2019/02/15

OSR: On Zak (Sabbath) Smith

If you're not sure what all this is about, Justin Stewart (Dragons Gonna Drag) has an excellent summary post linking to several stories and accounts. You can also look through the Old School RPG Planet list. I'm not going to try and repeat any of it. Other people more closely connected to the entire event have already covered all the major points. So if this post is mostly about trivia, it's because I don't have much else to say. As usual, Cavegirl's got it covered.

 I believe women. I believe Mandy, Hannah, Jessica, and Vivka. Their abuser cannot debate, intimidate, or manipulate me into silence. There is no place for abusers among us. 

Everything below the jump is significantly less important than the preceding paragraph.



Monstrous Regiment - Terry Pratchett

My Interactions With Zak

When I told people I was thinking about starting a D&D blog, several people warned me about Zak Sabbath (DnD With Pornstars). Nothing clear, nothing concrete, but the equivalent of "don't get into an elevator alone with this guy" or "watch your drink" or "there's something off about him".

Zak is one of the main reasons I keep my real life completely separate from my RPG work. I'm so glad I set that up from day one.
 

I joined G+ at Arnold K (Goblin Punch)'s invitation and puttered around, blogging away. Zak turned up in a couple of comment sections, being charming and helpful and welcoming and all that, but we didn't really have an interaction until Sept. 2017. 

You can read the full thread here. I'd asked for advice on heist modules. Someone recommended Blades in the Dark. Zak replied immediately with "never promote Evil Hat", and I replied with.
"If I added the disclaimer "only post modules published by people n feuding, potentially feuding, offended by, or offending Zak S."... I'm not sure how many responses I'd get. Ever. To anything."
Not the most mature response, but by this point I'd read enough to start to get a sense of how Zak worked. I thought he was an internet tough guy; an alpha nerd with a Faberge ego who'd pick a fight with the sky on a cloudy day. And I had nothing to lose by calling him on it. I don't mind losing fights. If things went nuclear I could delete everything and walk away.

Because there were rumours. Call out Zak and "They" would start harassing you. "They" never turned up, but Zak did. We had a discussion in a private thread (which you can read here). In 6 posts total, he told me everything I needed to know. Please, read it.



Some of his arguments were logical. Some were appeals to my good nature. But they all lead to the same place. Arguing with Zak is like fighting smoke. You stop believing yourself. You lose track of your own principles, your own views, until eventually all that's left is Zak. The only way to make him go away was to make him think he won.

After that discussion, I could never see Zak as anything other than a liar, a manipulator, and a hypocrite; a Nixonian troll with a silver tongue and an Enemies List. I showed the conversation to a few people over the years. Some saw what I saw. Some didn't. Most just weren't sure.

And despite "knowing what Zak was", despite calling him out once or twice, what Mandy, Hannah, Jessica, and Vivka described shocked me.

If someone I trust had come to me on Feb 9th and told me, in point form, all the things in Mandy's post, I wouldn't have believed them. It's just too awful, too cartoonishly evil. Sure, Zak was a blowhard and an old-school intellectual troll but he wasn't a monster. 


But by Feb 10th there could be no doubt.

I was fooled. We were all fooled. Just because I poked fun at Zak doesn't mean I had any better idea of what was under the shell than anyone else. The revelations surprised and frightened me.



Common Questions

What Should I Look Out For?

Alex Schroeder (of, like, everything) has a great post on narcissism. Start there.

Zak worked by finding new people and love-bombing them, building up a web of charisma and obligation. He demanded apologies (like the one in my PM thread, or the one Brandon D describes in the comments here) if you crossed him, as a means of control and gratification. He recruited isolated and vulnerable people and stood "on their side", and when things got heated he used them as human shields.

So, going forward.

1. Watch out for Inner Rings. I read that famous C.S. Lewis essay when I was very young and it stuck with me. People will invite you into secret, intimate little clubs and you'll be gratified to be there... but you'll often find it's just a hollow shell. The mystery is greater than the contents.

On G+, Zak posted to private circles. To get in you had to petition him. Nobody else did this. Classic Inner Ring. And there were rings within rings.


2. Watch out for hypothetical fights. "If anyone ever came after you," Zak would always say, "I'll be on your side." It's nice to be supported but it costs nothing for someone to say this. You probably don't want people giving you unquestioning support all the time anyway. You might be wrong.

3. Watch out for people who can't laugh at themselves and can't allow others to laugh at them. To mock yourself implies you're not perfect. Most people know that and are fine with it. Some people want the world to see them as perfect, all-knowing, all-loving, always right creatures. It's not foolproof, but self-deprecating humour is a sign someone knows what they are; an ugly giant bag of mostly water.

4. Try to avoid secret disputes if one side has significantly more influence than the other. Zak had a flowchart (!) for how to deal with a disagreement. According to him, if you have concerns, gather up all the evidence and go to that person privately. If they're charismatic and clever (like Zak), they'll dismiss your concerns, make you feel awful for having raised them, and then add your evidence to their defense systems.

I had a brief and very minor disagreement with Patrick Stuart (False Machine). I went public with it (when I really should have spent more time talking it over with Patrick) in part because of Zak's system of isolating complaints and dismissing criticism. In retrospect, I was wrong. I should have handled the whole issue - from the very beginning of the project - with more sympathy and intelligence.

For the sake of completeness, there was also a later, separate but related issue where I turned one of Patrick's old posts into a PDF dungeon by putting in maps, but the less said about that the better. It's gone, deleted. I was moving very quickly on a project and the bit of my brain that would normally handle "how will people feel about this" was apparently on vacation.
Anyway, point is, it might be good to sometimes drag this stuff out into public view. Sure, you might come across like an idiot, but it's worth the risk if it exposes a systemic issue or a pattern. You shouldn't be afraid to call out the great and lordly if you think you need to.
5. This isn't directly related, but it's good advice for avoiding cult of personality traps. Do more work and less theory. Leave theorycrafting to people who aren't getting shit done. Let them write theories about the work you did.

EDIT. 6. Talk to any of your gaming groups about Zak. They might not be up to speed. They might not interact with the online community at all. Give them a summary. Link them to the statements. Warn them about people like Zak.

EDIT. 7. Anne Hunter (DIY & Dragons) has some suggestions on moving forward as a community.

 

I Own Zak's Books, What Do I Do?

That's on you. If you can use them without feeling guilty, use them. If you can't, get rid of them. You've got enough materialistic crap in your life. No need to boast or hand-wring about it online either.

RPGs are weird because there's a certain level of trust needed. Running a game using someone else's materials is like reprogramming your brain. It gets way deeper than a novel or a film. If you're going to open up your brain, and your friends' brains, you need to trust that what you're putting in isn't subtle poison.


If you buy his books in the future, a portion of that money will go towards supporting his abuse-enabling lifestyle. Don't do that.


So What About the OSR?

Joseph Manola (Against the Wicked City) has stopped using "OSR" to describe his work.  I respect that, but  I'm going to keep using it for 3 reasons:
1. I'm very lazy.
2. I don't think the revival or revolution is done yet. It's changing, but there's still a current of electric energy running through so many people. Content is mutating daily.
3. Zak tainted the OSR brand, before and after these revelations. To some people, OSR means "the old boys' club of neckbeards playing ancient games" or "the hostile edge of homebrew". I'd like to work on reclaiming the space, until Zak and the environment of fear he created  is just a bad joke and a distant memory.

Zak once said

Fuck that then and fuck it now. This was only Zak's world in his head.
Not only did the Emperor have no clothes he wasn't even an Emperor. He was just an angry naked dude on a soapbox.


Should I Be Mad At People Who Worked With Zak Or Defended Him?

I'm not. He was good at seeming. He had all of us fooled to one extent or another. And with rounding, given the horrific things he did to the people close to him, he had us all fooled to the same degree.

Zak never seemed to say "go send death threats to this person" or "go hunt down my enemies". He'd just say "someone should go after X" or "hey, have you seen anyone post on Y forum about me?" People would oblige because they wanted to be close to him.

But anyone who works with him in the future, beyond contractual obligations and edge cases, is done.

The whole community - people who can't normally agree if AC goes up or down - has come together to kick Zak to the curb. He has no place here, no dens he can slither in to hide.



A Final Note On Consent

I never thought I'd be blogging about BDSM but here we go. I want to get back to medieval book quotes with statblocks.
Zak's official response is a bit difficult to find. It's not on his main, famous, well-known blog or his personal twitter (because, I think, that'd associate it with his name, and that might tarnish his personal brand). It's on a newly created side blog. You can find it if you want to.

Anyway, in it Zak says:

As for Hannah’s allegations – what I say now is not an excuse but to simply point out I had no idea and no clue about any of this. She said that I slapped her and choked her “out of the blue” and in public – this was during a day when Hannah and I were talking and making out in broad daylight near a wall and Hannah said something about BDSM and I said something like, “do you like to be choked and hit?” and she smiled and said, “yes”. If I’d known there was anything to apologize for I would’ve immediately.
Hannah's take on the same incident:
There was also a strange incident when we were first hanging out together during which he asked if I was into kinky stuff, to which I replied yes. He proceeded to slap me and choke me against a wall, in public. Now, in a bedroom setting, with clear boundaries and consent, it would have been fine, but out of the blue and in public, it was not okay at all.
There's no contradiction. They both describe the same incident. No he-said, she-said; they said.

But "sex-positive" Zak missed a step and never realized it.

Being into something in principle isn't the same as being into it now with this particular person. You still need to check! I like tea. That doesn't mean I immediately want a mouthful of strong black tea prepared by a chain-smoking diner waiter with dandruff.

"Do you like to be choked and hit?"

   "Yes"
         "Would you like to be choked and hit, by me, right now?"

That last sentence never happened, even in Zak's retelling. He's so wrapped up in his own machismo-fueled world that the question would never occur to him. Of course she'd be into it with him and of course she'd be into it right now because he's into it right now and of course she's prefer his level of intensity and strength because it's his.

And in Zak's world, there are no other people. No other people like him. Just ugly giant bags of mostly water. Some of them he fucked. Some of them he fucked with.

But he can't ever fuck with us again.

28 comments:

  1. As expected of you, precise and full of useful information and advice. A lot of this has been said elsewhere in various ways, but you say it clearly and distinctly and give concrete advice going forward and it's good advice.

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  2. My only possible criticism is that it's really annoying to read those threads in the format you posted them. But otherwise, thank you Skerples, you're a cool dude.

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    1. Yeah, sorry, not much I can do there (especially if you're on mobile). With G+ going away I wanted to make sure they were archived properly.

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  3. I appreciate your comments on "what should I look out for". I firmly believe that the people Zak S manipulated into defending him are as much a victim of his abuse as anyone else. Obviously, the degree to which they were so abused is insanely low compared to his accusers, but his actions still manipulated and exploited them for his own personal gain. It may drops compared to an ocean, but it's still water.

    It's no one's fault that they were duped by him. But hopefully, going forward, he'll serve as an example that prevents other people like him from getting to the same, seemingly unassailable position of respect he had. The reason all this blew up overnight is because the warning signs weren't signs so much as big flashing neon highway signs that he would also occasionally pick someone to bash over the head with. Ideally, the next time someone starts acting like Zak, they'll be shot down when it starts rather than years later.

    I look forward to your return to medieval book quotes with statblocks as well. They're always a treat to read.

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  4. If anything I would feel bad for some of the people he has worked with in the past. They will be facing a lot of blow back from this. Not all of them and definitely not those who either try to pretend nothing has happened or sweep their previous involvement with him under the rug.

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  5. This is really well put, thanks for writing this, and collecting all thr relevant links.

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  6. Thank you for the BDSM comment. It wasn't the final nail in the coffin for me, but it was the nail that rang loudest and clearest in distilling his entire world view and how empty his champion posturing is. I was sure others would miss the nuanced significance (granted, not that it was needed, plenty of other fuel for that fire), but im glad youve showcased it here.

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  7. I'm still shocked that so many people are talking about this. (and yet here I am)

    Go make cool stuff and play games and don't let the turkeys get you down.

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    1. People not talking about it is how assholes like this are able to keep doing it. Saying things like "I'm still shocked that so many people are talking about this" and "Go make cool stuff and play games and don't let the turkeys get you down" is a form of silencing people. You're implying we shouldn't be shocked, saddened and angered that this goes on in our community when we damn well should be shocked, saddened and angered. I was at a party last night in a virtual strip club in Second Life. Everything was cool, people were being respectful, the dancers were being sexy when someone requested R. Kelly. I made an offhand comment about my being surprise his music was still being played anywhere and nobody noticed. Then the same person requested Alliyah-the artist who at 14 got manipulated by the then 27 year old Kelly into having sex with and illegally marrying him. I pointed out how going with that as a follow up wasn't very cool and nobody there knew about the allegations. So I informed them and proceeded to get told how it was no different from clubs playing Michael Jackson and how it wasn't hip to be square.

      I was basically shamed for bringing it up and bringing everyone down. I left the club just as a good friend of mine-the sim owner-entered the club. I knew if I kept going it would be pointless and all that would happen was I'd end up being ostracized. I'm still ending up ostracized I'm just ostracizing myself from the sim I've hung out in for the last four years because I don't want to associate with people who shame others for pointing out abusive behavior. That hopefully provides some context as to why statements like yours can easily derail constructive social awareness and better enable abusive assholes to operate.

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  8. Hey, I got called out! I was going to post pretty much the same thing here (I don't ever know which blogs/blog's authors are connected to each other), but you handled all the heavy lifting for me. :)

    And seriously, thanks for all you do. Your blog is one of the ones I kept in my Feedly list through the 16-ish months I steered clear of G plus and the various communities.

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    1. And really, I should have written a bit more than what I did.

      Specifically, re: Zak's books. I've seen this subject matter on reddit as well. Ethically, my stance is: I already own the books, the money received from them has long-since been in Zak's pockets, and the content of the books are not a vacuum that was only produced by Zak. Therefore, in support of good content that *many people* produced (though perhaps Zak was the primary author), I will still use them. I would even loan them to friends - but I would explain to them who Zak is (and I have done that in my group long before Feb 10th, it's just that now I have more to tell them).

      Ethically, I would have a hard time purchasing any new products of his, or old products of his I don't currently own. No matter how many other people worked on them, if his name is on the cover, he's getting majority share. I am conflicted on how to handle this. It's like how people say "Don't go see Kevin Spacey movies anymore," but shit folks, Kevin Spacey is one actor out of hundreds, and one person out of thousands who worked on it, and every other one of those needs getting paid too. Luckily for us, Kevin Spacey has no more stuff coming out we have to make conscious decisions about, but Zak still does. How do we handle that? What are everyone else's thoughts on this?

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    2. Completely different issue.

      I can’t do anything for Mandy. I don’t know either of them. I still don’t

      My interaction with Zak was online for at most a couple of months in 2014. I recognized he was a scummy narcissistic psychopath and just stopped paying attention.

      And that’s it.

      If this is what brings you to understand that domestic abuse exists and we must be vigilant about it then that’s a little good that’s come from an atrocity of someone allegedly ruining someone else’s whole life. Good.

      But that’s not why I’m here. I don’t bring my personal drama here. I don’t bring my d&d stuff into my daily life out in meatspace.

      It annoys me that these two different things are being conflated - even though each is valid and real and important.

      You’re not silenced. Nobody’s being silenced. I’m glad you are getting based on this.

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    3. I.. er... I think you meant to reply to someone else? Or if you're replying to me, I'm not entirely sure what your point is and what specific things I said that you're calling out...

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  9. That comment about being in the world zak made is precious. The OSR operated before him. He hit it like a cement truck and went to work doing what he does best: causing chaos and amassing a base he can manipulate.

    The OSR was fine before him and can only thrive now. HE is the one that said something like: if a person lies then they are nothing but a lying liar that can never, ever be trusted again.

    Yet he has lied to people and insists people operate in "good faith". And he had to get a lawyer over Mandy's post because he's a "public figure". His mind is an ugly, twisted trainwreck.

    He saw something (the OSR) he thought he could lead, gatekeep and make his empire, in reality he was difficult, hypocritical and abrasive from the start.

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  10. I can't say I'm surprised. Not sure why anybody would be, given his online behavior over the years, especially recent years, and the whole super porn star, crusader gamer-artist and high power, cult of personality ranting elite crap. Shame those girls had to suffer with that asshole. I used to read his posts from time to time, and some were interesting, but they became increasingly about him and I haven't even looked at the blog in prolly a couple years. Haven't bought any of his products either, after Vornheim, which sits unused and unwanted on my shelf. Good riddance Mr. Smith.

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  11. Good post, Skerples. Possibly the post of yours I like best of all. Be well.

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  12. >Zak never seemed to say "go send death threats to this person" or "go hunt down my enemies". He'd just say "someone should go after X" or "hey, have you seen anyone post on Y forum about me?" People would oblige because they wanted to be close to him.

    I mean... he did do that. There are screenshots of him pointing out blog posts or people on twitter and saying "Destroy" to people in his circles. This isn't really up for debate.

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    1. True story, I remember seeing one such post in 2013. Something about his girlfriend in the hospital and he couldn't deal with someone saying unkind things, and "get him" to his followers.

      Wish I had grabbed a screenshot...

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  13. Good post.

    Consent is always needed, no matter what.

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  14. A lot of people thought "I thought he was just a jerk/asshole, not a monster like this". I thought that too!

    But if someone is a jerk/asshole to others... why would they be angels to their partners? It's like the old story "if you are on a date and your date is a jerk to the waiting staff, that's a huge red flag"...

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  15. Man that was brutal. I'd ugly-cry if you or cave-girl would burn me like that

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    1. I can give you a few simple, easy-to-follow tips on how to avoid that... but I'm pretty sure you can figure it out.

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  16. "Maybe you just dislike hats"
    I love you Skerples.

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  17. Honestly? We SHOULD ostracize anyone who worked with Zak or defended him and then did not apologize publicly for it. Everyone knew he was a creepy jerk who would send people death threats and set up multi-year long doxing and harassment campaigns for the smallest slight. I can forgive stupidity, but when someone who supports an obvious Judas and then refuses to admit how dumb they were was probably just fine with Zak's horrid actions in the first place.

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