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