Invisible Sun: A Wrap-up

In the final weeks of Google Plus, a very generous patron backed the Kickstarter for Invisible Sun’s reprint for me. I promised I’d do a deep dive of the game, and the result has been my very deepest dive. Everything I’ve written about Invisible Sun is tagged here. This is my final post (available in rough draft last month to my Patreon supporters). What a ride.

We only played three actual sessions. Some of that was realizing Invisible Sun is a poor cultural fit for my table, some was the ongoing creative load of learning, prepping and running the game. We didn’t really get to close out any of the big loops of the game: nobody advanced in their Order, nobody completed an Arc. At the end I said to my players, “Either we need to commit to 20 more sessions of this, or let’s just call it here.” I still feel like we got a good look at what the game has to offer.

I’ve been keeping notes about the experience as we’ve played. The very short version is this: Invisible Sun has a lot of interesting ideas that reach beyond conventional roleplaying, from procedural design to production values. It doesn’t build on the lessons being passed around in the hothouse of “indie” storygame design, though, so in many ways it’s still rooted in conventional play and facilitation.

Invisible Sun

Here’s everything that comes in the 35 pound Black Cube. Photo from Amazon.

You want it? Amazon has the best price on it, but you only get the accompanying PDFs if you buy from Monte Cook Games.

Invisible Sun offers tons of great ideas and a few that are just not to my taste. Be prepared to do a lot of creative and organizational lifting, because the game won’t do it for you. But once you’ve spent the money, you may very well rationalize to yourself that the lift is worth it.

Character Creation is (Maybe) Too Much

Having been through creation now with two groups and then played a bit, I feel like the whole process is designed for trad players who fixate on “builds” to ease them into characterization. At my table, we’re more accustomed to storygame-style tight guidance toward particular characterizations and little consideration toward tactical builds. As we played the game, the players either needed to study The Key or just let me guide them toward tasty new abilities (secrets, spells, rituals, etc.) that narratively fit with what they’d been doing.

The character creation experience varied a lot between my players. Some really dug into long-term build plans, others wanted to see where their Arc decisions would take them. In every case, though, the characters ended up feeling like a random accretion of weird abilities without any thematic through-lines. The character sheets were no help, with abilities scattered across four pages. I think nobody actually remembered their Forte abilities, even though that is ostensibly the closest thing to a “class” you might have. Add to that your spells, ephemera, Order abilities, maybe even your secret Soul power. I’d prefer to see all that in one place, and I’d have definitely preferred a tighter thematic focus. This is the downside to the “you can build anything! No limits!” school of design.

All that said, though, the characters are undeniably interesting, at least in terms of cool abilities and their outward expression. Nothing’s standing in the way of rich characterization but nothing’s helping you get there, either.

Incoherent Opening

The opening scenario of Invisible Sun, that the PCs had been hiding in the Shadow from a reality-spanning war and returned to Satyrine after its end, is supposed to launch a whole slew of provocative, weird, yes surreal ideas at once. But it’s so provocative and weird that new players, upon their first exposure to the game, have literally nothing to hold on to. As one player described it, “it’s like grabbing at mist.”

The final-final version of our game’s relationship/situation map. One of my favorites!

A major component to this weirdness is the elaborate, multi-hour effort during character creation to generate a robust relationship map. You have bonds with PCs and NPCs, neighbors, and connections to organizations. It’s glorious and exciting and really embeds the characters in a lot of neat things. Will they want to advance in their Orders? Will their difficult neighbors cause problems? But when you stop, just for a moment, that social context can’t make a lick of sense in the face of the vislae living in the Shadow.

There are a few baked-in answers to those questions, hidden in the sealed GM envelope that has a bunch of answers. That’s fun for the GM – I opened that envelope immediately so I could let its answers guide me toward consistent hints – but it’s useless to the players. You have a Lovers bond with an NPC, for example: were you lovers before your time in Shadow? Are you lovers now? PC bonds are easier, I think, although even those come with historic implications that can be hard to reconcile with the opening act. What do the characters know, and when did they know it?

Invisible Sun goes out of its way to avoid answering questions that might otherwise be important: how long have the characters been back to Satyrine? How long were they gone? Who stayed back? What was life like? In our game, I went ahead and leaned into the player-level disorientation. They shook themselves awake in their own homes, with every sign that they’d simply drifted off a while and had a dream that felt like decades of another life. Meanwhile, the city they’ve come back to is in ruins and everyone around them acts like they’ve been gone a long time. It’s fun as the GM, but very hard to grab onto as players. Unfortunately this approach broke everyone’s starting Arc choice, which I didn’t realize until we started play. Retconning and negotiating and rejiggering took up a lot of creative energy, and not all my players had patience for that.

If I had it to do over again, I’d run the opening different. The sensible, reasonable solution is that their time in Shadow (and implied in the demo, We Begin At The End) was both long ago and not terribly important. But then what’s the point? I wanted it all and I couldn’t have it all. I’d also run character creation in a way that led to a more coherent sense of how the PCs are related and why they’re aimed in a compatible direction. The rules-as-written invert all that, putting PC bonds and the desideratum – that is, the thesis for why the characters are together – at the bitter end. It’s one more method of putting the players on their back foot and making them feel as unsettled and confused as their characters. I’m not persuaded that’s a functional mode of play, much less “fun.”

Author vs Player Tension

Invisible Sun has two prominent design features that conflict with each other. They’re both tied in advancement.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of effort to blur the line between the players and their characters. The character creation process is long and involved, an old trick to build investment. And the whole notion of a Shadow life very much puts you in a mind to think about being this magical superbeing living in a weird dreamland. And the end of session debrief, where you decide whether you (meaning your character, but again with the line-blurring) felt Joy or Despair about the big events of the game. That’s good tech. It reminds me a bit of how you evaluate your character’s emotional state in The Veil.

On the other hand, the Acumen economy relies on the Character Arc system. This is a strongly authorial tool. They’re a lot like Beliefs in Burning Wheel, but also subtly different. I think strong/”good” Invisible Sun play relies on the players being very hands on, and very entrepreneurial about engineering the Arcs their characters are on. We spent a good bit of time workshopping Arcs, contriving reasons to buy into the Aid a Character meta-Arc, even a bit of storyboarding into future sessions to line up good Arcs (i.e. what if we both go on a Romance Arc toward the same NPC?). That stuff is all very authorial. It’s also really hard to move between those experiences – what makes for a hot Arc, what’s interesting, how can we get in trouble? – and the behind-their-eyes stance the rest of the game wants the players to be in.

It’s an old, tedious conversation. Can you simultaneously advocate for your character’s success while engineering complications into their lives? I think you can, but it’s a lot of effort and it’s fraught with compromises and tensions. If the players don’t know what they’re feeling, they’ll get frustrated.

The Joy/Despair Reward Cycles Are A Mess

Following on from the Character Arc point above, let’s talk about Joy and Despair.

On their surface, these emotional economies a great bit of tech. We talk about our character’s feelings about big events in the session, and  that keeps the players grounded in their characters’ experiences. I love it, it’s all good. But PCs start with a list of Joy and Despair flags drawn from their Forte and Order, and the GM is instructed to only pay once on each trigger. Going forward, there’s no advice on how to identify future triggers. But it’s a great way to pay the players for their characters’ setbacks. I think it’s a solid message as well: you need successes and failures in your life.

Once you’ve triggered your initial Joys/ Despairs, should they continue to be thematically tied to your Forte and Order? We tried that. But we’re also instructed that the GM can also hand out Joy and Despair for “other things.” Just like Acumen. There’s a cap to it, not more than one or two a session and an assumption that those are mostly from GM Shifts (reminder: in IS, the GM can take whatever you just rolled and throw it out, call it an unexpected success or a catastrophic failure – it works better than it sounds).

There’s something to be said for the open-endedness of leaving the expansion of your table’s understanding of Fortes and Orders to the players. That’s okay. But it never says so explicitly. I sussed it out myself, and it works okay, but this is a pretty easy paragraph that should have been included. Maybe I’m underestimating the general player population! Maybe everyone figures out to look at Forte and Order for thematic guidance.

There’s also the general issue of the only two recognized emotions being “joy” and “despair.” We stalled out after every session talking through the characters’ emotional states, because literally everything that can bring one joy might also arguably have brought you despair. Defeating and driving off a feral shepherd is an occasion for joy, but realizing an evil supernatural cat lady is loose in your neighborhood is cause for despair. Dunno, we never quite nailed that one down even as I was pleading, begging the players to give me reasons to give them tokens.

The Path of Suns is Close To Great

The killer app of Invisible Sun is, to my mind, the Path of Suns system: you draw cards from the Sooth Deck that both provide narrative inspiration and a little mechanical ebb-and-flow. I love everything about both of those things – in principle. In practice, it was semi-great.

Seven of eight Suns in play. I think only once did we get a card into the hand statue and then start a second run down the Path.

On the divination side, 60 cards is a lot to internalize. I never got to the point where I could just look at a card and understand the vibe and imagery. There’s a whole system of connected images that’s tied to the characters’ Hearts, and that should have been a thing to think about, but I just couldn’t get it all into my head. Honestly, it takes folks years to internalize tarot as well. I’m certain there are groups out there who have done it. That said, I really liked having scenes inspired by the ongoing draws. Probably my favorite part of how the game actually plays.

On the mechanical side, yowza, there’s a lot of moving parts. It starts with needing to memorize the order of the Path of Suns because the color of the position you’ve played a card into doubles the card’s effect if it matches the sun color being enhanced by that card. Go ahead and read that sentence again, it’s a mess.

The game board and cloth versions of the Path do not label the positions, either, other than by glyph – one more weird thing to internalize/memorize. There’s a lovely poster that I had hanging up to remind us all of the color order, and maybe we could have just used that on the table, but it’s too big, even on a big table (we tried). I rolled out the fabric version because it’s quite lovely, but also a bit big. We ended up using the board, which also had the four suits (mysteries, notions, secrets, and visions) and their symbols printed around the edge.

A typical Sooth card in a typical six-fingered occult icon, as one does.

Anyway, the mechanical impact of the Path never felt like it really mattered that much: the level of a spell might go up or down, and you might get a bonus to your rolls if your Heart is ascendant. If the card’s enhanced sun is played on its matching position on the path, it’s an even bigger bonus. Face cards had even bigger impacts, but there are six of them across four suits: 24 of the 60 cards are face cards, and they come up too often for my taste (regular tarot has 16 face cards of 78 total, as well as the Major Arcana, which isn’t a Sooth Deck thing). It meant the odds of colors mattering is close to even. But it’s all stuff you have to track! The card that ends up in the hand statue matters most, because it’s in play longer once you’ve cycled through the first eight draws.

Short version: divination good, mechanics fussy and irritating to me.

Development Scenes: Fun But (Maybe) Impractical

I discovered pretty early on that the idea of the development scene – that is, where you have players work out their characters’ private scenes away from the table to preserve table time for scenes together – was more appealing to my players than actually doing them. Every session, I’d push and remind and cajole the players into participating. I’d usually get one or two to go for it. Otherwise, at least among my group of responsible adults, they just didn’t have any play bandwidth away from the table.  That probably has more to say about our relative ages, families and workloads (and probably capitalism itself) than the idea of playing outside our Tuesday night get-togethers.

I found the creative process of writing out development scenes quite enjoyable, on the GM side. I have more free time than my players, so it was a fun exercise to piece together a full scene, draw a Sooth card, and interpret the draw into the scene. It almost always sent the scene a direction I wasn’t anticipating, which of course is the whole point of the exercise. Top marks, really enjoy it as a prep tool that’s fun for the GM.

The Motivation Sandbox

I wrote about this at some length before but to swing back around: a core conceit of the game is that the players drive the action by committing to Character Arcs. It’s a very neat idea, very storygame-y, and it’s even got some interesting economic teeth to it. The biggest bite it takes is that the player has to buy their way into an Arc by committing Acumen, one of the two main advancement currencies. I think the idea is that if you’ve got skin in the game, you’re motivated to earn those back right away.

I mentioned above about the tension between the character-level play and the author-level workshopping this system creates. Another part of this is that Invisible Sun lends itself to slice-of-life play. Like, the point of showing up and playing is to bump around inside of Satyrine, feel like you’ve escaped to this marvelous, weird place. But what it doesn’t lend itself well to is a focused, intentional narrative for everyone to hook into.

Arcs are really close to great. I still think they could be great in experienced players’ hands.

There are certainly some overarching themes in the game. There’s The War, which is the big cross-cutting secret I leaned on the hardest in our game. But that’s about it when it comes to joining forces to face a canonical bigbad. My players were okay with the slice-of-life play, but we also craved that central organizing principle. The desideratum, the session 0 choice the players make regarding focus, just isn’t very good at providing that focus. We chose “power,” as in the acquisition of power, but because of the nature of the game, everyone’s power is on completely unrelated tracks. Vances do Vance things, Goetics do Goetic things and so on. Occasionally you can contrive the PCs to stumble across a cache of ephemera (single-use magic items) or a way to learn a bunch of Secrets (rule-breaking abilities) together. But mostly, thematically, the gathering of power for its own sake is both narratively empty and diegetically incoherent.

That said: if you’ve got players who are in for a relaxed-pace, sprawling story about a slice of life in a weird place, this game very much delivers on that. I’m not sure I’d want to play it for less than about a dozen sessions, just to see some Arcs play out, pick up new ones, and just watch the characters evolve as its own reward.

Smaller, less ambitious Arcs seem like the place to start in the game. The players don’t know enough about the system to set down big flags, but they need Acumen. The Foundation step of character creation has good “small” Arc ideas that help the players settle in, but we didn’t stick to that advice and our game suffered for it, I think.

Another facet of Character Arcs that became apparent is that they can serve as a spotlight dial. In some cases, the mechanical outcome of an Arc might be identical to the mechanical outcome of simply spending an economy for a new skill, spell, secret and so on. At first I thought that if you wanted to buy a new skill (say), you had to take on the Arc. Turns out that’s not necessarily the case. If you take the Arc, you’re giving yourself more Acumen earning opportunities in return for a delay in buying the advancement. Taking the Arc also obligates the GM to thread it into the ongoing other threads of the game. Basically, if the player wants the Acumen and is willing to wait, it gets added to the foreground. If they don’t, it can be a background thing. That’s pretty good. It came up a bit in our game, and every decision was different.

Does a Premier Production Result in a Premier Experience?

Okay, the big question everyone is asking: Is Invisible Sun worth the money?

Dat prep tho

I mean…yes? No? It depends entirely on your relationship to money. Do you have extra to spend? Do you need to extract maximum play value when you buy a game? Do all games need an ROI? Does all the non-play time count?

But besides the money, let’s talk about the actual product.

The four hardback books (seven total with expansions), I ended up digging these. None of them were too long, they were pretty easy to pass around, and I knew what was in the core four. Finding specific items was sometimes hard (helped with a searchable PDF), but browsing was terrific, just terrific, because of all the little hyperlink-style page/book notations in the center column of each page. There’s also some of the finest fiction writing you’ll ever read in gaming. It was a genuine pleasure going through these the first time.

The Sooth Deck was weird, beautifully produced, and kind of impractical in some basic ways. The big one, and this feels so nitpicky: it’s hard to shuffle round cards. Also kind of tricky to decode what’s on each card without a copy of The Gate in my lap all game long. The art is gorgeous and evocative, but the game-specific details are very small and hard to read. The six-fingered golden hand statue came out every session because it’s Peak Ostentation, and it’s semi-hard to get a round card to sit in the hand when necessary.

The big character sheet portfolios are not easy to read at the table. Also everyone gets another big sheet of paper to track bene pools in eight buckets. And almost everyone has other reference stuff they need: the Vance has another identically sized sheet, the Weaver has to have the effect-by-level sheet at hand, the Maker has the Maker’s Matrix, and so on. Then you have cards for all the general spells and magic widgets in the game. And if you’re using them, players end up with lots of props to manage. I have a big table and it was never quite big enough to accommodate everyone’s stuff along with the Path of Suns board in the middle. And because everyone’s abilities and Arcs and whatever else are scattered, it’s hard to just look and know what you’ve got. I feel like the folios are nice to have on your person, maybe, if you just want to browse them.

Then there’s the props. I passed quite a few of these out, I even bought a $7 pack of little decorative keys to hand out as wicked keys, but I’m not sure anyone really cared one way or the other. The “Welcome to Satyrine” trifold should probably come in a five-pack, not as a one-off item. But, like, fake business cards? Sure, those are cute. I suspect my players felt a bit self-conscious receiving these, though. And it was just more stuff  to stay on top of. I enjoyed the theatrics of handing them out, but I’m not sure any particular prop stood out afterward. I never got to use anything in the prop kits (two sets of PDFs, font files and .pngs) to make in-game handouts.

No game has ever so thoroughly colonized my play space. This is just the useful stuff tacked up to look at.

The box itself is physically unwieldy once you’re playing the game. I had it splayed open on the floor next to me, and still had two drawers of materials (chits, cards, and so on) precariously balanced and a folding side table to hold the books and other bits and bobs. Every session made me feel like a greedy corvid sitting in my nest of stuff.

All that content I’ll never get to see or use. Literally thousands of cards.

Three hundred-ish American dollars gets you a lot of stuff. The very prettiest edition of Dungeons & Dragons runs about half the unmarked-down Black Cube. Does Invisible Sun promise twice the fun? That is really, really up to the players who invested in it.

I’ve chatted with folks the past year that have played more than a hundred sessions of this game. They adore it, they love the puzzles, they haunt Discord servers to pick apart the game’s mysteries. I’ve also read some of the most godawful, vicious slags against Monte Cook Games for having the temerity to produce the most expensive RPG in all of gaming. These are games, among the most frivolous purchases you will ever make. I have a very hard time accepting that any game is overpriced. Most of them are indeed badly underpriced for the labor involved.

Should you go out and get yourself a copy of the Black Cube? That’s entirely between you and your wallet. For the right players, I could absolutely see years of play emerge from it. The design work in the thousands of cards alone is staggering. You could play for years and never see every Incantation show up (because vislae can get them for free, several times a session if necessary), or even a quarter of all the cards. For the wrong players, though, they’d end up spending as much as ten copies of Apocalypse World and end up with a game that’s functionally unplayable for their style and support preferences.

Thank You For Following This Series

It’s meant a lot to me. If you want to read my Invisible Sun series start to finish, here are the relevant posts:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Indie Game Reading Club on Patreon!

6 thoughts on “Invisible Sun: A Wrap-up”

  1. Paul,
    I’ve been keenly following your GM adventures with Invisible Sun and have to admit that I’m a little bummed out that you only played three sessions, but, like you said, THAT PREP and YOUR PLAYERS!

    I bought the PDF only version of the set on a Black Friday deal at drivethrrpg.com for $25, but printing up a couple hundred pages of cards is a hobby all into itself. I was secretly hoping your deep dive would tell me if my investment of hours and hours of printing all the game components was worth it. (Although I do feel vindicated when you said the details on the Sooth Deck were hard to read. I thought it was a problem with my ink-jet, and wound up rewriting all the info much larger by hand with a gel pen!)

    What I’m very curious about is when you say, “(Invisible Sun) doesn’t build on the lessons being passed around in the hothouse of “indie” storygame design…” what indie “lessons” do you think would’ve made stronger? And are any of these “learnings” elements that could be added without basically turning it into a different game altogether? That’s would be in addition to your other suggestions, such as figuring out character connections first; maybe writing or painting in the color of the sun on the Path of Suns (and making the Sooth cards readable); letting players be the ones to determine if events gave their characters Joy or Despair; and somehow making the character builds more thematically uniform?

    Thanks,

    Larry

  2. Hi Larry!

    Thank you so much for reading the series, it’s really nice to hear from folks.

    First off: I’m also bummed. Well…half of me is bummed. Half of me is a ridiculous novelty-obsessed goober who drops games way too fast in search of the next high (and stuff to write about, a nontrivial concern now that I’ve got a Patreon going). But half of me would have been pretty satisfied slowly exploring the world, just kind of live inside it for a while. My players are much less flexible in finding the fun in games, though, and they prefer storylines with action and twists and through-arcs. IS can get there but it’s a heavy, heavy lift the whole way.

    Okay so INDIE LESSONS. Stuff/techniques/ideas I think would have helped the game:

    • A different approach to doing things than succeed/fail. I like-ish that the game is a stealth diceless game, and as your stats grow your diceless ceiling goes up (because your venture will overcome ever higher target numbers). Early in the game, though, it doesn’t feel that way at all. It feels like a very trad success/fail game, with the GM left to interpret — or not! — failure. I mean it’s not a new idea; GMs have been “allowed” to fill in the gaps around misses since forever. But I like having a little more mechanical direction there. It’s one place I think the ongoing creative load could have been greatly reduced.
    • Pull back from the focus on combat/violent conflict, particularly given the game’s themes. Privileging violence by loading it up with more detailed/interesting rules means you get more of that, and that seemed off-tone to me. This would have been accomplished, I think, if they’d done something with my first bullet, ie make everything an interesting outcome.
    • Made the in-game economic cycles more explicit. Like…you never find out how to earn magecoins even though they’re the key currency for non-basic magical stuff. Obvs the GM can just give you a patron or employer or whatever who pays in magecoins, but like…what’s a suitable rate? What’s that look like? All the economies are like this once you get past your Foundation’s monthly income thing. If they’re gonna require the characters engage in diegetic economic cycles, they need to explain that stuff.
    • I really (really!) like the joy/despair/crux system, but I feel like there could have been room for the players to define for themselves what generates both. Like…guidance from their various character bits. Then they’re setting up their own flags and chasing their own stuff based on their build, rather than leaving it to the end of the session interview with the GM, where it really ends up looking like GM-fiat XPs. J/D for GM shifts are hot, that’s great — as is the whole GM shift thing. But letting the players workshop their own J/D lists seems like a missed opportunity.
    • The Arc system for earning Acumen is so close to great. Really close. I think this might’ve been the biggest mismatch between my local play culture and the rules-as-written. Best practice is almost certainly for the GM to incorporate all the Arcs into each other and create an endless stream of coincidences to make that happen — which is fine, totally. But the holding environment of the game is nonexistent until you pick your Arcs, and then the ease with which you’ll have matching up each other’s Arcs into big coincidental knots of action becomes…highly variable. If I had it to do over again, I’d have changed our starting setup (you’ve been in Satyrine for years, not hours) and I’d have mandated they pick Arcs from their Foundations, not whatever they felt like, so they could ease into the fiction slower. (I’m not sure if any of that comes from indieland, I’m just kind of talking about how I’d tweak what’s already there.)
    • You already mentioned the last one but: coming up with a thematic through-line for your magical weirdo. It’s so build-oriented that you end up with cool powers and nothing connecting them. I actively dislike that because going forward, the game continues to be about your build and not your…theme, I guess? I think he wants to get you there immersively through the Arcs you choose, but it just ended up such a muddle. Why does our musical Bard Weaver dude care about why the War started? Why does my bookish Vancian nerd want to murder spells? I’m totally open to the likely fact that this is just a taste thing, and that other players might totally dig into that. For whatever reason, my players didn’t.

    Hope this is helpful,

    p.

  3. Thanks Paul!
    Your thoughtful analysis has given me much food for thought and ideas for house rules, especially around character creation!

    Now whether or not it’s a disappointment that the world’s most expensive RPG would need any sort of house rules is, I guess, a fair question, but my cost entry was so low I’m not terribly appalled. And maybe good GMs add house rules to ANY game, sometimes even unconsciously, depending on their players and the stories they want to explore…

    Cheers,

    Larry

Leave a Reply