TW: sexual assault, domestic abuse
The tabletop games industry has been on fire this week after four women came forward with allegations that artist and writer Zak Smith aka Zak Sabbath (Maze of the Blue Medusa, Playing D&D With Porn Stars) engaged in abusive behavior while involved with them. Since the allegations dropped, stories have come in from all around the tabletop community detailing Smith’s long history of inappropriate behavior both on and offline. The controversy has led to a broader examination of the tabletop industry and how its traditionally white and male playerbase has handled the rapidly increasing prominence of women and LGBT people in gaming spaces.
Smith, a lifelong fan of RPG’s, became a figure in the scene in 2009 with Playing D&D With Porn Stars, his blog documenting his games played with fellow adult film stars and strippers, including Mandy Morbid (his ex-wife and main accuser) and Satine Phoenix (Sirens of the Realm, GM Tips). This blog eventually spun into I Hit It With My Axe ,a video series for The Escapist directed by Smith and featuring himself (as Zak Sabbath), Phoenix, Morbid, and other adult stars playing Dungeons and Dragons. In addition to his work on those projects, Smith has had success writing RPG supplements like Vornheim, based on the setting of I Hit It With My Axe, and Maze of the Blue Medusa, which won three ENnie awards in 2016 and was nominated for three more.
He has also been a prominent proponent of grittier, more “old school” RPG play, lamenting often that D&D was becoming “Disney-fied.” This didn’t stop Zak from working as a consultant on the 5th edition of D&D. He also worked with White Wolf on Vampire the Masquerade as a consultant and co-author of We Eat Blood.
Smith has long been the center of controversy for many members of the gaming community including the harassment of freelance writers, mocking marginalized groups, and years of targeted attacks on people who criticized him. The recent controversy started on February 10th, when Mandy Morbid, co-star and longtime girlfriend of Smith, posted her account of abuse on her personal Facebook. She recounted years of alleged abuse by Smith, which included gaslighting, sexual grooming, and death threats. Morbid also included allegations by Jennifer, a longtime friend and partner, who recounted multiple cases of abuse and outright rape she witnessed while with Smith, and Hannah, who claimed she was physically assaulted by Smith during their brief time together. Two days later, cosplayer and model Vivka Grey posted her own allegations, describing Smith’s abuse of both her and Morbid and incidents of non-consensual sex and forced body modification.
The response from the community was swift with many longtime victims and targets feeling vindicated after years of industry silence, but were angered at how long it took.
My heart goes out to a very brave lady for what she went through and her bravery in speaking out.
But don't think I won't be watching to see who is SHOCKED about this when I've been telling you about this shit for seven (?) fucking years.
— Salt Monster (@wundergeek) February 11, 2019
I have sympathy for the folks who were close enough to Zak to get manipulated but I hope everyone who blew him off as "just" an asshole is haunted by this pic.twitter.com/wlJMs28IZw
— Ettin (@Ettin64) February 13, 2019
I’m vulnerable right now. I’m raw. I’m very, very upset. I’ve watched people who claimed to be my allies prop up and defend this monster and others. Watching the wind change now hurts. Where were they when I told them? When others told them?
— OLIVIA ☭ HILL (@machineiv) February 13, 2019
You can know someone for decades and not know them at all. Be careful with your heart. Protect it. Stand up for it. Don’t let anyone shrink it or tell you what to do with it.
Not all styles of loving are for all people. No means no. You can’t always tell when people hurt others
— Satine Phoenix – Herald of Compassion ?✨? (@satinephoenix) February 11, 2019
Smith released a statement refuting the claims against him, but that has not stopped companies from severing ties with him, including DriveThruRPG, ConTessa, and The Gauntlet. Mike Mearls, D&D Creative Director, released a statement regarding Smith (one that possibly contradicts his previous stance) but Wizards of the Coast has not put out an official statement. The #AbuseIsNotAGame hashtag started trending the same day Smith released his statement, and many Twitter users are demanding that Wizards and other companies that have employed Smith sever ties. But this is not just an issue confined to one person, and many on Twitter are hoping the incident can be a wake-up call for the industry.
You are a part of the greater ttrpg community, whether you like it or not, @Wizards_DnD
— Dissonance (he/him) (@MothLands) February 14, 2019
This story is still developing, and as such information here may change as new facts come to light.
Update: The following responses from companies, conventions, and individuals within the tabletop industry have become public since the writing of this article:
- Kenneth Hite, who worked with Smith as a writer and recently contributed to his Demon City game, announced he would no longer work with Smith and would donate his pay from the game to a Chicago domestic violence charity.
- Paul Gallagher rescinded his deal with Smith to allow the use of Gallagher’s “Augmented Reality” system in Demon City.
- Fiona Maeve Geist put out a statement regarding Smith.
- Designer and OSR proponent Jeff Russell announced his support for Smith’s accusers and revoked older defences of him.
- GenCon reiterated their harassment policy, and may have banned him outright.
- WizardThiefFighter denounced Smith and refused to collaborate with him in the future.
- All proceeds from sales of The Exodus System will go to RAINN
- Go Play Northwest, Big Bad Con, Garrison Cons
- Smith was banned from tabletop subreddits r/osr and r/rpg
- MCDM Productions announced support for Smith’s accusers.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault or know someone who is, please contact RAINN. Their site has links with info about how to report incidents, how to prevent, and recover, as well as the number for the National Sexual Assault Lifeline.