A hard but very real part of working on a blog like this is that it’s just impossible to play enough at enough depth to do these games justice. As I’ve gotten older, I’m also finding I’m more interested in longer, more expansive play. Bouncing from game to game is getting harder all the time – I have literally thousands of games in my head at this point – and it’s always been hard on my regular players.
But I still love games. I love seeing what new horizons are being explored, how old horizons are being improved on, the evolutions and revolutions in the medium. There aren’t enough local conventions for me to attend, and attending out of state cons is sort of a no-go for me (they’ve either gotten too big or the hustle has grown too prominent), so what’s a poor writer to do?
The solo roleplay space has just exploded since the pandemic. I haven’t made an attempt at keeping up with the state of the art, because my preferred format is still in-person ensemble play. I mean, sure, I’ve figured out my own best practices for online play as well. But honestly my home life isn’t well set up for me to disappear into a screen for many hours at a stretch. Besides the disruption with my family (I don’t have an office I can close off), these are also usually evening events and the screen time wrecks my sleep.
So I’ve been keeping up the best I can with solo play ideas. I’m not committed enough to the idea to really dig into solo communities like https://www.reddit.com/r/Solo_Roleplaying/ or the really excellent Substacks out there (most notably Patrick Beuchner’s outstanding The Soloist (https://soloist.substack.com/)). I’ve done long actual plays of both Ironsworn and Starforged (most recently I even turned my Starforged game into serialized fiction), but those are purpose-built for solo play. And I’ve poked at the journaling genre, so beautifully described in Paul Czege’s The Ink That Bleeds.
The problem is that those are all purpose-built games. My problem is that I want to explore everything, not just the stuff made for this purpose. In my explorations, I’ve come across a few things that are now guiding me in this new project idea.
The biggest eye-opener for me has been The Solo Gamemaster’s Guide, written under the pen name Geek Gamers and published by Modiphius. Geek Gamers has a long-running, excellent Youtube channel and the book is a distillation of her best practices. My biggest takeaway from The Solo Gamemaster’s Guide is right there in the title: rather than using a GM replacement like Mythic Game Master Emulator or RPG Solo, the underlying philosophy is to embrace being both a GM and a player. This might be obvious to you, but for me it was a revelation. When I’ve played the Ironsworn games, they’ve been great fun but the emphasis has been on reacting to the game’s oracular inputs in the moment, as a player. This is a different approach.
The Big Reveal
Largely inspired by Monte Cook Games’ recent crowdfunding campaign, I’ve been working on setting up to play a solo Invisible Sun game for a week now. I’m working with a combination of Geek Gamers’ Solo Gamemaster’s Guide, the Radiance Adventure Engine from Oddfish, and my own experience running more purpose-built stuff like Ironsworn, Starforged and little journaling games like Project Ecco and Thousand Year Old Vampire. Radiance Engine, in particular, reads like it’s in dialogue with Solo Gamemaster’s Guide in leveraging the shift in focus between gamemastering and playing, rather than trying to replace a facilitator.
I chose Invisible Sun for a few reasons. The big reason, other than making it pay rent for all that space it’s taking in my head, is that Invisible Sun is a high-investment game on many fronts. There aren’t a lot of rules per se but there’s a nearly endless upgrade/advancement path, and it requires the players to know how to pursue it. Invisible Sun doesn’t work without the beating heart of advancement. It’s also an elaborate bespoke setting that is based on almost nothing other than itself, and a premise that explicitly says you’re not fish out of water but natives of the setting. So either you have players who love to read tons of background (and there is so much; I’ve reread all eight of the big square books in the past week to reacquaint myself), or you have players who are fish out of water despite the premise. Despite tons of structural and procedural tension in that direction, Invisible Sun is fundamentally about insiders, not outsiders.
Choosing Invisible Sun is not all upside, though. The biggest problem I’ve identified is that, being advancement driven, the game also tells us that advancement is player-driven via the advancement arcs we have to select when the game starts. The platonic ideal Invisible Sun game, I think, is one where the GM does his level best to interleave the table’s arcs into one big tapestry. Sure, the GM might maybe weave their own stuff into that tapestry as well. The main fabric, though, really should be advancement arcs.
So how to reconcile that with Radiance Engine? Out of the basic box, Radiance Engine gives us the Journey of the Hero, a straight-up Joseph Campbell emulator, as its default structure. You start your game with a Story Card, which is the big-picture theme of the whole adventure. And, heck, the fact that it’s an adventure does not necessarily square with Invisible Sun! How to fit slice-of-life stuff into Radiance Engine? Well, to its credit, Radiance Engine says “side stories” are okay even in the introductory card draw, where we first establish the overarching theme. I think it’ll work.
Probably the right way to properly test Radiance Engine is to go with a more reactive adventure-y game like Worlds Without Number or Stillfleet. But I want to really push Radiance Engine and see what it does.
As I said before, my main prep here has been to read and read and read. There’s just so much to (re)read but, happily, this is my umpteenth time reading the Invisible Sun books. Ever since doing my big multipart deep dive a few years ago, IS has remained firmly lodged in my mind. So compelling. So frustrating. Something keeps calling me back to it but even as I read the texts again I’m reminded, oh yeah, what a pain in the ass this all is. What a pretentious tone. I get it, I do: I was a White Wolf fan and contributor from way back, so I get the appeal of the pretension. But I can only take so much “oh child, you have already lost” type in-fiction dialogue in my dotage.
These days, though…what preoccupies me is the fact that I want my games to be more human. Despite what the IS text itself says about its own humanity (one of its core claims is that IS is an exploration of what it means to be human), there’s so much about this game’s premise and setting that is not. Maybe not anti-humanist but certainly more concerned with surrealism and weird vibes than explicitly connecting with human concerns.
My other prep had been to flip some cards in Radiance Engine, for fun and without a live game, just to see what it’ll look like as we proceed. The game interjects requirements and gives you an additional lens to view your rolls and GMing priorities through. This is good, I think. The cards reflect the ebb and flow of a human GM’s moods and priorities and how they may be different from a player’s. It’s also a way to ritually isolate your player-brain from your GM-brain.
Unlike something like Mythic GM Emulator, Radiance Engine isn’t positioned as a GM replacement. Like Geek Gamers’ philosophy, Radiance Engine’s goal is for me to play both as GM and player(s). This is also different from, say, the Ironsworn style, which is another approach to GM replacement. RE (and GG) are specific and deliberate in leveraging this shift in perspective. It’s a notable difference from straight journaling games like The Magus or Thousand Year Old Vampire, which want you to stay introspective and focused on your singular play.
One last decision I need to make about my play is how many characters to play. Do I want a more journaling experience? Then I’ll have one PC. Do I want a more tabletop experience, or an ensemble output? This plays more to Invisible Sun’s strengths, which gets a lot of juice from the interplay of different characters’ arcs and weird magical orders. Most of my solo play having been in Ironsworn and Starforged, my mind defaulted to one main character. But both the GG book and the “use this tool to help you GM at your table” mode of Radiance Engine are making me rethink this assumption. Feels like so much to balance at the table alongside RE, though.
I’ve decided to also go along with GG’s advice to start with your premise and work backward toward suitable characters. So I’ll start by drawing a story card in Radiance Engine, and then decide what character(s) will best address the premise. I’ve already done the GM-centric preread of the setting and rules, so this should work out just fine. I may go back into the books after my story card draw to look for hooks and inspiration. But I’m not making my cast until I’ve done my GM setup. It feels pretty trad that way, but at least I’m just doing this to/for myself and not to a table of players who just sat down and may not want to buy into “my thing.”
There are some other unanswered questions in my mind before I start. How long is a Radiance Engine story card supposed to take? How long will it take to resolve the various path cards the story card requires? Because Invisible Sun thrives in long-form play featuring lots of elaborate advancement, can I actually get there via Radiance Engine? Oddfish also has the Luminous Campaign Engine, which is en route but, honestly, I have no idea if it’ll even be necessary if I play through the long-form “Journey of the Hero” set. It’s already 12 stages!
Anyway, here we go. This is the first story stage, which is all setup instructions for the rest of the series.
And here’s the story card and attendant detail cards it requires. Since this is the Main Story, I ignore all the rest of the instructions that come after the “storyline” block at the top.
It’s a very IS-y prompt! A whole long adventure where my character — upon rereading the “use this at your table” instructions, it’s clear that Radiance Engine is really just built for a single protagonist — wants to take down an artist. But this is as far as I go with the setup. Now I need to work backward toward a character that’s purpose-built to focus on this. I can also pursue “independent stories” (additional story card draws, not needed to complete the main card) in the course of completing this first prompt. It’s meant to be short, but those independent stories might give me enough room to do IS stuff related to my arcs. But of course I’m going to choose arcs that I feel like can fit into Before the Fall.
Time to break out the big black box and all my other stuff. My indie AF friends scoff and deride how much time and space this game has taken in my head. They’re not wrong. But here we are, with all the stuff in one place. I had to dust off the tops of the boxes because it’s been 3 years since I’ve touched anything but the books.
It took a while but I settled on the “Vancian” type character, mostly on aesthetic and mechanical grounds. They’re not super flexible — there’s a whole other order called Weavers that piece together effects on the fly — but I didn’t feel like I wanted to deal with that additional bit of creativity while also GMing myself. There’s also the Maker order, which wouldn’t have been bad since there’s nobody else at the table to bore while I do my workshop stuff. Didn’t feel like the right fit. And there’s a summoning type, but that feels like constantly introducing new NPCs, which feels like an additional creative load for myself. So spellcaster-out-of-a-book (kind of) it is.
When I got to the part of the process where I needed to pick an advancement arc, and make it work with Radiance Engine’s big story theme, that slowed me down a bit. The game depends on my character pursuing their own goals to earn Acumen (one of two advancement economies in the game), indeed I’m expected to keep adding to my own to-do list. So how do I fit my goal into what would be “the GM’s thing” in a trad game? Interesting tension.
I ended up with “Solve a Mystery” as my starting arc. My character, settled back into his life in Satyrine after a long absence hiding in the Shadow (ie the world you and I live in; read my previous deep dive for more details about the IS premise), discovers a painting of the wife he left behind in Shadow. He had thought she was an invention of Shadow, just one more piece of the jail keeping him docile. Yet here’s a portrait of her, in his haunted tower, apparently very much alive and well…somewhere. But he’s started his life over in Satyrine! He’s got a career and a lover who lives with him. What to do what to do…let’s start by tracking down the artist who painted this piece and see what he has to say.
I think I’ve found the human heart of this absolutely wacky setting. Is this really someone he loves or is it the Shadow trying to lure him back into complacency? If their love is really mutual, why hasn’t she sought him out? Why has it taken this long for him to get around to this?
This is a part of the solo GM/solo play game that’s different than traditional multiplayer tabletop play, but not too different. I’ve got a notion in my GM head that of course the artist is hiding something (hence the overarching “take down an artist” thing from Radiance Engine) but I’m okay with just poking at that, rather than planning anything more and then having to pretend I don’t know it when I’m in my player head.
I think that’s enough to get me going. I’ll keep you updated with how it plays out.