Pointless drama is anathema to me. What I’m about to write about is nothing but pointless drama. My instinct is to keep my head down and my mouth shut until it blows over, because it doesn’t involve me directly. It does, indirectly, involve my company. Because key actors in this melodrama are speaking publicly, I feel obligated to get out in front of it and say something.
You should know that this post is long.
I also want to preface that everything below is over something that’s supposed to be for charity.
Bundle of Holding
Allen Varney, who runs the Bundle of Holding, contacted me back in 2016 about contributing to a deal he was putting together. If you don’t know about the Bundle of Holding, they’re limited-time, curated collections of tabletop roleplaying game PDFs. Usually they’re older titles, but you get a lot of great game material for a great price. 10% of the proceeds go to charity. There are always several bundles going at any given time, each benefiting a different organization. Over the years Allen has raised a lot of money this way for Doctors Without Borders, Reading is Fundamental, Human Rights Watch, and other legitimate and worthy groups. It’s a big win for everyone.
Awkward segue: When I was in business school, I started a small publishing company called Asparagus Jumpsuit. I used it as a learning lab to test concepts, gather data for papers, and so on. Rather than invest in creating a game system from whole cloth, I created material for other peoples’ games under license. It was, once again, a school project writ large. One of the games I created for was Fate. Allen was putting together a bundle of Fate-related material, and asked me to participate. Great! I’m in!
That bundle fell through, unfortunately, because he couldn’t pull together enough participants. During that time I closed down Asparagus Jumpsuit and opened Dancing Lights Press. All of the AJ titles went out of print. I no longer published material for other peoples’ games, and focused on original material. There are all sorts of reasons for this, most of which have to do with creative control and not being beholden to someone else’s intellectual property.
Fast forward to last month. Allen has enough Fate material to make a decent bundle, and asks if I’m still in. Sure! I’ll bring the titles he’s interested out of the vault. They’re not making me any money there. I’ve got some things coming up and I need some extra capital. This is perfect for me. So far, so good.
The Charity of Choice
Allen tells the participants that the charity for this bundle is the ConTessa Foundation. Great! They work to bring more diversity to game conventions, and do a lot to make sure that marginalized people are both represented and safe. I have no problem with this, and start doing some research into them so I can better promote the bundle.
The day that the bundle was set to launch, I went to the preview pages that only participants can see to grab some info for a blog post I was writing. That’s when I noticed that the charity had change, and 10% would now be going to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Okay, no big deal to me, I like and support the EFF. I shot Allen an email and asked if that was correct. He answered and told me that there was “bad blood” — his words — between ConTessa and one of the contributors, so he changed it at the last minute. He did not specify what contributor it was. He did not say who had an issue with whom. He did state that they’d be the benefactor of another bundle coming up.
Okay, I didn’t ask him any questions at that point, because I didn’t want to know. My first thought, here at the end of 2018, was that there was some sort of #MeToo / MRA situation. Given what ConTessa does, it was where my mind went. Either one of the contributors was problematic, i.e. had a record of harassment and ConTessa didn’t want to work with them, or a contributor, how can I say this nicely, wasn’t on board with a diversity agenda run by feminist women.
Then the First Shoe Dropped
A little over a week after the bundle launched, the founder and CEO of ConTessa posted a statement on their website. You can go read it for yourself, but I’ll sum up the key points. They were told that they were going to be the beneficiary of the bundle. Then the bundle launched, and they weren’t. When they asked Allen, he told them that Evil Hat, the publisher of Fate, said there was “bad blood” between them and ConTessa. This being the first anyone at ConTessa heard that, they were upset. While Allen did state that he was going to give them 10% of a future bundle, they said “no thanks” and don’t want to work with Bundle of Holding.
Then the Other Show Dropped
In response, the publisher at Evil Hat issued a statement on their site. ConTessa may have been mad that no one at Evil Hat contacted them, but Evil Hat was upset that no one from ConTessa had contacted them, and now the whole thing is one giant communication error. Except, you know, the Evil Hat statement says that they do have an issue with something someone at ConTessa did. You can read it yourself and form your own opinions, but we know why Allen changed the charity.
I will note here that the game designer described as leading a “howling mob” is an American expat living in Finland. Another American expat game designer in Finland. Everything else, I can sort of shrug off as happening over there in the United States, or in internet spaces that I don’t frequent and can easily ignore. This is kind of uncomfortably close to home for me.
Wait, There’s Another Shoe
One of the other contributors to the bundle issued a statement. While he’s not going to point fingers and says there’s plenty of blame to go around, he’s giving half of his share of the bundle to ConTessa. Yeah, they did kind of get screwed, but they also passed on being the benefactor of the upcoming Thanksgiving bundle, so… cut off your nose to spite your face? They didn’t get money this month, but they could have gotten money next month, but they chose to take no money?
Too Long, Didn’t Read
I almost feel like I should do this in bullet points. I’ll just ramble. One of the major reasons I don’t participate in “the industry”, either at conventions or in online forums and groups, is because it makes me feel like I’m in high school. And not in a good way. This kind of garbage is a good example. I don’t see how this drama benefits anyone. Yes, their could have been clearer communication. Let’s all be the professionals we claim to be and just move on.
The reason I’m no longer willing to be a third party publisher, creating material for other peoples’ games, should be evident. I hitch my wagon to, say, Evil Hat’s intellectual property. Then a bunch of people get mad at Evil Hat, and some of that’s got to spill on me. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong, I’m saying that someone is going to think they’re wrong and ConTessa’s right and go for their eyes.
I’m not going to give a portion of my cut to ConTessa. Not because I’m a jerk, not because I’m taking a stand on whether they’re right or wrong, but because I’m staying the hell out of it. The beef between ConTessa and Evil Hat isn’t my issue. I signed up to raise some money for charity, and I’m doing that — the charity just happens to be the EFF.
Of course, by trying to stay neutral I’m probably just going to piss off both sides. People who side with ConTessa will be mad that I’m not denouncing Evil Hat. Those who side with Evil Hat will be angry that I’m not chastizing ConTessa. I’d get the same result if I tried to support them both, or denounce them both.
I’d also like to note that while I am writing about this, I’m not doing so on the Dancing Lights Press site. These are my personal thoughts, and if I had to sum up, I’d say “professionalism is a thing that exists”. I don’t even think I’m ranting here. I’m just sort of uncomfortable and disappointed that the go-to reaction people are having is to make this into some sort of Biggie/Tupac thing. We know how well that worked out for those guys.
Allen Varney remains, in my opinion, a nice guy just trying to do some nice things and put something positive out into the work. Great games, great prices, great causes. I support Allen and the Bundle of Holding.
I just want to create games and pay my rent and not get harassed by “howling mobs”.