Thursday, February 14, 2019

Crossroads


I believe Mandy, Jennifer, Hannah and Vivka. If you haven't read their harrowing accounts of Zak Smith's abuse, you should go do that right now. Thank you for your bravery. I completely disavow Zak Smith. I have blocked him on every social media platform. I will never play a game of Dungeons and Dragons with him, or work with him, or buy one of his products, or speak to him again. Our attention should be on the victims who have come forward and what they have to tell us. Support them any way you can. I have tried to.

But I have to apologize. And to say something about Zak and the OSR community. Because I think we're at a crossroads and what we do next is very important. If you think that's navel gazing I understand completely. Please stop reading now.

My connections to Zak are long, and I don't want to minimize them. I read Playing D&D with Pornstars from the beginning. It was from that blog that I learned about the existence of G+. While I was slow to get on it, and so missed the exuberant early days, I've been on for the last 5.5 years. When I joined G+ I didn't have a blog, had never published anything, hadn't been much on forums, and so no one knew who I was. Here was my very first post:



There was Zak, happy to immediately friend a newbie and play along. Another thing about Zak is that he had great taste (from my perspective). Some people would find our community through his blog and the other blogs he promoted--improbable people who showed up with rare talents, and he would promote their work right from day one. It was a clique of very creative people. Even though I haven't produced very much--one zine, a long running online game, a blog I post to once in a blue moon--he generally promoted my work. He played occasionally in my online game as well, including the early sessions, and he praised it. I benefited in that way from the increased social capital that his support gave me.

Zak also was a producer of public goods for the OSR. He seemed to have almost limitless time online. He helped convince people to get on google plus in the first place. He helped to organize FLAILSNAILS and Constantcon. He invented the term "Gygaxian Democracy" and popularized that improvisational communal practice that produced many wonderful things. I say this about his role in the community because some people inside the OSR are saying, "He wasn't at the heart of things, I blocked him ages ago" and a lot of other people outside the OSR are saying "He was at the heart of things because he was a master manipulator". I agree that the OSR was a huge mosaic with many sub-communities and people unconnected to Zak. Plenty of people kept him at arms length, or just had their focus elsewhere. I also don't want to deny that he was good at manipulating people, judging from the testimony of his victims--and my own (far lesser) experience--I would say he was very good at that. But the sad truth is that to the extent that he was at the heart of the OSR it was mainly because it's a volunteer operation and we let him do so much for us, especially those of us who were in and out of his clique.

Of course this came at a terrible price that I was wrong to tolerate. Oh my lord the fights he would get in with people. Nasty. Internecine. Interminable. Sometimes conflagrations inside the OSR around nothing more than personality, or (increasingly) with violation of his strange code of conduct for internet conversations. This created so many schisms that it was hard to keep track. I struggled to keep straight a mental map of the contours of the discrete neighborhoods that his conflict produced in my community, a cartography of wreckage wrought by his aggressive logos.

But more often these conflicts were with Story Games folks. I didn't know anything about Story Games at first. What Zak said about the community had a veneer of initial plausibility (he was smart), but over time it became clear to me that it was a bizarre obsession, a kind of holy vendetta. He was occasionally wronged by people from the SG world who would say some false thing about him. As Mandy says, at times his conflicts could spill over into anonymous rape threats and demeaning comments directed at his players (the eponymous porn stars of his blog title). That's terrifying and awful, and I have no idea who was behind them. But mainly as far as I could tell he was getting into senseless fights with SG people he disagreed with about games, fights that escalated rapidly because of his aggressive tone, and his intolerable argumentative style. He then kept tabs on the folks he was fighting with and prodded them frequently. And he had tiresome and elaborate theories about how his doing this made our community better. He had so many theories, and I never believed any of them. But I didn't do anything about it. 

Moth Hag, by Evlyn M

The first apology is to people he bullied inside the OSR. During a conflict between Zak and Paolo Greco that shook the OSR community, Evlyn M, a dear soul and brilliant artist, and a regular player in my game, bravely came to Paolo's defense and took a stand against Zak's bullying. When I had to choose between Zak and Evlyn, it was clear that I had to choose Evlyn. After all, Zak had brought all this on himself and Evlyn was only doing what seemed right to her. But all I did was kick him out of my group. That wasn't nearly enough, not by a long shot. I should have stood up to his bullying then--long before then--and condemned it.

So Evlyn ended up leaving the fucking OSR, because Zak papered things over with Paolo and life went on, and she had earned his enmity in the process. He was too central to the OSR, he was everywhere, even if you blocked him you saw him get tagged in comments or gossiped about, and she found it too stressful to be around him, because--you know--he keeps names. Evlyn I'm so sorry, I hope you can forgive me. And all the other people like Evlyn. I'm so sorry to all of you.

When I had decided to kick Zak out, I had a face to face conversation with him over hangouts to explain. Things were rocky for him at the time, because the OSR had risen up in a wave of revolt against him in defense of Paolo, and it wasn't totally clear if he was going to survive. (This is when Patrick Stuart washed his hands of him.)

by Miles Johnston

When we talked it was like I was speaking to a completely different person from online Zak. He was a prince. He was generous. He said nice and empathetic things about some of the people he feuded with. I was actually grateful to him at the time for handling it all so reasonably. Although he didn't agree with Evlyn, he understood my position. He said that it sucked getting kicked out of my game, but I could make it up to him by writing a piece for his upcoming horror game Demon City. It felt transactional and icky. His framing it as something I owed him made it hard to write the thing, and I refused money for it in the end although Mike Evans offered. But I wish to God I hadn't agreed to write it, and hadn't promoted his game by posting about the kickstarter on google plus. So I'm sorry for that too. 

The other group of people I really want to apologize to are story games folks. I did nothing to rein in Zak's bizarre vendetta against your community, other than argue with him occasionally about people I've come to admire like Johnstone Metzger or Jason Cordova.  I feel very bad about this. I know you don't know me yet, and so have no reason to forgive me. But one of the great hopes I have for the OSR is that it can now begin to heal the rift with those parts of the SG community that are interested in cross-overs. I think this would be very good for the OSR, and that we have many shared interests and overlapping design values, as the success of Fear of A Black Dragon shows. We have a lot to learn from you, if you'll let us.

The future for the OSR is uncertain at best with google plus going away, and now this. I don't know if the community will survive. But I hope it does, because I love this community. At its best, there are so many brilliant, vibrant, decent people sharing with one another in an open spirit, and producing extraordinary things. If we do keep going, on Discord or in some more diffuse form, we have to make absolutely goddamned sure that we don't let a narcissistic bully--and SO MUCH WORSE as it turns out, a domestic abuser and misogynist--do the work for us again. And we have to protect ourselves against someone who poisons our relations to one another and to surrounding communities for reasons that we do not share.

I am moderating comments for the time being on my blog. I welcome criticism and will certainly post it and try to respond to it, even if it's angry. I deserve a measure of your wrath. But I will not approve comments from Zak (or Kent). 



25 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing that, Ben.

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  2. You're a good guy, Ben. This is well-put.

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  3. I don't really follow the osr in general but Evelyn was someone I did follow and her leaving sucked. Thank you for your introspection.

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  4. Thank you for your thoughts. I don't have much to add, except that your story of Evlyn mirrors my own. Zak called me out personally - it was one of those things he did (he did the same thing to anyone who liked Patrick's initial post) where he sent me a private message to the effect of, "Hey Brandon, I see you liked a post by Evlyn while she's slandering me. You should apologize and remove your like or we will no longer talk" And to my shame, I actually freaking apologized to him. I did it pretty half-assedly, but it was good enough to appease him, which means he won and I succumbed to his threat just to stay on his good side.

    I hate so much that I didn't support Evlyn. I had already worked on a project with her and was hoping to work on a second one. And I hate that I no longer have contact with her, other than just passively following her instagram account.

    I also have some thoughts on the conflicts between "Zak's OSR" and various other "groups." I felt for years that a lot of the disagreements stemmed almost solely (though obviously not completely) from Zak's irrationality. I won't name the person I'm about to speak of, but there was a new artist in the community (he'd been registered for less than a week) who asked a question about something. I popped in and said something to the effect of, "This is what the deal is. I think you can find out more about it on Tenkar's blog." This new person's response was, "Thanks Brandon, but I have everything of Tenkar blocked and would never visit his site." I was blown away that someone who had only been around for a week had already made such a huge decision that someone else was that dismissable. I mean, I don't love Tenkar or agree with him on everything, but his blog is a community and he occasionally brings up useful stuff. So for curiosity, I browsed this artists past comments. And what I found horrified me. His second day there, he had asked a question to the general public of "Who should I follow for great RPG news?" Someone had responded "Tenkar's Tavern," and immediately, Zak had popped into the thread and said, "You should know that Eric Tenkar is a terrible person and his blog is nothing but lies, you should definitely not follow him." The new artist said, "Okay," and apparently, that was that.

    This is bullshit. There should not be, and never should have been, someone in the community that had so much power that they were essentially thought police. And this mentality contaminated the entirety of the G plus OSR communities. I saw it all the time. Some of Zak's most rabid supporters would pipe in with the same types of statements. This shit actually led me to create a private Circle of the people Zak hated just so I could check in every now and then and see what was so evil about them. And guess what? Almost all they were doing was talking about nerd games.

    Zak was the primary (though not the only) reason I shut down my G plus account and stayed away from DnD and OSR for 16 months. I just couldn't take the drama and hate anymore, and he was everywhere. I stuck around on blogs for awhile, posting under a pseudonym just so I could avoid his wrath if I ever stepped out of line, but that only lasted a few weeks.

    The crazy thing is, Zak being outed for what he is has actually helped me relieve myself a bit. It's shamefully cathartic to see that hundreds of other people were also in the same situation, over and over again, and it wasn't just me being weak - though I was - it was a skilled manipulator and terrible person creating a system where he had the power to do those things.

    In the past three days, I've contributed to multiple blogs that I haven't read in months, and have reopened my twitter account and started talking D&D again. Hopefully, this continues.

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    1. What's your Twitter, Brandon? I'd like to follow you.

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    3. "There should not be, and never should have been, someone in the community that had so much power that they were essentially thought police."

      Thing is the community ITSELF engenders (if not endorses) this, and until that changes other abusers will merely take his place. Sociopaths thrive where blind faith prevails, as it allows them to avoid the light of inquiry.

      At least until they run out of heretics to go after.

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    4. Thanks Brandon for sharing, some parts were difficult to read. I hope we can now interact more freely. <3

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  5. Brandon D thanks for sharing that. It's true that it turned so many people away. And it kept others quiet who might have been more forthcoming. I have no way of knowing how many, but I think it's a lot.

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  6. I had initially been impressed with some of the random tables in his products, which I had bought at a steep discount via bundle of holding. I had followed him for about a minute, and when I started hearing things, and saw a little something about how he actually did his art (I am an illustrator and have a BFA) I started unfollowing but that didn't keep me from being named in comments and +1 shamed. Then I blocked.

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  7. "The future for the OSR is uncertain at best with google plus going away, and now this. I don't know if the community will survive."

    I follow people like Diogo Nogueira, Scott Malthouse, Luka Rejec and you can be sure that his outing just opened more spots for decent people to thrive

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  8. I bought the first issue of your zine based on the beautiful aesthetic and my own abiding interest in the subject matter. But I almost didn't, because it got Zak's "seal of approval." See, I'm one of those folks that were hounded by him...most likely because of my association with the SG crowd, though in truth I've always loved both Story Games and OSR, but never felt safe in OSR circles. I appreciate everything you've written here, and am glad I acted on my own interests by giving your zine a look rather than allow Zak to continue to make my world smaller.

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    1. This is also my take, in the long run Zak made the OSR a poorer place. My world also shrunk a lot because of his influence, too many creative people that motivated me to create left that space (or RPGs in general) this is one of the reason why I eventually left the RPG scene too. I am glad now that I can comeback from my exile.

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  9. It was something like three years ago I first read some of the things this guy shamelessly posted on the internet and wondered, how in god's name he was so popular and widely accepted. I never talked to him because you don't need to talk to someone that writes like he does to understand what and who they are. Checking blogs today, I'm glad this has finally happened. Hopefully, he becomes the pariah he should have been all along.

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  10. I'm glad to read this post. My impression of you has always been that you sincerely want to promote a safe, kind and inclusive community. That impression was always tempered for me by your association with Zak (such as it was).

    I am principally grateful to read support and contrition for those people who have been hurt by Zak's actions. I don't know how many of them will see these posts, but I hope it helps at least some of them.

    On a selfish note, I am glad to see the post because the possible presence of Zak, and your support of the Demon City Kickstarter, caused me to withdraw from the Ultan's Door game and community due to discomfort about being involved with thins Zak was near (as it transpires, that was perhaps unnecessary).

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  11. Sure, Zak was a big contributor to the OSR, he made stuff, good and free, and plenty. Now we are who make plenty of good and free stuff. We need to collaborate, to make the community stronger. I will start by sharing the blogs I like, with a brief comment on why I like and how we can use the tools it's about (or whatever it is about). I will translate some of the tools I have written in my blog (in Spanish) and make PDFs for download. I will support authors I like and authors I don't know of, and then promote their works, not only when they are stellar, but also when they have even a single good thing (and to be honest, most products include at least one good thing, or more).

    Yesterday I posted a review of Woodfall on reddit and one guy told me he liked it and that he would like to read more reviews on reddit. I liked reading that and I will make more reviews there, whenever I have the time.

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    1. Jorge, Yes Exactly! This is what we have to do.

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    2. He made good stuff but a lot of people do to. They just don't play being geniuses. We are easily starstruck by people who are published by established editors.

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  12. Great post, thank you (though I've selfishly admit that I also liked the insights into OSR culture & history).

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  13. "When we talked it was like I was speaking to a completely different person from online Zak."

    You WERE.

    Zak, like many abusers, aggressively compartmentalized and never let anyone see the complete picture. To some degree this is healthy, as we don't share the same selves with our children as our lovers, but not when used to isolate people into easily manipulatable groups like he did.

    Thankfully this tactic has an expiration date. Sadly it was over a decade in this case.

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  14. As someone who was in the OR before Zak came in, it will be just fine. It survived the move from forums to blogs. From blogs to G+. It's hard to kill ideas and concepts. It will still be there.

    I don't know you, but your words are sincere and I think you did good here. Nice to meet you.

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    1. Michael, I've always appreciated your contributions on G+ and in other places, so nice to meet you too here. And I'm glad that you think it will continue.

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    2. Thank you Ben, that's really nice of you to say. My blog is still going strong, so I hope you'll stay in touch. I've added your blog to my Feedly :)

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