It was just before Gen Con, and I had had a good run. I had gone months without thinking about anything related to Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Zak Smith. I realize that is a luxury and a privilege that some don’t have. But any obligation I had to think about LotFP was in the rear-view mirror, and I was happy to let it stay there as long as possible.
All came to a halt when I saw this tweet from Daniel Kwan of the Asians Represent! podcast, from Gen Con.
A bit of background. In February of this year four women came forward with credible allegations of abusive behaviour against Zak Smith, a loud and undeniable exclamation point to what many in the TTRPG industry had been saying about Zak for years. This caused several companies to finally cut ties with the abusive Zak Smith, among them Lamentations. What made the LotFP split different from others at the time was the “more in sorrow than in anger” attitude of Jim Raggi, head of LotFP and himself a controversial figure. While the industry was finally responding to a situation it should have dealt with years ago, Raggi had a slightly different opinion:
“You all need to keep your eyes out for these snakes slithering among us, feigning compassion when they once spat only cruelty, loving what this has done to us, ready to take advantage of the situation for themselves and further erode what we’ve all collectively built as a creative community.*
Don’t let them.
And one last thing. I’d like to thank Zak for all the work and support over the years. I am absolutely crushed that we cannot continue to collaborate.”
Despite this attitude Raggi seemed to be true to his word. The abuser Zak Smith was no longer profiting from LotFP publications, and would not be involved in any future work by the company.
Fast forward to Gen Con, and the tweet by Daniel Kwan, and the first sign I’d had in a while that Raggi and Lamentations were not going to let the situation go without one final heel-kicking, snot-blowing tantrum. Welcome to Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book, or as I’ll be referring to it for the rest of this article, 3W (for “waah! waah! waah!” which is all I could hear as I read it).
3W was written, obviously, with the sole purpose of giving the middle finger to the people Raggi thinks of as, “…snakes slithering among us…”. In addition to the title, there are several other subtle clues sprinkled throughout that show this is the case: the back matter which is simply the statement “He really doesn’t.”, the copyright notice attributed to “Not Zak” (with a cover-my-ass alternate copyright notice on the Credits page for Raggi), and the Credits section, which are all variations on it not being Zak. Except of course where Raggi credits Inspiration for the book directly to Zak: “Fuck…it is Zak after all, isn’t it?”
For more subtle clues you have simply to flip to the back of 3W. The last three-and-a-half pages of text, entitled “A Word From The Publisher” layout Raggi’s opinions on Zak, the situation surrounding his ejection from the TTRPG industry, and how he (Raggi) intends to move forward. If Raggi seemed awfully quiet and subdued about the situation after his official announcement back in February, he wasn’t any longer. Like a sloppy drunk who seems to be holding his liquor until suddenly he isn’t, Raggi spewed his opinions all over the page. And after months of careful reflection and thought…they were very much in line with his announcement in February, just a bit more explain-y.
He makes two statements in the first several paragraphs about what he believes the role of a publisher should and should not be. Remember these, I’ll come back to them later:
“A publisher’s job (or any sort of employer, really) should never be to police the personal or legal life of its creators or contractors beyond what is directly involved in the creation and production of its publications. A publisher that acts as a moral guardian or enforcer is laughable and ridiculous…
Nevermind that it is a publisher’s job, one of their most important duties, to protect their talent and their work from attack, even if it is offensive to their personal sensibilities. I completely abandoned my most important responsibility out of self-preservation. It was cowardice of the worst and most unforgivable kind.”
If the end of that quote is confusing, it’s in response to the previous paragraph. One of the first things Raggi wants us to know is that he only cut professional ties with Zak because he is a Responsible Business Man:
“[…] and the demands to get in line, right the hell now, or else were there. I had just a few months before taken on my first actual employees, one full-time, and the same week the allegations went public I’d been approved for the last of a series of large loans intended to be used to expand the company, I was responsible for other peoples’ lives and I was leveraged to hell and back. I was in no position to make my own decisions, let alone put up any sort of fight over it. So, I had to announce that I would no longer work with Zak.”
He then goes on to laud Zak and credit him with the early success of LotFP (which if true is one of the lesser crimes Zak will have to answer for), and for allowing Raggi himself to be a Real Boy:
“For the first time ever in my forty years of life, I was both earning my own way and not sweating about next month’s bills. He did that for me.”
I’m assuming the sentence, “And all I had to do was ignore Zak’s deplorable personality and how he treated the folks around him like shit.” was cut from that for concision. He does take an entire paragraph to compare Zak to his ex-wife, though. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will.
Then there are several paragraphs that can summed up with “Jim has a sad”, as he rails against all the horrible folks in the industry who want to ruin everything by *check notes* holding abusers accountable for their actions and removing them so the industry can flourish. Because remember, in Raggi’s own words, publishers are not responsible for employing abusive shitbags, but are responsible for protecting them. Why, what sort of industry would we have if publishers actually took a stand against abusive behaviour among their employees? Speaking for myself, and you’re welcome to agree with me or not, one without any Zak Smiths in it for a start.
And likely not any Jim Raggis either. Because in one of the most puzzling defensive maneuvers I have ever read, similar to an animal that defends from predators by punching itself in the face, Raggi tells us about the not one, but two women who are accusing him of assault and sexual abuse. You see, Dear Reader, Raggi has also felt the cruel sting of people holding him accountable for his shitty behaviour, so how could he not sympathize with Brother Zak? Let he who has not beaten, or stalked, or sexually assaulted a woman cast the first stone!
Raggi goes on to admonish us for several paragraphs about our failure to separate the creation from the creator, like life is one big centrifuge and we can spin the garbage away to keep Creation pure. Setting aside for a moment that what he’s talking about is, well, LotFP material, and the purity of that creation is questionable on a good day, there is no way to separate the two completely. Whatever form the art takes, whether books, paintings, films, and yes, TTRPG materials, creator and creation are linked. There is no process which separates them. I have heard too many artists talk about “giving birth” to their creation, that it’s a part of them made real, to let anyone slip around the side door and try to argue the opposite point. Frankly, it’s a horseshit opinion and it’s what got us here. I’d also like to note, it’s an opinion which only comes out when the artist is a ratbag; no one ever tries to separate the art from the decent, kind artists.
Because even a stopped clock is right twice a day (“What’s a clock, Grandpa Brent?” “Shut up, kid.”) I will share one quote from the screed which I think is important. Raggi rightfully brings up an important point about Zak’s work, both for LotFP and others:
“And I will say again, you lavished all of those books with great sales and tons of votes for awards.”
And he’s not wrong. To what should be the TTRPG community’s shame, Maze of the Blue Medusa won ENnie awards. And I spread that blame between the ENnies judges that year, and the community. The judges nominated the work (with the same attitude of splitting the creator/creation atom as Raggi, apparently), but the community voted for it. This, despite everyone knowing what the abuser Zak Smith was and is.
Don’t think I hold myself apart from this inditement. I may not have been aware of exactly what was going on. I was not hugely involved with social media beyond Facebook, and I was certainly not by any description an industry insider, but I knew there were issues. I have never purchased anything from LotFP, but I certainly grabbed the “edgy” Free RPG Day offerings they put out prior to this year, because “edgy”. So I’m not guilt free in any of this. Both I, and the community, still have work to do.
Back to the book. Raggi begins to wind down his tantrum with a couple of bold declarations:
“[…]and the house must be rebuilt.
And it will be rebuilt in accordance to my wishes, and mine alone. Anyone that thinks they have a say in this is very badly mistaken. The ‘community’ will have no say in the matter, because the ‘community’ is poisonous. You’ll take what you’re given, or you’ll go away.
With this book I reclaim my power and deny the policers, the censors, the puritans, the kindly inquisitors, all those that seek [to] define for other people what is ‘proper’, and those who endeavor to enforce their moral will upon the dreams and imaginations of others and dictate what other people may and may not create, purchase, or read.”
Wow, okay. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one slim volume with an initial printing of 500 copies, but dream big I guess?
So this section is the middlest finger of all, in a screed built on middle fingers. It is Raggi’s Hill He Will Die Upon™. I have to admit, the first thing that caught my eye, after the “Glorious Leader” tone of this section, was the reference to the community as being poisonous. I’m pretty sure he meant it was venomous, since that would be the condition most dangerous to him. A poisonous community could only be of concern to him if her were trying to consume the community in question, which is a bit telling. Since being poisonous seems to work pretty well in the animal world for dissuading predators, I for one hope our community gets more poisonous, not less.
Though not quoted, he says at one point that, as consumers, we have the choice to consume what is given to us, or make our own thing if we are dissatisfied. This is a pretty common point made by many who argue against “forced” inclusivity in gaming, to counter critique of a given work’s lack of same. And it’s no less a horseshit point because he took three pages to make it. Yes, of course consumers have a choice. It’s just funny (in the same way that clowns are funny) that for people like Raggi, that those choices are only ever right if it includes their work. Because as soon as it doesn’t, as soon as we choose not to support the work of writers, artists, and publishers who create a venomous community environment, we’re suddenly the Bad Guys.
It should be apparent by now that I am not a Lamentations of the Flame Princess fan. I wish I could remember who said it, because I want to properly credit them for this masterfully concise scalpel of a review of LotFP’s work, but someone summed them up thusly: “…it’s like a thirteen year old writing to impress an eight year old…” If you said this, or can point me to where it is written, get in touch because I want to properly credit you and buy you a beverage of your choice. But that’s why there is no discussion of the adventure which makes up the bulk of this book. It’s frankly not very good, and suffers at the hands of a publisher who thinks he don’t need no damn editor! I was going to make a big deal earlier about how the “Not Zak” contrivance in the credits deprived someone of due credit for their work. But in this case I think it’s for the best. Assuming it wasn’t Ol’ Raggi his ownself, better to keep this credit off the CV, and do better next time.
I can only hope that we have seen the end, in any effectual way, of Lamentations. If, as Raggi himself has said, Zak was the key to his success, I get the feeling that even Raggi knows his days of relevance are numbered, and largely with negative integers at that. I’m sure we’ll hear little noises and alarums for a bit yet. Like a child loudly declaiming dirty words so the adults will pay attention to him, expect to see some execrable offerings in the next while. With any luck those will trickle off and we can enjoy our poisonous community once again.
Calling out this sort of thing is one thing, and should be done. But pointing out a problem without offering up some actions to go with it feels a bit hollow. So going forward, no more coverage for LotFP from me. I don’t think I have ever written a formal review of anything they’ve done, so that will be easy enough to manage. As well, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the names associated with LotFP, and doing some necessary digging before I support anything else they work on. I get that freelancers often take the work where they can get it. And I also understand that a person could accept work with Raggi’s company and not realize at first who they were dealing with. But if a particular person has repeatedly gone back to that well, they know who they are working with and have decided they don’t care about the harm.
The fact is, there are more than enough creative folks in the TTRPG industry and hobby who are not abusive sexual predators, there is no excuse not to call them out when you see them. Our hobby will be fine without them. And I suspect that once we do purge them, finally, the hobby will get even stronger.
Update: For another perspective, check out this post over at Papers Falling from an Attic Window, who was kind enough to mention this article.