I’m not the biggest fan of ATLUS as a developer. As someone who grew up on JRPGs and enjoys anime as an art style, you’d think the creators of titles like Shin Megami Tensei and Etrian Odyssey would be high up on my list. Alas, my experiences with most ATLUS games have been negative. Every one I tried, whether as a demo or after a purchase, didn’t sit well with me. For a long time I wrote them off and ignored any game with their name on the cover, but as it turns out even a developer you think you dislike can still create a game that appeals to your sensibilities. For me, the game that made me rethink my perspective on ATLUS was Persona 5.
My experience with Persona isn’t a direct one – I haven’t actually played the game. However, I followed it via my favorite streamer’s VODs from start to finish. Turns out there are many aspects of Persona that appeal to me as a gamer. The music is excellent, the story and world are compelling, and the time-management mechanisms of the game provide a unique experience. Do you develop your social links or increase your stats? How long should you focus on your human obligations before focusing on the looming Palace in the metaverse? Balancing your time wisely may seem like a boring task to some, but for me the need to carefully manage your character’s schedule in order to optimize his growth while also accomplishing his mission is a compelling game mechanism.
As I watched through this particular playthrough of Persona 5, the streamer spoke at length about trying to interpret it into the rules of a particular roleplaying game. The game he chose to discuss – Blades in the Dark – is an exciting title that I personally can’t wait to get my hands on, but Persona 5 honestly reminds me more of a different RPG. The characters torn between their supernatural and mundane obligations in a world where only those with powers are gifted with the ability to see the powers of others, and where these powers are granted by the myths and legends of old – the things that make Persona 5 special fit perfectly with the setting of City of Mist.
City of Mist is an RPG Powered by the Apocalypse that came out towards the end of last year. My RPG group spent most of our sessions in 2018 playing a City of Mist campaign. We enjoyed the game, but for me as the game master something never really clicked into place. I felt like we didn’t get to fully engage the mechanisms of the game, and I struggled to find good opportunities to pit the character’s themes against each other. I originally attributed this to our eclectic schedule, which averaged out to one session every two months by the time the campaign drew to a close. I’ve grown to see things differently, though, as I now think that the reason I struggled is because I didn’t have the tools to run the game in a way which puts the mechanisms to best use.
As I watched Persona 5 in action, I found myself recognizing ways in which understanding it could help me to be a more effective game master for City of Mist. The similarities between the two would allow me to use Persona as a touchstone, analyzing how the game’s structure helps to convey the themes that the two titles have in common. In this article, I’ll share the ideas that I find the most helpful as I think about the way that City of Mist’s mechanisms can push the characters in interesting new directions.
To help us get started, I think it’s valuable to look at Persona 5’s protagonist Akira as a City of Mist character. Every character in City of Mist is composed of four themes. These themes are split between logos themes – aspects of the character which are grounded in reality – and mythos themes – supernatural powers from the character’s legendary mythos. The split can be even or favor one side more than the other. For our purposes, it makes the most sense to envision Akira as a touched character: someone whose mundane life is more prevalent than their supernatural one. I’m thinking that Akira’s life as a student counts as the Routine theme, his desire for self improvement (increasing his essential stats by reading, working, bathing, etc) counts as the Training theme, and his social links with the other members of the Phantom Thieves count as a Defining Relationship theme. Finally, the powers of the persona that he commands would make up his one mythos theme – probably Adaptation, given his ability to change between multiple persona.
In City of Mist, your character’s four themes are the ones that receive the most screen time. It doesn’t mean that the other possible themes are missing from the character’s existence – Akira certainly has a Defining Event, for example – but that those things take a back seat to the four main themes. Persona backs this up by allowing the player to spend most of their time on either forming relationships, increasing stats, attending and studying for school, and exploring Palaces or Mementos. These are the activities which constantly pull Akira in different directions and demand his time, and during the major points of the game you only have a limited number of days to accomplish a huge variety of tasks available to you.
Herein lies the first lesson that Persona 5 can teach a City of Mist GM: keep a schedule. Know roughly when the characters are obligated to participate in particular activities, and give them deadlines to complete those activities. If your players ignore their mythoi for two weeks, perhaps the villain’s terrible plan will at last come to fruition and change the city for the worse. A character whose job is represented by the Routine theme might have a major project that has to be completed by the end of the month, or otherwise suffer severe financial repercussions. Actually quantifying and tracking these timelines will make it a lot easier to know when the character’s have to make hard choices between two themes. If you need a hand in implementing a tracking system, borrowing clocks from Blades in the Dark could be useful here.
Once you have a schedule established, you can take advantage of it in clever ways. If a player rolls a 7-9 on a move, maybe their consequence is that the task takes longer than they anticipated, or someone they have an obligation towards suddenly moves up their deadline. Or a player could sacrifice the quality of their performance on a task in order to complete it more quickly and move on to matters they consider more pressing. Give them two enticing opportunities at the same time and watch them squirm to choose one. In Persona, there are certain days of the week where you gain more benefit from particular tasks (such as visiting a cafe when it is raining), and some activities can only be done on a specific day (like getting a stat-boosting juice on Sundays). When these special days overlap with other important activities – the next chance to advance a valuable social link, for example – the decision for which way to spend your time becomes all the more difficult. Do I miss a juice day to become better friends with Makoto? Or is it more important that I increase my Proficiency to unlock more social link opportunities down the line? You can create these kinds of choices in City of Mist using in-game resources like tags and statuses.
This brings us to our second lesson: hard choices come from having too much to do and not enough time. By the end of Persona 5, you will likely not have finished all of your social links unless you are a master of time management (or used a guide). The mechanisms for character growth in City of Mist are all about pitting themes against each other, so give the characters too much to reasonably accomplish and watch their characters change as they make decisions about what is important. These hard choices will led to marking attention on some themes – improving them and unlocking advanced moves – while marking crack or fade on other themes – eventually causing them to disappear and be replaced with new ones, leading to Moments of Evolution. These are critical mechanisms to engage for the full City of Mist experience, so giving players the opportunity to use them is key.
It may be helpful for this example to think a bit beyond what Persona 5 does on its own. After all, Akira likely ends the game with the same four themes he started with, but the video game also forces you to balance them out to a degree. You can’t keep playing Persona if you ignore the Palace – you’ll get a game over. Mechanically speaking, it is impossible for Akira to skip school. These choices are non-choices in Persona but are 100% possible in City of Mist. Ryuji could ask Akira to skip school and go to the arcade, giving our character the opportunity to develop a social link at the expense of his education. Akira could believe that he needs more training before he’s ready to face the master of a Palace and wait too long, allowing the villain’s plan to be executed. It’s up to the player of each individual character to decide which aspects of that character are sacred and which ones can be changed, and they show this through their choices.
The third and final lesson is this: think of how themes can overlap with one another. Themes are often pitted against each other and this is how characters develop and change from a mechanical perspective, but having them work together can bring about interesting situations too. Persona does this by having certain accomplishments in one theme unlock opportunities in another. Reaching higher levels of social link increases the powers of your persona; your personal training raises your stats in order to break through progress-walls in social links; completing specific quests in Mementos allow you to reach new heights in a related friendship. In these ways, the themes of the game reinforce each other and inspire you to spread your time among them.
In City of Mist, a character’s mythos is always looking to totally overtake their logos. However, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to use those mundane resources to their advantage. Perhaps your character cannot physically overpower a villain with her supernatural abilities, but she can outgun him financially in the real world and leave him without the resources to continue his schemes. Maybe your character is excelling at his job and earning lots of attention on that theme by using his mythos abilities to gain an edge at the office. Themes don’t always have to be at odds – when they compliment each other and the character implements them in tandem to accomplish her goals, that tells us something about her too. And the time will come when those closely-allied themes will be turned against her, and she will have to choose. Such is the way of City of Mist.
Overall, watching Persona 5 in action and gaining an understanding of the game helped to further my understanding of City of Mist as well. I imagine that it wouldn’t be too difficult to play a Persona 5 -style game using City of Mist as the tabletop of choice, and perhaps next time I break out the game I’ll talk to my players about leading things in that direction. In the meantime, I’m happy that this cool video game helped me to develop a better appreciation for one of my tabletops, and I am more excited than ever to someday return to City of Mist. Next time, I’ll have more tricks up my sleeve and more knowledge to bring to bear.