The news is certainly thorny this week, containing a smorgasbord of grim news, a cornucopia of ugh.
For starters, Zak Smith is back in the news. Smith has been in the spotlight numerous times over various allegations of harassment, abuse, and assault. This week, his long-time collaborators have published a book defending him, and it’s a bestseller. Ugh.
Kickstarter continues to fight an attempt by its employees to unionise, and we see several publishers consider the possibility of having to cancel projects to support the union. Ugh.
A digital toolset creator downsizes and lays off employees. RPG writers aren’t being paid enough. A school board votes against D&D over morality concerns. Ugh Ugh Ugh.
Okay, it’s not all bad news: we also have a bundle supporting Hurricane Dorian relief efforts, Critical Role merch, a progressive reimagining of the Wild West, Greek Heroes, queer viper jockeys, and fishmen.
Featured Image: Art from Agon by John Harper, published by Evil Hat.
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Zak Has Everything To Do With This Book
Content Warning: This story contains some mild references to sexual abuse and harassment. We have avoided linking to anything detailed, but skip it if you need to.
LotFP publishes a module defending accused sexual abuser
An uproar has again arisen over RPG writer, and accused rapist, Zak Smith, after a book defending him became a bestseller on DriveThruRPG. The book includes an editorial defending Smith and contains an adventure in which a character named Zak is scapegoated. Initially entitled Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book, the book has been renamed An Analysis into the Nature of Man & the Satanic Power He Contains.
Smith is a figure of perennial controversy. A writer in the Old School Revival (OSR scene), he has been credibly accused numerous times of abuse and harassment. Most recently, he came to the forefront of discussion after his ex-girlfriend accused him of sexual abuse earlier this year.
The module is published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP), who reluctantly cut ties with Smith earlier this year. LotFP owner, James Raggi, has expressed regret at the need to do so and has argued that Smith’s behaviour should not impact the way his creative work is viewed.
DriveThruRPG criticised for hosting module
DriveThruRPG has been sharply criticised for keeping the book available on their platform. In response, company president, Steve Wieck, issued a statement on the book:
Some customers have reported this title to us as being offensive and/or asked us to remove the title from DriveThruRPG. I appreciate their taking the time to offer feedback on this title. At DriveThruRPG, I want us to provide as much space as possible for our publishers to publish books, and I want to remove books only when absolutely necessary.
Our policy is to not support the work of Zak Smith, and I have made it clear in both public and private statements that this is the case. I am aware that a legitimate reading of this book makes it a defense of Zak Smith and, in addition, can be seen as a criticism of the RPG community who moved to exclude him — including criticizing DriveThruRPG, for our decision not to carry any new works by Zak.
I have decided not to ban this book. Separated from a meta connection to Zak Smith, the content of the book itself does not cross the line into being offensive.
To the degree that the publisher’s intention is to put forth their perspective, however much I may disagree with it, on the events around Zak Smith, that is the publisher voicing their perspective. DriveThruRPG has a responsibility as the largest marketplace for makers of RPGs to tread carefully when removing content, especially when doing so would be silencing voices critical of us.
I appreciate that this decision will not be welcome to everyone. I wish that the publisher had gone a different direction and moved forward, but I won’t ban the title for expressing the publisher’s dissenting perspective.
Many have been dissatisfied by this decision, and some have called for a boycott of the platform.
This story is exhausting. It’s painfully clear that LotFP has dredged up their association with an abuser to drum up sales with controversy. And so it goes: we get angry at them, Smith’s apologists see LotFP as the victim of censorship, and the book climbs the bestseller chart. I wish it were only pathetic, but, of course, it worked, which makes it actually tragic. — Amy
The Business End
Battle over Kickstarter union continues
Over the last two weeks, we have reported on Kickstarter’s anti-union activities, and the criticism it has faced from creators.
This week, Current Affairs reports that Kickstarter is doubling down on its promise not to recognise the union.
This week, one of the more prominent voices in that discussion, Evil Hat Publishing, decided to launch their latest project, Agon, which had been delayed while they considered their response. They have promised to cancel the campaign should the union call for a boycott.
Rowan, Rook and Decard have outlined plans to move Heart to IndieGoGo should a boycott be called. In the meanwhile, they are offering ways for backers to support the campaign with only a minimal pledge.
Every week we report on the most popular crowdfunding projects, and the majority of those projects are on Kickstarter. While we’ve reported on the battle over unionisation, we have also been considering what our duty is in this situation.
We fully support Kickstarter employees’ right to unionise. We also condemn in the strongest terms Kickstarter’s attempts to deny them that right. The current company line runs contrary to the values that crowdfunding stands for.
At this time, Kickstarter United has not called for a boycott of the platform. For now, we will continue to report on Kickstarter projects in our Crowdfunding section. Should Kickstarter’s workers call for a boycott, we will stop including Kickstarter projects in our updates. Until that time, we are watching the situation.
Studio behind Hero Labs downsizing
Lone Wolf Development, creators of the Hero Lab RPG software, has laid off workers, and is scaling back on ongoing development projects.
Critical Role expanding licensing & merchandise
Critical Role has appointed Collaborations Licensing to manage its global merchandising. The list of licenses already issued for merchandise suggests that we’ll soon see Critical Role Funko Pops, action figures, and novels.
It’s wild to see Critical Role veering towards mainstream merchandising, but my main takeaway from this is that Travis Willingham, i.e. Grog is the CEO of Critical Role. Presumably Grand Poobah de Doink of All of This and That is not a title recognised by the Securities and Exchange Commission. — Amy.
Debate over writers’ rates on Twitter
There’s been an interesting debate on Twitter surrounding the pay rates for RPG writers. We have yet to see a good summary, but you can catch glimpses of it here and here.
This is a topic we’ve seen a lot lately, with numerous people calling for better pay rates, particularly for writers from minority groups. Publishers seem to be aware that writers ought to be paid more, but that the perceived value of RPGs is not high enough for the cover price required. One trend we’ve noticed is that of crowdfunding campaigns including pay rises for contractors as stretch goals for the campaign. You can see one such example in Haunted West, which launches this week.
Brick & mortar store trends
ICv2’s Rolling For Initiative column talks about trends in brick & mortar gaming stores from the Alliance Open House trade show. The column includes Wizards of the Coast offering grants to stores looking to upgrade their space (presumably, this is focused on Magic: The Gathering), and stores finding alternative ways to monetise game days.
This column gave me whiplash. WotC helping game stores sounds great (especially after they cut the early release dates for brick & mortar stores — we’re still bitter about that). However “gumball style machines with plastic capsules containing in-game bonuses such as a +1 to hit, a potion of healing, or a certificate giving the player a rare pet” sounds like the work of the devil. — Amy
Writer, James Lowder, shares a TSR office memorandum from 1994 announcing the cutting of staff writing rates.
Again, we see rates as an issue — and back in 1994. It’s a little distressing to see that per-word rates have not increased very much since then.
Steve Johansson, co-founder of Kenzer & Company (Kingdoms of Kalamar, Hackmaster), passed away this week.
Rob Kuntz reflects on his first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax.
A school board in Pennsylvania cited morality concerns when it refused to allow the formation of a D&D club.
We get quite a lot of small-town news about RPG clubs. Usually, it’s positive, but occasionally we see the spectre of the Satanic Panic looming over the hobby still.
Kobold Press is running a monster-writing competition.
Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus has appeared on the USA Today bestseller list, the Publishers Weekly bestseller list, and the Wall Street Journal bestseller list.
Upcoming & New Releases
In aid of gaming charity, Extra Life, Wizards of the Coast has released Locathah Rising, a 9th-level adventure featuring rules for playing locathah (fishfolk) characters.
Monte Cook Games announces It’s Raining Cats & Dinosaurs, a collection of adventures for No Thank You, Evil.
Green Ronin releases Threefold for its Modern AGE RPG, and announces a change in how it will structure its Modern AGE releases.
Paizo will release its next adventure path for Starfinder, entitled The Threefold Conspiracy in February.
Two separate products with the word “Threefold” in the title, in the same week. Someone better release a third, stat. — Amy
Monte Cook Games releases a revised (second?) edition of the Cypher System.
Italian RPG publisher, SpaceOrange42, releases Scheherazade, an RPG based on the One Thousand and One Nights.
Anvil Eight Games releases the Aetherium RPG, based on its dystopian cyberpunk miniatures game.
The upcoming Stargate RPG is recruiting playtesters.
A Portuguese-language edition of The Design Mechanism’s Mythras will be coming to Brazil later this year.
WizKids is releasing miniatures to accompany Eberron: Rising From the Last War.
Bundles & Deals
Pinnacle Entertainment is offering a bundle of Savage Worlds books in aid of Hurricane Dorian relief efforts.
Magpie Games is offering a sale on ashcan publications.
Modiphius is having a sale.
Bundle of Holding releases a bundle of murder mystery party games.
Only one new Kickstarter project has included a statement with regard to the controversy over Kickstarter employees’ attempt to gain union recognition (as far as we are aware, having checked out the Kickstarter project page, updates, and FAQ). Like last week, it is the big launch of the week:
Agon (Evil Hat): Evil Hat unequivocally stands with the employees of Kickstarter United (the intended union) on this matter. At this time the union has not called for boycotts, and has encouraged creators to go ahead continue to run projects. If the union organizers call for a boycott prior to the conclusion of this campaign on October 25th, we will respect the boycott and immediately cancel the project. If they say now is the time for action, we will take action – even if it means leaving pledges on the table. This also applies if a majority of KS employees vote to organize and KS management refuses to recognize the union. After October 25th, if the fundraising concludes successfully, we will honor our commitment to produce and ship the game.
Evil Hat previously decided to postpone the launch of this project by a week in response to the story emerging that Kickstarter employees may have been fired for their union recognition work.
Noteworthy New Projects
Agon: A new edition of the 2006 RPG about heroes in the style of Ancient Greek myth, by Fred Hicks / Evil Hat (Fate Core, Fate of Cthulhu) — October 25th
John Harper’s rise from the designer of cool games available for free online (if you haven’t tried Lady Blackbird, you should) to the designer of hit print RPGs continues. His previous collaboration with Evil Hat, Blades in the Dark, resulted in two spin-off games (Scum & Villainy and Band of Blades), and now Evil Hat is bringing out this greatly expanded edition of a game originally published by Harper in 2006. Currently, more than 1,100 backers have raised over $29,000, with more than a month to go.
Given my love of mythology and story games, it’s no great surprise that this is my pick of the week. — James
Forbidden Lands – The Bitter Reach Campaign is a follow up to Free League’s award-winning (and frustratingly out of print) fantasy RPG. With a few days to go, it has raised more than SEK1.6 million ($170,000) from almost 3,000 backers. The fact that Free League made the core rules available for free on DriveThru for a day last week can’t have hurt.
Along with Pugmire, Humblewood and now Root, the trend for animal fantasy RPG settings continues unabated. Historia, a 5e “dark fantasy renaissance setting” featuring anthropomorphic animals has thus far raised €74,000 from over 1,500 backers.
The Last Will and Testament of Obediah Felkner (for DCC RPG): A horror-themed western RPG for Dungeon Crawl Classics, by Stephen Newton) — October 7th
Haunted West, a Historical Weird West RPG Corebook: Amplifying the Voices of the Forgotten People of the Old West, by Chris Spivey, Darker Hue Studios (Harlem Unbound, a Cthulhu roleplaying game sourcebook) — November 1st
I am a huge fan of Chris Spivey, and of many of the other creators on this project. It’s the ensemble of writers that makes this project for me. The western is a genre with unparalleled political baggage, and bringing together a host of Americans of different backgrounds is the right way to reconceive it. Narrowly misses being my pick of the week, but my hopes are high. — Amy
Aces in Space: A Fate-based roleplaying game about space fighter pilots, toxicity, and social media, by Christian Vogt — October 21st
I was ready to dismiss this as just a cyberpunk game (yawn) meets the least interesting part of Battlestar Galactica, but I’ll be honest: the Kickstarter page kind of took my breath away. Look at the art! Look at this stuff about social media and toxic masculinity! Look at how spectacularly queer it is. It’s so wonderfully weird, and my out-of-nowhere pick of the week. — Amy
This update was made possible by Keenan Collett and the rest of our Patreon supporters.