The Alexandrian

Dungeons & Dragons - 5th Edition

As some my readers here may be aware, a hotly burning controversy has broken out around the list of people credited as “Consultants” in the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Specifically, two people on that list — RPGPundit and Zak S. — have been accused of harassment and misogyny and all sorts of other hateful behavior.

The problem?

There’s no evidence that any of it is true.

The witch hunt began, the way so many witch hunts do, with people claiming that they’d heard from other people that RPGPundit and Zak S. had done horrible things to them. When people started pointing out that a hate campaign based entirely on hearsay was problematic, the tactics of the witch hunt escalated by claiming that the people affected were unable to come forward because RPGPundit and Zak S. would harass them if they did.

A good example of where this tactic led can be found in Tom Hatfield’s “How Dungeons and Dragons is endorsing the darkest parts of the RPG community”. According to Hatfield, Mearls responded to the controversy by asking people who had any evidence or first-hand reports of wrongdoing by RPGPundit or Zak S. to send it to him. (This is true.) According to Hatfield, “almost every woman, person of colour or LGTBQ individual seems to have had a run in with Zak or Pundit” and they “leapt” at the opportunity Mearls had given them, sharing with him “names, links, screenshots, and other traceable information I [Hatfield] removed to protect my sources.”

But several days later Mearls reported that no such evidence had been sent to him. So what happened? According to Hatfield, Mearls had deluded himself into believing that “this can’t really be happening.”

So let’s take a moment, strip away the dog-and-pony show of outrage, and review what we know: Unidentified people are reportedly claiming that non-specific things happened.

Why should we take that seriously?

The answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t.

The proof that these people engaged in a massive, misogynistic harassment campaign cannot be provided because of their proven track record of harassment? That’s a remarkable piece of doublethink. When you’re reduced to claiming that the best proof of the conspiracy’s existence is that there’s no evidence the conspiracy exists, you’ve left the land of rationality and entered the land of fake Apollo moon landings and flat-earthers.

THE DEEPER PROBLEM

The deeper problem here, however, is that this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened in the RPG community. In fact, a lot of the same people who are driving this fact-free witch hunt of the 5E Consultants routinely engage in this behavior.

For example, the origins of the current witch hunt lie with an earlier one: A couple years ago, Ben Lehman accused James Desborough of threatening to rape people who criticized him. Zak S. called him out and demanded that Lehman provide proof that this had happened. Lehman refused and a line-up of the usual suspects appeared to support him. Another guy, by the name of John Stavropolous, spent 10 months researching the claim and eventually posted his conclusion that Lehman had simply lied. (UPDATE: Mr. Stavropolous clarifies the exact wording of his refutation of Lehman in the comments below.) Zak S. linked to Stavropolous’ research and also copy-pasted the list of people who had publicly supported Lehman’s lie asking them to rescind it. People were outraged that Zak S. had called people out for lying. One notable example was Paul Ettin, an RPGNet moderator, who said that people should both support and spread Lehman’s original lie “for solidarity” and “also, giggles!”

But the Lehman lie can be traced back to an even earlier controversy. James Desborough wrote a blog post supporting the thesis statement, “Rape or attempted rape is a fucking awesome plot element, one of many.” RPGNet poster MalaDicta attacked Desborough by misquoting him out of context as saying, “Rape is fucking awesome.” Based on this blatant lie and the outrage it sparked, she later started a petition to boycott Mongoose for publishing Desborough’s books. RPGNet moderator Ettin actually sought and received special permission from RPGNet’s administrators in order to start a thread supporting the petition.

You see the pattern there? They tell a lie about a specific quote that someone supposedly said at a specific time and place. People check it out and call them on the lie. A few months later, they tell a different lie claiming that someone supposedly said something… but refuse to name the time or place that it happened. This makes it harder for people to check it out, but they do and eventually they call them on the lie. So they come back a few months later, and this time they tell a lie with no specific details whatsoever and we’re supposed to believe it because there are no details that can be checked out.

You may have noticed how often RPGNet gets mentioned here. There are a couple reasons for that. First, members of their moderation team (particularly Ettin) are neck-deep in perpetuating these witch hunts. (Ettin says he does it for “giggles”, but that doesn’t negate the real people who are hurt by his antics.) Second, RPGNet has made itself a perfect incubator for these witch hunts: By policy, posters at RPGNet are banned when they “deny the experience” of people making accusations of sexism. In practice, this means that people can say things that are blatant lies, but anyone questioning them (or even demonstrating that it’s a proven lie) is immediately banned. By both discouraging and weeding out rational discourse, RPGNet becomes the perfect incubator for fact-free witch hunts.

But here’s the real problem: When you cry wolf about threats of rape or violent harassment or even just problematic art in RPGs, you’re not just hurting the people you’re making the false accusations against. You’re also hurting the people who have real complaints and who have real problems, whose experiences will be delegitimized because you’ve created a culture which inherently distrusts such accusations.

And that’s not even taking into account the disturbing behavior pattern demonstrated by the usual suspects of villainizing and slut-shaming women who come forward to support the people being falsely accused of vile behavior. The two most notable examples of this, at least in my first-hand experience, are Mandy Morbid (who has vociferously defended Zak S.’s demonstrable record of standing up for women’s rights and the rights of the LGTBQ community) and Shanna Germain (who took point when Monte Cook was accused of misogyny for including a succubus-like SF creature in Numenera‘s bestiary).

CONCLUSION

If you believe that Desborough’s defense of rape as a plot point is the same thing as saying “rape is fucking awesome”. If you believe that using succubi in your RPG campaign is “creeper rape play bullshit”. If you believe that accusations without proof should be believed because they have no proof. If you believe that this picture

is a misogynistic “money shot” that is hostile to women and makes them not want to be part of the roleplaying community, then most of what I’ve said here probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. But if you don’t agree with that sort of nonsense, then I ask you to recognize that the RPG industry does have a problem with sexism. And the people crying wolf are a part of that problem.

So why are they doing it? Well, some of them are just trolls who think it’s funny or who enjoy the feeling of power it gives them. (Like Ettin, the RPGNet moderator who does it for “giggles”.) Others, I think, are doing it primarily for the attention. Which is why I haven’t been providing links to their misbehavior in this post. Unfortunately, this also puts me in the position of saying things without backing them up. So I’ve included a “Links You Shouldn’t Follow” section at the bottom of the post if you want to verify what I’ve said here, but I really do urge you not to feed the trolls here.

What can be done about this problem? Well, you can start by being aware of it. And you can follow up by calling it out whenever you see it happening. This type of slanderous whisper campaign thrives on people silently tolerating it. You don’t have to get mean. You don’t have to insult. But when you see a proven lie, call it what it is. (Even if RPGNet will ban you for it.)

It is in that spirit of solidarity that I’m posting this.

In the same spirit, however, I’ll close by pointing out that this type of fact-free nonsense is not the exclusive purlieu of those slandering RPGPundit and Zak S. over the past few weeks. In fact, RPGPundit himself has spent years espousing a crazy conspiracy theory of “Swine” who are secretly collaborating to destroy traditional roleplaying (which he seems to largely define as “any roleplaying game that I like”) through a multitude of techniques that, historically speaking, were primarily about designing storytelling games and, more recently, have included “social justice swine” or “pseudo-activist swine”. It really kinda goes without saying that RPGPundit has absolutely no evidence that this vast “conspiracy” actually exists and, much like the cry-wolfers, his incoherent tirades are damaging to any position he chooses to attach himself to.

And that’s the bottom line: Don’t tolerate it from him. Don’t tolerate it from them. Don’t tolerate hate. Don’t tolerate lies. And call them on it when you see it happening.

(But if you want to send some kind and warm thoughts towards Zak S. and Mandy Morbid right now, it seems like they need them: Ms. Morbid is very, very ill.)

UPDATE – A LINK YOU SHOULD TOTALLY FOLLOW: I strongly endorse Seebs’ exhaustively researched summary of this conflict if you’re looking to delve deeper.

LINKS YOU SHOULDN’T FOLLOW

“How Dungeons and Dragons is endorsing the darkest parts of the RPG community”

2012 Consultant’s Thread at RPGNet

RPGNet moderator Ettin suggests that people show “solidarity” for slanderous lies for “giggles”

RPGNet moderator Ettin supports MalaDicta’s lies about James Desborough

RPGNet anti-Numenera thread

Aleena’s depiction is a problem references (the original G+ discussion was deleted)

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22 Responses to “Thought of the Day – The 5E Consultant Witch Hunt”

  1. Bill says:

    Zak Smith and RPGPundit are well known internet harassers. Look at all the bans they’ve racked up on multiple forums. Look at the amount of people out there that have become their sworn enemies. Zak Smith is an egocentric loser who uses his G+ personal army to help in these attacks as well. WotC and any other companies will be put on notice from here on out: If you do not drop these two and retract any mention of them, you can expect a boycott of your products.

    Send emails to WotC, Hasbro, and all other gaming companies and let them know that harassment will not be tolerated.

  2. Confanity says:

    Wow, that sheds a lot of light on what had been something of a mystery. Most of this is me getting a little weight off my own chest, so if you’re not interested in the biographic part please just skip to the final paragraph. 8^|

    I don’t *do* any of that forum stuff; I just have a blogroll. PD&DwPS used to be on it, too, although at times Zak displayed what to me was an out-of-the-blue hateful attitude, which eventually bothered me enough that I posted a critical response to one of his rants.

    His response to me was, to put it bluntly, disproportionate and irrational, and it escalated quickly to being verbally abusive (he accused me of “lying” and being “evil,” etc.), and I have since stopped following his blog. But still, I’ve seen his name popping up now and then since, generally in the tone of “online Zak may be kind of prickly but he’s not transphobic.”

    You’re the first person to actually explain what the situation is. And suddenly his attitude toward me, while still not forgivable, at least makes sense – he was simply lumping me into a general “enemy” category that included actual liars and people being actually evil. It makes sense that after spending so much time and energy fighting against some of the more toxic elements of the community, he would be, well, changed, and not necessarily for the better.

    The irony, of course, is that on his blog I theorized that he was reacting in such a negative way because he was responding to something that had happened on a forum, and that’s actually the point where he accused me of lying.

    I still would be perfectly happy to never hear Zak’s name again; I prefer reading the blogs of calmer people without such huge chips on their shoulders – but thank you, Justin, for giving me some understanding of the situation. My heart goes out to the girls et al whom he was supporting, at least.

  3. rpgpundit says:

    That’s great, and I really do appreciate that you took the time to write this very well-detailed article (I particularly appreciate the context that this whole thing didn’t spring out of the blue with the 5e launch but has a long ongoing history). However, to equivocate me lumping people together as Swine with them making up outright lies is a bit off the mark.

    I mean, we’re calling them the Outrage Brigade now, but that’s pretty much the Swine, right there. They are a group, they are more or less the SAME PEOPLE, over and over again. They do things in a semi-organized way; coordinating with each other. They claim to have one agenda but in fact have another. Is anyone actually denying any of this is true at this point?

    Because when I used the word “conspiracy”, that’s exactly what I meant. I never suggested there was some dark Shadow Council in some mountain stronghold somewhere, plotting a Master Plan. I was using the word in the more realistic sense: there’s a group of assholes, who are always the same group of people (some of these right now are the very same assholes who have been fighting with me since 2004, so ten years ago now!), who have an intentional agenda they want to impose on the hobby and FORCE everyone else to follow. They will use lies, false claims about their real intentions, manipulation of language, etc. to try to achieve what they want.

    At this point, exactly what part of all that are you saying doesn’t seem to be happening right now??

  4. Zak S says:

    Actually Confanity, on my blog I asked you a question and you didn’t answer it.

    That is a capital sin on my blog.

    I didn’t lump you in with the morons responsible for this summer’s moral panic.

    Anyone interested in this can google Confanity’s name and “dndwithpornstars” and scroll down and see, very clearly:

    -I ask a question
    -Confanity doesn’t answer it.

    Not allowed–it’s evil, and disingenuous and leads to trolling.

  5. Noumenon72 says:

    Confanity, way to prove the point of the post by making accusations with no links to back them up. I think this is it, it does contain “lying” and “evil” but he mysteriously forgot to call you an “incredible pain in the ass.” Who starts out a complaint by saying “This went long, so let me break up my complaint into three sections”, gets an eleven-point numbered response, and replies “it feels like you posted in haste”?

  6. Neal says:

    Justin,

    Posting this essay is a really useful instance of raising public awareness on thought control and slander, in what passes for our ‘community’ of hobbyists.

    These characters at RPG.Net aren’t merely “trolls,” they’re sociopaths. Sociopaths seek out positions of petty and not so petty authority, to continuously gratify their needs for stimulation – through committing overt and covert malice against others. These persons and the organizations that give them a platform to harm others, should be fought and exposed.

    Does RPG.Net have any significant amounts of cash? I’d recommend that Zak S., RPGPundit, James Desborough, and any others email each other about filing a class action lawsuit against RPG.Net, and this Ettin-character. Give them some giggles.

    Focus on Discrimination, Slander and Harassment:

    “By policy, posters at RPGNet are banned when they “deny the experience” of people making accusations of sexism. In practice, this means that can people can say things that are blatant lies, but anyone questioning them (or even demonstrating that it’s a proven lie) is immediately banned.” …….

    If the issue halting legal redress of these abuses is finances, and I know that Zak S. is dealing with those due to his girlfriend’s serious illnesses… either a few calls to attorney’s offices for referrals, the ACLU, or maybe taking out a newspaper advertisement asking for an attorney willing to represent them either pro bono, or on contingency?

    If RPG.Net has cash, a lawsuit on contingency might attract a legal firm. Law firms are bottom-line institutions, and extracting someone else’s assets and reapportioning the same to themselves, is what they live for.

    If any of you decide to use lawyers, be wary of trusting them to pursue what’s good for you, unless they substantially profit from it. Self interest is their only interest. A good source to skim or read is the whistle-blowing expose, by a 12 year Federal Judge, and CEO of one of the top law firms in Southern Arizona, Justice John F. Malloy’s “The Fraternity: Lawyers and Judges in Collusion.” He exposes the ugly truth of the corruption.

    Some legal websites recommend getting the lawyers to submit to you a contract written beforehand, itemizing the various violations by the defendant (RPGNet) and the specific state and federal statutes they are in violation of, along with a time schedule of when the lawyers will begin submitting suit in court, and any judicial actions.

    I’ve had enough experience with lawyers promising all kinds of action for what they promised were clear violations, and then watching them do nothing for months, after they have your retainer. At that point, if you ask for any written itemization of the violations or a schedule of actions, unless there’s substantial money to be collected with little effort, the lawyers will probably say there’s no violations, and then quit, without refunding all of your retainer, and you’ll start all over with the next identically cynical ‘esquire.’

    Stand up to the abuse and make it expensive for these guys to tolerate it by their staff.

  7. John Stavropoulos says:

    Hi, I’m the John referenced in this post and I want to offer a point of clarification.

    This post says:
    “Another guy, by the name of John Stavropolous, spent 10 months researching the claim and eventually posted his conclusion that Lehman had simply lied.”

    This is in reference to my G+ posts here: http://goo.gl/NIypJX (and tangentially http://goo.gl/91ODLB). These posts aren’t public but they were posted as Extended Circles, if you login to G+, you might be able to read them.

    Clarification:
    I did not say “Lehman had simply lied”.

    To quote myself, I said:
    “I have received NO information that proves, in my opinion, that James has allegedly threatened his critics with rape.”

    “Does that mean there is no proof to be found? No. But I don’t have any proof to offer and no one I know has it or is willing to share it.”

    I hope that helps.

    Best,
    John

  8. Seebs says:

    I did some more research and significantly improved my writeup, new version here:

    https://www.seebs.net/log/articles/791/

    Executive summary: The Internet is full of people arguing with and criticizing both Zak and Pundit. Until July, none of them were complaining about alleged hostility to the LGBT community. The allegations that people were afraid to come forward are completely incompatible with the huge volume of highly visible public criticism.

    The allegations of hostility to the LGBT community are a result of a need to somehow create the appearance of a contradiction between the inclusive gender-identity language in 5e and two people that some folks were mad at.

  9. Confanity says:

    Justin – my apologies for my participation in what seems to be a bit of a can-of-worms opening. Turns out this is one of those highly polarizing issues.

    Zak – let’s try a thought experiment. If someone asked you, “When did you stop hating gays so much?”, would ignoring the question be “evil” and constitute (or lead inevitably to) trolling on your part? Or would ignoring it be an act of forbearance?

    You can argue that failing to answer certain questions undermines an argument, but jumping straight to “evil” as soon as any “question” goes unanswered is almost exactly the kind of hyperbolic unpleasantry that I’m talking about.

    P.S. If you want more questions answered, try not to phrase them in verbally abusive ways. Give it a try some time, yes?

    Noumenon – I guess I could have put in a “links not to follow” section. Thanks for obviating the need. What you seem to have missed, though, is three-fold:

    1. I said *posted* in haste, not *replied*… although the replies also felt rather hasty, to be honest.
    2. Neither length nor a bullet-point list negates “haste,” which comes from posting without editing, posting immediately after writing, etc.
    3. If you really want to assert that I “proved the point” (What point? Justin’s discussion of a progression of lying online? So, unlike Zak, you *are* lumping me together with the alleged liars Justin described?) — then finding that I was referring to a real event kind of undercuts your argument. “Referring to a real thing that actually happened” is clearly different from “inventing vague bad rumors out of whole cloth.”

    In addition, you seem to have undertaken to be verbally abusive on Zak’s behalf. That doesn’t help his case or yours.

  10. Zak S says:

    Confanity:

    The law recognizes the difference between leading and non-leading questions.

    I never ask leading questions, so your claim is not valid.

    And your assertion I should be “nicer” is rather the pot calling the kettle black when in _your very first response before talking to me at all_ you personally insult me and then make several “didn’t read the piece” factual errors you fail to apologize for.

    So you are totally wrong on all fronts.

    You will never acknowledge this, I suspect (of which I suspect there are very few), but interested parties can go to:
    http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2014/05/fix-me-fix-me-fix-me.html

  11. Brian says:

    Bill says: “Zak Smith is an egocentric loser who uses his G+ personal army to help in these attacks as well.”

    Erm, you do know that Zak’s had his art displayed in the MoMA, right? That his work was featured in the Whitney Biennial? If you consider Zak a “loser” I’m curious to hear what you’ve accomplished with your life.

    – Brian

  12. Zak S says:

    Oh Brian, don’t you understand?

    If I address libel personally and try to present facts to accusers, I am “harassing” people.

    If my friends and supporters do it, I am “hiding” behind them.

    Once you get tagged as A Degenerate Artist there’s literally no possible action other than beggging for forgiveness that will satisfy them. Even in the face of a proven lie.

  13. fliprushman says:

    I’ve been playing in the RPG community, both offline and online, for many years, most notably on the website http://www.mydndgame.com.

    In those years, I had never known that this misogyny had existed. I’ve played with many different gamers from all over the spectrum, and never once had I faced any of these types of people who would segregate one group of the community.

    Trolls I have dealt with and have always seen them as the problem with the online community because they hinder new players from joining or actively participating in the discussions that drive the community.

    But with this awareness of this bigger problem, I am forced to rethink what the community is really facing and needs to overcome to have a future.

    Thank you Justin for bringing this problem into the light.

  14. Yahzi says:

    I think I remember reading that in the 17th century, someone took out a full-page in the main newspaper begging the Knights Templar to give some sign if they still existed. The fact that the ad was met with total silence was generally taken as proof positive that the order was alive and well – since obviously a secret cabal would never reveal its existence!

  15. Justin Alexander says:

    One other thought I’ll add to this discussion: I’ve recently seen a lot of people quoting or citing the RPGNet notification of Zak’s ban as if it we somehow “proof” of wrongdoing. (Bill’s hysterically ironic reply at the top of this comment thread is a more generic example of the same thing.)

    That notice was written by Ettin. The same guy who campaigned for people to spread slanderous lies “for giggles”. It notably doesn’t include any accusations of transphobic behavior or harassment. It also doesn’t include actual citations or proof for the vast majority of the behavior it asserts that Zak is “guilty” of.

    So what we have here is a situation where:

    (1) People make fact-free accusations about Zak S.

    (2) When people point out that there’s proof that the accusations are true, the newest response is: “But didn’t you see that RPGNet banned him for completely different reasons (without actually citing their proof of it)?”

    So I’m supposed to believe one fact-free accusation because you can link to another fact-free accusation? The spin from that circular logic could probably power perpetual motion machines if it was actualized.

    (To be clear, at least some of the things that Ettin accuses Zak S. of are probably true. For example, it seems likely that Zak S. has said the name “Tipper Gore” at some point. Whether or not you actually agree that “any argument Ettin doesn’t agree with” is the same thing as a “bad-faith argument”, on the other hand, is a matter for debate… Well, not for debate at RPGNet, of course.)

  16. Brooser Bear says:

    I think that there is fire to this smoke, but that this discussion is much ado about nothing. I can write a long post about discrimination and harassment, and it keeps one step before the law to make for some fantastically hostile work places for some unfortunate souls, but I won’t. Whispering campaigns to which Justin alluded in this post are a part of that new toolset for the 21st century, and so I think, that there is more to it than just conflicting egos.

    I no fan of the Wizards of the Coast or the Old School Renaissance. The so-called gamer community is akin to a bunch of hungry spiders in the bottle, each one a closet self-promoter trying to be the next published Gygax and it is done with a friendly façade. Most game masters have an ego and are poor communicators, at least inadequate to be decent storytellers. I’ve seen more than one hack and slash game, where players brought in their frustrations and repressed anger and took it out on the monsters they robbed and double crossed. It is only natural that this sort of sentiment and egotism will spill into online communication, with the internet exaggerating people discourse due to its virtual nature and the illusion of anonymity. So, you get some ugly forums with ugly speech and nasty megalomaniac moderators/administrators.

    And then we have some controversy wit these two, whoever they are, I haven’t read any of their posts or accusations leveled against them. What I can say is that whenever there is a whispering campaign, it is usually directed at the outsider, by insiders. The two appear to be credited in the list of 5th Edition Consultants, but they are unlike the others in that they are apparently not published authors or game designers, but bloggers. Also, they are said to favor the old style of D&D and not necessarily fans of WOTC. There you go – the answer is right there – People who are in or who are hoping to be in WOTC as contributors or design staff are pushing out those whose vision is at most variance with the editorial policy and the vision of the WOTC. It is a social process, of which the participants are only vaguely aware, but it follows the basic patterns from the sociology of deviance. Look at that consultants list again, and if their views are the most at odds with the WOTS vision, then they were picked as easy targets to be further marginalized in what is known in social research as a “degradation ceremony”, the purpose of which is for participants in it (insecure in their own fitting in) to belong more to the in crowd.

  17. chirine ba kal says:

    Thank you for your post; it’s been a real eye-opener. I had been getting more and more disenchanted with the various ‘big name’ on-line forums, and this whole fracas has done quite a lot to sour my on-line gaming experience. It’s too bad, really, but then I do come from an earlier age where this sort of thing happened in the bar after we all got through flogging our crummy little games at Gen Con and Origins; if you tried this kind of thing there, you’d risk a punch in the snoot. And become an object of derision, too.

    I’ve been in this hobby for some thirty-five years – I was a founding member of GAMA, for example, and I am appalled at what seems to pass for discourse these days.

    Enjoy your feuds, people; count me out.

    – chirine

  18. Noumenon72 says:

    @Confanity All cogent points. I’m a little embarrassed of myself.

  19. Steven Warble says:

    @Brooser Bear

    Just to fact check one thing you said, both Zak and RPGPundit are published authors and game designers. Zak has the mind-blowingly-good Vornheim to his credit, and RPGPundit has (I beleive) 3 published games, including Arrows of Indra, Lords of Olympus and a third whose title escapes me.

  20. Sir Wulf says:

    Thank you for disseminating this information.

  21. Brooser Bear says:

    Steven Warble,

    I stand corrected.

  22. Rick says:

    This was an interesting read, and now I know more about an issue I am more than happy to stay away from.

    I’m just glad you posted a pic of Aleena the Cleric. She’s the most memorable character I’ve ever encountered in D&D, and I was playing it as a kid before the Red Book came out. I miss her, but I understand she didn’t actually die at the hands of Bargle… [I know, derailed…]

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