An Interview with Zak S

zak_sBy David Paul Hellings

For SFFWorld.com

@HellingsOnFilm

A brief introduction to Zak S:

As Zak S, he’s the creator and artist of multi-award winning fantasy RPG products such as “Vornheim: The Complete City Kit” and “A Red & Pleasant Land”, as well as being a consultant on the 5th edition of “Dungeons and Dragons”. He also releases the blog dndwithpornstars, in which he passionately discusses RPGs along with the most ridiculously good-looking gaming group on the planet. As Zak Smith, he’s a multi-commissioned artist; and as Zak Sabbath, he’s a porn star.

Not afraid to express strong opinions, as well as call out trolls in online debate, he’s made as many enemies as he has friends. Born in Syracuse, New York, but brought up in Washington DC, Zak studied art, gaining a MFA from Yale, and his work has been exhibited extensively, including at the Museum of Modern Art. His art pieces often focus on the female form and eroticism. His work is acrylic and ink, informed with a punk sensibility that is intricate, contemporary and abstract. He’s published books of his artwork as well as provided art for other people’s material. His visual work in his RPG releases has elevated them beyond the high imagination of the content ideas to art pieces in their own right. “A Red & Pleasant Land” (Alice in Wonderland meets vampires), released by James Raggi IV’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess (as is Zak’s superb city building “Vornheim: The Complete City Kit”), recently picked up major awards at the 2015 Gen Con EN World RPG Awards (beating Wizards of the Coast’s “Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook” (5th Edition) to win the Gold Award for Best Writing; and winning the Gold Award for Best Setting, as well as Two Silver Awards). “A Red & Pleasant Land” is a sumptuous book full of brilliant ideas and settings for the Role Playing Gamer. Its wins at the ENnies also prompted a staged walk out among some attendees, who then took to social media to denounce “AR&PL” winning, stating that awards mean nothing, whilst then seemingly revealing that they wouldn’t have refused an award if they’d been nominated!

Zak donates substantial amounts from his sales to activist causes such as Food Not Bombs, and West Memphis 3. He defines himself politically as an anarchist. He now lives in Los Angeles. He divides opinion. Zak S, it’s fair to say, can never be described as boring. In filmed interview he comes across as sensitive and engaging. In print, he goes to war. So, who is the real Zak S?

DPH: Hi Zak. Many thanks for taking the time to talk to us at SFFWorld.

ZS: Any chance to visit Science Fiction and Fantasy World, I take it– dodging the lasers gets old but the jetpacks and fembots make it all worth while, really. Thanks for flying me in.

DPH: Is the introduction fair and accurate, would you say? Anything you’d question?

ZS: I was distracted by…what is that, like a dog-mammoth?

DPH: You’re an East Coast guy happily living on the West Coast. How was life in the East growing up? 

ZS: Terrible. DC is like all the bad things about a city and none of the good ones. It’s the government surrounded by people the government wages continuous social and economic warfare against.

DPH: Did the interest in art come about early? Who were the artists that interested and/or inspired you back then? Are there any artists around today whose work you find of interest and why?

ZS: Yeah I always was into art. I mean–I was into a lot of what other kids were into: movies and comics. But my imagination went more toward “How do you make those” than like engineers who are like “How do I make the world like this movie?” or  business types who I guess are like “How do I afford to redo my living room so it looks like that?”. There are lots of artists I like these days and back then of course but I get that question so much in interviews I’m going to to just be like hey Google the other ones.

DPH: You work primarily with acrylic and ink. Is that because of the intricate nature of your images? Is there anything else, such as oil or digital art, which you use or consider using?

ZS: Basically yeah: acrylic and ink are good if you’re trying to make very sharp, intricate pictures. Oil is kind of like painting with colored mud–and digital, I feel: it works good for getting an idea across, but it takes a whole separate kind of work than what I’m interested in to make them digital images look interesting in person. That said, I’ve used a lot of different media in my career because I like to try to create new problems to solve. Pretty much you name it and I’ve done it at least once.

DPH: Your work often focuses on the female form and/or eroticism. What lead you to that subject area in your art?

ZS: Well women are the most beautiful shape to me, so I figure if I’m performing experiments toward making the most beautiful picture in the world they’re a good place to start.

DPH: What was the first piece that got exhibited publicly and where? What are your memories of that experience as an artist?

ZS: Oh this dense dark insane thing I did in high school. My memory is the guys who ran the gallery eventually stole it and I hate them.

DPH: Who commissions your work now, and what subject matter seems the most profitable, from your experience?

ZS: It doesn’t work that way in the fine art business: I make whatever I want and then people buy it. As far as profitable basically big things sell better than small things and otherwise there’s no pattern.

DPH: Turning to RPGs, now: what was the first RPG you played? It seems that Dungeons and Dragons could have been an early one? What were your initial experiences/thoughts of D&D? Were you mainly a DM or player, or both? Which did you prefer? What role do you prefer now?

ZS: I think maybe the first one I played was D&D or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My initial thought was it was this wonderful dark rabbit hole–I still think it is. I probably was a player more often than DM then but it changed a lot. I still like doing both, if I do one too much and not the other I get antsy. I like the camaraderie and teamwork of playing, but I like the experimental quality of GMing–you think “Oh how will they deal with this shit?”

DPH: Can you tell us about “The Escapist”, “I Hit It With My Axe” and “PlayingDNDWithPornStars”?

ZS: Playing D&D With Porn Stars is my blog about my game group and game stuff. The Escapist is a video game website that saw that blog and decided to commission a documentary series about our game group called “I Hit It With My Axe”. It was short-lived as most of their shows were pretty cheap and in order to do Axe they had to pay us as much as we get paid to do a porn movie.

DPH: You blog extensively about your positive views of D&D: briefly, can you give us your thoughts on why it’s retained its popularity and why it’s an important game?

ZS: It allows friends to work together in a creative way while still being enough of a game that it doesn’t feel like a performance. Also: the original game was intensely eclectic and eccentric and weirdly literary so modern things that should’ve replaced it by now haven’t. It’s too weird to die, basically.

DPH: I was a 1e player when D&D/AD&D hit the UK in ’79, but I moved away from it before it hit 2e, 3e, (4e), and now 5e, and returned to it all, and came upon Lamentations of the Flame Princess, about a year ago. The 5e D&D Player’s Handbook, on which you were a consultant, was the biggest selling RPG book on its release. What is it about D&D 5e that’s proven so popular?

ZS: Well let’s be realistic: any new D&D player’s handbook is gonna be the biggest selling RPG book on its release. That said, I think 5e was successful because ever since the open game license–which allowed anyone to publish something using the old D&D rules–and the online game scene it spawned came out, there’ve been more critical brains looking more carefully at games than ever before. So basically 5th edition benefited from tons of analysis and “What If” scenarios people have been publishing–plus (and this is huge) finally everyone and their mom has been putting up videos of their group playing. So a lot of things that the D&D people used to only be able to learn by running their own events or by getting letters to the editor at Dragon Magazine or by polling each other were now being fed to them at a tremendous rate from all over the web. Ivory tower orthodoxies like “the game has to be About some Theme and the design has to be focused on that” or “the game should reward the nerd who read the rules the most carefully” were annihilated on contact with people talking and showing how it worked in the wild and new ideas about how to do it better were being produced by bloggers and DIY RPG game designers every day.

DPH: What feedback were you offering when Wizards of the Coast were producing the 5e D&D books? How much did they take on board? Was there any that they chose to ignore?

ZS: That is mostly covered by a nondisclosure agreement. I can say that almost as soon as 5e came out I switched from the version I was using to a hacked version of 5e (though with lower starting power levels) and I had some influence over, among other things, the new mechanic I’ve heard more people about talking about than any other. I like 5e.

DPH: What’s your favourite classic D&D/AD&D 1e adventure module and why?

ZS: Caverns of Thracia? Because it’s the only big dungeon that’s anywhere near good. Seriously, old modules are full of cool ideas, but overall they basically suck and I never use them. They’re always cheesy and waste space with endless room descriptions and boxed text because the writers are paid by the word and they make maps with lots of space where they could’ve put the room info on there but they don’t. I mean: Vault of the Drow dark elves, cool idea. The module itself: it’s almost insulting how much contempt the thing shows for anyone trying to run it. That’s why we make new shit.

DPH: How did your aesthetically pleasing D&D group come about? Did you introduce the girls to D&D or had any of them played before? 

ZS: We all knew each other from doing porn together. Satine Phoenix had played when she was younger, it was her idea to start a campaign. So I did. Most of the other girls had never played before, but a lot of them had always been interested. A lot of them told the same story: “I always wanted to play but The Boys wouldn’t let me”. Once we started it became kinda like out poker night–everybody wanted in.

DPH: How long do the game sessions last?

ZS: All over the place–sometimes 12 hours, sometimes 2. Depends on when people have to work–it’s LA, nobody keeps normal hours.

DPH: Are they homebrew games or are there ever any old school D&D/AD& modules run?

ZS: 99% stuff I made up, though I throw some new DIY D&D modules in, heavily modified, on occasion. I ran Death Frost Doom as one of the first adventures–and a version of Gem Prison of Zardax. The underlying hexmap draws on Hexenbracken, The Kraal, The Colossal Waste and Majestic Wilderlands, all kind of collaged and rearranged and scribbled over.

DPH: Was having a primarily female gaming group a conscious decision or did it just naturally come about? Have you found any benefits, game wise or ideas, in being the only male in the group?

ZS: There are a few other guys sometimes, it’s a big group–like 15 regulars. As for benefits–it’s hard to say, I’ve never really had another group as an adult so I have nothing to compare it to.

DPH: How did your association with James Raggi IV and the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) RPG label come about?

ZS: In the early days, the girls and I got a lot of misogynistic harassment from the more conservative elements of the gaming scene. We still do–from people like Cam Banks and Fred Hicks–and James was really quick and really loud about calling people out for it. Plus he’d done Death Frost Doom, which I thought was pretty fucking metal. So when a bunch of game people started sniffing around asking if I wanted to write something I thought: “Well who would I want to work with?” and I emailed James.

DPH: For the uninitiated, how would you describe LotFP?

ZS: It’s like a more horrory version of Basic-era 80s D&D that a metalhead made so that he and his friends could publish new weird D&D adventures and supplements. Anything for LotFP can be converted to D&D but it’s also its own thing.

DPH: Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) is adult weird fantasy that’s rules neutral, so the adventure modules can be used with OSR (Old School Renaissance) RPGs. How satisfying is it that the work you do can be used in roughly over 100 RPG systems?

ZS: I can’t say that has ever been a particular object of satisfaction or dissatisfaction to me. I like that people play it and enjoy it and–especially–that they make new things that I can use in my game.

DPH: “Death Frost Doom” has just been re-released and you worked extensively on the new version. Can you tell us about the work you did on that adventure module, how you approached it, and how the new version differs from the original?

ZS: Well I liked James’ original–it was like a horror short story adventure–and Mandy (Morbid) loved it. So I basically just kinda smoothed out the prose a little, Jez Gordon did some new art, and then we replaced a lotta the elements that were sort of stock D&D ideas in the original and kind’ve made a new horror mythology just specifically for that adventure. There’s a little bit more to explore now–some of the isolated weird bits in the original are still weird but now more tightly woven together with an internal logic. I kinda Batman: Year One’d it, if you will.

vorn imageDPH: Two releases that you’re possibly best known for are “Vornheim: The Complete City Kit”, and “A Red & Pleasant Land”. Let’s start with “Vornheim”, which is finally available again as the second print edition has just been released. How would you describe “Vornheim”? How did it come about and how long did it take to create? Could you tell us about the process?

ZS: Well when I first talked to James about doing a game book, he said  “I always thought city adventures were boring so you should write a book about how to do them”. Vornheim was basically the result of me describing the main city in my campaign and then going “Ok, what do you actually need to run a city adventure with zero prep? How much do we really need to know to make a city come alive? How efficient can we be while still evoking a distinct sense of place?” Most of the work was rounding up notes I already had, so it only took like a month.

DPH: One of the many things I like about “Vornheim” is the physical design of the book. Every part of it can be physically used: the outer sleeve has information, inner sleeve has a map, the book covers front and back are charts, and of course there’s obviously the contents for city creation as well as adventures. How did you decide on the physical aspect of “Vornheim”?

ZS: I figured if I was going to make people pay money for this instead of just read it on a blog, it better be worth it. I mean: I use this book, too. I don’t want dead space. An RPG book is not like a novel–it’s more like a cook book, it will be referenced, quickly in urgent situations while things are on fire, it needs a special kind of layout.

DPH: The print version of “A Red & Pleasant Land” has just sold out at the LotFP webstore, but there are still copies available at games stores across the globe. I tend to describe “AR&PL” as ‘Alice in Wonderland meets vampires’. It’s a beautifully designed book full of imagination, madness, adventure settings, an Alice character class, and much more. How did the idea of “AR&PL” come about? How long did it take to complete?

ZS: Well I always wanted to do something with Elizabeth Bathory vs Dracula in pseudo-Hungary. Like the first few minutes of that Coppola Dracula film where he’s wearing the red armor before it all goes sideways with Keanu Reeves. Then James was kind of joking that he wanted to do an adventure with a girl in a dress with her legs spread on the cover called, “Eat Me” and I said…y’know what, for a modest advance…

Carroll and Stoker’s worlds had jussssst enough in common that you can make a new weird mythology by dodging back and forth between the two. Plus D&D has always been very Alice to me. Big, small, potions, freaks, decapitation, puzzles, geometry. You can get pretty far using the content from one with the mood from the other or vice versa.

DPH: Could you tell us about the process?

ZS: I went thru Wonderland and Looking Glass and wrote down every creature and relationship, then tried to map it out. The Hare and Hatter work for the White King, who is a chess king, for instance. But then Wonderland is based on cards, not chess, but then the clubs work for the Queen of Hearts so… eventually I figured on all the hierarchies and factions and tried to make each one interesting and not just  “What Carroll and (John) Tenniel would’ve done but spooky”. Once I managed to make Humpty Dumpty scary, I knew the rest was cake.

red and pleasantDPH: “A Red & Pleasant Land” deservedly won a number of awards recently at the ENnies. I’ll ask you about the different reactions to the wins later but, for now, how pleased were you that the work was seen as being better than a lot of work from much bigger publishers?

ZS: I don’t know. Honestly the best thing about those awards is they help James and other DIY RPG publishers who are trying to put out new, innovative work. It shows that they’re on a similar level.

DPH: If you’re a DM/GM, how much preparation do you need if you want to run “A Red & Pleasant Land”?

ZS: Well it’s a whole continent, so it really depends what you want to do. But I think you could probably run the three one-page sample adventures having read the book through once. They all fit on one page each and it’s all on the map.

DPH: What’s the minimum level for characters to have a reasonable chance of surviving?

ZS: 1.

DPH: Any tips for DMs/GMs and players on things not to do when playing?

ZS:  Just don’t get obsessed with cramming every idea in on the first session. Let the adventure unfold naturally–you don’t have to be like  “Oh and this is the Cheshire Cat and he says this and this is the Red King and he says that and and and…” just make solid adventures that work for your group and mix in the setting elements that fit what you’re up to.

DPH: Looking at the RPG scene in general, we’re seeing the resurgence of interest in D&D with the 5th edition, and a seemingly countless amount of other RPGs from different publishers. Is the RPG scene in a healthy place going forward in terms of people being involved, either as players and/or publishers?

ZS: I don’t know the economics of it, but I know on the creative end cool new things are coming fast and thick, so in terms of what’s available now, it’s awesome.

DPH: What are the new releases and who are the publishers to be looking out for in terms of interesting ideas?

ZS: Honestly though LotFP is cool, it’s best to keep an eye on the blogs. That’s where all the best stuff is: Yoon-Suin, Fire on the Velvet Horizon, Deep Carbon Observatory. Ken Baumann is starting a new division of his literary press, Sator Press–called Satyr Press–to do RPG stuff, that looks like it might be good.

DPH: Over the last few weeks or so, a major storm has erupted, as you know, due to the release of an RPG with the toxic title “Tournament of Rapists” by Skorched Urf Studios, which was briefly available on DriveThruRPG (NB: it hadn’t been viewed or checked by anybody at DriveThru before being put up for sale by the publisher). Complaints were made about “ToR” and OneBlogShelf (owner of DriveThruRPG etc.) issued a statement regarding their now revised Offensive Content Policy. In a nutshell, the policy now means that anybody can report any title on these sites and it’ll be removed from sale (until it has been reviewed by somebody at OBS and they’ve discussed the content with the game’s publisher). If it seems OK, the product will be made available for sale again. James Raggi IV issued a statement of concern that LotFP titles might also be negatively affected under the new policy if certain parties, who find the adult nature of the RPG offensive or have an axe to grind, deliberately flag it. Other political individuals stormed social media saying that OBS’s statement didn’t go far enough. Other gamers have said that whilst they find “ToR” offensive and insulting to an RPG community that’s working to be more inclusive, the removal of it from sale is simply an act of censorship rather than a business decision. What’s your view on the whole situation?

ZS: I think worrying either way is premature, the policy is vague and there hasn’t been a test case yet.

DPH: Moving away from RPGs, the other aspect of your work is as Zak Sabbath, porn star. How did this all come about?

ZS: One day some guy I never met said “It would mean a lot to me if I cold use your pictures in my porn movie”. I told him ok. Then said “It would mean a lot to me if I could fuck all the girls in the movie” he told me to send pictures. I did. Next thing I knew, the girls I was painting were like “Hey, Zak’s talent now”.

DPH:  …and what benefits or challenges has it brought?

ZS: The benefits are lots of women who are interested in spending time with me because they are in or have seen the movies. The challenges are scheduling.

DPH: You donate a large percentage of your profits to various activist causes. Can you tell us about the causes you support and what drew you to them?

ZS: I think being able to eat should be a given of so people can worry about more interesting stuff.

DPH: You define yourself as an anarchist. Like Trotsky’s views of his form of Communism as the search for and creation of permanent revolution, I tend to look to the concept of anarchy and its history as a cause with an effect but no permanent result. It’s a step up from nihilism, but like causes such as the Occupy movement, its problem is that it doesn’t actually offer a solution to the status quo and what most regular people are actually seeking is an alternative manifesto, which Occupy and Anonymous never offered. Without that there’s a vacuum and chaos ensues (recent examples being Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria). Am I being too critical of Anarchism? What exactly can anarchy as a political ideology offer the modern world?

ZS: Human beings–their norms and defaults–have changed a lot over the centuries.  You have to ask yourself what changes the human race would have to make to be able to function without government? Then begin to make those changes.

DPH: I want to talk now about the perceptions of, and reality of, Zak S. Somebody recently described the Internet as “a place people go to pick fights with strangers” and the online world, at its very worst, is a toxic wasteland of trolls. I mentioned in the introduction that you divide opinion and it’s fair to say that you can be seen as a love him or despise him character in certain quarters. I’d be remiss not to ask about this, even though it must get tiresome to have to defend yourself, I know. How has the negativity towards you come about?

ZS: There are two relatively unique things about RPG online drama vs other kinds of online drama:   – People in the DIY RPG scene actually use the internet to get work done. They use the community to build new tools like, for example, Hexenbracken. -The trolls in the community aren’t just comment randos, they’re actual game designers. This means calling for accountability is more important in the RPG community than in, say, the complaining-about-Star-Trek community. One day Shannon Appelcline is openly endorsing bigotry and harassment in the RPG community, the next day he’s trying to sell books to it. That’s not cool.

Since I have a relatively high profile in that community but _don’t_ make most of my money there, I’m in a unique position to call people out for bad behavior and, simply, these folks aren’t used to being called out–they’re used to acting like 4chan anons and using each other as public toilets. So any call for accountability or a better community strikes them as a radical attack on their way of life.

DPH: Is it ever a case of enjoying the notoriety and fuelling the controversial image in a punk ethic way or is it a zero tolerance approach towards trolls? Or a bit of both?

ZS: Zero tolerance.

DPH: Are there ever times when you’ve engaged in online discussions and then thought that maybe there are some battles worth avoiding if the war is to be won?

ZS: It’s not a “war”. There’s no weighing of stakes for me here: I am a grown-up and so I have a responsibility to demand accountability.  If someone says “Hey the D&D With Porn Stars girls appearing in Maxim hurts women” they’re wrong and have no proof and need to be called out for being shitty and bigoted and promoting stereotypes about women based on their job and how they dress and no grown-up has a choice about that. It’s just what you do. I don’t get to pick and choose what gets fact-checked.

DPH: I’d like to discuss The ENnies “walkout” by some attendees. A small group staged a walkout when “A Red & Pleasant Land” won. Now, this was something of a staged walkout, it seems, with the protesters posing for selfies and giving the finger to the camera, denouncing the wins on social media and claiming that ‘awards mean nothing’ (which judging by the rush of sales and sold out status on the LotFP webstore for “AR&PL” clearly isn’t the case). My problem is that in a true democracy, we have to accept other people’s opinions, whether we agree with them or not. I love HP Lovecraft’s work, but would I have tolerated his racism? Of course not, but I’d have tried to engage him in debate as to why I thought he was wrong. Picasso famously wasn’t the most agreeable chap, but I can still respect his work. I draw the line at pedophiles, rapists, murderers etc. If we start judging artistic work by the personal world of the artist, we’re in trouble. I can’t judge a person until I’ve met them and heard what they have to say. What was your take on the ENnies ‘walkout’?

ZS: People should protest when bad people make money–it has nothing to do with  the content of the work, that just shouldn’t happen. The people at the Ennie’s were dumb though because they protested good people making money because I guess they’re insane.

DPH: I initially thought about calling this article something like: “The World According to Zak S”, or “Who the Hell is Zak S anyway?” or something equally whatever. I decided that “An Interview with Zak S” was simpler. If you looked in a mirror, who do you see? How would you describe yourself and/or your work to a stranger?

ZS:I wouldn’t. That’s not for me to do.

DPH: Drawing to a close, what are you working on at the moment, and what projects are coming up?

ZS: Working on a piece of long fiction, with pictures. Also, Amazons of the Devoured Land for LotFP–it’ll be very Metal.

DPH: If you had to choose three pieces of your work: an art piece, an RPG piece, and a porn film piece, to put into a time capsule, what would they be and why?

ZS: Whatever was closest at hand because I’ll be dead in the future so I’d find it hard to care.

DPH: Final questions, based on an abstract finish to the interview. I’d like you, if you would, to take the The Voight-Kampff test from “Blade Runner”. Here goes:

DPH: It’s your birthday. Someone gives you a calfskin wallet. How do you react?

ZS: I’d give it to someone who needed a wallet, I guess.

DPH: You’ve got a little boy. He shows you his butterfly collection plus the killing jar. What do you do?

ZS: I’d be like when did I have a kid this is a disaster.

DPH: You’re watching television. Suddenly you realise there’s a wasp crawling on your arm. What do you do?

ZS: Spray it with Windex, then drop the remote on it.

DPH: You’re in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down, and you see a tortoise, crawling toward you. You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t, not without your help. But you’re not helping. Why is that?

ZS: I’d noticed the tortoise had been working really long hours and hadn’t been returning anyone’s texts so I just figured he needed a break for a second. Like: hey–life’s not all crawling across dunes 24-7, guy. Take a second, look at the sky.

DPH: Describe in single words, only the good things that come into your mind. About your mother (or father):

ZS: “Not genocidal.” That’s two words I guess. That’s all I got. Maybe I’m an android.

DPH: Zak, many thanks for your time and very best wishes for the projects and work ahead.

This interview took place September 8th 2015 and originally appeared on SFFWorld:

http://www.sffworld.com/2015/09/an-interview-with-zak-s/

Further info:

Zak S blog:

http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.co.uk

Zak Smith art prints, posters, etc:

http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/zak-smith.html

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