Turns Out Zak S. Is Worse Than We Thought

If you’ve been around RPG online discussion for a while – a somewhat different field from simply writing, playing and enjoying tabletop RPGs, with less overlap between the two than you might expect – you’ll probably be aware of one Zak Sabbath – AKA Zak S., AKA Zak Smith. He’s an artist, a porn actor, and a game writer and publisher. In terms of his RPG writing credentials, he first gained visibility through his blog Playing D&D With Porn Stars, which at least in its early phases came across as an entirely wholesome account of his fun home campaigns played, as the title implies, primarily with friends and colleagues he met through the porn world. The blog would later spawn a spin-off off video series on The Escapist, entitled I Hit It With My Axe.

On the back of this initial exposure, Zak has built an audience within the tabletop RPG community. He’s produced some well-received OSR-flavoured gaming materials, such as Vornheim (published through the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game line). He was one of several figures named as having been “consultants” on 5E Dungeons & Dragons; he also wrote a text-based mobile game for the new Paradox-controlled White Wolf as one of the first releases in their new Vampire: the Masquerade game line.

If you’re not the sort of person who keeps a weather eye on online forum culture or Internet RPG discussion, odds are that you’d only be aware of the above – if, indeed, you are one of the people who actually care about what name appears on an RPG supplement in the first place. (I greatly suspect that those people account for much less of the hobby than you may think.) In RPG discussion circles, however, for years Zak has had a vastly more controversial reputation.

Zak is persona non grata at a wide selection of RPG forums and platforms. Typically, he’ll get banned because of his posting style. Zak’s rhetorical style can best be described as take-no-prisoners; he charges in, asserts his point vigorously, has no qualms about demonising or belittling his opponents – suggest that there’s too much chainmail bikini cheesecake material and too little sensible armour in RPG artwork and he’ll compare you to Tipper Gore (because he’s stick in the mid-1990s for some weird reason) – and basically charges into a debate like a bull in a china shop. He has very developed and specific opinions and rules as to how debate should go, and if he spots somebody not following those rules he will try to present them as participating in bad faith.

This pattern has happened over and over again, over a wide range of fora, including his own blog. In general, he treats every disagreement or debate like it’s a full-on battle of crucial importance. It makes him very, very exhausting to discuss anything with, and I long ago gave up any attempt to engage him. (He tried to comment here once – a one word comment, “Ew”, in response to some article I wrote; I forget which because the comment was long since binned and purged, but I think it might have been this one. The only way to “win” at Zak is not to play his game, or let him into your playground in the first place.)

In short, Zak’s approach to online discussion is not conducive to a chill, relaxed space where people chat about their hobby in an essentially friendly manner. Rather, it’s the sort of rhetorical tactic which will turn a forum into a screeching hellhole of divisiveness, and under the circumstances it’s no surprise that many forum owners and moderators find it easier to do without Zak’s presence. The last I was aware, he was still welcome at therpgsite – I suspect because it’s run by the RPGPundit, who’s got a similar reputation for off-the-hook aggressive debating tactics.

The Pundit connection is significant. Back when 5E D&D was being released, a clutch of “consultants” were named in the Basic Rules PDF – Rob Monroe gives a fairly neutral accounting of them here. As I understand it, their role was mostly to act as sounding boards for Mike Mearls and his team to bounce ideas off of, so the concept of getting people with a wide range of outlooks on RPGs for that sort of consultancy is a good one. It’s a pity that none of the people listed are women, and an extra double pity with cream that the folk listed included RPGPundit or Zak S., neither of whom really rate on the same level as a Jeff Grubb, a Robin Laws or a Ken Hite, and both of whom took a substantial ego boost out of being named in that exalted company.

It was around this time that I became aware that a number of people had accused Zak of either directly harassing them himself, or mobilising fans through various platforms to do that. A number of people wrote in-depth posts about Zak and the issues surrounding him (and Pundit), such as this one from Fail Forward, and others such as the Problematic Tabletop blog have tried to bring together various evidences of the behaviour of Zak along with other toxic elements of the community. (Unfortunately, Problematic Tabletop used donotlink for a lot of their links – which now don’t redirect anywhere except a French domain squatter’s advertising page about folding touchscreens.) “Consultantgate” was underway, as folk decried Wizards for legitimising Pundit and Zak to that extent.

The tricky thing is that the nature of a lot of the harassment involved meant that – particularly before Problematic Tabletop and others did a lot of the legwork – actually recognising the pattern involved wasn’t all that easy for folk who hadn’t already been at least partially aware of Zak’s recurrent online behaviours. Shawn Struck hit the nail on the head when he outlined how Zak operates to give himself some form of plausible deniability. Since then, Problematic Tabletop has gathered some much more direct evidence – such as screencaps of Zak posting a link to some article he disagreed with, along with the on-word command “destroy” – and people have given cogent accounts of their own experiences with Zak, but at the time much of the evidence readily available was either far more indirect, or had been deleted and not archived.

So, Zak plead innocence and claimed that people were making mountains out of rhetorical molehills; depressingly, Wizards of the Coast seemed to believe him – and the Paradox-controlled White Wolf seemed to believe him later on, when objections were raised after they hired him to make that Vampire text game. I won’t go into all the complaints about that game, but I will note that it was one of the first signs that the Paradox-controlled White Wolf were going down the edgelord route real hard, taking the worst excesses of 1990s White Wolf and cranking them up to 11 – to the stage where Paradox has recently had to step in, dissolve White Wolf, and reconstitute it as a carefully managed and supervised subsidiary which no longer has that much independence and exists solely to licence out work and handle the approvals process with licencees, much as it was in the latter days of its ownership by CCP. (There’s a quote about a severed ass which goes around which reveals the absolutely risible writing standards the game is lumbered with.)

Controversy rumbled on from Consultantgate onwards, with new outbreaks occasionally happening (such as when Zak’s Vampire: the Masquerade game was announced.) Around the time of Consultantgate, Zak’s partner Mandy Morbid – despite being quite ill at the time – put out an impassioned defence of him; Zak would extensively link back to this, particularly when defending himself against allegations that women and/or LGBT+ folk tended to be recurring targets of his ire. Those opting to defend Zak would tend to link Mandy’s post on the subject, because of course why wouldn’t they? This is someone in Zak’s life who knows him extremely well, giving another perspective on the situation, and who was finding the whole situation distressing at a time when she was dealing with an ongoing chronic illness.

Time rolled on. More incidents happened. Bit by bit people who had defended Zak previously started backing away from him, as it became more and more difficult to deny that there was a problem there. (After all, if even 90% of the accusations against him are false, the remaining 10% are pretty fucked.) At one point Zak was caught red-handed impersonating Shannon Appelcine, owner of RPG.net, on Reddit, and pulled out the old “oh, my friend was using my computer as a joke” excuse, which seemed to nudge a few people out of his corner.

Now, however, we have a bombshell. Yesterday, Mandy Morbid re-emerged – having gone quiet for a good while – to reveal that she had split up from Zak, and that throughout their relationship Zak had been abusive towards her.

Mandy’s words are difficult to read – there’s violence in there, there’s lack of consent, there’s threats, there’s all sorts of shit, so I am not going to copy-paste them to here for the time being and will instead link them. (If you are Facebook-averse here is an archive.is link.)

It’s entirely possible that Mandy will come under attack from Zak’s defenders for posting this. I hope the support network around her will do what it can for her during that; she does at least seem to have a lot of support on the Facebook post itself. In particular, it’s heartening to see people saying that they had defended Zak previously but now felt differently, or that they were going to decline opportunities to work with him in the light of all this.

Whilst it is a shame that they didn’t see through Zak previously, I do applaud them for changing their minds with the emergence of new evidence. It is difficult to abandon an entrenched position when you have held it this long, and whilst we can carp on them for deciding to take that position in the first place, I feel that the “nyah, I told you so” angle is unhelpful and unimportant next to the community doing right by Mandy by supporting her – and doing right by itself by not giving an abuser the free run he’s had so far.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that it’s Mandy’s words that have nudged people into definitively breaking with Zak – or convinced them that their previous decision to break with him was the right call. That essay that Mandy put out in defence of Zak that I mentioned earlier? I was careful to say “put out” and not “wrote” because, whilst it was published through her blogging platforms and presented as coming from her, Mandy now says that Zak wrote the entire dang thing and had her publish it under her name, and that one of the major fault lines in their relationship was how he dragged her into his “online gaming arguments nonsense”.

This is far from the worst thing that Mandy reports, but it’s surely the one which sticks in the mind of many of Zak’s former supporters, since “Mandy’s” defence of Zak seems to have played no small part in persuading them of Zak’s good character. Mandy speaking out certainly has made Rob Monroe disavow his previous stance on Zak.

Another story worth looking at is that of Patrick Stuart from the False Machine blog, who over the past five years has gone on quote a journey in his interactions with Zak. At first he was an emphatic Zak supporter. Then he attempted to put together a timeline of all the facts which, whilst I think it tends to come at things from a Zak-believer’s perspective (it puts a lot of weight on people +1’ing a Google Plus post about James Desborough which Zak chose to kick off a crusade about, for instance), does end up highlighting how Zak clearly isn’t wholly innocent in all this; it’s pretty hard to correlate all the information together and not come away with questions about what Zak’s been playing at.

Then, despite clearly still wanting to be a pal with Zak on some level, seems to have decided that this simply wasn’t possible given how Zak behaves all the time; here Patrick finally snaps at Zak and says “People call you a dick because you act like a dick.” As Patrick notes in his latest post, responding to Mandy’s revelations, the connection to Zak in and of itself seems to have had a poor effect on his mental health; Zak seems to be a very, very difficult person to be online friends with (which should give you some idea of just how difficult people find it to be his enemy). I am going to quote Patrick here because I suspect these words of his may resonate with those who have been trying to reconcile their own interactions with Zak with what Mandy has said:

Its the dual-vision of being friends with Zak. There’s this person who’s such a great guy, and so interested in you personally, so talented, intelligent, charming and funny, with rare good taste.

And then there is this other guy. The one that comes out in text form usually. In arguments about nerd stuff. This guy is condescending, aggressive, clever and manipulative. This guy will say anything to win some fucking internet argument and never, ever, ever admits wrong, backs down or recognises the humanity in his opponents.

The first guy has friends who like him. They second guy has tools, things he uses, doling them out like playing cards or little army men.

At first it seems like the vituperative shit online is just a flaw in the larger person. Something you will have to put up with, a manageable flaw in an otherwise good man.

It takes a long fucking time to work out that the second guy is the real actual guy. That is the person making the decisions and for whom the decisions are made. The first person, the good guy, is just a set of behaviours he puts on like clothes.

Certainly, between the material that Problematic Tabletop has amassed since this controversy first kicked off, what Mandy has been brave enough to say now, and the way others who have previously been close to Zak have said “Yeah, actually, that kind of is how it is to be friends with him”, it feels like if you aren’t already persuaded that Zak has engaged in entirely inappropriate actions, you’ll never be persuaded of it.

Update: This situation has blown up and I would not blame anyone if they find it impossible to keep up with more than a fraction of what is being said about it. But there’s something which shouldn’t get lost in the hustle, and that’s Viv’s story as another one of Zak’s ex-partners.

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Spreadsheets, Seeds, and Scenarios: A Sampling of Little Black Books

Classic Traveller fans have a certain fondness for the so-called “Little Black Book” format – the run of game products and accessories whose form factor matched the original small black booklets the rules originally came in. Sure, they didn’t have amazing art, but they otherwise benefitted from a somewhat more consistently clear layout and arrangement than was typical of RPGs of the era, and they managed to balance being cheap enough to be worth dropping a bit of money on whilst having just enough page count that they gave you something useful without going into a redundant level of detail.

When I got that cheap copy of Deluxe Traveller I mentioned previously, it also came with a nice collection of LBB supplements – only the tip of the iceberg as far as the entire run went, but with enough variety in there to, as I’ll outline below, cover the an interesting cross-section of the range. The one significant omission I’d say would be books offering substantive expansions or additions to the actual Traveller rules – such as the supplemental Books 4-8, or Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium, which greatly expanded the range of character backgrounds available to player characters.

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Did Traveller Invent the “Campaign Framework”?

A while back I got the opportunity to pick up at a reasonable price a nice copy of Deluxe Traveller. This was a version of the core Traveller rules that GDW published (and gave Games Workshop the rights to release in the UK) in 1981, once Traveller really started getting hot. It comprised the three core booklets of Classic Traveller in their 1981 revisions, a couple of dice, and Book 0 – a beginner’s guide to the game which, as I’ve outlined previously, might be the single most detailed introduction to the hobby written with a view to explaining it to outsiders that existed at that point. (Basic Dungeons & Dragons did exist at this point, but that of course was replete with system stuff – Book 0 is, in effect, a system-free multi-part essay.)

And on top of that, Deluxe Traveller gives you a colour map of the Spinward Marches – later bundled into the MegaTraveller core box – and The Imperial Fringe. This is billed as an introductory adventure but, aside from an introductory encounter, there isn’t much adventure to it – it covers the PCs starting out their post-mustering out careers as Traveller adventurers and getting recruited by the Imperial Scout Service – giving them an opportunity to earn a very welcome extra chunk of cash if they spend a day or so surveying the systems they visit so that the central Scout database can be updated accordingly.

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Getting Into Glorantha

Glorantha has a strong claim to being the second oldest fantasy setting to have been introduced to the general public through the medium of tabletop gaming. Sure, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk and Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaigns were the first campaign worlds developed specifically for Dungeons & Dragons, but before either of them had hatched those worlds Greg Stafford had been tinkering away on Glorantha since the 1960s, with the public’s first sight of it being the boardgame White Bear and Red Moon. M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel setting is the only gameworld that can claim to be older whilst still fitting the criteria of its first public offerings being gaming products – those being Empire of the Petal Throne and its little-discussed companion boardgame War of Wizards – since Barker had apparently been working on it since the 1940s. Beyond that, settings like Middle Earth, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos or Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age were all, of course, introduced to the public via stories in other mediums, and only later adapted to gaming formats.

Any world which has been tinkered with by its creator and his collaborators for half a century is going to accrete an awful lot of detail – and getting those details straight is a challenge, particularly when changes to the canon have been made here and there and when the published depictions of the world have unfolded over four decades, winding their way through multiple different publishers – Chaosium, Avalon Hill, Mongoose and Moon Design being the major ones, with Moon Design’s assumption of leadership roles at Chaosium bringing it all full circle.

It is fitting, then, that the lead minds at Moon Design would, shortly before and shortly after they became the guiding intelligences at Chaosium, be involved in crafting definitive, canonical depictions of Glorantha, to provide clear and definitive foundations for future explorations of the world and to sum up multiple decades of accreted material.

One of these projects, the Guide to Glorantha, was undertaken prior to Moon Design’s fusion with Chaosium, but sort of ended up being the product which made that possible in the first place – produced in close collaboration with Stafford and Sandy Petersen, who between them would assume sole ownership of Chaosium after negotiating Charlie Krank’s exit from the business, it was funded through a Kickstarter. The successful completion of that Kickstarter meant that Moon Design had accumulated both experience with the Kickstarter process and, perhaps more crucially, goodwill with gamers – which made them a good pair of hands to handle the delivery of the troubled 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu Kickstarter.

The Guide is now put out by Chaosium themselves, having been integrated into their product lines; The Glorantha Sourcebook, an introductory book of more modest dimensions and different emphasis, was later produced by Chaosium.

So much for the publishing history; are the books any good? Let’s dive in and find out.

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Bundle of Armies

To follow up on my Kickstopper article about the 3rd Edition Unknown Armies crowdfunding project, I thought I’d offer three braces of mini-reviews of the various Unknown Armies supplements that got offered up as PDFs in the Bundle of Holding a while back; since Bundles get rerun from time to time, I thought this might help someone who missed out on the Bundle originally decide whether to jump in if it pops up again.

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Kickstopper: Unknown Armies 3rd Edition

It makes sense that many of Greg Stolze’s recent projects have had Kickstarters associated with them, seeing how Greg was doing crowdfunding well before Kickstarter became a significant platform for RPG publication. Back when he was self-publishing REIGN, Greg pioneered the use of crowdfunding in RPG publication by his so-called “ransom model” – he’d write a product, set a “ransom” for it, and then release it to the world for free once the ransom had been paid.

The ransom model was a good way for Greg to ensure he wasn’t putting out too much stuff which nobody actually wanted, and to get a reasonably predictable level of recompense for his writing time; if a product struggled to hit the ransom, he’d know that the market was less hot for it than a product which hit ransom quickly. At the same time, the ransom model rewards freeloaders and doesn’t offer anything extra to people who chip in beyond the satisfaction of knowing you contributed to the product being released. If you were confident that a particular thing that Greg had written was popular and would hit its ransom anyway, then there was little reason for you yourself to pay any of the ransom – and that factor, perversely, gets stronger the more apparently-popular the product is.

Kickstarter, by comparison, avoids this issue. Some Kickstarters are a back-this-or-miss-out affair, where if you weren’t in on the crowdfunding campaign, you won’t get the product, but the majority of them still make their fruits available to the general public eventually (should the products in question actually get made at all, that is); this means that if people genuinely can’t afford to throw money in during the funding period they don’t necessarily miss out completely. At the same time, Kickstarter allows project creators to appropriately reward people who do pitch in, ensuring that their contribution is valued and creating a reason to want to get in during the funding period when you could just hold onto your money and wait.

It’s appropriate, then, that when Atlas Games decided that it was the right time to bring out a new edition of Unknown Armies, they used Kickstarter to do it. And where there’s a Kickstarter, there’s scope for a Kickstopper…

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Kickstopper: Friends, Romans, Great Old Ones!

One of the recurring strengths of Call of Cthulhu is that it’s very easily adapted to other time periods. Tweak the skill list to remove anachronistic skills, introduce skills appropriate to the time period, and update the baseline skill values appropriately – people are likely to have a generally higher level of computer skill in a present-day game than one set in the 1970s, where computer use is likely to be a highly specialised skill, for instance. Once you’ve done that, you’ve done 90% of the work; do an equipment list and a career list and you’re basically there.

Cthulhu Invictus is a game line which takes this principle to heart by adapting Call of Cthulhu to ancient Rome. It’s also not a game line which Chaosium themselves are interested in directly managing these days – though they did put out material for it for 6th Edition Call of Cthulhu, and did include some conversion guidelines in Cthulhu Through the Ages.

Instead, in 2017 they gave Golden Goblin Press, a third party publisher, a 3-year licence to handle the line, beginning with The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus – a new core book, updated to the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu rules. What happens when that three years up, I rather suspect, depends on how well Golden Goblin do as custodians of Cthulhu Invictus. How’s the line’s flagship product, as produced via this Kickstarter? Let’s have a see…

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Friends, Romans, Great Old Ones!”