I was gifted a copy of Invisible Sun, the new and somewhat infamous game from Monte Cook Games. While it was published previously as a massive Black Cube they recently published it as a PDF version and a friend thought I’d enjoy pouring through it. While it’s just as intricate as the physical Black Cube, I think I’m finally getting a handle on this thing. That means you all get to take this journey with me!
The Elephant In the Actuality
I mentioned getting this from a friend, not just to brag about having friends. It’s also because, well, if I had to buy this game myself I might not ever have done it. As a physical product, Invisible Sun weighs in at an impressive $250 which is more than I’d ever even considered paying for an RPG product previously. I knew that wasn’t for me and when the PDF version came out it still comes to $99. This is a lot and, honestly, my first reaction was annoyance. One of the charms of tabletop RPGs is that they aren’t super-expensive like video consoles and they are easy to collect and share with friends. A price tag like this is more than just sticker-shock, it’s a different category.
That said, there’s been a lot said about valuing talent and not shortchanging creators in this community. If this is what Monte Cook Games says it costs to produce Invisible Sun then I believe them and I don’t think they’re gouging the public. Then it becomes a question of whether this is the game for you, which is the other side of this. MCG has been very secretive about the game (the mystery being part of the experience of play) and so it’s hard to know if you want to shell out that much money.
Some people want that mysterious experience and if you’re one of those people, stop reading now. Not knowing what made this game tick was a huge barrier for me in even considering it and I want to strip away some of that for others out there like me. I don’t want to hear “no spoilers,” both because you’ve been warned and because it’s already been out for a long time. If you want a look behind the curtain, come this way.
While Invisible Sun obviously shares some DNA with the Cypher System, the two are very different in some fundamental ways. One of those ways is complexity and Invisible Sun has some pretty intricate pieces to it. I’ll delve into those in future posts, today I just want to give you a look at mechanics enough to talk about character creation in a coherent way.
Much like Cypher games, actions in Invisible Sun use dice rolls to hit or exceed a specific number. The target number here is the Challenge rather than the Difficulty, but the concept is the same. The difference, though, is that the scale is one to ten and the die you roll is a d10 instead of a d20. You translate the level of the creature/object/trap directly into the challenge and roll to beat it, with the 0 face of the d10 being an actual zero. Anything a normal person could do has a Challenge of 1-10, while things that exceptional people can do have Challenges as high as 13. Things that only magical beings like the player characters can do go as high as 17 but that’s the upper limit.
So how are you supposed to roll higher than a 9 on your d10? You aren’t. Like the Cypher System, though, you can get skills and other advantages that contribute to your Venture which is subtracted from the Challenge value. If you are attempting to scale a Challenge 12 wall, for instance, and you’re an Olympic-level climber with a skill of 4 then the Challenge drops to 8 and with a good roll you can do it. You can also improve your odds by using the raw-magic stat pool of Sortilege which you can spend to roll more than one d10. Various abilities might also give you bonus dice without spending this.
Again, this is the bare surface of the rolls and stats but now we’re at least ready to talk character generation.
I remember reading (in the Invisible Sun Design Diary) that a goal with this game was to have the character creation process by extensive and immersive. In other words, it’s made with the opposite goal in mind as compared to character creation in the Cypher System. This should be kept in mind because the first part will sound very familiar: “Once character creation is complete, each vislae can be described in a sentence… Four of the character’s aspects determine the parts of that sentence. So a character is a [FOUNDATION] [HEART] of the Order of [ORDER] who [FORTE].” It’s more than just the jargon that’s different here, the process is indeed very involved.
The first step is to pick an Order, the type of magic that you practice, which informs a lot of the other aspects of your character. The Vances are the most like wizards and cast spells from memory like in D&D. The Makers are… well makers of magical things and are more like the artificers of Eberron. The Weavers are more freeform in their casting and have a few rote spells while relying on creativity generally, like the casters of Mage games. The Goetics are the dealmakers, trading secrets and service to powerful entities in order to gain great power like D&D warlocks. There are also Apostates who follow no order and can just build up their abilities in whatever direction they like, similar to classes from the old Magic of Incarnum. One of the coolest parts of the Orders, which I haven’t seen discussed as much, is that you can advance in degree alongside your advancement in skills and spells and your advancement in your forte, growing powerful along multiple axes.
While Order determines your biggest abilities and your approach to magic, all of that is in the future. The biggest mechanical decision at this stage is your Heart which is similar to your type in Cypher. There are four different Hearts, four different approaches to the world, four different types of souls. Gallants are quick-acting rogues, Stoics are thoughtful and careful, Empaths are socially adept and perceptive, and Ardents are stubborn wild cards. Each Heart gives you your starting stat pools (more on those later) and a handful of skills that will add one to your venture in appropriate situations. There are also totemic associations which will be more important when we talk about the Sooth Deck in another post.
Next up is the Forte which is like the Focus in Cypher, even down to sounding similar. There are thirty-one Fortes listed in the book with titles like Bears an Orb, Listens to the Whispers, or Warps Time and Space. There are advancements following a flowchart like Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games, rather than a straight progression, and you buy them with the same advancement currency as your Order. This means you can pick and choose whether your core abilities broaden, your unique characteristics sharpen, or a little of both.
There’s one more part to the sentence but first you choose from one of thirteen Soul Allegiances which are Tarot-like archetypes with a small mechanical bonus. You’re supposed to keep this a secret to start with and only tell other players after a while (if then) so it’s a fun part of the process.
To actually finish up your character creation, you pick one of eight Foundations which take the place of Cypher‘s Descriptors but with more of a setting bent. Rather than mechanical benefits, your Foundation determines your starting money, weekly income, hidden knowledge (a game stat), the size and level of your house in the main city of Invisible Sun, and your connections in the city. There are also initial motivations and character arcs with these, so there’s some roleplaying info too.
Conclusion So Far
So, this is definitely more involved than Cypher but, interestingly, not in a mechanical way. We’ll get to the complexities and already I’ve glossed over some crazy-looking diagrams but all-in-all it seems like you’re being asked to think more about who your character is but that you’re being asked to decide only marginally more. That’s something I can get behind and it speaks to the sort of unique characters that you’ll be playing in Invisible Sun. Next time we’ll be looking at the sort of unique magic you can wield.