The rise of “actual play” podcasts and livestreams have introduced more people than ever to how tabletop role-playing games actually work. Tens of thousands of viewers regularly log in to services like YouTube and Twitch to watch groups led by experienced Dungeon Masters and game masters (GMs) in real time. But, that kind of transparency also shows how quickly story lines can run completely off the rails. That’s what happened in late March when a popular actual play program broadcast a scene involving sexual assault in front of a live audience.
The long-running series is called Far Verona, and uses the Stars Without Number ruleset. Part of the RollPlay network, its archives feature 90 episodes with nearly 250,000 on-demand views. Following the incident, however, the entire Far Verona cast has quit the show and the second season of the series has been canceled. The GM responsible for the scene says they are stepping away from RPGs for the time being and will seek counseling.
[Warning: This article contains a description of sexual assault.]
The Far Verona group was led by game master Adam Koebel, an award-winning game designer and the co-creator of the popular Dungeon World tabletop RPG system. Players included Mark Hulmes, Havana “Vana” Mahoney, Marcus “DJ” Wheat, and Elspeth Eastman. The incident of sexual assault took place on March 24 and involved Eastman’s character, a synthetic human named Johnny Collins.
After suffering some damage, Johnny stopped by an old friend’s place to get fixed up. Instead of performing the requested repairs, that old friend — a non-player character (NPC) performed by Koebel — committed an act of sexual assault. You can watch the scene play out on YouTube, where an archive of the livestream remains.
The reaction of the other players at the table while the scene plays out is telling. It appears that no one expected this storyline to go where it went.
On March 31, Koebel and RollPlay network creator JP “itmeJP” McDaniel returned to the RollPlay YouTube channel to address the incident. At the time, Koebel admitted he was at fault, and said it was a case of not properly maintaining safety at the table.
“We’re no stranger to difficult situations,” Koebel said during the segment. “Sometimes role-playing gets intense or difficult or someone narrates something that didn’t land the way they anticipated. We’ve seen it plenty of times throughout the years, and usually when something like that happens we have the opportunity to discuss it on a break, or we take some time between episodes, and that sometimes means we need to correct or re-do a scene.
“We’ve done this before,” Koebel continued. “Usually that’s enough to ensure that the cast continues to move forward and feels comfortable and safe exploring the stories that we’re telling. But, unfortunately, for whatever reason, we didn’t put any safety measures in place to prevent that discomfort while it was occurring.”
The X-Card is simply a physical device — sometimes a card, other times a hand gesture, or perhaps just a code word — that players can use to stop the game at any point if they become uncomfortable. Lines and veils, on the other hand, are agreed upon beforehand by everyone at the table. Lines are subjects or activities that the game will not include, and veils are situations that will only happen off-screen without player input. Versions of these strategies are common in modern tabletop RPGs, especially those dealing with sexuality. For instance, both were recently added to the 5th edition of Vampire: The Masquerade, after the initial print run neglected to include them in sufficient detail.
However, neither strategy was implemented for Far Verona, and Koebel said he and McDaniel would be “rededicating ourselves to the safety of everybody at the table.” He also indicated that the show would not continue with its current cast, and would be put on indefinite hiatus.
Many fans of the program, and also Eastman herself, felt that Koebel’s statement fell short of an actual apology. More importantly, it seemed to understate the actual damage done. On April 2, Eastman recorded her own statement and published it to YouTube.
“I lost faith and trust in Adam as a GM, even after role-playing with him before,” Eastman said. “Hell, I might have even lost faith in him as a friend. Adam continues to say that the game mechanics were not properly in place and that as a group we should have discussed this prior to starting the show. Sure, that’s a good idea in hindsight. But if you need to have a talk with your cast beforehand that you’re planning on introducing a sexual predator NPC to one of their characters I guarantee you not one person would be OK with that. Especially not in front of hundreds of people. This isn’t a question about what could have prevented it when Adam’s literally the one in charge.”
The following day, on April 3, Koebel posted a series of comments on Twitter. Among them is a more thorough apology.
I'm going to be taking some time off to reflect and work with an accountability partner on this, so my replies may be sporadic, for a time.— adam koebel (@skinnyghost) April 3, 2020
All I ask is that you respect the privacy and wishes of the other cast members on this. Please don't harass or make demands of them.
“I feel a deep regret for not doing better for letting down the cast and the fans,” Koebel tweeted. “I have a long road ahead, one that’ll last the rest of my life, if I want to align my ethics and my behavior. I’m working with a counselor on this, and have been since it happened. I’m so sorry that I hurt the cast, and to anyone in the audience who felt hurt, this apology is for you, too. I’m going to rededicate myself, and keep working on doing a better job.”
Both Koebel and Eastman have asked for privacy as they deal with the fallout from these events. Broadcasts of other programs on the RollPlay network will continue.