people. That doesn’t make them abusers or harassers.

But here’s what “marginalized” is like: This whole piece completely ignores the fact that many of the people defending Zak are disabled. Many of them are LGBT. At least a few are people of color. You know who’s marginalizing all those people? The person writing this hatchet piece, who has somehow completely omitted any hint of admission that Zak’s personal life is pretty damn inclusive.

It has been three weeks since this story began, and Wizards of the Coast have yet to make a public statement on the affair. All communication has been through private emails and that now deleted G+ thread. Perhaps they had hoped it would blow over if they refused to acknowledge it, after all the RPG community is too small and insular to get any real media scrutiny. If a videogame studio hired two people as toxic as this it’d be a public relations nightmare, but Wizards of the Coast can do so and still get credit for gender diversity.

This is a fascinating bit of writing. First, it’s wrong; the deleted G+ thread may not have been very official, but it was public. I don’t think I buy the claim that the RPG community is “too small and insular”. And furthermore, video game studios hire toxic people all the time. Seriously, do you think anyone even looks at the credits list for a typical video game?

Wizards is getting credit for a diversity thing because they put in a paragraph that acknowledges a part of human experience which has mostly gone unremarked in previous RPG work. (“Mostly”, I state.) And that’s fine. They earned it.

That’s why I’ve written his article. I’m sorry D&D, you don’t get to have it both ways. If you want praise for your inclusive language, you’ll also need to answer for the people you hire.

No, you wrote this article to tell shitty lies about people.

If there were one or two minor errors or inconsistencies, a couple of oversights, this could be regarded as perhaps not a willful hatchet job, subordinating any concern for truth to the need to make people look bad. But no. The whole thing is full of statements which can’t be true, statements which contradict each other, and hugely misleading writing.

It’s bullshit. And speaking as someone who is disabled, and non-binary, I would like to ask that you kindly shut the hell up until you’re ready to apologize for being so deceptive.

(Some edits a day or so later: Couple of typo fixes. Also added some words on the “conservative politics” claim, and on the wording around the RPG site forum criticism.)

Comments [archived]

From: John DTI
Date: 2014-08-10 19:45:49 -0500


I imagine this article is fairly old, but I realy appreciate the amount of work you put into it.

From: kingofalltherotten
Date: 2014-08-14 09:49:43 -0500

Why is it necessary for people to defend zak? He’s not 12. He just made a really poor choice of hobbies to try to lord over, a DIY one, which is a bit laughable. All this controversy is just him trying to stay relevant and fight off obscurity.

From: seebs
Date: 2014-08-14 11:16:32 -0500

I think it’s because random people constantly make implausible false assertions about him. Like, say, someone just posted something on my blog accusing him of trying to lord over a hobby. That’s ridiculous.

It’s necessary to defend people against false accusations, because a cultural norm of accepting false accusations without fact-checking is harmful to everyone.

From: anonymous
Date: 2015-09-24 19:54:08 -0500

“It’s necessary to defend people against false accusations, because a cultural norm of accepting false accusations without fact-checking is harmful to everyone”

Bingo. Thanks for the good read. I was aware of these sorts of issues in the video game world but not the tabletop one.