Burn My Dread: Anxiety and Persona 3

“Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already … Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit … that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” ~ G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909)

Or, as famously paraphrased:

“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” ~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2004)

Important Warnings

So I’ve talked before about my struggles with anxiety, but this is my first attempt to do a long post where I delve into the topic in detail. Content warning: This post will contain some vulnerable talk about anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, and some dark stuff.

And no, let’s just get this clear up front: You do not need to worry about me.

Before I go into this, I want to offer an important caveat here: I have an anxiety disorder, for which I am in counseling. I do not currently use anti-anxiety medication, though a) I might at some point, and b) maybe I should? Anyway, nothing in this post should be construed as in any way questioning the use of said medication or any other medication. We all live different lives and cope with our struggles in different ways. Do what you gotta. I support you regardless.

If you, dear reader, are anxious or depressed or struggle with ailments such as mine or otherwise, please know this: if we know each other or if we have never met, even if we never will, whether we be friends or the farthest from, we are together in this. I love you and support you and I wish you all the best.

If you continue reading, great, and I entirely understand if you don’t. Take care of yourself.

Also, this post will contain significant spoilers for Persona 3. I mean, the game is over 10 years old at this point, so honestly you should have played it by now, if you’re a JRPGer, and I highly recommend you do. I’ll try and mark the really spoilery stuff, in case you haven’t yet played it.

What is Persona 3?

Oh, only one of the best video games ever made, and one that has had a profound impact upon me.

This post has been a long time in the making, including 100+ hours of video-gaming in which I played perhaps one of the least likely games one might expect an anxious person to play: Persona 3 FES, which is principally about saving the world from an impending doom whilst desperately building relationships with the damaged people around you, and also about depression and dread.

It is a fantastic and powerful story that brought me to tears multiple times, and if devastating emotional roller coasters whilst fighting monsters born of the collective unconscious is your thing, I highly encourage you to check it out. The digital version is available on the Playstation Network, and I’m given to understand Atlus is currently creating current gen console versions of both Persona 3 and Persona 4 (which is considerably lighter in tone, but no less powerful–I might be doing a follow-up post about that game). And of course, there’s Persona 5, the game currently on top of Atlus’s releases, which is utterly fantastic and you should be playing it.

Persona 3, specifically the PS2 FES variant, is the subject of this post. There is also a Playstation Portable version of the game which allows the choice between a male protagonist or a female protagonist, which may have some impact on what I say below. I haven’t played the PSP version, though I’d like to some day.

Also note that this blog post is not intended to be a dissertation on this masterpiece of a game, which would no doubt consume volumes. I suspect I could write a whole book about Persona 3, and if one already exists out there, I would like to read it. 🙂

Anxiety and Storytelling

If my 15+ years as a professional author have taught me nothing else, it’s that fiction often emerges from an anxious mind. I know of very little fiction that does not have, as its parent, some sort of pain, uncertainty, or doubt. Which is to say, in my experience, fiction is the byproduct of dread. Dread is the fuel that produces story.

Why do we tell stories? I’m sure the answer varies widely, but for me, my stories are an attempt to assert myself. To express myself. To forge connections with those far beyond me, whom I may never meet. To put my thoughts out into the world to be interpreted and considered. To move, to provoke, to edify.

Why do I do this?

Because I am anxious. Because I doubt myself. Because I have known for some time that I am mortal, and my life is finite. I will die someday, and the stories I have within me will be lost like dust in the wind. The truths I know, the feelings I have experienced–the only way to convey them is to commit them to stories. This is my truth, and I think it’s a truth that every writer must either embrace or grapple with or both.

I do not mean to speak for every writer. Your mind may function very differently from mine, and that’s fine. Perhaps you do not have to deal with anxiety. That’s cool. I’m a bit jealous. (OK, more than a bit.) But this is what writing is to me: a necessary consequence and byproduct of my anxiety.

The Basics of Persona

Like most of the mainline Persona spin-off games from the Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona 3 is half slice-of-life high school drama, half JRPG battling monsters in a metaverse constructed of people’s souls. It’s essentially like playing an anime.

Complete with uniforms (Art by Atlus)

It takes a lot of cues from both Carl Jung’s psychological concepts of the self, the persona, and the shadow. (Note this post is not intended to be an explanation or defense of Jung. That’s a whole other topic.) Every member of the heroes controls a Persona, which is the realized power of their personality taken magical form as a summoned spirit based on a mythological figure, and they spend their time fighting Shadows, spawned from the darkness in all of humanity.

It draws as well from the classic Tarot, even having its own series version of the Tarot deck with iconic art. Every Persona and Shadow is represented by a suit of the major arcana of the Tarot, and the concept of progression through each suit (the Fool’s Journey) is a significant structural element of the game.

Your protagonist has the Wild Card–the Fool Arcana, which is rank 0–and thus the special ability to wear various masks of various arcanas. The other characters have Arcanas associated with them as well, though each of them has a particular set Arcana, which informs their personality and their role in the story.

That’s a very, very brief overview of some of the concepts of the Persona series, and you can read more about it elsewhere. (For instance, I wrote another blog about my Persona tabletop campaign, which goes into this in more depth.) But generally, I wanted to talk about the real meat of the game: the social links.

Taking Power from Social Links

I said the game was half-battle, half-social, but that’s not strictly true. The battle system is very JRPG, with a turn system and attacks or summoning monsters born of your personality. And as fun as it can be, it gets pretty repetitive (the term is “grindy”). You may spend as many hours grinding for XP and loot as you do socializing, but I guarantee you’ll remember these stories and characters better than the fights.

You see, in Persona 3, you arrive, a transfer student with no friends, no social skills, and no particularly memorable quality (other than, I guess, looking fairly cool? I dunno, blue-haired emo boy, sure). You get quickly caught up in some shenanigans fighting Shadow creatures in the metaverse, and things become increasingly dark and dire as you advance, and that’s all well and good, but it’s the social links that make the difference.

You start to make friends, and you develop your relationships through these little scenes with them: learning about their problems and helping them deal with them. Doing little favors for people, spending time with them when they’re lonely, and helping them make sense of the pain they’re dealing with. Their stories are given a good amount of time to unfold, even if the scenes themselves are short and to the point, but you get a very robust view of them as characters.

These can be as mundane as a boy at school who has a crush on a teacher and interprets their private lessons to be dates, a shy girl who’s wrongfully suspect of stealing class money she was entrusted with, or a troubled little girl whose parents are getting a divorce. They can also be as deep and harrowing as a young man dying of a terminal illness, railing against the injustice of the world, and trying to write a story in order to express himself, or a school friend who’s pushing himself to excel in sports despite the stress it puts on his leg, because he’d rather risk injuring himself for life than let down his family.

Equally and probably more powerful are the social bonds you form with your team. With Fuuka, helping her learn to cook and encouraging her even when her attempts are terrible. With Yukari, who’s struggling to have a relationship with her mother after her father died long ago in an accident. With Mitsuru (my favorite of the companions), who stifles at the expectations placed on her from her wealthy/aristocratic family. Or in the case of Aigis, the anti-shadow weapon, you teach her to be human.

In my head canon, Mitsuru and Yukari remain

(Of course, all the female characters fall in love with you and the culmination of their social link is romantic, but that’s another blog post. Interestingly, in the PSP version, you can play a female protagonist, which allows you to form social links and romances with the male characters in your party instead. Akihiko = best boy, fight me. Subsequent Persona games railroad you toward love somewhat less, and allow you to be platonic friends with potential romantic interests.)

You see, all of these characters are struggling. They are all of them touched by tragedy in some way, and the game shows us the many ways people cope with grief and loss.

And along the way, just as you help them, you grow as a person.

Your heart expands, even if you’re not aware of it at first.

The Looming Fall

Throughout the game, Shadows–the darkness born of humanity’s Thanic urge for self-destruction–feast upon unsuspecting humans caught out during the Dark Hour who have not transformed into coffins to await the regular flow of time. They don’t *kill* people, exactly, but instead drain them of their interest and will to live.

We are left, throughout the game, with the zombie-like remains of humans–often fellow students–who linger at street corners and slump in alleys, moaning and saying nothing coherent, however much you try to interact with them. Their minds and souls are gone, and they are Lost. More and more of them show up as each Full Moon approaches, because on those nights, your Shadow-destroying SEES team finds itself face to face with a powerful Shadow, each of an escalating suit in the Arcana, climbing toward Death.

I interpret the Lost’s lack of drive to exist as a removal of their understanding of mortality and life. They are no longer anxious, because they have encountered death and already lost that which they stand to lose. They see no reason to take any action of any kind, and so they waste away, speaking in monosyllabic moans only when spoken to. Walking corpses.

And as I was playing it, I thought: Is… is that what humans would look like without anxiety?

As is made clear eventually in the game, an event is coming wherein all humans in the world will become like the Lost: drained of life and will, listlessly wasting away. And that is the great doom you must face… but to do so you must fight an undefeatable enemy.

Death itself.

This is Thanatos. He’s Death’s Persona.

Time and the Appriser’s Terrible Choice

As you play Persona 3, you come to realize that however much you grind and however powerful you become, you will always live at the mercy of time. Days pass at an unstoppable pace, sometimes in short bursts that begin to feel like gut punches. You need to use these days to develop your 20-odd Social Links, and the game intentionally makes it extremely difficult to do this.

Between limited days when people will be around, making sure to have the right Personas to maximize how much people like you (that’s a thing in the game, which is a little psychopathic, anyway, see Further Reading), and occasionally steep social requirements for getting them to hang out with you (such as being, I think, max courage for Fuuka, max charm for Yukari, and academics for Mitsuru), and it becomes very difficult to get a max Social Link playthrough. You get to a point where you despair of a day where you didn’t rank up with someone, or you misspoke so whoever it is doesn’t get the maximum points for that day. (Seriously, use a guide.) On my playthrough, I managed to maximize all my social links, but only just at the last second. Literally, Aeon 10 was the day before the final battle.

But I digress.

Time is the limited resource in the game. Time is fleeting. In the paraphrased words of the contract you sign at the beginning of the game, it delivers all unerringly to its end. No matter what you do, you cannot get more time, and so you squeeze every second you can out of what’s available.

Except at the moment you’re given the choice.

Yes, toward the end of the game–the end of November/beginning of December, specifically–you’re given a terrible choice by an entity called the Appriser. It has come to serve as the harbinger of Death, and only through a quirk of fate do you have any choice at all in what comes next.

And so you have to make a choice. Kill the Appriser–death taken human form–and all your memories and worries fade, and you can live out your normal lives for a short while before the Fall inevitably dooms the world. Or spare him, despite his pleas and threats to the contrary, in which case you retain your memories and live in constant dread

And that is the counter-intuitive choice. If you accept the Appriser’s bargain, you falsely believe that you’ll get more time. But in truth, what you get is an ending to the game. It accelerates 2 months into the future, implying that you had more time but it was empty. Meaningless. All your memories of the bonds you forged are gone, so you are once again basically alone. Defeated.

If you refuse, you get another month in which to prepare. To spend more time with people you’ve come to love and cherish. You all suffer together with the dread of the inevitable end.

Dread of the end–or determination to do something about it.

There’s a reason the song that plays during this phase of the game is called Living with Determination. The Fool Arcana turns to the Judgment Arcana, representing the end of the journey, and you henceforth must prepare for your inevitable defeat in a vain effort to protect the world. And that is what our heroes must do: protect the world, even if they are not going to see it continue living.

The Demon that is Anxiety

In the Persona games, your starting Persona and the Personas of your companions are, generally speaking, some figure from mythology or folk hero from history. They all hold some particular significance to that character, representing some deep urge or impulse within them. To some extent, this is true of the main characters, too, who start with particular Personas but (generally very quickly) end up with a different Persona, since they are able to hold multiple Personas.

The initial Persona of the protagonist in Persona 3 is Orpheus, who ventured into the Underworld (in the game, most of your adventures are conducted in a demon tower called Tartarus) to try and reclaim a spark of life and light. In the end–at least in the story that we know most commonly–he ultimately failed. Looked back at the last moment, in his selfishness or anxiety, and it cost him all that he had fought to achieve. (And well, that’s significant to the game, see the next section.)

Orpheus is both adorable and unsettling.

But rather quickly, you start collecting other Personas. Orpheus is insufficient after a time, though he will eventually go into your Messiah Persona (Orpheus and Thanatos, spoiler), and you have to summon more powerful entities. They’re based on heroes, fairy tales, spirits, monsters from mythology and folk lore. And the more powerful ones? Well, this is a Shin Megami Tensei game, and so they’re angels. They’re gods. They’re demons.

I have come to see my anxiety as a demon.

He is me–a part of me–and when the anxiety takes over, I put him on like a mask. Like a Persona. Like spiked armor, but the spikes are on the inside of the armor.

That’s how he defends me, you see: however hard you hit me, it hits the armor and skips off. Because the spikes are already digging into my flesh.

I hurt myself. I abuse myself. And you cannot hurt me more than I hurt myself.

That’s the whole point.

I convince myself that I am a monster. Especially–God, especially if I did something to upset you and you strike back. If I screwed up and now things are awful.

I abandon myself. I have no compassion for myself. I am no longer a human being but a devil.

I deserve this.

I’ve given him a name: Deimos, named for the Greek God of Dread.

All of his powers injure me. They’re a crap defense.

And I can’t get rid of him.

But maybe. Just maybe. I can learn to live with him.

I can learn to use him.

Welp. That looks bad. (Art by Atlus)

(I Will) Burn My Dread

Before I go on….

(HEAVY SPOILERS for the end of Persona 3 HERE)

Honestly, I’m just going through this ending step by step. So if you haven’t played the game, you might want to skip this section. Also I get kind of melodramatic here, but you know, that’s the game.

Still here?

Cool.

This song, from Persona 3, is the anthem of my struggles with my anxiety: Burn My Dread

It comes from the purest, most powerful moment for me in Persona 3. Our protagonist–henceforth referred to in the second person–has finally comes face to face with the true form of Nyx, the god of darkness and doom for humanity, alone and helpless.

You’ve developed your Personas as far as you can, unlocking (if you’re a completist like me) the Messiah Persona, a fusion of your original Persona Orpheus and that of your death soul, Thanatos, trailing a strand of gleaming white coffins in its wake (Messiah is Death Jesus, basically).

Messiah is Death Jesus, essentially.

The Velvet Room has reached its destination: the end of the journey. Igor has blessed your journey and fulfilled your contract, though Elizabeth remains suspiciously silent. (Since you have become so close, you can practically feel her heart beating faster because she knows you’re going to your death.) Igor grants you one last card–the Universe Arcana–and you leave your companions behind to fly into the heart of Nyx to work your miracle.

Though it should be impossible, Aigis weeps a single tear, knowing she’ll never see you again.

And now you stand alone. All your power–the power of the Universe–has got you to this point. You stand before the true core of Nyx, the beating golden heart in a storm of dread that will consume the world.

The Universe Persona has given you a single power–The Great Seal–and it lists the costs of that power as your full health points (HP) total. To use this power, you must give up your life. There is no one to save you. No one to resurrect you. Your life for one slim hope that the world might be saved.

And that song starts up. That powerful, resonant song about defiance in the face of death.

Burn My Dread

But the worst thing happens: Nyx acts first, and lashes out with the power of Death, inflicting over ten times as much damage as you could stand even at your strongest. (Seriously. You can, at most, have 999 HP, and this attack does 9,999 damage.)

This is it. We have come so far and work so hard and yet we falter. We fail. Death cannot be avoided. Death will have its due.

But somehow our hero withstands the blow. You endure it, and remain standing with 1 HP.

Fine. Ok. There are Personas that can bring you back with a single HP after an insta-kill attack. This is explicable in the mechanics of the game. Maybe the Universe Persona gives you this power. Hope endures. Hope persists.

But you have no way to heal yourself. You don’t have the HP to spend to cast the Great Seal. The only power that can stop Nyx, and you don’t have the strength to use it.

You have choices: wait and do nothing, or lash out with your pathetic mundane sword, inflicting a negligible amount of damage. You can’t even defend–not that it would make a difference to its next attack.

And Nyx strikes you down again, just as it did the first time. This time, it’s a critical hit that inflicts 9,999 damage, putting you flat on your back. Once again you survive, but you lie there defeated, unable to stand. The camera pans around you as you lie panting in agony, unable to stand.

This. This is the moment when all is lost.

Which is when your companions–the people you’ve spent all of this frantic and fleeting time with–start to speak. You’ve left them behind, and they are only able to watch in some metaphysical way, as you fight for the future of humanity. They can’t help you. They can’t bear the burden for you. But they refuse to let you stand alone.

Ken asks what they can do, Akihiko tells everyone to believe in you, and Mitsuru (best girl, fight me), god, Mitsuru screams at you to take her life if you must.

And you do. You absorb their strength into your own–divine golden light that infuses you with new strength–and partly heal yourself. You drag yourself back up in obvious agony, but also with determination.

Nyx rains death upon you again, but this time it misses. Their belief lets you evade it.

Then the others chime in, including Junpei, the big dope, who refuses to let you die–who asserts that you aren’t alone. You absorb more life energy, until you’re about half full.

This time when Nyx attacks, you block it.

The last of your companions speaks up in support–Aigis asserting that she won’t allow this world to be destroyed–and you are healed fully.

Your silent protagonist speaks, basically for the first time in the game.

“All right,” you say. “Let’s do this.”

You stand up to the personification of dread, and you burn it, whatever the cost.

I think in the end, Persona 3’s story is a story of hope. That humanity can stand in the face of impossible odds and find a way to survive. That sacrifice has meaning. And that to find our truth, we must lean upon those bonds we forge with others–that they are our strength, and they will be there for us in our darkest hour.

And that together, we can persevere.

[Spoilers End]

The Sickness Unto Death

Ultimately, I know I cannot rid myself of anxiety.

Just as the doomed hero of Persona 3 cannot ultimately defeat infinite despair and survive, so too can humans never truly overcome the sickness unto death, as Kierkegaard puts it: the knowledge of and necessity to face our own mortality.

We are mortal creatures. We are finite. We will die.

None of us can escape that anxiety.

But more to the point, I do not want to rid myself of anxiety. Not only would I lose the ability to write, but I would be unable to relate to others. There would be no tension–no healthy self-doubt–and I would become intolerable. I would become listless, with no drive to do anything. I would become Lost.

It is the knowledge that I have only so much time that pushes me to live. I have only so much time to tell stories, to spend time with those I love and cherish, to leave a legacy of kindness and compassion in the world.

But what I can do–what this game teaches me–is hold it at bay. Seal it behind an unbreakable wall of compassion, formed of the very real power I absorb from friends and loved ones. I am not alone. None of us are.

The dread will always be with me, but it doesn’t have to be a weakness. It is my strength. It is my fuel to persevere in spite of the challenges I may face.

I will overcome this.

Further Viewing/Reading:

The Deadly Decisions of Persona 3, by Peter Tieryas (which talks a lot about the Appriser’s choice)

The Mask of Sanity, by the Rev 3.0 (which mentions a bit about that psychopathic angle I mentioned, mostly in reference to P4)

DismArchus’s recording of Persona 3’s final battle (starting with the battle against Nyx’s Avatar, then the final confrontation after about minute 42)

Mass Destruction, P3 movie version (an excellent fight song full of defiance and courage)

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The Emperor: Brent Blair

This post contains mild spoilers for my Persona game, but all these things should be fairly clear or at least make sense to my players already, so go ahead and read, unless you want to be completely surprised.

The Emperor

Cool, aloof, and seemingly a “man’s man,” Brent Blair is a classic Emperor character for the Persona series, but also something of an inversion in the great tradition of Kanji from P4 or Yusuke from P5. Brent’s paragon masculinity is performative, and in truth while at the moment, he happily goes by masculine pronouns (he/his/him), his gender identity is best described as genderfluid. He is a year old than most of the team, being a junior at Apex High in the spring of 2018. The team first encountered Brent at school, where he is widely seen as a cool, suave, king-of-the-school type. As they are mostly social outcasts themselves, they were immediately inclined to dislike him, particularly when he seemed oblivious to his little sister Janna‘s struggles, even originally pegging him as a villain of sorts. When he joined the team in April 2018, they came to see his own personal demons and started to empathize with him quite a bit more.

Brent civilian

He’s really got that kind of rumpled cool guy look going on–very anime.

Brent Blair is the cool, smart, talented one that everyone wants to be. Not a jock, not a nerd, kind of a social floater. Part of his popularity is his extremely good looks, but he’s also very talented: he’s usually the star of all the plays at school, he can sing (he’s currently Jesus in Godspell), he plays trumpet in the jazz band, he’s student council, just extremely popular.

He’s currently running against his Mormon “girlfriend” Claire Anderson (the princess of the school, pretty much just as beloved as he is) for class president for next year (when they’ll be seniors together). He’s not very affectionate and doesn’t seem nearly as interested in her as she is in him. She is essentially his “beard,” making him seem normal, which is what he does for her, too. The two have not had sex, nor do they show any sign of interest in doing so, which is part of the reason her parents let them be together. Claire goes around assuming they will be together forever, and Brent doesn’t disabuse her of this notion. And why not? If he has no emotions, surely he can handle life with her.

Brent seems to have kind of low affect–a lot of superficial charm but general indifference to most people. He is very controlled and always cool and in command. Almost unemotional. He’s also unsure of his sexuality and gender identity. He’s AMAB, but he doesn’t feel particularly male or female, and for a long time he thought he was (in the closet) gay, but really he has very little interest in sex or romance. Maybe he’s demi sexual or asexual, but either way he puts up a front of being a cool in command and secure straight boy, even if he’s very insecure and maybe not straight or a boy.

As an extension of feeling out of place, Brent has explored and experimented a bit. He has a pseudo-sexual/romantic relationship with Sayeed Ahriman, with whom he’s had a few rendezvous. For Brent, it’s about figuring himself out, while for Sayeed, it’s about taking care of Brent’s feelings and needs. This is on the down-low, but there have been hints. There was also this moment at the party where the team first met Brent where Zach was looking for the upstairs bathroom and he ran into Brent coming down, and Brent directed him to the master bedroom, where Zach walked in on Sayeed putting his shirt back on. Then there was that time at the hockey game when both of them disappeared at the same time and Zach found them individually in the proximity of the bathroom. Sooooo….

Awakening and Persona

In April, something weird was happening to Janna. She frequently left her room extremely messy, dressed a bit less conservatively, started wearing her hair loose and mouthing off to people, etc. Not acting like herself. Maybe she was being rebellious. Either way, Brent mostly focused on himself, so while he noticed this, he didn’t necessarily care.

It all came to a head, however, when Janna–taken over by her shadow–stole a switchblade from Claire’s locker and tried to kill Brent. The others intervened and stopped the attack, and Janna collapsed. After school that day, they took Brent into the metaverse, where he met his shadow (see below), who was attempting to kill a very haggard Janna. And rather than react analytically or emotionlessly, Brent surged forward and beat the ever-loving SHIT out of his shadow with his bare hands. He had got in a number of great hits when the shadow touched Brent’s forehead and exposed him to the darkest moment in his life: when a relative died and Brent realized he felt nothing about it, only distant confusion that his piano lesson was cancelled that day. He took all the wrong lessons from that experience, which started him on the path to believing himself empty and psychopathic. Instead, he has come to see that he was just confused, and that he does have emotions inside him.

Brent’s persona is Elric of Melnibone, the eternal warrior from Michael Moorcock’s iconic fantasy series. Cast out, notably different, driven by his own sense of self and his own mission. He specializes in water magic.

Elric 1

Elric of Melnibone, artist unknown

Shadow and Fear

Every character in this game has a challenge they must overcome, and Brent’s is a lack of empathy. Or, more accurately, he dreads that he is incapable of empathy and is basically a psychopath. He’s terrified of not having genuine emotions, and that he is all surface, all the time–that there’s just nothing inside him. He has no idea what to do about that.

Brent’s shadow in the metaverse is an albino version of him, as bleached of color on the outside as Brent seems to be on the inside. His shadow was also overcome with emotions, especially nihilistic hatred, because he was the part of Brent that he kept locked away and ignored. Most of his time, he spent trying to murder the real Janna, allowing her shadow to take over her body in the real world, as part of an agreement that once there, she would kill Brent’s physical body so that his shadow could also die.

His shadow looks a bit like Elric in that way, and once Brent has incorporated the persona into himself, his hair is starting to turn a little white in the real world. When Brent goes into the metaverse, his hair turns stark white.

Brent metaverse

Brent in the metaverse–kind of a Castlevania look. (Artist unknown)

Brent uses a gunspear in the metaverse. He is cool, confident, and wholly in command of his own, somewhat androgynous appearance.

Social Link

Brent has some stuff to figure out, so his social link is primarily about coming to terms with his identity and orientation. Like the other player characters (Jimmy, Wayne, Zach, and Uki), his social link focuses on another Emperor character who teaches him about himself. And in this case, that character is actual Kanji Tatsumi of Persona 4 fame, somewhat grown up, who is in Seattle while his partner Tao is on a case. Having gone through something similar to what Brent is dealing with, Kanji can help him deal with his emotions and accept himself, whatever the truth ends up being. Even if there is no one truth.

Easter Eggs

Brent’s white hair in the metaverse is a call-back to Akihiko from Persona 3 and Kanji from Persona 4. His attitude and perspective is similar to a blend of Kanji and Yusuke from P5.

His persona, Elric, uses water magic, which has been absent from the series since Persona 2 (think of Maya Amano’s Maha Aques power on her custom Maia persona), and has necessitated the creation of a new mechanical condition called “Slick” (a bit like lightning’s “shock” or fire’s “burn” conditions), wherein a body is hypersaturated, making their movements sluggish and delaying their action until the end of the round, and also rendering them vulnerable to technical damage from lightning or cold.

Brent has come to appreciate all kinds of things he didn’t understand before, especially video games. They appeal to his perfectionist and completionist side, and he disappears from the rest of the team for days on end (except for metaverse delving) when he’s working on a new game. His collection of platinum trophies is growing steadily, and he does it all blind: no one has even suggested that guides exist, and it would be against his philosophy to use one. It made sense to go back to the beginning to work his way through Final Fantasy, and he’s spent the last few months knocking those games out. Here’s a conversation that might give a sense of his perspective on video games:

Jimmy [impressed]: “Whoa, you unlocked ALL the FFX ultimate weapons except one?”

Brent [shrugs]: “Yeah, just couldn’t figure it out.”

Wayne [thoughtful]: “Isn’t that the lightning bolt dodging one? Like where you dodge 200 in a row or something?”

Jimmy: “Yeah. Crazy, right?”

Brent: [perks up] [realizes]

[battle theme from Persona 3 starts playing as the camera zooms in on his face] BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY

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.

She is, like many Persona High Priestess characters, trapped in a passive role through circumstances beyond her control. She believes in knowledge and wisdom and protects. She is an intuitive, patient, thoughtful person, and in Tarot terms represents the anima, or the feminine ideal energy. In a way, Janna is the most default archetypal female character in the game. (Which is not to be sexist. That’s just what the High Priestess card is typically saying.)

And if you know me, you know I am putting in tricks to invert the trope and your 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.

Like most Persona Magician characters, he frequently allows his enthusiasm and youthful energy to run away with him, and he isn’t always capable of reeling it back wen he goes too far. Which is often.

In Jungian/Tarot terminology, the Magician represents the animus, or the iconic male force of energy. And I think that works pretty well for Jimmy, who is a bubbling geyser of male energy.

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.