I’ve been slowly going through Invisible Sun, book by book, digging into it in as detailed a way as possible. Read the first installment of this series if you want to catch up. Caught up? Great. Let’s move on to The Path, where the “truth” of the game’s setting is revealed to the GM. This is a hardcore spoiler post, so stop here if you need to not be spoiled.
This is going to be short-ish, especially given the long wait for me to get this out. It’s probably telling that it’s taken me this many weeks to slog through writing about the last of the main books.
The Path starts out with a bunch of expectation-setting for the GM. The big one: Invisible Sun’s first and highest goal is escapism. Terrific, totally fair, and honestly surprising to see laid out so obviously. Given the self-serious vibe that I think this kind of ‘90s-style game inevitably creates, it’s good and necessary to say this stuff out loud.
Invisible Sun is about escapism.
It’s about other things as well: “an examination of what it means to be human” (see above re self-serious ‘90s era games). “Secrets,” which I’m not sure what to do with but, sure; I’d have worded it more actively, like, “uncovering secrets.” Then there’s “A suggestion that the world is bigger and more wonderful than we can understand,” which is hooboy aspirational. And finally, and to my mind even weirder to unfurl, “Surreal.”
Invisible Sun goes to great lengths to push the surreality of its setting. This is a tonal thing, but I’m looking for something a bit deeper than that. Surrealist artists didn’t just cook up wacky drugged-out art, right? The movement was trying to “channel the unconscious mind” and “unlock the power of imagination.” Heady stuff, particularly given the movement’s rise just about 100 years ago. Surrealism was entwined with Marxism as well, and I gotta say…Invisible Sun’s business model (very high-end production targeting middling-successful Gen Xers)does not strike me as trucking with Marxism.
Treating surrealism as political and not just tonal, that’s hard stuff. I’m not persuaded the game’s surrealism really reaches past its art direction, and maybe the weirdness associated with random draws off the various decks for free daily spells/effects. But that’s one of those things that’s hard to suss out until we play it. This is me putting a bookmark on that idea.
Anyway: I think Invisible Sun is visually surreal but probably not much more than that. There are folks with floating goldfish where their head should be, sure, but does that actually mean anything? What do you do with that? Your house having only very small doors and you must shrink yourself to enter, that’s interesting but it’s also just kind of … set dressing. To his credit, Cook does point out that if everything is surreal and weird, then nothing stands out as surreal and weird. I’m probably going to err on the side of mundane, with the occasional weird twist, rather than streets filled with purple-prose descriptions. That just sounds exhausting.
The disclaimers of what Invisible Sun is not are also interesting! It’s not about real occultism, and it’s not “a treatise or manifesto.” Kind of reads like the “hey let’s keep politics out of games” stuff you read on hot-take Twitter, which always struck me as patently absurd. Of course there are politics in games, even when they say they’re not about that. Invisible Sun is no exception.
There’s also a good chunk of material about not taking “real world” rules about time, space, physics and science too seriously. Fine, sure. I have no idea how my players will take to that. But there are some interesting ideas buried in that larger idea! Like the fact that the past is being created as quickly as the future, with all of time and space expanding from a “point of creation” somewhere ahead of where we are now. There’s no hint at all about why that’s important but it’s freighted with capital-i Importance in the text. Lots of the book is is capital-i Important. Or Meaningful. Or just Highly Suggestive.
The Endless Setting Dump
Other topics covered: the nature of “aethyr” (the spiritual medium of ghosts and magical long-range communication), the dream world, what science “really” is, various species that live in the Actuality, death and the afterlife, playing as a ghost (very interesting! It’s a credible way to keep playing and not fear character death.), spirit beings, weird Actuality viruses, and on and on.
It’s the biggest, most confusing setting dump I’ve ever come across, and it feels like every piece of it is necessary to consistently convey a weird setting with its own internal rules. It’s sections like this that I’ve read so much they’re practically memorized now, but without a practical outlet it’s all just sitting in my brain. Fermenting.
There’s an actual setting-setting stretch in The Path that covers the eight dimensions of the game. I love this stuff, I really do. I’ve always dreamed of a functional dimension-hopping game and it appears Invisible Sun is exactly that. While the home turf of the vislae is Satyrine, the city at the center of Indigo, the other seven suns have their own cities and people and critters and attractions (with additional reminders that nothing in Grey is real, it’s just “our world”). This feels less overwhelming to me, because it’s the sort of stuff I don’t actually need to know in the same way as all the underlying precept stuff I mentioned above. It’s practical and specific and I can brush up on it when the characters decide it’s time to leave home for a while.
After the overview of the Path of Suns, there’s a deep dive into Satyrine itself. The default vibe of the game is, like…1920s New York City. I confess, it feels weird that this is what the capital of the Actuality is “like” once you break out of the prison of Shadow. It feels like the vast majority of our world’s culture is erased and dismissed as mere invention, a lie. Asia isn’t a thing, Africa is make-believe, some of Europe can be real but only the familiar-to-Americans parts. It’s very weird. And not in an oh-how-surreal way. Back to the ongoing theme of Invisible Sun, it’s culture via art direction. I’m no stranger to this! This is how lots of 90s-era game publishers approached their design: come up with great images and rationalize backwards from there.
The next deep dive is into the vislae neighborhood, Fartown. It’s a pocket reality joined to Satyrine via an unguarded gate. The bubble exists so their magic doesn’t threaten the rest of the city. Interesting twist! If the vislae were coded as minority communities, there might be something interesting and unpleasant being hinted at here. But they’re kind of the elite of the city, or at least important to the social elites. So Fartown is more like an expensive gated community than ghetto.
Finally the book ends with an overview of various organizations at work in the Actuality: the four Orders, the Hendasa (the folks who drag vislae out of the Shadow; no idea why they’re not more prominent, given that role), a secret church of demon worshipers with activist overtones inspired by the Church of Satan, a little discussion about how the dead organize themselves, and so on. Lots of groups to belong to. Lots of inspirations. Again, this feels less overwhelming to me than that first big dump.
It’ll come as no surprise the last chunk of book is basically a monster manual. I’m not sure why the critters didn’t come on cards as well! I think I’d much rather have those in front of me than a big square book in my lap. That said, to the game’s credit the major NPC writeups are very good, interesting little short stories providing lots of context beyond what their powers and weaknesses are, and how to beat them. MCG has a talent for this bit of development, and Teratology is even more of the same. Makes me want to go digging through other MCG lines to see if this is consistent or just an Invisible Sun thing.
The Target Audience
Who is Invisible Sun for, anyway? Honestly? Probably … me. Well, me in a parallel universe perhaps. (Ironic, I know!) Me in a universe where I’ve got a lot of time and bandwidth to prep, and maybe long weekends where my players and I can just shoot the shit for hours on end.
Despite the character arc element of the game, I feel like there’s still going to be a lot of heavy lifting on the GM’s part. The players hand the GM their arcs, but it’s on the GM to provide all the context: where to find secrets, what NPCs are present, putting the objects of their quests in their path in general. I mean it’s all very traditional, conventional facilitation. There are lots of ideas for locations but they’re not written in such a way as I can just flip to a page and, bang, it’s ready to use. Same with all the NPCs and critters, which really is a credit to, and a limitation of, the design. This isn’t a game where you just look up stats for monsters you plan on killing. Hopefully knowing what the arcs are will help direct my energies toward those, rather than cooking up the entirety of the premise.
The target audience also needs to feel comfortable either with playing off just the Black Cube, or get ready to spend $50ish each time a new hardback comes out. I’ve picked up the three that have been published – Secrets of the Silent Streets, Book M, and Teratology – and I’m glad I did, but it’s expensive. And there are more coming down the pike. Other than the cards that come with Book M, though, you could get by on PDFs I think.
(Pro tip: If you buy via my Amazon affiliate links above, you get the book at a nice discount but you don’t get the PDFs. Looks like the only way to get those is via Monte Cook Games’ own storefront.)
At this point, my home group is in a holding pattern. I just wrapped up our Band of Blades campaign and I’ll be playing in a game of Masks for the next month. And after the start of the new year, we start playing this thing. Good thing, too: my brain feels over-full from reading seven long hardbacks, wondering what to do with any of it.
Come to think of it: probably most of my ‘90s era gaming felt this way! Brain overfull from reading and research and dreaming, lonely semi-fun imaginings with few ways to share them.
Stuff That’s Still Unclear
Despite having read all seven books, twice or more each, there are still weird hiccups in my understanding of the game:
- Secrets: I’m having a heck of a time wrapping my head around how these abilities find their way into the hands of the characters. I think it’s because there’s some deliberate vagueness around the character/player split. On the one hand, I think it’s completely okay that the player shop for secrets in The Way, and just say the character is looking for that secret. There’s even an Arc they can take to learn it. But it’s weird and meta, right? Like, the player is authoring that the character will learn a secret. It doesn’t even need to be, like, a purposeful thing. I think. I guess the point is that you can be flexible about what “discover” really means. The player might author that their character “discovers” or “will discover” a secret. Or the character might stumble across the secret, like treasure. Or the GM might put a secret in the player’s hands. It’s weird and unsettling and it bugs me that the game leans so hard on keeping this reward cycle vague.
- Everything I just said about Secrets? Same thing about spells. A thousand heckin’ cards to use and no clear procedure to move them from the box into a player’s hands. Part of the form factor’s benefit is the GM can curate a specific subset of spells from which to pick, but I have no context by which to do that. But hey, I got Book M and that came with many, many more cards.
- I thought I was having trouble imagining how magic looks/works under each of the eight Suns, particularly Grey, aka Shadow, aka our “real” world. Turns out the answer is right there, the first paragraph of The Way: there is no magic in Shadow. Cool cool, easy enough. I just have to assume the other seven shadows all work the same, and any ups/downs related to sun color will be generated by draws off the Sooth Deck.
- Honestly, I can’t make sense of the point of a premade adventure like the one that comes with the PDF set: We Begin at the End. It’s a demo, an introductory thing, but it’s also a “this weird thing just happened, what do you do?” type setup. I feel like introductory adventures should be, like, strongly representative of play. But this is for feeling out the mechanics of play, not the thematic stuff like how everyone’s pursuing their own Arcs. (It’s kind of a dodge; the pregens have arcs aimed at solving the weird thing that just happened.) That’s fine, but I’ve read through the adventure a couple times now and other than the powers at work, doesn’t feel much like the game as I understand it. I don’t think I’ll be using it, but I very well might if I ever want to play this at a con.
And In Conclusion…
That’s it! I can’t read any more. I’m full of rules and inspiration and ideas and questions, so many questions, but no actual-play context. This is how burnout starts.
I’m starting a chat-based game of Invisible Sun with our Slack community. As of today, everyone’s got character concepts and they’re all so grandiose: a Stoic Maker who Converses with Everything, a Stoic Goetic who Cages Adversaries, a Galant Vancian who Eats Knowledge, an Ardent Apostate who Hosts a Legion, and an Empathic Vancian who Writhes and Squirms. I gotta hand it to Monte, here; the adjective noun that verbs model is super evocative.
Our live game will start in January. Stay tuned!
I’m putting the finishing touches on my Patreon, and hope to put it live this week or next. Please consider supporting the Indie Game Reading Club any way you can.
My buddy and partner in crime Jahmal Brown has wrapped up his first season of his podcast Diceology. Consider supporting his Patreon as well! He’s doing interesting things centered on diverse gamers actually playing games.