In the past, I’ve written about the OSR as well as those discussing “edgelords” in tabletop role-playing games. In my articles, I glossed over controversial individuals and the problems surrounding them; I neither want to give them the attention they seek nor did I feel like attracting their “followers.”
Things changed this week when one of these individuals went from merely considered aggressive online to being accused of abuse and sexual assault.
The individual in question is Zak Smith, aka Zak Sabbath or Zak S, a game designer, author, artist, and pornographic actor.
Zak Smith runs the “Playing D&D with Pornstars” blog and worked on Lamentations of the Flame Princess (alongside controversial designer James Raggi). He’s won multiple ENnies for his writing and art and been a contributor on everything from Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition to the Vampire: the Masquerade mobile game.
He also has a bad reputation, with accusations ranging from being argumentative and toxic to bigotry and outing trans individuals, and even organizing harassment and doxxing campaigns. How accurate those allegations are is still debated, but years of blog posts and social media comments have done little to deny the claims.
Many fans of Smith’s work (which was often considered “edgy” but well-crafted) chose to defend him – often to a fault. “He’s abrasive online, but a good guy overall” was a common excuse. Other fans fell into more extreme ideologies, claiming that any criticism against Smith was the fault of “SJWs” or other derogatory labels
This past Sunday, however, a line was crossed that even the staunchest defender apparently couldn’t accept.
On Feb. 10th, Mandy Morbid, Zak Smith’s ex-partner, posted on Facebook her experiences with him over their decade-long relationship. The allegations include threats, psychological abuse, and sexual assault, directed at her and other women.
She claims his online personality wasn’t a façade. He wasn’t “nice” or “progressive” in real-life and “just abrasive” in his arguments. Instead, she condemned his online behavior and campaigns against others, which were true to real-life narcissism and an abusive personality.
Mandy didn’t just share her story, but that of two others who had been in relationships with Zak. Both women recounted instances of sexual assault and mental abuse by Smith, as well as manipulative & narcissistic behavior, and little care for anyone but himself.
Morbid’s accusations came as a shock to many, as she had long stood by Smith’s side – even writing a post defending him against many other accusations. Fans and followers had taken her actions (as well as the post) as evidence that the RPG industry and community had unfairly maligned Zak.
However, Morbid dropped the bombshell in her post that she hadn’t written the post after all; Smith had apparently used her account to write it himself, and she had simply forgiven him out of misguided loyalty to an abusive relationship. This incident would be the latest in a long line of claims that Zak used “sock puppet” accounts to defend himself while simultaneously attacking others.
Another accuser, Vivka Grey, posted her own experiences of abuse and rape, furthering the outrage. Thankfully, the RPG community appears far less likely to victim-blame or practice mental gymnastics. Most people united in support of the women and shunned the accused.
The overall reaction from many was support for Mandy Morbid and complete disgust with Zak Smith. Those who’d been victims or simply witnessed his past behavior said, “I told you so,” while long-time fans of his work (and even friends) turned their backs on him.
Although tackling toxicity in gaming from the grassroots level is essential, it’s important to remember that the industry must do something as well. From designers to publishers to social media admins, leaders and creators need to act. In this instance, that is precisely what happened.
Within a day of Morbid’s post, Smith was banned from most significant subreddits, like /r/rpg and /r/osr. He had long been blocked from many sites to the point of accusing places like RPG.net of hypocrisy and censorship, and now even more forums were closed to him.
The Gauntlet, one of the largest communities, podcasters, and RPG organizers were the next to respond, banning all of Smith’s games from their events and restricting discussion of him (or his products) on their forums. They even went as far as to cleanse their podcasts of interviews or promotions involving him and also warned conventions that thought about hosting him that they’d boycott them.
Shortly afterward DriveThruRPG – the primary distributor of RPGs in electronic format – announced their refusal to carry any new products from Zak Smith. They would still sell old products he was involved in, so as not to penalize others who’d worked on them, but all profits would be donated to RAINN, an anti-sexual assault organization.
Paul Gallagher, or “Geist,” author of Augmented Reality, contacted Smith and rescinded a deal he’d made the previous year for access to Gallagher’s system. Gallagher denied not only any second consideration but also stated his intent to remove the credit in the book for Zak.
Kenneth Hite, a long-time author and designer, publicly denounced Smith and warned that he had submitted work toward Zak’s latest project before the accusations were made. He apologized for his association and declared his intent to donate his portion of proceeds from the project to CAWC, a domestic violence charity.
The consequences continue, and most hope the entire industry continues to cut him off. Unfortunately, among all this solidarity, probably the most crucial RPG company has only half-heartedly responded.
At the time of this writing, D&D and Wizards of the Coast had made no official statements regarding Zak Smith, who was listed as a contributor and playtester. The only comments at the time, had come from Jeremy Crawford, the lead rules designer, and Mike Mearls, the senior manager.
Crawford sent a simple tweet stating that he never worked with him. He was unaware of any official announcements from WotC, but “would ask around the office when [he] return[ed].”
Mearls, however, provided a somewhat insincere and superficial dismissal on Twitter.
To claim that Smith was just some “early playtester” is disingenuous at best; there were many playtesters, but he was one of the few to warrant a named reference. Also, most of the allegations against him weren’t “recent,” except for the sexual assault; Mearls knew about the claims of abuse, harassment, and toxicity years ago.
**UPDATE** Mearls’ comments aside, D&D and WotC did end up taking a firmer stance. They disavowed Smith, and took steps to ensure to their audience(s) that they would never tolerate or defend any other toxic individuals.
On February 19, 2019, Wizards of the Coast and D&D released a statement on their website lamenting their involvement with Smith. The crux of their statement was as follows:
Zak Smith, along with many others, was engaged by Wizards to provide feedback on D&D Next, the playtest which evolved into D&D fifth edition. We have not contracted with him since, and regret our choice to do so in 2014. Because of that, we are removing Zak’s credit from future physical printings and digital versions of the Player’s Handbook.
Three days after the accusations, after much silence, Zak Smith responded on a brand new blogspot he created solely for his defense. He posted a detailed message refuting the women’s complaints and quoting other women who supported his view of events.
Unfortunately, his defense wasn’t received well, and people pointed out numerous tactics employed throughout the post. Smith primarily used a behavioral technique commonly employed by perpetrators known as DARVO, where an accused individual Denies the claims, Attacks the accusers, and Reverses the Victim and Offender roles.
Smith denied all wrongdoing, claiming it was either lies or misinterpretations, while simultaneously attacking Morbid and the other women by detailing their sex lives (as if to discredit them) and dismissing them as angry exes. He played the victim, as he talked about all the good he’d done for Mandy and painted her as dominant, sexually-demanding, and even physically abusive.
Throughout the defense, he included photos of her with one of the women refuting Morbid’s claims, as if to give his defender credibility. There was even an undated message where Mandy supposedly held no ill-will upon their break-up.
Despite all this, multiple forums showed that few people believed in Smith’s sincerity and most highlighted the well-known manipulative techniques where his accusers were made to look bad while he was painted in the most favorable light. They also noticed he didn’t directly address several claims, and even tried to blame controversy over his online behavior on a “sometimes volatile online gaming community.”
So far, the days of silence and his questionable post have not swung the public’s opinion of Smith back.
As the community and industry move forward from this, it’s heartening to see gamers unified in their support of women and against an individual who has long been considered one of the most divisive people in RPGs. Unfortunately, it’s also disappointing that it took accusations of abuse and sexual assault for people to stand against him. Years of narcissism, bullying, and toxicity were acceptable to far too many.
Hopefully, the responses we’ve seen will set a new bar and act as a warning against those remaining controversial figures (and their followers). We’re already seeing some writers and designers (including the OSR community) take a stand against all forms of abuse, while consumers take their dollars elsewhere.
Between the failure of #DnDGate, what went down with White Wolf, and now this, everybody is showing that RPGs are done with broflakes, edgelords, and toxic people. May we continue to push the worst types back into the shadows they belong and stand united against abuse and assault, online and in real life.
“I believe women. I believe Mandy Morbid. Her abuser cannot debate, intimidate, or manipulate me into silence. There is no place for abusers among us. #AbuseIsNotAGame #OSR”
On a personal note, this piece was tough for me as I was a childhood friend of Zachary Smith. He was among my first RPG group in 4th grade, during the era of Palladium and Marvel FASERIP, and we gamed together for years. Even though we grew slightly more distant in high school, we still were in the same circles and hung out.
To see the path he’s taken, and the actions he’s accused of is disheartening. It makes me question good memories from our youth and if I somehow missed something, or if this was simply the path he ended up on in life. I hope his victims find all the support they can and my sincere condolences for everything done by the person that I used to know.