Friday, 15 February 2019

Thoughts on the zaklash, personal stuff

first up, this might get heavy. 
second up, this is gonna be personal, I'm gonna talk about my own feelings here and stuff. none of it is remotely gameable. it's gonna ramble. this is about me because it's my blog and I can be melodramatic if I want to, but whatever unhapiness I'm feeling is fuck all compared to what mandy, hannah, jennifer and vivka (and probably others) went through, which is just nightmarish.
but it's my blog so I'm gonna spew my feelings onto the internet.



To start, the statements by Mandy, Hanna, Jennifer and Vivka strike me as brutally honest and real and I don't doubt them for a moment. I woke up on monday morning and Mandy's post was at the top of my feed, and honestly reading through it just made me feel ill. It took me a while to process it.
'Cos here's the thing. In the past, I'd been a big fan and supporter of Zak. I'd argued his case online and supported him in his various bitch-fests on g+ and elsewhere. And he was nice to me, treated me like I was smart and valuable, and he recommended my work to people. Getting approval from him felt like I'd made it, like I was in the Cool Kids Club now.
Buuut. Periodically things would blow up and he'd be accused of something hyperbolous and I'd think "You know, maybe I should give an account saying I think the accusations are bullshit" but I never did. And the reason I never did was because in the back of my head there was a little voice saying "but what if actually he's done something dreadful". So, I suspected. And there are people who's work I admire deeply - Evlynn M, is a good example - who got driven away by him and I never examined why that was because it was uncomfortable.
The thing here is that many of these people who shied away from Zak were, I dunno, conflict-averse. Delicate, even. You know who's neither conflict-averse nor delicate? 4chan. There's an ongoing general-thread on 4chan for OSR stuff and a refrain I'd see come up on there was how people thought Zak and Mandy's relationship was suspect. There were a lot of misogynists being horrid of course, but not just that. Nothing concrete, but people would mention how odd it was that he never mentioned her anymore. Or mention that Mandy had tweeted that she didn't like looking back on her time with Zak. It's odd how a hive of scum and villainy seems to have picked up on this before somewhere nice like rpgnet did.
And, again, I put those rumours on 4chan to the back of my mind and didn't investigate, because it's just 4chan stirring up shit and it's not real, because I knew that Zak was a good guy, after all he was good to me.
And I'd gotten into debates with Zak but I'd never felt able to really push my side because, deep down, I knew he'd use Zak Logic to tear me to shreds and, you know... I know what happens when queer women on the internet disagree with powerful men, and frankly the thought of having a riled-up internet hate mob after me terrifies me. But again, all of those fears got pushed to the back of my mind. I never openly acknowledged that Zak frightened me and I was scared to get in his crossfires.

So then I read Mandy's account and things fell into place and my first thought was I should have known.

Like, one pattern that got hilighted was how the guy seemed to collect useful diverse shields. Scrap Princess, Fionna Geist, Keil Chiener, me. I remember being asked by him to keep tabs on 4chan to see if they were mentioning him, and the way he phrased it was so innocuous and friendly, but...



I've been an abuse victim in the past. It still messes with me. When I hear raised voices near me, I mentally flicker back to having this asshole I used to live with, up in my face screaming slurs at me with his hands round my throat. And in dealing with all of this, on Discord and G+ and other places I've been using dark humour and stuff to mask it but this whole thing has messed me up.
I've not written for the last week. There's three word doccuments open on my desktop that I've not touched since I first read this. I never go this long without writing stuff.
That I was in some slight way a part of keeping this guy's power structure in place, that i was part of the network... that makes me feel all hollow and rotten inside when i think about it.

Recently, I'll browse RPGnet or twitter or reddit, or it'll pop up on my facebook or something, and I'll see some (edited:) well meaning but imho unhelpful person saying "oh, he was clearly awful, we've been saying this for years, you should have known" and it's horrible. See, deep down I suspect that I did know, and didn't acknowledge it. Can we have less of that please?
We got fooled. Lots of us. We saw Zak present himself as this cool guy, detatched and intillectual and good at arguing, and he made good books, and he brought you into his web of support. 
And you know? I do still think that some of the stuff people said about him was bullshit. When the VtM thing blew up and people were saying he was with White Wolf and a nazi and all that? That was bullshit. That was just internet culture-war bollocks. And he used the fact that some stuff said about him was rubbish to disprove all of it.


One thing stands out to me in Mandy's statement in particular:
Then you started with the online gaming arguments nonsense, and that put a real crack in our bond. In the beginning I felt genuinely protective of you, my provider, and of course that was my very strong trauma bond. I didn't know better, and I just thought I was caring for the person I loved. Callously, you exposed me to death and rape threats and you then never took the distress this caused me seriously, you were in no way sympathetic to the very real stress these disagreements caused. You enjoyed it. And you gloated over the harm you caused other people. (It was extremely unattractive.) You just used those threats we received as an excuse, used me and my marginalized identities as shields in your continuing misbehaviour online.
Here's one thing I took away from that: The internet drama stuff filtered through to Mandy's life and when people went after Zak, she got hurt. I'll come back to this.


Now. Away from the computer, I'm a Quaker. I consider personal integrity important. I think it's important to be driven by morality and to listen to the little voice inside you that tells you hard truths.  To stand up against injustice and vice, regardless of the cost to yourself. In this matter, now that I reflect on thins, I know what the little voice was telling me and that I ignored it. By my own standards, I failed, and for that I'm deeply sorry.
Another principle that, as a Quaker, I am deeply committed to is pacifism. I've alluded to this elsewhere, but it's a big driving force in how I think and how I try to act. Violence is wrong. Always, without exception. No matter what your target did to 'deserve' it, it's wrong. Revenge is just an excuse for violence, it's how you justify giving in to your worst urges. (There are times when violence is nessesary to protect others, when without the use of force you will have to stand by and allow others to do harm. And in these cases, while you will have to use force for the greater good, you're still doing an immoral thing and should be contrite that you had to resort to that, and should be deeply sceptical of any idea that your use of force was good. Having to use violence shouldn't make you feel good.).
Violence isn't just physical violence. The use of power (social or financial or whatever) to hurt others is, to my mind, violence. Internet hate-mobs are violence. Coordinated harassment is violence. They ruin lives. We saw what Gamergate did; Anita Sarkesian is somebody who's courage in continuing to speak when the full bile of the internet was pointed at her is something I find inspiring. The twitter-circus baying for blood whenever a 'deserving' victim is found fills me with a sense of profound discomfort.
Which brings me back to that statement by Mandy above. When people went after Zak, she recieved death threats, and she got hurt. There are women whose statements Zak is using as shields right now. I don't know if he's coerced them, wrote them himself, has them fooled. However, I will say this now:
don't fucking go after those women. don't. don't do anything to hurt them directly. don't do anything which might get them hurt in the fallout. 
please.
I mean hell, don't go after zak. Cut him out of the RPG scene, make sure he can't easilly use our comunity as a shield in future, reduce his ability to find victims. Publicise this stuff so any future potential victims can discover it easilly and avoid being pulled in. Reduce harm. But, if you're going to go right after him in order to cause suffering, maybe don't. You're only adding more suffering to the world, maybe catching innocent victims in the splash radius.

I've had a certain amount of involvement with trying to shape the way the conversation goes with regard to this whole affair and, weighing it up, I think that my actions should help reduce harm, but I am as terrified that I'll find myself as part of an internet hate mob as I am of being on the receiving end. This whole thing has made me deeply uncomfortable.



There's a post I made on reddit about what happens now, and I'm just gonna repeat it here:
If one thing comes from this, I hope it's that we can use the sense of outrage here as an impetus to go out and do some good in the world. Domestic abuse etc are kind of everywhere, and can quietly wreck lives while nobody is looking. If you want to make a difference for the better, here's some suggestions:
  • Donate money to a charity for domestic abuse survivors. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a fundraiser to get some help for those who've spoken up about Zak, and there's probably a women's shelter near you that needs funding.
  • Keep an eye out for this sort of thing happening around you; abuse like this is horribly common, and it's not impossible it's happened to somebody in your life, or even still is happening. The worst abuse often happens when the perpetrator knows nobody will suspect anything.
  • Be there for vulnerable people and be prepared to stand up against people in your life who're treating partners/children/etc badly.
  • Be the change you want to see in the world in general. Did this stuff shock you? It should, it's shocking. Let that try to motivate you to make the world a better place.
I'm sure most people reading this are good people who've found the revelations on monday (and since) deeply upsetting. The response I've seen from OSR circles has been heartening; let's keep in that mindset, and go out and make the world a better place.
which sums things up.  
A lot of other people have been brilliant here. I have much respect for Scrap Princess, Patrick S, and Jack Tatters here, but honestly, the response has been largely wholesome and I hope we can remain the best version of a community.

I digress: here's the logs of the last conversation I had with the guy:
zak/Langouste  Yesterday at 8:31 AM
well they made a choice weighing principal vs their own best interest and so did ithis is important stuffimagine you were falsely accused at this level of heinousness--you'd see it as important, I assume
Cavegirl  Yesterday at 8:34 AM
If I were accused of this sort of thing my response would have been very different but I suspect, based on previous discussions, we are operating from very different starting axioms so I'm not sure it's worth going into that. 
zak/Langouste  Yesterday at 8:37 AM
i got accused on a sunday, vetted and hired a lawyer  by monday night and did what everyone i know who's a public figure and every lawyer i talked to said and what i thought was right: put out a public statement
Cavegirl  Yesterday at 8:38 AM
I don't doubt that
my public statement would have looked very different to yours. As I say, different starting axioms. 
zak/Langouste  Yesterday at 8:39 AM
well what are your different axioms?
Cavegirl  Yesterday at 8:47 AM
to briefly summarize, I consider myself to be fallible and that the hurt of others is normally genuine. Combined with a different approach to, you know, morality in general (recall our differences RE: desirable outcomes in online debates, in which i was something of a bleeding hearted softie).My response would probably start from the foundation that there was something I'd done to warrant this, and that my perceptions of events were likely biased. So, my statement would largely consist of an acknowledgement of the hurt felt by the accuser and my part in that. I would do my best to make a sincere apology and offer to make ammends. My assumption would be that even if I hadn't intended to cause harm or realised that I was doing so, i still did so without meaning to, and that it would be my responsibility to fix that to the best of my ability.Fundamentally, even if I privately felt that I was in the right, I would do everything in my power to fix what I could, and place doing right by those hurt above my own needs.These things are difficult. No doubt it would be deeply unpleasant for me. But I hold myself to certain standards (both as a result of past traumas and as a matter of my faith) and that informs how I respond to these things. 
zak/Langouste  Yesterday at 8:48 AM 
Then you'd go to jail.Like: if you don't defend yourself you'd go to jail. Bc the things Mandy said are jail things 
her hurt could be real but the accusations aren't and im not going to pretend they are just to be nice 
Cavegirl  Yesterday at 8:50 AM 
I would hope that things could be repaired enough that my accusers didn't press charges. Are yours doing so?If I ended up in jail, though, I'd be there with my conscience as clean as I could manage. 
zak/Langouste  Yesterday at 8:50 AM 
@Cavegirl  attempts at repair have been attempted, she won't talk to the accused. like most accusers on the internetalso: my sympathy for viral  outrage mongers left a looooooong time ago. i loved her but seriously no 
Cavegirl  Yesterday at 8:55 AM 
well then. I don't know what advice I can give you except patience and signs of contrition. I'll be honest, when I saw this come up it absolutely gutted me. I'm an abuse survivor. I held you in high esteem. I have been a mess because of all this.I am literally crying as I type this. It isn't easy and it can't be for you either.I had hoped that the statement from you were were waiting for would... well, would reflect the values I stated earlier. Contrition, willingness to accept responsibility, etc. I'm not sure there's much to be gained from continuing this conversation at this point. 
zak/Langouste  Yesterday at 8:57 AM 
i don't think it's an act of good faith to be contrite toward a person who is attacking me.  Someone punches you, you don't go "Im sorry".  And that' s not a metaphor: she fucking punched me. Its in the statement. 
Cavegirl  Yesterday at 8:58 AM 
as I say. This is where you and I differ. Operating from different assumptions. 
zak/Langouste  Yesterday at 8:59 AMso if someone punched you int he face you'd go "im sorry" 
Cavegirl  Yesterday at 9:01 AM 
I mean probably yeah. That'd be my intention, at least. It's the standard I'd want to hold myself to. 
zak/Langouste  Yesterday at 9:01 AM 
ok, to me, that standard leads to this person punching everyone 
Cavegirl  Yesterday at 9:02 AMAs I say, different base assumptions. 
zak/Langouste  Yesterday at 9:03 AM 
do you not see how that leads to everyone getting punched? i mean: that's storygames.

Willingness to admit fault? Pacifism? Contrition? Mercy? That's bad. That's storygames.
I think that tells you everything you need to know.



Anyway. This hasn't been fun to write. Here it is. I'm sorry for any part I've had in enabling this stuff in the past and can only hope that my actions will help make amends.


(play nice in the comments or you get the banhammer, i'm not in the mood for whataboutism)

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Handling IC Nastiness

I am a bleeding-hearted hippy who doesn't want to upset people. I also like horror, in the fiction I consume, the larps I play, and the games I write & run. My games are full of gore and body-horror and PCs going mad, suffering horrible fates, and witnessing gruesome stuff.
Here, I compile my thoughts on how I handle stuff that might upset people in the games I run. No particular order. I'm writing this because, having recently moved cities, I'm joining a new gaming club and their assumptions are rather different to my own.

While all of this is aimed at GMs, GMs aren't the only people bringing ideas into a game. Players - through the actions of their PCs - can make things just as nasty. Look at the classic 'orc baby dilema'; that's only grimdark nastiness if the PCs decide to kill the babby orcs.

Point the first. Horror is good. Fear makes things exciting, and a good 'ewww, gross' reaction can bring people into the game-fiction brilliantly efficiently. Likewise, presenting people with genuinely difficult moral choices can make them engage with the game-fiction on a deeper level (even 'my character doesn't care about being a good person' is itself an interesting moment of characterisation). I hate media that is sanitised and scrubbed clean and made inoffensive. Conflict should be difficult, violence should be horrible, worlds and the people in them flawed. 
This is not to say that Dark Edgy Content is always good, but rather that including nasty shit in your games has an important place in the game. Used right, nastiness can increase investment in the world, add to the ooc tension, and help control the emotional tempo of the game session.
In my view, the best games have a nice balance between uplifting and unpleasant content. In grimdark games, I tend to play 'beacon of light' characters; paladins, nuns, etc etc. In more upbeat games, I play amoral rogues. The contrast is important.

So.
People have phobias. People have past traumas. If you expose people to this stuff, they're gonna have a bad time because phobias, trauma-responses etc overwhelm the rational mind.
People have stuff they have to deal with in real-life that's just not fun when it intrudes on the game. It's not phobia-tier, but the inclusion just makes the game worse, by dragging in elements of the shitty depressing real world. A very good example of this is sexism. I can't see much benefit to having victorian NPCs treat female adventurers in an authentically belittling way; that sort of thing is what we're playing lady adventurers to get away from. Of course, that's probably far less of an issue for you if you don't have to put up with that stuff in your day-to-day life.
It's like with horror films. Everybody has their own thresholds, tastes, areas that are off-limit to them, and so on. I, for example, love the creeping ratcheting fear of something like Ju-On or The Ring. On the other hand, something like I Spit On Your Grave is just icky to me, and I'm not gonna have fun with it.
The challenge is to add the sort of nasty shit that will bring all the positives without veering into these off-limits areas.

I'll start out by saying that the X-card (and similar systems that give a hard veto on upsetting content) don't really work. Here's why.
  • At the point a player is tapping out of a given scene, it's already too late. If you need to stop the RP because that encounter with spider swarms is triggering your arachnophobia, the damage is already done. You're already having a bad time because your brain is already going into irrational-fear-response-mode.
  • These methods tend to work by shutting down the game in mid-flow. This is, by definition, disruptive to the fun everybody else is having, meaning that a (potentially badly upset) player is disincetivized from actually calling a time-out. I've played in games with such a mechanism, and mostly the player sits there not using the tools at their disposal because they don't want to upset everybody else who seems into it.
  • These techniques put the onus on the player to halt upsetting stuff, rather than on everybody else not to upset them. You get a dynamic of 'well you didn't tap out, so it's your fault'.
Combine these three points and what you get is a wonderful excuse that protects a shitty GM. The player had the means to tap out, and didn't, so whatever nastiness the GM puts in front of them is fine; the GM can then do whatever the fuck they like because the player's incredibly unlikely to actually tap out. It's unfortunate.

I think the most important thing is to know, as the game begins, where your group's limits are. Back in my old city, for the group I regularly gamed with I had this stuff down pretty well. There were a few topics I didn't really bring up because I knew these people outside the game, and knew it would be upsetting for them. With new players, you need to feel out what these limits are. Ask them directly, and also get to know them a bit before the game begins. 
By and large, there's a few areas that you can make a safe bet somebody will dislike (sexual assault, child abuse, the holocaust and other real-world atrocities that remain in living memory, stuff like that) that you probably don't go putting in your games until you've got a feel for the group and are confident it will go down fine. 
Keep an eye on how your players respond to stuff. If a player goes very quiet and looks uncomfortable, check in with them. Adapt on the fly.

If you're a player, for fucksake, be upfront with your GM about any issues you might have. Tell your GM if your arachnophobic or they won't know not to attack you with spider monsters.

As a point of note, you've got no obligation to run a game you aren't into yourself.
Say you've got a player who simply cannot be around anything that reflects predatory sexuality. Fair enough. However, if I'm running Vampire the Masquerade, my response to that player is 'I don't think this is the game for you'. I'm not going to take the sexy predators out of vamp because that's what the game is about. It's going to be dark and sexy and uncomfortable and that's the fucking point of vamp. Likewise, if a player comes up to me saying they don't want to deal with the catholic church in play, that's gonna be involved with a lot of the plots I run in a lot of my games. Nuns are a recurring motif, as are reliquaries. If you don't like that, my game is probably not the game for you.
Other games more suited to your tastes are available. 

The most important thing is to be up front with your players about what you're likely to include, and to take on board things they say they don't like. Talk to your players like a grownup, adapt to feedback. Reliance on any system to "protect the players from unpleasant content" will fail and is trivial for bad actors to twist to their advantage.
The single most important thing is that everybody engages in good faith.

Friday, 1 February 2019

RPGs as Emotional Gambling

When you make a PC, you're investing a little bit of creativity into them. You put some time and thought into who they are and what they want. Creativity is, to my mind, quite personal; sharing the fruits of your creativity with others is exposing a little bit of your inner self to them (this, incidentally, is at the heart of the issues I have with many 'pass the talking-stick' story-games). The more you play the PC, the more you invest in them emotionally. The more of an emotional stake you have in them surviving and prospering.
When a PC dies (or is otherwise irretrievably fucked up), all that emotional energy you'd tied to them is lost with them. It's a sudden gut-punch of loss. The risk of that upset is what makes the game exciting. IC successes (gaining magic items, levelling up, increasing IC status) feel good because we know that they make the gut-punch of character death less likely; IC setbacks feel a bit bad for the same reason.

Things that drag the loss out (such as being temporarily turned into a frog, knocked unconcious or otherwise rendered unplayable) feel worse than mere death, because after a PC dies you can quickly recover, make a new PC and get back into the swing of things. An extended time where your PC is useless means you're stuck in that low-point for longer, hoping to get the PC you've invested in back soon.
Having agency over how a character's arc ends has been, in my experience, important. Retiring a PC who's become difficult to play (due to curses, injuries, etc etc) feels better than having them die, because the player gets to choose it, and can imagine them sitting in a nice cottage somewhere, with a big pile of gold, a sword hung over the fire-place, and a small child on their knee that they're telling the story of 'how I got my eye torn out'. It's a Good Ending. In effect, you're cashing out your 'emotional chips', and calling this gamble a success.

For this emotional gamble to be worth it, you need to carefully balance the emotions invested in the PC, the likelihood of death, and the magnitude of the gut-punch when the PC does die. I think the OSR gets this right with it's lower investment into new PC - rolling up a character is quick and doesn't require much deep thought, and low level PCs are fragile as fuck - that allows greater investment over time, corresponding to greater survival chances. Compare this to modern D&D where character creation takes ages (resulting in high investment from the get-go), CR-balanced encounters mean that your chance of death is constant rather than scaling to reflect investment, and death is rare enough that its easy to disregard entirely; here, your investment-risk-gutpunch balance is all off, you invest highly in a PC but have little tension, there's no sense of safety from levelling up since the challenges get harder to match you, and when you DO die it feels arbitrary, unexpected and unusually horrid (which feeds back into GMs not being willing to kill PCs, resulting in EVEN LESS tension).

One thing which I do in my games is to include horrible wounds. These actually tend to result in slightly longer gut-punches, as playing a PC missing a bunch of body parts is kind of difficult, and bleeding out extends the process of dying. However, they also soften the gut-punch as you're more likely to be able to successfully retire a (now crippled but also very wealthy) PC, getting them a good ending
I tend to avoid anything which temporarily makes a PC unplayable (such as hard mind-control, extended unconciousness, transformation, etc), since this keeps the gut-punch just as horrid but draaaags it out. Instead, these effects tend to be either permanent (effectively character death) or just a debuff that encourages you retire the character.