2019/11/29

OSR: On Lamentations of the Flame Princess

The story so far.

In February 2019, four women
(Mandy, Hannah, Jennifer, and Vivka) accused Zak (Sabbath) Smith of some truly appalling things. You can (and should, if the rest of this post is going to make sense) read my response here.

If you haven't heard of Zak (Sabbath) Smith and followed that link, I'm terribly sorry, because I've probably introduced a great deal of unpleasantness into your life. The long and the short of it is that the stories are highly credible. The entire RPG community - people who can't normally agree about anything - kicked Zak to the curb.

Side Note: Zak is suing Mandy Morbid for defamation. Lawsuits, especially punitive lawsuits, are expensive. She's got a GoFundMe here.
If you have heard of this, you're probably heartily sick of it by now. But plenty of people haven't so please, bear with me.

Zak's main publisher and supporter was Lamentations of the Flame Princess, primarily run and operated by James Raggi. For the purposes of this article, the two are interchangeable. LotFP might have other employees but it's mostly a one-human shop. That human released a statement in February. Most people (including me, at the time) went, "Oh, good, well that's sorted then."

Except it wasn't.

LotFP Discord, approximately 2019/02/14
Twitter, 2019/10/27
Well after GenCon and the release of "Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book"
So if that was a disavowal, it clearly didn't take.
Fucking "thanks"

"Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book"

Back in Feburary, when all this kicked off, speculation was running rife. Would LotFP fire Zak? Set his books on fire? Continue selling them? Would Raggi hire Zak, his biggest name content creator, under a pseudonym? I don't recall any specifics but it seemed vaguely omnipresent.

I don't know how the rest of the internet reacted, but I treated all this nonsense correct degree of skepticism for internet theories. Tempers were running high. Speculation was inevitable. In the absence of anything useful or helpful to do, people will speculate, debate, and create scenarios. Then stuff happens and they move on.

Stuff happened. Most people moved on.

But James Raggi didn't. At Gencon (August 2019), he released an module called "Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book", ostensibly as a raised middle finger against anyone who'd speculated he'd be in cahoots with Zak. From the official announcement:

I'll just say the title is inspired by certain people in the RPG industry thinking I was going to publish certain people under assumed names in order to skirt controversy. Other than the title, this product has no relation to real life events or drama.
I have... very strong feelings about using a sexual assault scandal as marketing.

If that was it, if the title was all the book had to do with this whole convoluted scenario, that'd be enough to put Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and James Raggi, forever in the Bin of Shame. Because you don't do that. You don't sell books based on someone's misery. How could anyone read these accounts and then go "I know what we'll call our next product." without splitting in half? "I know who the real victim is; me!"

But that wasn't everything. Not by a long shot.



Critical Empathy Failure

The book contained a choice passage. As phrased by reddit user jdeckert.
Basically, the NPCs have found a forbidden book and are looking to pin the blame on someone.
"They all settled on blaming... Zachary Canterbury, who goes by the nickname, Zak, because he said unwise things making it rather easy to be made the scapegoat."

"They all know they’re accusing an innocent man, and are doing so to prevent themselves from being subject to any kind of scrutiny."
Oof. Well, that's pretty bad. It does seem like the initial passive-voice reluctance in LotFP's February post wasn't just legalese. Appalling as that is, at least that's it... right?

Snakes on a Plane

No. The GenCon version of the book also contained an editorial essay. Either of these two articles dissect the essay with more precision than I can manage at the best of times. They're well worth reading.

The book wasn't just sold at GenCon. On September 22nd, 2019, Lamentations of the Flame Princess released the book on DriveThruRPG, pouring gasoline on a smouldering fire.

James Raggi quickly renamed the book, "An Analysis into the Nature of Man & the Satanic Power He Contains” which is perhaps a sign that he realized his usual marketing-via-controversy method, so successful in the past, had turned to bite him in the face.

Needless to say, people were annoyed. DriveThruRPG pulled the product, sending this note to some people. Via rpg.net (bolding mine).

Thank you for your patience while we discussed “An Analysis into the Nature of Man & the Satanic Power He Contains”. We appreciate the feedback we have received on this title whether it be from customers or publishers.

After our CEO returned to the office on Thursday, we were able to discuss and review this title together as a team. While it may not be the intended effect, the result brought greater attention and legitimacy to Zak Smith in the eyes of both his critics and supporters. In February, we decided to no longer carry future products from Zak Smith and in the spirit of that rule, if not the letter we have removed this title from our marketplace to support this prior decision in February.

If you have any further questions or concerns please let us know.

Leopards? Eating my face?

So by this point, I think it's pretty clear that James Raggi's disavowal at Zak was more of a shotgun divorce. Zak still profits (handsomely, by his own admission, even if no one else does) from his books that are still sold by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Raggi is still moping about snakes preventing him from working with this great upstanding artist.

Where "Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book" falls on the defensive-vanity-project to pitiless-cash-grab spectrum is debatable, but it's also fairly clear it's somewhere on that line.

But surely that's enough.

And yet, no.

It turns out that James Raggi lied to a collaborator on the book. Jez Gordon, a long-time artist and designer with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, had this to say. Via twitter (bolding mine).

My art appearing in a book does not mean I agree with everything that book might say. Nor does my graphic design for a newspaper mean I condone all the editorial content from the publisher, or my maps for government means I agree with everything that government does.
However, my artwork was recently featured in a satirical creation that made light of a very serious concern. Prior to doing the work I was assured that the book would not be controversial. It was, and given the history of the publisher, I was foolish to think it wouldn't be.

I won't retract my name from the publication, nor retract my work from the book. It's already out there, and I'll have to live with the aftermath of my choices. Just know that I regret my involvement and want nothing to do with this book.
While I do think Jez was caught by a trap that wouldn't have fooled Wile E. Coyote, it's still good that he recognized what happened.

And it's not good that James Raggi casually lied to one of his few remaining collaborators. In the grand scheme of things, especially considering Zak's behavior, it's not the worst sin in this post, but it still doesn't bode well for anyone working with him.


Cattle Call

Every so often, LotFP publishes a call for new talent. (The most recent one contains art that seems to be traced from Fire of Unknown Origin, but that's not really relevant.)

At this point, given what you've just read, working for Lamentations of the Flame Princess has got to be one of the dumbest ideas possible.

But if you think, knowing what you now know, that it's still a good trade, if you're heeding that call... I would be vaguely interested to hear what you're placing on the other side of the scales.

If you are still working with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, don't really don't need to justify yourself to me. Justify yourself to yourself. Read this post and explain the cost-benefit analysis in your head. Try to figure out why this is worth it to you.

How far away does your work have to sit from "Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book" and James Raggi, its author, before you're morally comfortable with your choices?

Maybe you're putting profit or market access or support or friendship on one side of the scales, but at least look at the monstrous heaving weight on the other side.

What Should I Do?

Whatever makes you able to live with yourself.

I can't talk about "community values" or whatever without reaching for the "Delete Entire Blog" button. It's not how I roll. I do not want to police any sort of community. I wrote this because I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. I do not like this stuff, I am bad at it, I want to write about 14th century grain laws and hedgehoglings.

But in situations like this, all I can do is lay out my views, with links and citations. You sort out the rest.

Maybe your favorite module was published by LotFP. Maybe you like the system. Maybe you've written for LotFP in the past. Maybe you stock them in your store. Maybe you've got them on your shelf.

Whatever. Now you know. It's on you.




Edit 2019/12/13: A commenter pointed out I had the name of one of Zak's accusers wrong. I have made the correction.

15 comments:

  1. If you couldn't tell by the artwork or the crazy shit in lotfp material that everyone involved was not someone that you'd want to be associated with, you might have rolled a 1 on your perception check.

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    1. There's some truth to this, alas (which is not to say there aren't some great LotFP modules).

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  2. I feel that I am in a strange bind. The majority of material for my blog is based on LotFP's core. I entered the OSR scene before most of the craziness with Zak had broken. Lamentations had an edgy label, but I paid it no mind becaause of two major reasons:

    - It is my favorite retroclone from a rules perspective.

    - I was brought into OSR through DCO and Veins.

    I have no great love for Zak. One of my first attempts to share my material was under a different name and was absolutely torched by the dude, but that is nothing compared to what others had to go through. And I certainly don't want to be ever be associated with them.

    So what is the solution? Go through and re-do my own work with OSE or B/X? Apologize for associating myself with a system because I liked 1-in-6 skills?

    I know I have only been around this scene for a few months. I don't have the buy-in that others do, including you. This has been weighing on me for a while, and I am glad to be given a reason to speak about it openly.

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    1. There are no easy answers. I've got some LotFP-adjacent content on here too. Do I add a disclaimer? Delete it? Can I, in good conscience, recommend a good book currently sold by LotFP?
      No easy answers.
      System-wise, everyone ends up running a homebrew anyway, so writing your own houserule document to give arms-length distance is viable. It's a good learning experience too.

      Delete
    2. @boxinabox I was actually thinking of you as I read this post! LotFP is actually what got me into OSR, and there are many LotFP books I still reluctantly enjoy. You do awesome stuff that is true to the spirit of LotFP at its best, and you should keep doing it. In classic OSR/DIY fashion, maybe just file off the serial number!

      Delete
  3. LotFP is a BX derived ruleset. Find one or create one that has the same vibe you like so much. People will thank you for that and you might make some coin in the process.

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  4. We used to do lotfp compatible books. Now we're doing old school essentials.

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  5. Did you miss the “shitting himself” posts? Check YDIS. The core issue here is that Raggi should have immediately stood up for his friend if he believed that Smith didn’t abuse and rape those porn actresses. Raggi did not do this, nor did he fully condemn the guy which is what most of this post is about. He tried to take the middle ground which is leading to the same result as if he had just stood by his “friend.” I am a definite fan of the LotFP stuff by kowalski and chandler and the Hite module was also superb, but those days are long past. Just remember, Raggi himself didn’t rape or abuse anyone, he’s just been obviously very confused about how he should handle all this and has made pretty much all the wrong choices so far and embarrassed himself and his brand at every turn, which is sad to see after some good modules and the excellent referee guide in the early years.

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    1. I vaguely encountered the "shitting himself" posts via that notorious old troll Ettin.
      I thought YDIS was deleted after the author accidentally outed themselves? Or am I thinking of the wrong rageblog?
      Anyway, there's always the temptation to make stuff like this funny. Lord knows I've failed to resist that temptation a few times. But it isn't funny. People were, and are, hurt. I don't want to grandstand or roast anyone. I just want people to know, you know?

      Delete
  6. "Now you know" is probably the best way you can share these sorts of things.

    As for me, I don't particularly want to give LotFP my money after watching this situation play out.

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  7. Thanks for writing this even though I'm sure it wasn't fun to do. It was useful to me at least.

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    1. I wouldn't say this was entirely un-fun to write. And I think that's very dangerous, and it's something I struggled with while revising this post.
      Outrage can be addictive. Anger can be performative. It's easy to criticize (and, as Homer Simpson pointed out, fun too). I wanted to make sure that I wasn't doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and that my motives are what I think they are.

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  8. I ended up owning a lot of tgeir stuff due to a bundle purchase long before I knew about zs. I have other clones to use.

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  9. The LotFP ruleset is really intriguing and unique, but... I was actually just reading Better Than Any Man and couldn't get through it, because I am not interested in roleplaying through the graphic abuse of women. Then I visited the LotFP blog and saw they are/were releasing a spells supplement called "Vaginas Are Magic!" Then I tried listening to Matt Finch interview Raggi and turned it off when Raggi proudly boasted about targeting Scandinavian women to facilitate emigrating from the US. I don't know much about the Zak S thing, but Raggi is obviously a misogynist and represents that in his brand.

    I'd also like to say, as a metalhead, he's not trv kvlt, he's an adolescent shock rock poseur.

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  10. A post on 14th century grain laws sounds fascinating.

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