On February 10, I woke up to a flood of messages about Zak S.
Zak (also known as Zak Smith or Zak Sabbath, an homage to the 70s English rock band Motörhead) is an indie tabletop RPG designer, artist, and adult actor. He's had a series on the Escapist, a popular blog, and several award-winning games. He's pretty well known in the indie TTRPG sphere, which was partly why my inbox blew up when Zak was credibly accused of domestic violence, rape, and abuse by multiple women.
To be clear, this post isn’t about that. The statements are credible, and besides, this is the internet; if you’re having trouble finding unqualified men who suddenly become amateur lawyers when a woman shares her experiences, reset your router. Instead, I thought it might be worth examining the story of Zak before that point, to see if it can provide context. And to do that, I’d like to investigate one of the enduring mysteries of Zak’s career:
Did Zak S shit his pants at the Circle Centre Mall Chick-fil-A on the last day of Gen Con 2017?
Ask anyone active in the online TTRPG community about Zak, and they’ll probably react like you’re a family member asking what hentai is. The story of Zak is one of those long ones with lots of links to hundred-post forum threads and old blog posts that often get blown off as "controversy" or “drama” because the alternative is reading them.
Zak was once an icon of the Old School Renaissance, a community that uses old Dungeons & Dragons rules to build new games. It had a sort of cool, do-it-yourself, punk aesthetic, albeit sometimes in a Johnny Ramone middle-aged-conservative way; retro D&D also attracts the kind of gamers who pine for an imagined prelapsarian era where gaming was a man’s pastime. (For what it’s worth, a lot of OSR people worked to overcome that; many have since moved on to form the SWORD DREAM community.)
Zak was a perfect fit. He was a trust fund kid who went to Yale, but he also looked like Jhonen Vasquez’s parrot, and that had to count for something. He first hit RPG success with his blog D&D With Porn Stars and the 2010 Escapist series I Hit It With My Axe, where he played D&D with adult actresses. (Being The Geek That Fucks also counted for something. Look, D&D players can be horny too. Deal with it.)
Over the next seven years, he hit the tabletop mainstream. His games won awards and got featured at IndieCade. When Wizards of the Coast tapped some old-school gamers as consultants, they had to get Zak (and also a middle-aged Gamergater who thinks cultural Marxism is real). Vampire: the Masquerade publisher White Wolf recruited him later to help write the interactive fiction We Eat Blood And All Our Friends Are Dead. His friends list was a who’s who of gaming luminaries.
But we’re not here to investigate how many industry people covered for him, we’re here to investigate whether he soiled himself at an Indianapolis Chick-fil-A on August 20, 2017.
Fact One: No Witnesses Have Come Forward
The obvious first step is to look for witnesses. Unfortunately, getting testimonies on Zak’s behaviour is harder than it looks.
The first problem is Google+. Google’s social network was a huge hit with RPG groups, and as the OSR community already relied heavily on Blogger they naturally migrated to G+ too. Unfortunately Google+ was discontinued in April this year after Google decided it wasn’t worth fixing, and much like a Circle Centre Mall janitor, it took a shitload of OSR material with it. A significant amount of RPG content from the last decade has simply been lost.
The second problem — and the driving force behind most of Zak’s reputation — is that he can’t take criticism. Even people who liked the guy thought he was an aggressive weirdo who’d pick a fight with his own reflection if it looked at him funny.
As far as Zak was concerned, he was Right and you were Wrong. Zak often pathologised Wrongness, insisting that his critics were mentally ill, unstable, or straight-up “psychopaths”. If they’d ever been open about having depression or anxiety, Zak would find it and throw it in their face. To hear Zak tell it he was basically a tabletop Batman, constantly assaulted by a rogue’s gallery of asylum patients he was just trying to help.
If you were Wrong but not mentally ill, you had to be trolling him, and Zak hated trolls. If you were a Troll, you weren’t just Wrong; you were subhuman and deserved to be treated as such.
Zak never took disagreements well. Even if the argument was about Dungeons & Dragons or something, he would escalate rapidly. There was nothing he’d let go and no line he wouldn’t cross. He even ran a private Google+ group where an inner circle of trusted fans monitored and harassed his perceived enemies for him, like a sadder Vic Mignogna. (In public, of course, Zak had no idea why people who said things about him he didn’t like were barraged with angry and threatening messages.)
Being active in the OSR meant carefully managing Zak’s wrath. Many OSR folks who commented in the wake of the recent developments (some of whom you can find through this excellent post) describe Zak demanding people publicly apologise for angering him, stop posting about games published by people who’d angered him, and generally do their best to navigate the ever-shifting seas of his weird personal grudges lest he lunge at them from the waves like Cthulhu’s disappointing nephew. Some good people left the community to get away from him, or were driven out. Zak didn’t care; as far as he was concerned, he was simply weeding out the weak.
So if anyone did witness Zak slip and fall in a puddle of his own shit, they probably would have kept quiet to avoid being added to his enemies list. And even if they had posted it, Google wiped it from the Internet.
Fact Two: No Women Have Said He Didn’t
I know what you’re thinking. Why would a community put up with a toxic bully who would constantly lose his shit, possibly at a chicken-based fast food outlet? Again, how cults of personality happen is not what we’re investigating. But that might tie into my next point, so let’s consider it.
Inasmuch as a loose movement like the OSR could have leaders, Zak was one. People found him charismatic. He was eager to befriend newbies. His games were well-received. He organised community events and encouraged collaborative game design. He promoted people’s work. Sure, he was an asshole, but everybody knew somebody who’d say he was nice to them.
Plus, he was an Ally. He said all the right things for the less Ramone-y side of the OSR: he was a feminist, he was sex-positive, he was LGBT-friendly. This image took work to maintain — Zak was also one of those creatives who thought the spectre of Censorship loomed behind feminist criticism. He often described gamers who engaged in it as “pearlclutchers”, “monocle-droppers”, and other terms that were conspicuously not “SJW” because that would have given the game away. (“Pearlclutchers” were particularly bad; according to one of his games, they fondle the balls of the dreaded Trolls.)
Zak kept up appearances by using friends and acquaintances as shields during his interminable conflicts. When people disagreed with Zak, he’d often post about all the women who didn’t, and suddenly discover that his opponent was Doing Sexism. When they said he harassed people, he’d simply reverse the victim and offender [is there a word for this? check before posting] and reveal that actually they were harassing him, and by extension all his LGBT friends. He wasn’t just Right, he was Left, and all the other left people he was coincidentally raging at were actually prudish conservatives.
(It helped that in the broader RPG community, most people’s first experiences with the OSR involved either the Ramone-wannabe weirdos or this full-body aneurysm of a man who Googled his own name in search of people to hoot at. It’s not hard to find posts about the OSR that treat it as a sort of tabletop Australia, a distant wasteland of reactionary dipshits who think they’re anarchists. Zak liked to paint himself as a hero defending the OSR from barbarian hordes, and he often pointed to these posts as proof.)
The linchpin of this image was his then-girlfriend, Mandy. People knew Zak was an Ally because of his friends, but those friends knew because of her. She was a feminist, queer, and disabled, and Zak would bring those up all the time. To disagree with him was to deny a woman’s experiences; to be one of his enemies was to be complicit in a coordinated harassment campaign against her. Share a post criticising him and he’d use her account to write an open letter demanding Wizards of the Coast blacklist you alongside photos of her in the hospital.
The OSR looked to Mandy as proof that Zak was the guy he claimed to be. Zak’s claims that everything people said about him was fabricated eventually led to the same source: a set of posts on Mandy’s Tumblr account that outlined this campaign and the effects it was having on her.
I’m A Chainmail Bikini Feminist And I’m Fucking Sick Of Being Harassed and its followup posts described in detail how Zak’s enemies were constantly ignoring the women in his life and insulting them for speaking out. Much of it focused on Something Awful’s Traditional Games subforum, who Zak especially hated because they’d made fun of him.
Some people did attack Mandy. When Chainmail Bikini Feminist named Something Awful as one of her attackers, for example, it was picked up by SA’s General Bullshit subforum; a lot of posters attacked her appearance and some sent her death threats. Later, Zak would create a conspiracy theory infographic linking them to Traditional Games and an industry-wide conspiracy to destroy him.
In February, Mandy was one of the women who came forward about what Zak had done to her. Her statement was credible, the allegations were serious, and many more followed. And though it paled in comparison to the full story of his abuse, it turned out that Zak had authored those posts:
“You have a problem with that man, you have a problem with me” was right: it was that man all along. These posts were more full of shit than his jorts.
So, what does this have to do with our investigation? Well, Zak has been dealing with the allegations by collecting statements and testimonies from people who agree with him and spamming them around the internet with the phrase “Believe women”.
Sure, let’s believe women for a second. Have any of the women defending Zak addressed the allegations that Zak filled his jorts and cried a little in the Circle Centre Mall? No? Well guess what, motherfucker: women agree with me that Zak probably did that.
I have five women willing to go on record agreeing with me. One of them is Electric type so you’ll need Ground women to counter me. Beat that, Zak.
Fact Three: He Was Definitely At Gen Con
Hold up though: was he even at the Gen Con in question on the day in question? If he wasn’t, then this whole premise is just ridiculous.
Well, yes. See, Gen Con is kind of a big deal for RPGs in the States, and it’s partly because of the ENnies: an annual award for TTRPGs, nominated by a group of fan-elected judges and voted on by fans. Even a nomination can be a big deal, let alone a win.
And Zak won plenty: four in 2015, three in 2016, and four in 2018. Most were supplements for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, a weird fantasy RPG and one of the OSR’s breakout hits. Zak was close friends with its creator, James Raggi; Raggi’s success was his success, and in his eyes, the OSR’s. Zak campaigned for votes for other LotFP works as much as his own.
Zak wasn’t nominated in 2017, but he was successful as hell. Lamentations swept the ENnies with six nominations, three wins, and a judge’s spotlight. Zak accepted on behalf of the winners, and he put on a hell of a show.
Reading his posts from that year is like watching a skull-clad barbarian carousing in a stolen palace. He declared the ENnies would be ”the moment we take the crown — forever — and never give it back”. He painted the award room as ”a George Perez cover of slavering foes”, who could only sit there and watch as he charged the stage again and again. He posed for the cameras. He mocked his critics with photos of his money.
To Zak, the ENnies weren’t just an award — they were another platform he could use to assert his dominance. Within a few years, he said, the OSR could practically run the show. Unfortunately, much like his run for the Chick-fil-A bathroom, it wasn’t to be: he was banned from the ENnies after the rape allegations, along with any game he works on.
Incidentally, in 2018 the ENnies started telling people that publishers would be ineligible for nominations if they asked their fans to stuff the ballot, or vote for a sympathetic judge to get their games nominated. But we’re not here to investigate whether Zak and the LotFP people were dropping a Sad Puppies on the ENnies the entire time, we’re here to investigate whether Zak dropped a load on his pants.
Fact Four: He Could Have Gone In Disguise
Now, there is one way we could confirm what happened: we could call the Circle Centre Mall and ask if they have security footage of the day and Chick-fil-A in question. Unfortunately, they asked me to stop calling them.
Even if they hadn’t, it might be hard to verify it was Zak in the first place. That dude loved disguises. Though he already had a herd of fans ready to brigade for him at a moment’s notice, sometimes he needed a personal touch.
Take The Dongion, a blog Zak ran under a pseudonym. Originally billed as The Onion for RPGs, it was actually just an outlet for Zak to post takes too spicy for his main like “Anita Sarkeesian bad” and “where are your black friends, SJWs?”.
Or SAppelcline, a Reddit account Zak registered to pose as a fan of himself with the name of an RPG forum owner he didn’t like. This one lasted for over a year until Zak accidentally used it instead of his main account.
There are a lot of smaller accounts like these, designed to keep tabs on enemies that blocked him or give the impression that he has ardent defenders. At this point it’s a common joke in RPG circles he’s touched to reply to his actual defenders with “Hi, Zak!”, though his actual sockpuppets are usually easy to spot — even his posts on Mandy’s account, peppered with dashes and bent around his uniquely argumentative style, have been obvious for years.
So it’s conceivable that if Zak did horrendously splatter his own legs outside a Chick-fil-A he was wearing some kind of disguise, possibly a beaglepuss. The web of intrigue around that fateful final day of the Best Four Days In Gaming is deeper than anyone could possibly imagine.
But maybe we can blow this case wide open.
Fact Five: Chick-fil-A Is Closed On Sundays
I know what some of you are thinking: but Ettin, this article is mostly about calling Zak a parasitic charlatan who uses people like toilet paper and whose main problem with Gamergate seems to be that it wouldn’t get his dick wet. No it’s not, you bourgeois oaf.
The more discerning readers, the posting connoisseurs, would probably reply: The last day of Gen Con is a Sunday and Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays, you Australian freak. Which, I mean, fair point. Here’s a couple counterpoints:
First, I didn’t say he was in a Chick-fil-A, did I? No, I said he was at a Chick-fil-A. Shitting yourself directly outside the Chick-fil-A is still at the Chick-fil-A. If I told you to meet me at, say, Good Games Indianapolis, and you saw me standing outside Good Games, you would not call me full of shit. Incidentally, Chick-fil-A is on the way to Good Games, so if you think about it Chick-fil-A is probably a high-traffic area during Gen Con.
Second: Does it sound like that would stop him?
This is a guy who, after being accused of rape and assault by multiple women, is not only suing for defamation but is threatening to sue everyone who supported them until they tell the world he’s innocent.
This is a guy whose defense against the claim that he slapped and choked someone in public was not that it didn’t happen, or that she gave consent, but “Well, she said she liked kinky stuff”.
This is a guy who will say he’s an ally and then turn around and say to your fucking face that the people who say he assaulted them are mentally ill sluts.
In the end, it all comes down to this:
Does this sound like a guy who would respect the boundaries laid out by a Closed sign? Who understands the meaning of the word “no”?
Or does this sound like someone who would ferociously shit his pants while trying to bust into a Chick-fil-A, slip in the puddle, and let out a little secondary shart as his torso slapped the ground?
I’ll let you be the judge of that.