On the D&D5 Credits Controversy

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.


15 responses to “On the D&D5 Credits Controversy

  1. Here’s what bothers me. I’m going to lay aside Zak S. because I don’t have a dog in that fight yet.

    Tarnowski’s behavior isn’t “schtick” to the people he’s attacking. It’s relentlessly toxic behavior that’s gotten him kicked off bunches of forums. It’s not cute when he talks about breaking into Ron Edward’s bunker and capping him in the forehead. It’s not amusing when he talks about castrating the rpg.net moderation staff with a baseball bat. (it’s also not amusing to watch him fellate himself in just about every post he makes, but that’s neither here not there.)

    No, Tarnowski isn’t a homophobe or transphobe, despite stuff like this:


    What he is, is toxic. And I’m not sure why Mearls felt the need to take one of the most toxic personalities in all of gaming and give him a credit in the industry’s flagship game. It’s reinforcing and rewarding behavior that makes gaming an aggressively worse place.

    • Oi. No thanks… But I have seen the quotes from SA from him. Nothing close to the wild stuff he’s being accused of here.

      Schtick is not less hurtful for being schtick. That wasn’t intended as a defense of the guy or an excuse for him.

  2. Reblogged this on Emerald Tablet and commented:
    D&D controversy? The game has never shied away from making a name for itself, but sadly this is not the kind of fights they should be involved with. . .

  3. This post by a cowardly, stupid bigot has been removed. Said vermin’s IP address has been blocked. Have a nice day.

    – Your illustrious moderator

  4. Darren, you’re just as big of an asshole as Pundit is, and equally toxic. You’re just on opposite sides of the fence, but equally disingenuous. So spare me the diatribe and hypocrisy of YOU supporting this witch hunt when your own shit stinks just as bad. You desperately cling to the fame from your review of FATAL way back when, and can’t seem to handle anyone in the industry not caring about your “professional” opinion.
    Just like Pundit, your actions and behavior hardly make this guy think of you as an industry professional.

        • What toxic behavior would that be? Observing that Pundit has been making personal attacks and trolling since I first saw him? Moderating rpg.net for twelve years?

          You wouldn’t be able to identify toxic behavior if it bit you in the ass, and you’re just repeating my observation without adding any thought of your own.

  5. Good post Gary.

    I do not have much to say about Zak S except to confirm that he is my kind of prick and this whole “hit list” is something that I can get behind even though I think James Desborough is a total git who occasionally creates great games like his “Blood” works.

    I am (currently) a non-participating long time member of theRPGsite and have had many online interactions with the RPGPundit, most of them contentious. His “schtick” while amusing to some, reviled by others and (the interesting part to me at least) embraced by a few who view it as some sort of truth telling, has rightly earned him the opprobrium he receives.

    And believe me said opprobrium is evident in many of the threads on theRPGsite that his detractors seem to be scouring in the hopes of finding some evidence that he is a big fat meanie , who secretes toxicity everywhere he posts.

    This perhaps is the best thing about the site and the manner in which the Pundit handles the toxicity he seems to generate. You are free to wallow in the mud with him, without fear of reprisals (well mostly). Does this perpetuate the toxicity? Yes, but at least it is honest.

    Eventually his detractors will provide evidence of the dumb things he has said in various threads, exposing these cum stains of the circle jerks on the forum, which we all happily participated in. However the reality (for any rational individual) is that such “evidence” has no probative value whatsoever other than perhaps evidence that people say stupid things to attract attention.

    Over the years (maybe he did not ever dream, he would be a WotC consultant) he has said dumb shit that could be tangentially linked to these LIES. His detractors rely on second hand information or vague out of context statements or long forgotten Non sequiturs in his make believe jihad against the Swine and RPGnet to bolsters their lies about his apparent homo or trans phobianess.

    So, what do they do, when no real evidence is adduced? They create memes like “problematic” and “toxicity” (this is not a swipe against you, Darren) in the hopes that those butt hurt by the dumb shit the Pundit has said over the years but never bothered to actually face him on his more or less open forums, will jump on the bandwagon, while clutching their pearls and condemn WotC for hiring such scumbags.

    Never mind that other folks, in my opinion decent folks like Clash (Flyingmice), Brendran Davis (Bedrock Games) and Brettmb amongst other have published his games and would not have anything to do with him, if he was indeed Homo or Trans phobic. All of them at one time or another has acknowledged the Pundit has said dumb things but as any gamer who buys their products knows, these are not the types of cats, who would enable any kind of bigotry in any form.

    Much has been said of the Arrows of Indra cover concerning the whole Trans issue but another important factor is the game is an example of the much-valued inclusivity when it comes to representation. This is something the Pundit and I have clashed on numerous times, the point being that the wanker actually went and wrote a game that supported his ideological stance on the issue.

    The only reason why I am commenting, is that I like this particular post of yours and as an on the record statement which hopefully will stop his detractors form emailing me encouraging me to expose his supposed crimes against gamers.

    Sorry for the long comment, Gary.

    David R

  6. Thanks for proving my point Darren. You’re no better than him, so stop trying to act like you are. I see you’re doubling down on the hypocrisy by accusing someone else of not providing any actual content after you yourself haven’t been able to provide any of this “evidence” that supposedly exists that these guys are homophobes. All you have is someone’s statement that Zak was mean to him. No quote from Zak, nothing.

    Darren said he wanted to touch me in my private place. There, everyone should now automatically believe me! Right? That’s the game you’re playing, after all. Maybe I should organize a boycott and sign a petition to get you fired from RPG.net now.

  7. I am directly testifying that you said you would touch me in a bad place. See how that works? You are a hypocrite with zero integrity, and every time you reply, it just confirms it even more.. You’ve been a mod over there for years, but I guess your own rule of no personal attacks on industry professionals or former members goes out the window when you hate them enough. At least Pundit admits to being an asshole. But it’s not enough for him to be an asshole, you have to make up lies and rally the mob. Just like you guys did with accusing whatshisface of threatening to rape someone and have them fired.

    so yeah, Pundit’s an asshole, but you guys are pure despicable with the tactics you’ve resorted to. Personally, I bet you’re just seething with rage that they’d ask Pundit and Zak to be contributors and not you.