Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Teachable Moment From All This

...Now, then, is Mr. McNulty capable of having a civil conversation with Mrs. McNulty?
Yes, your honor.
And is Mrs. McNulty equally capable of having a conversation with Mr. McNulty? 
Good, then I'm going to lunch. And let's see when I return if we can't busy this court with something just a little more engaging than the problems of the McNultys.

-The Wire, Episode 10

Court, blog, whatever.

I would like this to be my very last post concerning D&D 5th edition-related controversy. Let's see how we can do. It will be very inside-baseball, unfortunately, so if you don't care, skip to the pictures. I will still answer any questions, though because why wouldn't I?

Trigger warning, seriously, sexual violence ahead

This isn't sexual violence...
…these are just some pictures from my book to keep the triggery bits near the bottom

Rape In Games As An Example Of Stuff Nobody Usefully Talks About Because Everybody Wants To Get Along

So one of the people who lied about me this last week because they were sad that I was a Dungeons & Dragons consultant--Wundergeek--once wrote a list of things she was "tired of". Most of them were 100% legit and anyone would be tired of them--or, more likely, deeply alarmed and angry about them.

In the middle, there's this statement:

I am tired of game scenarios that feature rape.

I am tired of game settings that feature rape.
I am tired of men who write rape being praised for their “creative vision”.

I am tired of seeing people who speak out against rape in popular game material denounced as crazy fascists who hate freedom.

I am tired of gamers who complain when games that feature rape are banned, not translated, or otherwise not made available for English-speaking audiences.

Obviously there are lots of reasons to feel this way and many are not bad.

My point in this entry here is not to defend rape in games, I'm not somebody who's ever found much that was gameable in that particular area of human experience--my point lies elsewhere.

In the list of 5th edition consultants, there is at least one of these men who write about rape and are praised for their "creative vision".  Can you spot him?

Hint: It's not me and it's not the RPGPundit.

It's the very decent (and I mean that: he's cool, he stayed on my couch) and well-respected man who wrote this:

There are 40 naga-kin in Pralaj and about 200 villagers and revived corpses held prisoner while slowly being raped, tortured, and drowned into a susceptible state for transformation into naga-kindred.


From here, they prepare the coming of the Naga into her kingdom, and send naga-kin down the River to rape and drown the people into following her. 

Now one reason he (I'll call him Doc Respectable, I hope he won't mind) has not been called out by Wundergeek or anybody else in a coterie of people that, largely gets very het up about rape in games and about what is in the world's most popular RPG is because he is a professional. And by that I don't mean he maintains a responsible and professional demeanor (although he does) I mean that, unlike the RPGPundit (the other consultant who pissed people off) and I, Doc Respectable's daily bread relies on tabletop roleplaying games.

Professional Means Pretending Not to Have Opinions

While Doc Responsible will write about rape in a game, it is dangerous for him to mount his own defense of the practice in places where RPGs are discussed on the internet. He could piss someone off who he might have to work with later. It's just not advisable.

Me and theRPGPundit don't have that problem, which is one reason we can reach levels of say-whatever-we-think-all-the-time-about-games that elude many professionals and was probably one reason we were hired. We were folks with a track record of not pulling punches because of having no reason to pull punches.

But I want to emphasize this: the other consultants--they have punches. Here is Doc Respectable, in another game he wrote, almost punching:

Tediously Obligatory Disclaimer
This game simulates mental illness as seen in Lovecraftian and Lovecraft- inspired fiction and gaming. It should not be confused with real psychology, even the real (and mostly outmoded) psychology of the 1920s and 1930s. Although no disrespect is intended to those suffering the real-life effects of mental illness, we submit to those concerned by this issue that horror is meant to be irresponsible, disreputable, and upsetting

you would not want to get into an online fight with Doc Respectable about what is and is not acceptable in RPGs. He has as many or more facts more readily at his fingertips than anyone I've ever met. But you never will get in a fight with Doc Respectable online about anything ever and neither will anyone else. His job won't allow it.

And, frankly, neither will Shanna Germain's job, or Monte Cook's job, or any other top-level game designer who has written settings with rape in them.

Wundergeek's friend Vincent Baker--designer of Apocalypse World and the most important designer in a scene whose members came out in force against me and (especially) the RPGPundit, is perhaps the epitome of a Male Game Designer Who Writes About Rape (in both Seclusium of Orphone and Poison'd) And Is Praised For His Creative Vision.

But they don't talk about it--at least not publicly. Even if the professionals involved weren't skittish, the indie game community is conflict-averse because it is self-conscious about trying to build a big, inclusive community that avoids conflict--and, in some cases, build a customer base. (And in some cases they're conflict averse because the people are just emotionally not built to back up what they dish out and not intellectually equipped to realized they just dished right onto someone else.)

And so we get lots of trenchant Concerned Gamers re-posting Wundergeek's I Am Tired litany and re-posting Vincent Baker's latest project in the same day and there is no good public conversation about the cognitive dissonance and how to resolve it. Like: How you handle rape and why, in public, with examples from Respectable figures in the field given first-hand and input from affected groups.

Maybe they do talk about it in private: but these conversations don't help the rest of us. How does one navigate the minefield of issues?

Taking The Bullet

So when do Concerned Gamers put Wundergeek's very popular sentiment "I am tired of game settings that feature rape" side-by-side with a game setting that features rape? When is this cognitive dissonance addressed?

When someone who is:
-Not a major professional
...and who:
-None of Wundergeek's friends likes anyway

…shows up.

Like the guy who wrote CarcosaTo perhaps over-simplify: Carcosa is an Old School Renaissance game, most of the Concerned Gamers aren't Old School Renaissance people, so Carcosa is fair game to rip apart in public, over and over, unlike Seclusium of Orphone.

In short: Carcosa was written by an outsider.

My main aim is not to point out that this is unfair (though it might be--depending on whether you think there are important differences between the way rape is depicted in Seclusium, Carcosa, Qelong, Numenera, Cthulhutech and Poison'd) but to point out that the outsider, less-respected game takes the bullet for a discussion about rape that could and should have been addressed thoroughly years before within the community making the critique.

And so does, in this case, the guy who sticks up for it. That is: me. Which I am loathe to do because the author of Carcosa is not  a guy I know much about. He might be sexist for all I know--but his game isn't. It's just a game about horror--or at least that's what the victims of sexual violence I have talked to it about that I know from the porn business say.

In the course of that discussion I linked, someone suggests Wundergeek is a standard by which to judge the morality of games. I point out Wundergeek's not exactly the most progressive voice when it comes to expressing the merits of creative freedom and I compare her to Tipper Gore, and Wundergeek decides I'm an enemy for life and attacks me.

Meanwhile the guy who ran the Story-Games site kicks me off it for having this conversation while telling me that he would totally play Carcosa.

Poor me--No. This isn't about that. If this whole controversy's not bigger than me or the RPGPundit and people being unfair, it is all pointless and dumb and of no interest to anyone else.

 But it isn't because there's a moral here: I may have been meaner than anybody on Story-Games, I dunno, but I also engaged more often on that site than anyone else outside the Story-Games community. You'll have a tough time finding a DIY D&D guy who was on there more than me. It's not about me: These incidents are the kinds of things that are going to happen when game communities that are basically isolated try to seriously talk to each other about anything important.

Disasters of First Contact

These are disasters of first contact.

Talking between RPG communities can be painful and dumb. Like here is me trying to learn  what the hate with Carcosa is all about from a bunch of pro-4e/social justice trolls. (Note that, to non-members, the word "rape" will display as "surprise sex" if you click the link.)

It sucked and they were jerks about it and some of them were the same people who engineered the smear attempt, but it was also probably the most comprehensive and useful conversation about how these people view rape in RPGs that I have ever seen.

Are you interested in finding stuff out? I am. Are you willing to take the bullet for it? Maybe not. That's ok.

But I tell you this: pretty much every single group of people I pissed off talking on-line (and who, therefore, were willing to believe half-assed troll shit about me), I pissed off during one of these gruesome "first contact" conversations.

If you believe me, skip these blocks of text. If you don't, here's the evidence:

First Ever Contact With Indie Gamers
Zak (whistles, minding own business)
Indie Gamer: I think the women in your group have brain damage
Zak: WTF?
Worst Indie Gamers: Why are you so mean, Zak?

Did nobody ever explain to Eero Tuovinen and McDaldno and Johnstone and all these other Story-Games regulars that when someone calls a bunch of women "brain damaged" because they don't play the same game as them and someone calls that misogynistic behavior out, that's awesome? Why are they bothering me with this shit?

First Ever Contact With Tracy Hurley and Filamena Young
Zak (whistles, minding own business)
Advocate for Inclusion In Gaming : The women in your group appearing in Maxim causes problems for women.
Zak : WTF?
Advocates for Inclusion In Gaming : Why are you so mean, Zak?

Did none of the women in corsets in the sexy vampire RPG writer community ever explain to Filamena Young and Tracy Hurley that some women don't like to wear a lot of clothes in public and that's their right and not bad for women? Why are they bothering us with this shit?

First Ever Contact With Something Awful Goons
Zak (whistles, minding own business)
Something Awful trolls : You play AD&D & that's fucked, and that Carcosa supplement leads to rape and your girlfriend has electrical cords on her Amazon wishlist & that's fucked.
Zak : WTF?
Something Awful trolls : Why are you so mean, Zak?

Did nobody in the Concerned Gamer community ever explain to these people that they don't get to call LGBT women of color names because they play some other elfgame than them? Why are they bothering me with this shit?

First Ever Contact With Wundergeek
Zak (whistles, minding own business)
Wundergeek : Hyun Tae Kim should be pushed to the margins of the industry because he paints fetishy art and hentai is disgusting!
Zak : WTF?
Wundergeek : Why are you so mean, Zak?

Did Jessica Hammer or anyone at Gaming As Women or anybody else that Wundergeek worked with or talked to never explain to Wundergeek that other peoples' taste in porn is not her business and pin-up art is not the problem, art gatekeepers areWhy is she bothering artists with this shit?

...all this culminated in the fake-rape-threat incident, where James Des was punished by Ben Lehman and other indie gamers for defending a position Ben Lehman ally and indie game archangel Vincent Baker very likely may hold and agree with: a belief in the alleged usefulness of rape as a device in fiction. And then, apparently nobody before had told anyone in the Concerned Indie Gamer community that when you publicly endorse criminal accusations against some dude without proof, and then find out it's fake you then go and apologize.

Seriously--didn't these people have moms?

…I could go away tomorrow and James D could go away tomorrow, and James Raggi and the RPGPundit every other polarizing figure and this will just keep happening, because of all the nice people in gaming who don't ever want to get to the bottom of anything they consider important and divisive like how to deal with sex or race or violence or rape culture in games, until they have someone they don't already know to talk about it with (or, more likely, at).

All these people were pretty excited to get mad at me about 5e because I was the focus for a lot of repressed, unworked-out ire that should've been bled out through dialogue long before I ever met them.

I'm not saying they're being hypocritical, I think this is all motivated by a sincere desire to get along with friends and an apathy toward outsiders. And an outsider is going to be called "mean" or "graceless" or "bullying" for mounting a self-defense in a way that someone you already know isn't. It's an odd sociological fact that if you're looking to call someone "ableist" it's easier to pick on the guy you don't know with the girlfriend in the wheelchair than the guy you do know who is just the guy you do know.

I don't want to silence them. I want them to talk more. They might get better at it.

Old School D&D has trolls, too, but we don't believe them and retweet them and advertise their stuff. If Gleichman was like ROBIN LAWS FUCKED A GOOSE ON MY LAWN AND MADE A PIE FROM MY MOM'S BUTT! We'd be like, whatever, relax, Indie Gamers, that's just Gleichman, ignore him, and we'd tell him to shut the fuck up a lot--sorry Robin. But for some reason the indie gamers haven't evolved this behavior. Something Awful goons like Andri Erlingsson and Mikan start smearing shit around and the indie gamers are all like "Hmmm…mayyybe…he did say 'problematic'..."

So You Have A Choice

So you have a choice, would-be-responsible RPG people with communities around you:
Fred Hicks at Evil Hat
Gaming As Women
RPGnet mods,
Jessica Hammer, Cam Banks, Lyndsay Peters, Rob Donoghue and all the rest:

A) Have some real dialogue about divisive stuff with your peeps


B) Know that you'll all basically be playing Whack-A-Scapegoat forever, because people from outside who cross your peoples' paths will get whaled on by half your friends while the other half hide in the corner glad it isn't them

And I'm not saying that choice A is obviously right at all times--there are fantastic reasons why people might not wanna talk about rape with each other.

But, really, when a Vital RPG Issue comes up: would you rather have a conversation about the Issue or about me?

If it has to be me, I'm cool with it: your friends' outrage sells books, which aren't a big source of income for me, but Raggi seems to like it. However: I'm guessing it doesn't always serve your best interests and it probably makes you feel kinda like a jerk.

"But we're not a monolith! How can 'we' have a conversation, we're a diverse group!"

No, dudes and dudettes, you totally can. If  Bruce Baugh can gin up a Zak Hate Thread on Google + or on Twitter, you can also talk about all the goddamn issues you people need to sort out. If you have more than 1000 people following you or any kind of moderation capacity: the next blow-up like this is on you for not having sorted it out before it happened. Trolls will be there forever--the fertile and gullible ground their BS needs to grow can only be provided when everybody is running around with a head full of unresolved anxiety about Who Is Good And Who Is Evil. And hey: come talk to me, come talk to DIY D&D, we are nothing if not here to help.

And like I told Mike Mearls when 5e hit: if anyone doesn't like it--you can always blame me.

Vincent Baker
4:27 AM
Yeah, I don't see anything mean or untrue about me. I think it's a sharp and good piece.
And now, some more fucking awesome pages from my fucking awesome D&D book that is coming out this awesome summer. Because why not:
Click to enlarge


  1. Keep on rollin', writin', artin' and fuckin', zak. You got this. Your new book looks awesome. Can't wait.

  2. The artwork for Red & Pleasant Land looks absolutely stunning.

  3. Red & Pleasant Land looks like a must have. The works of the man who "makes the internet scream" are mighty to behold!

  4. Hi Zak. You are strongly opinionated - which brings out the trolls on the internet. I do like that you defend your opinions.
    However, I would love to read a post where you tell us what advice you gave WotC towards 5e (if no NDA...). I don't have to agree with your opinions, but I do like to see how the game I love is being shaped by by other's perspectives.
    After all, it is the unknown/ignorance that breeds these trolls.

    1. There is, as you predict, a non-disclosure agreement so Zak cannot talk about his contributions.

  5. Book looks incredible!

    And great post. Gonna have to read it a few times to get the thing in my head all proper-like.

    Keep up the good fight.

  6. Vincent, at least, has talked about rape in Poison'd at some length:

    Some folks on SA were a little het up about it.

    There is also this, from the mini-kerfuffle earlier this year over Circle of Hands:

  7. Zak, I like you and know you can take care of you and yours. I did finally break down and post a defence of you over at Tenkar's because I've been writing it in my head for two days.

    However, this is what I'm truly concerned about:

    …I could go away tomorrow and James D could go away tomorrow, and James Raggi and the RPGPundit every other polarizing figure and this will just keep happening, because of all the nice people in gaming who don't ever want to get to the bottom of anything they consider important and divisive like how to deal with sex or race or violence or rape culture in games, until they have someone they don't already know to talk about it with (or, more likely, at).

    and I'm not nearly as sanguine as you about their motivations and how to cure them. There is a certain breed of social justice type who cannot let anything in the world ever exist until they've bowed to the outrage of the day (or should that be the two minute hate). I know video gamers who complain about how you can't talk about games anymore without a version of the art conversation you ranted about long ago (and I believe linked above). They've been turning the Big Purple that way and you can see it in a couple of threads about D&D 5 already (ones that don't involve you). On the right they are described with the saying, "you will be made to care".

    I see what is going on here as being made in elf games. It won't be "do you allow gay/trans/etc players and/or characters" but "why don't you point that out as an option". My opinion on the inclusion text is I'm not sure it was needed not because there aren't bigots in the world but it seems to me that kind of bigotry lost its purchase in the RPG world when the streamroller called the World of Darkness came to town. I'm not objecting to it either. I do wonder if some people think they can now rules lawyer such bigots if they encounter them (the same way rules were supposed to eliminate dick GMs). I also know that posting that opinion will be used by people as evidence I hate gay people/trans people/etc (and the ect is evidence too that I don't care and not that I can't figure out tomorrow's cause of the day).

    That's why I'm worried about all this. I know you and The Pundit can take care of yourselves. However, I also know this is probably just a test run for "making RPGs safe".

    Finally, one last note that somewhat relates. In the past month what kind of person Marion Zimmerman Bradley was, which was at least partially public and partially suspected, came roaring out in public. DragonCon has a similar issue (which, in all honesty, they had been working on for over a decade before they could legally sever all ties) and its back up for discussion. Being silent about things when it's your friends while attacking outsiders can bite you in the ass, badly. Do I think we have rapists (of children at that) hiding among "the good people" because they want talk about it? No. Do I think they're creating the kind of environment that could wind up there because they only talk about it when it's people they hate? Yes, I do.

    1. I think inclusive text about gender can comfort young trans people--especially in isolated communities.
      If I imagine I was 10 or 11 or a teenager and nobody around me knew the word "trans" I would be very happy to see something like that--and it costs nobody else anything.

      As for the specific wording--I would have run it by some trans people I know first and asked them.

  8. Totally not on point here, but I just wanted to compliment you on those illustrations. Man that's some cool looking stuff! I just love the way your inks look.

    Okay, you guys can go back to being serious.

  9. The new book looks absolutly awesome! Can't wait for it! Go on, Zak!

  10. I wonder what they think of Game of Thrones (TV and book)? How is rape, or some other upsetting act, ok in some media and not in this one? Naivety is such a comfortable world.

    1. There is an aggressive Problematicalness Brigade critique of game of thrones.

      I mean: people wanna be those people--ok.

      They wanna drag me into it: oh hell no.

    2. Just FYI: Rape is not nearly as present in the books as it is in the TV show. For example, Danaerys is not raped by Drogo in the books, and that alone drastically changes the dynamic of their relationship.

      It's unfortunate that the TV series has gone in that direction, but rape-apology is not actually GRRM's thing. Rape exists in his world, and there are rapists who serve on the Wall, but rape isn't depicted in a soft light.

    3. I have read Problematicists who would care about that and think it mattered and I have read Problematicists who would not.

      Ben Lehman (even before he made up fake rape threats) said of George RR Martin:

      "He is pretty much like "women should be raped to make them docile.""

      …i.e. he interpreted A Song of Ice And Fire _as a nonfiction book of advice_ and people he knew kept talking to him after that.

      This is the kind of thing I mean about the indie game community cleaning out it's closet.

      And if they decide instead "hey, no, actually we think this isn't the most insane interpretation of a crappy fantasy novel I have ever read and we are totally ok with that" then that's fine, too. Just say that so the rest of us know to stay a few thousand feet away at all times.

      And George RR Martin will know to hire a bodyguard next time he's near a game convention.

  11. I'd pay good money to have a book subtitled "By the man who made the internet scream". Of course, I'll buy Red and Pleasant Land for good money too, looks awesome.

  12. Zak, I wasn't aware of a lot of this history and material. I know we rarely agree and that we have some issues, but thank you for this post and for your honesty. I know I have been wrong about some stuff and some of my opinions have since changed. I'm not posting this to invite an argument - I just wanted to thank you for the information and for your efforts in logging the history.

  13. I like your blog. Have a cool summer.

  14. I came across this the other day and it seemed to apply to this brouhaha:

    I also liked the idea of Zak and Captain America standing tree-like, side-by-side and saying to the tellers of lies, "No, you move."

  15. Also, thanks for the intercepted communique. That will be useful and fun.

  16. Rites of engagement and kidnappings seem something you would encounter in bizarro cultures that populate Jack Vance books.

  17. I'm not sure why, but that link to Vincent Baker's quote doesn't work.

    1. it's not a link I just cut and pasted him saying it formatting and all. I think it was in a private thread anyway maybe

  18. I know if Wizards asked me to consult on the new version of D&D I would say yes. I think it is awesome that you had that opportunity and it is fantastic that your name will go down in prosperity in the credits of that book. Well done and good on you. I wish you all the best and am really looking forward to your new book.
    All the best,

  19. I've been watching this mess unfold for the past few days and I just could not be silent. I'm not a Big Name Gamer; I'm just some guy who plays RPGs of a sort. (I'm so old, I thought 'Holmes' was a Brit detective.)

    I am shocked and appalled at this thuggery. You and RPGpundit are both opinionated and vocal, and that is why I read your blogs. I value your fresh and honest views, and I think you both - and your game group, too, Zak - are getting crapped on by dim-witted idiots.

    I will continue to keep reading about your adventures; they are fun to hear about. And, should you hapen to be in the Twin Cities, the door will always be open for you and your friends.

    yours, chirine

  20. I believe that there was a song about this type of behaviour.

  21. I'm still confused. not that my clarity is even wanted, so, don't worry about it. but... is the following what was meant to have happened?
    Book People: "hey there, please give us an honest, outside take on our upcoming product."
    Consultant: "don't need to look at it, because I can tell you right now that you gotta make it more trans-phobic."
    Book People: "I'm not sure what that even means or how it could be accomplished... um."
    Consultant: "Shut up and do it!"
    Book People: "Well, you're the expert."

    honestly, it's too good not to have happened. I'm am totally down for this conspiracy.