As I mentioned in my Kickstopper article on Legacy: Life Among the Ruins and its associated Kickstarters, I happen to know lead designer Minerva McJanda in real life, so when I heard she’d developed a new game inspired by the Persona CRPGs and was planning to do a Kickstarter for it I decided I wanted to get in touch and see if she wanted to do an interview. Luckily enough, she did!
The new game, Voidheart Symphony, you can actually check out now in a rough early draft which, to my eye, seems to capture the intended style extremely well. It’s a standalone sequel to Rhapsody of Blood, a Legacy supplement that focused on hereditary bloodlines sworn to protect the world against the machinations of a decidedly vania-like Castle – the sort of place which would be the abode of loners who consider human beings miserable piles of secrets, perhaps – but with the hereditary angle taken out (since Legacy‘s focus on campaigns unfolding over multiple generations of PCs don’t quite fit here) and set in a version of the modern day where the Castle and its agents lurk behind the scenes of everyday existence.
As a big Persona/Shin Megami Tensei fan, I personally think it’s another great UFO Press product which showcases Minerva’s ability to find new ways to interestingly adapt and alter the Powered By The Apocalypse system. But why take my word for it? Scroll on down and let’s start the interview…
One of the things that’s always jumped out at me about the Persona games is that they’re a mashup of traditional game elements with new ideas. Having this big megadungeon at the heart of your town and splitting your time between exploring the dungeon and doing downtime stuff is pretty much exactly the model that the original Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns worked on, so on that level Voidheart Symphony‘s tapping into ideas literally as old as D&D itself.
So let’s start our discussion there. Minerva, can you unpack what people will find familiar about Voidheart Symphony, and what might be new to them?
There’s a surprising amount that’s at least a little familiar to traditional play – you’re a party of individuals with different skillsets brought together by a common cause, who split their time between delving into monster-filled dungeons and recuperating back home. The difference comes with the context: you’re mundane people in the modern world, and the dungeons are pocket realms tied to the worst bastards in your community – empowered to cause more misery by a supernatural force of corrosion and consumption.
That split between the mundane world and these castle realms is crucial to the game: to defeat your foes, you’ll need to jump between investigating their weaknesses in the mundane world and delving into their castle shard, while trying to maintain your wellbeing and way of life. Eventually you’ll be able to summon the antagonist’s avatar in the castle, defeat them in cinematic, tense combat, and steal their power to improve your life and your community. But you’ll have to be careful – draw too much on the castle’s power and you’ll draw the attention of its other vassals, and the void will seep insidiously into your soul. The game is built to emphasise that tension: balancing claiming the power you need for your revolution, and resisting becoming the things you’re trying to fight against.
One thing which jumped out at me when I read the current draft is that there’s actually two distinct resolution mechanisms in the game – the familiar Powered By the Apocalypse approach for inside the castle, and then for the mundane world there’s a different one based on rolling checks against various stress tracks representing society’s pressures. What gave you the idea to do it this way? How has it worked out in practice?
The root of the idea was, essentially, that I wanted action resolution in the mundane world to be defined by the pressures you’re under instead of your intrinsic qualities (inspired by Spire). That meant it had to involve a trait where it being high was bad, which meant standard PBTA rolling +stat and trying to beat 7/10 wasn’t going to work. At the point I was considering asking people to roll -stat or change the success thresholds, it was already so confusing that I realised a completely different rolling system might be simpler. Drawing inspiration from Ironsworn, I put in a distinct rolling system and, so far, it’s worked really well! There’s been some fine-tuning of what starting stats should look like, but I’ve enjoyed working through it – and it’s definitely created the distinct feeling between the worlds I was looking for.
The feeling of the two worlds being fundamentally different spheres of existence separated by more than mere geography really stands out in the game – right down to it having a different set of moves, one for use in the city and one for use in the castle. It reminded me of how the Persona games get across the same idea by basically being two different genres of game joined at the hip – you’ve got the very traditional JRPG dungeon crawl in the dungeon, and then you have the daily life stuff which pans out like a visual novel.
Speaking of which, as in the Persona games you’ve also got a major game feature that actually bridges the two worlds in the form of these tarot-themed relationships with others – Covenants, as you’ve called them – which, so long as you establish and maintain them, give you different advantages in the castle and the city. Can you dig into how you adapted that particular idea to a tabletop context?
I knew the social link system in Persona was one of the core things I wanted to bring across for this game. Character advancement coming about through developing deeper bonds with others is a really tasty concept, and I loved the way your network of confidants in P5 created the feel of a burgeoning movement, not just a party of weirdos. So to bring that across to Voidheart, my first decision was that I’d write abilities for a huge range of archetypes – like Persona, drawing on the major arcana of the tarot for inspiration. After some experimentation I decided to keep the abilities simple: one for when you hang out with the contact, one way the relationship helps you in the mundane world, and one way the relationship gives you power in the castle. This is partially because it’s a manageable number of things to write (instead of the original 100+ traits planned), and partly because the whole rules for a Covenant now fit on a tarot card – something that makes me inordinately happy.
In the current incarnation of the rules there’s some mention of your distinctive shadow form you get once you start drawing on the power of the castle, but it doesn’t seem to be especially prominent. Whilst it’d be a huge task to work in the full-blown Jungian Pokémon aspect of the Persona games, do you plan on giving more development to the PCs’ shadow alter egos?
It’s quite subtle, certainly. But Voidheart isn’t really tapping into Jungian archetypes, so much as giving rebels room to define their self-expression. Your look, your stats and your powers in the castle wax and wane as your shadow rating rises and falls, and that gives players a powerful tool to demonstrate how their character’s self-image changes over the course of the campaign. What happens when your shadow form’s changes make you realise something about what you want to be in the mundane world? What happens when you realise you don’t like who you’ve become?
A lot of the referee’s prep work in the game seems centred on coming up with a distinctive adversary for the PCs, along with thematically-appropriate minions for them to command in the castle. What sort of support will the final game offer for cooking up this sort of stuff?
So, first up, I’m running an open writer’s call for people to put together Vassals for players to fight. We’ll have a great variety of these in the book; if anyone reading this would be interested in contributing, please check out this page.
But secondly, we’ll also have a bunch of different antagonist Qualities to pick and choose from in the final book, as well as procedures to build compelling antagonists. Drawing on the tarot theme, I’ve also planned out a stretch goal for a document that’ll talk GMs through using a tarot draw to randomly generate antagonists. I have a broad idea for what the document will look like, but at the moment I’m focusing on getting the core game done.
It also helps that with Voidheart antagonists a little goes a long way. So long as you have a basic idea of three things an antagonist can do, and what’ll happen when that thing is broken, you can have a compelling and fun fight. I’ve run fights with enforcers I statted up in a few minute’s break, and the fact that the combat rules are very player-facing means that you don’t need to do much mechanics prep at all. So long as you’ve got a sense of the monster’s aesthetics, you’re most of the way there. I’m aware this is very much tilted towards how I like to run games, though, so I’ll try and include as many worked examples and helpful procedures as I can!
The current version of the game on itch.io is version 0.3. I assume that the Kickstarter’s intended to produce 1.0, unless you’re going eccentric with your version numbering. Beyond the additions we’ve already talked about, what else should people look forward to which isn’t currently in the game?
As far as I’ve planned out, we’re essentially feature-complete at this point, I’m not planning any major new mechanics. Aside from the edits and alterations made from further playtesting, the main additions are going to be:
- Lots of examples of play – showing individual moves in action, the Architect using their reactions, and a chapter showing an extended example of play encompassing a whole investigation.
- A wide range of different city playsets to pick from – details of why you might want to set a game there, why the city is worth fighting for, and how the castle’s hierarchy might cause problems specific to that setting.
- Advice on hacking the game – making new playbooks, writing your own covenants, even changing up core assumptions. Want to play a superhero team instead of shadow-delving rebels? Want to set your game in the far future, or a fantasy land? There’ll be advice here.
- Whatever stretch goals we end up hitting – I’m planning a few advanced playbooks players can shift characters to after major plot events, the aforementioned tarot draw method of antagonist generation, and a few other things I’m keeping up my sleeve for now.
The hacking advice sounds great! I’d be particularly interested if it had notes on shifting things from the us-vs.-society assumption which the game seems to inherit from Persona 5 to, say, something like Persona 4, where a lot of the time the bosses you fight in the otherworld are the parts of yourself you don’t accept and it’s much more based around defining who you are in society as opposed to upending the applecart altogether.
Speaking about pushing back against social injustice – a lot of readers will have heard about the ongoing issues between Kickstarter management and the employee’s union, Kickstarter United. Since it’s something which may affect people’s decision to pledge, are you able to give UFO Press’s official stance on the situation?
I support the workers trying to organise and get recognition from management, of course. I’m very pro-union in my personal politics, and I feel I’d be betraying the values of this game if I didn’t support Kickstarter United. My position on the ongoing issue is that the union hasn’t called for a boycott, and so I’m pressing ahead with this campaign. If they do at any point during the campaign, I’m happy to cancel it and shift across to IndieGoGo or wherever. I’m also aware that people may be unhappy to hold their nose and pledge given Kickstarter management’s behaviour, so it’s perfectly valid to pledge at the minimum £1 tier so that you can easily upgrade your pledge once we hit the post-campaign BackerKit surveys.
Last but not least: who is your favourite Persona character? Mine is Teddie from Persona 4.
It’s so hard to choose! I’ll pick one from each: AEGIS in Persona 3, Naoto in Persona 4, and Makoto in Persona 5. All Persona characters are dealing with the clash between society’s expectations and their own ideal self, but those three particularly resonated with me.
Thank you Minerva! The Voidheart Symphony crowdfunding campaign just started up over on Kickstarter and is scheduled to run until Friday 15th November, 6pm UTC.