Archive for August, 2014

Factual errors and rhetorical traps in Failforward’s post about DnD 5’s consultants

August 1, 2014 13 comments

Third edit, February 2020, a year farther on still: turbulent waters have settled a bit, and revealed the wreckage underneath more clearly. And, at least in the places I occupy these days, the public consensus has come down firmly against Zak. And it looks, from the evidence available, like the public consensus is right – anyone who’s watched Zak online knows how abusive he can be in text. Mandy’s and Vivka’s accusations look credible (while remaining just accusations – I guess the much-bruited court case will decide, whenever it happens) and, by extension, some of the evidence cited by Failforward looks more credible than it did in 2014.

So. Some of the facts – or assertion of lack of facts – in my post turn out to have probably been wrong, based on bad information available at the time. I’m still keeping the whole post up, because I think it would be dishonest to take it down. Where I have become aware of some new/contradictory information, I have commented it into the text of my original post, preceded by the sign >>  , so you can identify what’s changed. 

What follows is in reverse-chronological order. the oldest stuff is at the bottom, like archaeology.


Second edit, 5 years later: On February 10th and 12th, 2019, Mandy Morbid and Vivka Grey posted personal accusations against Zak to facebook and google+

Their posts contain graphic accounts of abuse and sexual assault. This is a content warning.

I have no reason to doubt either of them. I also have no special knowledge to add and can neither confirm nor deny their content. If they are true, they support a pattern of abusive behaviour, which the Failforward article wanted to address but could not prove. If they are true, then Zak’s behaviour toward these women is inexcusable. Right now a lot of people are feeling raw about the accusations, as they were in 2014, and a lot of stuff is getting lumped together (I think)  indiscriminately.

The more recent accusations are only glancingly relevant to the content of this blog post, though, which is about poorly supported accusations made by Failforward jointly against Zak and the OSR movement.

I’m keeping my original  post and copies of Mandy’s and Vivka’s accusations up here in the interest of maintaining a public record. I am willing to side with Mandy and Vivka against Zak, but I also stand by what I wrote in the post, as it pertains to faulty thinking regarding online communities and the tendency to see conspiracies where they may not exist. If I had seen these more recent accusations in 2014 I might not have written this – I might have tried to talk to Mandy and Vivka before responding. But that doesn’t make what Failforward wrote correct.

In case the links above die, here is the text of Mandy Morbid’s post:

Dear Zak Smith, aka Zak Sabbath

I know posting anything about you or this publicly will get me labeled “angry”, “crazy” or a “liar”. Despite that, I still need to speak. As a warning, there will be potentially triggering descriptions of abuse, violence and sexual assault to follow.

What I want to convey is my grief. And my shame. There is so much of it. I think when women come forward to talk about their abusers people strip them of their grief. And I am not okay. And I should be angry but I can’t be because the shame is too great. Because the abuse had me taking responsibility for everything and it’s very difficult to stop that after all these years. Everything was always my fault, the problem was me–but it wasn’t.

Eleven years is a long time. I was twenty one when we met in person the first time, and a month later, 22 when I moved in with you. It’s difficult to organize my thoughts about everything that happened, everything that went wrong over a decade.The abuse came in cycles where there were times you seemed to idolize me (in hindsight there was a twisted, sexist, infantilizing angle to the “idolizing” because it was always about my body and not me as a person). There were other times when you tore me down, made lectures that went in circles of manipulation, or fits of rage where you’d scream that I was useless and worthless and slam doors or throw things at the walls. You tore me down to manipulate me, and to get your way.

As time went on you learned you could threaten me in various ways. Killing me if I ever got pregnant and didn’t have an abortion started as a joke but you repeated it so frequently it was clearly a warning. Kick me out if I didn’t want to have as much sex, or lesser reasons.

When we would go out, you would rate the women you were watching, making sure I could hear it. You would see a woman and comment that she was attractive, until you saw she had “small” breasts. Then you would say to me “why do they even make them like that? What’s the point?” As though I automatically would agree with you about a woman’s worth being dictated by the size of her breasts. And how was that supposed to make me feel about myself? You would know that I would not want to start an argument on a nice evening out–finally I was feeling well enough to be out with you and I would ruin it? No. Even in the face of rude or disgusting comments about other women I would stay silent.

I am ashamed. I was often silent because I wanted to keep the peace. To keep you happy. You see, I did know how to make you happy. I am ashamed I did it because I rationalized that was love. You pressured me to find and groom other women sexually. As I grew sicker, and my physical limitations grew, you were more concerned with your own needs than my illness. Eventually, even, you took my doing this for you, and me, for granted.

I saw you mistreat women we were with together, and again I was silent. I choose you over them and I am deeply ashamed. And when it was me who was being mistreated I often didn’t even register it as such because the first time it happened was so traumatic. You told me I wasn’t allowed to stop or say no to sex or fooling around if we’d already initiated it.

I was young and this was during the first few weeks we lived together and no one had ever taught me about consent. You were extraordinarily angry I had stopped, your hands were clenched into fists and they were shaking. I was programmed to accept it, and you always just kept telling me you loved me even if your behaviour never really proved it.

Then you started with the online gaming arguments nonsense, and that put a real crack in our bond. In the beginning I felt genuinely protective of you, my provider, and of course that was my very strong trauma bond. I didn’t know better, and I just thought I was caring for the person I loved. Callously, you exposed me to death and rape threats and you then never took the distress this caused me seriously, you were in no way sympathetic to the very real stress these disagreements caused. You enjoyed it. And you gloated over the harm you caused other people. (It was extremely unattractive.) You just used those threats we received as an excuse, used me and my marginalized identities as shields in your continuing misbehaviour online.

That Tumblr post defending you was posted in my name, but you were the one who wrote it. The long one you always referred people to. I feel more shame that I let you use my name, my identity in that way. I feel shame that when people noticed it probably wasn’t written by me, we called them sexist. After that Tumblr post I told you I was done being involved in any of your arguments online. You really didn’t like that. You forever afterwards accused me of “never saying anything” when you were dealing with the shit you’d stirred up.

I am so ashamed you let me get dragged into your awful trolling behaviour. One time you had a screaming/throwing fit at me (“useless,” “worthless,” “no one cares about me”) because I didn’t want to retweet something to a big gaming company you were mad at. This was all abuse. That you continue to behave so badly online disgusts me, and I am ashamed that I helped you to hurt or damage others online. I am sorry that I have contributed to the abuse, and I am ashamed that your abuse pushed me to think that it was okay to do.

This behavior is what created the cracks in the narcissistic façade that you built up for me. Seeing the behavior that you normally directed towards me being directed towards others started to open my eyes towards what you were doing to me.

It was then that I slowly began to reassess how you treated me. This process started very slowly as I was extremely ill. And needed to focus on my health and I couldn’t shake my life up too dramatically.

Over the next two or three years my faith and trust in you completely failed. You let me down over and over. And I came to terms with the fact that I had been a trophy wife all along, an object that was owned, not a respected or loved partner. Towards the end you weren’t even trying to keep that mask you wore in the beginning on you were just straight up cruel and cold and abusive and there were no reprieves of loving or sweet acts, it was all gaslighting and narcissism gone unchecked. And there was a lot of my grief and shame at that time. Because I tried so hard to make it work anyway.

I thought if I loved harder, if I loved more I could save us but it was futile because you were already done with someone who wasn’t spending all their energy on living to please you as I’d formerly done.
I’ve grown up. I want to live my life for me. My values and morales don’t align with yours–I’m ashamed I was complicit in your misogyny and supportive of your online abuse (whatever my reasons).

I only began to register the pain and damage done to me by this relationship in the last year we were together and in the year and half since I’ve left. I have PTSD. I am doing my best to focus on healing, and since leaving both my mental and physical health have improved. I’m not okay yet, but I am improved. People can see the difference in photos. Rebuilding a life after a decade of trauma takes time but I will get there.

After this I am including statements about Zak from Jennifer, a long time friend and lover of Zak’s and mine and Hannah who was also involved with us and lived with us briefly. Jennifer was spending time with Zak before Zak and I met, and Hannah was assaulted by Zak.

CW description of sexual assualt
Jennifer’s post was originally posted to her facebook and she’s given me permission to reshare it here:

Hey guys, this is a heads up for anyone who is friends with Zak Smith or likes his page. This is somewhat out of the blue but he’s been posting more in the past year or so and I keep seeing some of you interact with him or just liking his posts, and thinking: You wouldn’t be doing that if you knew him better.

To get to the point: While he comes across as a fun person who is super cool with everything and leads such a compelling and interesting life, and I considered him a good friend for a significant amount of time, he’s also someone who has habitually abused and assaulted women. He talks negatively about them when they’re not around, and also says really degrading things to their faces. He will aggressively pursue sex and rely on the fact that most women are hesitant to reject a man in a quasi-sexual situation due to safety concerns and social conditioning. Especially when he has presented himself as caring and trustworthy. But I’ve also seen him physically take women and start fucking them, ignoring their lack of enthusiasm or freeze of shock. He will navigate kink spaces and take someone’s presence there, of general involvement in bdsm as implied consent to assualt them. And he is fully aware of what he does, he has described a sexual encounter to me as, I quote, “raping a 12-year-old”. The person in question was not underage, but so massively uncomfortable that this was his most apt description. It didn’t make him stop.

He’s really good at being so blasé about everthing that you doubt what happened or compartmentalize it, then move on. He’s also good at talking the talk and walking the walk of being the progressive liberal artist and author who is just so open about having done porn and living his sexuality uninhibited by social norms or whatever. He can be pretty manipulative and resorts to gaslighting.

This post might seem unnecessary at best, and like slander at worst. Especially considering I haven’t even personally seen him since god knows when. It’s based on my own experiences with him, some dating as far back as 2005, and the fact that almost every mutual female friend has similar experiences, up to this day. Ultimately I’ve seen him do so much fucked up shit that when I hear anything by another woman I immediately believe them without a shadow of a doubt. And yes, I’m ashamed I didn’t speak up sooner. Often things only start falling into place after time passes and you see things for what they are, and when they are confirmed by others who have had similar experiences. By the time I really fully grasped the magnitude, being vocal would have meant intruding on and hurting people who didn’t deserve it, with little discernable good to come out of it.

Basically if you know me and trust me, believe me and maybe reconsider your support of him and his art. Besides that I’m not asking you to do anything. And I don’t benefit from any sort of outcome in any way.

I’m posting this to a curated audience; if you see this I trust you to at least not create drama. If you don’t believe me, I guess just ignore this post? Although I’d prefer if you removed yourself from my list then too. I don’t want this to reach him because I don’t want to deal with the fallout. I want people to know this to make a better informed decision about who they associate with. The last I heard of him was a few months ago, after he saw that a friend had confided in me about him, and he slid into my inbox with some disingenious bullshit about how sad he was about that situation, trying to influence my opinion. I ignored it. If something like that happens again I will obviously know that someone on this list blabbed and will pretty much delete and block anyone it could have been. Please don’t make me deal with all that trouble. Thank you.
And here is Hannah’s account:

Back when I first knew them, I lauded Manda and Zak as a perfect couple. I would see them only once every few years, and when I was with them, they seemed happy. It wasn’t until I was with them for an extended period of time that I thought things seemed off. I used to take Zak’s general demeanor towards women as joking. Eg, “if I talk to my girlfriend and her friend about their feelings, will I get a threesome out of it?” But now I think that’s how Zak actually feels. At first when I kept hearing him say the phrase “chin up” to Manda, I thought he was just telling her to stay positive, but in actuality he didn’t like it when she had a tiny double chin when looking down. (Like all humans at that angle.) He also told her things like “You don’t need glasses, its more important for you to be pretty than it is to see” and “If you can’t even have sex, what good are you?” It was not a joke. For a long time I tried to see the good in him, and hoped that he would change his behaviours once Manda confronted him about them, but he didn’t seem to understand that he had done anything wrong. She told him she felt more like a doll than a human, outlined what things had upset her, and wanted to work towards a better relationship. He acted ignorant about things he had said or done, and then threatened people when anyone talked about him. (Which is why I was afraid to write this for a long time. I still am.) There was also a strange incident when we were first hanging out together during which he asked if I was into kinky stuff, to which I replied yes. He proceeded to slap me and choke me against a wall, in public. Now, in a bedroom setting, with clear boundaries and consent, it would have been fine, but out of the blue and in public, it was not okay at all. Years later, I mentioned this to a mutual friend as something that made my uncomfortable, and when Zak found out he made a half-hearted apology attempt. I don’t think he actually felt bad, I think he just didn’t want me to tell anyone else. I tried to stay friends with both of them for a little while, but after hearing more about what he said/did to Manda, I couldn’t keep him in my life anymore. She is one of my best friends and one of the sweetest people I know. I don’t understand people who say they “can’t take sides” on something like this.

Here is Vivka Grey’s post:

Im scared to write this. Im scared to put it to text and “verbalize” it in this way. Ive spent so many years dissociating and compartmentalizing what I went through. Its hard knowing others are going to read this.

I will try to be concise.

I lived with Zak Smith and his now ex-wife Mandy Morbid, and was their girlfriend. I think it was about 2010, as I had been living in California for only a short time. Before this, I was on their podcast “I Hit it with my Axe”. I was written about in Maxim about my D&D gaming with them. Zak has (or maybe had?) “Viv says hi” tattooed on his arm. Im that Viv.

Monsters are charismatic creatures.

Everything he said was always that perfect calculated cocktail mix of educated but blase. Everything always had underlining currents of dismissal and belittle, to where I just believed he did know best. If anything felt off or wrong, it was surely my fault. 

I was groomed, I was gaslighted.

I remember he told me he loved me, very quickly, and then demanded I say it back. He would take naked photos of Mandy and I and post them online, making comments about how I was their girlfriend and that I loved them and I was theirs. He knew I was in a rough financial situation, and he forced me to move in with him so he could “keep me close”. He made everything fast and public and in a way, I felt so cemented and stuck.

I remember he would compliment one part of me while carefully putting down another. He kept my confidence at the perfect level of apologetic.

I remember him hugging me from behind, kissing me on the cheek, and as he walked away he said “you could be so pretty”. 

For my birthday, he bought me my first breast implants. I wanted bigger breasts, so that was a positive… but the months of him telling me how “unfortunate” and “pointless” my natural body happened to be was not. I remember coming out of surgery, groggy from the anesthesia, and hearing him tell Mandy to lift up my shirt so he could “see what [he] bought”… and I remember him being disgusted and asking why they were still small (I went from a small B to a D). I remember crying then, thinking my body was ruined. I remember taking my first round of pain killers later that day and him pressuring me for a timeline of when he would get to fuck them.

I remember him using my past sexual experiences as gateways. They were pushed on me, and presented in a way that was “well, you did this with them, and so now you will do it with me.” Even if I didnt enjoy it the first time. 

I was pressured to have sex with other people of his choosing (he called it “sport-fucking”) but was never allowed to pursue anything with anyone I felt an interest in.

I remember all of his jokes about kicking Mandy or I out of the house if we didnt perform for him, or how we would be “useless” otherwise. I remember when they stopped feeling like jokes, even though he still would laugh when saying it.

I remember all the times, the many times, I said No, and I would be met with a deadpan stare and he would say “Yes”. I remember being expected to be at his beck and call for sex, at any time with any service. Mandy was his perfect porcelain doll, and I was his fun new toy. 

I remember sometimes the sex would hurt, and he’d tell me I just had to “loosen up” and shoving a pillow in my face to bite and cry into while he continued. 

I remember so many other things. Like how absolutely horrible and traumatic the break up was, and how it took over a month because of his need to control the situation… but that is another story and I feel the other details are more important.

I mostly remember my fear of saying anything afterwards. Everyone seemed to KNOW Zak was a jerk. People seemed to ignore when he was downright cruel. He’s charismatic and talented and influential. The few times I did bring up some of what I went through with him, it was usually met with a shrug and something along the lines of “yeah, that’s Zak”. 

This was one of the hardest things Ive ever written. Ive stared at this screen for hours. Ive cried twice. There are so many other things I could have said or elaborated on … but I dont have the strength. And Mandy said most of it already. 

So here is some of my story.

Im relieved people are finally talking about what type of man Zak Smith really is.

Again, I see no reason to doubt anything Mandy and/or Vivka say here.

And here’s my 2014 post on Failforward. beginning with an addendum:

EDIT, 1 week after initial post: Since I wrote this post, Seebs has written a really good intro to the ongoing controversy here and a thorough rebuttal of the Failforward piece here, giving a more detailed critique of deliberate dishonesty in the piece’s argument and language, which contains a bunch of good points I missed or glossed over. He’s also had Roland attempt to smear him because of his work in elucidating all this, and dissected the smear with characteristic grace and clarity. All Seebs’s linked discussions are well worth reading. In short, I agree with Seebs when he says that the accusations leveled against Zak remain badly-supported and that they look a lot like a malicious smear campaign. Roland has actually attempted some kind of argument in his counter-post but his “evidence” does not actually constitute evidence at all (and Seebs has already explained why in that last link above).

Executive summary: there is no evidence that supports the claims against Zak made in the Failforward piece. There is evidence of vicious arguing and name-calling both from Zak supporters and Zak detractors. The fight has really moved past the point recorded in this post – in particular I am now persuaded that there is deliberate dishonesty on the Zak-smearing side. Nonetheless I’m leaving the post up as originally written, as a record of the conversation at the time of writing.

—-original post below—-

There’s been a lot of chatter about a piece recently posted on Failforward, which accuses Zak Smith and RPG Pundit of various bad things, the worst of which is passing coded messages to their supporters inciting them to harass their detractors. Most of this chatter has either cheered on Failforward’s condemnation or has supported Zak and Pundit, on both sides based on their character, either from personal knowledge or from online interactions or revealed in the quality of their work.

This post is not about that. It’s about pointing out factual errors and unsupported assertions in Failforward’s piece, and analyzing what work the piece’s rhetoric is doing – what the message is and the effect that message can have.

The piece itself presupposes that the RPG community divides into two sides: those who support Zak and Pundit and those who condemn them. It pains me that I even have to say this, but I am not accepting that choice here. In the interest of full disclosure I should note that I have been reading Zak’s blog for a couple of years, I’ve played in his G+ game and I am currently in his G+ circles. That means I’ve seen what’s been going on around Zak. I know nothing whatever about Pundit so this post is going to deal principally with the accusations about Zak.

But all that doesn’t mean I’ve given up my critical faculties to some kind of tribal identity. If I’m “with” anyone, it’s Kiel Chenier and Tony Demetriou, who are trying to gather the evidence that’s missing from Failforward’s piece, to see if there is any substance to its accusations. So, if you have evidence, please post it on Tony’s G+ link above or in comments here and I’ll pass it on to them.

The reason I’m writing this at all is that I want to call out the piece as expressing a totalitarian mode of thought. The post forwards an us-and-them mentality, alleges the existence of a shadowy army of “harassers” and an opposing legion of unnamed victims, and tries to align the reader with the victim camp and to force their opinion against two named individuals. This is all painfully familiar to anyone who has studied the histories of totalitarian regimes: such regimes routinely hold up their public order by dividing and terrorizing their subjects by marginalizing and excluding a few “public enemies,” who are most usually accused of both thought crimes and endangering public safety. The fear of being found guilty by association with these public enemies is the disciplinary tool used to silence the population. I had previously thought that people with no direct power interest in totalitarian regimes would only buy into these modes of thinking out of desperate fear for their life and family. But apparently it can happen in online discussion forums about elf games, too.

First, let’s deal with demonstrable factual errors.

These are mostly trivial but they are used to bolster an assertion about the importance and “toxicity” of the accused. Quotes from Failfoward are in italics:

1. The piece describes the ‘Old School Rules’ movement as people who think everything since the earliest editions of D&D was unnecessary.
This ‘Old School Rules’ movement is subsequently referred to as the OSR. Here are some prominent OSR bloggers: Jeff Rients, Grognardia, Necropraxis, Hack & Slash.
As you can see, they write blogs, which often contain new and revised rules. So that’s factually disproved right there: they find other rules necessary enough to write them. It turns out that quite a lot of them find value in elements and rules from subsequent editions, too, as well as whole other games. Just type queries into OSRsearch and you’ll find stuff.

2. the OSR movement contains some very nasty people. Zak and Pundit are two of them.
So the important part here is vague (what does nasty mean? Doesn’t every movement contain nasty people?). But in Zak’s case, the statement is trivially untrue because nasty or not, he does not identify himself as OSR, but rather as “DIY DnD,” a kind of tendency that also contains people like False Machine and Scrap Princess and Last Gasp who have no special attachment to the earliest editions. Zak’s own game draws from every edition up to (at least) 3.x. So if you define OSR as earliest editions only (as Failforward does) then Zak is demonstrably not that. Further, he actively encourages people to play without worrying too much about the rules – in his own uniquely abrasive way.

So then (3) we get to the point of these two errors. They are necessary to painting Zak and Pundit as angry nerdboys who spent all their time trying to gatekeep the hobby. And in Zak’s case this is demonstrably untrue, in terms of rules, play style or personal comportment. See point 2.  More generally, see his blog. It is true that he has recently called people to shout down people who are spreading lies about him and who have already destroyed their own credibility by, for instance, equating silence with endorsement. I wish he hadn’t, and I’m not going to shout anyone down. But even that is not gatekeeping the hobby.

>> it looks like Zak actually did spend a lot of his time pursuing people he perceived as his enemies and disrupting their other communications. I guess this is gatekeeping. The fact that he wrote inconsistent things in separate places probably only surprised me.

Now, unsupported assertions. These require some corroborating evidence to be taken as true, but none is provided.
1. at the same time as D&D tries to appeal to those outside the gender binary, it has been driving them away by employing two of the most toxic personalities in tabletop gaming.
This requires citation of people outside the gender binary, driven away specifically by the employment of these two people. Perhaps I will get some such evidence in the comments, but remember, you have to have actually been driven away from D&D by Zak and Pundit on gender grounds in order to qualify.

>> the piece did not cite any people, but half a dozen have now contacted me. I am now in the position I suppose Failforward was in, of having evidence but not wanting to share it without the consent of those affected. I am still not convinced Failforward did the right thing in publishing accusations without being able to publish the evidence, but this seems to be the usual mode of engagement right now in social media. Perhaps they were just ahead of the curve.

2. people began to speak out. Most did so in private, others posted publicly but without naming names. This, I became aware, was because anyone who criticised the pair found themselves subjected to harassment, abuse and real world stalking.
This is the crux of the whole post. Apparently there’s a crowd of people speaking out against Zak but they’re doing it in secret for fear of reprisals. Quoting any of this speaking out would really help here. The author excuses his lack of evidence as necessary to protect his sources: The people named in this article have a history of harassing their critics. As such I have chosen to keep my sources and any traceable information they have given me anonymous to protect them – but there’s an obvious problem then of credibility.
People have found ways around this in the past. Whole Mafia trials have been achieved, using witnesses who faced actual murder if their identities were revealed. Even a couple of detailed stories with the names filed off, of people who actually had spoken out and been victimized, such that their stories provided the chilling effect that silenced others – these would be helpful. The post doesn’t contain any, except for a reference to phone calls to people’s houses in the middle of the night that say “This is where your children go to school” which the author states were not made by Zak or Pundit.

In particular, it would really help to be able to cite any example of harassment, abuse and real world stalking actually performed by Zak AND Pundit (since they are jointly accused), because that would support the case that they are themselves a community problem.

But that’s not in fact the nature of the accusation. Instead it’s that Zak and Pundit publically attack someone… That person then finds themselves under a sustained campaign of harassment from Zak and Pundit’s fans [emphasis added]. They pair would then feign innocence despite knowing full well what would happen and doing nothing to discourage it.

So, in Zak’s case this last assertion is demonstrably untrue. He has in fact written: “Well, don’t stalk or harass them, that doesn’t help me at all–I want them discredited and harassing them only adds credence to their bullshit.. Just don’t ever trust or help any of these people ever, and confront them with a demand for proof when they make accusations.”
But even if it were true, the accusation is flawed by a simple error: it assumes Zak and Pundit are responsible for their fans’ actions because (presumably) the fans are automata with no minds of their own.

The repeated calls for factual evidence of such harassment, which have turned up no such evidence, are actually secondary to this point. Zak’s or Pundit’s alleged culpability in harassment is predicated on a basic failure of attribution. Even if they have fans who stalk people, neither Zak nor Pundit is responsible for that, unless they actually told anyone to do it. And possibly not even then, unless we discount free will in the face of minor internet celebrity. To be held responsible for the actions of others in particular by your silence or failure to discourage the actions is a classic Kafkatrap – and guilt by silence is a classic totalitarian show-trial criterion.

It so happens that in the wake of Failforward’s piece, one case of personally threatening behaviour, supported by quotable evidence, actually happened. Kiel Chenier was anonymously threatened by someone who revealed his address online along with the words “someone pays you a visit, fucker.”


As I mentioned above, Kiel was also asking for evidence of prior harassment by Zak. So here in these two clippings from Kiel’s tumblr we have an actual threat and identification of Kiel as “another mindless zak fanboy.” Which almost seems like anonymous is trying to prove my contentions for me (it wasn’t me, in case you’re wondering. I don’t threaten people, online or off).

3. it the choice of victim that is the most telling. These attacks nearly always target women and LGTBQ individuals
So. This is a classic hard thing to prove. You’d have to identify all victims and prove their victimhood, then the subset who are women and/or LGTBQ, and then you’d have to demonstrate that Zak and Pundit jointly and separately knew these victims were women and/or LGTBQ in order to back up this accusation. Unfortunately simply asserting I know several transpeople who their fans have attacked and harassed isn’t enough to back up the above assertion. Even if you actually named them. Even if you could prove that the fans did this attacking at Zak’s and/or Pundit’s behest. And if you can, then (again) please, please post it in the comments.

>> for the very little it’s worth, most of the cases of Zak’s online harassment that I witnessed were against people who identified as male.

As a case in point of the difficulty in proving any of this, it is asserted that his girlfriend attempted to out a trans designer (here, it is widely assumed). This has been pretty effectively debunked in Tracy Hurley’s G+ thread, where it is pointed out that it can be difficult to know the actual identity of people who use several aliases online, and much more difficult to track the changes in that identity over time. The original post has since been modified to prevent any such accidental “outing,” although, given the existence and accessibility and traceability of the identities (given work) it’s unclear whether the person in question was “outed” and to whom at which stages. Especially since it seems later in the post that Fred Hicks might have outed the same designer.

So, finally, the rhetorical payload.
First, lets deal with gatekeeping – that is, redefining the boundaries of the RPG community, which is, I aver, what this post is about.

The first case of this in the post concerns feminism:
Zak presents himself as a sex positive feminist, but spends all his time derailing conversations on sexism, defending sexists and attacking real feminists by painting them as anti-sex conservatives. When called out on this he defends his words with a greatest hits list of derailing arguments: ‘I know women who disagree’, ‘You’re just anti-sex prudes’ and even attempting to debate what the word ‘sexist’ means.

This here is actual gatekeeping: the invocation of real feminists as opposed to Zak and his supporters, who must be “false feminists.” Who are these real feminists? How is their feminism realized? Who issues the licenses?
That terrible dichotomy is enclosed in one that’s simply false the “but” in the quote should introduce a contradiction but it doesn’t. Rather, it sounds like Zak’s debating about feminism, in which case everything else cited is not necessarily unreasonable. So, claims here need actual evidence. To prove he defended sexists you’d have to prove their sexism, and anyway to be meaningful at all Zak would have to defend the sexism itself, not the person identified as a sexist. And debating sexism pretty much has to involve debating what the word means.

Regarding that troublesome “but,” it’s not the only case in the post where bad grammar opens up space for uncharitable misreading.
Mearls responded. No-one had given him evidence that Zak or Pundit had not spoken any slurs, so he was throwing the complaints out.
See that “not” in there? It’s also probably just bad grammar/proofreading. But there it is, quietly contradicting the point of the sentences around it. When you read the paragraph, you can’t quite know the writer’s intention. You can infer, and in that inference you lose the certainty that could let you rebut it. Vagueness creeps in.

But the conspiring Army of Harassers is the real problem here – the putative gatekeeping agent. Where are they (please, really, tell me in comments, citing sources so I can actually quote them)?

The post’s invoking of a shadowy force of stalking, harassing fans does the work of such a gatekeeper, regardless of whether they really exist or not. It’s a classic disciplinary tactic: the point is to stop you, the reader, from speaking out. The post practically tells you not to speak out, alluding to other people who have been hurt and are afraid to speak out. It also paints anyone who supports Zak as a potential stalker in his zombie army – which is why I was at such pains at the top of this piece to state that I was not in fact writing as a member of any such army.

First, the threat posed by the Army creates quietism, which the post bravely breaks. Second, it prevents the sharing of evidence, so we have to take the brave poster’s word for everything. But what are we accepting, in fact?

Told their conversations would be confidential they shared with Mearls all the stories I’ve shared with you, only with names, links, screenshots and other traceable information I have removed to protect my sources.
But where are the stories? All I’ve seen is vague accusations of people en masse being harassed.

Like the poster, Mearls also doesn’t share stories, preferring claims he can address directly. In his case this apparently makes him culpable of not taking them seriously:
The allegations of harassment it seems, were secondary to whether they had ever spoken a bad word: “I haven’t seen or received any evidence that Zak has made homo/transphobic or racist statements. I have heard from a number of people who feel harassed and marginalized in the gaming community.”

It looks to me like Mearls’s statement is very carefully worded, but I’d have to ask him what exactly he wanted to say. But he doesn’t confirm the existence of the Army, so he’s no use to the poster.

Why was it more important to re-assure Zak he was in the clear than respond to allegations of harassment? Mearls again replied, saying that he was not taking the accusations seriously because some of the people stating them where members of the Something Awful forums, which he claimed has a history of harassing Zak

So here we have claims of rival bands of harassers working to silence both pro- and anti- Zak/Pundit voices. A whole war is going on and you might not have noticed.
How could you not have noticed? Privilege, of course.

We naively assume that our world is just, that someone we know couldn’t get away with abuse without us noticing. Mearls isn’t alone in this belief, over the past three weeks I’ve seen similar sentiments from senior figures in the RPG community. “This can’t really be happening”, they reassured themselves,”We’d have heard something”, “Someone must be exaggerating”. It is tempting to believe that the RPG community is not ‘that bad’, but it is, it is the worst community I have ever known. Partly because it harbours Zak and Pundit, but also because so many have reacted to this crisis by playing down legitimate anger and trying to find a truth in the middle where there is none.

It’s true that trying to find a truth in the middle where there is none is deeply unhelpful and can prop up stupid propaganda routines. Like when the middle path is between things which are demonstrably true and things which are demonstrably untrue, for instance.

Because the author finally knows the Truth – or enough of it to speak for “almost all” of the terrified, unPrivileged people involved.
The RPG community is small enough that almost every woman, person of colour or LGTBQ individual seems to have had a run in with Zak or Pundit. The only reason I hadn’t heard about this before is because they are too afraid to speak out. Discussions happen in private, or with the names left out, because both Zak and Pundit are infamous for googling their own names and attacking their critics.
That’s right, it’s a *silent majority.* People you can’t respond to because they’re too scared to speak. Scared of a harassing army that has no face or voice, which therefore cannot answer its accusers. Happily Failforward will speak for them all.

Does this seem ludicrously paranoid? That’s probably your privilege talking, blinding you to the truth. But just in case you feel like giving in to that nagging voice of reasonable doubt, Failforward has a lampshade to hang on it. Zak even now tries to portray these allegations as prudish conservatives out to smear him due to his involvement in pornography. Yet for that to be true almost every marginalised voice in the RPG community would need to be part of a secret right wing conspiracy. At a certain point you have to accept that that is implausible.
But you don’t have to accept the implausibility of a secret conspiracy of the silent abused, cowering at their keyboards.

Who is ultimately responsible for this community in secret peril? Is there anyone with an actual face and identity we can turn on with our pitchforks?


On the poster’s holding the writers and publishers of D&D accountable – his demand that they consult only people that don’t scare other unnamed, unidentifiable people, I have nothing to say. The contention is obviously ludicrous. But there is something specific to object to in his language:

I’m sorry D&D, you don’t get to have it both ways. If you want praise for your inclusive language, you’ll also need to answer for the people you hire.
By excluding them. That’s what this whole thing was about. Excluding Zak and Pundit and anyone who speaks with or in support of them from the community of civilized discourse.

So if I were directly involved in any of this I’d be angry about the falsity and/or vagueness of the accusations made by the Failforward post. I might be emboldened to speak up with actual citeable evidence if I had any. Are you genuinely worried about me or others harassing you? Post an anonymous comment here with a link showing harassment. Get creative. Send e-cards from third party providers.

As it is, being a simple member of the “community” of gamers (if there is any such thing), what I’m disturbed about is pretty minor, but it’s still a precondition for having a community that can discuss stuff. Whether there really is an army of harassing fans and of victims or not, this post demands I choose a side. Now I’ve written this, there will be some people who think I’m part of the army, and others who think I’m just hopelessly blind, and still others who think that no matter how blind I am, I should side with the victims regardless – no matter what kind of bill of goods is being sold with that side. And those people will refuse to talk to me about this, because they will have already made up their minds that I am potentially dangerous. In that Tracy Hurley thread there’s name-calling and dismissal not just of opinions but of questions on the grounds that they’re Zak-supporting. And that’s the death of conversation.

Me, I’ll be continuing to presume everyone’s innocence until proof is provided against it.