Invisible Sun: The Key

Invisible Sun’s rules, buried under a pile of cards and props and other assorted goodies, are broken up across four big square hardbacks. The how-to-unpack slip of paper instructs us to start with The Key, which is entirely devoted to character creation. It’s intended to be used by and shared with the players; I think a linked/bookmarked PDF of it comes with the package. It’s also set up to be read and used cover to cover. When it’s time to run IS here, I’ll have to warn my players: you’ve got a lot of homework ahead of you.

Vislae not Vizsla, the dog breed. I may just have to go with “mage” in the game.

Finally I’ve found the game’s premise! Not a spoiler, not really. (Going forward I’ll mark entire posts as spoilers as necessary.) The characters are “vislae,” magical humans, who once lived in a surreal city called Satyrine. Then, allegedly, a war broke out (we don’t know with whom or why, those are some of the game’s nesting-doll secrets) and the characters shifted themselves into Shadow. That is, our world. And now, as the game begins, the vislae have returned home. There’s a lot of interesting metaphysics explaining how Shadow exists and why the other worlds/dimensions along the Path of Suns are more real than this one. Ours is “the lie,” Kult-style.

The setup feels designed to indulge the vanity of the folks who would spend $250 on an ultra-premium RPG. Waiters and housecleaners and garbage pickup and hotel workers in Satyrine are thoughtforms, soulless magical servitors. Service workers aren’t even real people. Not like you! You’re interesting by design, because you’re a vislae who has escaped the drudgery of this (our) world, where perhaps you were a programmer, or an accountant, or a lawyer. It is so bougie! It’s all self-insert fantasy designed with its buyers in mind.

As I went through The Key the first time, I felt like the buyers/readers/players are conceived of as single or maybe DINK dudes (purely a gut-level sense; I’m still thinking about this one). Check it: let’s say I, a late-40s dad, self-insert into the vislae fantasy. I leave behind the drudgery of this life! Great! But then the game has absolutely nothing to say about the relationships we may have had in Shadow, or our extended families, or our children. Honestly, being yanked from this world and dropped down the rabbit hole into this surreal setting sounds horrific. Where’s my spouse? Where’s my kid? Are they just thoughtforms in this world? Were they the Shadow’s lies?

The Key opens with seven fiction vignettes, by far the best-written I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a whole lot of them in World of Darkness books), and none of them are from the point of view of anyone other than childless, family-less singletons. An updated version of trenchcoat-and-katana murder-hobo orphans.

In many games, we’re expected to take on roles utterly unlike our own: a wizard in a fantasy realm, a computer hacker in a corporate dystopia, an Icelandic settler, a gunslinger, whatever. In Invisible Sun, there’s every invitation to draw you, the reader/buyer, into this game world. But it simply doesn’t have anything to say about anything other than you and your context. When the game starts, your character has left their life behind. The Shadow is a bad memory. How alienating.

The author goes to great lengths to defend/explain Invisible Sun in terms of pure, lab-grade escapism. Now I’m thinking Invisible Sun is a horror game in disguise. I can work with that.

Setting Up

There’s a short bit in the beginning, written straight to the reader and not as fiction, before the game gets into the details of how to create a character. From that point forward, The Key addresses itself to “me” and “we.” That is, as you go through the steps of character creation, every entry is written in the first person. For example:

Connection: We have 1 level of connection with the Order of the Vance. Ephemera Use: We can safely possess three ephemera at any given time.

Later, when you’re working out your special angle (your “forte”):

I must determine how I got my orb. Perhaps I discovered it somewhere. Perhaps I stole it. Perhaps it was a gift from a powerful or influential person. Perhaps I inherited it.

Interesting way to write the rules! I got a nicely immersed vibe during my read-through. Not sure I’ve seen such purposeful manipulation of a shifting POV in rules text before. But it’s also the kind of ruleset where you need to read a lot of fiction to get to the rulesy bit of the rules. If you’ve played a World of Darkness type game you know what this is like. It’s fine, honestly. I’ll be doing cheat sheets so we don’t have to go digging later.

There are six steps the players are expected to take care of on their own before your first session. You’re literally instructed: do all this and bring it to the first session. That’s ambitious. I’ll see if my folks go for it.

The steps are systematic, and thoroughly discussed, and each one is rich in fictional context. I can see this being an irritant if you’re into either the “roll 4d6 six times, keep the highest three” style character creation or “fill in some bubbles and circle some things on this playbook” style. The players are going to do a lot of work, and they’re going to end up with a really weird, interesting, bespoke creation. Invisible Sun characters aren’t “like” anything at all, as far as I can tell. They’re not disposable stat blocks, and they’re not tropesy archetypes. Unknown Armies has a similar vibe, where it’s hard to look to fictional inspirations to help.

The Steps

Because you’re vislae, you speak a secret language so of course your character is described around this secret language. The steps are keyed to the six-fingered statue, the Testament of Suns, that is the game’s visual icon.

Did you notice the six fingers? I did not.

Your first choice is your Order (“tor”), which is what flavor of magic-user you are. There are four flavors: Vancian, which I cringe at every time I read it for the D&D overtones; Makers, which is all about crafting magical stuff; Weavers, who piece together magical themes for one-off spells; and Goetics, who summon things. Given the multidimensional traveler angle of the game, there are lots of summonable things! Oh and this is very nice: each Order has its own style of character sheet.

You would be correct in noting these really aren’t at-home printable.

There’s a fifth Order, Apostate, which means you don’t belong to any order. The Apostate character sheet is more or less a blank page because “don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” Very cute.

Second choice is your Heart (“da”), which is kind of your Myers-Briggs personality type. For real! Basically it’s the four combinations of introvert/extrovert and thinker/doer. This sets your stat pools you’ll divide into specialized sub-pools later. Your Heart also keys into the deck of round cards, the Sooth Deck, which gets dealt out constantly in the game.

Third choice is your Forte (“tu”), which is the character’s special schtick. Maybe you breathe runes that become magical effects. Maybe you consume living flesh (yuck) and take on the power of whom or what you consume. Maybe you’re hooked into the “noösphere,” which is like… the magical/psychic internet. And so on. Your Forte also tells you your first ways of generating Joy and Despair, economies you combine into “crux,” which is one of your advancement reward cycles.

Fourth choice is your Soul (“ka”). It’s a secret stat! You don’t tell anyone what it is, and you write it down somewhere other than your character sheet. There are thirteen choices and they have mechanical benefits, but if you use them, yikes, someone else knows what your secret soul is now. Super curious to see how that plays out.

Fifth choice is Foundation (“la”), that is, the lifestyle to which you have returned when you left Shadow behind. It’s your living situation, your social connections, and a “hidden knowledge” stat you can use as a kind of “hero point” bennie in the game. Your Foundation also implies what character arcs you’re going to sign up for in the next step.

The final choice, and to my mind most interesting, is your Character Arcs (“ver”). These are basically opt-in advancement flags. An arc might be “assist an organization,” and by signing up for that arc, you’re committing to respond to an organization’s request, evaluate and undertake their task, and complete it. You have to invest Acumen, another advancement economy, to start an Arc but then you’ll gain back much more than that as you achieve your steps each session.

The advice is to limit each character to three arcs. It looks like an Arc might take anywhere from three to dozens of sessions to get through.

The Arcs are terrific and very storygamey, yeah? It’s telling the GM what you want to spend your time on, and it’s telling the player exactly what to do to earn advancement. It is so similar to quests in Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine that I have to wonder if it wasn’t cribbed directly. Maybe not? Parallel development is a thing. But they’re really similar.

The Result

Since I’ve got experience with another Cypher game, No Thank You, Evil!, it’s fun to see those bones under Invisible Sun’s skin. In NTYE, you end up with an Adjective Noun who Verbs that describes your character. My daughter, for example, plays a Super Fast Superhero who Eats Ice Cream. Each of those bits has some mechanical impact, but it’s also a succinct description that’s easy for me to keep in mind when we play. It’s like a narrative version of Traveller’s Universal Code.

There’s way more depth and complexity to the set of choices you work through in Invisible Sun, so you end up with a really interesting, colorful string: a Goetic Empath who Breathes Runes, or an Apostate Galant who Channels Strength and Skill. If you later tack on an appurtenance (an optional extra goodie from The Gate, the main rulebook), and you get tricksy with the other names and degrees you can reference (kind of like how an certain level B/X Thief is a burgler) you might end up with a Shaper Philosopher who, Having Walked With Death, Eats Knowledge With a Retinue.

Getting Together

When the players finally get together in person, they’ve got a couple things left to do. One is to come up with their “desideratum,” the players’ reason for being in the game together. The Character Arcs thing fills me with dread that I’ll end up with a table full of players pursuing a dozen personal agendas, nobody ever bothering to interact with anyone else. By working out the neighborhoods of Satyrine they’ll live and work in, and then specific bonds between player characters (all of which have mechanical benefits and drawbacks, smart!), you settle on one of six underlying themes: money, power, information, allies, travel, and altruism. This is the last decision they make before play, and it’ll combine everyone’s arcs and bonds and all the rest of it.

The neighborhood creation step looks pretty interesting. Each player has two neighbors, and the rest of the group decides who your neighbors are. You might end up with a squabbling couple in the apartment upstairs, and an extradimensional spider’s web filling the alleyway. Who knows? As character-centered as the rest of the game is, I hope the neighborhood and the desideratum, combined with the fact you can run “side scenes” with the GM or on your own between sessions (more on that next week), come together in a way such that when the players are physically together, they’re committed to playing together as well. This has been an issue at my own table, most recently when players in our Urban Shadows game constantly broke off to do their own thing, so new tools and ideas are welcome.

The Key is a big lift, but I’m sure it’ll get its hooks into the players really deep. I’ve been reading on Reddit forums about “optimal builds” and such and honestly that’s a weird place for me to approach a game like this. There are lots of trad bits and bobs – everything has a mechanical implication – but what I’m thinking about is the extensive fictional positioning you end up with.

The Key hints at the game’s underlying mechanics but doesn’t get into it too much. I think there are enough explanations that players aren’t going to feel blindsided by the system.

Next week: The Gate, which has the rules.

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9 thoughts on “Invisible Sun: The Key”

  1. Wow, thanks for such a detailed look at this game, I can’t wait for more!

    I’d guess that 7th Sea 2nd edition’s Stories is more likely than Chuubo’s to be a direct inspiration for the Character Arcs, could be wrong. They work pretty well to generate content for a session as long as you don’t necessarily expect there to be an overall plot as well (there can be, but it’s hard to guarantee). The desideratum idea is a neat way of tying them together and encouraging them not to pull in different directions, but it’s weird that you don’t pick it until after the character arcs, at least to me.

    The concept of the game, and especially the idea of living in Shadow worlds that are “less real” than the ones you’re returning to and also populated with people that are “less real” sounds like it’s inspired by the Chronicles of Amber. Which might also explain why all the characters in the vignettes are childless singletons without family, if it’s intentional emulation. This isn’t a justification mind you (Amber has it’s share of problems on this and other fronts), just a guess of the angle they might be taking.

    I’m really interested in the idea of first person rules text, and wonder why it hasn’t been done more often.

    1. You’re probably right about the influences! It’s so interesting how ideas percolate and pass around. The next book, The Gate, is like a treatise on storygaming.

  2. These posts are a gift, even four years later. I’m starting my own Invisible Sun game soon, and I read a few passages you wrote about Session Zero (in another of your posts). It made me consider different ways to launch the game and persuaded me to read all your posts on Invisible Sun. I am thankful for you and the person who donated the game to you.

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