A new RPG system

Marginalized people don’t exist for you to weaponize

For the most part this blog deals with RPG mechanics, but today we have to go down a slightly different path.

A recent Fail Forward blog post has seriously agitated the RPG world with a whole bunch of energy focusing on how RPG’s do or don’t remarginalize those already marginalized in our society.  This post is damning to rpgpundit and Zak Smith.  It focuses on how these two individuals were paid consultants for 5e Dungeons and Dragons, and supposedly engage in misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia.  I can’t speak to how accurate these claims are; in fact so far as I can tell, no one can since they all come from anonymous sources.  What we can do however, is see that this article is presenting these facts in a hyperbolic way with an agenda.  Which I will show later.

Why is that a problem?  Because it is an attempt to weaponize trans* people to forward a personal agenda.  Which means it’s the Fail Forward article, not Dungeons and Dragons, that is problematic.


I’m going to mostly be looking at the accusations against Zak, because I know more about him, and it’s easier to get information about him than it is about RPG Pundit.

I first became aware of Zak through his series involving pornstars playing Dungeons and Dragons.  I was hugely impressed because the rights of Sex Workers is an important issue to me (Zak himself is a sex worker), and it was a hugely important in terms of humanizing Sex Workers (in this case pornstars).

As far as their RPG philosophies; word on the street is that they are both major proponents of Old School RPG’s (thus them being hired as 5e consultants) which is going to make me agree with them about as much as I agree with Ron Edwards; as in… not much.

This is Bullshit

Okay.  So, even if the general thrust of the article were true, the article is still bullshit.

How do we know?

Well, we can actually go find specific instances of accusations made on the article, and see what we’re talking about here?  Well let’s look at his girlfriend outing a trans person.  Here’s a look at that, and several other issues brought up in the article:

So did it happen?  Yes.  It totally happened, and was entirely accidental.  Fred Hicks is also mentioned as also outing a trans person in the article; but in the case of Fred Hicks he has been outspoken about Zak being problematic for the game community for a long time.  Why were there outings? Because people fuck this shit up all the time (note, Fred Hicks outing someone apparently was just linking to another blog where it happened).  And I want to make something super clear, it’s NEVER OKAY TO OUT A TRANS PERSON – that is life endangering behavior.  You risk a person literally dying because you made a mistake.

The article also links to a anti-Zak tumblr which accuses him of being ableist.  Well, funny thing about that is Zak’s girlfriend who has a name (Mandy Morbid) and her own whole independent existence not contextualized by her boyfriend, has a huge problem with that.  Why specifically?  Well if you are tl;dring my links, Mandy happens to be disabled and a major activist for the rights of the disabled.  And this isn’t just a case of “I don’t think it’s problematic”, this is a case of able-bodies individuals telling disabled folk what is and is not oppressing them.

In case you haven’t been keeping up with Oppression 101, the privileged do not get to dictate what is and is not oppressive to the marginalized group.  (In fairness Zak has engaged in this behavior as well, specifically trying to dictate to women what is and isn’t sexist)

And a few hyperbolic statements alone wouldn’t outright damn this article as being bullshit, but what is absolutely clear is that it has been happening within a larger context of an ongoing dispute amongst gamers.  This isn’t about some people that run a blog stepping up, it’s about some people that do not like these two people specifically leveraging marginalized people to forward their own agenda.

Given that it’s Bullshit, it’s Weaponize Trans* Folk

This post was made on a blog run by Tom Hatfield and Cara Ellison, who AFAICT are cisgendered.  What they have done is taken someone else’s issue and come down as White Knights to liberate the poor helpless oppressed minorities.

I’m going to quote Janis Lilly here ‘When you adopt a stance of “protection” you are actually robbing people of their capacity to reclaim the power that was taken from them.’

But it’s worse than that.  The whole reason this article exists is because there are people that already have beef with Zak and RPG-Pundit.  They are finding a problem to their solution.  They want to take these two people down, and so have taken an issue that is SUPER IMPORTANT (specifically the rights of trans folk), and harnessed the energy for that activity to direct animosity at two people who seem to (from everything I can find) don’t deserve it.

What that means is that the authors from Fail Forward have ignored the fact that trans-folk are individual human beings and recast them as objects; but not just any objects, weapons which they will then wield as a foil against their opponents.

Weaponizing Marginalized People is Oppressive

Weaponizing people is dehumanizing.  Taking marginalized people, objectifying them, turning them into weapons to use for your own gain is abusive. I am now convinced that this article was never intent on helping trans-people at all.  This article was intent on using people who are already abused and have basic human right violated as a means of forwarding an objective.

I’ll now direct the reader to Mandy Morbid’s blog for illustration of exactly how problematic it is.

Fail Forward is a really great example of why White Knighting is problematic; and why one shouldn’t assume that vague accusations of supporting institutional oppression are valid – especially when they come from White Knights.

The original article leveling these criticisms are weaponizing marginalized people to forward a personal agenda – this, ironically, is seriously fucked up from a civil rights perspective

The RPG Community DOES Need to Work on Being More Inclusive

None of what I’ve said in any way means that the problems of diversity and representation aren’t problems.  They are huge problems.  The 5e text was great, and would certainly have felt validating to me reading it as a kid.  The ability to see that you are considered and not erased in media is of paramount importance to people who are marginalized.  We live in a society where cis-straight-white-male is the assumed default for everything.  When you aren’t in the fraction of the population that is assumed you are so frequently made invisible, your experiences are denied, and you are denied access to great things like gaming.

So, yes… we need more female RPG designers, and more homosexual and black RPG designers.  We need more balanced representation of gender in fantasy art, and more representation of racial minorities in the important characters that come up in these game settings.  We need to break these social barriers that remarginalize potential players, and we need to collectively struggle toward that.  However, we need to not pretend we’re doing that while actually working against it by weaponizing the marginalized.
Zak has his own very long point by point refutation of the original post here


4 responses

  1. Great article. I agree that we need to be more inclusive. I have one question though. How do you represent gender in fantasy art without being stereotypical? Isn’t there really only one way to make armor and weapons? Appearance is easy, conveying a state of mind, especially on gender roles is very hard for me to wrap my head around.

    August 5, 2014 at 3:52 pm

  2. Hi. Writing to add a thing:

    I came into this not knowing any of the participants. I concluded that the hatchet job on Zak was dishonest, and I said so. At length.

    Result? Another of Zak’s attackers came along to accuse me of being transphobic, using misquoting and misrepresentation. STAY CLASSY FOLKS.

    So, yeah. I endorse your message and your analysis.

    August 7, 2014 at 6:22 am

  3. Thomas

    While I do not disagree with the idea that “… we need more female RPG designers, and more homosexual and black RPG designers. We need more balanced representation of gender in fantasy art, and more representation of racial minorities in the important characters that come up in these game settings. We need to break these social barriers that remarginalize potential players, and we need to collectively struggle toward that” I would say that it depends on the approach taken. If there were more female, homosexual and minority RPG designers, one would assume that there would be more RPG’s designed that did a better job of balancing gender roles and minority characters in the game settings (as well as the art that accompanied the games). To me, that would be the better way to achieve the stated goal. On the other hand, if you are advocating that all game designers who do not choose to work toward these goals are in some way intentionally trying to marginalize those demographics, or for that matter, should be concerned that their work does in some way do so, I would have to disagree with you. All game designers have a right to create the types of games and game settings that they wish. They are under no social or moral obligation to try and appeal to what is at this time the minority of gamers. Nor are they wrong or bad people for doing so. At the end of the day, each consumer can choose to purchase and play in whatever game system they desire…and game designers have the right to create the game they desire. I respect the right of ALL individuals to seek their happiness as they choose, that also includes the game designers. If a particular game system does not make you happy, find a different one, or create your own. In the end, voting with your pocketbook is the best way to create change. There are many games that I will nut purchase or play because I find them either distasteful or at variance with my worldview. I would however never consider trying to make the designer change their vision of what the game should be…and I certainly would not think I had the right to do so. Just my 2 cents.

    December 29, 2014 at 7:28 am

  4. More ammunition for you. Mandy Morbid recently came out showing just how much abuse she and others suffered under Zak Smith.

    February 11, 2019 at 9:20 am

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