At the beginning of 2019, I made the difficult decision to end Deviant Robot’s involvement with the social and tabletop meetup groups I started back in 2014. While I think it was the right choice to step down; I fear this decision may be interpreted as a rejection of those groups and what they have become. I hope this post will help explain that is not the case and provide some context to my decision for those who are interested.
What follows is, of course, my perspective on events. It's also a brief recap of events spanning many years. If you feel I am misrepresenting something or not confessing some personal responsibility here, please know that I do not do so intentionally.
Deviant Robot was born
Deviant Robot was born out of OneMetal.com; a heavy metal news and reviews website that also featured content on comics, video games and movies. Deviant Robot was created to provide a better home for the non-music content from OneMetal; and as a result, when we launched, we already had a good amount of content and a small team of writers.
The idea of running events of some sort was there, but it seemed a long way off; until someone on the team suggested we look at MeetUp.com.
I had never attended a MeetUp before. I wasn't sure how it was supposed to work, or what people might expect from one of these events. It seemed like it might be a good fit for us; or at least worth a go. We would see if we could find a community inspired by the content of the site; the website and community could then grow together.
I went along to two geek MeetUp events in London, they were fun, but I felt we could improve on the approach. We formed a plan, found and booked a venue and launched our MeetUp page.
Almost immediately, the meetups changed everything.
The Big Bang
Our first event was vastly more successful than we ever anticipated, starting a trend that would continue with each subsequent meetup in the early years. The meetups grew to dominate the project as we swapped intangible website traffic for the manifest flesh and blood of real group members. Eventually, we abandoned the reviews and articles on the site and began running an ever-growing number of events; starting new groups in new locations around London, the UK and then internationally.
The events were a mix of games and conversations. Attendees were encouraged to interact with each other and to talk about interesting topics with strangers to gain new perspectives. These conversations might be anything from a new video game or movie to politics, science and history. Tabletop games were one an of several tools we would use to get people talking, but we would also emphasise large group games and hosted discussions. It was all very civil, lively and friendly. We became very good at turning strangers into friends.
Key to our success was the Deviant Robot Team members. They ensured that no one was left alone; we would constantly be on the lookout for someone who might be being excluded from the games, or conversations and make sure they were brought in. We would break up groups to make sure that people were encouraged to meet new people.
The team wore white t-shirts with the Deviant Robot logo on the back and the team members name printed on the front so that we were easily identifiable in a crowded venue. We continuously engaged with the community throughout our events and worked hard to support each other and the attendees. We were there to make sure everyone else had the best time possible, and it was both fun and rewarding. The more confident team members would run the discussions and large group games, making sure that even controversial topics were discussed in a constructive and friendly way and the games were always funny and entertaining. They bore the responsibility of making sure it all worked; so everyone else could have a good time.
We were so well organised that people were initially a little suspicious as to who it was that was running things. A mystery I was happy to lean into by informing people in my introduction speech not to worry, we were "Almost certainly not a cult". Almost certainly not being a cult quickly became an in-joke amongst the group members who, to my surprise and delight, were now proudly referring to themselves as 'Deviants'.
There was a sense that this was the start of something; it was exciting and rewarding time. It worked, but unfortunately, it didn't scale.
Running these kinds of events takes significant effort, drive and commitment. As we ran an increasing number of events and groups, the quality began to suffer. Exporting the culture, and the format to other groups with different group dynamics and personalities at the helm became difficult. The sense of what it meant to be a Deviant Robot group was unclear. Ultimately our growth outpaced our capacity to engage meaningfully with the community. With resources spread thin, pressure on individuals grew, and team members began dropping out.
With limited team support, we began to build an increasing reliance on tabletop gaming to entertain our attendees. The more challenging components of the events such as the large group games and discussion groups were dropped as there were few people able to run them. The team's organisation and commitment to engage with people and bring them in began to suffer. As team member numbers became increasingly unreliable, games were run by trusted community members, but eventually by anyone who wanted to. Groups began to form within the group. Established friendship circles formed natural social barriers for new members, and without the team working to mitigate this, it became harder to for new members to find a chance to engage in the way they once did.
Exciting, unique monthly events gave way to regular tabletop "sessions" running multiple times a month. It was understandable, and perhaps inevitable.
I, too, personally began to lose the fight against the tide. The constant battles with the team and community, the up-hill fight against the tide of apathy, the arguments with friends, the concern, stress and pressure all took its toll over the years. My commitment to the project started to take a back seat as other commitments and life events became more pressing. I kept trying; I didn't want to give up.
It is what it is
Attempts to recapture the spirit of the early events were now met with confusion and resistance. The events had formed their own identity now; many of the original community members had left; leaving only a few who had seen what the events were at the beginning. The new community were happy with what the events were now, and quite rightly were unsure as to who I was; and why I would want to change things.
Whatever my original intention or aspirations had been, I now found I was running and supporting several tabletop social groups. Trying to change that would now not only take a lot of effort but even if it could be done, it had already proven unsustainable. Worse still; changing it would damage something from which a large number of people were getting value.
If I wanted to do something different, well, I would have to do something different.
Changing the story
And so it was that at the beginning of 2019, I found responsible community members, handed the groups over to them and stepped down. I only asked that they rename the groups; as the Deviant Robot project was still my baby and I had plans for it; new plans; but also familiar ones.
Our identity and as a consequence, our culture, did not scale with our community. The more events we ran, the more groups we started, the more diluted and confused our identity became.
The project was defined too loosely. Perhaps only existing in the minds of a few key individuals; or maybe even just one. You can't build on that. You can inspire people certainly, but without a definite, well-defined foundation inspiration is liable to produce imperfect copies of an idea.
The team was held together by superficially similar but potentially very different perceptions of the project and its objectives. The united front we presented masked inconsistent and often conflicting narratives about who we were. Without a clear identity, it is imposable to grow; without losing yourself along the way.
I have so many fond memories of the meetup groups; of the many fabulous parties, adventures and events we ran; not to mention the fantastic people I got to meet. I didn't get to know nearly as many of the community members, as well as I, would have liked to, my main regret is not spending more time getting to know you all better.
I wish the new groups the very best of luck and continued success for the future. Although we have gone our separate ways, for now, I hope that those who attended our old events will think fondly of my efforts running the groups, and forgive my many many mistakes. I hope that you remember the good times we had and sincerely enjoy the many more to come; all be it under a different banner. And although the names have changed, I hope that those who remember the mighty Robot will still feel they are, and will always be, a little deviant.