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> Or am I just reading this wrong and my problem is actually that I'm
> executing too big a step?

Probably. The purpose of "step" is to actually do some collection,
not to adjust the counter. And its "size" means nothing:

  * LUA_GCSTEP-- performs an incremental step of garbage collection.
  The step size is controlled by data (larger values mean more steps) in
  a non-specified way.  If you want to control the step size you must
  tune experimentally the value of data.

-- Roberto