Note: 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.
Three weeks ago the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out. D&D is the iconic tabletop role playing game, so a new edition is a big deal. It’s one of the few times that the small, insular pen and paper community gets noticed by the rest of the world. Many game websites have talked about it, notably Polygon’s piece on gender inclusive language. Yet 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.
Shortly after Wizards of the Coast released fifth edition game designers began sharing a picture of the credits page: a section called ‘additional consulting’. The list includes heavyweight designers like Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws but two names stand out as not belonging: “RPG Pundit and Zak S”.
While John “RPG Pundit” Tarnowski and Zak “Zak S” Smith have produced a few books between them they are more well known as bloggers and opinion formers within the RPG community. Specifically they’re part of the ‘Old School Rules’ movement: people who think everything since the earliest editions of D&D was unnecessary. I don’t agree with them, but I can see the appeal of the simple dungeon crawl. The problem is that the OSR movement contains some very nasty people. Zak and Pundit are two of them.
I became aware of Pundit a couple of years ago. He’s a blogger operating out of The RPG Site, infamous for his paranoid rants about how outsiders are plotting to take over the hobby and destroy it. This is not an exaggeration, Pundit literally believes that there is an organised conspiracy to destroy the world of tabletop RPGs, a group he refers to as ‘the Swine’. His original rants defined ‘Swine’ as anyone who attempted to innovate beyond Old School Rules, particularly anyone involved in the ‘storygames’ movement (experimental narrative driven games). To Pundit, these games represented an attempt by outsiders who weren’t ‘real gamers’ to destroy the hobby. This is not an unusual sentiment in videogames either, but it isn’t usually voiced by someone working on in the biggest game in the world.
It’s easy to dismiss this as harmless crankery, but conservative art often comes with conservative politics, thus it came as no surprise when Pundit’s Glenn Beck style rants switched targets from ‘storygame swine’ to attacking “Psuedo-activism swinery”. Again, this is not an exaggeration, one of the consultants on D&D literally believes that ‘social justice’ is a conspiracy by outsiders to ruin ‘real RPGs’ forever. Here he is comparing an expo instituting an anti-harassment policy harsh Islamic modesty laws, managing to insult both women and Muslims in one article.
Zak S is famous for two things: Playing D&D with pornstars, both on his blog and for a little while in a web series for the Escapist, and being banned from half the major RPG communities on the net for derailing any and all discussion about diversity and discrimination. You can still see a long and thorough explanation of why RPG Net banned him, and it’s a pattern of behaviour that he still engages in. 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.
These are Zak and Pundit as I knew them when the news broke. It’s the image most were already familiar with: angry nerdboys who spent all their time trying to gatekeep the hobby. To me that was reason enough that they should never work in a game as influential as Dungeons and Dragons. But as the picture of their names in the credits spread, more information spilled out. Seeing their names there in black and white was just too much, and 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.
Both have much the same MO. They publically attack someone for criticising them, speaking out about sexism and bigotry, or just liking the wrong game. That person then finds themselves under a sustained campaign of harassment from Zak and Pundit’s fans. They pair would then feign innocence despite knowing full well what would happen and doing nothing to discourage it. Even after the initial attacks die down things are not over, they will routinely return to attack targets that angered them years ago. Cross them once, and you are marked for life.
This is where Zak excels. He has in the past posted lists of people who he feels have displeased him in some way, complete with their real names. Those people then lists find themselves subjected to sustained campaigns of harassment. Not mere internet name calling, but phone calls to people’s houses in the middle of the night that say “This is where your children go to school.” To be clear, I am not accusing Zak or Pundit of making these calls, there is no evidence for that. What they do is point out targets and refuse to admonish their fans when they step over the line.
While this behaviour is alarming, it the choice of victim that is the most telling. These attacks nearly always target women and LGTBQ individuals, mostly freelancers and independent designers. Zak and Pundit have taken pains to defend themselves against accusations of transphobia, but I know several transpeople who their fans have attacked and harassed. Zak described one of them as ‘mentally ill’, both he and Pundit told others they would be better off committing suicide. Recently, in a post defending Zak and accusing his detractors of misogyny, his girlfriend attempted to out a trans designer. (update - the post has now been edited to remove the designers new name)
Anger surrounding their inclusion in D&D 5e began to mount. The anonymous tumblr Problematic Tabletop started cataloguing some of their more public behaviour. Fresh waves of hatemail forced designers to delete and hide social media accounts to escape. At the same time Zak put his setting book on sale, using promotional quotes consisting of people calling out his behaviour. This was not unusual, Zak’s business model revolves around publically being a jerk. He is, quite literally, a career bully.
Eventually, halfway down a now deleted G+ conversation, Mike Mearls – designer of D&D 5e - responded:
If anyone has any direct evidence of racism or sexism or any other form of discrimination on the part of people attached to D&D, please drop a line to me. Email is [removed]
Consultants on the project were hired to tear the game apart and pull no punches, so being brutal was basically a job requirement.
How we present race and gender in the game had nothing to do with anyone beyond me, Jeremy Crawford, and our art director, Kate Irwin. I have read up on issues of race, gender, and inclusivity in gaming and have done everything I can to address them. Will it be perfect? No. But I pay attention to this stuff because it’s important. The consultants had no role in that department.
It wasn’t the most confidence inspiring appeal, but nonetheless people leapt upon it. 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.
Days later Mearls responded. No-one had given him evidence that Zak or Pundit had not spoken any slurs, so he was throwing the complaints out. 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.
At the end of the day, the responsibility for working with Zak and RPGPundit, and more importantly *not* directly working with marginalized groups falls solely upon me
Meanwhile, Zak was publicly speaking on Mearls’ behalf, saying that WOTC had found the claims against him to be baseless. Those who sent Mearls information began to panic, had he just shared their complaints with their harasser? Mearls responded that he had told Zak the claims were baseless, but hadn’t shared any names or details with him. Nevertheless they were not pleased, nor did they feel safe. Why had Mearls consulted with Zak before replying to them? 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:
My impression is that SA folks are using gender and race issues to drive their personal grudges with people. It’s very damaging for making real progress on these issues. People getting in touch with me are pointing to that site to undermine the real issues we face in gaming.
Zak and Pundit have accused Something Awful of harassment before. They take issue with the fact that they are both quoted in the catalogue of bad RPG behaviour that is
Grognards.txt (grognard means old warrior, but in the RPG community is has come to mean one stuck in the past). Meanwhile, The RPG Site, operated by someone Mearls hired as a consultant, currently contains such topics as: “Bruce Baugh can go fuck himself with a rusty spoon”, “Why I dislike feminism” and a thread defending the use of the word ‘Jap’ in WW2 settings.
As a privileged person, there is often an instinct to dismiss tales of harassment. 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. This reached it’s height two days ago, when Fred Hicks, co-creator of FATE, shared a link defending Zak and outing one of his favourite targets (update - Hicks has apologised and stated that this was not his intent). That designer has since left the industry, worn down by years of constant harassment from Zak and Pundit, compounded by the insensitivity of Hicks and others. Hicks has since deleted the post, but he has not apologised.
In investigating this story I heard the same tales over and over again. 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. 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.
It has been three weeks since this story began, and Wizards of the Coast have yet to make a public statement on the affair. All communication has been through private emails and that now deleted G+ thread. Perhaps they had hoped it would blow over if they refused to acknowledge it, after all the RPG community is too small and insular to get any real media scrutiny. If a videogame studio hired two people as toxic as this it’d be a public relations nightmare, but Wizards of the Coast can do so and still get credit for gender diversity.
That’s why I’ve written his article. 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.