The free PDF of the new D&D Basic Rules hit the WotC website over the holiday weekend. I’ll have words to say about the new rules in future posts, but right now, because it’s the raging topic of conversation in my circles, I feel obliged to comment on the controversy.
Yes, controversy. About the new D&D rules. Well, not about the rules, but about two people who appear to have contributed to them.
Now, I have resolutely managed to steer clear of political matters in the seven years I have been writing this blog. I’d rather talk about gaming on this outlet. In this case, however, matters of gaming and politics are intertwined, so you’re going to get some of my politics if you continue reading. So be warned, and stop now if you don’t want to know.
With that out of the way, though, and because folks who don’t follow me on social media may not be aware of it, I am a staunch and vocal supporter of both LGBT rights in society at large and inclusiveness within the gaming community. It is our community, and, imperfect though it may be, we should make every effort to make everyone in it feel welcome and included, no matter their race, creed, religion, gender identity or orientation, sexual or otherwise. However, I have friends on both sides of this argument.
Now, the individuals in question are Zak Smith and John Tarnowski, who goes by “The RPGPundit,” both of whom get credited in the new rules’ “Additional Consulting by” section. The allegations start with these people being “hostile to inclusiveness,” whatever that means. Specifically, that they are hostile to LGBT people. Some have even called for a boycott of the new edition over the inclusion of these two as (allegedly) paid consultants. Now, if those credits bother you that much, I say it’s your time and money, so knock yourself out. But this strikes me as an asinine over-reaction for several reasons.
Both figures are fairly well known within the tabletop RPG community and within the OSR movement in particular, and both have some designer cred as well. Both are unquestionably controversial even outside of this specific squabble.
If the allegation was that these two guys are assholes, well, that’s not a charge I will defend them against. Zak, for example, has some hot-button issues on which he will argue very aggressively, to the point that some people feel cornered by him when he asks them to clarify or defend their views and won’t let them dissemble. Among those issues are freedom of artistic expression, censorship and hypocrisy. And also people throwing out wild accusations with no proof or documentation. Yes, he can be “needlessly aggressive” as one commentator put it, but to my mind he is also right on every one of the issues listed above. He is also right to push back and demand clarity and/or documentation when this kind of thing comes up in his circles.
But being an asshole isn’t the accusation against him, which has ranged from being LGBT-unfriendly to having a “hit list” and calling people in the middle of the night with death threats. The former is laughably implausible considering Zak’s line of work, even without taking into account his numerous statements indicating otherwise. The latter is criminal menacing, not a charge you want to throw around without evidence… and yet, without exception, when the accusers are asked for documentation all they can come back with is “it is known,” like they’re some kind of GoT robots. There isn’t the slightest shred of evidence of any kind corroborating any of this, of course, just hearsay that seems to originate from three specific people on G+ whose stories are highly suspect, and who have known axes to grind with Zak.
Tarnowski is rather a different case. He has a long history of online misbehavior, a laundry list of places where he’s not welcome and a blog where he posts juvenile screeds fairly regularly. Unlike Zak much of this conduct can be corroborated with a simple Google search even without digging for any of his former aliases, and level-headed people I know and trust can relate stories of said improper behavior. He also has a pretty good eye for RPG design, is clearly not the moron roughly 25% of his posts imply him to be, is certainly capable of holding down his end of an adult conversation when he wants to, and his blog is home to some compelling articles and insights, which I why I follow it. But he is, to my mind, a far more problematic character than Zak. You might say that he is indisputably an asshole, and I wouldn’t argue with you — but neither would he, I’m guessing. It’s part of his schtick.
In this case, however, the specific transgression he’s been accused of — that of being LGBT-hostile — is also untrue. And he’s been vocal about it, and one of the characters on the cover of his historical RPG Arrows of Indra is possibly the first transgendered character to occupy such a place.
An additional irony is that the new rules contain an unprecedented (at least for D&D) passage that explicitly states that players should feel able to apply definitions of gender to their characters that are different from the so-called cultural norms. Both Zak and Tarnowski have explicitly stated their support for this passage, although some people — including the same people throwing around wild-ass accusations against Zak — have taken issue with that for supposed insensitivity to LGBT concerns, and alleged that obviously the authors didn’t consult any transgendered people about it. Except that, as it happens, we now know that the passage was written by a man with a transgender daughter and edited by a gay person with a trans sibling. So there goes that allegation out the window as well.
As I said above, if you feel like avoiding the new edition of D&D over this, that’s your prerogative. I don’t buy from Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A because of the repulsive bigotry of the people running those corporations. I don’t read Orson Scott Card because he is a cretin who has stated publicly that gays should be killed. Where you make your own stand is up to you, but I caution you to make that decision based on the facts, not on hearsay from people with grudges.
I will note one other thing before I close this discussion. Neither Zak nor the Pundit have any connection to Hasbro, WotC or the D&D design and development team, other than being asked to look over the rules and give their input. And there are 85 other names listed in the D&D Basic Rules credits, none of whom have the slightest controversy attached to them. Do you check to make sure there’s no bigots or assholes with a similarly tenuous connection to say, Radio Shack or Hot Topic before you shop there? If not, then you should consider whether your response is proportional and appropriate.
I will not be writing another post on this subject. Feel free to offer your opinions in the comments, but be warned that I will be policing them very strictly, so be polite.