Divine Machine: Campaign Postmortem

For a while now, something like a year and a half (including the occasional hiatus) I was running an OVA campaign for my friends called “Divine Machine.” It had some issues throughout, and towards the end I was less than happy with it. On the other hand, it was fun more often than not, and I’d like to think last night’s conclusion ended things on a high note.

1. I never really liked any of the PCs. I feel kind of bad for saying it, but it is the truth. This is partly just a matter of taste on my part, of course, but somehow I just didn’t care all that much for any of them. I never outright hated any of them, and they all grew on me to some degree, but still. It didn’t help that none of them tied into the existing setting I had created in any meaningful way (except for the two amnesiacs in the group, but only because I spent hours figuring out their forgotten backstories). The only PC who was truly heroic was also the one who created the most friction in the group, and generally created lots of headaches for me.

2. I got burned out on running a semi-traditional fiat-y game week after week. It’s a style of GM-ing that demands a lot out of me psychologically, and I’m pretty much abandoning it from now on. I’ll occasionally do a Maid RPG session for sheer zaniness and awesome, but otherwise I want to concentrate on games that spread the work around some. After a session of Divine Machine, I would always be drained and irritable, in a way that just wasn’t the case for games like The Shab-al-Hiri Roach or Peerless Food Fighters. The one time I ran DM two nights in a row was absolute murder, and something I never want to experience ever again.

3. The game wound up encompassing too many NPCs and too big of a plot. No matter what the medium, I deal better with more personal stories. In Yuuyake Koyake, for example, you only have one or two, maybe three NPCs in a session, and I can handle them just fine. In Divine Machine it got to the point where we would outright forget someone who was supposed to be present, and I had a hard time giving them all adequate motivations and personality.

4. OVA is good for what it is. I tell people it’s what BESM’s original edition (the little gray book) wanted to be and never quite pulled off. But one thing it shares with BESM: it’s easy to break it with just a little bit of powergaming. In theory a result of 12 on a die roll is unbelievably good, but we wound up having combats where the combat-oriented characters were throwing around results of 20+ regularly, and I had to give NPCs 8+ dice to roll at once just for them to have a fighting chance. If I were to ever use it again (or PDQ for that matter), I would SEVERELY limit the ability to stack traits into one roll. Also, the magic system is pretty much broken as far as I’m concerned. Its balancing factors (a check to make sure the spell works, and an Endurance cost) are much too easy to circumvent.

5. Creatively, I always have more ideas than I know what to do with. One of the nice things about running a game like Divine Machine was that pretty much anything I thought up I could throw into the game in some form. I got to use practically every odd little scrap of an idea for something to put into an RPG I had laying around. That, combined with regularly being the GM, is why unlike some of my friends, I’m not as attracted to being tethered to one player character for a long time, and I don’t personally regard immersion as a priority. It also means that switching games more frequently appeals to me. I’m hoping that in the future we can have a bit of both, with the D&D4e game my friend is running, and a succession of indie games and other experiments and mini-campaigns on the side.

In summary: Divine Machine was a fun ride, but it had all kinds of issues, and I’m glad it’s finally over. I learned a lot from it, albeit sometimes more with regard to what not to do in the future. OVA is neat, but don’t let players who are even remotely interested in gaming the system near the thing.

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6 thoughts on “Divine Machine: Campaign Postmortem

  1. May as well place what I learned from the game:

    1. Learn to separate characters that can blend. It was a little after our previous campaign that ended abruptly that this one began. Because of that, the last character I played who was a wild ball of rage bled into this one, who ended up being a little too angry than what I wanted. When I managed to separate the two (and figuring out where to go from there via GM council) is when it worked out for the better and didn’t care for how I did it before. My character’s anger was more intended to be comedic, yet the others didn’t seem it as such when he was prodded so I had to drop that even though some thought it to be hilarious to keep prodding him.

    2. Define not only the setting, but feeling and tone.
    We were constantly in heroic situations that was often severely hindered because the cast for the most part were a bunch of amoral jerks or would refuse to face previous dilemmas. Also, if there is lots of constant opposition expected in the campaign, characters should have some kind of ability for contribution into all parts of the story- combat included.

    3. R.T.F.M. I think more than a few gripes in the first part would have went away if people looked at the rule book, and I’m noticing these issues are not happening as much with the D&D campaign as people giving more active attention to the rules, fighting off a constant foe I see in editing/testing: Assuming a feature/mode/setting is the same as a previous model/revision.

    The rules are there for us to use and have fun with, not to ignore (unless the GM decides to toss out parts, in which he should let people know beforehand. There were rule exclusions that made my character far too powerful.)

    4. Rage Rage Rage.
    Yeah, no. no. no. There’s a reason why my recent character is timid and a little wishy washy. Yet still I can find time to think she’ll still do good things. It’s fun to make calls, it’s also fun to figure out how to go through with orders.

    5. Communication. Things went better after grievances were aired. While I can’t speak for the rest, the people I play with need not express problems behind closed channels. (However verbal gang ups is going the other direction. One at a time please.) Nor do other players, regardless of group, have to touch my characters with kid gloves. I really liked how the Dragonborn in the party is trying to help my pyrophobe.

    Interaction is great, as long as it goes somewhere. It got so bad in DM that a few things went nowhere, I’d end up getting to be a nervous wreck the next day at work as it just bubbled up with nothing to resolve it or add to the characters.

    7. Have more than 4 hours ready for play and involve everyone else when playing. We tend to nitpick, get sidetracked and discuss and try getting our plans PERFECT, when we only had a few hours of consciousness left. Some of my character calls were based on this reasoning, and it took other people out of the equation which in hindsight was regrettable.

    8. OVA rules are very tricky to follow- which traits are static, which ones add to a roll? 1st run game books can get that way. I like what it is, but I have to say it needs some work and I hope that the author releases the planned second edition soon.

    I loved the varied settings, and one of the big reasons I kept coming back and enjoyed it more often than not was that I didn’t know what to expect. Cat Girl armies, sky pirates, amnesia, switcharoos… I’m glad it’s over, and it’s certainly alright to voice your opinions on the characters (Some had their charms though for me, others not so much) but I have to say I’ve learned quite a few things from it.

  2. I’d say a lot of what went wrong with the game was that it was never intended to be a story based on what our characters did. It was a story about something that happened, that we wound up being a part of. Once that realization took hold, there was no reason to even try anymore. The world would go on, the plot would move forward, everything would still unerringly siphon to a conclusion. I had to start finding ways to enjoy myself because not only were other PCs breaking the balance scale, but the stories and plot lines weren’t made with us in mind.

    It was a roller coaster ride and it was fun for a while, but once it was clear that we had no control over it, it ceased to be a game and instead was an out of control story that swept us up in it’s journey.

    In the end, I was just glad it was over. I had no real joy over fixing anything, because the NPCs solved their own problems. We did nothing except be tools for them to use and thus there was no climax for us. At least that’s how I felt.

    This is why I’m so into the DnD game. In that campaign, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. Nobody does, not even the DM himself. The actions we take and the things we do actually *matter* and the story means something to me, because I helped to create it. It’s organic construction and I enjoy it far more than being railroaded down a set path.

    I don’t hate storytelling style games, but there needs to be actual consequence for the PC’s actions. Without it, they’re little more than flavor characters in someone else’s grand scheme.

  3. It’s painful to hear, but I do think you’re correct. That’s another reason why I want to abandon this style of play. It’s also why I’m so jazzed about trying out various indie games: many of them literally make stuff like railroading impossible.

    (BTW “storytelling” generally means a White Wolf game, though those have had issues with railroading too).

  4. For me, “Off the cuff” does not define “meaningful and involving”. Just because there is a plan for it doesn’t mean that the path is written in stone.

    I think the ending WAS a little weak and I did want to see some things reach a climax, but I more attribute it towards time allotted rather than getting on board the story express.

    With the group we had, there was no wonder WHY there was some sense of having us being “railroaded” (not a bad thing in of itself) after our character’s employer (the only thing really keeping the group together) went nutso. But I fail to see how “help a person change an entire race” is worse than “go slay some monsters for a town” outside of the likely employment of dues ex machina.

  5. The two events aren’t any different from each other, but we didn’t get to choose “help a person change a race” whereas we got to choose “go kill some monsters.” *That’s* what makes the difference in my book and why I get tired of having that choice taken away from me.

    Good or bad, I want the game to reflect the actions I choose in it. That way it’s my game and I have an active role in it. If it’s been chosen for me ahead of time, then there’s no pleasure in anything that might happen. Being crowned SuperAwesomeGuy MarkIV of the GalacticCyberSquad means nothing. Neither does destroying all of space and time as we know it. You may as well be watching a DVD instead of pretending to play a game.

    RPG is Role Playing Game, the moment you remove one of the elements, it’s ceases to be such. We do a lot of the RP and as of late, almost none of the G.

  6. I think that Suichiro is *somewhat* understating the player agency for Divine Machine and overstating it for D&D, but otherwise basically correct. There have been moments in D&D when it’s felt like the PCs’ choices were limited to where on the map of Faerun to go kill monsters. Both games are lacking in macro-scale agency, but not in micro-scale agency. The difference is that in DM the macro-scale stuff is more important.

    Basically, the campaign (and to varying degrees several of the ones we’ve played before it) fell into an uncomfortable midpoint between traditional RPG and the story-oriented style you see in indie games. In a traditional game like the D&D we’re doing, the story is an emergent element of the gameplay. You’ll tell stories about that one time you got that amazing plasma grenade stick in Halo, but the multiplayer isn’t a “story” in any conventional sense. There’s just a series of events that your brain can retell as a story later. On the other hand there are indie games where elements of the story are specifically dealt with at the rules level. When you’re doing one or the other, the game is giving you the tools you need to do what you want to do. It’s when you try to do a “story” game with traditional RPG rules that you wind up doing something for which the rules of the game don’t actually have anything meaningful to contribute. You wind up falling back on what amounts to free-form role-playing, which is much more challenging to make fair and interesting. Some people are no doubt up to that challenge, but I apparently am not.

    At a certain point with Divine Machine I was at times wishing that I had a system that could meaningfully handle the things going on in the game, but OAV definitely isn’t it. Like BESM, it’s from the “system doesn’t matter” school of game design, basically aimed at people who want a slight amount of structure for what is otherwise free-form/fanfic role-playing.

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