Friday, March 4, 2022

Protecting Our Spaces: A Response to Raggi

 Somewhere in the 2009-2011 range, when I was just discovering the OSR scene, I ran across a retroclone which stuck out to me and zoomed up into my favorites for quite some time. In contrast to most of the other rulesets I had seen at the time, it had a lot of referee advice -- and it had safety tools

No, seriously! They were perhaps a bit rudimentary compared to the codified tools that are out there today, but I didn't see many other rulesets (OSR or otherwise) including quotes like "The Referee shall realize that Rule 0 is for the purpose of establishing the desired atmosphere for his campaign, and not as an excuse to abuse players or a license to be a despot at the game table… The Referee’s role is to challenge players, not victimize them." or "Know your players. Communicate outside of the game, and find where the limits lie. Your job as Referee is not to shock, scare, scandalize, or assault the senses. Respect for the real person sitting before you playing the game comes before any idea for the game you actually have." (emphasis added)

The ruleset, of course/ironically enough, was the original Referee Book for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. 

LotFP Referee Book cover

LotFP has, uh, gone some directions since those days, to say the least. Raggi's outlook seems to have gone from "good art may sometimes be transgressive" to "if it's transgressive, it must be good art!" For years, I've had LotFP in its various channels muted, while I try to do my own thing. But a friend recently tagged me in a FB post of Raggi's, and I felt the need to respond. 

Raggi writes (FB):

Let me give all the people who hate me more and more reason to do so, because why the fuck not at this point:

People in my industry always seem to be shocked and horrified and "oh how can this happen here?" because Varg Vikernes is a tabletop RPG publisher. 

Well... every single store I buy metal from (not including label-specific webstores or individual band storefronts of course), from Amazon (and when I buy Amazon, I buy from Amazon Germany) down to my local record store chain, carries Burzum. He's also distributed on Youtube by a Sony subsidiary.

Somehow the metal world hasn't ended because a bad person has been an artist in public for thirty years, and it hasn't prevented good people or good creations from existing within metal. You have a popular (give or take at any particular moment) subgenre that attracts all sorts of people, and when something attracts all sorts of people, that means ALL SORTS of people.

And Varg (and a decent number of his contemporaries) has quite obviously been a tabletop RPGer for all that time before becoming a publisher, and somehow RPGs made it through the 90s, 2000s, and 2010s without being taken over by his type of thinking, and the 2020s will be fine as well.

This wouldn't be a thing to remark about, except there are people who think that there should be a just-so uniform way of thinking in the tabletop RPG world, and if you don't sign on to that thinking (or *gasp* you even disagree with it) then people either think that's opening the gates to the Varg types to take over, and/or want to try to associate you with Varg and/or his thinking to try to isolate you and drive you out.

Funny thing is, to me, it is their behavior that I associate with Varg's sort of thinking.

Ancestry doesn't make you a better or worse person. And people of different ancestries are all over the place and they aren't going back where they came from and "they" are not going to leave "your" women alone (because the "they" and "your" do not actually exist, and both the "they" and the women know this). You have to live with them, you are never going to "cleanse" the gene pool, so get the fuck over yourselves, racists.

Similarly, you're not going to purify the thinking pool. People will think differently and prefer different creative expressions and they're not going to go away or conform to what you think is the "right" way to create or express any more than you're going to conform with theirs. You have to live with them, so get the fuck over yourselves, conformist censors.

Well, I don't hate Raggi. But this post is bullshit

Well, that second-to-last paragraph calling out Varg's racism isn't too bad, and the comparison between the OSR and metal is actually pretty apt on multiple levels. (But that's not nearly as much of a vindication for Raggi as he thinks.) 

"Somehow the metal world hasn't ended because a bad person has been an artist in public for thirty years, and it hasn't prevented good people or good creations from existing within metal." 

Good people and good creations exist within metal, no question about it. But the presence of shitheels within the scene absolutely makes it harder for marginalized folks to exist within the scene, either as fans enjoying it, or as musicians creating their own work. It also serves as a deterrent from people getting into metal.

Similarly, the presence of shitheels within the OSR scene - and folks who normalize their presence - makes it harder for marginalized folks to enjoy it, either as fans or as creators. Let's go back to that LotFP Referee book for a second. Here's another quote, from the section on organizing a group: "If someone is homophobic or racist or sexist, you want to find that out before exposing a group of strangers (who may include women, gays, or ethnic minorities) to them – that will kill a group before it gets started."

Past-Raggi was right - having a poisonous person in the group will absolutely kill a group and cause it to collapse, and rightly so. Because people will conclude two things:

1) This group isn't safe for marginalized people, because of the presence of the shitheel in question. 

2) The person organizing the group thought that it was worthwhile to bring the shitheel along. 

Even if the shitheel in question leaves or is booted out, there may still be lingering questions about the organizer's decision-making and judgment. Marginalized folks will continue to wonder if the group is a safe place to be, because clearly the organizer didn't think this person was a problem when putting the group together in the first place.

Now think about those dynamics in a creative scene. It's not a 1:1 correlation, of course - there's no single central organizer or leader that folks can point to, no single Arbiter of Metal (or OSR) to control group composition and membership. But people do notice when there are toxic folks in a community, and it starts to become known for that.

I don't have the capacity to stop Varg (or Venger, or RPGPundit, or whatever shitheel of the week) from creating metal or gaming stuff. But I can absolutely protest and call out their grossness, and actively work to create proudly inclusive and welcoming materials. Because when people in a scene treat the shitheels as 'just another creator' who we have to all get along with? Marginalized folks will conclude (and rightly so!) that the scene in question isn't likely to have their backs. 

There is a distinction to be made here, though, between pushing back against abhorrent folks and launching purity tests. I don’t want everyone thinking the same way in a scene! Not every disagreement is something worth booting people out for. There has to be room for people to be wrong and maybe change their mind over time, and sometimes a tiresome Hot Take is just a tiresome Hot Take. But there’s a distinction to be made between someone being wrong, and someone making statements (or taking action!) to harm others.

Kim Kelly is a metal critic/labor rights journalist. Here’s an excerpt from a great piece of hers: There's No Room In Metal for Racists, Abusers, and Bigots. The translation and application of the principles espoused to, say, other scenes is left as an exercise for the reader.

To be perfectly honest with you all, I personally feel that, as metal fans, the practice of separating the art from the artist is no longer a luxury that we can in good conscience afford ourselves... Is buying a bigot or an abuser’s new album or going to see them play a show the same as participating in wide-scale ethnic cleansing? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. However, is tacitly (or explicitly) supporting the violent ideologies they espouse, materially or otherwise, a dangerous, inhumane, shameful thing? Yes. Does purposefully ignoring or waving away the import of politics in art make you a coward? Also yes. Now is not the time to hand out hall passes because of fucking riffs...

It would be silly for me to write all this without acknowledging metal’s long history of creating space for and supporting the actions of bigots, abusers, and other scum. Some of our most cherished folktales center on violence and hate, and many rotten people have made indelible marks on the genre, from Varg Vikernes to that racist ding-dong from Malevolent Creation. For black metal fans, this is a particularly acute issue, as some of our most lionized figures are fucking terrible people—or at the very least, people who have done fucking terrible things.

This is something I’ve dealt with personally for years now, as my politics have evolved and I’ve worked to figure out my view on the world....We all fuck up sometimes—the most important thing is how we clean up the mess afterwards.

So how do we do that? There’s no one answer, and even though I know where I stand, it took me a long time to figure that out, and I’m still actively working on it (and still dealing with my mistakes). It comes down to personal responsibility, and your own politics, and your own level of willingness to engage with, and interrogate, and sometimes abandon the things you love in pursuit of greater understanding, and lesser harm...

There are a lot of metal bands in the world; asking yourself, “are these riffs really worth it?” is a small step, but a crucial one.

It starts with us. It starts with you.

That old Referee book is actually not too bad, on a reread. But where Raggi’s at these days? That’s not a position I can support. Calling out and vigorously criticizing those who would contribute to marginalizing others is crucial for our, or any, scene. Because that’s how you make sure that you actually keep as diverse and broad a scene as possible, with as many different perspectives and interesting ideas as you can: by making it safe for the most vulnerable. 

It starts with you. It starts with us. 

Metal, elfgames, and "defiantly anti-fascist":
Bolt Thrower has it all!

Further Reading:

Metal’s Inclusive Future Looks Like a Zeal & Ardor Show:

The thought that I keep coming back to this week is that representation matters so, so much—especially in a scene like this, where racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry remain rampant, and any scrap of progress is still looked at askance by gatekeepers or shouted down by reactionaries.

Back when I was a teenager, I’d go to shows and look out for other girls and women. In my 20s, as I got older and grew into a more informed, intersectional perspective, I’d look out for other marginalized people, especially those who reflected my own experience as a physically disabled person. Walking into a place and seeing a face that looks like yours is an immediate relief, whether it’s a bank or a job interview or a black metal show. For me, it came via those first early crowd scans, when I’d light upon another girl in a Morbid Angel shirt standing across the room, and feel my heart swell.

Later, it came in seeing women like Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow or Bolt Thrower’s Jo Bench onstage, in seeing Liz Ciavarella-Brenner edit Metal Maniacs, in reading Jeanne Fury and Zena Tsarfin’s work in magazines, and in working with Paula Hogan at Candlelight Records. Since then, a lot has changed for the better, but those early role models and fellow fans gave me the reassurance I needed that I did belong there; it gave me permission to be who I was, to be a metalhead sans caveat.

Fuck Nazi Metal Sympathy:

"Barnes explained his justification to allow known fascists to play the venue he personally owns in familiar terms. “You get put in a no-win situation in whatever you do here,” he told “Being an owner of the club you look at it as freedom of speech. When does the censorship issue come in and where does it escalate from here?” Because apparently, the Founding Fathers were extremely concerned with the future “right” for some subpar black metal jagoffs to be paid to play in front of a paying audience in a privately-held venue. By now, “free speech” has become a right-wing dog-whistle for “I want to be an asshole without suffering any consequences for my actions,” so that seems to cover his view here quite nicely."

What Covering Heavy Metal Taught Me About Spotting Nazis (aka the social-media-review dance that I, and others, find ourselves doing when checking out previously unknown OSR folks)

By combing through album lyrics, parsing interviews, and inspecting tattoos, journalists covering black metal—and even casual fans—become adept at rooting out bigotry. Doing so has, by now, become a conscious part of the wider black-metal experience: for leftist fans, a familiar ritual involves poring methodically through all available information to decipher an exciting new band’s political position. It’s kind of like playing a heavy metal version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, except the locus is invariably a Polish neo-Nazi or racist death metal guy from Florida, and winning is really losing. The thrill of discovering a killer new record is attended, always, by anticipation as you scour the lyrics and artwork and member lists and touring history—and then, all too often, you discover that (dammit!) the guitarist has a racist side project, or their label has released anti-Semitic material. But metal is too good for Nazis. Surveilling black-metal artists’ activities and exposing any associations with violent far-right networks is a means of defending a community I hold dear.

Why I Booked An Anti-Fascist Metal Festival:

Metal and its acolytes have many sins to answer for—but that shouldn’t overshadow all the brilliance, positivity, and joy that this genre and its culture have brought to millions of people around the world. Sometimes we forget to see the forest for the trees, and that the vast majority of metalheads are good, caring people who want to listen to their favorite music without having to worry that they’re enabling poisonous genocidal rhetoric.

I also think that it’s very easy to get caught up in the constant, punishing feedback loop of rediscovering over and over (and over…) that racists, neo-Nazis, bigots, abusers, and other trash people walk amongst us when we’re at a show, or in a record shop, or just trying to walk down the fucking street. Burnout is real, and I understand why some metal folk would rather just ignore the whole thing and burrow into their record collections. I used to be the same way when I was younger and more blind to my privilege (and as a result, made some mistakes in terms of supporting or covering bands that now I’d never touch); however, as I’ve grown up and become more politically active, I’ve realized that—for me, at least—that approach is just not going to cut it anymore. Zero tolerance is the only approach that makes sense when it comes to cleaning up our scene, and it’s been incredible to witness more and more metalheads standing up to say as much, online and in song.


  1. Calling out and vigorously criticizing those who would contribute to marginalizing others is crucial for our, or any, scene. Because that’s how you make sure that you actually keep as diverse and broad a scene as possible, with as many different perspectives and interesting ideas as you can: by making it safe for the most vulnerable.

    I'm not James, and gosh I find it difficult to navigate and understand his positions sometimes, but I don't think he would disagree with you here.

    I think he would absolutely insist on marginalised and vulnerable members of the community being protected; I don't think that has changed since he wrote the Referee book way back when. Where I think he disagrees with many is that he doesn't believe that expelling dangerous and harmful people from a community is the way to do it. He'd probably say that doing so is wrong, and instead we should argue with them, but again I am wary of speaking for him on that point.

    Anyway, that's just how I read it, as an admittedly not-entirely-neutral observer.

    1. Arguing with harmful folks, but also treating them as 'just another community member,' winds up not being an effective protection method, because it winds up legitimizing their viewpoints and saying 'this sort of discourse is legit within our community.' If marginalized folks feel like they have to get into arguments about their presence every time they participate in a community, that's not a community they can feel safe in.

      Deplatforming works, on multiple levels.

  2. I wish I was more surprised, but Raggi has kinda always worn his heart on his sleeve: "I am going to publish material to serve as a 'take that!' against a moral panic from decades ago", and that only leaves you so much to space to go if you don't invest in a bit of expanding horizons and self-reflection.

    He was always about trying to stick it to some imagined moralist enemy, and when the zeitgeist was leaving him behind he decided "no, it is the children who are wrong" and kept going with a sinking ship.

  3. Spot on.

    Even if you take a tangent from the racism and just look at the non-racist, trolling sh!theel behavior, the OSR scene looks like one to avoid. Heap the racism on top of that and you get a cesspool of abhorrent personality traits.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Imagine, someone posts about shitheads and you pop up, like some sort of edgy Candyman.

  5. *Shockingly*, Zak does not get reply privileges here.

  6. Thanks for posting this. While obviously the hobby, like the rest of society, will always need to do more work to deal with its bad actors and their enablers, something made difficult by indie RPGs very informal, non-hierarchical nature and lack of adjudicators, this sort of clear explanation offers a good resource for folks trying to negotiate the issues of protecting expression v. platforming exclusionary voices.

    It seems like the most we can really do individually -- a statement of values and explanation of why one holds them. It's good to see though as it educates and maybe encourages shared actions that I hope make our fragment of the hobby more resilient and more inclusive over time.