Professional Abuse

CW: discussions of sexual and emotional abuse, as well as trauma and coping mechanisms.

This article has been a long time coming, some version of it has sat in my drafts for years now. The things that keep me from posting it are all the usual reasons, but they mostly boil down to fear. Fear of retaliation from my abuser, fear of being misinterpreted, of not being believed, of missing some vital context that makes what I have to say cause more harm than good.

So why now? Well, this article isn’t about my abuse. If you’re looking for that, you haven’t found it. Outing your abuser is like pulling the pin on a live hand grenade. Until one of us pulls the pin, I’m safe. Or at least I can pretend I am. Even if it probably isn’t ever going to be true.

This article is about my own experience, but it’s more about the experience of others. I’ve lived with watching people make the same mistakes, the same errors in judgement I have. I’ve read too many stories that echo my own, and I’m plagued by the doubt: If I’d said something, if I’d warned someone off this path, would it have made a difference?

I want to make it clear that this is not about blaming victims of abuse. Please, please never think that. My mind can be a cage of regret sometimes, telling me that what happened to me was my fault, that I invited it through how I acted, because of the signs I missed, because of the way I was. I cannot find fault in those that have been harmed, for I have been harmed as well. I cannot say you should’ve been more careful, because I was so fucking reckless.

So who is this for? It’s for the up-and-comers, the next generation of brilliant designers, artists, writers, and creators who have and will continue to make the ttrpg scene grow and thrive. I am so proud of all of you. But I’m going to tell you things that I wish someone had told me. Things that may not be applicable to you, things that may fall on deaf ears, but lessons, that if I’d maybe taken to heart, would have spared me some pain. And if there’s any chance they spare someone else, I’ve got to say them.

What is professional abuse?

We think we know what sexual harassment and abuse, especially as it pertains to careers and workplaces, looks like. It’s glorified or joked over in old films and TV shows. It’s a laugh track over comments about “legs that go all the way up.” It’s trivialized until it isn’t. We think we know about the scary, modern version, the locked doors and explicit demands for sexual favors in exchange for professional advancement. These things do still happen, but they don’t happen to us. We don’t have that sort of job. We don’t have that sort of community, right?

While it isn’t as explicit as our “professional conduct in the workplace” videos would have you believe, professional abuse still happens in the ttrpg scene, and it still has far-reaching consequences. It runs rampant through discord DMs, in the halls of Lobby Cons, and in private dinners with would-be “mentors.” I’ve read enough stories to know this is an active, ongoing problem. And every time, we all seem to be surprised by it. Or, perhaps worse, chock it up to ttrpg “drama.” As if pain, heartbreak, and betrayal on the professional level could be so easily summed up.

How to stop abusing

Abuse doesn’t come naturally. It isn’t, I don’t believe, innate to human behavior. We are socialized into certain patterns, certain behaviors, throughout our lives that cause harm to others. In the professional and semi-professional sphere, actions that would be acceptable among peers and friends take on more sinister connotations. No one is being straight up told: You’re a professional. Fucking act like it. We don’t have the careers and workplace safety meetings and HR staff drilling the professional / unprofessional divide into our heads, and that has consequences. So let this be your wake-up call. If you hold any position of power in the ttrpg scene, if you design or plan to design, if you edit, if you do layout, if you do graphic design or art or consult or manage or play-test or stream or critique or have any interaction with ttrpgs beyond simple consumption and dead silence, if have 10 follows or 10,000, act like a fucking professional and not a creep.

We don’t think of ourselves as professionals. We are all, in our own heads, ascended fans. We’re not at the “cool kids” table. We’re “indie.” We don’t wear suits or pencil skirts to work, so why should we act like we do? And for every level of fame and influence we achieve, we acclimatize to it and belittle it. I’m not as popular as some people. I’ve only had one successful Kickstarter. My games don’t sell that well. My blog doesn’t have that much influence.

So we see ourselves as fans and amateurs, fucking around with our friends, our buddies. We flirt over social media and in the halls of conventions. We attend private dinners and make pointed innuendos. But it needs to fucking. Stop. This is the part where, if I could, I’d reach through the screen to grab every abuser or would-be sex pest by the lapels and shake them until it fucking gets through to them: You are the fucking problem. You are the reason I have to write this article, why I have to warn people who just want to make games and have friends that the friendship in this community comes with a hidden risk, that the well of this scene is poisoned, and you motherfuckers have poisoned it.

Stop taking your fans and colleagues out to private meals. Stop dating your fans. Stop flirting with colleagues and thirst-posting for the people you work with. Stop. Fucking. Your. Fans. Because even if you don’t see it, even if it’s invisible, even if you’ve convinced yourself that it’s fine, or that you would never exploit someone else, the truth is that there’s a power imbalance. Here’s the hard truth: every abuser lies to themselves. Every abuser tells themselves that they didn’t make anyone do anything. But still, they flirt, even when asked to stop, or make sexually inappropriate comments to people who fear that if they did object, they’d miss out on work or promotion. Will I be seen as a prude? As frigid? As a bitch? As cold and above it all and anonymous?

I asked myself those same questions ten years ago when I was just getting started in this scene, and in a thousand ways the answer came back: Yes, yes, yes. If you don’t interact with this person, you’ll never get anywhere. If you don’t answer these DMs, you’ll never get ahead. If you don’t pretend to be OK with more and more of your time, sanity, and safety being stripped away from you piece by piece, no one will like you, no one will pay attention to you, no one will value your work. Hustle to get ahead. Be social. Be “friendly.” Be “nice.” Be “one of the good ones” and don’t object to what anyone wants to do to you.

After all, we’re just trying to help

It’s always, always framed as “help.” Helping you with your career. With your latest project. With your financial situation. With your emotional well-being. Because we’re friends, aren’t we? And isn’t that what friends do? Even now, whenever someone offers me help, my first instinct is to freeze up. To think that I’m a target in their eyes. It fucks you up, it infects friendships and relationships alike. To always be thinking in the back of your mind, when am I going to pay for this?

A hard, fucked-up way to stay safe

When I first started out, I was “friendly.” I was a “good community member.” In some ways, I like think I still am, without the air-quotes and with some professional distance. A distance I cultivated out of self preservation and hurt. I’ve ended friendships, kept people at arms length, and drifted apart. Because they were my colleagues first, professionals second, and I respected them too much as colleagues to be their friends.

As things are, you cannot stay safe and stay friends with the people you work with. You can be friendly, you can be respectful, you can support them and boost their projects and offer advice when it’s necessary. I am so grateful to the colleagues I’ve made on this website. To peers who have advised me, who have answered questions, who have inspired and shaped my vision and my design. But they are not my friends. I would not lean on them for emotional or mental support. Not because I think they are incapable of providing it, but because I know the toll it takes, the closeness and intimacy that it fosters, and the pain of having that ripped away. I respect my colleagues, and I respect my community. And until we can learn to stop using intimacy and closeness as a gateway for abuse and manipulation, I can’t leave even a sliver of a crack open.

It sucks to live and behave like I do. I’m mostly invisible at conventions, or at least I was when going to them was still an option. I’m awkward, and cold, and distant, and when people meet me in hallways or in games for the first time, they do not recognize me. I let myself be friendlier on social media, be a bit more gregarious and personal, because at least there’s some distance. But I still maintain professional decorum. I turn down offers for help, I give curt or professional replies when asked how I’m doing. I am not, in many ways, a person. I’m a professional, and as long as it keeps me safe, I’ll goddamn-well act like it.

The truth is, it might not even work. I have privileges that many others do not. Not many people can physically force me to do something I don’t want to do, and in terms of socio-political status, I have rights and privileges afforded to me that many others simply do not. I can’t promise people of different genders, sexuality, ethnicity, and identities than my own that the shield of professionalism that has worked (for now) for me will work for them. Many of you are probably seen in society as unworthy of respect or consent or the opportunity to say “no.” I know that when I was first starting out, I certainly was. All I can hope for is that my defense mechanisms mitigate or avoid some harm. All I can say is that many of us are hurt by those we allow to get close to us, and if we maintain some distance, perhaps that will at least close off one avenue of attack.

It’s hard to recommend this wall, this barrier of professionalism, especially to people who are so full of enthusiasm and love and passion for what they do. But I hope that you have other outlets, other places you can truly be yourself, where your vulnerability and pain and need aren’t tools to be manipulated by bad actors. Places where you can flirt safely, with no strings attached and without implicit threats that if you ever stop giving others what they want, you’re done.

Maybe when capital is dead and gone, when power balances erode and the world is a much, much better place, it will be safe to be unprofessional. Maybe this scene will evolve and grow and change into a place where friendship or flirtatiousness isn’t seen as an invitation for abuse. But if it saves even one of you from what happened to me, I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face:

Be professional. Stay safe.

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