Prep never survives contact with the players

This is one in a series I’ve been doing about Invisible Sun from Monte Cook Games. Click here to see everything I’ve written about the game up to now.

Last night was our first actual play session of Invisible Sun. I’m going to write some thoughts down before we play, and swing back around to these thoughts after we play.

The Core Tension

I’ve been thinking through how to prepare for this game. It’s surprisingly hard! But that may be because I haven’t really prepped for a trad-style game in a lot of years. Old muscles are out of shape, perhaps. I’m looking down the barrel of seven hardbacks, trying hard to remember that the setting stuff isn’t canonical so much as inspirational. I’ve always been bad at that, and end up tying myself in knots trying to get the game details “right.”

The core tension I keep running into is between the fish-out-of-water setup – the characters have re-arrived in Satyrine after an unspecified amount of time and have been aware of their life situation for an unspecified amount of time – and the game’s aspiration to be strongly player-driven. The game’s central advancement cycle reflects this aspiration: players choose to put their characters on arcs, which are commitments to pursue particular storylines. But how do they choose arcs when they don’t know anything about the setting on purpose?

Tricky: a super elaborate relationship map without any play context. Works fine, just let the players feel as confused as their characters. This is my fifth draft and I’m already changing it.

The character creation rules suggest players pick an arc from their Foundation (broadly, a vislae’s “lifestyle” level implying social connections and house) as a good start. I didn’t push that suggestion, but now I’m wishing I had. My players chose Arcs they thought would be interesting right out of the gate, which is terrific, but lordy is that hard to do when the very premise of the game is that nobody knows what the heck is going on. You’re supposed to leverage the players’ sense of disorientation. They don’t know what they were or where they came from prior to their time in our world, ie the Shadow, ie the Grey Sun. Yet they start the game “established” or “connected” or whatever, and I have no idea how. That can be fun! Like, everyone around you seems to treat you like you’re a respected member of Satyrine society, even if you have no idea what you did before your self-exile to, say, become Established.

Probably this stuff is much more straightforward once everyone’s played a while and created new characters. It’s like they need to get through the setting dump via actual play, then play again with that setting dump in mind.

The game deliberately blurs the player/character boundary a lot, from leveraging the players’ confusion about their starting situation, to making “secrets” learnable resources that players can choose their characters to “discover,” to the process of creating your Shadow life and then telling you whatever it was, it was fake and bad and boring compared to the life you’ve just fallen into. In the case of my first session, it’s also making it hard to agree on authority over elements of play.

My plan is to just talk through how their arcs started, probably via flashback and fast-forwarding, and get the players to drill down into their characters’ motives behind them. I don’t envy my players this early in the game.

Several Hours Later…

Phew. Okay. Ran our first actual session of Invisible Sun last night.

As I suspected all along, the looseness around how the game starts was by far the biggest creative hurdle. It’s super-trad that way, with the game expecting (demanding, really) that the GM do the lift. This isn’t necessary! There are better ways to get the ball rolling! The text itself, though, is vague about just what happens when a newly arrived vislae tries to make sense of their life.

I decided, and to Monte’s credit his text also suggests, to lean into that disorientation. After going through everyone’s characters for nitpicks and clarifications, I emphasized to the players just how meta the Character Arc element is. It’s a thing the players decide on behalf of their characters. It’s an authorial decision, not a diegetic one. That took a lot of pressure off having to do tons of play-before-play setting dump. So instead, the first session was the characters literally shaking themselves awake after a long and troubling dream – last night’s cocktails sitting on tables, signs of having only recently “left” – and then working with the players to engineer their characters into their starting Arcs.

We almost succeeded.

Wherein I Trip Over My Own Brain

I don’t think anyone really understands a system – that is, the holistic experience of all the subsystems – until brains outside your own engage with it. (NB it’s the same reason you can’t really tell how a character is going to play out until you actually play them.) I had fumbled through a few make-believe rolls before last night, but my hypotheticals didn’t really do the job. One of the players came over a couple hours early, though, so we cooked up additional hypotheticals using his character as an example. Teaching is the best way to learn.

The actual underlying resolution system of Invisible Sun is pretty straightforward in practice. If you’re facing any kind of opposition or uncertainty, the GM rates the problem on a 1-10 scale (unless it’s very weird, supernatural, or otherwise exceptional, then it can go as high as 17), decides if the opposition is fundamentally magical , and then tallies up all the various bonuses the player can bring to bear. This is generally going to be a spell’s level and maybe a bonus token from an appropriate pool. I mean, they’re super-wizards! Why make do with a skill when reality-shattering magic is … easier? And certainly riskier.

The thing I missed in my hypotheticals was the trigger for rolling, which in IS is, generally speaking, “directed opposition.” So if you’re targeting a being, or if something is physically risky. If you’re your own target or you’re just changing the environment, no big deal, you just do it and spend whatever Sorcery you need in the case of spellcasting. There are several recharge opportunities and vislae only risk running out if they’re in Action Mode (combat or whatever). Well so that trigger? It’s pretty storygame-y! I recall a lengthy Forge discussion, in fact, about the idea of directed opposition. Not sure what it was called back in the day, though, but the idea was that you shouldn’t be demanding players roll for every fucking thing.

Invisible Sun’s trad demeanor totally fooled me into trad thinking. As in, shouldn’t you be checking to see if you can even cast a spell? Mmmmnope, not really. Only if it’s being opposed. And even then, maybe not! Because you still add up everything you can bring to bear against a problem and compare it to the problem itself. If your venture (accumulated bonuses) meets or exceeds the challenge level, you don’t even roll. Easy peasy. Stealth diceless roleplaying: only introduce uncertainty if there’s opposition and if you can’t just steamroll over it.

Story Time

Okay, so here’s what went down.

I introduced the Path of Suns board and the tarot-like Sooth Deck right away, starting the session with a draw. I used the draw to run spotlight scenes of the characters reintroducing themselves to Satyrine. The draw order turned out magically perfect, me drawing face (sorry, “royalty”) cards matching each character’s associated Heart four times in a row. That was pretty cool. It settled in my mind that Invisible Sun’s killer app is the constant divination at the center of the game. I want games to challenge and support play, uncharitably to “get in the way,” and this is how IS does that.

Each character woke up from their shitty dream of playing video games, or dragging themselves home from work, or dealing with screaming children, once again in Satyrine. Everyone around them treated them like they’ve been gone “a long time,” despite signs that they literally just dozed off moments ago. I used my first prop from the Black Cube, a glossy “Welcome to Satyrine” brochure. It got me wondering who funds such a thing? Who left it for them? Nobody was asking those questions but I’m hoping they will.

When they had a chance to talk with NPCs, at some point each one would be told they’d been gone since “when the War started.” And then…silence. Nobody talking about The War. No clues even to what the heck The War even was. Meanwhile outside, there’s vast expanses of ruined city. It’s a good, weird opening. I dug it more than I thought I would.

One of the characters, the Apostate, comes around in his old house, which is an abandoned crashed airliner haunted by its passengers. The neighborhood is filled with various disabled vehicles: ocean liners, tour buses, a Mercury space capsule. His talking rat is excited to see he’s back home, and runs off gnawing on a human finger. So the Apostate goes out to check on his neighbors and, you know, what the fuck is up with these body parts? Turns out his weirdo Goetic neighbor had sacrificed someone he’d found in the ruins to summon a demon. This was our excuse to fiddle with dice!

Horrified at literally everything he’s woken up to, the Apostate first tries to reason with his neighbor (who is kind of a dweeb, but also some kind of cultist because he’s wearing a full-face mask), then rages at him, and eventually decides to try and unmask the nerd to give him a good scare. Well, after prior campaigns where these players steadfastly refused to contrive reasons to have scenes together – it’s a whole weird thing, I’ll write about it later – I insisted someone contrive a reason to be part of this scene. In comes the Weaver, who is the Apostate’s “fated companion” per their PC bonds. The game already thrives on coincidence, but gosh…”fated companion” is the ultimate excuse, yeah?

Then I totally tripped over trying to make the system more complicated than it is. We fumbled through some rolls, the dude was unmasked, and just before he retreated into his space capsule he throws a telekinetic attack at the characters, trying to spear them on his front yard gardening. It worked out fine, but I’m still feeling out when folks act, ie initiative: another unaddressed detail of the system. I suspect it’s all “as the fiction demands,” which is just more stealth indie tech.

In another scene, I had hard-framed the Vance that he’d be throwing a big “I’m home!” party for himself and his friends, because he’s established after all (it’s his Foundation choice) and this is what well-to-do established people do. It’s a great excuse to get everyone into the same scene and spool out all kinds of good stuff, Good Society style. I’m going to stir my Regency fetish peanut butter into their surrealism-escapist chocolate, damn it. The day before the party, the Vance fires a divination spell that tells him what “his enemies” are up to. It’s a great fishing-expedition type effect in the same vein as open your mind to the Maelstrom. It was also my opportunity to demonstrate IS’s other killer app, the GM Shift. It’s very simple and surprisingly effective: no matter what the player is doing or has rolled, the GM can declare a Shift: unmitigated failure or glorious success, ha ha, fuck you. Those also come with Despair or Joy, the emotional currencies that drives half of character advancement. I thought it was interesting to leverage that, and the player didn’t seem to mind (because he got delicious Despair off it). So instead of his divination giving him good information, it told him he’d be a laughingstock at his own party because everyone is his enemy.

I think three of the four characters ended up with scenes to rationalize the start of their Arcs, and their first payout in Acumen. I’m pushing on the similarities between Arcs and Burning Wheel Beliefs, mostly in terms of the players needing to take hold of those and engineer additional Arcs so they’ve always got a stream of Acumen coming in. We’re close. They’re also seeing why some Arcs are just not meant to be knocked out early, which (like in BW) is totally fine as well. Have some long-term Arcs, have some short-term Arcs, string Arcs together and pow, you have a whole Story Arc. I think the tech will be as good as the players’ willingness to assertively pursue them.

We play next week, and I’ll make sure the last character starts their Arc. I’ve instructed the players to go shopping for good additional Arcs, with a strong suggestion that “Aid Another Character” is a good one as it gives them reasons to work together. And I woke up to an email request for my first “development mode” scene (explained here). Onward!

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