I was there to drum up some interest in the RPG Workshop that I'm presenting a week Friday at Indigo Books, West Hills, March 18, 7pm. I've been to the club several times, even played there some eight months ago - but there was no one there that I recognized tonight. There was a strong turn-out, as shown by the image below.
In the far, far corner there were some people playing Magic, but the Lion's share of the room (that is a loft above the store) consisted of eight or nine tables and about 50 participants. This sounds encouraging but what I learned was not.
Every Wednesday Night the Sentry Box hosts a program sponsored by the WOTC. This sponsorship includes store credit for the most active participants, establishing that there is an authority at work here. According to this webpage, the event at the Sentry Box is run "solely by the Sentry Box." However, I learned from one regular participant and from two insiders that all is not as it seems. The tables do run an "official" WOTC adventure - but the gameplay is managed in such a draconian fashion that there is no room for any individual role-play or flexibility.
I was told that the players were "not allowed" to obtain things such as pet animals or materials not specifically established as being part of the adventure. They were restricted from game play that was "too deviated" from what was expected in standardized play through the adventure as written.
My source had previously acted as a DM up until a few months ago; though still a part of the Wednesday night event, my source described feeling "burnt out" by the expectations and constraints that were placed upon DMs responsible for running the individual tables. "Most DMs can only last a year before they're tired of having to police everyone and keep them on the WOTC's page," my source said. Further details included stipulations denying DMs any privilege whatsoever to innovate or create situations not already in put in place by the WOTC.
"Everything has to be by the book," my source said with frustration. "Everyone is expected to finish the module with everyone else."
If the reader is wondering how this happens, Wednesday nights are managed by an Event Coordinator, a volunteer who has assumed responsibility to act as guard and enforcer of the WOTC's policy rules. In a conversation with the Coordinator, whose name will be withheld, I was told that this individual "Spoke on behalf of the WOTC and with their full authority." The present Coordinator came into the role after the previous position holder stepped down, citing stress and mental abuse at the difficulties of keeping the gaming tables in line with expectations.
If any DM steps out of line with regards to the dictates already described, the Event Coordinator has the right to exile or ban any participant. This means if you don't play according to the WOTC (and the Coordinator's interpretation thereof), you don't play at all.
How did the present Event Coordinator get the role? No one else wanted it.
When asked why people don't just step away and start their own games somewhere else, I was told that people are afraid. "If a group breaks away to start their own campaign, and it doesn't work, they can lose weeks of participation time [with the WOTC adventure]. That means they don't go up levels, they don't get benefits, they don't get the rewards." Since everyone has to be moving through the adventure at the same speed, this means that if you miss a month of playing, you can get so far behind that your character is frozen out.
"There's no room for new players to begin the adventure from the beginning," my source told me. "All the tables are for established players. No one is running a table for first levels."
This describes an active agenda for compelling players to return night after night, with a Coordinator who has already gained a reputation for forcing out both DMs and Players who don't adhere to WOTC policy.
What does this sort of heavy-handed, oppressive environment suggest about public gaming in the future? We can only guess with dismay - but one of two possibilities seem to suggest themselves. Either the WOTC has lost control over their Play/Events, having created an atmosphere where self-styled autocrats can impose authority, while claiming "official" status provided through the use of the WOTC's name, or the WOTC themselves have placed company above gamer experience.
Either way, I am alarmed.