North Texas RPG Con and How Not to Respond to Sexual Harassment Concerns

Sexual harassment and assault have always been a problem in the convention community, but it’s only really had a light shown on it for the last couple of years. We’ve written about it before, but it never hurts to reiterate how important it is that conventions have written, accessible policies that address sexual harassment. We’ve also stressed the importance of proper follow-through of these policies.

I think that’s why it’s always a mild shock when we discover another con that doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. Not only that, but when those same cons, rather than look and see what’s working elsewhere, decide to just dig in their heels and bury their heads in the sand.

I’m losing myself in metaphors here – what I’m talking about is North Texas RPG Con. And as this story literally kept changing while I was writing it, you’re going to want to make sure you stay all the way to the end.

For those unfamiliar, North Texas RPG Con is a small convention held annually in Irving, TX. It’s a small event, with an attendance cap of only 500 people. As you can guess by it’s name, it’s gaming convention, with a focus on classic Dungeons & Dragons.

In recent weeks, there have been allegations of harassment (and possible assault) raised against two prominent figures in the tabletop gaming industry – Frank Mentzer and Bill Webb. Since both of these men were guests at North Texas RPG Con’s 2017 event, several people emailed the convention asking if they were returning in 2018.

If these allegations are true, they’re pretty serious, and it’s perfectly understandable that potential attendees might be concerned. There are two actions that a convention could take in this kind of circumstance that would save face:

  1. Put out a statement that the two aren’t being invited as guests in 2018
     
  2. Put out a statement that the con is concerned about the allegations, but commit to nothing.

Either one of these two would have been the smart play. The second way is probably the safer one, as even if the convention staff doesn’t believe the allegations it allows the event to save face.

But North Texas RPG Con decided to find a third way.

Organizer Doug Rhea posted a lengthy statement (which you can read here We’ve archived it here) in response to these emails to the convention’s official forums. It was, hands down, the most baffling thing I’ve ever read in response to this kind of situation. You should read the whole thing yourself, but there are a couple of points that beg to be highlighted.

The title itself (“Who’s allowed to come to the Con?”) is bafflingly obtuse to start with, and the post opens with:

Ok, I am making this post so everyone knows who is “allowed” to come to the Con.

I have received about 3 emails asking me about Frank Mentzer and Bill Webb being on the list of attendees at the Con in 2018 (in this case both are Special Guests). They are bringing up info about “sexual harassment” claims as a reason to not have them at the Con….

So here is my stance on the subject:

Everyone is allowed to come to the Con

Our Con is a gaming Con. ie: when you arrive you are as follows:

Race: Gamer
Sexual orientation: Gamer
Political affiliation: Gamer
Religion: Gamer

get the drift….

If you’re trying to figure out what race, religion, sexual orientation or political affiliation have to do with whether or not someone has sexually harassed people, you’re not alone. Likewise, Rhea seems to be attempting to reframe the issue to who is allowed to attend — which is a separate issue. People are actually concerned about the convention’s implied endorsement of these men by inviting them as special guests. Either Rhea is unable to see the difference or it’s a willing obfuscation – neither of which bodes well.

Later in the post, Rhea goes on to say:

If someone is in attendance at the Con that you don’t like or don’t approve of, my suggestion is don’t play in their games. Don’t talk to them. If people don’t sign up for someone’s games, then if they are a Special Guest, I can’t afford to invite them back on my dime if they are not filling their games (that’s an easy protest)…

We run a very small Con (max attendance set at 500) and I can’t ask people not to attend based on information posted on the Web, or actions that occurred at another venue, or for that matter any conduct from their past.

Basically it’s like telling me anyone having done anything in the past that I, or you or others don’t like or don’t agree with must not be allowed at the Con.

Again, Rhea conflates whether or not someone would be allowed to attend the event with people he is deliberately inviting. There’s a massive difference between a standard attendee and a guest at a con. While I can understand concerns about banning a customer because of information posted online (though there’s a strong argument to do so anyway), this is about who the con is selecting to promote.

There’s a difference between letting someone sit in an audience versus putting them in the spotlight.

Needless to say a lot of people in the community didn’t exactly take this all that well. There’s a lengthy RPG.net thread discussing it, and the post went viral on Facebook and other social media.

At this point, we reached out directly to Doug Rhea. In my email to him I asked about the thread, and said that there were concerns his event isn’t taking sexual harassment seriously. I said that some are worried for the safety of attendees at his event, and asked if he had any response to these concerns. The response I got back wasn’t exactly helpful:

I have made numerous posts on our site concerning this, they are public so anyone can read them. I won’t post again in an email what I have posted in the forums about this. Please take the time to read each post I’ve made… I know some are not always to the point, but most have information. The most recent on Policy update may have what you are looking for.

Doug Rhea
NTRPGCon.com

With a response of “dig through the con forums” not being expecially helpful, I responded simply asking whether or not Frank Mentzer and Bill Webb would be guests at his 2018 event. He replied with:

I posted about that in the thread titled: Research on the Topic at hand

http://ntrpgcon.com/forum/generaldiscussion-2018/234-research-on-the-topic-at-hand

Now, that link was literally taken down while this article was being written, but I have archived it for you here.

There’s a lot to that post, as the man seems to be unable to compress anything into a simple statement. Rhea discusses his personal connection to Bill Webb, and says a few things about the alleged incident involving him. A few important things stand out to me though:

My understanding of what I read in the assault case, what I have discussed with others. I have the understanding that, whomever opted not to bring the Police into the issue, was due to wife/children being around and not wanting to have them see dad arrested etc etc…

While that’s a nice thing to do, in my opinion, that’s not how I would handle it at our Con.

He continues later in the post, saying:

Should [an incident like] this have happened at our Con, I would call the Police because someone made an assault complaint. The Police in turn would arrive, ask questions, check with the assault victim to see if charges needed to be filed. At that point it’s now out of my hands, and should charges not be pressed, at least there is a PUBLIC report on file that anyone can review to clarity of what transpired.

That’s right, in this post (which he forwarded in response to a press inquiry), Rhea is saying that if someone reported a situation to the convention he would always call the Police.

There are a lot of reasons why this isn’t a good way to handle things.

Some of you may remember two years ago the 2015 World Fantasy Convention almost instituted a “rely on the cops” policy. As I wrote in that article:

First off, there are limits on what the Police can do. A convention can do lots of things on their own — like eject an attendee from the event. The cops don’t have that authority unless they’re actually arresting someone… which they probably won’t do. They’d need the organizing committee to evict the attendee in the first place, but since there isn’t a structure to do so, this is just going to end up as a massive waste of police time.

Secondly, the legal definition of harassment is far more limited than what most cons include in their policies. Yelling hate speech or making inappropriate comments may be clearly considered harassment by most of us, but it’s the sort of thing the cops can do practically nothing about.

Thirdly, on the off chance the cops show up and the law has been clearly violated, they can only really do something if they witness it themselves or think there’s enough proof to prosecute. Almost all harassment comes down to the word of the alleged victim versus the world of the accused offender, and while a convention staff can make a judgment call on that, the police can’t.

[…]

This is not even mentioning the fact that some victims are not comfortable with reporting things to the police. By saying any reports will automatically initiate contact with law enforcement, the policy will have a chilling effect and prevent some victims from reporting their harassment in the first place.

Now to Rhea’s credit, he does seem to have realized that maybe he hasn’t been taking the best tack. Yesterday he also made a post called “Policy Update” (archived here) where he seems to be contemplating instituting an actual harassment policy. Additionally he added the following paragraph to his original post:

This post is now days old, if you want to continue to read this post and harp on it, it’s been hashed and rehashed more times than I can count, find a more recent post to read as things are in motion to have a Con policy written by an attorney to be sure it covers all bases…. this post won’t be removed since I don’t believe in trying to “hide” anything, but any further harping on this post doesn’t further the current cause to get to a good policy in place

And while it looks like the con may be moving towards joining the rest of us in the 21st century and codifying a harassment policy, this still in many ways feels like a distraction. It doesn’t address the concerns that the con seems to be literally inviting alleged harassers as “special guests” in the slightest.

Rhea did email me again, though oddly saying I should refer to the message coming from “a good resource.” As I at no time ever agreed to go off the record or remotely implied it, I was puzzled by this. I won’t produce the email in its entirety, but there’s one important bit that stood out:

If anyone took the time, they might have noticed a Special Guest at a recent Con cancelling at the last minute, no public banning, no public flogging, he decided to not attend the Con on his own. The tactic used to obtain that result is one I have used before as well. Not my place to say who or where since the other Con didn’t want it to be public.

So I can’t really say if Frank or Bill will actually be in attendance, though still invited. I have made my comments about Bill, and I’ve spoken to Bill and I have warned and advised Bill about what won’t be tolerated. Frank is also not interested in creating any problems for the Con, so if it’s still a big thing next June, he may decide to drop out. I really don’t know, but I have posted my points on this and we’ll see how it falls out.

I am not cancelling anyone’s invitation at this time, and if I deem that someone should not attend, I am pretty sure they’ll cancel.

To many of us, this is fairly concerning thing to read. One of the biggest hurdles to stopping harassment in the convention community over the years has been the habit of sweeping things under the rug. Rhea is literally advocating pretending like nothing’s wrong and ignoring the underlying issues the community has.

And I honestly thought this was where the article was going to end.

While writing this piece over the course of two days, the landscape has continuously shifted. New posts and emails arrived, forcing me to shift my tack. When I started putting text to WordPress, all of the aforementioned forum posts were live, but they literally disappeared on me (thankfully still open in existing browser tabs on my laptop). Just now (and probably forty-five minutes before I set this to post) I got another email from North Texas RPG Con — though not from Doug Rhea.

And it’s the epilogue for this bizarre story.

In my initial email, I also CC’d the other contact listed on the official con website, Mike Badolato. Badolato wrote me just now:

Hello Trae, this is Mike and I will be handling all official communications regarding the con and our polices from here on out.

Our Ethics and Conduct policy will be, when finished, nearly identical to those of Gamehole Con and Gencon, two respected conventions in the gaming community:

https://www.gameholecon.com/attend/attendancepolicies
https://www.gencon.com/attend/policies

My partner Doug has been undergoing treatment since last December for Stage IV colon cancer and has related hospital visits several times during the week, so it’s easier if I just direct you to the policy sites above until ours is finished. That will be our official response going forward for all questions regarding safety and harassment at the con.

One correction, we do not have “guests of honor”, we instead have (and have always had) “special guests” at the con.

Thanks!
Mike B.

So, in an interesting turn, Badolato has pledged that North Texas RPG Con will instead adopt a responsible harassment policy. It’s a positive, necessary step – and maybe one of the better resolutions to this mess. It still doesn’t alleviate concerns that Frank Mentzer and Bill Webb will still be present at the event though, which was the crux of the matter for many.

But I emailed Badolato back, so I guess we’ll see what happens.

  • Cheryl M

    Holy carp! What an interesting organization.

  • Cpt_Justice

    Wow. What a collection of douchebags! the only thing worse than sexual criminals are those who enable them!

  • Kirsten M. Berry

    …playing the cancer card? Seriously? That’s a diversion tactic on par with Kevin Spacey.