The Best Monster
Zak Smith is an artist (of high repute) and porn star (of the alt variety). But it’s his hardcore Dungeons & Dragons game that has unleashed legions of angry wizards and clerics. Wanna play?
By Vanessa Veselka
Photographs by Graeme Mitchell
Barry, the curator, moves around the gallery and chatters excitedly about Zak. It’s the first time one of his paintings has been shown in a private gallery on the West Coast and getting a Zak Smith here is a coup, particularly this one, which Barry says is a masterpiece. In a show filled with Mapplethorpes and Max Snows, a prime Tom of Finland, and etchings by Picasso, it carries the second-highest price tag.
Outside, tan people in jeans and white gauze, the last of Rolls Royce guru culture, gather and drink wine with aging producers in peach blazers and alabaster shirts. A young Polynesian woman in an ivory dress binds her glorious hair. In the distance, palm trees tilt seaward, boulevards without sidewalks run west. These images are nowhere in Zak’s work.
She’s Trouble, She’s Trouble, She’s Trouble is (40 x 30.5 in). It comprises smaller mini-scenes depicting a gray, inner-urban world of gutter-punk malaise shot through with porn stars in feral color. There are dirty streets and filthy couches and ratty morning-after taxis.
Standing in front of it, I get hit on by a screenwriter in Bob Crane sunglasses with a bloom of spider veins across his nose who tells me he’s a genius. “Access!” he says. “Get a credit on a major feature, get invited to Jack Nicholson’s birthday party!” He rattles his scotch dismissively at the girls having sex all over the painting and wanders off. I don’t know art. But I know these women. They are part of the story of the last 20 years in American subculture. And I don’t think they care about Jack Nicholson.
When Zak arrives he’s in black, paint-splattered jeans and a black, crusty jacket with Neurosis and Onyx patches and “I was told Pantera would be here” written across the back. Half his head is shaved to reveal an old tattoo in spreading ink that appears to be a dragon. He looks like he does in every photograph I’ve seen of him, give or take some bleach and green dye.
Through the crowd, Zak pushes a wheelchair. In it is his girlfriend, the alt-porn star Mandy Morbid, aka Adria Suicide. Mandy has a rare, degenerative disease called Ehlers–Danlos syndrome that compromises the body’s connective tissue. It’s genetic, not earned through debauchery, something Zak is quick to point out to anyone who sees it as penalty for her behavior. While EDS makes it hard for Mandy to walk or stand, it has not prevented her from wearing a black dress with a see-through panel down the front, striped stockings, and rose-pink platform shoes with spikes. Her fading, candy-pink hair, also shaved on one side, tapers off in waves above her shoulders.
Behind the pair is Connie, a slender exotic dancer with umber skin and silvery blonde hair. Next to her is Charlotte Stokely, who is, according to Zak, one of those people just born to be a porn star. I can see what he means. Even in a red and black corset, shiny skin-tight black leggings, thigh-high lace-up stiletto boots, and a black, diamond dog collar, Charlotte is an intoxicating, perpetual ingénue. This “I’m lost in an enchanted wood can you help me” expression has carried Stokely through over 300 films and nominations for several coveted Adult Video Awards, including Best New Starlet, and Best All-Girl Sex Scene.
She leans toward me.
“So I hear you’re coming over to play with us tomorrow night.”
It sounds both innocent and conspiratorial when she says it. You would never think that she was talking about Dungeons & Dragons. But this is in fact one of the reasons I’ve come here to Los Angeles, to play D&D with Charlotte, Mandy, Connie, and Zak, who is a famous (some say notorious) game master and one of the select few called in to consult on the controversial new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which has immediately jumped to the top of Amazon. Fine arts painter, porn star, and now one of D&D’s chosen elect, Zak is living out a 15-year-old boy’s dream of adulthood.
The group moves toward the painting. Someone asks Mandy and Connie to pose. Mandy is helped out of her wheelchair, teeters briefly on her heels, then leans prettily into Connie for the photo. They are two of the women in the painting. What strikes me most about the four of them is their sweetness. There is something privately gentle between them. Whether it comes from having lots of sex with one another, or years of gaming together, I can’t say.
Next to me, a ravaged man in his 50s stands a little too close.
“Do you like it?” he asks. “It’s quite a turn-on, yeah? Well, except for all the violence stuff. I’m not into that,” he says. “I mean, unless you are.”
Zak first came to artistic prominence when his massive work Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Whatever seemed gimmicky about the piece got steamrolled by Smith’s relentless commitment to the literal nature of the text. Each of the 755 ink drawings and acrylic paintings that make up the work documents a moment; it’s a visual treatise on taking things too far. The work briefly put Zak right in the center of the art world. It’s also how he got cast in his first porn flick.
Benny Profane, an alt-porn director and another Pynchon fan (Profane took his name from the novel V), got in touch with Zak because he was making a sexual autobiopic “centered around the theme of tarot cards and mysticism.” There would be fortune-tellers, flashbacks, and an octopus. In his memoir, We Did Porn, Zak describes the conversation this way: Profane went on “politely and uncertainly to say it would mean a lot to him if he could use my pictures in the movie. I say it’s no problem and that it’d mean a lot to me if I could fuck some girls in the movie. He writes, ‘Well we need a punk and there aren’t any, send photos.’”
A photo of what, I wondered as I read. Size and looks only go so far in adult movies. Pictures can’t prove stamina or the ability to make one’s marks, so to speak, on cue.
Zak says the real audition is always on set.
“You have to understand that male talent is hired very differently than female talent. They hire the girls by name — I want Amber, I want Mandy — but with us it’s ‘Send up the next guy in line.’ I’ve got 30 seconds to put the girl at ease so she thinks, yeah, I could do a scene with him. You blow your first scene and you’re done.”
Zak didn’t blow his first scene, and Zak Sabbath was born.
Zak and Mandy live with Connie in a large, one-room apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Like most one-room apartments, it’s psychologically organized by furniture — a bed makes it a “bedroom,” a kitchen table makes it a “kitchen.” Behind the table is a sink half-full of dirty dishes and a counter lined with Chinese takeout containers. On the other side of the room, towels are draped over a couch I think I recognize from a girl-on-girl webcam scene.
When I get there at 2 p.m., Zak is just getting up. The D&D game isn’t until the next night, but Zak has offered to spend the day with me. Sitting down in the kitchen, it occurs to me that in many ways his rise in the D&D world began around tables like these: a longtime player, he started running games for porn stars, games that led to a Web series, “I Hit It With My Axe,” and one of the most popular blogs in the D&D universe, which became a platform for his thoughts on theory, and books that won awards. He wrote about the game endlessly, and what he wrote was endlessly debated.
D&D had been struggling for years to satisfy a changing audience of video gamers while simultaneously fending off Tipper Gore-style purges and waves of “Satanic panic.” It has also taken flak from academic followers who want it to reflect contemporary progressive social values. Under pressure from corporate to create a game that offended no one, each edition became easier to play and more sanitized, resulting in the failure of the 4th edition, released in 2008, to truly please anybody.
“The problem with trying to asshole-proof the game,” says Zak, “is that you end up making games for assholes.”
This led to the game’s designers deciding to move beyond their professional team and to go out among the rabble. The whole process was quiet, if not secretive. Those tapped to advise were kept in the dark about the identity of other advisors. Even now that the list is public, they are strictly prohibited from saying what their specific contribution was. “Consultants on the project were hired to tear the game apart and pull no punches,” wrote lead game designer Mike Mearls at the time. “So being brutal was basically a job requirement.”
Zak, who had long decried the “Disney-fying of the game,” was an incendiary choice. To some he was its champion and to others its demise, which would make no sense at all had the game not become an arena for the vitriolic national discourse over race, feminism, gender, central versus local power, and personal liberty. Every single divisive issue electrifying the American body politic has a twin in the game. It just carries a mace and a couple of fireball spells.
“I have literally typed in ‘I believe in non-unified dice mechanics,’” he says, “and basically gotten back, ‘You’re a rape apologist.’”
Zak says most women gamers and game writers have to deal with misogynist blowback. Because he plays with porn stars, the tenor of attack is just a little different. “The misogyny we see directed at the series isn’t so much against women in general, as against femininity,” he says. “I play with girly girls.”
The classic male gamers (à la The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy) complain that real D&D doesn’t have “girls” and “cute animals.” Social conservatives say it doesn’t have “sluts.” Conversely, Zak has also been accused of gender stereotyping over his occasional use of pink character sheets.
Zak hands me coffee and asks if I want to see a painting.
“There’s one over there,” he says and points.
On a table by the window next to acrylics, brushes, and water, is a new piece. Zak works ceaselessly. He has two big solo shows coming up, collaborations with China Miéville, and pairings with William T. Vollmann. He needs to get more work to his New York gallery quickly. It’s a strange reminder that amid the raciness of porn and the high-visibility fights over D&D, it is actually Zak’s artwork keeping this world afloat.
This new painting will sell for the same price as She’s Trouble, She’s Trouble, She’s Trouble. Once an artist is established, paintings are priced largely by size, something I never knew. In it, a girl is standing in her underwear and T-shirt. She stares softly into the foreground with her hip slightly cocked. There’s a mix of belligerence and despair in her posture. A death’s head skull, the emblem of Marvel Comics’ character The Punisher, is on her shirt. Looking at her expression, I feel like I’m being held accountable for something terrible I did accidentally. Behind her are stacks of pizza boxes but the pizza has been left out, unfinished and abandoned. There’s too much of everything. There’s not enough of something. The name of it is I Want More Life, Fucker. I can’t help it. I think of Mandy.
Zak comes over.
It suddenly occurs to me that I’ve never been this close to a $28,000 painting, that I’m not sure what the etiquette is, and that I probably shouldn’t be too close.
“How do you do…” I point at a strip of mottled white from a respectful distance, “…do that?”
Seeing my discomfort, he dips a large brush in the water then makes a firm, wet swoosh over the part I’m asking about.
I’m taken aback. He looks at me a moment then sets his coffee cup down in the center of the painting. I flinch, so he picks up his laptop and puts it down next to the coffee. Later, when the cup is gone, I notice a faint circle.
Mandy is at a photo shoot with Connie and Charlotte Stokely. SuicideGirl Laney Chantal is doing the makeup, which will involve elf ears. Laney has recently become famous as a successful contestant on the SyFy series Face Off, so much so that when the four of them crashed a Renaissance Fair last April, Zak says it was Laney who got recognized most by fans, who, for unknown reasons, were mainly middle-aged Mexican men.
The photo shoot, which is for a gaming website, is being done at a friend’s apartment. It’s rare that Mandy feels well enough to work. Zak, the only male performer she does scenes with, knows how to be careful with her, but as her illness progresses, it isn’t enough. Mandy needs to be physically stable, which is hard to do in video. Static photos are best. They considered more webcam work, since it allows for schedule flexibility in a way traditional movies don’t. It’s also safe and better paying, and women in webcam porn get to create their own scenes.
It’s this last part that interests Zak. He believes in creativity and in problem solving. In some ways, it’s his religion and part of how he fell into running regular D&D games for porn stars, and particularly, porn girls.
“Nobody asks ‘the talent’ to be creative. They don’t ask them for ideas on set. But they have a chance to be creative through the medium of the game.”
This way of looking at the game was certainly nowhere in my own initiation. As a 13-year-old girl, I was made to sit on the edge of the player’s circle and watch for endless sessions as eighth-grade boys acted like they were wizard librarians in the hall of Akashic Records. When crisis came, they consulted the stacks of manuals, running their fingers down tables of numbers. It was hermetic. No one explained anything. My first shots at playing came when it was someone’s turn and they had to go to the bathroom.
“People should be good at the game because they’re creative, not because they’ve read all the books,” Zak says. “No one wants to look stupid. I tell them, I want to know what you think. There is no danger that your contribution is silly.”
It’s common in the game for everyone to throw out forceful opinions on what should be done for a situation. Tell him you’re a friend of the ogre’s cousin — what’s your charisma? Spike into the wall and climb! No, wait. Backstab! It can be overwhelming, particularly if you’re new to the game and shy about speaking up. But Zak doesn’t let players get cowed into deferring to someone else when it’s their turn. He’ll look right at them and say, “It’s your decision. I want to know what you think.”
They’ve been in this campaign, the one I will temporarily join, since 2008. Since he started, Zak (as Zak S.) has authored two books on D&D: A Red & Pleasant Land (out this month) and its predecessor, Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, which is considered by many to be one of the best third-party D&D supplements created.
“The problem with city campaigns,” he explains, “was that they were all pretty much the same — you got stuck in a town, bought supplies, got bored and got drunk, got thrown in jail.”
I knew this to be true from my own experience. Cities were where adventure went to die. But Zak understood the city as a political beast. Going back to medieval courts, he looked at records and, drawing on details, inspirations of other literary writers, and his own imagination, he created a tool for game masters. Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, a small hardcover book, went on to win the the technology award at IndieCade, an independent gaming festival, in 2012.
“In my acceptance speech,” Zak says, “I had to apologize to people who were good at computers.”
When I ask how a book could win a tech award, he takes a copy off the shelf and shows me. Its design solves issues GM’s routinely face, in part because the covers have X and Y coordinates allowing a GM to roll up innumerable characters and situational details quickly and elegantly. The judges decided that the problem-solving nature of the book’s design represented the heart of what real technology means, to create a tool, which can act practically upon an art. Flipping through, looking at the drawings, which are of course remarkable, I am struck again by the intricacy of Zak’s work. It never feels crimped. It’s almost as if the smaller and more detailed it gets, the sharper the lens, the freer it feels, the more there is to explore.
Zak needs foam core to mail his painting. On the way to the art store, a man stops him. Musician and artist Amanda Palmer is in town. The man wants to know if Zak will paint something on her body for an event. Palmer has millions of obsessive fans, but Zak’s face is unchanging and unreadable.
“Mandy likes Amanda Palmer,” he says flatly. “If she can come, yes.”
Although it’s polite, Zak’s expression offers little emotional comfort. It’s like he skipped the mirror stage in early childhood development on his way to somewhere else. But it doesn’t feel aloof or hostile, just highly alert, if a bit indifferent. I’ve seen this look several times now. It’s almost as if he’s waiting for you to keep going and say something else, hopefully something smarter, but you don’t, so he moves on.
And I have to admit, the more I’m with him, the sloppier the world seems. There’s something in the way his mind works that flenses fattened speech and thoughts. My old calculus teacher believed in eradicating the word “it” as an imprecise placeholder. “Doing so will make your mind more beautiful,” he would say.
It strikes me he would like Zak’s mind.
Mandy calls for her wheelchair. The photo shoot is finished and she’s waiting to be picked up. She gives Zak an address that’s about half a mile away and we go. It’s dark outside now. Zak asks me if I want to ride in the wheelchair. I’m horrified, but he argues that one of us should. The logic is shaky, but I get in.
The wheelchair is the kind you find in an airport or Safeway. It’s cheap and rattles. You can feel every bump. Mandy ran a successful crowd-funding campaign for a new wheelchair and they’re waiting for it to show up. Medical bills drive everything. All the money goes to them. For every $28,000 painting Zak sells, he sees about $9,500 after the gallery’s share and taxes. Specialists in EDS are rare and they aren’t cheap. One of them is in L.A., which is why they’re here.
Mandy’s changing needs drive the rhythm of Zak’s days. “It’s like this,” he says. “She asks me to get up and take the dog out. I don’t want to take the dog out. But then I realize she can’t. She doesn’t have a choice. That part may just be gone.” The day after I leave, I see a photo of Mandy in a hospital bed go by on her Twitter stream. Even in a T-shirt without makeup, visibly tired and with a feeding tube up her nose, she looks like a beautiful teenager.
As Zak pushes me in the wheelchair down Spring Street, a warm cement wind is flowing between the buildings of downtown L.A. We pass people and they move aside; I burn with shame. I focus on the breeze coming through the alleys. There is something wildly illicit about being here. I want to feel it. I don’t want to be a coward.
We find the apartment, but no one’s there. They left the door open for us, so we go in and wait. Zak examines the pictures on the walls, pokes around a rolltop desk. A woman comes in, terrified. We’re in the wrong apartment. A neighbor appears. He looks at Zak’s crusty punk glory. He looks at the empty wheelchair. It reads like a grifter move. We back out, quickly mumbling about a friend on the next floor, but get only glares.
Once in the elevator, Zak exhales and smiles a little. He says what we’re both thinking. It’s a good thing I was there looking so harmless.
Opening the door to the right apartment, which is filled with bright light and half-dressed, pretty women with pointed ears, I am overwhelmed by cotton candy and bubblegum pink. But I think it’s an aura projected onto the situation and that the color isn’t actually present.
The photographer is on the couch scrolling through the pictures on his laptop. Laney, Connie, and Mandy are looking on and seem pleased. Mandy, I notice, has little faun horns and her hair has been teased into a wilder shape. Behind me Charlotte says, “It’s Vanessa!” She seems so joyfully delighted to see me, my heart lifts. It’s not personal, though, just the genius of her natural gift. She makes the world seem like a surprise party just for you. Like Zak said, Charlotte was born to be a porn star, which reminded me of something he wrote:
The most hideous thing about pornography, of course, is that it works. On you. Excellent, witty, urbane writers can and do fly in from somewhere and visit pornography and write about it wittily and urbanely and make it all seem funny or make it all seem sad because it is always funny, and it is always sad. But it also works. On them. On you. —We Did Porn
The day of the game I get to Zak’s a couple of hours early so I can create my character. I haven’t done this for years and don’t remember how. Zak says he’ll walk me through it and gets out some characters sheets.
Zak is what some call an old-school Renaissance type. He says it’s likely I am, too.
“There’s a foolproof test. You come upon a bunch of baby Orcs. Orcs are, by definition, pure evil. Do you kill them?”
I’m a mom. I’m squeamish about meat. I can barely use flypaper with a clear conscience.
“Pure evil?” I ask.
“I kill them.”
It’s not a tame comment. Debates over the true nature of Orcs and how dice roll may seem ridiculously esoteric, but the game is rife for post-colonial critique. After all, is not darkness simply colonial “othering?” Are not Orcs code for blackness? If so, how can they be accepted as pure evil by anyone but a racist? Or so the argument goes. Zak’s defense of OSR has gotten him into trouble with groups unable to separate the social critique of the game (race, gender, etc.) from its mechanics and style of play. It’s also why he zeroed in that particular question: You come across a party of Orcs; Orcs are by definition pure evil. Do you kill them?
Similarly, Zak has a clearly defined stance on two of the most important elements of the game: death and treasure. The 4th edition made it harder to die. After all, why commit that much time and energy when someone can get wiped out in a second? Treasure, too, changed. Traditionally, a player got “XP,” or experience points, by killing monsters and stealing gold. These points were how she “leveled up.” The higher a character’s level, the more skilled she is, and the harder she is to kill. But some viewed how XP was earned through stockpiling treasure as a form of incumbency. Why should one player have an advantage over another just because they got the gold in the last game? In the abstract it makes sense, but Zak opposes anything that lowers the stakes of the game. He believes in cheap death and good XP for treasure. When treasure is worth more than monsters, he argues, it may make sense to steal it rather than try a frontal attack and risk getting killed. This, he says, encourages problem solving. In his game — as in the 5th edition — everything is more dangerous. There are repercussions to your actions. What you do affects others.
It’s late afternoon. The painting by the window is finished. A black rectangle behind the girl’s head that was blank now has writing on it, not the kind of writing you can read but the kind you think can read, a script Zak uses to make the eye pass over. While he’s getting out dice, I ask him about meaning in art, mostly because I think I’m supposed to. He says he doesn’t care about meaning.
“Meaning is the least interesting thing about good art and the most interesting thing about bad art. There’s content in everything. I could make a giant shoe out of sweatshop shoes, but — ” he points to the cement beneath his feet, “I’d rather show what’s beautiful about that floor.”
He hands me dice. I roll. I tell Zak I used to always want to be a Ranger like Strider from Lord of the Rings. He says all hippies do.
“Radon Lanoi” turns out instead to be a very mediocre thief with fundamental traits — strength, charisma, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and intelligence — notable only for their lack of salience. Her “hit points,” which determine the amount of life force she has to work with, are dismal. It will be a miracle if she survives the night.
Zak says the only other character laboring under these kinds of numbers is “Kerowhack,” a human thief played by Playgirl spokesmodel, Tyler Knight. Tyler, like Charlotte Stokely, is a major star. Winner of the Good For Her Feminist Porn Award, as well as Heartthrob of the Year, and two Best Couples Sex Scene AVN awards — his list of accolades is long.
Tyler, who is both extremely talented and African American, was already an established star when “interracial scenes” scenes became an industry standard. (Strangely, scenes between African American women and white men don’t count as interracial because, well, that’s just plain old colonialism.) When I ask how many films he’s been in, he can only guess, “Somewhere between six and eight hundred.” It’s Tyler’s multiple Best Group Sex Scene awards that interest me most. They tell me that he’s a man who plays well with others, a natural collaborator, and clearly capable of setting his own needs aside. This, as I see later, will be his undoing.
Mandy, Connie, Laney, Charlotte, and two lapdogs show up around dusk. Soon after, comes Tyler, Adam (another veteran gamer), and a woman named Karolyn, on whose hands are elaborately configured rings connected by rails of silver and hidden chain links. In what I can only imagine is Númenórean chic, the rings wrap above and below each finger joint, some plain, some delicately knotted, one adorned with a seahorse. I learn later they’re orthotic. Karolyn, like Mandy, has EDS. She’s a writer and the rings are designed to allow her to hold a pen.
People take seats around the table by the kitchen sink and settle in. It’s a familiar moment for D&D players and here feels almost tender. Zak begins. Let me be plain in case it is not obvious; you want Zak Smith as your GM. If you only ever play one D&D game in your life, you want it to be at this table.
“Some women, some men and most children know that dreams leak…” —A Red & Pleasant Land
Our party consists of three thieves, two wizards, a ranger, a cleric, and a character class Zak made up called The Alice. No one sees The Alice coming. She is the Bilbo and the Dorothy, the accidental hero. As Zak puts it, she doesn’t seek adventure, adventure seeks her. The Alice (or Alistair, or Fool if gender-fluid) is less skilled than a thief but luckier. Once an hour she can “get exasperated” and force something random to occur; good or bad, it is something that changes the game. Mandy is the Alice.
In my girlhood games a GM might pull out a lopsided sketch or two nicked from the monster manual, but when I ask what something looks like, Zak unfolds one mind-blowing illustration after another. Art is never absent from anything he does. The world we are in was once the site of a giant castle roughly the size of a continent. Worn to its roots now, all that’s left is the foundation of old power structures. There is a Red King (who dreams of an Antiland) and a Heart Queen (who is cruel) and a Slow War. One name for this place is “The Land the Gods Refuse to See.” It has mirror portals that lead to a Quiet Side of the glass where you go “unplayably insane,” a reminder that Zak uses Lewis Carroll like manga uses the atom bomb, as inspiration for a terrifying and wondrous landscape traversed by female innocence.
The party has found me in the forest and we’ve run into the entourage of the Colorless Queen, a group of Nephilidian vampires embroiled in court intrigue with the Pale King. The two sides are preparing to kill each other or marry. It’s unclear. A Colorless priest reads from a book called The Gospel of Slime and, when he finishes, returns it to a saddlebag strapped to a giant vampire warhorse, which is standing in a circle with other giant vampire warhorses.
We are on the periphery, but since Adam’s wizard has an enormous flaming head (the result of a curse) we can’t pass unnoticed. Still, Laney, Connie, and Mandy hang back in the woods like they’re ashamed to be seen with us. When it’s their turn, they strengthen their defensive positions and watch.
In general, Zak says the girls tend to play less collectively than men and often don’t step in to lead unless it’s a crisis. It’s not out of fear, he thinks, so much as an interest in maintaining boundaries and autonomy. Sometimes they need to be reminded that their personal survival depends on working together, he says.
I can see exactly this happening in the woods, but it’s not my problem.
Charlotte and I move closer to the warhorses. Zak says something is strange about their bellies. They’re a translucent white and they’re moving. Charlotte’s face brightens.
“Babies!” she says. Her voice has the lilt of wonder again but then she turns to me and says, “Let’s free them!” in what I can only call a joyful hiss. For a moment, the glee in the Wizard Stokley’s eyes is terrifying. She looks like she’s about to open a present.
I used to think people played either who they were, or against who they were. I don’t want to know where Charlotte falls. There is an effervescent moral ambivalence to the wizard.
But I’m having a different kind of problem now. Do I play for real or pretend? I’m a guest in this world but totally capable of causing problems I can’t fix. For instance, I’m a thief now standing next to a potentially valuable object, The Gospel of Slime. If I steal it and get caught, others are going to have to live out the consequences, which is the dilemma of stakes; there’s karma attached to every action. Since I’m only here for a night, I don’t want to get anyone killed. On the other hand, I’m a thief standing next to a valuable object. I go for the book. But I’m a bad thief. I can’t roll my way out of a paper bag. My capture generates new problems.
Laney’s lapdog gets into a snarl fight with Mandy’s lapdog and someone decides it’s time to order Chinese food. Connie starts to draw a heart on her knee with a ballpoint pen. Soon, she has several hearts, the size of strawberries or small plums, and later will get out a tattoo gun, which is kept in a little brown suitcase that looks like a portable typewriter, and tattoo them onto her knee forever.
The Chinese food comes. Laney talks about her wedding to musician Twiggy Ramirez, Karolyn, our cleric, isn’t feeling well and goes home, and we keep playing.
One of the things I love most about the game is the near malaise that comes— not bored, not wound up, just the knowledge that there won’t be a center or a peak, no three-act organizing structure to make meaning out of monsters. Congratulations, you’re alive: That’s what it feels like in a campaign to me. I can’t believe it’s been so long since I played.
We’re trying to get below a lake where there’s supposed to be a dungeon where we can breathe. Tyler clearly plays who he is. He can’t help it. Kerowhack, the only member of the party with hit points as pathetic as mine, offers to go down into the lake first. It’s the only gentlemanly thing to do. Grabbing a rock, he dives in, fails to reach air, takes damage, tries again, all the while Laney, Mandy, and Connie are hanging back on the beach, as if to say, it’s your problem, dude. Eventually, though, when Kerowhack is nearly unconscious, the girls come up with another strategy.
Once below the lake, things go south. There are multiple floors of ogres, 50-foot-tall colorless rooks with swimming pool heads full of floating vampires, chanting evil clerics — the phantasms of Zak’s mind. Each time we need to go down a level or into a room, Tyler, least likely to survive, goes in first. We get attacked by giant green boars, throw fireballs, and now have flaming giant angry wild boars. Laney manages to charm one. She likes pigs, she tells me, and shows me a tattoo she has of a flying pig on her back.
As the melee expands, I get grabbed by a vampire cleric and take damage. Tyler, who clearly can’t help himself, steps in, gets grabbed, and takes more damage. Laney is getting really excited about her new pet. She sends her boar into battle and it kills another boar. She’s elated.
As things get worse, Laney’s infatuation with her charmed flaming boar, though somewhat contagious, begins to have consequences. I think about what Zak said about how he plays with girly girls, about cute animals, and occasional lapses in collectivity. The whole thing turns ugly when Laney’s pet pig gets into a boar fight in front of the vampire holding Tyler like a human shield. Wanting to save her pig, she tells Zak she is going to take a shot. As a GM, Zak is flexible, fast, and confident. He’ll tell you how he’s going to call a roll, but check in to ask if it sounds fair. Here, he tells Laney she will have to roll a “natural” 20 on a twenty-sided die to stake the vampire. She has to try. Zak reminds her that if she fails to stake the vampire the chances of hitting Tyler are very, very high. But Laney is terribly worried about her pig. She rolls anyway and doesn’t make it. Zak hands her a four-sided die to roll damage, laying out the terms: 1 she hits me; 2 she hits Tyler; 3 she hits herself; 4 she hits nothing, but the pig runs away.
Laney grimaces prettily and shakes the die.
“Oh,” she says anxiously, “I hope my pig doesn’t run away!”
She nails Tyler.
For a second, she is happy. Her pig is safe. Then she catches the look on Tyler’s face and deflates some. It’s a devastating hit. On the next round Laney sacrifices her pet pig to save another party member, perhaps out of guilt.
I consider Charlotte’s sweet aspiration to liberate vampire warhorse babies in utero, the spontaneous and permanent heart tattoos on Connie’s knee, Laney’s blinding exuberance over her pig, and Mandy’s Alice, capable of slaying with such casual indifference — girly girls they may be, but femininity like this will kill you. If Tyler’s Kerowhack can’t find a cleric in the next few rounds, he dies. Tyler is in a coma. I am in a coma. And this is where the game ends for the night, with both of us on a dungeon floor slipping further into permanent sleep.
In We Did Porn Zak changed everyone’s name but his own, “to remind readers — and myself — that there is probably more to them than I managed to see or record.” This is one of my favorite things about Zak, the surprising places his humility hides. One could have many expectations about him, as an artist, as a porn star, as a gamer, one could see an embodied non sequitur, or a man drowning in chaos, but I see ravaging consistency. There is no “why?” in Zak, no search for meaning. On staying sane in the face of the dumb and the ugly, bad art, death, and the general press of human life, his own explanation is pretty straightforward: “I am one stable motherfucker.”
The morning after the game, Zak sends his new painting to New York and we meet a final time, eat tater tots, and speak of death and treasure. There are many things I don’t understand about the recent D&D wars. The issue of treasure is pretty simple. You either believe in keeping the playing field artificially level or you don’t. Death is more problematic. Zak tries to explain it again.
“By the 4th edition, death could pretty much only come from monsters. So if a monster isn’t present, you don’t have to pay attention. You can ignore everything until one shows up, which makes for a bad game. If it’s easy to die, you pay attention. Death equals details.”
I see this in his paintings: the details, how much things ignored by others matter.
Zak pushes the basket of tater tots across the table so I can have the rest.
“In OSR the whole world can kill you. Weather can kill you. Not having enough rope can kill you. It’s like Mandy — we don’t know which part of her body will die first.”
This is true. EDS can damage the lining of the brain or the tissue of the heart. It has a host of collateral presentations. So many that Zak has tattooed them on his forearm to keep them straight in emergencies. When one is ruled out, he puts a line through it.
“In the end,” Zak says, “the best monster is God.”
This story was written by Vanessa Veselka. It was edited by Michael Benoist, fact-checked by Kyla Jones, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Photographs by Graeme Mitchell for Matter.