Question the Crowdfunder: Russell Collins and Tears of a Machine

Written by Pete Figtree on . Posted in Question the Crowdfunder

I haven’t been swept up in the coolness that the genre Tears of a Machine emulates, but after playing in a demo and reading the rules, I find myself interested. I ended up backing the Kickstarter.

Let’s talk a bit about the genre before we chat briefly about the game.

Give us the elevator pitch for Tears of a Machine?

Giant robots piloted by emotionally unstable teenagers. Aliens are raiding the planet, abducting the population by the thousands. Humanity has to recruit teenagers to periodically “donate” their brains to drive our robots, the SAInts, against theirs, the Magnas. The pilots try to live normal lives on a floating military base, waiting to be launched into combat at any moment.

What do you find so charming about the genre that inspired the game?

I’ve been fascinated by robots since R2-D2 and C3PO rounded the corridor looking for an escape pod and when I saw Tranzor Z and Voltron, shows that took those robots and made them giants, I was completely hooked. Later I started watching Robotech and by then I was old enough that soap operas punctuated by robot fights intrigued me.

Things quieted down for a while until I saw my first episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion. This show highlighted the emotional impact on a pilot both from the fighting itself and from the knowledge that they are, as child-soldiers, a commodity. They are fragile people trying to grow up and find themselves in the midst of a disaster that they have to prevent. As I got into RPGs that were less about the loot grab and more about exploring character emotions I gravitated back to the rich stories of Evangelion and the anime that followed after it like Fafner: Dead Agressor and StrAIn. I wanted more of those stories. After trying a few other games I decided that I would make one to perfectly match what I wanted.

There’s also a definite power fantasy involved in piloting an unstoppable force in the shape of a 100-foot-tall paladin with a blazing sword.

What do you think fans of the genre will really dig about Tears of a Machine?

I’ve tried to make a game that focuses on my favorite tropes: The conflict of the pilot with the bloodthirsty machine; the pull of relationships and responsibilities making a character open up and grow; and the triumph of fighting back against alien monsters and winning. I also hope that they’ll enjoy the world I crafted around the pilots. There are some constant threads through the genre that I’ve tried to capture in the aliens and the Earth forces that fight them.

Can you point me to some animes that could inform this mecha newbie about the genre and about the game?

Everyone will tell you to watch Neon Genesis Evangelion but I don’t think you should start there. Evangelion is a series that takes the genre as it was established before the 90’s and adds some challenging twists. So watch that one second. First, start with a less intense robot drama like Fullmetal Panic! or the aforementioned Robotech. These series don’t have the depth of Evangelion. Once you get the feel for them, then you should go dig in to Evangelion or Fafner. Also, I recommend Martian Successor Nadesico for a self-aware send-up of anime tropes with some heavy meaning and well-developed characters.

Okay, let’s talk about the game. A couple weird, little questions first.

The game plays with a GM and up to three players. Why is three the magic number?

Oh, that’s just for the game demo that I made up. Ideally, there are between 3 and 6 players in each group of pilots, what I call a Company.

To succeed in a test, one must roll OVER the target number. Why not equal? Is this a thematic or numbers issue?

I hate the concept of a tie in an RPG. Nothing is worse than “nothing happens.”

The pilots have a lot of resources to call in or spend to turn a failure into a success, so they’re just one point away if they need to tip over a tie. Besides, there’s another mechanic when the pilot needs to roll equal or less than a target number, so it evens out.

Can you list and explain for me the mechanisms in the game that specifically work toward emulating your favorite things about the genre?

Well, the most important stat on the character sheet is Ego, and the most important words are the pilot’s Hope and Despair. Ego is a currency that a pilot earns. It measures an inner drive that a pilot can exert to “will” a victory into happening. Hope and Despair are the means to earning or losing Ego. These two phrases drive the pilot’s story as she pursues her Hope and evades her Despair. The GM challenges her with these important motivations and she wins to increase her self-worth or loses to diminish it. Every situation a pilot faces can be personal and meaningful. That means plenty of drama and emotional ups and downs.

Please talk some more about your use of EGO and ID. How does it work and why does it belong in the game?

These were originally conceived as the balancing act between the strength of the pilot’s will, the Ego, and the strength of the machine’s, the Id. The SAInts are made from the same stuff as the Magnas, meaning they are built to rage. As the SAInt is active it’s thirst for destruction grows. The pilot has a few ways to vent off this anger but if he can’t do it before the SAInt’s will is stronger than his own it can tear control from him and frenzy. The weapon being as dangerous to the pilots as it is to the enemy is a concept from Evangelion or Fafner that I found especially important to the drama.

Are there any other genres that you think would also fit the system of the game? If so, which ones? Why?

Research for the game meant buying a lot of box sets and after a while I branched out from giant robots to other genres (for time paradox madness and endearing characters, check out Steins:Gate, it is excellent!) What I recognized as a general anime trope is that most stories are about the protagonist drawing personal strength from her relationships with others. That power from within, grown by building close relationship from without is the direction for characters that I wanted to reinforce. It’s close to how most adventuring parties already function so it’s subtle in the mechanics. Pilots work together in teams but each is trying to find their own way within the team to feed their motivations and Ego.

I’d like to try some modifications to the rules that would allow for something like the witch-hunting school of Soul Eater or a straight up “magical girl” game sometime but that’s a long way off.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the game or the Kickstarter?

I’ve made a commitment to make the text available in accessible formats for the blind and dyslexic. My day job is with a non-profit that records and translates textbooks for students with learning differences. One day I realized that most game manuals are practically textbooks and that the printed word is a barrier to some potential gamers. I’m going to follow DAISY compliance standards to make the book freely available in accessible text and, eventually, audio for those who could benefit from the alternative formats.

The Kickstarter deadline is coming up soon, so if you’re interested, act quickly.

Thank you so much for talking to me.

You’re welcome. Always happy to talk about Tears of a Machine!


How can we find out more about what you are up to?

The Robot Claw blog, where you’ll find more detailed articles about my plans for accessibility and some world-building fiction:

My Google Plus, where you’ll find information about demos through Google Hangouts:

Twitter for my babbling:

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Pete Figtree

Pete Figtree


I am a father, a teacher, and a gamer. I believe that games can give us some keen insights into our lives, and I know that they can encourage and foster friendships and community.

Ruthless Diastema: Loading the Dice for a Meaningful Life

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