Archive for August, 2014

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

August 1, 2014 13 comments

EDIT: 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.

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.

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.

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.