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CRPG musings: BORDERLANDS

This game is a hoot. Touted as a “roleplaying shooter” or RPS, Borderlands is a hip, quirky, funny, and all-around enjoyable game. Some people might debate whether it’s a roleplaying game or not, but, as I might have pointed out already (I don’t remember if I’ve said it in any recent posts or not), CRPGs are actually just adventure games with character advancement mechanics and a combat system, with no real relationship to actual roleplaying.

Borderlands meets that criteria. It’s an adventure game in that you must explore places and solve problems (all of them simple problems revolving around killing things and/or finding things, but that’s actually par for the course for a wide swath of both CRPGs and adventure games in general). It has character advancement, with experience levels and skills of a sort that you buy with points granted by gaining levels, plus some other things that I’ll talk about in a minute. Instead of some kind of tactical combat system, it has a real-time, first-person shooting combat system – but, really, all that amounts to is a different vocabulary. Nobody tries to say that Oblivion isn’t an RPG, and it’s essentially the same thing (even using the same software, I’m given to understand), just lacking guns.

As I said before, this game is a hoot. The setting is fun and funky, a sort of dangerous frontier planet that draws adventurers and mercenaries due to legends of an alien structure called the Vault that’s bound to contain tons of loot. Then you’ve got desperate little settlements beleaguered by psychotic bandits, and corporations that stand to profit off of the whole shebang. But that’s not the point – the point is the *character* of it all. Consider these advertisement soundbytes from one of the ubiquitous arms-dealer vending machines, spoken by a guy with a Russian accent:

“Vladof! You don’t need to be a better shot, you just need to shoot more bullets!”

“Is shooting bullets not cool enough for you? Get yourself a Maliwan, and set some people on fire!”

The whole vibe is like that. There’s a certain cavalier, who-gives-a-shit, tongue-in-cheek, existentialist quality to the whole game, right down to the ending and the song that plays during the ending credits. The Vault is kinda real, but it’s also kinda not, and it kinda doesn’t matter. There ain’t no heaven, and nothing really means anything, but it’s actually kind of fun that way. It sure is fun to shoot stuff, at any rate.

I want to talk about the mechanics for a while, which are totally boss. So, you’ve got four character classes. Each class has a special “action skill” with a cooldown, although I consider only one of them (the Siren’s Phasewalk skill) to actually be interesting. Beyond that, each character has three branches of other skills with a whole ton of different effects. Each point that you spend on a skill in one branch contributes to unlocking the next tier in that branch. It’s not possible to gain enough levels to get every skill either.

What I love about these skills is the way they work. The Hunter (sniper specialist) has a skill called “Smirk.” What it does is, whenever he kills an enemy with a critical hit (defined not by chance but by where you hit the enemy – frex headshots), he and all his teammates gain a percentage boost to XP for a few seconds. The Siren has a “Phoenix” skill that activates upon killing any enemy; during this state, she is on fire (and burning all enemies close to her) and has a percentage chance for her shots to not use up ammo.

What I like about this is how effects are stated, in very simple terms and dependent on a.) level of skill and b.) character level. I also like the way that they work; they’re either constant, or they’re like, “when you do X, then Y happens.” They’re simple, straightforward, and allow you do to special things just by having them – you don’t have to spend “technique points” or whatever to use them, you don’t have skill levels that you have to increase through practice. You just have a set effect that gets better if you put more points on it, but is already useful out of the gate. And they all add significantly to your tactical options in a firefight.

(All of those principles are things I’d like to see in table-top RPGs. If you’ve been keeping up with MADcorp, you probably already know that.)

Add onto this a type of inventory item called a Class Mod. Each Class Mod adds to certain skills, enabling you to further specialize or to cover bases that you didn’t have enough skill points to cover. Also, you can hit a New-U station, pay an amount of cash based on your level, and redistribute all of your points whenever you feel like it. Which is awesome.

All of this just totally explodes in relevance when you play multiplayer. Actually, the whole damn game gets better in multiplayer. Not only does it change the landscape of optimal skill and arms choice, but the number of enemies increases proportional to the number of players, allowing you to really and truly have some fuckin’ fun.

The equipment mechanics are friggin’ awesome. For one, it’s all randomly generated based on a few templates, so you get different versions of the same gun, with different mods on them and different pros and cons. You have to balance fire rate, fire power, magazine size, accuracy, and special effects (like the potential to set people on fire or electrocute them). You can also do side-by-side comparisons, enabling you to quickly judge how this new gun you just found stacks up to the one you’re already using.

And one more mechanic, my favorite of them all: when your hitpoints get dropped to zero, you start dying and go into a “Fight For Your Life!” mode where you can’t move around, your aim gets wonky, and your vision starts going out as all the blood flows out of you. An on-screen timer shows you how close you are to bleeding out. However, if you can kill *just one enemy* before that timer runs out, you get a “second wind” and rejoin the battle with full health. What that means is you can play the gamble and just get all up in the enemy’s face, taking hits all the time but dishing out damage by the facefuls with easy-peasy critical hits (at this range) – if you’re good enough and don’t get unlucky, you’ll get repeatedly taken down but also keep getting back up within the next second or so. It also means that if you keep your distance and try to play it safe, you’re less likely to get taken down in the first place, but if you do, you’re so distant from the enemy that it’s hard to get a second wind. I preferred the former approach (particularly with the Siren, whose prevalence of area-effect, crowd-control, and speed abilities seems custom-tailored for it), but I love that the game made me think about it.

My second favorite thing in the whole game: “badass” is a mechanical term. It’s applied to enemies that are tougher and worth more XP than other enemies of their level.

Downsides to this game are that it’s quite short (although there’s expansions, but I haven’t tried them), and the quests get kinda repetitive. Most of all, though, I think they could have gone even further with the whole existentialist thing. As it is, they kind of pull their punches a little bit, and let you think a little too much that some of the things you’re doing are making the world a better place. I’d like to see more suffering happen as a result of your actions, but cast in a way that made you laugh it off rather than feel bad about it. Considering how many ugly things this game makes you laugh at, I don’t think it was out of the designers’ reach to do this.

But, all in all, this game is a hoot. I recommend it to anyone who likes or at least tolerates shooty games.

Beyond the Wire presents four games for $2 each!

I’m currently in some dire straights financially right now, but I’m not one to just ask for money, so I’m sellin’ some games! I’ve put together a store webpage where you’ll find four quick-and-dirty games being sold in PDF format for $2 each. These games are:

Knuckleheads!:  a slapstick RPG in the Three Stooges/Laurel & Hardy vein
Construction & Conquest: a customized wargame using LEGO
Crow’s Hoard: a card game similar to Hearts, but a lot crazier, and
Caffeine & Nicotine Live Action Roleplay: an experimental RPG inspired by the film Coffee & Cigarettes

Please, if you like Super Action Now! or The Rustbelt or MADcorp, or even just like reading my blog and you want me to be able to keep designing/writing, buy these games, and talk your friends into buying them. They’re cheap and short. I’ve played them all and they’re all fun.

(I don’t understand automated PDF stuff, so I’m just gonna email the things out to the people who buy ’em. I only get to go online a couple of hours every day, so bear with me if you don’t get ’em right away.)

Musical Magic

So, I’ve got this fantasy game I’m working on. It’s essentially a Burning Wheel hack, with some changes in emphasis and a small but significant injection of Otherkind. (And, of course, a different setting that hopefully represents a sort of fantasy you don’t see often in RPGs.)

In the skill lists, I’ve got different skills for every musical instrument. These vary between races, as well. There ended up being a lot. Looking at this, I think people might be a bit confounded as to why there’s this much detail on what’s usually a glossed-over issue in RPGs. But I think it’s important. Lemme explain what was going through my head.

First off, lemme tell you that each different type of weapon is its own skill, even down to differentiating maces from flails and bladed polearms (like the halberd) from spears. I really like the idea that musical instruments are treated with as much nuance as weapons. I think it says something about the game, and how much thought should be given to culture in the course of play. (Culture is also important for a variety of other reasons throughout the game’s mechanics, especially chargen.)

Second, it lets me define the differences between different races’ music. Men mainly have plucked and bowed stringed instruments, while the dweorgen (sorta like dwarves, emphasis on “sorta”) mainly play zithers, things similar to xylophones, and batteries of drums; you get the picture. I really like having these differences, and I like what they say about the races themselves.

Third, through a modified version of BW’s Fields of Related Knowledge mechanic, I’m able to draw comparisons between the instruments of different races. For instance, the mannish guitarra and the gholan oud have many techniques in common, thus someone skilled with the guitarra could pick up an oud and play it to some degree, and vice-versa. Given that the potential to transcend racial boundaries is a central mechanic of the game, I really like this.

(FoRKs are also one of my favorite mechanics from an RPG ever, because they enable the designer to put a lot more detail into skills, and to include both specialized and broad skills without sweating over it. It’s far more flexible and interesting than systems where one roll = one skill. It also rewards knowledge of the skill lists, but it isn’t required, so you can have big-ass skill lists without worrying about people getting frustrated about having to learn it all. They can do it if they want, and will be rewarded mechanically for doing so.)

Fourth, I’m a musician. I’m interested in this stuff.

But, still, it occurs to me that there’s no built-in reason for the players to care about it. It’s a peripheral issue, unless someone really wants to play a scenario focused on music. So, how to make it worthwhile?

Here’s a thing: all the little nuances with weapons are only worthwhile because they start mattering once you get into a fight. This stuff with music should matter in a similar way.

Then, I decided, why not have music intersect with the magic system?

And, no, not in that stupid fantasy bard way with a list of songs that’s actually a spell list. And, no, not in the manner of music causing crazy magical effects (although that’s not out of the range of possibilities for sorcerers who are also musicians).

The idea I hit upon was music being useable as a social skill. *Any* social skill. You can use it to persuade, intimidate, interrogate, command, deceive, whatever. Music has the power to touch people on profound emotional levels. While not overtly magical, that’s still a sort of magic.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In this system, all rolls involving magic are either Boundless, Bottomless, or both. Boundless rolls are the same as open-ended rolls in BW: sixes explode. Bottomless rolls mean that any aces you roll introduce complications (this is, for instance, how unlucky curses and divine disfavor are implemented). Boundless rolls mean that you can potentially surpass the limits of your actual ability. Bottomless rolls mean that unbidden effects can occur.

This magical use of music will be both Boundless and Bottomless. Inspiration can lead the musician to play something truly transcendental that he’ll never be able to play the same way again. And you also never quite know how else your music might affect the people who hear it. Music has been known to save lives and to destroy them, and many things inbetween.

What remains to do here is some nuance. All races have access to different kinds of magic; e.g. sorcery is for the race of men only, while hexwork is practiced by both men and the treowan, and only the dweorgen can cast runes. So, what are the nuances of the different races?

This should tie into their different instruments. I’ve already got precedent in a set of rules for combined arms and opposing arms. Like, for instance, long-reach weapons give you an edge at a distance, while knives give you an edge up close and personal; flails have an edge against shields, since the chains can wrap around the shield to evade the opponent’s guard; piercing weapons have an edge against armor. (I’m an arms nerd, so I love making and using rules like this.)

So, I’m thinking, what are the pros and cons of a string quartet versus a solo violin? What’s a dweorgish zither good for? What’s the difference between the treowish flute and the mannish flute?

One thing that immediately comes to mind is that dweorgish music is similar to the compositions of Harry Partch — whose music scared the pants off of me the first time I heard it. Seriously, I experienced a visceral terror (and also a certain wonder). That could very easily be worked in. Otherwise, this stuff’s gonna bear some thinking about.

more fragments

Here’s some more fragments, also from Beautiful Abominations. What these are is excerpts from an interview with Weston, from back when he was a famous musician. I was going to have them scattered around between chapters to like, y’know, resonate with certain themes and stuff.

***

RS: You’re a particularly prolific artist. The Lightning Guild has issued twelve albums in the last ten years, and you wrote every note aside from the improvised solos. Where do you get the motivation to produce so much work of such a consistent quality? What drives you to do it?

 RWB: In this life, we can create, we can destroy, and we can repair. Or we can do nothing, which at best is not fixing what ain’t broke, but at worst is negligence, the evil opposite of repair.

            Everybody does these things. Some people are better at one than at others. Most people, though, it’s not in large digits. They don’t have the resources to create or destroy on a large scale. Thus, to a certain extent, their behaviors are excusable. At least, I don’t hold it against someone when his thrown can misses the wastebasket in the park. I will pick it up when he’s not looking, but I don’t hold it against him.

            But people like me, we’ve got a broader scope. Okay, I saw that smile. You think I’m full of myself, to which I ask, what else should I be full of? I am me. I’m made of me. But, seriously, I’m not the only one. There’s the novelists Rod Seward, for instance, and, uh, Valerie Maddow. And musicians Carlo Bindt and John Steamer before me, God rest their souls. And physicist Lawrence Bear. And, like, y’know, Bach.

            But my point is, some people get an extra portion of power. They can create more, or destroy more, than other people. Their negligence has greater consequences. Me, I believe in creation and repair. I think that destruction and negligence are sins, the only sins. Therefore I consider it my moral obligation  to create and repair as much as I possibly can. I’m not that good at repair, so I try to make up for it with creation.

            But here’s where it gets interesting: every decision you make destroys possible futures. It also creates possible futures. The only way you can deal with that is to make sure your decisions create more futures than they destroy.

***

RS: There’s a number of rumors circling about the circumstances of your birth—

 RWB: Yeah? Like what?

 RS: Oh, you know, like that you were born in the desert, or that you were constructed in a mad scientist’s laboratory. Can you shed some light on the subject?

 RWB: I was born in the desert. I was born in the desert  in a thunderstorm. An ambulance, on the Texas/Oklahoma border. The road was flooding even as we hauled ass to the nearest hospital.

            At first I wasn’t breathing. The EMT  slapped my ass, and I didn’t scream. Then lightning struck, so close that the thunder was like a bomb going off, and I took my first breath. Sometimes I can still smell the ozone.

            The next day, all along that stretch of desert road, there were flowers everywhere. All kinds of flowers, indian paintbrushes in particular, which is why they’ve always been my favorite. It turns out this sort of thing happens all the time in Chile, I read about it in National Geographic I think. There’s these mountains that somehow prevent rain clouds from reaching the desert. Every so many years, a rainstorm manages to make it over. Within a day, the desert is in full bloom from seeds that had blown over the mountains and laid there for years, waiting for a little bit of rain.

 RS: Okay, now you’re just playing with me.

 RWB: Hey, it happened. I was there.

***

RS: You’ve already mentioned Carlo Bindt, the man behind the madness of the Sorcerors and Other Assorted Wonders. You thank him in all your liner notes. Could you tell us about your relationship to his work?

 RWB: It’s hard to put into words, my admiration for Carlo.  That’s why I put it in music.  See, he was the one who showed me how to get magic into the music.  Well, Jack Wrote showed me it could be done, but his has always been a human magic, no matter how surreal.  Carlo showed me how to get the big, abstract stuff in there, the stuff that transcends the human frame of reference.  Jack’s a bard, but Carlo was a wizard.  He wasn’t the only one, or even the first, to get to wizardry through music, but he was the one I found at just the right time in my life for it to really mean something.  It was his music that was there when I needed it.

            Sometimes I have dreams about Carlo.  We hang out somewhere and smoke cigarettes, or he’s in a hurry to get somewhere and we don’t get to talk much.  Sometimes he’s as healthy as he ever was, and sometimes his Huntington’s is in full swing, his arms waving rhythmically like tree branches in the wind, casting shadows that look like crows.

            Sometimes I play my records for him, and he’s excited, slapping me on the back in congratulations, raving on about it.  Sometimes he suggests improvements.  Sometimes he doesn’t get it, even as I’m trying to call attention to the critical pieces.  Once he flew into a rage and overturned the stereo system.  Sometimes he cries.

ALCHEMISTS ATE MY BRAIN

Time for some more CRPG musings! Today’s topic: Mana Khemia: the Alchemists of Al-Revis.

This game here? This is the real deal. This is a motherforkin’ CRPG. Jeebus Crispies, where do I start? There is so much that I like about this game. Let’s just break down a list of cool things.

Cool Thing #1: the Structure. So, the premise of this game is students attending a school for alchemists. Play is structured into terms, which are further broken down into weeks. Each week ends with a story event, usually involving some sort of climactic challenge tied to that plot point. During that week, you attend classes that require you to learn things and face smaller challenges, preparing you for the big one ahead.

 That’s some for-serious game design right there. This genre has needed for decades to innovate beyond the “talk to this guy, then fight some stuff so you can go talk to the next guy, then wander around aimlessly until you figure out who you have to talk to next” format for advancing the story. You’re never left floundering in MK. You always have an assignment to point the way, and the big story events start on their own.

But there’s more! In each week, you get a certain amount of free time. Each day of free time can be used to go on a side quest with one of the other main characters. Doing this increments an opaque “friendship” score with that character, which has a few mechanical effects (particularly impacting cooperative synthesis in the alchemy lab), and even some more profound impacts on the game. For instance,

**SPOILER ALERT**

 One of the main guys doesn’t have a familiar spirit and is bitter about it. If you do enough (a lot) side quests with him, he finally acquires one and becomes a much more effective force in the game. He’s still an asshole, though.

 **END SPOILER ALERT**

Very, very interesting to me is that there doesn’t seem to be enough free time to do all the side quests. I never finished the game, so I can’t say for sure, but based on the timeframe in which you’re supposed to be attending the school, and on how much free time you seem to get per term, I can’t see there being enough.

Cool Thing #2: Sprite-Based Art. Some punk-ass gamers think that sprite graphics are teh suxx0rs. Those people are punk-asses. Sprite graphics are nearly always superior to 3D rendered graphics. You know why? Because the artform is older and the techniques are more developed. 3D is just out of its silent film era; 2D has already had it’s Citizen Kane for a solid decade by now.

Cool Thing #3: the Initiative System. The basic structure of the combat system is your usual Japanese CRPG fare: you’ve got hitpoints and magic points; on your turn, you pick “fight,” “defend,” “magic,” or “item” from the menu; and so on.

What’s really interesting is the initiative system. Rather than just going from fastest down to slowest or using something like Square’s Active Time Battle, each character has a card on the screen, and at the beginning of the battle, the cards are shuffled and dealt out across the top of the screen (with speed stats as a factor but with a heavy random element too), with the first-acting character at the far right and the last on the far left. That’s right, you get to see, right up front, when each character will act in relation to the others. Then, when you act, you get shuffled back in somewhere at the back.

You’ve also got a “wait” command that lets you postpone your action and move your card anywhere you want towards the back of the deck, enabling you to perform combinations and synergy tactics effectively and predictably.

But there’s more! Some skills have delayed or recurrent effects. These effects are also represented by cards and shuffled in. For instance, the “Healing Field” spell will recur in three consecutive rounds, and you can look at the layout of cards at the top of the screen to see when it’ll go off.

This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a CRPG. It’s also begging to be appropriated for some table-top roleplaying.

Cool Thing #4: the Synthesis System. This being a game about alchemists, there’s of course some alchemy going on. You go into the field to gather ingredients, then mix ‘em up in your workshop to make items. You won’t be buying many items at the stores; just ingredients, for the most part. Your basic items have standard recipes, which is nothing new. What’s cool is that you can substitute similar ingredients for each other and get the same item with some different properties. For the most part, these properties aren’t mechanically relevant, but there are some assignments that require you to make a specific item with certain properties.

But you get to experiment even further. You can go further off the recipe and substitute ingredients that are kinda similar, and end up with a totally different item. You can literally sit in that workshop for hours just checking out all the different combinations you can do. Not only that, but you should experiment, because of…

 Cool Thing #5: the Advancement System. Of all the cool things in this game, this one takes the cake. So, when you win fights, you get some points. Looks like the same old EXP all over again, yawn – but hang on. Those points don’t level you up. You don’t even have levels. What’s going on?

Here’s how it is: each character has a personalized advancement grid, and you spend the aforementioned points to buy abilities and stat boosts from this grid. You can think of it as similar to the grids on FFXI, except they’re different for each character. Another big difference is that buying a node on the grid doesn’t unlock it’s neighbors. Nope, in order to unlock the nodes at all, you have to engage in alchemical synthesis and make certain items. The requisite items also vary from character to character.

It’s a hard thing to describe, but it is one of the most exciting and most rewarding advancement systems I’ve ever seen. Every time you get home from an adventure, you’re champing at the bit to get back to the lab and experiment with all the new ingredients you’ve found, both to see what kind of cool shit you can make, and also to see what making those things has unlocked for your characters. Not only is experimentation fun in it’s own right, but it’s also mechanically meaningful, even if you’re making stuff that you don’t intend to use.

All you table-top gamers out there: imagine if Ars Magica’s advancement and laboratory stuff worked that way. Is your mind blown yet?

There’s a phrase that I use when a game or subject or author is really jazzing me, to the point where I can’t stop engaging with it for an extended amount of time – often months – because it’s proving so rewarding and keeps having more and more to offer. I say that it’s “eating my brain.” Due to the above, this is one of the few CRPGs to ever eat my brain. This puts it up there with William S. Burroughs, Dwarf Fortress, Carlos Castaneda, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Captain Beefheart. (The only other CRPGs I can think of that ate my brain are Vagrant Story and Baroque, unless ADOM counts.)

Now, every silver cloud has its gray lining, so let’s stop gushing for now. I didn’t finish the game, and had no qualms about trading it for some RPG books, so there’s obviously a reason for that.

Bad Thing #1: I lost interest in the story. Happens to me a lot with these games. This one end up a bit too sprawling for me, in a sort of soap opera fashion, and I never really cared about any of the characters. I really liked the ghost girl, though, for some reason. But then you’ve got the obligatory silent/shy protagonist, the obligatory samurai-and/or-ninja girl character, the obligatory hotsy part-animal girl character, the obligatory bitter rival who nonetheless ends up on your side, and so on. And, again, the gorram cute squishy alien. Why must there always be a cute squishy alien introduced in the latter half of the game? They adopt him as a mascot, which is fun, but, dammit. What a way to alienate (bu-dum-splish) your audience.

Bad Thing #2: You know that whole synthesis thing I was gushing about just a few seconds ago? Well, there’s a problem with it. When you get into higher-level syntheses, there ends up being a lot of steps. I mean a lot of steps. You want to make thing X, but first you have to make thing Y, which requires that you make things A, B, and C first, and before you know it, you’re writing out a spreadsheet to figure out the total number of raw ingredients you need, and then you’re synthesizing old things for five minutes just to try out something new. In other words, it becomes a chore. That, and trawling old maps for ingredients ends up being this game’s version of grinding.

It’s still a damn good idea; it’s just a bit of a bad implementation. What they should have done is design it such that multi-step syntheses are consolidated into one step, indicating all the raw requirements and allowing you to do it all at once.

But don’t let those bad things sway you. This game is a giant among CRPGs. It presents some real and desperately needed innovations to the field. If you like CRPGs even a little bit, you must play this. I bought it on Amazon; you can too. It’s expensive, but now you know it’s worth it.

holy crap, help

Does anyone know how I can set this thing such that I don’t have to approve comments every time? I’d much rather manually delete spam than manually approve real posters. I can’t find a setting to change this. Help?

fragments

I’m good at writing. I write well, so people tell me.

What I have a problem with is continuing writing. I’ll write a fragment or a start of a story, and it’ll be really cool, but I just can’t get anything else to happen.

It’s possible that the problem is my standards. I won’t even set words down to paper/screen until I think they’re perfect. Kurt Vonnegut called this the “basher” approach, and contrasted it to the “swooper,” who writes all willy-nilly until done, then goes back and fixes it. But, unlike fellow basher Vonnegut, I never make it to the end. I start off strong, but I guess I lose the thread somewhere ’cause I can’t get beyond that point.

Losing the thread seems to be pretty common. Stephen King apparently has a serious problem with it. His books always start off really fuckin’ cool but take a turn for the lesser somewhere. The Gunslinger is one of the best things I’ve ever read. The rest of the Dark Tower series is like gum that’s lost its flavor. It’s still kinda pleasant to chew, but it’s lacking. (I did like The Stand all the way through, though.)

I’m not willing to pull a King. I can’t bring myself to finish the story with any less than I think it deserves. Therefore I’ve got lots of fragments but not much that’s finished. But these fragments are good reads. I love them. So, I’m gonna start posting them.

Here’s the first fragment, intended for a novel with the working title Beautiful Abominations.

***

Weston is waiting for the kid to finish banging around on the red Fender Telecaster.  The kid looks to be around sixteen, with spiked hair and a few piercings.  He plays little smatterings of classic rock – a little Stones, some Zeppelin, a lot of Cream.  Weston sighs; the kid has no touch, no finesse, no sensitivity, just youth, vigor, and sheer exuberance.  Weston can feel the strings pulling out of tune, but he resists the urge to take the guitar and show the kid how to use it.  The customers don’t want to buy guitars from people who make them feel stupid.

            Finally the kid puts the Tele back on the rack, and moves on to a fancy new Gibson.  Good.  Weston never liked Gibsons, anyway.  They sound too nice, especially the new ones.  As far as Weston is concerned, the electric guitar was perfected in the 1950s, and the Tele is one emanation of that perfection, with its bravely trashy and cutting timbre.

            Nonchalantly, Weston picks up the Tele and begins to re-tune it.  An act of repair.  He sits on a stool with his back to the shop’s front door.  The bell rings and a customer enters.  Weston feels a strong aura wash into the room, distorting the flow of things somewhat.  He doesn’t turn to see who it is.  Big deal.  Just another punk with gallons of personality and zero vision or discipline or respect, putting that enormous natural potential to waste.  All too common in the music scene.  A few years ago, he would have tried to pass something on, some grain of the art, maybe even be tempted to teach.  But they don’t listen, not with auras that big.  Accustomed to the things they gain without effort, they are comfortable.  The comfortable won’t evolve.

            Someone begins playing the piano, a low susurrus of warmup notes, stretching the music muscle.  Gradually it coalesces into a passage that Weston hears from the corner of his ear, his focus diverted by the Telecaster.  The music triggers a little niggling in the back of his mind; it’s familiar.

            “Hey, man,” someone says.

            Weston looks up.  It’s the kid.

            “I wanna buy this axe, man.”

            “Sure thing.”  He puts the Tele back on the rack and leads the kid to the cash register to make the sale.  Thoughts burn through his head that he wishes for all the world he could voice, but he doesn’t.  You’re paying four digits for a guitar that has a soul made of space-age synthetic polymers.  It has no bravery.  It does not contain a single ounce of rock ‘n roll, neither piss nor vinegar.  It is not a power object, and it will not increase your mana.  It will not be your conduit, your staff, your axe, your samurai sword, nor your lightning rod, only your crutch.

            “Here’s your receipt, man,” Weston says, not cognizant of the fact that he just put a curse on the guitar, “Rock on.”

            That ordeal dealt with, the piano edges into focus.  He recognizes the tune, and he ought to; he wrote it.  Nobody plays Guild songs except him.  Nobody knows them except him and the old members of the Guild, and most of them are dead or in Europe.  Who the hell is playing a Guild song?

            Looking to the piano, his throat catches as he recognizes her too.  And he ought to; she has her mother’s eyes.  Black hair, long but worn close to her head in some kind of crazy, curling, hair-sprayed sculpture.  David Bowie makeup around the eyes.  She looks to be about nineteen.  Jesus, has it been that long?

            “You missed that chord,” he calls out, the shock overriding his ability to hold back his correctional instincts.

            The music stops abrubtly, the last note left hanging out on a slender branch, never to be resolved.

            “What?”

            Oh, hell, now you’ve done it.

            “There’s a suspended second in there.  You didn’t play it.”

            “What?”

            He steels himself and approaches the piano.

            “That’s the bridge to ‘The Rose and the River,’ right?  That’s supposed to be an inverted B-flat suspended second, and you played an inverted B-flat fifth.”

            She blinks angrily, giving him a what-the-hell-do-you-know look.

            “Try it,” he coaxes, smiling slightly.

            She takes it from the top of the bridge, and plays the suggested chord when she comes to it.

            “Oh my God,” she gasps, “I’ve been trying to figure that out for, like, months now.  How the hell did you know that?”

            “I, er… Well, I wrote it.”

            She crinkles her brow.

            “The hell you did.”

            He pulls out his driver’s license.

            “See?  Robin Weston Bancroft.  Check your liner notes.”

            “I don’t have the liner notes, my drummer burned it for me.  Besides, that doesn’t mean you’re the same Robin Weston Bancroft.”

            “Oh, right, like there’s two people in the world named Robin Weston Bancroft.  Look, here, I’ll prove it.  Name any Lightning Guild song.”

            She narrows her eyes, then gets up from the bench, accepting the challenge.

            “‘Morning Bel.’”

            He sits down and takes it from the top.  Four bars into the second figure, she interrupts.

            “‘Heartflower Bloom.’”

            “That’s a guitar piece, hang on a sec.”

            He returns with an acoustic guitar, checks the tuning, and proceeds.  It has a glimmering pulse to it that it doesn’t have on the record – it’s note-for-note, no discernible changes, but it sounds so much more present, like a living, breathing thing.  She doesn’t even have time to interrupt before the dense, forty-five second composition is finished.

            “Jeez, that was better than the record.”

            Crow’s feet crinkle on the edges of Weston’s smiling eyes.

            “I’ve had some practice since then.”

            “Do ‘The Blue Dust Willow Breakdown.’”

            “These are all from The Rose and the River; don’t make it so easy.”

            She shakes her head.

            “R&R is the only one that’s still in print.  I don’t know any of the others.”

            “Really?  The only one?  Those sons of bitches.  Well, I’ll burn the others for you.”

            “So, hang on a second, if you’re the Robin Weston Bancroft, what are you doing working in this piece-a-shit music store?”

            He shrugs.

            “Chopping wood and carrying water.”

            “Yeah?  Why?  What happened to the Guild?”

            “I disbanded it.  The mission was a failure.  Everyone heard, nobody listened.  We all went home.”

            “You mean you gave up.”

            “No, I mean I cut my losses.  You might not believe me, and I wouldn’t have at your age, but there are times when endeavors simply fail, and you have to move on.  You can’t just keep pumping your energy into a dying thing, trying to keep it alive.  It isn’t worth it.”

            “You’re right.”

            “Eh?”

            “You’re right, I don’t believe you.  That just sounds like a lack of resolve.  Me and the Luminiers, we won’t go down without a fight.  Even if that means sinking with the ship.”

            He gives a short laugh and shakes his head a little.  Despite that, he’s proud.  Doesn’t have a right to be proud, not really.  But he is anyway.

            The girl suddenly jumps up once, excitedly.

            “Jeez, wait ‘til I tell Josie that I met the leader of the Lightning Guild.  And Mom!  She’ll never believe me.”

            Don’t ask, Weston.  Don’t.

            “Would, uh… Your mom’s not Valerie Maddow, is she?”

            The girl is taken aback.

            “Yeah, she is.  How did you know that?”

            “Family resemblance.  Val was… an old friend of mine.  You’re, uh, Jeanette, then?  Or is Jeanette your sister?”  He hastily adds the last sentence.

            She shakes her head.

            “I’m Jeanette.  Don’t have any sisters.”

            Salt stings the corners of his eyes.  Keep it together, Weston.

            “Last time I saw you, you were three years old.”  You used to try to play my guitar, while I was playing it.

            “No way!  I wonder why Mom never mentions you.”

            “We had a… falling out, y’know?”

            He turns away to hide his eyes.

            “Henry didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him.”

            She snorts derisively.

            “Nobody likes Henry, man.  Mom kicked him out a year ago.”

            “Do what now?”
            In less than the time it takes to blink back a tear, a hope is born and carefully killed.  Weston’s not stupid enough to entertain hopes like that.  Not anymore.

            “Five years too late, if you ask me.  He was a good for nothing, drunk ass son of a bitch, too dumb to know what he had.  I’m amazed that Mom held back on him for so long, y’know?  Honestly.”

            “Huh.  Well, that’s, uh…  Hey, did you want this piano?”

            “Kinda, yeah, but I can’t afford it.”

            “Tell you what.  I’ll buy it for you.”

            “Do what now?”

            “Call it a belated birthday present.”  For nineteen goddam years.  He realizes with a pang that he doesn’t even know when her birthday is.

Chrono Trigger vs. Chrono Cross

I like Chrono Trigger. I don’t like Chrono Cross.

For one, Chrono Trigger has a battle system that is just tactical enough to be interesting. See, Square games have a problem where the battle system is just a matter of portioning out your attacks in an efficient pattern, ‘cause nearly every monster will take 2 hits from your strong guys to kill, and 2 of your weak guys are more-or-less equivalent to one of your strong guys, so you just have them all target the enemies in such a way that you’ll finish in the minimum amount of time. You save the magic for the enemies that are annoying. Once you’ve got this pattern figured out, battles are just a chore.

Chrono Trigger starts there, but adds some stuff onto the framework. There’s lots of exception-based abilities for monsters, which will force you to use other things – like specific magic, specific party configurations for a specific location, and occasionally specific equipment – if you want to win the battles as efficiently as possible. Also, the enemies move around on the field, which has an impact on the usage of your area-effect attacks. I only wish that your own characters could also move on the field. Combo attacks, unlocked as characters learn new techniques and you try new party configurations, also make time management important: the game uses Square’s famous Active Time Battle system, and all the characters involved in the combo have to be ready in order to perform the combo. The end result of all this is that the most efficient battle plan changes over and over through the course of the game – making it a continual exercise, not a constant chore from the first. (Also, boss battles don’t last three hours. I hate it when Square pulls that shit. In this game, if you do it right, boss fights take like five minutes, tops.)

At first glance, Chrono Cross also has an interesting combat system. However, the stamina thing, effectively a set of action points whereby you can divide a character’s attacks between a set of weak but accurate, strong but inaccurate, and moderate attacks for varying point costs, didn’t really have that much impact on anything – in fact, it boiled down to that whole strong-guy, weak-guy thing I mentioned earlier, except each “attack” consisted of multiple strike commands. The elemental field system was neat for a while, but it was either way too easy to take command of the elemental field, or way too hard – and usually it was too easy in weenie monster fights (when I mostly use standard attacks) and too hard in boss fights (where tactics ought to be encouraged, not smacked down). The elements were just FF7’s materia all over again, which I hated in FF7 and hated in Chrono Cross because it made it feel like there weren’t any real differences in the character’s abilities, which makes effective team management a lot less engaging. Also, there weren’t any enemies that I thought were cool.

I also kinda like the stories and characters in Chrono Trigger (except Ayla. I hate cavemen in these games for some reason). Sure, it’s another save-the-world quest, but you only find out that the world needs saving because you time-traveled in order to run away from the cops. And you only figured out how to time travel on accident. Plus, you get to mess with history and see how your actions have affected later eras, which is pretty cool. Particularly because you get to make things better.

I hated most of the characters in Chrono Cross (with the exception of Harle, because I have a thing for harlequins). They were too bizarre, and there were also way too many of them to keep track of. No, actually, the number of them wasn’t to blame, because Suikoden (which I’ll talk about at some point) must’ve boasted somewhere around 30 times as many characters as CC, and it never bothered me. Maybe it’s because in CC I have no reason to care about all these weirdos (I’m looking at you, Mexican wrestler who tends the graves*, bizarre plant/bulb thing, and cute squishy alien!).

But here’s the real reason that I don’t like Chrono Cross. As I said, in Chrono Trigger, your actions make the world a better place. In Chrono Cross, it seems like no matter how hard you try to fix things, the world only gets more and more fucked up, and it’s all your fault. I mean, in CC, you wind up having to destroy an ecosystem. I tried to get around it, but there didn’t seem to be any other way. In CT, you get to save an ecosystem. You don’t have to, it’s not required, you get to do it just because you want to help. CT felt exciting and rewarding; CC just left me feeling cold and sorta ashamed.

I never finished Chrono Cross, so, I dunno, maybe it got better. I lost interest somewhere in the third act or so, which is a problem I have with a lot of Square games. Chrono Trigger is, in fact, one of the few Square games that I’ve ever finished, so that’s pretty good.

* Which, on paper, is AWESOME. How they went wrong on that I’ll never know.