3/11/2010
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Zak Smith
Spotlight Interview
Bart Carroll

In the past several months, we've been interviewing individual blogs in any effort to better showcase D&D's glorious, robust, and diverse online community. After all, for as much material that we can host on the D&D website, there's still no end to the wonderful amount of advice, tips, tricks, house rules, and fan creations being created.

This time, we speak with Zak Smith—creator of the highly informative, entertaining—and provocatively named blog (thus necessitating the warning page): Playing D&D with Porn Stars.

It's true, people from all walks of life and career paths enjoy D&D as a hobby. Zak's group is no different in this regard, though it is distinct, composed of adult film stars, a stripper, and a hair dresser, with Zak as the DM. In fact, you'll be able to see Zak's group around the table in the escapist.com's upcoming series: "I Hit It With My Axe".


Wizards of the Coast: To start, what first drew you to Dungeons & Dragons? Has the game long been a part of your hobby lifestyle, or is it a fairly recent addition?

Zak Smith: I played RPGs and wargames when I was a kid because it was the '80s and I liked Iron Maiden, and you were required to do that in the '80s if you liked Iron Maiden: arson, petty theft, and D&D. I only recently re-started playing in the past couple years, mostly because my girlfriend, Mandy, was laid up in bed after a long hospital visit for a few months and we needed something to do.

Wizards of the Coast: Your current gaming group is definitely not stereotypical, considering the name of your blog, Playing D&D with Porn Stars—how did this group come together? Did you know everyone and convinced them to try the game, or were some already gamers and that's how you came together?

Zak: Basically, when we moved to L.A. the only people we knew were from the porn movies we'd been in, so our circle of friends grew out of that. When we started playing, we played with our friends. Satine Phoenix was a gamer in search of a group, but for everybody else either video games or Metallocalypse was the gateway drug. Kimberly Kane was totally against it but then gave it a shot just because of peer pressure and now she's the most hardcore one of all. She's sort of the axe-wielding jock of the group.

Wizards of the Coast: Can you tell us who all the players are in your group (on your blog, you've challenged folks to match your players with their characters)?

Zak: The core group is Kimberly Kane, Mandy Morbid, Satine Phoenix and Danny Wylde—they're the porn people—and Connie—who's a stripper, and Frankie, who does hair, mostly. Caroline Pierce plays when she's in LA. Bobbi Starr wants in, too, but our schedules haven't lined up yet. Then recently, this website, The Escapist, commissioned us to start taping our sessions for a reality show we're doing, and the idea for that is we have guest players every session. So we called a few of our friends—Sasha Grey took a break from her bonecrushing international jet set schedule to hang out and play, and Justine Joli came in from New York for a couple days, and there'll be some more as the show progresses. We're calling it "I Hit It With My Axe".

Wizards of the Coast: How did the first session go with your group (and any favorite sessions since)? Any lessons learned about running your players (or new players in general)?

Zak: The group grew over time—I did the math a few weeks ago and realized like 80% of games I run are somebody's first game. My favorite sessions are when I'm really worried about keeping a new player entertained and then they turn out to be awesome—Frankie saved the entire party the first time she played by hiding up 'til the end and then figuring out the cause-darkness-then-backstab trick. Danny ran out of weapons and spells in his first session, and then tried to poke his enemy in the eye with a tinder twig; Kimberly was like: "You have a twig?" "I bought it?" "Why did you buy a twig?" I also liked the session I ran in a hotel room in Vegas where I had a total party kill four hours into a game while Kimberly was down the street winning a best actress AVN and when I came back from buying soda in the lobby, the players were busy rolling up new characters to go back into the dungeon that'd just killed them.

With new players I think the main thing is they need to know there's no way to do it wrong. A lot of times the sort of scorn people have for games just masks insecurity about being seen putting out effort in front of people and then failing—like a fear of public-speaking or having something you wrote or drew critiqued in public.

The other thing is, the first time they play, new players need to see the game do those things that only RPGs can do. I have a pretty old school/tough love DM style, but I recognize that unless a first-time player gets to see the chain of events that begins when their sleep spell actually works or their sword actually hits, they won't understand how an RPG is different from just listening to people talk.

Wizards of the Coast: What can you tell us about your ongoing campaign—where is it taking place, and what plotline is the group currently involved in?

Zak: The idea of the world is that once there were these enormous demons, then some medusae (or medusas, or gorgon sisters, or whatever) came and turned them to stone statues, and the planet is actually just a big spherical labyrinth hanging in space carved from those stone statues. If you kill a medusa, parts of the dungeon turn back to flesh and new areas are opened up. The trees and grass and other familiar landscape features people see are just a thin layer on top. It's a gigadungeon. That word copyright me, today, I guess.

The plot we've got right now started when I ran Mandy through James Edward Raggi IV's module "Death Frost Doom" as a solo adventure and she inadvertently unleashed a plague of skeletons on the land. I liked that, it reminded me of late Medieval Black-Death Era paintings and woodcuts, so I went with it. From there they've mostly just been trying to stop the skeleton plague, though recently we've sort of had to make a whole new party and split the campaign into the "I Hit It With My Axe" campaign and the private weekly campaign. The filmed episodes shoot too far apart for everybody to get their regular "fix".

Wizards of the Coast: What kind of game rules are you using—correct me if I'm wrong, but it's not a standard 4th Edition game? Do you have a preference for house rules because you aren’t drawn to the official edition, or so you simply enjoy creating your own rules?

Zak: We use a heavily houseruled hybrid of AD&D and 3.5 because me and Satine, respectively, were most familiar with those rules when the game started. To be honest, I've never met a gaming system I didn't like and I've never met a gaming system I didn't house-rule all over. Gamer culture is like custom-car culture--Hell's Angels love Harleys but it's actually against the rules to be seen in Hell's Angels colors riding an unmodified Harley.

The way I see it, a game designer's job is to provide veteran players with inspiration and provide new players with training wheels. Precise system only matters if you're not playing with friends who trust each other. If you're 14 and argue a lot or if you're playing a tournament, you need clear balanced rules, if you trust your DM and the DM trusts the players and you all just want to have fun, then you could play the clunkiest system in the world and still have a blast.

Wizards of the Coast: You also have an MFA—does an art degree and experience help in creating material and inspiration for your games (such as your post, making D&D monsters look cooler than otherwise depicted)?

Zak: Art is my full time job and pays my bills--I've got a painting in the MOMA. Probably that creativity has to do with how I run my games, but everybody knows accountants and lawyers and Marines who are also great DMs--Gary Gygax was an insurance adjuster. Once in a while I can point to a drawing and say "the succubus looks like that" but I think everybody who DMs well is probably a fairly creative person, no matter what their day job is.

Wizards of the Coast: What inspired you to create your blog—to chronicle your campaign, compose your thoughts on the game in general, or simply a place to ensure no thoughts are allowed to rust? Any topics you plan to discuss there in future months?

Zak: You could blog about just about any hobby, but if you're a DM, blogging is actually really useful. You say "Anybody know a published scenario where a bulette punches a flail snail and then they fly to a crystal palace and eat cheese and there's siege combat rules for midget-class armies in the back?" and three comments in, BAM! there it is with a link and everything.

As for my blog, upcoming topics may include: a revised "complete-list-of-all-films-made-by-everybody-whose-ever-played-D&D-in-this-apartment" (up to about 800 films now), more stuff on medieval art, and, hopefully, one day, a play report from Mandy's first DMing session, if it ever happens.

Wizards of the Coast: I suppose as a final question, I have to ask—as a younger gamer back in the day (if you started early in life), would you ever have imagined someday running a game and a blog about D&D with porn stars?

Zak: Well, there were no blogs back then, so I imagined running a game of D&D with porn stars and then pinning a note to a corkboard at The Compleat Strategist about it.

Bart Carroll
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll) and at bartjcarroll.com.
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