Invisible Sun: The Way

Reading The Way has left me somewhere between thrilled and worn out. I’ve been stalled out writing about the third book of Invisible Sun for weeks. I may meander a bit in this post.

The Way covers magic in Invisible Sun in detail, as is necessary in a game where everyone and everything is magical. But the vast bulk of Invisible Sun’s design work is hidden in the nearly thousand cards that come in the Black Cube.

As I read The Way I can’t stop thinking about those cards. The Way opens with an overview of “magical practices,” which includes everything from basic spells to little cantrips and “ephemera” (single-use magic items), conjuration, long-term casting, and on and on. It feels overwhelming, even as I realize that the various broad methods of spellcasting (covered in The Key) largely operate the same way mechanically speaking. The most directly useful thing in The Way is, in fact, a rather lengthy “behind the scenes” type table that breaks down what is broadly possible at every level. Literally everything is ranked as a “level” in Invisible Sun, which strikes me as simplistic but probably also practical, given how much of everything is in the game.

And then my mind comes back to those thousand cards. Unwrapped from their little plastic sleeves, there’s barely enough room for them in the box! And of course you can buy more of them via Book M. And I’ll be damned if I don’t want them too, because apparently a thousand fucking cards isn’t enough to sate my completionism urges.

(Yes, I ordered Book M. If anyone would like to cover the $40 for it, I’d appreciate it! Please look for the PayPal donation link at the end.)

Let’s Make This About Me

When I sit down to compile a new game in my brain, one of the first things I tackle is how to get my understanding of the game into my players’ heads. After three read-throughs of The Way, I’m now convinced that not only is that impossible, it might actually be against the spirit of the game.

Invisible Sun proposes to be about secrets. About discovery. But Invisible Sun is so good at obscuring itself that much of the game is a secret to the facilitator. There’s even a secrets folder in the box, and a matching set of nested folders in the PDF download, that is supposed to reveal them to the GM. But it doesn’t. Not really. The real secrets-discovery game, it turns out, is scattered throughout all the materials in the Black Cube, leading to secret URLS, phone numbers, encoded phrases scattered throughout the four books, and so on. When I came across the puzzle book stuff on MCG’s Discord server, I just got even more tired.

That thousand card stack, though, that form factor is perfect for hiding secrets.

At some point in The Way – ironically, in a chapter called “The Endless Grimoire” – Cook proposes that the cards let the GM carefully tune what is available in their game. This struck me as aspirational, especially when you’re just starting to play. How am I supposed to make an educated decision about which of 500 spells should be in the game? Which of 300 magic items? Right now my greatest uncertainty about how the game will play out is in visualizing how these cards might find their way into the players’ hands. I don’t have an answer for that.

To be fair, I always had misgivings about D&D magic users needing to find someone to teach them spells, too. Burning Wheel also does that and it stresses me out! What’s fair? What’s balanced? What’s interesting? Meanwhile, I have no problem setting target numbers in games that don’t give those to you.

Invisible Sun is built almost entirely on the GM deciding when and how the players will access most of the game’s content. The players will have precious little insights into what is even knowable, too. At least in D&D, you can point at a spell you really want to learn and it’s on the DM to contrive a way for you to get that spell. Much harder to do with A. Thousand. Heckin. Cards. (There is also a whole section called “Secrets,” which is a term of art referring to a relatively short list of nifty rule-breaking effects they can pick up. I do see players shopping for Secrets in that D&D magic user way.)

Thinking ahead to actually running the game, I can’t help but think about my home group’s specific peccadilloes. The player who wants as much information as possible to make the most-informed choice. The player who will look at the deliberately obscurant methods of the game and throw their hands up in indie hipster disgust. The player who gets frustrated when they need to diegetically explore the setting, and that process takes time. The one who won’t take advantage of development mode, discussed last post in this series, and won’t have the bandwidth to address lengthy plans at the table.

When you first unpack the Black Cube, the slip of paper that explains the unboxing process tells you to provide cards for spells and items the players’ characters might start with. That’s good, I can manage that, except that those thousand cards? Yeah, they don’t come out of their packaging in any way organized. I thought I could suss out how they’d been printed and organized, but nope. Is this an elaborate scheme to get me to look at more cards than I might? No idea.

I think Invisible Sun has reached a point in my brain where I can’t fully wrap my head around how it’s all going to work without playing it. I’ve read ahead to The Path, the fourth book that lays out the practicalities of the setting, GMing advice, all that. I’ll write about that one next. It feels weird to just accept that this box of stuff is going to reveal itself through play – I’m still very skeptical of the folders full of handouts and props! – but I guess that’s how we must proceed.

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