Last night, for our final gathering of 2019, my Tuesday night game group made characters for next year’s Invisible Sun game. It was…A Lot. We might be done? I’m not really sure.
I started an online game with some folks in my Slack two weeks ago, and they’re still not quite done. After going through the process in person, I have a new appreciation for why it’s taken so long.
Character creation for Invisible Sun is deliberately lengthy and involved, the better I think to get the players invested and thinking hard about their creation. This is the polar opposite of life-is-cheap games like Dungeon Crawl Classics, where you can toss together a new toon in 5 minutes and jump back in.
The rule-writing style in The Key is a big reason why we found the process so long and fraught. In classic ‘90s fashion, there’s no daylight between “the rules” and “the fiction” in the text itself. You need to read line by line, every line, to extract procedural instructions. There’s a very nice glossy handout that walks the players through the steps but it’s incomplete. There are lots of little steps to take within each big step.
The first is formally “step 0,” and asks the players to flag the kind of play they’re looking for. Cook offers four broad categories of play, and they’re good for this specific game: builder (you want to add to the world), explorer (you want to discover the setting’s secrets), attainer (self-improvement) and achiever (story-focused, want to see plots play out). It’s not a universal model, but for Invisible Sun I thought it was interesting. We ended up with two explorers, a builder and an attainer. I’m pretty sure I’d be an achiever.
I found reading through each step quite enjoyable if you read The Key from start to finish. Flavorful, evocative, it’s great. I’ve read these books cover to cover multiple times just for the pleasure of doing so.
The steps are represented by the six fingers on the Testament of Suns statuette, one for each aspect of a vislae. The game expects players to do all six steps on their own, away from the table, before the first session. I shared a link to my PDF of The Key but that’s asking a lot of players. For one, the square form factor of the books is terrible on anything other than a big screen: we had tablets and laptops all around and there was a lot of zooming or squinting. I’m iffy about electronics at a live table in any case, but unless we’re expected to pick up extra copies of The Key (you can buy them for $49 apiece, a smidge cheaper than everyone getting a D&D Player’s Handbook I suppose), you need screens if you’re making characters together.
We did everything together at the table. I prefer creating characters together in all games because I think it’s important to listen to players bounce their ideas around. In some cases it was pretty quick and easy, particularly for steps where there are only a few choices – Order (five), Heart (four) and Soul (13!), for example – but quickly grew untenable when there were more choices. The big one is Forte, which has a lot to choose from both in The Key (31) and Book M (13). I’m still thinking about whether it was a good idea to let Book M into the proceedings. It’s got a lot of neat options but perhaps only for experienced players.
Foundation, which is the last step, covers your social situation and has direct implications for your house. Like, your literal domicile, which is an important aspect of your character. Characters are expected to be an established (if not necessarily respectable) member of Satyrine society. I think everyone’s character really came into focus here.
The final step is to pick your starting character arc. There are recommended starting arcs attached to your Foundation, but there are also arc recommendations throughout the other steps. Arcs are not well explained before players need to choose. In a couple cases, I think the players were eager to jump right into the action and picked those earlier arc ideas. Maybe I should have required they choose an arc out of their Foundation, since they feel better suited to slowly easing into the game.
The Neighborhoods, and Even More Steps
This step, formally the main action of “session one,” felt nicely familiar to me: players collaborating on setting details. I can imagine this is weird and even uncomfortable for a tranche of trad players. It’s pretty lightweight: based on the characters and their homes, we toss out ideas for neighbors, a place of interest in each neighborhood, and a “local issue” at play. Everyone ends up with an interesting little sliver of Fartown, the vislae district of Satyrine. In our game, we have one neighborhood that’s ritzy, one that’s kind of decrepit, one that’s warm and welcoming, and one that’s show-biz and touristy (although there are few tourists in Fartown). Fun!
As the clock ticked over to 10pm, I thought getting through the neighborhood creation would be the end of setup. It wasn’t.
Wrapping up the neighborhood step highlighted all the little tidbits we left behind, and how many tidbits remain. Some Orders need players to choose a general spell or two, for example, which is frankly impossible to do intentionally. Between the black box and Book M there are so, so many cards. Way too many to shop, particularly for new players. I found the stack impossible to curate without actual play context. There’s a “searchable” text file that comes with the black box, and that’s slightly more useful than cards. it’s not sortable. I’m compiling and re-formatting all the spell card data (and all the other cards) to dump into a SQL database, and I’ll build some kind of sorting tool.
Another step, which seems like it should be easy but wasn’t: picking a quirk for your vislae (weird non-mechanical tweaks and effects), and picking a peculiarity for your house. Oh and a character secret, maybe. And a house secret, maybe. And all those steps earlier where you’re supposed to invent a skill whole-cloth when you receive instructions like “you have a skill related to magic outside of formal training” but the players have no context for what’s appropriate, useful, or interesting.
And more: we talked about the characters’ lives in the Shadow (that is, our world right now), what skill they learned there, and what memento they brought back. This was pretty fun and easy, a nice break from the rest of the process. I pushed the Matrix metaphor and I think that helped: you were probably doing something menial, but whatever you were doing, the Actuality lets you know it was a lie all along. We got some interesting results! The Vance (think highly formalized High Magic type) was a minimum-wage worker wasting his life playing video games, the Weaver (think Ars Magica style ad-hoc magicians) was a choir teacher (the player actually is; I’m curious how that’ll play out), the Apostate was a frigging talk show host with a hot celebrity wife, and the Maker (alchemist/enchanter) was a corporate concept artist, designing like…packaging and trade show banners.
Let’s not forget: Each PC should have connections to 0-3 NPCs. Zero? That’s quitter talk. Of course everyone went for three. We also made sure there were lots of cross-connections and PC-NPC-PC triangles, which is good best practice for any kind of relationship map. I’m satisfied with what we built.
And even more: we also designated PC bonds. Each PC has a bond with another PC, which provides a benefit and drawback, as well as fictional context as to how these weirdos know each other. I was confused by the instruction that each character have only one PC bond at the start of the game, but bonds are reciprocal so…does the Weaver’s close friends bond with the Vance count as the Vance’s starting bond? We decided that it did, but as I write this I’m just not sure. It seems important since there are mechanical benefits as well as fictional context.
When I was scouring Discords and Reddits and blogs for Invisible Sun talk, I ran into advice to do the PC bonds before even character creation. I can see the advantage of this, particularly if you’re planning on sitting together to make characters. In the interest of experiencing the game as designed and intended, we didn’t do that the first time.
Spoiler: there’s even more to do after bonds.
The final final for real final bit is for the players to agree to The Desideratum: the players’ shared starting motivation. The choices are money, power, information, allies, travel, and altruism. Putting this discussion at the bitter end is, in my opinion, the absolute worst place to put it. If I did it again, I’d do the Desideratum talk first, then PC bonds, and then character creation taking those things into account. Choosing a starting Character Arc from the list attached to Foundations and in context with the Desideratum would solve a lot of the game’s holding environment weakness. We had ended up with so many disparate threads and arcs and ideas that it was near impossible to agree to one of these six. In the end everyone agreed that “power” was a good one to start with: let’s level up before taking on the bigger setting.
We (Almost) Did It
After more than four hours, the players handed me characters that feel 90% done. I need to go through each with a fine-tooth comb and make sure they’ve left nothing out. Everything’s important but it’s not always clear why before you play. I hate making players make uninformed choices, even as I shrug and counsel them to not worry so much about making bad choices.
In the end, character, setting and situation creation in Invisible Sun is just hard. Some of this is because we’ve grown accustomed to much faster character/setting creation (via playbooks or greatly streamlined choices). I think Invisible Sun offers the worst possible setup procedure along every possible axis: form factor (expensive books, hard to read PDFs, too many cards, unfilterable text files), order of operations, text flow, forward references, all of it. Any one or two of these wouldn’t be a deal breaker, but all of it synergizes into a really rough process. Even if you’re super into fiddly customization – and lordy does Invisible Sun facilitate that – it’s A Lot.
But also: the process created four super weird, super interesting, utterly unique characters. Sometimes I play a thought experiment game where I imagine how the game looks as I focus on each PC as “the main character.” I love all four vislae that came out of this, and can’t wait to see what their lives look like. They’re all the MVP.
I’ll spend the next couple weeks filling in the blanks, looking over the arcs, tying into the Desideratum, and maybe even playing this monstrosity in the new year.