Dungeons and Dragons, Fractured Communities, and Sacrificial Marketing

Before we begin, I would like to offer up a disclaimer. I’m going to mention various generations in broad terms. No broad definition fits everyone. Additionally, when discussing generational labels in American society, the closer you are to privilege, the more those generational definitions apply to you, because that’s the social group that gets the most scrutiny. So if you are a poor white man, you may deviate a little, and if you are an LGBTQ+ POC, you will probably deviate a lot. Trends are not destiny.

And the whole reason I wanted to even introduce generational aspects to this discussion is that Generation X (my generation) has a problem with irony and nihilism. We were told, when we were young, that we didn’t know what was really important or what we needed to do to be successful. This line of criticism was born from the discussion that it was harder for Generation X to be as prosperous as previous generations, so the easy answer was to find fault with the Generation itself.

Since we cared about the wrong things, we learned that caring about things was an avenue of attack. Caring about things was as a weakness. It was especially easy to take this lesson to heart, because many of us spent some formative time in the 80s, where media was very specifically marketed and packaged, and often the fact that we “fell for it” and cared about that media was proof that we weren’t adult enough.

Thus, ours was a generation that only liked things ironically. We learned to tell you upfront this thing we love is stupid and has no value, so you can’t use it against us. Because we were told that we are childish and don’t understand the way the world really works, whenever we made political commentary, we had to couch it, not with a belief that the world would change, but with the tainted knowledge that everything would always be terrible. The only point in noticing that something was bad was for entertainment value, because we couldn’t be trusted to effect true change.

We internalized too much. We didn’t fight back enough. When we needed to scream about how bad the world was or how frustrating our situation was, we had to do it by disclaiming that it was all pointless solipsism. No matter how old we got, there were older, wiser adults in charge, and we needed to let them take the lead. As a generation, we settled into middle management at best, and as producers of art, we settled for pointlessly edgy as the pinnacle of our achievement.

Not Really Passing the Torch

Hey, Jared, I thought this was about what happened with the consultants for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. Also, millennials have had to deal with a lot more of this crap.

Right you are, Phantom Reader. Because the “older and wiser” people ahead of us needed middle managers, but now that they are still in place, and we’re in the middle management positions, there is even more emphasis placed on why millennials must be worse than Generation X because there are only entry-level positions left, since nobody is giving up their reigns of power. Also, Generation X had to shield its love of Dungeons and Dragons, because it’s a game.

Third and fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons had a problem, in that a lot of its marketing plan was to resell material to the same group of gamers that were already fans of the game. People leave, not as many people come to the hobby, and this becomes an untenable sales model. Even when a game sells well, it’s not going to keep scaling if you are reselling to an ever-aging audience.

The trailing edge of Generation X, and the leading edge of Millennials were used to loving things ironically. The most disdain for something you could express before you said you loved it, the better. There are going to be a lot of people that will argue that this isn’t what made Zak S. popular, and that he just appreciated old school games and showed people the strength of those games through online gaming. I’m going to call bullshit. I think an ancillary effect was to help bolster an already growing movement towards returning to older roleplaying games, but I think Zak S. primary attraction, for most people, is that he was playing a game he thought was trash, because it was fun trash.

Harmful Brands

Zak S. was the avatar of loving things ironically. Zak’s espousal of older games was a statement of ironic disdain. RPGs are fun, but stupid. Newer editions are pointless, because the game itself is stupid, and you can’t refine stupid. The “cool” thing to do with RPGs was to tell twisted, weird stories that the original creators were afraid to tell, because you can. Zak wanted to present himself as cool, so what he did was cool. If he had picked any other hobby, that would have been cool, because he was presenting himself as the trendsetter.  RPGs just allowed him the added context of being able to show that he was a leader, by gathering a group of people that deferred to him.

Zak expressed, in the halcyon days of gaming Goolge+, that the best thing about modern RPGs and online culture was that you could exclude people that weren’t cool. And he would arbitrate what was cool.

Zak’s thesis statement was “I’m a porn star, and an artist, and I’m cool. People outside of art and porn have done stories about me, and that confirms I’m important. You can love D&D, as long as you know it’s pointless and editions don’t matter, and you do something weird and artistic with the game, and don’t forget to exclude people, because then you can be elite.”

A lot of people look to wider media for validation. Zak was generating buzz. The fact that he was a child of privilege that chose to take up the road less traveled gave him both reach and an air of rebellion that wider media loved. The fact that D&D was associated with anything in the mainstream press was something that a lot of long term fans couldn’t pass up, so Zak’s influence grew.

So, with this wider press coverage, older fans jumping on board because he was validating the versions of the games they loved, and newer, younger fans being reassured they could love this thing ironically as long as they both hated it and did something weird with it, WOTC had a marketing plan.

Sacrificial Marketing Strategies

To be fair, I don’t know all the details of WOTC’s marketing plan, and compared to 4e’s marketing plan of “you didn’t like what you liked,” 5e’s seemed to be “someone, from some group you trust, is endorsing this game.” The plan didn’t seem to focus only on Zak S. telling younger Generation X and older Millennials that it was okay to love this thing ironically, but also on getting luminaries from editions past, and vocal up and coming online voices that spoke for the purity of older editions on board.

The problem is, Zak has always been terrible. This isn’t just a matter of recent allegations. He was terrible from the jump. He openly admitted that his brand was about being cool, and excluding the “uncool,” and that meant that he had to have enemies to point at to be declared “uncool.” I don’t even think Zak hated everyone he declared uncool, at least not until they pissed him off by not just going away. Once they refused to go away, or, even worse, had a following of their own, then they had to be destroyed.

My point here isn’t to go into specifics. You can find a lot of other people that have done a much more in-depth discussion of Zak’s harassment campaigns online. I just want to chart the interaction between Zak’s involvement with D&D, and his perceived “worth” to the brand.

Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition is a very solid game that did a very good job of determining the elements that resonated with the largest cross-section of people that were still fans of the game. The game was going to focus on the brand first, and setting second, and present a shared experience of various iconic adventures to build a community. But it needed to get that message out to as many people as possible.

4e1621766b927d0eeb1ff5c0a1879f37.jpgMultiplied Mistakes

When people started to push back against Zak’s involvement in Dungeons and Dragons 5e, as a consultant, Mike Mearls pushed back. In what was likely one of the biggest mistakes in RPG history, Mearls handed over information about Zak’s accusers to Zak, so that Zak could vet his accusers, rather than WOTC vetting Zak. Somehow, mysteriously, this information that Zak was given just happened to disseminate to his followers, and harassment campaigns started that drove many people to leave the RPG industry. There were attacks on multiple, personal fronts, horrible threats, and demeaning comments.

Mearls response was to publicly call out multiple accusers by name, accuse them of using politically correct issues to attack Zak, and ascribed to them the the motivation of jealousy. Mike Mearls, not Zak, had publicly entered the record as saying these charges were boundless, and that the people making them were using serious issues to achieve a petty goal born out of jealousy. That’s not the edgy pseudo-celebrity that the mainstream already forgot saying those things, that’s someone entrenched in the power structure of the biggest RPG in the gaming industry.

But what was Zak’s worth? He was going to bring in all of those young and semi-young people that were going to see that it was okay to have utter disdain for something you loved. He was going to tell people that it was cool to play D&D, as long as you could identify uncool people that also played so you could prove how elite you were. He was going to appeal to the worse, base attributes of a culture poisoned by irony and nihilism.

The problem is, a lot of what made Dungeons and Dragons 5e popular wasn’t that it appealed to people that needed to ironically disclaim what they loved. It started to appeal to people that honestly loved what they loved. When people streamed the game, because online entertainment had broadened and made live broadcasting of games an entertainment form in itself, they may be silly, and they may have their own quirks and digressions . . . but nobody that gained an audience needed to disclaim what they hated about the game before they showed what they loved about it.


A lot of the younger audience coming into D&D didn’t need the irony poisoned spin to allow them to enjoy something they loved. They loved what they loved. Zak’s value to mainstream D&D became almost nil, and so he lived in online RPG cultures that were still hoping to capitalize on edginess. The real irony being that Zak’s endorsement was really just “your IP has no value, except that it allows me to make my art.”

When Zak was outed as an abusive partner and alleged rapist, WOTC did the bare minimum and removed ALL of the consultants from the Player’s Handbookcredits. Mike Mearls eventually issues a very lukewarm statement that Zak S. was specifically unwelcome to contribute anything to D&D going forward. This framed the problem with Zak as a “present” issue, as if he wasn’t welcome “going forward” because he may be a rapist and abusive.

Mike Mearls never addressed the harm that he caused, or Zak’s history of abuse and harassment towards the community. It was something, but it fell very short of actually addressing the ongoing issues with Zak’s inclusion in any community that was trying to be inclusive.

Zak’s brand was “exclude others to make yourself look cool,” from the start. This should always have been a red flag.

Mearls has never acknowledged that he, personally, made mistakes, passing on information that allowed others to be harassed, and personally, on his own, impugning the reputation of people to absolve Zak of guilt. That’s not on Zak, that’s on Mearls.

Unabsolved Sins

Recently, we learned that Mearls hasn’t been on the D&D team over the last year, and he’s been avoiding Twitter and other social media for quite a while. After the information about Mearls’ absence from D&D had disseminated, almost immediately Ray Winninger, the current head Dungeon Master (not the actual title) of D&D mentioned that he would be returning from other WOTC divisions soon.

People immediately started to call Jeremy Crawford, who initially divulged that Mearls had not been on the team over the last year, a liar by omission, claiming that he needed to tell people that Mearls was coming back. Calls for just about everyone working on Dungeons and Dragons that was known to RPG twitter to help oust Mike Mearls from WOTC started. People began to say that anyone working on D&D was complicit, and then others started to say that anyone that enjoys the current edition of D&D is also complicit.

I deeply believe that Mearls needs to make a statement, acknowledging what he has done, and issuing a specific apology to the people he called out by name. I am also fairly certain that one complicating factor for this would be corporate lawyers from either WOTC or parent company Hasbro, afraid that Mearls making this kind of apology would potentially open them up to lawsuits, if he was seen as acting in his capacity as an agent of WOTC.

That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen, that’s just my take on why this is a wider issue than it may seem. Calling on people that likely aren’t part of the decision-making process loses focus on the actual problem. If anyone else should be roped into these discussions, it’s Chris Cocks, the current president and CEO of Wizards of the Coast.

Love and Pain

In the end, we don’t need to disclaim all of the flaws in a thing we love to protect ourselves because we love it. Loving something ironically is generally just lying to ourselves, so that the pain the thing we love causes us can be internalized, and nobody can see the wounds it causes. So many of the things we love are built on pain and misery to some degree. Somewhere along the line, someone that controls the thing you love has done something to exploit someone else to produce it. Some aspect of the thing is terrible, and it gets ignored instead of addressed.

It’s hard to find that point at which we cut ties and try to find something less harmful to love. Sometimes it’s worth it to try to rebuild the foundations, and sometimes it’s going to be too much pain and effort to put in the work. That point is going to be different for different people. It’s going to be different depending on the flaws inherent in the work and what pain they cause the consumer.

There are no easy answers, but there is a point where you need to decide what you want from the energy in which you are investing. Do you want to vent, so people know the pain you are feeling? Do you want others to abandon something that you have abandoned, because it has crossed a line for you? Do you want the thing that is flawed to be better, and you want to effect change? Do you want someone that was wronged to get some degree of peace by acknowledging the pain that has been inflicted on them?

Walking Towards the Sun

The irony (I still have some of that poison flowing through me) is that a lot of modern game design starts from the idea of making your intentions clear, and then taking action. We still don’t always follow that advice in areas outside of games.

I love that games give me a creative outlet, that they allow me to interact with other people, and that they allow me to practice empathy. For those reasons, I love roleplaying games dearly, and never want to lose them from my life. Dungeons and Dragons is my entry drug for the hobby, and there is both a lot that I want to see change, and a lot that I will love about the game, and because it is something I love, it is an avenue of attack for my emotions.

I don’t know one best course of action. I do know that the RPG community as a whole, and the specific Dungeons and Dragons community isn’t going to make the progress it needs to make until actions and trends are addressed. Zak S. is a villain, but he was a villain that exploited existing problems. Getting rid of one villain doesn’t get rid of the root cause of the problem. At the very least, we need WOTC and Mike Mearls to address the mistakes that were made, and the fact that some people in the community were deemed as “sacrificial” to garner a wider audience. Recognizing human dignity requires that we don’t assume that it’s okay to build your brand on the backs of the marginalized.

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