Friday, May 28, 2021

The Half-King's Tourney

Jousting, archery, general melee, many opponents, fabulous prizes.

Now available in The Store

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Bottle Fantasy

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. 

             -Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges

 When famas go on a trip, when they pass the night in a city, their procedure is the following: one fama goes to the hotel and prudently checks the prices, the quality of the sheets, and the color of the carpets. The second repairs to the commissariat of police and there fills out a record of the real and transferable property of all three of them, as well as an inventory of the contents of their valises. The third fama goes to the hospital and copies the lists of the doctors on emergency and their specialties.

After attending to these affairs diligently, the travelers join each other in the central plaza of the city, exchange observations, and go to a café to take an apéritif. But before they drink, they join hands and do a dance in a circle. This dance is known as “The Gayety of the Famas.”

When cronopios go on a trip, they find that all the hotels are filled up, the trains have already left, it is raining buckets and taxis don’t want to pick them up, either that or they charge them exorbitant prices. The cronopios are not disheartened because they believe firmly that these things happen to everyone...

-Cronopios Y Famas, Julio Cortazar, tr. Paul Blackburn 

The Merchant is a blue skinned man sitting on a blue-green rug next to some cards, a small chest, a bag, and a knife. He is wearing a mask covering his face and a blue cloak. He acts friendly towards the player and talks to them while they view and purchase his wares.

-Slay the Spire Wiki 

There is a specific genre--or maybe just category--of fantasy I'm going to call "Bottle Fantasy". The simplest way to describe Bottle Fantasy is literally no-one has a normal life.

Let me be precise, though:

While most imaginative fiction (from the Godfather to Lord of the Rings) simply tells a story which focuses on something more exciting than human life as we know it, Bottle Fantasy takes place in a whole universe with no clear place recognizable human life as we know it. In a Bottle Fantasy, nobody gets born, then lives a whole life that looks (at least from the outside, regardless of the physical laws involved) like one that would happen in the real world, and then dies in a real-world way.

This isn't the same as just an imaginary world or universe--Middle Earth, it is strongly implied, either is the past of our world or one a lot like it, which means it both has people living normal lives in it and that it might one day mellow out and look like our world. Star Trek makes a place for our lives: in the past, Star Wars posits itself in the past--and far away. Moreover, all these fictional worlds at least want us to believe they have basically recognizable economies, human biologies (decapitation kills humans), etc.

Aside from the absence of Christianity, vanilla D&D could plausibly take place in the world that a very superstitious peasant suspects is just outside his door.

To simplify, hopefully: in most fantasy, there are dragons but the average peasant hasn't seen one. In Bottle Fantasy, there aren't average peasants and there never have been. All people eat starlight instead of meat, or there may be no people, only spheres, or all people are just stacks of owls in costumes.

Bottle Fantasy is in a bottle--while things may be analogous to our world, there is no in-world connection to our normal world.

Pac-Man, as presented in the original video game, is technically a Bottle Fantasy: there are no people, only Pac-Man, ghosts, dots and fruit. In Borges' Library of Babel there is literally no world except the library full of hexagons.

The world Julio Cortaza describes above in Cronopios Y Famas might be a Bottle Fantasy--there are doctors and taxis, but it's suggested that all people in the world of the book are Cronopios, Famas or Esperanzas--creatures who all act in a stylized way. It is unclear whether the doctors and taxi drivers are people who act in a normal way other than giving trips to Cronopios et al.

Like most genre categories, there's a spectrum. With "Total Bottle Fantasy" (world unconnected to our own operating on rules all its own) to "Almost Bottle Fantasy", some examples:

  • Planescape is the closest official D&D comes to Bottle Fantasy. Though you can travel and get to a world where regular people exist doing regular things, it's assumed you'd spend almost no time there and that the vast majority of the action takes place in worlds with alternate life patterns, economies and day-to-day physical laws.
  • Lewis Carroll's Alice books would be Bottle Fantasies if it wasn't for the fact that Alice is an ordinary girl from our world.
  • Likewise, it's spawn Red & Pleasant Land would be Bottle Fantasy if it weren't for the fact you can get there from a more recognizable world.
  • Mario's gameworld would be Bottle Fantasy if it wasn't for the fact that the early games posit that Mario and Luigi were regular plumbers from our world who just went into the pipes to clean out crabs and turtles.
  • Eberron is right on the edge, because it's implied everything that you can do in normal D&D is somewhere in Eberron, that means that there are people who just, like, go to taverns and work as regular blacksmiths, etc. There's probably versions of Eberron where even the farmwork and daily drudgery is obviously magic-based, but I don't think anyone's ever gone into that much detail. 
  • Slay The Spire is a Bottle Fantasy: there is no clear evidence of normal life anywhere. The clearest examples of real lives we see are communities trying to live within The Spire who definitely survive on weird unreal processes.
  • Candyland is an example of a minimalist Bottle Fantasy. There is naught but travelers and candy.
  • A lot of OSR gameworlds posit or begin to posit Bottle Fantasies.
  • Superhero worlds aren't generally Bottle Fantasies, since normalcy exists as a thing from which superheroes and villains emerge.
  • Sci-fis usually aren't Bottle Fantasies because they posit a normally-functioning historical Earth either far away, in the past, or existing just before the introduction of some sci-fi idea.
An important part of non-Bottle Fantasies is not so much that the real world shows up, it's that we have certain expectations brought on by the assumption that anything not called-out works as it does in our world.

For example: I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone die of vacuum-exposure in Star Wars. But the infamous scene where Princess Leia uses the force to stop herself from dying in The Last Jedi relies on your assumption that she'll die if she's unprotected in space, unless some unexpected force (or: Force) intervenes.

Some general characteristics of Bottle Fantasies in different media:

  • Bottle Fantasies are more common in video games and board games than most other media because the effort to create this kind of game starts with the fun/action/adventure part of the world--the part you, as a main character, play with--and programming in the normal world or references to it is often just more work than making something up. As a game creator with these games you start with what's unusual and then work your way out. You start with jumping on turtles and only tell us what a normal day as a plumber is like if you have extra time.
  • Bottle Fantasies are less common in tabletop RPGs (especially popular ones) because, conversely, the players' tactical choices and the game master's adventure-building choices rely heavily on assuming there's a world outside the game text that functions in a familiar way. For example: few RPG texts bother to explain that rivers are full of water and flow in one direction or that wood floats--but most RPG creators assume that these two facts can be assumed by players who want to build a river-raft to get somewhere. Everytime you want to remove a real-world assumption you need to type at least one sentence ("there are no rivers in the world of Dark Sun") and every time you want to change it, you need to type even more ("instead there are seas of silt"), and then you have to explain the implications, because it's an RPG and the world has to function even when the author isn't narrating it ("Most people get their water from...")
  • Bottle Fantasies in live-action film are even rarer than in tabletop RPGs because in these films (1) You have to take the raw material of reality and transform it to get a fictional world (2) This is expensive (3) Expensive films often have to pay for themselves by being popular (4) A wholly Bottled world, though offering opportunities for exciting special effects, is less likely to be relatable, which limits its popularity. The compromise live-action film generally makes is to offer a Mario or Alice-style "visitation" narrative like Tron where someone from our world goes to a mostly Bottled world. It is a feat of rare daring for a filmmaker to make a complete Bottle World, especially for adults.
  • Conversely, Primitive Bottle Fantasies in animation are common--especially in experimental or student animation because, say, "Dots vs Lines" is very doable.
  • Bottle Fantasies in written fiction are common in short stories, but rare as novels. While many fantasy, sci-fi, and straight literary writers have produced Bottle Fantasies as short thought-experiments, its hard to think of a novel's worth of conflict over things that don't exist in our world, and you have to be pretty good, or at least pretty driven, to do it.

In sculpture, they talk about additive and subtractive sculpture--in additive sculpture you pile up material (say: clay, or legos) until it looks like the thing, in subtractive sculpture you carve away (stone, or the like). In fiction, we can talk about reality like a material: there are media where you start with a real thing, like actors on a stage, and alter them to seem like characters in your story, and there are media where you start with nothing--an empty canvas or page--and add things.

The pattern here is: if working a medium starts with reality and then alters it in order to produce its basic material, then Bottle Fantasy is unusual, if working in a medium starts with nothing and getting something to resemble reality is itself a complex act of craft, Bottle Fantasy is more common, since a fantastic world is often easier to produce than a real one. Bottle Fantasy is easy in painting (look: a world consisting of a circle and nothing else) and hard in theater (every actor needs to be disguised as not-an-actor, the stage might have to be rigged with wires and mirrors to present alternate physics).

Oddly, this puts tabletop RPGs on the "start with reality, then alter it" side of the equation. 

Bottle Fantasy in RPG or live-action film are, thus, very ambitious projects. Building a world that functions for hours without any parts that default to the real world (or at least some shared conception of it) is a bit like trying to build a car that works without gas or electricity or even steam.

Bottle Fantasies are, almost axiomatically, imaginative but inaccessible. And the more imaginative they are, the less accessible they become.

Probably the ur-example in tabletop is Empire of the Petal Throne / Tekumel --while there are farmers in Tekumel, they're from no extant culture (when it is earthlike, Tekumel itself mixes South Asian and Mesoamerican influence, so you can't rely on one or the other the way you can assume anything left undescribed in Middle Earth is just "as you guess England circa 1200 would be") and the layers of ritual and invented religion intentionally insert themselves between players and their assumptions. Even Tekumel has a "visitation" narrative built in--players in the original game are supposed to be untutred foreigners. It might not be technically Bottle Fantasy as I've defined it, but it's close and presents the problems and opportunities of the genre.

Bottle Fantasy in RPGs is kind of great, in that it appeals to the game-masterish desire to invent everything from the ground up--"All arrows are petrified snakes here because there's no wood!" and it's kind of horrible in that it forces you to invent everything from the ground up--"Uh, if there's no wood, is there wine? What's it aged in? Wait, if there's no wood, are there vines?" etc.




Friday, May 21, 2021

Gamers Punching Themselves In The Face

I'm going to use an example, which is almost always a bad idea.

I'm going to use an example because it shows the extent of the problem, it shows that the problem still happens now today, and it shows that I haven't exaggerated or distorted the problem. If you have a blog you know what happens if you use an example: people comment on the example, not the point. You go "You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a community affected by global climate change" and someone will comment "My cat's breath smells like cat food". Try not to be distracted from the point by the example.

So, This Happened

A relatively successful independent game designer (not I nor anyone I have much history with) wrote a short, satirical tale.

In his tale, he described a hypothetical indie designer writing a game that (depending on how you interpret the tale) is either very niche or very bad. The imaginary designer complains--to comic effect for the hundreds of people who shared the tale--that D&D is making their niche or bad game harder to sell. The Take is a joke at the imaginary niche or bad designer's expense. That's it.

Now, there are lots of things to say about the story here:

  • D&D does take up a lot of space in the industry
  • An indie game can be successful, though.
  • "Success" can be defined in a variety of different ways.
  • Independently-produced games have, in the past, competed with D&D in significant ways, even financially. They've even out-competed D&D sometimes. How?
  • For an individual designer, financial success might be more likely with a niche game than working for D&D.
  • Many things WOTC does are actually unfair. Which ones?
  • Many critiques Indie designers have of D&D or its fans are unfair. Which ones?
  • Indie culture does have some self-defeating characteristics. What are they?
  • Games are not a meritocracy but to what degree can quality be said to exist or matter?
  • What things that aren't "quality" do still matter in getting to (any definition of) "success".
  • Does popular accessibility ever become quality?
  • What if you do have a niche game and know it? How do you define success for that?
et cetera.

After hundreds of people on the internet shared or liked this story, hundreds of indie game designers got very angry and railed against it and the creator of the story. Everyone yelled at everyone.

The Point

The point is that they yelled about nothing.

Literally none of that stuff above got discussed, because:

  • The indie game creator who penned the original take responded to critics with, basically "I don't have to talk to you because you're not successful and/or have no structural power".
  • The critics responded to him with, basically, "I don't have to talk to you because you are successful and/or you do have structural power".
(If you doubt this characterization, the whole useless pile-up is recorded herehere and here. Feel free to comment if you think I'm wrong)

Both sides have set boundaries on the conversation that are calculated to be impossible to overcome, even for someone who really wanted to engage. The original game creator can't go back in time to be less established any more than his critics can press a button to be successful enough for them to be "worth" talking to. Anyone familiar with nerds will see what's going on here: they're both making excuses to avoid confrontation, and thus to avoid playtesting the quality of their ideas.

The original developer spent literal hours crowing on the internet about his right to use the block button to ignore nobodies.

The critics, in turn, spent literal days crowing to each other about how irrelevant and out-of-touch the original developer was, as were all his kind.

The conversation, such as it was, wasn't about anything that could help anyone make, enjoy or sell a game, it was posturing to each other about who has the right to be listened to, to have their concerns addressed, to make a point, to have a point considered.

More than one critic said "Oh, I would've hoped for better from (the creator who had the original take)" but instead of saying that to that creator, they said it to each other. In other words: the person you're complaining about has done things to make you respect them, but you couldn't even get it together to bring your complaint to them.

Representatives from all the usual hatemob suspects are involved: mainstream careerists, what's left of Story-Games, Troika trolls, Something Awful goons, RPGnet parasites, etc. (Helpfully nobody's calling anyone a Nazi or using the "I won't debate Nazis" loophole. They're just excited to say they don't have to have conversations period.)

"Who has the right to be listened to?" is a real short and boring conversation because everyone instinctively has their own answer. It's about as useful as "Who likes lasagna?".

Everyone wastes a tremendous amount of time announcing and re-announcing and re-articulating their announcement that they're going to ignore each others' points because they don't want to waste time.

And what do they do with all this time they've freed up? The people with experience learn about nothing new and the people who are new learn nothing from those with experience. And everyone's terribly comfortable.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Whole Story on Mike Mearls

 So, I just finished up that series on what happened behind the scenes on Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition. Your response has been good.

I'm planning on doing a series on the whole saga with Mike Mearls, creative head of Dungeons and Dragons, going in to the conspiracy theories there about when I consulted on D&D 5e, the lawsuits, etc. with receipts. It, unsurprisingly, features a lot of the same characters...

As before, this comes with a big "if"--that is, if you care. To be sure I wasn't typing a research-heavy story into the empty ether, last time I asked folks who were genuinely interested to leave a comment. I'm going to ask a little more this time, as this story is going to require more work from me.

If you want the story here's what you should do: one time, using a persistent identity online, fact-check some element of a hatemob conspiracy theory. Find a place where their spreading misinformation, correct it, be complete, follow up in 48 hours or more. As always, never harass, personally attack, threaten or namecall anyone. The point is to check the spread of misinformation. If you're confused, ask a question.

When you've done that, email me: zakzsmith AT hawtmayle dawt calm and show me a link or screenchot showing you did it.

As before, if I get 100 responses, that's enough to convince me people actually care about this stuff, and I'll start putting out the piece.

Naturally, this could take a while or might not even happen--in which case, that's fine. No point in going to all the effort if it's not reaching people who want things to be better.


Monday, May 17, 2021

What Really Happened to Vampire 5e, Chapter 6: You're Eating Maggots, Michael

Chapter One  - Chapter Two - Chapter Three -

 Chapter 3.5 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6

"Shut Up And Take The Pain"

So we talked about the hatemob calling trans creators' work transphobic, and calling Jews Nazis, and siccing dictators on game designers but this chapter contains the worst part. I'm tempted to skip straight to it, but first I want to spend some time with the other people who worked on the game.

So you know what I think and you saw some of what Kenneth Hite had to deal with because of Evil Hat hatemobbing on Vampire--but what about everybody else? While it started with me, Ken and The Art Director, by the end I'd been gone for over a year and there was a whole team of socialist Swedes and other RPG creatives working on the new edition.

Privately they all said a lot about being angry at the mob, but people also talked about depression, mental breakdowns, and destroyed careers. I'm going to stick to quoting the less personal stuff, so none of them get in trouble.

This is during the second wave, when Dog With Dice wrote the Jews-Are-Nazis article:

Someone else, much later, after the damage had been done...

Last month, yet another creator on the project reached out right after I announced I'd do this series...

This is consistent: people are scared to talk, fleeing the industry or to the edges of it, Olivia, Ettin and the rest are "malignant, bottom-feeding-trolls" and the "Pile-On-Club".

Pretty much no-one who ever worked on or even liked any version of Vampire got what they wanted.

The Worst Part

In a world that made any sense, what happened to Vampire should have been a Pizzagate-style cautionary tale about the danger of believing conspiracy theories. And it should've been that immediately. Because--as-noted way at the beginning--sales were ok and more people signed a petition supporting the game than spread the conspiracy theories.

While a diplomatically-worded petition leaving the names of all the bad actors out couldn't save Vampire, the sentiment that spawned it should have at least been enough to prevent the situation generally in RPGs getting worse later--everyone looks at the steaming crater full of troll-takes where once there was a city and goes "Oh wow, what a mess, let's all agree not to do that again"--but it wasn't. By way of explanation, I'm going to zoom in on one example:

Meet Chris Handley, Chris has had a World of Darkness podcast for over ten years, Chris has written World of Darkness stuff for Storytellers Vault, and Chris was also someone who read this blog and liked my work. Years ago he said he wanted to be my friend on social media, so I added him.

One day, before all this, Chris and another WoD fan were talking in a thread casually about having a beer with Olivia Hill. I did literally the only thing any responsible adult seeing this could've done: I warned them and anyone reading the thread that Olivia Hill was a certifiable harasser and to watch the fuck out. Like: where Olivia lived, you could legitimately be arrested for doing the shit Olivia did to her colleagues. I didn't call Chris or Chris' friend names, I didn't act like they should've known already, I didn't say a word in anger. I just told them what I knew because obviously it's not ok to normalize the presence of someone known to be that dishonest and dangerous.

At the time, Handley thought this was just gosh darn rude and so...joined the hatemob. So far, so normal: you tell someone their trollfriend is a troll, they disagree and start smearing you, too. That's a normal day on the internet, but what happened next is what makes this a story:

So years later, after all the things I discuss in this series happened to Chris' beloved Vampire, Chris--being a relatively typical World of Darkness fan--is up in arms, Chris is completely pissed, Chris signs the petition supporting White Wolf, Chris has a phone conversation with the White Wolf guys in May 2017, Chris writes me to say...

  • He now recognizes Olivia Hill's role in all of this and says she and her usual suspect pal Holden Shearer had acted in "God awful ways".
  • He treats Olivia and her circle with "a fairly large barge pole" due to their "pearl-clutching" and says Olivia's "gone off the deep end".
  • He says all of Olivia's accusations against me were "bullshit".
  • He believes Olivia screwed over backers on a Fate-system Kickstarter and used the money to move to Japan. 
  • He says he was on my side me about Olivia's wife attacking us over the Maxim article, Chris calls it "misplaced outrage".
  • He also throws in, for good measure, Olivia and co were also unnecessarily pearl-clutching about Kingdom Death.
  • He likes and buys my work.

And you would now expect this series of emails to end with "Thank you so much for trying to warn us--years before this happened to Vampire--about Olivia Hill because nobody else did. I am so sorry I didn't listen and I'm sorry I gave you any shit about it."

But it doesn't. Chris was actually writing to say he was still mad that I warned him and his friend about Olivia Hill. Here they were trying to talk about drinking beer with the delightful proven hatefactory Olivia Hill and here I had to go and say something unpleasant.

Remember the snakes have legs video?

This is how it ends:

The snake (who, being a snake, clearly has no legs) tells the guy to stop telling people that snakes have legs, so the guy unfriends him. The snake.

The reason nobody took what happened to Vampire to heart in later years is that instead of doing anything about the harassers, people attacked anyone trying to warn them.

And it's somehow worse if you have receipts? In the middle of this, Patrick Stuart, my co-author on Maze of the Blue Medusa, had a mental breakdown and joined the hatemob. He wrote in his hatepost that while, yes, while Olivia Hill had done fucked up things, the fact I had pointed it out and collected evidence to prove what Hill was doing, in the form of her dozens of public posts, was insane and "creepy".

I want to write the next sentence nine-hundred times in letters of fire 300 feet high:

I don't know what kind of world anyone lives in where a creator can just make up a lie that a colleague threatened their children and that's not a Jesus shit, full-court press, all-hands on-deck, holy-fuck, mother-of-all-that-is-holy-and-unholy 100% epic emergency where that creator is recognized as a massive threat to anything they touch that you need to do something about asap. Chris knew Olivia was lying, Patrick knew Olivia was lying. And somehow their reaction was Zak, why are you telling people?

Let's leave out all the things I've reported and only talk about complaints other people have about her: Olivia's been thrown off twitter for harassment, Kickstarter backers on several projects have said Olivia ripped them off, she was thrown off RPGnet for doxxing, behind-the-scenes every full-time developer I've met calls her a piece of shit, Shoe Skogen says she sexually harassed her, and her girlfriend/employee Francita said she was an abuser. What does Olivia Hill have to do for it to be ok to call her out? Dynamite the Eiffel Tower? Hijack a schoolbus and eat the kids? Shoot your mom down in a public street and drop her corpse in lime? 


And then on top of that: all the other stuff Olivia did. And then all the stuff Ettin did. And all the people from all the other forums and game companies. The most sympathetic and well-informed people decided it was not only better for them to do nothing, but that it was also bad to do something.

Since then:

Paradox basically closed White Wolf down.

Robin Laws, probably the most respected voice in the game industry, has kept right on podcasting regularly with his friend Kenneth Hite--and still has publicly said nothing.

The Vampire team, despite being privately pissed-off and supportive of each other, has said nothing. 

Olivia Hill smeared more people and grew her Twitter following to over 10k until her girlfriend called her out for abuse, at which point a few RPG people complained and then, well, nothing. She's suffered no consequences. She also said her "views have changed" since she first began her harassment campign.

Ettin kept on and smeared more people until I sued him.

Rob Donoghue at Evil Hat has seen zero consequences.

Crystal Frasier has seen less than zero consquences. WOTC hired her on the new Ravenloft.

And pretty much everyone else has either kept quiet, joined the hatemob or themselves been cancelled. A few have freaked out at their own behavior and left the game scene.

Literally no-one now publicly defends any of the accusations made against the game in any detail. 

The end.

I designed this and wish I hadn't


You might have heard I was involved in a secret email conspiracy with Mike Mearls, longtime creative head of Dungeons & Dragons. You might've heard I sued him. You might've heard a lot of not-terribly-informed things spread by a lot of people already featured in the story you just read.

Next up, if anyone reading genuinely cares, I will tell the whole story, soup-to-nuts, with receipts, about what happened with Mike Mearls. I'll get you the details tomorrow (EDIT: Within the week. I'm travelling.).

Chapter One
  - Chapter Two - 
Chapter Three -

 Chapter 3.5 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6

*Ooh, edit: Earlier I wrote she got permanently banned and made a new account, but I just realized (9:43pm Pacific 18 May) it's possible that Olivia changed her @ name on twitter to the new one, then some troll took her old @ name and got themself banned, thus resulting in her old twitter name having a ban notice due to no fault of her own. I have no way of knowing which, so I am defaulting to caution. She may be simply a lying abuser and not a lying abuser who has been permabanned from twitter.

Friday, May 14, 2021

What Really Happened to Vampire 5e, Chapter 5: Snakes Have Legs

 Chapter One  - Chapter Two - Chapter Three -

 Chapter 3.5 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6

Snakes Have Legs

Maybe you've seen this video. If you haven't and can't be bothered to click "play": A snake confronts a guy who is telling people snakes have legs. The snake doesn't have legs.  The snake asks about the source:

For "Daily Testicle" read "Ettin", moderator on RPGnet and Something Awful /tg.


It's 2018 and Vampire: The Masquerade, 5th edition--produced by White Wolf games, a division of Swedish video game company Paradox Interactive--is trucking on after weathering a variety of internet hoaxes, including:

Surely. SURELY. The RPG community will not fall for a third conspiracy theory from exactly the same guys who spread these? And, surely, surely, it wouldn't be a conspiracy theory about the same target? And surely, surely surely, if it did, then after what happened to Rob Donoghue at Evil Hat, at least no reputable company would join in? 

Here we go.

So, again, I'm long gone by this point--I didn't write a word of the new Vampire tabletop game.

On November 8th, just a few months after "Jews are Nazis..." some snakes-have-legs-thinking-idiots retweeted yet another Ettin hate-take three-hundred and eighty-nine-times.

Let's unpack:

  • In the Camarilla book, the Vampire team (still operating on the policy: real real real, personal political horror) created this piece of in-game lore that Chechnya's state-sponsored murders of LGBT+ people were actually disguised anti-vampire pogroms.
  • Realistically, really, honestly, in good faith, the actual effect of this on most readers was either they barely noticed it and just kept reading because it's exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to read in a book trying to be now now now real real real personal political scab-picking horror or "Oh, there are anti-LGBT+ pogroms in Chechnya? Wow that's a bad thing, I am glad to learn about this real-life issue in a made-up game about vampires".
  • Let's say you thought differently. Would the best way to address that be maybe approach the designers or...a viral harassment campaign?
  • On November 8th, 2018, Paul Matijevic aka Ettin (who is not L or G or B or T or +, so far as anyone knows) dug the paragraph up and launched the idea this Chechnya reference was Social Justice Bad. (Receipts for this whole chain of events.) This was at least the third time he and his goons had aggressively mined the game looking for something to have a bad-faith take on since it was announced.
  • All the usual suspects bought it, hook, line and sinker.
  • His take went viral.
  • It went so viral someone from the actual Chechnyan government found out about it.
  • The Chechnyan government began to put real dictatorship-scale pressure on White Wolf, claiming this White Wolf book was slanderous.
  • Before the month was over White Wolf had to apologize to fucking Chechnya.
Now, there might actually be LGBT+ people of good faith who read the content as disrespectful or, more likely,  just failing to read the room, but, broadly:

Nobody could explain any way the paragraph itself could cause harm--nobody was seriously claiming that people playing would be fooled into thinking vampires were real and homophobes weren't. 

And: If you write a made-up vampire story based on the genuinely monstrous truth about a dictatorship being genuinely monstrous to marginalized people and then it makes that dictatorship mad, that would usually be taken by most people as a sign you're on the good guy team and, if anything, perhaps a tad too zealously so.

Ettin somehow avoided the obvious conclusion he'd just helped a homophobic dictator retaliate against the game pointing out what his regime did:

Once again, a guy who:

  • a Something Awful goon...
  • ...admits repeatedly to being a troll...
  • described by everyone who knows him in the industry as "a troll"...
  • ...lies so often he got quite successfully sued over it...
  • ...literally no-one has ever said isn't a troll...
  • a white straight cis dude...
  • caught twice already doing the same thing to the same victims...

...was believed and shared and treated like something other than The Daily Testicle. This guy:

And, again, exactly like the incident five months before, actual adults with jobs in the mainstream RPG industry inexplicably helped him. 

Cam Banks, formerly of Atlas Games and Margaret Weis productions, author of Marvel Heroic RPG, chipped in the day after Ettin started the ball rolling:

EDIT: Cam Banks has now been successfully sued for lying about the same shit Ettin lied about.

As did Crystal Frasier, of indie RPG giants Green Ronin and Paizo, the company that makes Pathfinder (and now freelancing for WOTC):
As pointed out last chapter with Rob Donoghue, these are people who could have easily dealt with any perceived problems with their colleagues' work in a non-viral-hate way.

Cam Banks and Kenneth Hite--head writer on Vampire--know each other. I don't know if Frasier and Hite do, but Hite was on good terms with Crystal Frasier's direct superior at Green Ronin, Nicole Lindroos. There is absolutely no reason either of them had to follow Ettin's lemming-pile.

This was more Thanksgiving Uncling in action--full-time creators with reputations and prestige in the industry stabbing colleagues in the back by supporting bad-faith troll takes.

"Moral Masturbation at Somebody Else's Expense"

So that's how, but doesn't cover the why. Part of it is, as-discussed earlier, the hatemob had been obsessively looking for imaginary flaws in this game ever since White Wolf put out a video game with my name on it.

But as for why they're a hatemob in the first place, Crystal Frasier herself helpfully explained in a thread just this year:

The weirdest part of this is the end, where she goes "We've all fallen into this trap". No, Crystal, it's just you and your friends who do that. Most people don't actually serially join viral hate campaigns around fake issues because they trusted the same lying dudes over and over. Like it's pretty common to understand that "When your moralizing doesn't fix anything or protect anyone, it's just moral masturbation at someone else's expense". That's a really normal thing to know.

Unsurprisingly, despite having just enough self-awareness to write that thread, Crystal hasn't apologized to anyone involved, neither did Cam, neither did Ettin, neither did any of the hundreds of gamers who fell for it. They didn't even unfollow Ettin.

And what about when moralizing goes beyond "not fixing anything or helping anyone"? When it ratchets up to full-on hurting people?

Find out next time in What Really Happened to Vampire 5e, Chapter 6: You're Eating Maggots, Michael.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

What Really Happened to Vampire 5e, Chapter 4: Thanksgiving Uncles (or: Evil Hat gets involved)

Chapter One  - Chapter Two - Chapter Three -

 Chapter 3.5 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6

Thanksgiving Uncles

So in the US, every Thanksgiving on Twitter, we're all reminded that when we go, on our holiday, to our turkey table, we must confront our racist uncle. We are encouraged to squint over the peas from the far end of the table, and call out his Trumpy, overtanned ass.

You've heard this one?

In the story, it's not the whole family who is racist--it's just this one uncle. But the rest of the family doesn't bring it up. The idea is: we all have convictions and know the right thing to do, but acting on it is a whole other thing.

Seldom discussed is why the job of calling out the Uncle falls only to the activist or the terrible teenager: it's because there are other motivations in the world besides doing the right thing--other loyalties.

Your progressive mom does not call out the racist uncle because he saved her from drowning in that lake when she was 12 and he was 14.

Your liberal dad does not call out the racist uncle because he owns a three-quarter share in their grocery store.

Your aunt does not call out the racist uncle because she hates arguments.

Your cousins don't call out the uncle because they're angling for the inheritance.


In the RPG community, Thanksgiving is GenCon, and the most consistent core of the family are those designers and publishers who've been coming back year after year after year for decades. They know central Indianapolis' bars and steak houses, they know whose table is usually where on the floor, they have lost dice beneath hotel couches in every state of the union. They are familiar names, people like Mike Mearls, Monte Cook and his handful of designers at MCG, Chris Pramas and Nicole Lindroos and Steve Kenson at Green Ronin, Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue at Evil Hat, Robin Laws and his Pelgrane folks, and Kenneth Hite--who wins an Ennie every year for best podcast (at minimum) along with Laws and is seen posing centerfold-style above with several other family members at the Ennies in the picture above--there are a few others.

Unlike many younger designers, these people are definitely not going anywhere. They made some choices a long time ago: they are sticking with this career forever.

They have a family-like relationship, and "family" does not mean "They all like each other" family means "Every one of them has a little bit of a relationship to every other one of them whether they want to or not." Family means: they're in a boat, the kind that can be rocked.

The major Thanksgiving Uncles here are Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks at Evil Hat. The folks discussed in previous chapters--Olivia Hill, the Something Awful /tg goons and the RPGnetters who copy them--are their Donald Trump. They may not agree with everything Mr Trump does, but they donate to the cause and support him when it counts.

Most of these other designers and publishers, for the most part, want nothing to do with bottom-scraping trolls--often for the very selfish reason that they themselves have been targeted by RPGnet and company's omnidirectional rage at anyone with enough name recognition to score lolpoints off of.

But Evil Hat keeps inviting them over. 

Anyone with a hate take (other than "Why does Evil Hat pay such low rates? And where are the people of color in your organization?") they invite them in. Evil Hat literally recruited off of Something Awful. Like someone who worked at Evil Hat literally waded on the /tg forum and said that if anyone wanted to get started in the RPGs they should totally contact them.

Rob Donoghue, the more-talkative face of Evil Hat, deals with questions about why Evil Hat does this exactly how a racist uncle responds to you asking about that whole Build A Wall thing. "Well, you know, it's to get a reaction, I just think..." Any words he can hang on to in order to maintain a facade of respectful distance from the hate he's signed on to.

So...the family doesn't talk about it. They read threads, they know gossip, they have people they don't respect, but they still have to drink together, eat together, be on panels together, have turkey together, get medals together.  It's undiscussed.

The Dog and the Dice

So, if you remember back to Chapter Three, Olivia Hill, the hatemob had heard I was working at White Wolf on account of the Vampire video game I'd done with Sarah Horrocks. I'd been thrown off Vampire's 5th edition, but they had no idea--three more chapters to go and nothing in the story from here forward is about me--but they don't know that., which meant in their mind the game was still Tainted By Zakness.

This meant that when Vampire 5e was announced, the hatemob spent the next year raking over press releases, interviews, beta rules, and any other shred of Vampire news looking for excuses to attack it.

Remember: I was long gone. I didn't write a word of the new tabletop game.

People who still hung out on RPGnet--many of whom had no idea I'd ever been involved (or even who I was) followed the loudest and squeakiest wheels--Olivia Hill, Paul "Ettin" Matijevic, etc.--who had an axe to grind. Vampire 5e had to be problematic. Somehow. They were like those Japanese soldiers on the island of Lubang who kept fighting because they didn't know the war was over--except they were on the winning side.

Nobody can manage to just say "This made me uncomfortable because of my issues, I guess I need a content warning". The tone would soon collapse into total underwear-on-headery but in the beginning it was like a spaghetti-o-stained YouTuber explaining how Actually, 2001 is a bad movie because it lacks a basic grasp of...

There was baby-eating (like in Dracula by that total edgelord Bram Stoker), there was a smattering of Old School Renaissance-style mechanics, but the thing that finally got them pulling off their pants to drape them over their faces was that someone found a paragraph where the writer was trying to describe how a loss of humanity would trigger the angry-type vampire characters to get mad and they used the word..."trigger".

Rather than thinking this was maybe Ken or one of a handful of other middle-aged game designers using a word that meant less to them than it did to the Extremely Online, Ettin and company decided that White Wolf was deliberately attempting to mock the mentally ill

There are hundreds of simple examples of this kind of motivated reasoning around Vampire. Martin Ericsson, one of the Important Swedes at White Wolf, is a big nerd, of course,  so he calls himself "Martin Elricson" like, y'know, Elric. And he signs his emails "Blood and souls" like, y'know, in the extremely well-known-especially-in-RPG-circles fantasy classic Elric series. And Something Awful goons were like "Blood and souls? That sounds like Blood and Soil! Nazis! Nazis!" It's not like they google him. And when he explained it, it's not like they apologized or did any introspection.

It got worse when White Wolf put out something which had, among other things, a picture of some dice. The dice had a 1 a 4 and an 8 and another 8. Most people were like ok, sure those are dice, and turned the page--but the mob decided THATS A NAZI DOGWHISTLE!!!! In responce to said whistle, a dog duly appeared.

Specifically, this invited a long post by a teenage-vampire-erotica-writing furry known only (then) as "Dog With Dice". Dog With Dice had an elaborate multipage conspiracy theory that Vampire 5e was designed by and aimed at Nazis. Dog With Dice is not famous or influential and the post was riddled with mistakes that were (altogether now) easy to check. But that never stopped the Something Awful goons.

The post went so viral White Wolf actually had to do a press release and an official video to address fan uproar. Most fans didn't care--if the chat during the video was anything to go on--but as discussed in Chapter One, normal fans who just want a game don't do things.

None of it was in good faith. Anyone in-the-know enough to care what the acronym "VTM5e" even meant knew enough to be able to figure out this made no sense. Yet somehow not one of them remembered to mention: I'm fucking Jewish. 

Now, at first this all may sound like a repeat of last chapter, because mostly it is. Goons lying and doing bad faith readings again.

But this wave of harassment was different because an actual almost-full-time game guy, a family member--Rob Donoghue, co-founder of indie-mainstay Evil Hat--retweeted it--and then said it was "damning". 

Again: Evil Hat, who makes the Fate RPG and Thirsty Sword Lesbians and puts out Blades in the Dark. One of the biggest names in indie tabletop RPGs.

It's one thing for the racist uncle to like Donald Trump. It's another thing for him to point his fork across the cranberry sauce and tell your boyfriend to go back to Mexico.

Food Fight

This may be a subtle point but this is where the story goes from being "yeah the internet is trash" to "the entire RPG scene is trash".

Up until now this has been a story about people who could fairly be called "trolls"--commenters whose main place in the RPG constellation will be as, at most, people who complained about something.  The entry of Rob Donoghue onto the stage signals the entry into the Vampire hatemob of RPG people who have had a sizable impact on the current game scene via things they actually created.

It also signals the entry of someone who not only had privilege and structural power but had every human reason to know better. Rob may have not liked me, since I was constantly pointing out how his company promoted conspiracy theories and paid starvation wages, but he knew Kenneth Hite. Like as a face every year at the Thanksgiving table and a guy to talk to.

So, of course, I wrote a post about it:
This was Evil Hat's first public response, from Rob's co-founder, Fred Hicks:
This means Fred read my blog, which is something his people call "stalking"

Down in the little "likes" bar for this piece of hatespeech you can see who endorsed it, including perennial Evil Hat mainstay Sophie Lagace (first avatar), Cam Banks, author of Marvel Heroic RPG and formerly of Atlas Games and Margaret Weis Productions (6th avatar down), and Lowell Francis of storygames/OSR crossover podcast/discussions site/general indie RPG enterprise The Gauntlet. These aren't anonymous names hiding behind anime avatars, they're game industry people with resumes.

That's a lot of Uncles who have a problem with a Jew asking not to be called a Nazi.

Here are some bits from the texts I had back and forth with Kenneth Hite at that time. I haven't included his end because this was private, but including my end should be enough to show the tenor of the conversation...

After three days, Ken did eventually manage to get Rob to apologize. I don't know if it was with Robin Laws' help or not:

My "handling" of it. Where I typed on my blog that you shouldn't call your friend Ken a Nazi when you know he isn't. When I said maybe linking your colleague to the promotion of worldwide genocide isn't a great example of adult conflict resolution. What a horrible and unnecessary burr I am beneath the great and shiny saddles of mighty captains of indiegaming.

Anyway so this was a crowning moment of shame, right? The indie RPG scene's most aggressively compromised Uncles are called out at the table for their longstanding habit of retweeting frantic troll backwash and privileging their connection to the darkest depths of the RPG scene over the lives and careers of peers they know and claim to respect, right? Obviously putting Ken Hite in a position where you Google him and get "Nazi" was clownshoes stupidity right?

Surely at that point Evil Hat heads Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks stop following Ettin and other folks from his scene on Twitter, and Ettin then goes on and apologizes, then all the other Something Awful goons too, then their RPGnet clones do, too, and Olivia Hill apologizes for escalating things to this point, and surely someone actually realizes I don't work at White Wolf (maybe by asking them?) and tells everyone to calm down, and everyone realizes Rob and Fred are, at best, really stupid and stops paying any attention to them and they begin boycotting Evil Hat and John Harper decides he doesn't want to be associated with them and leaves, and the entire scene has an agonizing reappraisal of why it's so vulnerable to viral conspiracy theories. Right?

Of course not, before the year was up they did it all over again, only more and sillier. But that's for Chapter Five: Snakes Have Legs.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

What Really Happened to Vampire 5e, Chapter 3.5: Interesting Feedback

 Chapter One  - Chapter Two - Chapter Three -

 Chapter 3.5 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6

So if you've been reading along, you know that most of the problems Vampire: The Masquerade 5e faced began with a small group of haters, most prominently former World of Darkness author Olvia Hill. She's responded to this unfinished series on her Twitter account, which, despite her being outed as an alleged abuser by her girlfriend, people still apparently follow:

Dear Olivia Hill,

I had no idea your all-caps views have changed. I'm glad to hear it.

I know the views you must be referring to because your anti-sex worker views were the only views I'm aware of you expressing 12 years ago.  Twelve years ago your wife Filamena Young and her friend Tracy Hurley smeared the women in my game group (receipts) saying that doing their job hurt women, then you and Filamena cooked up a fiction (receipts) that said the only reason I (privately) asked her to stop doing that to them was (bafflingly) to drive traffic to this RPG blog. I am so glad to hear your views have changed.

You never had anything else to say about me other than these views until 2014 or '15 when you decided to join in and encourage a harassment campaign, spearheaded by Hurley, due to my work as a consultant on D&D 5e, all due to anger at me protesting the attacks y'all made due to these now-abandoned views. After peppering me with dozens of smaller instances of harassment--due to the same views (which I hear have now changed) --you popped up again when Vampire: The Masquerade 5e was announced to protest my involvement.

In other words, you, your wife and your friend Tracy unleashed multiple harassment shitstorms online against me, my family, my friends, any game I worked on, any company I worked with, and any fanbase those games had, based on views you don't have anymore.

What's important now is what you do when you realize your views have changed. Rather than listen to me, I figured you'd more likely trust the authority of people who were your allies--who joined you in your internet smear campaigns. What do they say? What is the appropriate thing to do next?

They say this:

There appears to be a consensus.

So let's take a look at what you can do to apologize and make amends for the harm you've done.

First, you should publicly apologize to the women whose choices you attacked, (including several women of color--Michelle Ford, Frankie,  and Satine Phoenix). You should also privately apologize to them, so they know you did it--if you need contact info, please let me know. zakzsmith AT hawtmayle

Michelle, third from the left, has probably suffered the most from your harassment, for reasons I'm sure she'll explain when you get in touch with her. She's now withdrawn from public life and is just a waitress. Do try to be sensitive. Her email is missfiend AT gmail dawt calm.

Second, publicly apologize to Cosplay Deviants and all the women who worked in their booth over the years that you were attacking. The company itself probably wasn't harmed too much, but the women get harassed a lot by people who had the views you had before your views changed. They'll be easy to get in touch with since they all have Twitter.

Third, contact Tracy Hurley, aka Sarah Darkmagic. and tell her that you no longer hold the views that you once did when she joined you and Filamena in harassing us lo those 12 years ago and tell her that you have come around to the belief that it was wrong to insist on these harmful views. Naturally, you should also tell her she should also apologize, since she did the same thing you did and backed you up. Which you now realize was wrong.

Fourth, you'd want to tell Tracy that because you've changed your views about the validity of your 2011 attack, that my subsequent response--to call you out and say you should stop saying these bigoted things--was wholly valid and not any form of harassment. And that, therefore when I was announced as a consultant on D&D, it was a bad idea for you both (and Filamena) to claim I was a harasser.

Fifth, you'd want to contact Mike Mearls and everyone at D&D and say, retroactively, that the claims you made at that time about my response to your now changed views, were wrong and in actuality I had a good and valid response.

Sixth, you'd want to contact the literal thousands of people on RPGnet, Tumblr, and Twitter who joined in that harassment campaign, citing your claims and Tracy's claims as if they meant something and tell them, retroactively, that they shouldn't have done that and a major part of that is your fault for lying.

Seventh, you'll want to contact all of them again (it'll be easy, you follow a lot of them on Twitter) and say that the conspiracy theory you passed around...

(...the theory that D&D head Mike Mearls, by accident or design, secretly gave your name and Tracy's to me in 2015 as people who had made complaints about me) and tell them that makes no sense because not only were your 2015 complaints about me totally public, but I knew you'd been repeatedly harassing me since 2011. So what was there to pass on here? "Olivia Hill hates you!" No shit.

Eighth, you'll want to contact every single person who shared this conspiracy theory on reddit, on Twitter with the hashtag #FireMikeMearls, on RPGnet and on their blogs and tell them that you, yourself, personally know this conspiracy theory makes no sense since you and Tracy had been attacking me openly since 2011. An that you regret those attacks as your views have changed.

Ninth, you'll want to contact Mike Mearls and his wife, again, to apologize for your role in promoting the conspiracy theory that caused his duties at his job to be drastically curtailed and for the company to forbid him to make any public statements.

Tenth, you'll want to contact some people who might not be in your circles. The guys Old School Renaissance gamers call the "Troika Trolls", Skerples (an OSR dude from 4chan) and a few Something Awful goons who hang out on the OSR Discord--Erika Muse / IceQueenErika and Nickoten--and tell them that this conspiracy theory is not true and all of them should stop spreading it.

Eleventh, you'll want to--now that your views have changed--reconsider inventing the lie about me threatening your kids or that I somehow encouraged it rather than, y'know, doing the complete opposite of that:

Now that your views have changed maybe these lies aren't necessary?

Twelfth, you might want to revisit the idea that it was necessary to accuse me of being social justice bad in ways you know and have admitted I'm not, since you now acknowledge your reason for starting this hate campaign was a set of views which you subsequently have changed.

Thirteenth, you might want to contact everyone on the Onyx Path forums and tell them you lied about me threatening your kids because of a hate-on because of views you now have changed.

Fourteenth, you might want to contact every single freelancer who worked on Vampire 5e for White Wolf, art director, writers and artists, production staff in Finland, the US, Sweden, and elsewhere and apologize to them for ginning up a hate campaign against their game based on views you now feel have changed. You might want to give them all the money you have, since they lost so much work due to you, both due to Vampire being cut short and due to that line on their resume being permanently tainted by your hate campaign.

Fifteenth, you should contact all the Vampire fans who had hoped that Vampire would be a full-court-press product and be worked on and supported by the best Paradox could muster and not rolled out on a bed of broken bones due to a smear campaign lead by you, an ex-World of Darkness freelancer who hated someone involved in it because of views you admit you've now changed.

Sixteenth, you might reconsider the whole "Zak harassed me for not liking Star Wars" lie you told since the reason you decided to lie in the first place was due to views you've changed.

Seventeenth, you might want to contact my former co-author on Maze of the Blue Medusa, Patrick Stuart, and tell him that his estimation that I was out of line for calling you out was wrong, because you should have been called out because the views that you expressed were wrong and gross which is why they now have changed.

Eighteenth, you might want to apologize to the RPG community broadly for generally promoting the idea I'm a harasser or abuser and then lying about doing it since you started doing that because I asked your wife not to harass and abuse me in defense of views you now know are wrong.

Nineteenth, maybe apologize to James Edward Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess for lying about him being pro-Nazi because you were so mad that he published me (a Jew) since your anger derives from being called out--correctly--for views you claim to have changed.

Twentieth, likewise you might want to apologize to Jews in general for promoting the antisemitic conspiracy theory that I'm not actually a painter and so have some secret rich Jew kid trust fund since you probably only decided to endorse it based on views you say you've changed.

Twenty-First, you might want to apologize to Zoe Quinn for lying to her and claiming I'd done something wrong in calling you out for the views you've changed and thus drawing Zoe into your harassment campaigns.
If being angry that porn stars do their job isn't being a prude literally what is?

Twenty-Second, you might want to re-think categorizing me reading your public posts as "stalking" since not only have your views allegedly changed, but you had to read my public posts to make any of the public claims you've ever made against me. Since I've, like, never spoken to you.

Twenty-Third, you should apologize to the entire RPG community for promoting people who agreed with you and helped you in these endeavors. Since they were based on views you've since changed you now know that all of these companies and designers--from Green Ronin to Evil Hat to RPGnet to Something Awful to Onyx Path, to a wide variety of story-gamers, including all the biggest names --took part in a massive decade-plus smear you started based on views you've since changed.

Twenty-Fourth, you should public apologize to your ex-girlfriend for abusing her, or, if you're saying your views have changed and not all accusations of abuse are always true: apologize to all the people you've dogpiled over the years in similar situations.

Twenty-Fifth, since your views have changed about the thing that made you decide to lie about me in the first place, you should apologize to me personally for claiming I was generally so dishonest and awful that any new attack on me, unrelated to you,  just had to be spread, believed, and acted on.

You want me to move on? I'll move on when you do your part to untwist the social, moral and political pretzel the tiny little indie RPG community has had to twist itself into over the years because your friends and your friends' friends and the people they hired and the people they LARPed with and the people they had moderating their forums and drawing their book covers and manning their convention tables all had to think up reasons it was somehow "trolling"or "harassing" or "abusive" to occasionally ask you to please stop lying in support of your evil, shitty, bigoted, thoughtless, fearmongering, ignorant, half-baked, compassionless, puritanical, vintage-Reagan-Era pearl-clutching right-wing SWERF bullshit.

Let me know when you'd like to get started.


For everybody else following on the story of what happened to Vampire--Chapter Four tomorrow. No Olivia in that chapter, just her friends.
So apologize.