Invisible Sun, Session 2: A Motivation Sandbox

We played our second session of Invisible Sun last night. It got me thinking about a whole stew of interconnected ideas: holding environment, buy-in, credibility, and incentives. If those things are misaligned, any game’s going to be harder to pull together, keep together, and move forward together.

Here’s what I’m talking about when I talk about each of those words. My working definition might not be yours!

Holding environment: I have a little definition in my glossary but to recap, holding environment is the rationale for why the characters interact. You can get at that from within the game’s fiction through things like:

  • Shared enterprise (build a gang, face danger together, go on a quest)
  • Structure (superhero team, a ship’s crew, colonists, a spy agency, a legion of soldiers)
  • Interpersonal relationships (friendships, rivalries, debts, familial connections)

You can also get at the holding environment from outside the game’s fiction:

  • We get together on Tuesday nights
  • We like mastering the game system
  • We like the interplay of our characters
  • Social norms mandate our characters interact
  • We’ve agreed to sit together at this con table

That latter set is tough for some players, I think. It can be uncomfortable to assert in-fiction rationales “just because we’re at the same table.” In a conventional tabletop setup, a facilitator (DM, GM, MC, whatever) is responsible for cooking up a rationale, and that rationale becomes your alibi to play. Many newer games invite everyone in on the process. You don’t get to hide behind an alibi.

Buy-In: What I mean here is a good-faith suspension of disbelief. It needs to be good-faith because bad-faith suspension means the player is on the lookout for reasons to stop. How do you get that? That’s the subject of another post at some point. But the end result, players who are eager to engage with the game experience (the setting, the system, other players), is what I’m talking about here.

Credibility: I’ve been meaning to hit this topic for a long time. The short version is that credibility is a quality freely granted by and to human beings. Do I believe the GM is credible? Does the facilitator believe a player is credible? That is, do we believe a player is operating in good faith? It’s not about the good faith, it’s about the belief. Subtle but important difference.

Incentives: One of my favorite topics! Basically, it’s seeking out a payoff for engagement. Some games rely on mechanical advancement and growth. Some grant spotlight time. The thing is, designers can mechanize incentives all they want, but they don’t matter until the player feels incentivized by them. If I don’t care about advancement, experience points don’t drive my behavior. If I don’t care about in-game success, bonuses don’t drive my behavior. And so on. I’ve long suspected the main reason we like or dislike any given game comes down to how well the game’s incentives align with our preferred incentives.

Okay! That was a lot. Let’s have a little storytime now. I’ll swing back to this stuff after.

Wherein We Still Don’t Get To The Party

Our second session started out with everyone preparing for the Vance’s big “I’m home!” party. Prior to this session, one of my four players asked for a “development mode” scene. This is the thing in Invisible Sun where a character can do some stuff on their own, resolve the whole scene with a draw off the Sooth Deck, and not tie up the table with their personal stuff. That should mean there’s more time in person to spend scenes together. In our case, I continue to face something of a blind spot or habit with my players, who really prefer to pursue their own stuff even when we’re together at the table.

After feeling out the system in play last session, I went into this one with a few goals in mind. The big one was leaning harder on using the Sooth Deck to guide play. The game always starts with a draw at the top of the Path, and as you change scenes or “important things” (up to the GM, really) start happening you draw more cards. There’s a mechanical element – some magic gets easier, some gets harder, and characters’ Hearts get impacted depending on the suit drawn – that I feel like adds a neat sense of magic as a variable phenomenon, rather than pure physics. The non-mechanical element appears when you use the cards as oracles, or divination.

So that’s what I did. I asked around the table for scenes folks wanted, like, anything they wanted out of the way before the big party. The Weaver had been hired to perform at the Vance’s party, so he went early to the Vance’s house and the two of them had a nice scene together. We’re all still feeling out characterization. Some of that is chasing Joy and Despair incentives (drawn from their Order and Forte), some is chasing Acumen incentives (by pursuing Character Arcs), some is just aesthetics. I think these two characters are pretty well defined at this point, and the players have the longest experience with each other and me, so that feeling-out process is familiar to all of us.

Next scene, the Vance gets out of his house while his fussy party-planner cousin gets the place ready for the party, and decides to drop in at a club owned by the Order of Honed Thought. He’s got an NPC friend who’s a member and he’s hoping she’ll be there. I draw a Sooth card and decide to interpret it as the way being blocked. We dig into using Connections as a way to pull NPCs in, kind of like Circles tests in Burning Wheel. He finds someone he knows, but it’s not his friendly NPC! Rather, it turns out this dude who’s in a legal fight for his house is also a member of the Order. The ranking member, in fact. They sit down for a tense meal of verbal sparring and illusory meta-food.

Meanwhile, the Maker is getting ready for his hot date to the party with his lovely neighbor, a philanthropist of the arts with a birdcage for a body. The Vance, his close friend (a PC bond), shows up to bemoan his awful lunch. More feeling out the characters and their relationships, it’s all good. I think the Weaver shows up to taunt/congratulate the Maker, since they also have a bond – they’re friendly rivals. It’s fine, no rolling but also no conflict. It’s good, the game needs this stuff. But the lack of rolling means my opportunities to throw in GM Shifts (where I can declare an action wildly successful or catastrophic, granting Joy and Despair along the way) were nonexistent.

The Apostate’s player has been trying to nail down a character arc to pursue, and it’s been hard on both of us to figure out how much of that process needs to be organic to the fiction, and how much can be prescriptive and authorial. It can and should be both! But that points to a larger facet of Invisible Sun: the players need to be super hands-on about their advancement, which means being intimately familiar with a text that does not make this sort of research easy.

We looked at the r-map and decided to dig into Avalon, his lacuna lover. Lacunae are person-shaped intelligent voids, uncommon in Satyrine, magical weirdness. Avalon is bartending at the same hotel/casino that the Weaver normally performs at. Because so much of the game leans on “surrealism,” there’s always ample opportunity for unlikely coincidences. I think this has been a hindrance to strong buy-in for some players at my table. Not sure what to do about that!

We have a neat scene of the Apostate checking in on Avalon for the first time since returning from Shadow. There’s a big bouncer, a devil from the Red, making the lacuna nervous but it’s not apparent what’s causing that. The Apostate uses a cool spell to dip into the noosphere – kind of a magical Internet, made up of everyone’s ideas – to learn about what has transpired between them. I fumble over the rules a bit, mostly because I have to decide whether the devil or “the relationship” is the spell’s target. Divination is something of a special case in the rules, in that you have to roll to create the effect even though the spell is written as if the effect has already taken place. This is a common aesthetic of Invisible Sun, with most of the game’s effects described in non-rigorous ways, while still demanding mechanical rigor to execute. Like, there are rules for divination, and you just have to know this is a fact when you use the spell.

Swing back to the Maker, who’s chased off the mopey Vance to get ready for their hot date with the philanthropist. I draw a Sooth card for the scene and decide the hot date doesn’t show up. Uh oh! They head to her house, which has been broken into. Yikes! They hear her calling for help and goes inside, but it turns out to be a Feral Shepherd has broken in and filled the place with … housecats. Violent, terrifying housecats. By the force of coincidence and very light rationalization, the Weaver musician had gone looking for his rival, the Maker, and tracked them to the house. Then the Vance shows up, and finally the Apostate (who needs no rationale at all, since he’s a fated companion to the Weaver –it’s a pretty great tool if you don’t want to spend cycles on rationales). It’s a big fight! We get to use the system in Action Mode a bit, which is fun and higher-stakes than all the talky stuff. But it also sucks up a lot of table time.

We ended the session with the freaky Feral Shepherd defeated, the philanthropist still missing, and a big party starting in less than an hour. It’s something of a cliffhanger, which the game text advises against. That’s interesting! And it’s hard for me, because my instinct is very much to end on cliffhangers. This snuck up on me without me even realizing what I’d done. But Monte Cook is right: without breathing room, development scenes don’t happen.

Back To Those Interconnected Ideas

This game has taken over my entire game space. Turns out tiny rare-earh magnets stick to IKEA shelves!

This session started with me feeling grumpy about the game’s lack of a fictive holding environment. Ugh, it’s just D&D all over again I said to myself. But at the end of the session, I’ve changed my mind. The game very much has a holding environment: the characters’ shared pursuit of self-actualization. In many trad setups, the GM would be expected to provide a premise. Because of how character arcs work in Invisible Sun, the GM doesn’t do that. At first I thought character arcs acted like Beliefs in Burning Wheel but now I think they’re different. BW best practices, hard earned after many years of struggling and learning, said that, yeah, we really should agree to some kind of overarching premise so we can have a Belief tied into it. But that’s rooted in the structures of adventure fiction. Invisible Sun is a different animal.

Invisible Sun is a motivation sandbox.

In a conventional sandbox, say an OSR-style adventure setting, the sand in the sandbox is comprised of challenges and opportunities that exist outside any effort to balance them against the characters. You might find easy pickings, or you might die if you don’t know your limits. In Invisible Sun, the sand in the sandbox is the nearly endless variety of goals you can choose to pursue, modeled as character arcs. Those arcs might be easy pickings, or you might die if you don’t know your limits. They might be mechanical (learn a spell or a secret), they might be social (create a bond, join an organization), they might be dramatic (fall from grace, avenge a wrong).

Those goals in turn feed the players two kinds of advancement currency. And those currencies can be used on a staggering array of advancements. By comparison, leveling up is so easy. Picking your next playbook move, ditto, and it’s comforting because those decisions reinforce tropes for the most part: your gunlugger gets more gunny, your vampire becomes more vampy.

This game needs the players to assert what their characters care about, and the GM to accrete the game around that. If you want to rise up through the ranks of your Order, you’re gonna need to pursue the Order/Forte things that grant you Joy and Despair. If you want more spells or secrets, you’re gonna need to pursue the Character Arc things that grant you Acumen. Probably a good practice for the players is to dream up builds and reverse-engineer advancement schemes from there. That demands both that the players be comfortable shopping several books, and that they continue to be incentivized by advancement. Even if the players want to focus on drama via their Arc choices, they may still need advancement if they care about succeeding (they don’t have to; even failing at an Arc gets you Despair, the most valuable currency in the game).

Because the setting is so weird and the starting scenario is so impossible to grasp, I think buy-in is deeply hampered until players start making character arc choices. The game asks you to care (pick your arc…) but doesn’t tell you what to care about (…but do it without any context). That’s a tough lift the very first time, but I’ll bet with a little experience and trust that it’ll all work out, the next round of characters would be a lot easier.

And finally there’s the issue of credibility. The game specifically breaks up authority (which is different from but related to credibility) in some surprising ways, mostly by asking the players to plant their flags on some arcs before the GM does anything. I’m super comfortable with how Burning Wheel’s fiction accretes around Beliefs, but I’m much less comfortable not getting any say in a premise. Experience will teach us to best practices and my credibility in how I run the game will grow, but for right now I feel like everyone and everything is on probation for now.

NB: This is one in a series about Invisible Sun I’ve been writing about since the middle of 2019. Very generous patrons purchased the Black Cube and other hardbacks. The goal of this series has been to evaluate this rather expensive game on its merits, outside any influence of having bought it.

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