This is the second in a series of deep dives I’m taking on Invisible Sun, Monte Cook Games’ sprawling, prestige tabletop RPG. If you want to start at the beginning, go here.
Invisible Sun’s Killer App
My first exposure to Cypher was via No Thank You, Evil!, a game targeted at kids. In that iteration, I’d hesitate to really call Cypher a “system” at all: it is mostly the GM setting a target number, the player deciding to use a chit to improve the roll, and rolling the target number on a d6. There’s a very gentle reward cycle where you can spend a “have fun” chit, which refreshes all the other chit pools. It’s cute and tactile and perfect for my 7 year old daughter.
The version of Cypher in Invisible Sun is not for kids. It’s more elaborate than the version found in Numenera: Discovery and The Strange, which is good because Cypher is pretty thin on the ground there as well. The article prior to this laid out the various advancement economies in The Key, how six stages of character development deliver a complex package of abilities and maybe, just maybe, an interesting character to embody.
But Cypher itself? Not that innovative. The real killer app is the game’s Development Mode.
Like pretty much every RPG everywhere, “normal” gameplay in Invisible Sun bounces between what they call “narrative” and “action” modes. Action mode is what you think it is: rolling dice, working things out in detail, combat. Ditto narrative mode: talking, describing, casual negotiations. There’s a special board out called the Path of Suns, onto which the GM will be dealing round cards from the Sooth Deck, and that’s interesting but I’ll get into that later.
Development Mode is a kind of ubiquitous play mode that extends outside actually sitting down for a session. Players can use Development Mode to take care of business everyone would rather have done before they get together, and players can even get together to handle joint stuff that probably doesn’t need GM intervention. Draws off the Sooth Deck let them know how their stuff turned out, particularly if they’re pursuing their story arcs.
Development Mode excites me because it’s a solution to the problem of solitaire players doing solitaire things at the table, when time is short and we really should be playing together as a group. You want to shop for home upgrades? Fantastic, you do that on your spare time this weekend. You want to woo a romantic partner while you pursue your “have a baby” story arc? Great! If it’s an NPC, let’s draw a Sooth card and see how that turned out. You can use it to carry out a little mini-mission before you get together, like research or surveillance. There’s also a note about using Development Mode play to manage flashbacks (a la Blades in the Dark, but not in media res) and flashforwards, which seem more aspirational that practical.
I remember doing little side bits like this all the time in my middle school D&D days. Maybe you do too! That kind of ubiquitous play seems exhausting now, but if everyone’s on board with reserving spotlight-intensive activities for off-screen play, it seems like a smart way to drive the players toward spending more time playing with each other.
The thing I’m most interested in is seeing just how much play can be handled in Development Mode, and how much my players will actually want to engage with it.
It’s Cypher, so basically it goes like this: the GM sets a target number, between 1 and 10 for mundane stuff and higher than that if it involves “impossible” tasks. Then the player adds up their various advantages (their “venture”). If the total advantages add up to the target number, don’t bother rolling, you did the thing. If it’s not, you add a d10 and if that comes out to the target number, you did the thing. Only the players roll; if an NPC does something, the players can roll to defend.
There are guidelines for setting target numbers. You can also require multiple successes, which require multiple dice be rolled (which means magic is involved). But everyone needs to be on board with the GM making a best guess at target numbers. The whole thing requires, even demands, good faith all around.
Bene is the currency available to characters to temporarily boost their venture, but you can also use it to increase the effect: just by one level, unless your character knows a “secret.” Secrets are little exceptions to the 1-bene rule that let you generate major effects. Mechanizing the “yes and” quality of “effect” in Invisible Sun feels quite like advantage/triumph effects in Genesys (FFG’s house system, used in Edge of the Empire), or rolling for greater effect in Blades in the Dark.
Even if you don’t nail your roll, the GM still has the authority to grant partial successes, or successes with consequences. None of this is mechanized, just loosely connected to how close your roll was to what you needed.
None of this is a ding on the system. But you need to go into it with clear eyes. The GM has a ton of authority and responsibility.
One place where pure GM fiat is encouraged (and mechanized!) is the GM Shift. The GM can grant a straight-up success or failure regardless of what the players rolled (or disclaim the decision to the Sooth Deck). Shifts also come with Joy and Despair, two of the advancement economies. Nobody gets hit with more than one Shift per session, and no more than a couple shifts will happen any session. Interesting to connect this call to player economies, though, and I’m sure it takes the sting out a bit.
There is little discussion about what happens on a failed roll, or a failing GM Shift. There is no guidance that something should always happen, or that you can’t try again until things change, Burning Wheel style. If you’re not faced with clear failure consequences, like failing to jump over a hole, you can just roll again (there’s even reassurance that there’s no penalty for doing so in Action Mode, although there’s a 1 Bene cost to retrying things in Narrative Mode – I’m a little concerned about having to be so formal about what “mode” we’re in). Of the myriad things MCG has picked up from storygaming, I’m so surprised they didn’t bring explicit failure consequences into the 21st century.
Advanced Rules Modules
So the rules? They’re 32 pages of a 142 page book. The next chunk of The Gate is optional rules. There aren’t a lot.
Appurtenances are little tweaks you add to your Cypher-style Adjective Noun that Verbs character descriptor. They grant more benefits, and they take both an economic token and a story-based trigger to unlock. They’re kind of like compendium classes in Dungeon World.
Hm. There’s stuff about changing your Order and Forte (see The Key), which strikes me as being A Big Deal in a game that is largely about your role in various societies. There are rules for having a patron, probably a good idea if you want outside forces to hand the characters jobs and missions. Some other way-deep-in-the-weeds options that don’t really matter for our purposes here.
Wherein I Try To Not Sound Patronizing About Something Good But Dated
Oh damn it I’m going to be patronizing anyway: it is so cute that Invisible Sun promotes player-driven play as a major, even controversial, innovation. The same innovation that underpins many, even most, of storygame design since oh…2003 or so.
Okay, that’s out of the way. My sincerest apologies.
The audience for the gamemastering chapter is not storygamers who are checking out Invisible Sun. Everything about this section is about gently, oh so gently, easing crusty trad folks into the idea that the players set the direction of this game. That the GM need not, indeed should not, be cooking up storylines or Big Bads.
I mean, check out this passage:
“Players in the driver’s seat? Hey now! That’s not how I run games,” you might say. “When I run games, I’m in charge!”
Hear me out. If for no other reason than I’m going to tell you things that you will probably find surprising. Maybe even things you can write angry Internet posts about. But you’ve got to read it before you can do that. I’m going to contend, first and foremost, than you need to run different games differently. I personally run Numenera very differently than I run Invisible Sun, and both are very different than how I run Dungeons & Dragons. Probably the best bit of advice I can give you on gamemastering is that if you’ve got only one GM mode or one GM style, you need to start rethinking that – different games require different things of the GM. A horror writer doesn’t use the same voice and style when he writes nonfiction. Or romance. Or science fiction. Why should a GM running various games be any different?The Gate, page 46
This is from a game published in 2018. If you were following indie game publishing around, oh, the start of the second Bush administration, you’d have read nearly identical thoughts and the flame wars that inevitably followed. Time is a flat circle.
While I think it’s a stretch for Monte Cook Games to claim to have innovated player-driven play, it’s absolutely terrific that they’re using their clout and reach to push these ideas. Yes, please, appropriate storygamer culture here. Same with MCG’s free essay on safety tools, which caused an absurd kerfuffle on Twitter and various online communities. (Side note: If you are reading this and remain skeptical about safety tools in RPGs, read this please.) If you need to hear 21st century gaming ideas from Monte Cook, whatever, just please hear them.
The great bit, I thought, is that Cook then goes whole-hog into storygame-ville at this point. In for a penny, in for a metric fuckton of game design progress that’s apparently just now making its way into the hands of mainstream(ish) gamers. Let’s follow the personal growth of our characters, not just their power-ups. Let’s start with the players’ character arcs, not the GM’s plot. Let’s negotiate explicit, transparent, intentional play. At the end of our sessions, let’s debrief about what happened.
There is, deep into this series of nu-school mic-drops, some interesting discussion about the nature of surreality as a political and aesthetic movement, not just a vibe or a descriptive flourish. That’s great, because when I get to The Path – where “the truth” about Invisible Sun’s setting assumptions are revealed to the GM – I’ve got several bones to pick on this point. The genuinely useful insight regarding GMing a surrealist game is to lean hard on coincidence, and by extension the stuff that bubbles up in your subconscious. I mean, lordy, Cook goes so far as to describe Burroughs’ cut-up method of drawing ideas out of your subconscious via random inputs. (I have a vague memory of this being mentioned in Over the Edge as well.) This is similar to using tarot and other divination methods, and is the core purpose of the Sooth Deck, itself a tarot-like tool.
Let’s talk about those round cards next.
That Deck With the Round Cards
Honestly I don’t know why the Sooth Deck is circular, other than to make it that much harder to replicate the full Black Box experience at home with the PDF. But they are. It’s eye-catching, very interesting, and weird. The deck of round cards and the big six-fingered hand statue that holds a card, that’s all part of the theatrics of Invisible Sun’s table presence. I’m all-in on this stuff, because I’ve always been a big believer in table theatrics and visual focal points for the players.
The Sooth Deck is used in conjunction with the Path of Suns, which is a literal map of the game’s eight realms of reality as well as a side element that represents the Invisible Sun itself. In the game, that’s where you put the big gold hand. Throughout play, the GM deals cards off the Sooth Deck onto the Path of Suns: when they move to a new location or scene, a major NPC appears for the first time, a PC suffers a wound, something surprising happens, or one of those GM Shifts occurs. It’s a visual marker indicating a tonal or scene shift.
Some mechanical stuff comes along with the card played. Diegetically, magical forces constantly ebb and flow, and some magics become more powerful while others weaken. You leave the cards in place, too, a constant visual reminder of what has come before.
The cards in actual use have a ton of sub-uses. They have numbers, associated animal, object and elemental symbols built into the art (there are 60 cards total, 15 per “suit”). There are “royalty” cards, basically face cards. It is functionally a tarot deck. Exciting stuff! Tarot is notoriously hard to integrate into RPGs.
The Invisible Sun app has the Sooth Deck built into it, so folks can “draw” and use the card details to figure out what happened during a Development Mode side scene. At the table, the GM is fully expected to draw off the deck for divinatory inspiration, visual ideas, even a way to randomize whether a GM shift is positive (generating Joy) or negative (generating Despair). A huge chunk of The Gate is given over to a card-by-card breakdown.
To Wrap Up
The system-level stuff that jumped out at me from The Gate were:
- Development Mode play, where you can handle side scenes at any time outside a regular session
- A huge amount of GM discretion, authority and responsibility but also…
- A very gentle sell to hidebound trad players on the virtues of player-driven play (and ultimately a bottom-up org chart, with the GM at the “bottom” supporting their players rather than dictating to them)
- The Sooth Deck, a multi-use divination tool that impacts every aspect of play.
Next up, I’ll talk about The Way, which describes the various magical systems in Invisible Sun.
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