28th February 2021 Update: When I wrote this article I called it Something You Should Know Before Giving Money To the Dungeon World Guys. At the time, it wasn’t apparent to me that Dungeon World co-author Sage LaTorra had dissociated himself from Adam, but based on LaTorra’s actions in pulling his work from an RPG zine which he’d contributed to without being told that Koebel would also be participating in the project, I’ve decided to edit the title to more specifically focus on Adam. (The old URL will remain because I don’t want to break incoming links to this, hence putting this explanatory note at the top.)
10th June 2020 Update: Adam has put out a fuller apology. It’s kind of bad, not least because it’s astonishingly me-centred and first plays down the incident as “a mistake”, and then characterises it as a “creative risk”. Jaron Johnson has done an excellent summary of the apology, along with the incident and its aftermath here. The player directly affected by Adam’s behaviour has a good Twitter thread here which, among other things, disclosed how the aftermath of the session went. Suffice to say, whilst the players held it together on-air to the end of the episode, the aftermath of the episode was very different – and included Adam trying to cajole the players into doing one of their post-episode aftertalk videos despite the affected player being obviously and visibly upset, and all the rest of the players trying to take the view that it was absolutely not the time for that.
So Dungeon World co-creator Adam Koebel also does actual play videos with RollPlay, with his Far Verona campaign recently concluding its second season.
The reason the second season concluded is that it was cancelled, and the reason it was cancelled is that Adam sprung a sexual assault encounter on one of his players without warning. The player directly affected, Elspeth Eastman, has recorded her explanation of events here; RollPlay have not edited the episode in question so if you really want to see what happens you can if you like. (It’s the last encounter of the session, beginning about 1 hours 16 minutes in, I am not going to link it here because I don’t want to needlessly increase its exposure; if you really want to see it you can search in YouTube.)
Adam’s apology video, which I won’t link here because I really don’t think it passes muster in any respect, largely tries to pass this off as an “oops, we didn’t talk about people’s lines and veils or any other sort of safeguarding stuff before the game started and by the time it got awkward it was too late” situation.
I’m sorry, that just doesn’t cut it. That is shit you say when, for example, you have a giant spider encounter and didn’t realise that one of your players has a phobia of spiders. You shouldn’t need people to tell you that sexual assault isn’t something they are cool with happening in a game: it’s one of those topics where you need to get people to specifically agree to it prior to anything happening before you even include it in a game.
You should goddamn know that sexual assault is the sort of topic which you don’t introduce to a game without some sort of conversation, and if you have not had that conversation, you shouldn’t do it. Nobody as active on the indie RPG scene as Adam should be unaware of this. More disturbingly, for reasons I will get into later in this post, it honestly seems like Adam didn’t at the time recognise that what happened was essentially sexual assault, when the issues with consent in the encounter in question should have made it wholly goddamn obvious that it was an assault.
On top of that, as Elspeth notes what is done to her player character is radically at odds with what she had requested for the PC’s character arc in previous discussions with Adam. Supposedly he passed it off to her as him misreading her intentions, but the intention was for the character – a robot bartender who’d been cast aside by his former owner – to learn to be more assertive and say “no” to people more often and exert more agency. An encounter in which that agency is taken away from them is not how you accomplish this.
I simply can’t take Adam’s apology seriously. You cannot credibly apologise for something if you do not actually understand what you did wrong, or do not really consider what you did to be all that wrong, and Adam’s apology is so lacklustre and misses the point so much that I think he must still either doesn’t understand what he did wrong, or is unwilling to say that it was actually all that wrong. Yes, some form of conversation about lines and veils and an X-card mechanic should have happened, he’s correct to say that. But he totally fails to address why he thought it was appropriate to do such a scene without prior discussion in the first place, especially on a stream which a significant online audience was watching.
Now, people have taken this up with him, and he’s since made a somewhat better apology – but I dunno, folks. It feels a bit rehearsed, a bit stiff – like he’s gone over the immediate backlash to his initial apology and tried to craft something which makes the right noises. In other words, it’s not an apology intended to convey his actual feelings of contrition, it’s an attempt to stop people shouting at him by saying what he thinks they want to hear. If he is going to step away from starting any new campaigns and do the work on himself to work out why the fuck he considered it appropriate in the moment and avoid doing it again, great, good on him – but I’m going to believe he’s done the work when I see the results.
In particular, take a good strong look at his wording: he is going to work on himself before he starts new campaigns to sort his head out, and in his existing campaigns he is going to implement safeguarding measures. If you read that in a hurry that might sound good, but it’s not, because it’s a honking great contradiction. There are only two things which can be true here, neither of which match what Adam is doing in terms of actively continuing his existing streamed campaigns:
- Good safeguarding is a sufficient and proportionate safeguard for his existing campaigns. In which case it should be fine for new campaigns too and there’s no good reason for him to beg off on starting new ones due to this situation; the statement that he is going to do so is a meaningless PR gesture, and in general if your apology includes a meaningless PR gesture as opposed to something you actually sincerely mean that kind of means the apology is probably bullshit.
- Adam has realised his internalised attitudes are dangerous enough that he really should not start running new campaigns until he has sorted them out, even with safeguarding techniques. In which case, those same techniques won’t be sufficient for his existing campaigns and he should stop running those too, and by not doing so he is deliberately endangering his players, because, by his own admission, he has realised he cannot control himself in this respect and needs to do significant self-examination before he can be trusted again.
I bet that by the time his existing campaigns are done and he needs to start a new one to keep the e-fame flowing, he’ll discover that actually, the work he’d done on himself whilst his existing campaigns were running was sufficient, no need for a break at all. What convenient timing!
Of course, you may feel different about this and that’s your right. But if this does bother you and you were intending to promote or put down money for Dungeon World, it might be worth thinking about how you feel around promoting Adam’s work in light of this.
(Content warning: from here on in I am going to go more into the specifics of the incident)
The actual play footage of the incident unfolding is in some respects interesting as an example of how this sort of thing happens in practice. There is a tendency in the rhetoric around this for people, especially on the “I don’t get why safeguarding is important” side of the equation, to picture the most dramatic form of at-the-table fallout in these discussions; they imagine gamers so fragile that a mere brush against certain content triggers their PTSD and causes them immediate, visually apparent psychological agony.
Without wanting to minimise at all the impact this had on anyone participating in the game, that isn’t what goes down. Nobody abruptly starts screaming or kicks off an angry rant or starts crying. The response to what is going down is largely based around awkward silence, shocked facial expressions, and nervous, awkward laughter – not necessarily because you get the impression that people find the idea of “the mechanic you trusted takes you into the back and then plugs in a device which gives you an orgasm without seeking your consent” to be as hilarious as Adam clearly finds it, but because laughter is a reaction which can happen in extremely awkward situations, especially when you find something reminiscent of full-on Ricky Gervais-style cringe comedy unfolding in real life before your disbelieving eyes.
The session literally closes with Adam chuckling away to himself as all the players facepalm or express similar “this is extremely awkward/anxiety-inducing and I do not like this” body language/get off-cam entirely. It’s very evident, to me at least, that all the players find this a bit much, whilst Adam thinks the whole thing is hilarious – particularly with the way that he just barrels along with his explanation of the whole electronic orgasm thing without making the effort to read the room whatsoever.
That isn’t to say everyone was fine just because they didn’t react in a big, ostentatious way. It’s pretty clear that the players weren’t fine – they all unanimously quit after the session, after all! – but they needed to take a bit of time to take stock of what had happened and really process it. (That, and standing up and saying “fuck this, I quit” in the middle of an ongoing live stream may impact their ability to get work in future, even in light of this sort of severe provocation.)
Look at the after game discussion, too. When Elspeth says that her character would shout for help under those circumstances as the session ends (and one of the other players heartily agrees), Adam just gloatingly says “Robots need love too!” as though the mechanic had actually done Johnny a favour by giving him an orgasm without consent. This is the bit which makes me think that he really didn’t consider there to be anything wrong with what the mechanic had and didn’t even recognise it as assault, which is a particularly troubling failure to grasp the idea of consent.
And it’s very evident in the after-game discussion that some of the players have very strong feelings about what happened which they are not directly confronting Adam about, either because they do not want to derail the stream or because they don’t expect it will have a good outcome. What I think many referees need to understand is that people are not obligated to wear their hearts on their sleeves in terms of their emotional reactions, and in the case of tremendously awkward situations like this people can need time to actually process that emotional reaction before they can do much about it, or may otherwise feel constrained from directly expressing their thoughts. (As I understand it, when doing streaming – especially professional streaming as is the case here – one of the basic principles of the job is Thou Shalt Not Interrupt The Stream.)
Still, for many people it ought to have been possible to infer that something was off with the players. Sure, for some people that skill doesn’t come so naturally, that’s understandable. But that’s all the more reason to check in with people beforehand.
Again, sure, people were laughing in the moment. But then all the players quit.
UPDATE: It has emerged that this is not an isolated incident. In the Court of Swords livestreamed campaign, Adam threw in an incident where one of the players’ characters got possessed by a “creepy old man” and went off and had anonymous sex with loads of people at a bathhouse under the control of this entity, and this again was all played for laughs. Apparently in this case the players continued participating but they’re a regular group of his (this happens at around episode 129/130 of that campaign) and so they may well just be used to his shit.
The person who brought this up notes that Adam seems to have this habit of just assuming he knows what’s best for the PCs, regardless of player input, which would be consistent with the Far Verona incident and the way he decided that the best way to do a “Johnny learns to say no” plot is to put Johnny in a situation where he does not get the opportunity to say “no”. I find the comment that “it annoyed me around how he handles xp and goals, that he never listened to how much the players hated it, and they kinda gave up complaining” especially insightful, since it suggests both a) a referee who has decided he knows better than his players and b) players who have come to the realisation that raising complaints with Adam simply won’t accomplish anything, and that if they enjoy the overall campaign enough to want to keep playing the best thing to do is just bite their tongues during the awkward bits.