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Invisible Sun – The Role-Player’s RPG

by Matt Miller on Oct 05, 2018 at 03:00 PM

Recent years have seen an unprecedented surge in the popularity of the tabletop role-playing game. Thanks in part to the burgeoning streaming and podcast scene, more and more players are discovering the joys of gathering around a table to create a story, go on an adventure, and deepen friendships with each other along the way through a ton of laughs and shared memories. Dungeons & Dragons marks the most familiar entry point, characterized by familiar tropes of magic missile spells, orc armies, and teeming dragon hoards.

But what if you’re looking for something a lot less commonplace? What if you’re attracted to the idea of a place where magic still feels deeply mysterious? A world where your character might have a wisp of smoke for a head, or perhaps they’re just dead and you’re now playing a ghost? Where buildings can get sick and die? Or storms can sweep through town, pouring down a deluge of keys? That supreme weirdness is the first thing that caught my eye about Invisible Sun, the new game from Monte Cook Games. But it’s only the very first part of what makes the project so intriguing.

“When I was first telling the other people at MCG what Invisible Sun was, I described it as Harry Potter, if Harry Potter had been written by Philip K. Dick,” says designer Monte Cook. “The game is what we refer to as surreal fantasy. I make that distinction because if you hear the word fantasy, you probably think Tolkien or Game of Thrones. This isn’t that.” Cook has the authority to know the difference. He’s a veteran of the role-playing scene for decades, including playing a central role in the creation of the third edition of D&D. More recently, his own company is responsible for the fascinating Numenera universe and RPG, which served as setting to the excellent Torment: Tides of Numenera video game.

Characters in Invisible Sun aren't bound by typical restrictions about appearance

If Numenera offers a departure to a figurative new land away from traditional role-playing experiences, Invisible Sun is a little like being launched into orbit. The core conceit is that the world around us isn’t real; you’re not really an accountant, or a video game player, or a writer. Those are all lies you’ve created around yourself as you hide out in this world of Shadow, keeping far away from a terrible war in the “real world.” In the wake of that conflict, you return to your true identity, and discover that reality is actually far stranger than you imagined, and the underpinning of all existence is magic. And you are a wielder of that magic in a vast web of interconnected worlds called the Actuality – a being called a vislae.

After spending recent months reading and playing Invisible Sun, it’s hard to overstate the originality of the setting and tone of the game. From the ground up, everything is built to surprise and twist expectations, presenting a place where thought becomes form, and dreamlike situations are the core contents of an organically flowing play session. One character described in the game is a veteran soldier obsessed with his own security, who has reshaped his body into a literal fortress of battlements and smoking towers. In Cook’s home game, he details a player character who runs a bakery where she makes cupcakes that taste like the moment when you leap into the air, but before you’re falling.

“The key to the surreal movement when it started as an art movement is the idea that we all understand the real world, and we all understand a dreamlike world. Surreal is the blending of those two things. Both of those things have equal value and weight.” Moving through the fiction of Invisible Sun, or playing in a session, players and GM alike are encouraged to create on the fly, and let their imagination take over. Because surreal elements are the cornerstone of the setting, there’s nothing holding you back from encountering a figure who is endlessly sprouting new eyes, or casting a spell that summons a flying caterpillar that tells you jokes as you walk around town.

The Sooth Deck presents surreal imagery that can serve as inspiration for events that appear in-game

The surreality is reinforced through the mechanics of play, and the components that go out on the table. Chief among those elements is the Sooth Deck, a collection of cards inspired by the Tarot, each of which may be played to alter the current flow of magic in the game world, and depicting images that can directly inspire actions and events in the unfolding narrative. “If you draw the card ‘Misremembered Dream,’ you’ve got that title you can play off of, so you can introduce something as literal as a misremembered dream, or alternately something more elusive,” Cook describes. “And the card image itself pictures the sky, and portals, and streaming from one portal to the other are this court of rats, and you can take any one of those images, and introduce it as an element in the game.” While dice, spell effects, and structured conflict resolution are still a core element of moment-to-moment play, the players and GM alike are encouraged to riff off the imagery and mystery of the setting, taking each game session to unexpected places and experiences.

Player-driven action and story is the heart of Invisible Sun. “If someone asked me what is the weirdest part of Invisible Sun, it wouldn’t be the setting or the magic or anything like that,” Cook says. “It would be the idea that characters, and therefore players, drive the action. It's taking the player/GM dynamic, and flipping it 180 degrees.” That’s baked into the system through clearly articulated character arcs, which each player chooses as they create their character. “If I have a character arc about revenge, and I want to get revenge on this guy who killed my father, suddenly that’s my driving goal. I’m not necessarily interested in looking for plot hooks that the GM is feeding me. You can still have those, if the GM has a story they want to tell, they can still do that in the traditional manner.” But in practice, the game encourages GMs to step back and let the players dictate much of the narrative direction, and then react on the fly to the ideas that emerge at the table.

The city is blanketed by a keyfall, a literal storm of keys

Improv and creativity are cornerstones of play, and the game’s rules and setting give you the tools to be successful. For instance, instead of what might be a character class in a different game, the vislae of Invisible Sun are each members of several discrete magical orders. Each order has a hierarchy, traditions, and characters that make up the organization, offering a veritable playground of role-playing interactions. Similarly grounding your character in the setting, every vislae has their own house, the contents and nature of which you establish with the rest of the players. Maybe your house is haunted, or it’s bigger on the inside than it appears from outside. Who are your neighbors, and why do they never speak? The neighborhood deli exists outside of time, and is run by a purple cloud that never leaves the premises – why is that? Whether it’s your house, your connections to the other characters, or the duties that tie you to the organizations in the world, the fiction feels alive, and your character deeply rooted in it. The choices you make shape that world, and move it forward, and the GM responds in kind. “Once you get your feet under you, you can still do all the things that I normally do in a game, where I set up challenges and obstacles, and I have villains come in and make life difficult for the players,” Cook says. “But you’re fitting it into an outline that the players provide.”

Another thing that sets Invisible Sun apart is its conception of the unfolding game, both at the table and beyond it. Gathered together for your weekly session, major events occur that move the story forward for the characters and the world. But Invisible Sun also encourages side scenes that continue to progress the narrative before and after the session. That could happen through an email exchange between the GM and one player. But it could also be a conversation between characters that doesn’t even directly involve the GM, but its outcome is inspired by the visuals of a single drawn card from the Sooth Deck. During table play, you might even refer to an event or knowledge your player has that hasn’t yet occurred. Why? Because after the session, you plan to play a flashback scene that retroactively sets the stage. Invisible Sun is structured to encourage this style of interaction, which has the happy side effect of drawing in introverted players who might otherwise be hesitant to come out of their shell during a table session. The game even attempts to account for the biggest dilemma facing most modern role-playing groups – trying to get everyone together at the same time. One of the players can't make it to the next big session? Vislae can regularly be “drawn back into Shadow” from time to time, offering an easy way to account for character absence.

Invisible Sun doesn’t emerge out of a void, and if you’re still trying to wrap your head around the concept, there’s some places to look. Cook cites comic book writers Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, particularly those creators’ work on projects like Doom Patrol and Promethea, respectively. As mentioned above, it’s also clear that the whimsy of Rowling’s Harry Potter universe weaves its way through the Invisible Sun fiction, alongside the existential angst and psychedelic overtones of Philip K. Dick.

Invisible Sun encourages unfettered imaginative play, but binds everything together with a smart and intuitive set of mechanics

But, more than anything else, the game’s chief inspiration is real world occultism. “I wanted to create a game about magic and the occult, but I didn’t want to just utilize the occult as we understand it,” Cook says. “Partially, I didn’t want to do that because there are people who take that as their truth. And I didn’t want to stomp all over that.” Instead, the in-game magic system is a completely original conception of mythology and cosmology; one can see the ways it is inspired by concepts like Tarot, astrology, and other clandestine knowledge, but never in a one-to-one way. In play, the effect is one of deep mystery and curiosity suffused into the characters and organizations with which you interact. 

The unusual nature of Invisible Sun as a game carries over into its delivery method. The game comes packaged as a literal foot-across Black Cube, a box filled with all the books, components, and other ephemera to make the game feel special. And it’s a pricey proposition. If you somehow manage to track down a copy of the initial run (sold out at most retailers as of this moment, after the recent launch), you can expect to pay between $170-250 for the package.

However, unlike most role-playing releases, the Black Cube is effectively a full product line in one purchase, including everything the whole group needs to play. It contains four hardcover books, detailing the rules, character creation, setting, and magic system. There’s hundreds of cards. A beautiful board depicts the Path of Suns, an interconnected web of reality that shows off all the different worlds you can visit in the game, from lands of demons or angels to a world of endless unchecked verdant life, and the way that each sun can rise into ascendancy and affect the flow of magic. The Black Cube holds tokens and maps, pre-generated characters (if you want them) and gorgeous hand-outs for play. It’s got secret packets to only be opened by the GM. It’s a treasure trove. “I’m a big board game fan, and when I pick up a huge heavy board game that is filled with all sorts of fantastic little components and pieces, like something that Fantasy Flight puts out, I love that feeling,” Cook says. “It’s very immersive. I realized I wanted that for a role-playing game. That feeling of being drawn into the physical product.” The Black Cube is built as a premium release for gaming groups who want to dive into a world of secrets and strangeness, and are willing to pay for that high-concept experience.

The Black Cube may be expensive, but it holds a wealth of secrets and physical components to enrich play

Invisible Sun is a massive game. To even cross over into greater detail about its mechanics or setting threatens to overwhelm. And, in a way, that’s the point. This is a game that is meant to be experienced, discovered, and interpreted together with your friends. After decades of playing role-playing games, my own experience with Invisible Sun was like a breath of fresh air, in which I encountered a freedom of thought and imagination that is unchecked by concerns about accessibility to newcomers or accommodations for affordability. That’s not to say that the game is somehow overly complex – the rules are, in fact, intuitive and clearly laid out – but rather that Invisible Sun knows its audience, and recognizes that such people are not likely to be a GM and her players who’ve never rolled a ten-sided die.

This is a game where your character takes center stage, and you and your friends have maximum flexibility to shape that character’s life in the way you might otherwise expect in a great television series or book, with surprising twists, reversals, and developments.

A chief goal of the game is to instill magic and wonder into every session

More intangibly, Invisible Sun also offers occasional moments of sublime immersion, where the magic comes alive and you get lost in the unrestrained insanity of the richly imagined universe that Monte Cook Games has presented. Despite my love of RPGs, I’ve found myself more than once in recent years prepping a session for another more conventional RPG to play with friends, and wondering: “Have I done this same encounter before? This all feels awfully familiar.” If you’ve found yourself in a similar camp, Invisible Sun is a game that seeks to address that unspoken anxiety, injecting the uncanny in the place of the mundane.

“If you’re somebody who has enjoyed playing in fantasy settings, but you really want a game that focuses in on the magic, and makes magic magical, then Invisible Sun is something worth checking out,” Cook says. It’s clear this is a game that is as much something he’s always wanted to play as it is an experience that he and his team have created for the broader world of role-players. After a career shaping imaginary worlds, this is one that sets a new bar for originality. “You’re constantly being confronted with wonder,” Cook suggests of his creation. I can’t help but agree.