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World of Ruin: LGBTQIA+?

If you read my work, you probably know representation is a pretty major part of my aesthetic. I write characters from a rainbow of cultures and identities.

One question I’ve seen periodically is about what makes a book an “LGBT book,” and, more specifically to me, “do you write LGBT books?”

And the answer is, well, kinda?

What does it all mean?

I mean, cis-hetero apex-privilege me isn’t going to claim that sort of label. I don’t write about “what it’s really like” to be gay or trans, and I wouldn’t, because that’s not my story to tell. Nor do I think that’s the only story that can or should be told about LGBTQ+ characters, and thus I make it a point to include LOTS of characters of various identities and orientations. They have what I have occasionally described as queer* content–that is, people of non-straight orientations and non-cis genders having feelings, engaging in romances, expressing themselves sexually, and generally doing everything my straight cis-characters do, including, y’know, existing.

(*Note: Some people don’t like the term “queer,” typically due to a long history of negative association. When I grew up, that word was hurled like an expletive and otherwise used as part of abuse. By contrast, I have always used it and am using it here in the best possible way, to describe the overall LGBTQIA+ community and applicable themes. I absolutely do not mean it in any insulting way.)

Does that make my books “LGBT books”? Maybe?

Let’s see. Throughout the course of my World of Ruin books, what have we dealt with in terms of LGBT representation?

Regel: Only wearing a shirt because it’s cold.

The Gender Spectrum

First, before we even get into the characters, there’s something we should talk about in terms of gender representation.

Gender is a spectrum, both in our world and in the World of Ruin.

In most of the World of Ruin, especially in the city of Tar Vangr, children are not “assigned” a gender–as children, they are simply referred to as “Child” and “they/them” as a singular pronoun. It is customary for children to choose their own gender representation, which may or may not have any relationship to how their bodies look. Most choose “man” or “woman” and some choose “neither,” at which point they are commonly referred to by “they/them” as a gender neutral pronoun. The term “nonbinary” doesn’t exist in the World of Ruin, at least not so far, but the concept of nonbinary people is baked into the culture.

Also: intersex people (which is to say, in simplified terms, people with ambiguous or various genitalia and/or other physical features that do not clearly correspond to any particular sex/gender) are more common in the World of Ruin than our own world, which is part of why this has evolved as the cultural expectation.

This sort of fluid attitude is not always the case in the southern city of Luether, especially among the Blood Ravalis, who are intentionally set up as a patriarchal “hardened gender roles” sort of folk. This is thematically important, as the Ravalis show us what happens when you cling too tightly to patriarchy, and it blows up in your face. They are, by and large, the *bad guys* or–since it’s a gray, gritty world–it should be understood that obsessive masculine posturing (or toxic masculinity, if you will) is a bad thing.

I mean, even the ostensibly crazed Children of Ruin (the raving barbarians of my setting)  don’t ascribe to a gender binary or gender roles, outside of their matriarchal religion: specifically, the Circle of Druids, who have only female members (whether cis or not, it doesn’t matter). And even that institution is crumbling. (No further spoilers for Mask of the Blood Queen.) Many barbarians can’t be neatly labeled male or female, and don’t think of themselves that way. And no one among their ranks has a problem with that–it’s just how it goes.

And the Deathless Fae, featuring mostly in book 3… well, they aren’t even really human. Some consider themselves “men,” some “women,” some only “fae.” A good number of them do not associate with the gender they performed during their mortal lives, particularly the Deathless Rose and a couple others I won’t name, so as not to spoil it.

So that right there is an example of the queer content baked right into the worldbuilding. But what about the characters?

Ovelia: Mostly into ladies. And swords.

So Many Queer Characters

Of the four core characters–Regel, Ovelia, Mask, and Davargorn–only Regel is “mostly” straight (bi/pansexual* but mostly into women). We only ever really see him in romances with women in the books, though a couple of people he has romantic moments with are of somewhat more ambiguous gender. (That gets into the Deathless, who are essentially all trans by definition, but I wouldn’t want to give too many spoilers for book 3.)

(*Note: I am using these terms to be roughly equivalent. There are people out there who prefer the term “bisexual,” and there are people who prefer the term “pansexual,” and there are people out there who absolutely LOVE one term and absolutely LOATHE the other. I am not taking sides on the issue. If the community comes to a consensus on terms to use, fine, I’ll happily adjust my usage, but until then, I will honor those people I know who embrace the term “bisexual” and those who embrace the term “pansexual” and I will not erase anyone.)

Ovelia is definitely into both men and women, but seems to form much stronger relationships with women. She had a couple things with men in books 1 and 2 (a couple of those relationships, um, kinda messed up), then she goes through a torrid relationship with a woman in book 2 and then ends up in a strong committed romance with a woman in books 3 and 4. By that time, her attraction for men is mostly on a low simmer, and she doesn’t have another thing with a dude for the rest of the series.

Mask… Mask is asexual, though not necessarily aromantic. I made it a point to write out any potential sexual relationships. The sorcerer just isn’t interested, though that doesn’t mean they won’t exploit others’ desires (see the sad case of Tithian Davargorn).

Tithian is only shown in relationships with women thus far, but he talks about occasionally having sex with other men. (Though without a romantic element. Maybe the term for him would be bisexual/heteroromantic.)

So that’s 3 out of 4 main characters who are explicitly LGBTQIA+ (we’ll give Regel the benefit of the doubt), but what about other supporting characters?

Garin Ravalis, well, he’s gay and very conflicted about his homophobic’s family’s expectations of him. He can occasionally switch hit and have sex with a woman, but only with a LOT of effort and in a pretty singular situation. (A little bit the way gay men in a heteronormative culture like our own might have sex with women to “prove” their masculinity or ape straightness. And obviously it’s awful that anyone should feel pressured to do this.)

Lady Shard, who shows up in book 2, has a cameo in book 3, and then is an important supporting character in book 4, is essentially a committed lesbian, despite some relationships with men in the past.

Paeter Ravalis, who only appears in flashbacks, was definitely pansexual, though he put out the impression of being straight. Also a raging misogynist, which did not work out well for him.

Lan Ravalis… I think arguments could be made about Lan, who has a certain amount of not entirely healthy fixation with his older brother’s life and sexual exploits. He exploits women whenever possible and holds not a shred of respect for them, but maybe he’s trying too hard? Anyway.

And then there’s Dar-Karsk, the barbarian rotpriest who appears in book 3 and has a major role throughout that book and book 4, who is *absolutely* bi/pan. In many ways, he’s the opposite of Mask, using his voracious sexual appetites to his advantage.

So, what’s that? 80%-90% non-straight characters?

Jeez, maybe these *are* LGBT books…

Mask: Be as kinky as you want to be.

In conclusion

And yeah, maybe it’s a function of what fantasy is to me. I cut my teeth on the Forgotten Realms, where sexuality and gender are significantly more fluid and malleable. I often describe sexuality in the Realms to my players this way: Pansexuality is as common in the Realms as heterosexuality is here. It is kind of a basic assumption that everyone is bi/pan, and it’s rare to find someone who is committed to only one or a limited range of gender expressions. Rare, but not stigmatized.

Why is this the case? Well, in a fantasy world like the Realms, with so many different sorts of folk (elves, dwarves, dragons, etc) and magic to modify one’s body with very little effort, it would just be profoundly limiting to restrict one’s sexual tastes to one particular thing or one’s conception of gender to some sort of binary.

Fantasy worlds are a mirror to our own, and worlds like the Realms–and like the World of Ruin–tell us something about how we view gender and sexuality, and they give us space to ask some questions and ponder some more expansive views.

The High Priestess: Janna Blair

This post contains spoilers for my Persona-H campaign, so if you’re one of my players, LOOK AWAY, BOY!!!!

Anyway. Now that THAT’s out of the way…

The High Priestess

Shy, smart, and intensely loyal to her companions, Janna Blair is a classic Priestess character for the Persona series. Cishetero, she/her, brown haired and green eyed, she’s a high school freshman (14-15), putting her one year behind most of the team, but she’s more academically gifted than almost any of them. They first encounter her in Geometry, the math class most students take the year after Algebra (which most students take as freshmen), and she’s clearly bored in that class. To explain her academic ability, she studies Trigonometry over the summer and skips straight to Calculus as a sophomore. Janna is also a gifted gymnast and athlete, though her extreme introversion keeps her from bragging about her talents.

Janna 5

Janna Blair, artist unknown (?)

As impressive as she is, Janna has grown up in the shadow of her older brother, Brent, who is not only academically gifted (though his talents are more modest than hers), but he has something she lacks: popularity. Janna has long since given up on being as cool or as loved as her brother, and it seems like nothing she does can ever live up to him or their parents’ perceived expectations.

Janna isn’t great with people, especially boys, whom she finds annoyingly attractive but impossible to understand or attract. She doesn’t expect anyone to notice her, ever. Through a series of coincidences, she claims a near total stranger (Wayne Iori, one of the player characters) as her boyfriend in order to stave off the unwelcome advances of some upperclassmen hitting on her, and when that actually works, she is astonished. Her dubious brother insists the two accompany him and his girlfriend Claire on a date, which ends up being the whole group going to a hockey game. Wayne goes through with the deception, and Janna is surprised when she actually has a decent time and wants to see Wayne again. It is this event that unlocks her metaverse, Seattle Underground.

Awakening and Persona

Forced out of her shell a bit, Janna subconsciously welcomes the Heroes to her own world, where she is an underdog archeologist and scholar trying (and failing) to recover buried secrets that will make her world famous. Her rival in this reality is the Shadow version of her brother Brent, an albino reflection of the man who seeks the secrets of the underground world for his own greed and advancement. He always seems to be a step ahead of her, and is constantly injuring her, sometimes apparently mortally.

When Janna accepts her desire to revel in the action—when she comes to understand that she craves the rush as much as the knowledge gained from her adventures—Janna is able to take a (literal) leap of faith and finally awaken her Persona, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Self-determined, powerful, and confident in her ability to rise to any occasion. But also prioritizing wisdom and knowledge as a means of understanding her enemies, rather than simply opposing them.

Shadow Tomb Raider

Promotional art for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, copyright Crystal Dynamics

Janna is unique amongst the Heroes of the campaign in that she doesn’t use a gun. Instead, her weapons are, in keeping with her Persona, a climbing axe that can also be turned into a bow. (The bow deals “gun” damage, the way every other character has a melee attack that deals Physical damage and a ranged attack that deals Gun damage.)

Shadow and Fear

Janna’s fear to be overcome over the course of the game is the fear of being overshadowed and not being good enough. She has had to grow up in the shadow of her older, brilliant, charismatic brother Brent, who she sees subconsciously as oppressing her (hence her Awakening, see above). On her own, she has to come to see her value to her friends and her value as a person even if she isn’t perfect.

When Janna’s shadow takes charge of her physical self, she becomes dismissive, cruel, and, well, basically a mean-girl. She dresses provocatively, shows up fashionably late to her classes, and replies to overtures with insults, rather than her usual shyness. Rather infamously, she once dismissed Uki’s concern about her with “later slut!” and then just walked away. Her shadow self believes disdain and dislike is still better than indifference—no press is bad press—and by the time the heroes awaken her back to her true self, her reputation at the school is in tatters. Fortunately, this event transpires shortly before summer break, giving her a chance to reinvent herself in the fall.

Social Link

Janna is first and foremost an academic and a clear thinker, so her primary role in the group tends to be studying support and tutoring. Once unlocked, she is one of the most efficient routes to studying (including her in a study session boosts the Knowledge points gained), and time spent with her on a social link scene tends to net a character some Knowledge points. Her overall story arc as a social link involves trying to graduate from high school at the end of her sophomore year, failing to get early admission into the schools she wants to go to, and realizing the value in taking her time to nurture friendships and grow up before she pushes herself forward. Depending on player actions, she either stays to finish out high school or goes to study overseas in Japan to broaden her horizons.

Easter Eggs

The name “Janna Blair,” her initials being “J. B.” or “B. J.” is not accidental. For those familiar with the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck (and other variants, including the deck used in both Persona 3 and Persona 4), you’ll note that the High Priestess (or Papess) card contains the letters B and J for Boaz and Jachin, the black and white pillars of the entrance to Solomon’s temple in ancient Israel. In Persona 5, the letters don’t actually appear on the oddly stylized card, but that games Priestess character (Makoto Nijima) wears the letters B.J. literally embroidered on her collar, so that whenever they cut to her speaking, you can see them in her character portrait.

The High Priestess

A visual aid (Persona decks copyright Atlus)

The Magician: Jimmy Calendar

Jimmy Calendar is a PC in my Persona tabletop game, played by my friend Jose. If any of my players are reading this, possibly some light spoilers ahead, but I’m going to try to keep this surface-level enough that you can read it all right.

This is the first of my character write-ups for my Persona-H campaign, based on the popular and fascinating Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series. I’ll probably be jumping around with these, since the PCs have yet to meet every NPC of every Arcana in the game, and the PCs themselves–Jimmy, Wayne, Zach, and Uki–are of the I. Magician, VII. Chariot, XI. Strength, and XV. Devil Arcana respectively. We’re going to start with the lowest card first, and go from there.

I’ll be posting a page to provide links to all the write-ups as well. 🙂

Jimmy Calendar

The Magician: Jimmy Calendar Artist unknown (?)

The Magician

A high school sophomore (15 going on 16), cis heterosexual (mostly), he/him, dark-haired, warm complexion, maybe Mediterranean in origin, Jimmy Calendar is your classic Magician Arcana character.

He’s not very academically inclined (read: he doesn’t study and is widely considered the class dunce), enthusiastic, eternally optimistic, and constantly joking, even if no one’s laughing. He has an eye for the ladies, though they typically ignore him or groan when he’s around, and he’s constantly bragging about his romantic skills though he’s never had a girlfriend or been on an actual date.

Seriously, it’s bad. Whenever a new female NPC shows up, he falls head over heels in love with her on sight. It is rare that Jimmy can turn down a suggestion or request from a female character, which Uki has used frequently to her advantage to put him in embarrassing situations. (She has the pics to prove it.)

Jimmy possesses that most Magician of qualities—self-confidence—and he has it in spades. Despite clear indications that he’s in over his head or that he’s messing something up, he still perseveres in his goals because “well, it’ll all work out.” Generally, he seems like a jokester bro type, but there’s interesting depth to his character. He demonstrates strong loyalty to his friends, and he’s always there to cheer everyone up with a joke or a smile. He keeps a cool head under pressure and has proven to be quite resourceful.

He’s adopted, being raised by two somewhat eccentric Japanese émigrés who’ve settled in Seattle for work in the Aerospace industry. His dad, Tatsuya Suou, is an engineer who loves tinkering with motorcycles, while his mother, Maya, teaches Jazzercise, Zumba, and other such exercise classes. Jimmy retains very little of his life before being adopted as an infant: only his name. He’s never met his biological parents.

Awakening and Persona

Despite his immaturity and occasionally cringe-inducing antics, Jimmy possesses a strong urge to help people and protect those in danger. His Persona, Batman, first manifested in the metaverse of Darkest Seattle (a 1950s era gothic reimagining of Seattle, which resembled Gotham City more than anything else), wherein his newfound teammates were about to be gunned down by his arch-nemesis, Timothy Brothers as the Jester (a combination of the Joker, Kefka from FFVI, and Pennywise the Clown from It).

Why Batman? Because Batman is a figure of wit and resourcefulness, who is capable of going it alone but is always at his best when working with others. He represents complete and utter confidence in himself and his abilities, as well as the drive to get done what needs to get done by any means necessary. Also because he’s just so dang KEWL for a nerd like Jimmy.

batman_davidfinch.0

Batman, art by David Finch

In Persona-H, everyone has a weapon that is also a gun. In combat, Jimmy uses kinetic gloves that are also shotguns. (Picture Yang’s weapon from RWBY.)

Shadow and Fear

In Persona-Heroic, the main challenge the characters must overcome is fear, which is slowly leaking into the world, threatening the downfall of civilization and an apocalyptic event. (Because this is Shin Megami Tensei, after all, and that’s how these things go.)

Jimmy’s fear is the fear of being alone. Of being ignored. Of being on the outside looking in. Of being forgotten. Though he’d prefer to be liked, he doesn’t mind people disliking him, so long as they have some opinion of him. Though he frequently claims to be “just fine” on his own, he’s also driven by an overwhelming urge to form connections with people. To have friends. Because ultimately he can’t go it entirely alone, and needs to be able to rely on others just as he needs to be relied upon.

Social Link

Every character in my games has a social link of their own, to reflect their particular Arcana. It associates with another character of the same Arcana who is involved in their lives in some way, and progressing the social link often involves acting in accordance with their Arcana.

In Jimmy’s case, the Magician social link relates to a girl at his school named Mei, a shy transfer student who exudes that kind of guileless charm and appeal that is basically exactly his type. He fell pretty hard for her at first glance, and developing a relationship with her and providing a stable, confident, reliable support shoulder for her to lean on. It turns out that Mei is an orphan and has a very dark secret, and dealing with that secret will require Jimmy to grow up and exercise his full wit and character.

Easter Eggs

Persona is BIG on self-referential inclusions, and you get plenty of crossover and references to other games in the series. This is also the case in my game, which assumes that all the main numbered Persona games (1-5) have occurred in the universe of the game, at least in some form.

Those of you familiar with the Persona series may have noted the names of Jimmy’s adoptive parents, Tatsuya Suou and Maya. Tatsuya is the lead character of Persona 2: Innocent Sin, wherein Maya is an important supporting character and potential love interest. Then the dynamic is flipped in Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, Maya is the main character and Tatsuya a key supporting character. Persona 2 took place nearly twenty years ago by the time of my game, so these characters are in their late 30s/early 40s. Jimmy is not their biological son, obviously, but they play an important role in the story.

 

 

Gaming Logic: Critical Fumbles

Caveat: Very little about Dungeons & Dragons is intended to be clear cut. There are literally dozens or even hundreds of interpretations of how any particular mechanic works to simulate the real world or something else, etc. This is mine. YMMV.

Critical Hits and Fumbles

Most gamers agree on what should happen when you roll a natural 20 on an attack roll: an automatic hit that does extra damage, representing a super lucky shot. We might disagree on the particulars (double damage? Max normal damage plus a bonus? Roll to confirm? Etc) but we all tend to agree it’s a good thing.

What about a Natural 1, though?

What is a Natural 1?

A Natural 1 is just that–you roll a d20 and roll a 1. That’s a 5% chance and is commonly understood to represent a stroke of rotten luck. The game defines a Natural 1 on an attack roll as an automatic miss, no matter how ideal your situation was or how easy it was to hit the target, short of an automatic hit.

But should something else happen in addition to a miss?

There’s endless debate about what should happen with Natural 1s, and a whole cottage industry of people putting out tables, house rules, and even 40-50 cars decks of “critical fumbles,” where if you roll a 1, you draw a card and follow the doom specified thereupon.

And to an extent, that’s what I’m doing here, but I want to talk about another aspect one should be considering: the relative rate at which different characters will be rolling Natural 1s.

Specifically, the more attacks you have, statistically the more often you will roll a 1.

Credit: Invisible Citadel

Better Fighters Screw Up More Often?

Say you’re a high level fighter. You’re a master of your craft and a legendary terror with your chosen weapon. Most foes quake in their boots to hit you, and you almost always hit your target–you might need to roll only a 5 or higher to hit almost anything, say. And you attack 4 times during your attack! Amazing!

But your chances of rolling a Natural 1 and screwing up are the same as everyone else: 5%

If you have multiple attacks, though, each of those attacks has a 5% chance of a Natural 1. Now, I’m not a statistician, but the odds of having rolled at least one Natural 1 over the course of a combat when you’re rolling 4 times with each attack action are a bit higher than a mere 5%. Your typical level 1 fighter is statistically 100% likely to roll a Natural 1 in a twenty round fight (having made 20 attacks), but a 20th level fighter making 4 attacks a round is statistically 100% likely to roll a Natural 1 in a five round fight, and four Natural 1s over the course of a twenty round fight.

See what I mean?

To make matters more specific, the most common results of a Natural 1 that people use are 1) you hit yourself or an ally with the attack, doing either normal or a lessened amount of damage, and/or 2) you disarm yourself or break your weapon.

Now, I’ve occasionally heard people scoff at the very idea of a high level fighter breaking their weapon or being disarmed, and I want to push back on that a little. It’s easy, in the wild chaos of combat, to have your weapon jostled from your hand–say your hand is slammed against a wall and you lose your grip, or the hilt is slaked in green ichor, or whatever–and weapons are not as tough as we all think. Swords break and bend and grow dull all the time, especially if they’re used for a long time.

But consider, though, the odds of your high level fighter losing their weapon in a given round, which are much higher than any other character. Or that same fighter being disarmed multiple times in the same round.

Does that make sense? Not really.

My Suggestion

I prefer to think of a natural 1 as the game reminding you to introduce some cool and unexpected event to keep things fresh and surprising. Remember the point is to keep the action fun and exciting for the players.

Cypher does this: when a player rolls a Natural 1, it prompts a cost-free GM Intrusion, where the GM has a new event happen (normally they have to give the player XP to great an intrusion). And it works pretty well there. (I like to give players XP anyway, as it encourages them not to spend XP to reroll but to embrace failure as a means of learning in the game.)

Here’s a list of “interesting things” that can happen when someone rolls a natural 1. Most are negative, some indirect, some even positive. Ignore or reroll events you don’t like, or make up your own thing that works in the situation.

Natural 1 Table

When anyone rolls a natural 1 on a d20, roll d10 and consult the following:

1.

Enemy reinforcements show up (no more than 1/4 the original CR, such as 1-2 more goblins to aid a warparty of 6-8 goblins). If you get this result again, roll again–reinforcements should only appear once per combat.

2.

The attacker inadvertently hits themselves; attacker takes half damage from the attack.

3.

The attacker leaves an opening that can be exploited; next attack against them before the start of their next turn has advantage.

4.

The attacker slams their weapon against a shield, thick hide, or other firm surface, jarring it from their hand; attacker is disarmed.

5.

The attacker over-extends, over-reaches, and/or slips and falls; attacker knocked prone.

6.

The weather radically changes (if outside), an earthquake/cave-in starts shaking everything (if underground), etc. This can have any number of effects on the battlefield, such as requiring Dexterity checks to remain standing, inflicting disadvantage on attack rolls, etc.

7.

The target gets a second wind; restore 2d8 hit points to the target. (See my post about Hit Points for more on this topic.)

8.

The attacker recovers from their swing into a defensive posture; the next attack against the attacker before the start of their next turn has disadvantage.

9.

The attacker drives back the target with a wild swing and gets an unexpected break; restore 2d8 hit points to the attacker. (See my post about Hit Points for more on this topic.)

10.

The character spots a weakness/armor gap/opening in the enemy they attacked, granting advantage on their next attack against that enemy before the end of their next turn.

You could certainly substitute your own events or add to this chart, making it a d20 roll or even a percentage roll for a random event from a massive list. The point is to have fun with it and use Natural 1s as an opportunity to make things more interesting for your game.

Tl;dr: Straight up “you miss” is less interesting than “you miss AND…”

Persona-Heroic: the Basics

This is the first of what will probably be a few articles about my Persona-H tabletop campaign, which uses my own (still in development) proprietary game system.

I’m going to write these trying not to assume you know anything about the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games, but I’m so heavily steeped in the concepts that I might confuse people. Sorry. If that’s the case, by all means let me know, and I’ll try to explain.

Otherwise, you can find lots of great articles further explaining it online. (I’ll include links where appropriate!)

The protagonists from the Persona series, artist unknown

THE BASICS:

My Persona tabletop game is called Persona-H, where H standards for “heroic” or “hope,” depending on how you look at it.

The player characters (heroes) in my game are basically young superheroes with this special power to manifest their Personas (the projected self) for all sorts of purposes, but primarily in combat with Shadows (the dark remnants of human thought and cognition).

“Personas” and “Shadows” are both concepts straight out of Jungian psychology (more on this below), respectively representing the outward projected self (you craft a Persona to use when interacting with others and combating the struggles of the world, whilst concealing the true self from harm) and the repressed self (your Shadow is the dark version of yourself that thrives on your darkest desires and impulses).

In the Persona games, characters manifest their Personas, which take after powerful figures from myth and legend, kind of like projecting your soul.

The protagonist awakens to his persona Arsene, from Persona 5

When a hero awakens to their Persona in my game, it is always at a moment of hopelessness, when there appears to be no path forward. In this dark moment, they relive the darkest moment of their lives–that instant when they felt disempowered and lost–and hear a voice from somewhere far beyond, asking why they did not give up–why they kept living–and then demanding to know if they still have that will to go on. To do what must be done.

To show the world their hope.

In my game, the heroes’ Personas are based on heroic characters from mythology, comics, and video games, and most of their antagonists are in some way connected to popular villains from the same sources. The characters summon them by tearing off their superhero costumes, which then transform into the Persona itself, leaving the PC temporarily clothed in sparkling light.

Yes, every hero in my game is essentially a Magical Girl, even the boys.

(*Especially* the boys.)

Also, the Personas (and the Shadows) are sorted by cards from the Major Arcana. But more on that later.

Ann, with her persona Carmen, from Persona 5

THE PSYCHOLOGY:

Persona draws heavily from Jungian psychology, in which (in simplified terms) every person has three (or more) faces or aspects of their personality:

1) The True Self, which is “you” as you experience yourself internally. This may or may not be anything like how others see you.

2) The Persona, or the mask that you don to interact with the world, which is how people experience you externally.

3) The Shadow, which is the dark, unknown version of yourself wherein you bury all your repressed desires and emotions, which you typically don’t experience at all (because it’s hidden).

Note that I said “three (or more),” and that’s because some people have more than one Persona that they show to the world. The main protagonists of the Persona video games have an ability called the Wild Card, which allows them to shift among personas as needed, even in the heat of battle.

Also, shifting to a Persona that matches the person you’re interacting with (say, using a Justice persona while on a date with a character who also has a Justice persona) causes that person to like you more. Which is rather similar to how people with personality disorders (particularly what we commonly call psychopathy) manipulate people (i.e. by constructing personas perfectly attuned to their mark), but aheh, um, that’s a larger topic.

The Persona series has a history of “facing one’s shadow” as a means of unlocking one’s true feelings and power. This was the primary mechanism/theme of Persona 4, but it shows up to some extent in all of the games.

Tangent: Some RPG systems do something similar, and I’m always put in mind of White Wolf’s nature/demeanor system, wherein you identify your “nature” (or what you’re really like, your true self) and also your “demeanor” (how you present yourself or pretend to be, your persona). You tend to get benefits from acting to your nature, whereas acting to your demeanor derives no significant effect. If I were to run a White Wolf game, I might add a third dimension, “the shadow,” which is the dark side of you that takes over when you frenzy or in some other way become your darkest self.

The protagonist and cast of Persona 4

THE SETTING:

Half of my game takes place in a somewhat fictionalized version of Seattle in 2018, in *basically* the same world as the other Persona games. Numerous cameos and references from the others games pervade the game, and it’s only going to get more so as time goes on.

The characters go to Apex High, set in the Roosevelt neighborhood, pretty much exactly where Roosevelt High is in our world. They spend their time in class, at part time jobs, doing sports, and occasionally attempting (and failing) to date. You know, like high schoolers do.

The other half of the game takes place in the Metaverse: a universe manufactured within the collective unconscious, populated with independent Shadows and the Shadows of living people, created by a powerful soul. There the heroes summon projections of their souls as Personas to fight these threats to reality and eventually save the world.

You know, like high schoolers do.

The Metaverse manifests differently in each Persona game, and in my campaign, it is the individual world that a person crafts around themselves. For instance, Jimmy Calendar sees himself as a dark horse hero, constantly struggling to hold back the tide of the world, and so his Metaverse world is Darkest Seattle: a gothic 1930s version of Seattle, complete with gangsters with tommy guns and a whole crew of gritty villains. His Persona is Batman (Magician), and in order to accomplish the demands of his world, he needs to defeat the Joker (the shadow of his arch nemesis, Timothy Brothers–the class clown/bully at Apex High).

SPOILER WARNING: My players haven’t yet encountered these, so I’m giving them a chance to look away to avoid spoilers. Come back at PERSONA COMPENDIUM. After that great pic from Persona 3…

Other companion characters have other Metaverses, all of them different versions of Seattle.

For instance, one character constantly chafes under white supremacy and its associated oppression; his version of Seattle is called New Colossus, and is essentially a Wolfenstein sort of city full of pseudo-Nazis. (Yeah, it gets dark.) For another character, Seattle is a Castle in the Clouds: a floating technological wonder ruled over by remorseless, omnipotent fate. For yet another, the metaverse is the Seattle Underground: a ruined version of the city that is mostly tunnels, chasms, and ancient tombs.

Each of these metaverses is sculpted around one mind/soul, and it represents how they see the world around them. That character needs to manifest their own Persona and defeat the antagonist of that world in order to save their own lives and eventually the physical world.

Fun question! Can you guess what Personas the three characters in the above example might manifest?

There’s also some shit brewing in West Seattle, but more on that later.

The protagonist and his persona Orpheus and Yukari Takeba with her persona Isis from Persona 3

PERSONA COMPENDIUM

The Persona games run on a huge (200+) list of Personas, which are cribbed from international mythologies. Some of it is Japanese or from other Asian countries (particularly China and India), a lot of it is European of some extraction, plenty Middle Eastern, some African, etc. Basically, humanity has thousands of stories and myths, and all of that is collected in the human collective unconscious, where the Metaverse takes place.

The Personas on this list are the enemies my heroes encounter, who they can fight or negotiate with or even invite to join them in their quest.

My list of Personas is 95% intact from previous games, with some additions, and certain of the creatures look the way an American artist might depict them (such as, for instance, the Bugs persona looks more like a Bugbear from D&D, rather than the Japanese version of a teddy bear with rotting intestines coming out of it). I think this makes sense, because the Persona list shuffles from game to game, with small differences based on where the characters are in Japan–they look at the metaverse and the shadows in it slightly differently, based on their own experiences and perspective. If you jump over a whole ocean, it stands to reason that while the collective unconscious remains universal, we Americans will perceive it slightly differently.

Also, my campaign is just at my table, so it doesn’t run into the same issues with the Persona games, where they have to stick to public domain entities and concepts. I freely use heroes from comics, video games, etc.

(Shh! Don’t tell anyone!)

MAJOR ARCANA and THE WILD CARD

As I mentioned above, the personas in the SMT: Persona games are sorted by Major Arcana, based loosely on their personality and their role in mythology.

For instance, the three sisters of fate in Greek mythology are of the Wheel of Fortune Arcana, the god Thor is of the Chariot Arcana, Pixies and Titania (the queen of faerie) are of the Lovers Arcana, while Oberon is of the Emperor Arcana. That sort of thing.

There’s a lot of discussion that can go into this, and I highly encourage my players to get into it. They have their own Arcana, which represents both their heroes as people as well as their starting personas.

For instance, as I mentioned, Jimmy Calendar is of the Magician Arcana: an enthusiastic but somewhat immature male force, which gets by on trickery and wit. His Persona, Batman, is also a Magician Arcana.

Driven athlete Wayne Iori is of the Chariot Arcana, focused on accomplishment, victory, and physical improvement, as is his persona: Cloud Strife, of FFVII fame.

For some years now, the Persona video games have been 1-player games, and you gain a bunch of companion characters, who have their own specific Personas. Meanwhile, your main character (of the Fool Arcana; your character is on a hero’s journey just as the Fool journeys through the Major Arcana) has the Wild Card ability, allowing them to switch between multiple Arcanas.

None of my characters have the Wild Card ability, but being able to fuse Personas together to have new ones is such a fundamental part of the Persona games (and significant for how you advance) that I’ve built a system wherein they can fuse an acquired Persona onto their own, altering their existing persona and giving them a new ability or two. It also updates their Arcana to being two: their base as well as the new one.

For example, Jimmy recently fused Angel (a Justice Arcana persona) onto Batman, making his Persona Magician and Justice, and he’s now known as Batman, the Avenging Night.

(Puns. I’ve got them!)

One of my players could have played the Fool, but they all chose other Arcanas, which is fine. There may be a character with the Wild Card ability in the campaign, but if so, the heroes aren’t aware of it.

Mwahahaha!

The protagonists of Persona 3, Persona 5, and Persona 4 along with their respective thematic colors

THE MUSIC:

Over the course of 20 years, Atlus has produced a VAST repertoire of music to support the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games. Each game has a distinctive sound, crafted specifically for that game, from the dark and kind of jazzy Persona 3 to the upbeat techno-pop of Persona 4 to the tense superhero styling of Persona 5.

I play music from the series at my games, and make a conscious effort to connect the songs thematically to what’s going on. Though sometimes this manifests as “I think this song is cool, soo…”

Each metaverse has its own specific soundtrack, which is typical for the games. Each of my players has a different Persona game that represents what Persona *is* for them–their favorite, or the standard by which they judge the games–so I tie songs from that game specifically to their character.

I’ll give a couple of examples from the games so far:

I tend to start each game (the “sitting around, shooting the breeze, recapping the previous session phase” of the game) with MORE THAN ONE HEART, which is the theme song of the first Persona 3 movie and represents that sense of optimism and self-discovery (and discovery of friends) that comes early in a persona game. I plan to use other songs as the timeline advances (it’s currently late March in the game).

The “real” world of Seattle tends to use happy, upbeat, or otherwise positive songs from the series, such as Persona 4’s New Days (which is the theme of their school, Apex High) or Muscle Blues (also from P4) for scenes on my queer AF CapHill (see my note about localization below). 🙂

(Tangent: That last song comes from one of the moments in that game where Atlus at least attempts to explore queer content in a useful and memorable way. They’re, ahem, not always the best, and seem content to push things pretty far toward actual representation, then kind of blow it at the last minute by saying “oh no, this character was totally straight all along, pscyhe!” Part of my motivation in running this game is to rectify that a little for my friend and one of my players, a gay dude who introduced me to the games some years ago.)

Darkest Seattle, the first Metaverse the characters explored, uses the OBELISK battle music from Persona 5, mostly because I thought it was really cool, but also because of where it comes from. Catherine, another of Atlus’s games, is about a man at a crossroads, trying to choose between two people that he will be, which is very appropriate for a setting based essentially on dark vigilante stories.

And the first boss battle they fought–against the Shadow version of their high school bully, who took the form of Batman’s Joker crossed with Kefka from FF6–used the Master of Shadow music from Persona 3, which is boss-battle fight music (and more than a little creepy).

I have literally mapped over 80 songs to various scenes and battles I plan to run in this game. I may have gone a bit overboard. 🙂

A NOTE ABOUT LOCALIZATION:

My game is, ultimately, crafted by an American (me), played by Americans (my players), and it cannot be separated from its American context or setting.

By contrast, the Shin Megami Tensei series and its Persona spinoffs are VERY Japanese games, and this campaign is designed to honor that tradition but examine it through an American lens. Some of the characters are of Japanese heritage, some are not. The intention here is to play a game through our lens, with our cultural expectations and understanding, that honors the Japanese roots of the system. It is meant to be cultural celebration and participation, not appropriation.

And it does help that the Persona list draws from all over the world. By it’s design, I don’t think Persona is meant to have a singular, specific cultural perspective. It tells a universal story of what it means to be human, and that’s the goal of my game.

The point is, I understand and am deeply sensitive to the complicated conversation about this thing that I’m doing, and I am doing all I can to be respectful and honor the source.

Also, this game is very much about Seattle as well. The Capitol Hill of my Seattle is a somewhat different place from the one we have today: it’s a more Bohemian, slightly sleazy version of CapHill, less gentrified and more “wild”–the way my two gay players (who have lived and/or spent lots of time on CapHill) imagine it, rather than the somewhat less romantic version we have today, with rising prices and so many straight people moving there (eye roll!). The tension between Seattle and the Eastside is significant to the game. Growing demand for affordable housing as more and more people flock to the city (a thousand every week). There’s a big drill causing problems.

That kind of thing. Metaphorical or allegorical similarities to real-life Seattle problems and cultural issues.

Tatsuya with his persona, from Persona 2: Innocent Sin

CONCLUSION–FOR NOW!

So that’s the game I’m running. It’s taking up a lot of my creative energy, but it’s way worth it. The game literally gives me life, and I’m glad it’s coming together.

Thanks to my players, and buckle up–it’s gonna be a wild ride.

And for those who aren’t playing, I plan to share more about this game and the characters as time goes on.

Gamestorm 2018

So I’m a Guest of Honor at Gamestorm in Portland this year, and I thought I’d toss my schedule up here for your perusal. Panels and games. Let’s do this!

Friday panels

1pm – 2:15pm Pendleton: Build a Better Monster

2:30pm – 3:45pm Pendleton: Quit Talking to my XP!

4:00pm – 5:15pm ?????: Game Design Panel

5:30pm – 6:45pm Pendleton: The Alignment Debate

Saturday (mostly) Games!

2pm – 4:30pm Overton 03: Priority: Life Raft (my homebrewed Mass Effect system) * This game rated hard PG13 for possible language and space violence.

5:30pm – 7pm Pendleton: Guest of Honor Meet and Greet

7pm – midnight Pettygrove 01: Westgate Irregulars (D&D 5e in the Forgotten Realms) * This game rated PG13 for fantasy violence and maybe suggestive content.

Sunday Game!

11:30am – 4:30pm Overton 12: Fall of the Summer City (Shadow of the Demon Lord system, in my World of Ruin setting from my novels) * Note this game rated R for gore, language, and disturbing content.

Norwescon 2018

I’m at Norwescon this year!

Don’t miss my panel Friday afternoon, specifically: the continuing (third?) annual SF/F Battle Royale

Thursday

Reading: Erik Scott de Bie

6:00pm – 6:30pm @ Cascade 4

Erik Scott de Bie (M)

Friday

SF/F Battle Royale

3:00pm – 4:00pm @ Cascade 9

Erik Scott de Bie (M), Dawn Vogel, Brian D. Oberquell

Sunday

Why So Serious?

11:00am – 12:00pm @ Cascade 12

G. Willow Wilson (M), Donna Barr, Brenna Clarke Gray, Erik Scott de Bie

Video Games

12:00pm – 1:00pm @ Cascade 12

Erik Scott de Bie (M), Liz Barlow, G. Willow Wilson, Kiva Maginn