I’ve spent hundreds of hours thinking about all the different aspects of the text of The Tears of a Machine SC. I’ve carefully weighed out my decisions and tinkered endlessly with my word choices (even before my editors saw anything.) I think that’s valuable work – worth sharing, so I’m going to post more of these “director’s cut” blog entries. Hopefully they’ll not only inform but inspire ideas for your own games.
Legulus and Venator
In the basic setting for The Tears of a Machine SC, Earth is first visited by benevolent beings from outer space; the Legulus. They offer to build a high-tech paradise with humanity, in exchange for the use of our brains in their neural network supercomputers. Greed, fear, and xenophobia prevent most of the world from accepting the bargain and the Legulus are driven off. Ten years later, they return but have transformed themselves into the Venator. Now motivated by their own aggression and superiority, they attack the Earth to take what they want.
Why did I write that? Why did I choose to create this backstory? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to have the Venator drop out of the sky and attack? Well, it’s complicated, but it’s the kind of complication I enjoy.
Faceless Foes Are Dull
The invaders could be implacable monsters driven only by an appetite for destruction, but that puts a limit on our stories. By giving them a backstory that includes those days of peace, when the visitors lived alongside us, it opens the door to peace again. Our pilots have room to ask those questions of “what happened to create the Ven?” and “could the Legulus return?” They can strive to be more than pilots in an endless war if they try to learn about their enemies and themselves.
Sometime, somehow, the war between the Preservation Force and the Venator must end. If the Ven are only monsters, then it only ends with an extermination. But if they are something else then the possibility exists for the world to go on once the Saints and Magnas fall silent.
Not So Different, You and I
Robotech was my first mecha-focused anime. It’s not the massive cannons of the SDF-1 that win the first Robotech war. It is (spoiler alert) the music of an up-and-coming idol that appeals to the Zentraedi. Their commanders find a common understanding as pop songs connect them to emotions that were suppressed by their conditioning as cloned soldiers. In addition, the earthlings get their first insights into the minds of their foe when the Zentraedi ace Miriya infiltrates the SDF-1 to kill ace pilot Max Sterling. In a rather ham-fisted scene, the two recognize that they are star-crossed lovers and marry to create the first union between Earth and Zentraedi. Those character arcs made Robotech different to me. They inspired me to think beyond the immediate story of our pilots and their war in The Tears of a Machine SC.
The Tears of a Machine SC is now live and accepting your backing. Help us to make this game something that we can share far and wide. Your support will allow us to transform the text with more art, professional layout, and release in physical and digital formats.
Most importantly, you’ll be funding the recording of the text into audio that can be used as a supplement to the text but also in a read-along accessible audio book.
I’m nervous and excited. Frequently distracted by all the little tasks and to-do’s and occasionally overwhelmed by worry that I’m missing some important piece somewhere. Basically what you’d expect before any creative launch.
The Tears of a Machine S.C. is on its way. The full text of the book is written and in editing. The fancy new logo is ready, courtesy of Nathan Paoletta, and cover and interior art is already in progress with Jennifer Rodgers and Rashad Malik Davis. We’re on track to bring the game to Kickstarter, but there’s a lot more going on here than just a book. When I first created Robot Claw Design for my first edition of Tears of a Machine, I made a commitment to better accessibility for role-playing games. I will continue that intent by creating a human-voiced audiobook of the new edition, and even taking that a few steps further. ePub and rich-media books have developed and grown in the years since I released Tears, and with Tears S.C. I can take further advantage of that to include video demonstrations, as well as audio narration, and even embed the book into a Robot Claw website, allowing it to be its own standard reference document release. And it can continue to grow from that. We have the ability to include interactive features that could even become learning tools for teaching people to play!
Get ready for The Tears of a Machine S.C. Kickstarter campaign July, 2021!
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Black Lives Matter.
Get involved wherever and however you can to help support people fighting oppression and pushing for societal reform. Visit the official Black Lives Matter homepage, donate to the bail funds, donate to the street medics, but also look to the Black voices in your community, offline and on, asking for help. Scroll through your Twitter feed and see who you can help with a gofundme or ko-fi donation, or even a simple share. Still unsure? Check out this card.
Change is not a sprint, it is a marathon; so get involved now, pace yourself, and see the challenge through.
The rest of this post will be me talking about myself, so feel free to move on – you’ve already experienced the most important part.
The Author is Alive
Making sure our work sends the right message is a challenge to creatives. Unless we are explicitly obvious we run the danger of someone misinterpreting, or even misrepresenting something we’ve created. In the past I’ve very much espoused the “death of the author” as an attitude regarding role-playing games. Once the writing is out of my hands I’m helpless to control what players do with it. In the years since then, a lot of important and impactful articles and posts have been shared that challenge that assumption, so I’m making a pledge to do more with Tears of a Machine 2nd Edition.
Sensitivity editor – As soon as there is enough text to review I will be hiring a sensitivity editor (or two!) to help me assess and correct my flaws.
Content guidance – In the previous edition content and setting were left open-ended or at the Director’s discretion. The new rules include steps for all players to collaborate on the subject matter at the start of play.
Less prescription of the setting – I want players to see themselves in the world and shape it to become a place where they belong. I’m loosening up some of my world building, rather than building in possible stereotypes, and hopefully countering some existing ones.
Language choices – There are some vocabulary words that are charged with meaning that I want to avoid in the new edition. “Alien” for example. While we default to have it mean “space aliens” when writing science-fiction, it’s real-world meaning shouldn’t be overlooked.
There are other changes as well on the way, but they are more specific to the content itself, such as emphasizing the role of the Preservation Force as an emergency response effort, rather than an army. I may share more about them as writing progresses.
Thank you for your time, and thank you to game writers such as James Mendez-Hodes and Meinberg for articles that have challenged me to reassess my own messages, and for designers like Sean K. Reynolds and Shanna Germain for Consent in Gaming, published by Monte Cook Games.
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If you’ve seen me at a convention in the past year or so, or heard me talk on one of a few different podcasts, you might already be aware that a new edition is in the works for Tears of a Machine, my table-top role-playing game of giant robots and the emotional teens who pilot them. However, it may be that this is all news to you, so I’m going to answer a few questions on the subject. Most importantly- Why a new edition?
I’ve changed and grown as a designer over the past years and have a better understanding of my own talents, as well as the theory that’s gone into making some of the best, most successful games of the last decade. I designed a new game I really enjoyed, but it didn’t feel right to add to a market with plenty of 80’s nostalgia inspired games. My wife suggested that I could take the parts I liked from that design and use it for Tears of a Machine. At first, I didn’t want to go back to an earlier game, but in time I realized she’s absolutely right. With only a few tweaks I was able to begin playing Tears based on that design. What makes it different enough to warrant a new edition?
First and foremost, a new rules system. I’ve experimented with ways to convert Tears of a Machine into other systems, but never felt comfortable that they captured exactly what I wanted to be the focus of action and attention in a game of Tears. I want rules that serve a character’s motivations and build story while still allowing for strategy and critical thinking. What I’ve designed meets those requirements I set for myself, balancing open narration with guiding rules that not only resolve situations but also promote the growth of the characters.
There have been some subtle, but important changes to the game setting as well. For example I’m changing the name of the space-faring invaders to one a find more evocative, and clarifying their master plan. I’m also no longer adding unnecessary capitalization to the code name of our giant robots. What about accessibility?
I am as committed as ever to bringing more accessible features to gaming. Tears first edition is still available as a free synchronized-text audio book, and the new edition will be too. However, with this second edition I started from a foundation of accessibility. I’ve learned more about dyslexia, as well as dysgraphia and dyscalculia, and I challenged myself to create a system that avoided numbers or complex and detailed rules. Tears of a Machine second edition character “sheets” are a few structured sentences with important keywords. The only numbers needed can be tracked with short stacks of tokens. Fate (or Fudge) dice are used because they are easier to read, and the limited possible results balance flexibility with focus. This is not a “Fate” system game however. It is a new system, custom designed to tell these mechadrama stories.
There will be an audio book version, and I’m planning a series of video and audio tutorials to accompany the release. I’m also investigating what it would take to have an interactive PDF version, a support wiki, and roll20 character sheets with built-in dice rolling functionality. The real drive behind accessibility is to provide people with as many options as possible to experience the content, so I’m looking into every avenue I can. When will it be released?
As soon as it’s done. Really, I had hoped to be finished with the beta draft by now, but life and the world have not been kind to my writing output. However, know that the core text is all in place, play tests have all been encouraging, and right now it’s a matter of connecting up all the pieces and beginning a full edit. I’m hoping to get a kickstarter going early next year. More updates on that soon! What about the current edition?
I won’t be deleting the files for the old edition or taking it away from anyone. I’m still quite happy with it, a rare thing for my creative output. While the new edition is a refinement of the ideas that you’ll find in the old, it’s not so different that you couldn’t enjoy both. That said, characters and stats and such won’t really “convert” across editions. As the new edition develops I’ll put together a guide on how to recreate your favorite pilots in the new way of Tears, Second Edition.
Thank you for your interest in my game. I’m looking forward to being able to share more news, and eventually a new game with all of you! Until then, stay safe, stay sane, and remember that from knowledge, comes victory.
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This past year I began work on the next game from Robot Claw. Afterworlds is about people trying to save the world from ghosts of the subconscious. Everything people do leaves marks on our collective minds – Echoes. Though most are passing thoughts and fading memories, especially strong feelings can hang on and negative emotions can fester. As Echoes linger they grow stronger until they’re hungry, jealous, angry ghosts that try to reach into the world of the Here and Now.
It’s the job of Pandoras to fight back. Pandoras have faced their Echoes; they have seen their negativity but accept it. They have turned their Echoes into Avatars, wells of psychic power that make them strong enough to face dangerous Echoes.
There’s more to fighting Echoes than just conjuring up psychic power and hitting them with it. Helping others with their troubles, building friendships, and bonding in close relationships can protect people or even save them from their Echoes. To be a Pandora you need to be a good friend as well as a good fighter.
The game is still early in development but I’m planning to have it ready for a 2017 kickstarter funding campaign. You can see a first play test on my YouTube page. Subscribe to the robotclaw blog or follow me on Google Plus or twitter (@robotclaw) for updates. Afterworlds. To know thy enemy, know thyself.
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Thank you, as always, to the excellent staff, organizers, and attendees of Metatopia. This is my favorite convention and I think any designer is well served by attending.
For the sake of brevity I’m going to confine this post to the development of my own designs, but know that even if I don’t mention you here, I had a terrific time meeting, talking, and gaming with you. Metatopia is always a lovely, welcoming event and my biggest disappointment is that I have to stop being there. GET9
I had quite a table for this one, with Matt Weber, Kay Strock, Will Hindmarch, Kenneth Hite, and James Mendez Hodes. Honestly, I felt a bit intimidated by this collection of experts at my table first thing in the morning. We launched right into it and I was happy to see the game in action with these players banging on all the moving parts. The strengths of the design stayed strong and the weaknesses were, well, weak. It might seem silly but it’s the kind of confirmation that I need in order to go forward. I’ve been so immersed in the modifications to the rules over the past few weeks that I could no longer trust my own perspective.
The ORCHID team set to work chasing down The Hardline after they bombed the arcology’s traffic control center. Soon enough we were schmoozing internet celebrities, crawling through maintenance ducts, and hijacking the ID chip in a rich lady’s purse. The session, though rushed, wound up with Wally Yates escaping defenestration by jamming a hidden shock knife into his assailant’s shoulder and Elaine, Marcus, and Akshay assassinating Engineer_420 with a concealed gun in the middle of a busy plaza.
It’s on the right track; I can see it emulating the structure and content of the inspiration but the balancing of the rules and the things that drive you to take action are still flimsy. I need to overhaul the scene economy or a single session will run eight hours. That’s a bit much when I’m emulating a show with 22 minute episodes. Character motivation is still slim. I need more time set aside for character development and growth which means simplifying the strategic element or hiding it away. I expect I’ll be working on this one for a while to come. Operatic
Jim Cummings, Matt Weber, and Michael Miller helped me put this one through its paces and it’s a lot closer to done than I thought it was. The structure held up, the concepts were solid. I might need to re-adjust the number of cards in play however. It was pointed out to me that if someone’s already on board to play a game about having a melodramatic death I don’t need to force them down to zero cards to make them play the death scene.
A lunar senator fell in love with the cyborg police officer who defended her from a rioting crowd. Even though society frowned on the crudity of cybernetics and her wealthy fiance stood in the way she went with him into exile on Mars. As he sank into obscurity and depression his cyborg parts broke down and with no one to repair him the senator donated one of her own flesh-and-blood lungs. The operation cost her life however, as her own weak heart gave out and the officer disconnected himself rather than go on without her.
I’m going to set this one loose after a few more rules tweaks. Both Matt and Jim want to show it to their other musical friends and see what they think. I have some grand plans for what a final product might look like but definitely need a longer list of successful playtests before going forward with any of those schemes. Focus Groups
I didn’t bring any of my designs before a focus group this year but I always sign up to participate in one or two of them. Focus groups discussing someone else’s game are the gentlest critique of your own work you can find. While I’m contributing to the conversation to help another designer I’m also turning over the advice I hear from those around me and comparing it to my own. Some things I overheard are going back into GET9 and might help me around the issue of balancing strategy and improv.
Thanks once again to everyone at Metatopia. I’m already looking forward to next year!
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Metatopia is an amazing game convention. The Double Exposure organizers have always been supportive of new and independent designers and Metatopia is an entire convention devoted to us. I’ll be bringing two new works-in-progress there for playtest and I’m looking forward to seeing what works, what doesn’t, and what’s next for them. GET9
(Working title.) Cyberpunk procedural with a heavy emphasis on improvisation. In this test run an anti-cybercrimes division of the government clashes with a cell of terrorist hackers. The inspiration is obvious, especially if you know where this working title came from. It will be quicker to get going if I can say “like this but this” at the start of the session.
This one has a lot of indie-isms at work. Players belong to teams, each with its own Director, who has light GM duties, so it can be played competitively. Characters are made up of collections of Traits, most of which are defined in the moment that they are used as the players reveal their semi-secret origins. The game is diceless, using a sort of rock-paper-scissors resolution of bidding and comparing Traits to guide narration through discreet scenes.
GET9 actually grew out of the notes from Contract Work, my abandoned design about hit men. It was far too ambitious for me at the time but since then I’ve played and learned a lot more so we’ll soon see if that’s going to pay off. My biggest concern is how long this one will run. I honestly have no idea if it will be two hours or eight to complete an operation, with one team taking down the other. Operatic
This one’s even more out there. It’s a game system that provides a framework to tell stories of doomed romance patterned after the structure of Romantic era opera. Two players act as the lovers and the others are choristers. The profiles of the lovers and the world of the choristers are decided by the players collectively interpreting hands of cards that they draw at the start, so the world is semi-randomly generated. This one also leans on improvisation, using a system of bidding and comparing playing cards during a conversational “recitative” to decide the player who has narrative control over an “aria,” essentially a soliloquy in which they get to advance the story.
I’ve been thinking of this as an outline game. One that provides hooks to hang the narrative thread but leaves big spaces for the players to fill. That allows creativity to blossom, but also requires players who can think on their feet and roll with the “yes, and” of improvisation. You don’t have to sing. But that would be cool. Not Appearing Project Wingspan won’t be making it to this Metatopia. Wingspan is a game of secret cyborg super-soldiers, based on Tears of a Machine‘s concepts and mechanics but with a greater emphasis on the “loss of self” that goes into being the superhero on the battlefield. In order to become more capable of defending their homeland the characters have to give in to becoming more machine, and a greater threat to their own side.
The playtests that I’ve already run have shown me that there’s plenty of work to do on it and I haven’t had the time. In essence, I went too far afield from the source mechanics and need to pull it back into a more “traditional” design. It may be ready for the next round of conventions. Time will tell.
Hope to see you there!
A new way to get Tears of a Machine; I’m writing for someone else’s book; and the next game for Robot Claw is play testing at Dexcon 18. This past spring was busy but it’s all starting to pay off now.
First, Tears of a Machine will soon be available through Indie Press Revolution! I’ve uploaded the digital files and a box full of hard copy books is on the way to their warehouse now. Soon you can order your own copy from their friendly storefront. If your friendly local game store orders their stock through IPR then you’ll have another option to purchase a print copy of Tears, and I’ll make the arrangements with Bits ‘n Mortar to get you the PDF as well.
The fine folks at Onyx Path publishing were kind and/or crazy enough to let me be a contributing author for one of their upcoming releases. I’ll be sure to post more about it as the book is ready for publication. I’m very thankful for the opportunity. Hour for hour, I think I’ve spent most of my gaming life in the world of White Wolf’s games and it feels great to be able to add to that body of work. Project Wingspan. I’ve quietly announced this new design through discussions on Google+ and with a few people on hangouts but it’s time to declare this to be a real thing. Project Wingspan is a variation on the themes of Tears of a Machine, moving the setting to a world of international wafare and cyborg secret weapons, streamlining and strengthening the structure of the rules, and shifting the focus to be nearly all player driven so that it could even be a GMless game.
Each Project Wingspan player is a weapon, a person with a secret arsenal of microbots in their bloodstream. When the enemy troops attack with robot tanks and fightercraft, you transform into the ultimate weapon of your homeland and fight back to repel the invaders. Every weapon however can be just as dangerous to the one wielding it as it is to the target. You’ll need to use your downtime to keep yourself sane, normal, and happy or the next time you activate you just might O-V-E-R-L-O-A-D.
The first live play tests will take place at Dexon 18, this coming 4th of July weekend! Go to the Dexcon homepage to learn more about the convention. I hope to see you there.
All of this, and probably more, is coming soon so thank you for reading, be sure to subscribe to this blog and track me down on Google+. May the SAInts preserve us.