I just wrapped up Season 1 of my Invisible Sun campaign last week, taking a break from campaign play to be more flexible this summer. Given this experience I wanted to take a minute and give the Ten Things to Know treatment to Invisible Sun as well.
While Invisible Sun is an incredible game, certainly one of the most ambitious and creative endeavors I’ve seen in RPGs, it can be hard to grasp for players coming into it. This is especially true for players coming from games like D&D or Call of Cthulhu where there are clear setting elements to grab onto or games like Fate or Masks: A New Generation which have streamlined rules systems and free reign. As we’ll see, Invisible Sun has clear setting elements to relate to but also bizarre and challenging details, and its system is very simple but can escalate in complexity relatively quickly.
1. Your Characters are Vislae who Lived in Our World
So looking at the illustrations of Invisible Sun (like the ones in this post), it’s easy to focus on the bizarre aesthetics, strange locations, and weird people of the setting. In fact, I’d recommend that GMs really capitalize on that to create a surrealist story that captures the players’ attention. For the players, though, you don’t have to jump straight into the bizarre and your characters can be just as confused by what’s going on as you are. Part of the story of the vislae is that they’ve been hiding in Shadow until recently, living in our world and watching Netflix and finding recipes on food blogs. Maybe they’ve been back long enough that having drinks with a ball of light or whatever isn’t surprising anymore but “normality” is hard to shake! If you mix things up or are struggling to understand something then feel free to have your character act the same way.
In the fantastic “A Woman with Hollow Eyes” actual play there are actually examples of that in the same group. The Maker Wayne and the glass-bodied Kitty Heart are both Satyrine pros, though to varying degrees, while Calvin Weaver is recently come from Shadow. Calvin serves as the audience’s stand-in through the series, asking the questions that we want to know but that the Actuality natives are already supposed to be clued in on. Even when you’ve got a firm grasp on how Satyrine works it’s fun to play a “newb” who can marvel at the bizarreness of it all and allow your table to do the same.
2. There Are Eight Suns… Sort of…
A major focus of the game (mechanically, thematically, and even visually) is the Path of Suns. I wrote a lot about the individual Suns before so I won’t go through them here but the short version is that there are eight Suns which each have a different philosophical character and particular denizens.
But that’s not really the full story. In the metaphysics of the game, there’s actually just one Sun but there are eight ways to view it, which is sort of trippy. It’s also part of the story of vislae that the eight Suns, though real places, are also concepts which speak to the soul of magic-users and the varied parts of themselves like chakras. The Blue Sun might be a physical place that you can visit for a vacation but it’s also the concept of your mental self and studying it can change how you see yourself and your place in the world. It’s also the source of all magic affecting thought so depending on how strongly you’re feeling the pull of the Blue Sun at the moment (mechanically shown by the Sooth Deck card in play) you could be better or worse at calling on that sort of magic (plus there are items, secrets, etc that you can choose to strengthen your ability).
Again, though, there’s more to tell. Every Sun also has a dark side, a Nightside which is both physically darker (it’s not pitch black when you visit, but dimmer like an overcast day) but also conceptually more vicious and unpleasant. It’s not, strictly speaking, evil and you can get into arguments over what that means but it is nastier and generally frowned upon by vislae. A Blue spell might affect thought by giving you telepathy or helping you remember, but a Nightside Blue spell could affect thought by giving someone nightmares or twisting a loving memory into something painful. A lot of devious options are found in the book The Nightside but it isn’t for the faint of heart.
On top of that there’s a secret ninth Sun which you can’t really visit and only vislae really no or talk about it. The Invisible Sun (the one that the game is named after) is the source of pure magic before it becomes the color-tinted forms in other realms and it’s a remote place that no one has visited and returned from, if it’s even possible to go there in the first place. The guardian of the realm is a being called Visla (after whom vislae are named) and magic comes from the Invisible Sun through channels and currents through the rest of reality (check out Book M for more on that).
There’s also a place called The Dark which is outside of the light of all the Suns and full of nihilistic beings that want to unmake reality. So, you know, be careful with that.
3. Action is Punctuation to the Story
One of the things I love about Invisible Sun is the care put into the downtime activities. A lot of major accomplishments can be done during montages, vignette scenes, short asides, or whatever you like. In my campaign we regularly had a week or more of time between sessions. Compare that to most RPGs where you can play regularly for a year and wind up covering eight days in-universe time. Games like City of Mist and The One Ring have downtime built in and ways to get little bonuses for your character but Invisible Sun has “downtime” between action scenes that have major accomplishments in them. You can research universe-breaking spells, travel to other worlds, make in-roads with an important group… One of the orders, the Makers do their best work during the in-between times so you could wind up at the next session with a shiny new Object of Power.
More than that, violence and fighting do not need to be a major part of your campaign or even part of it at all. If you want to have investigations into arcane conspiracies and political maneuvering between angelic courts then you might never use the combat mechanics at all. If you want to have down-and-dirty fights that works as well, of course, but for vislae your house and neighborhood play a bigger part in your character’s functioning than their armaments. Spend more time establishing who your neighbors are because they will come up every session; your sword will be drawn less often.
4. The Mechanics are Simple the Execution Can Be Complicated
My standard line about this is that Invisible Sun is like a spiderweb: if you were to look at a spiderweb you’d say “huh, it’s just sticky strands that make this whole thing?” but if I asked you to build your own web or modify an existing one you might feel a little lost. The mechanics of Invisible Sun are exceptionally simple, so much so that I can fit them in one sentence. To accomplish something in Invisible Sun you roll a d10 numbered 0 to 9 and if you exceed the challenge, plus or minus any modifiers (a total called your “venture”), then you do the thing. Seriously, that’s the whole of the mechanics.
Of course, the reason this is a game (and a hefty one at that) is that there are different ways of applying that mechanic. In this particular case, the phrase “plus or minus any modifiers” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. In a typical roll you are likely to be spending bene (points) from your attribute pools to lower the challenge one-for-one, there might be magical modifiers from the Sooth Deck, you could have suffered vexes (penalty points) that the GM can spend to increase the challenge, you could have modifiers from magic items or active spells, points from Hidden Knowledge which works like bene… And those are just the commonplace modifiers. For magical effects you can even roll multiple dice and get multiple successes, which in some cases is the only way to accomplish something.
Your venture can push the challenge down to zero or even negative numbers, and since you can roll a zero on your die you always need to roll and might fail on even something with a challenge of one. (Thanks to Matthew Leong on Facebook who helped me fix an error here before). Spending resources to get extra magic dice can push the chances of failing on a challenge 0 to (literally) one in a million, but there’s always a dramatic possibility. Since challenges can run from 0 to 17 there are some situations (punching a level 17 god in the nose, for example) that require some big spending to even stand a chance and at the start of the game you can only spend one bene at a time until you learn the right secret and magical dice carry the risk of magical flux blowback… Now we’re starting to see the complexity of this spiderweb built from such simple strands.
5. There are Five Different Pillars to Your Character
All player characters are “human” in Invisible Sun (there’s an option to play living illusions but they’re very weak and if you die you’re a ghost, but still a human ghost), so even though the streets of Satyrine are filled with strange figures that have multiple heads and hair made of rainstorms it’s your character’s personality and background that will set them apart.
The two major pillars in the process of creating a character are their order (analogous to “class” in other games) and their forte (the unique expression of their soul). There are four orders (and a fifth renegade option) and more than two-dozen fortes with more coming all the time and fan creations showing up constantly. Those options are discussed in another post so I’m going to focus here on how they play out in a campaign situation. Your order is both the largest source of your character’s abilities and a draw for you to participate in the bigger setting. In Dungeons & Dragons you don’t usually see a fighter or ranger calling up other fighters or rangers for help, although wizards and bards might have more connections. In Invisible Sun all characters (even the order-less apostates) have connections because of their order and those will enter into the game fairly regularly.
Your forte is much more personal. Not only does advancement in it happen spontaneously and you are the only one around with these powers (or at least one of a vanishingly small group) but you get to pick how you advance through your forte. What’s more, every forte ability gained allows you to add points to your attribute pools so as your forte grows your strengths will grow as well in a way that’s entirely up to you.
On top of these two items are three other bits that will shape your character mechanically. Your heart is one of four different options that dictate your stats but they also spell out your relationship with the Sooth Deck. It will matter a lot during character creation but once the campaign has started you’ll mostly be looking for your heart’s symbol to come up on a card so that you can get a bonus (or you have to take a penalty). Your soul allegiance might come up once in a campaign or might never be revealed, so it’s just a fun secret unless you want to leverage it bigtime or it’s needed for a ritual. Lastly, your foundation determines your finances (which will come into play regularly) and your house (which can be a very big deal if you want it to be). It also determines connections to the setting and to other players. This decision let’s the GM know what you’d like but then because just a launch point that you can change and modify with ease.
6. Think Big. Like, Really Big.
The scale and grandeur of this setting is probably it’s most obvious quality so I won’t belabor this point. Suffice it to say that in a campaign of Invisible Sun you’re likely to do some incredible things and there’s no really upper limit to what you as a player (or character) can consider pursuing.
For reference, here is just a small list of some things that we did in just fifteen sessions or so:
- Save the life of a government leader.
- Befriended multiple demons and one angel.
- Visit a library of books lost to time.
- Travel to the afterlife to talk to a dead magistrate.
- Buy a copy of dead books in the Posthumous Market.
- Fought a dragon.
- Traded memories for information.
- Traveled to the land of dreams and met Reese Witherspoon.
- Were carried in someone’s pocket up a mountain that you can only ascend if you’ve climbed it before.
- Blew up a ship capable of flying between dimensions.
- Found the lost memories of a criminal warlord.
- Stepped back in time to change past events and create a new timeline.
- Met with a shadow demon and became possessed.
- Were exorcized by a demon who invited them to tea.
- Released a different demon into a marketplace so that they could steal a wormhole.
- Rode horse-sided ravens to a microbrewery
- Met with centipede-fragments of a dead wizard.
- Killed the warlord and stole the key to his hall inside of a candle flame.
This would be a wild campaign in most games but it honestly felt like “just going with the flow” in Invisible Sun. Consider this sort of nonsense to be a base level in this game; I honestly can’t comprehend what a “wild” Invisible Sun game might look like.
7. Advancement is a Multidirectional Thing
If you easily get decision paralysis then try to keep notes and talk out options with your GM. There’s a lot going on in Invisible Sun and advancing characters can be a bit tricky. You get Crux (combining moments of Joy and Despair) and Acumen and they buy different things, but if you followed the link above you already know all of that. Instead, let’s consider all the ways you could possibly advance your character. You can get new skills, new spells, new forte abilities, new order degrees, new secrets, new house secrets, new changery secrets, new connections to organizations, new bonds with NPCs, new items, new incantations, and new Objects of Power. And that’s just off the top of my head.
My advice here is to focus on one thing and really go for it. Maybe you do a couple of things but you can spread yourself very thin in this game and better to be proud of your abilities in a few areas. You’ll get amazing in those soon enough and then you can push in different directions at once.
8. This Game Is Full of Secrets
I mean this in a lot of ways. First of all, the game itself comes with an envelope that reads “GM secrets” that, frankly, changes the entire game once you read it. Like, cracks it wide open… I can’t describe. There are also secrets hidden in symbols throughout the books with codes and cyphers and I’ve relied on a terrific online community to access these as I don’t have the patience or time to ponder myself. There are also mechanical ways to bypass certain parts of the game… I can think of published content that could be added to every one of these Ten Things to Know that effectively says “sure but there’s one case where this all comes apart if you know how.”
This also creates a secretive environment so a campaign of Invisible Sun is likely to involve a lot of secrets as well. There might be investigative secrets in the vein of Call of Cthulhu, secret realms and creatures in the vein of D&D or Pathfinder, secret conspiracies operating behind the plot like Eclipse Phase, and even secrets between players that surprise the GM like you find in games of Blades in the Dark or Night’s Black Agents. Lots of games have this sort of thing but because Invisible Sun has all of the above you should expect surprises throughout. It’s also alright to feel like you aren’t quite sure what’s going on: that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost the plot thread but just that your in a surreal fantasy realm. Mention it to players and the GM and they’ll show you back to the path.
9. Traveling Between Realms is Straightforward but Profound
In the reverse of a fantasy game like D&D, traveling to different realms of existence is not that big a deal in Invisible Sun. Normally your party scrounges for several adventures to figure out a way to plane hop to Mt. Celestia or Asmodeus’s realm or whatever, then they get there and the mission is pretty clear from there. In this game it’s flipped.
As a comparison, let’s say you have a modern RPG set in the United States (something like Vampire: The Requiem or Monster Of the Week) and you want to leave your home city. If your heroes live in, say, Boston and you want to travel to Philadelphia, that’s a pretty easy task: they can drive if they have a car, buy an Amtrak ticket if they’d rather, or even fly if they have the money and need to get there quickly. This is the same deal in Invisible Sun for vislae who are leaving Satyrine and going somewhere else in Indigo: they can travel under their own power, ride horses (or something stranger), take a train (there’s literally a train) or flying ship, or if they have the means they can teleport.
But what if you want to travel a little farther? What if you want to travel between planes of existence to faraway realms of demons and forgotten gods?!? Well, it’s the same deal, really. In that modern campaign, traveling from Boston to London or Berlin isn’t some Grand Work™, you just buy a plane ticket or fly yourself and then go through customs. In Invisible Sun, if you want to travel to the shining city of angels under the Silver Sun or to the realm of dreams and nightmares under the Blue Sun then you can simply buy a ticket on a plane-hopping sunship and go there. The ticket is more expensive and if it’s your first time then you have to talk to the Sun’s guardian, but it’s transactional.
And yet, you’re still changing realities. Things are going to be different there and that conversation with the guardian (a god-level custodian of reality who could snuff you with a gesture) can be as big or as small as your GM wants to make it in your campaign. In my campaign, the group needed to talk to someone who died and they started making plans for a séance or ghost-summoning until I said “you know you can just go there, right?” The Pale Sun is the afterlife and you can visit with a ticket (there’s a visa process for this particular Sun but whatever) so they just visited the Embassy to step through. When they got there, though, it’s still the freakin’ realm of the dead and everything was just slightly weird. Buildings made of bone and drifting reapers with shadow-faces were perhaps expected but also there were very little accommodations (the dead don’t eat or sleep) and they had the glow of life about them so everyone treated them as suspect outsiders. They couldn’t leave the city of Catafalque and were constantly reminded of just how small they were as fruit flies living out their small existence before joining the realm of the dead with its billions of inhabitants.
Player groups can and should travel between realms but getting there is no longer the hard part. Plane hopping just takes some cash or a favor and the complication instead starts when you get there.
10. The Game Is Expansive but You Have So Much Leeway
So now that we’ve covered all of that, your head might be spinning. Eight worlds? Secrets embedded in the game? I have to build a spiderweb? Fear not, because here’s the final Thing to Know about Invisible Sun: it only includes what you want it to.
Just like the Cypher system it’s incredibly easy to make things up on the fly. I’m no stranger to improvising but when my players decided they want to do something brand new then on the spur of the moment I could easily create something. Making a new NPC is as simple as picking a level for them. Even if you want to make some special abilities they can be as simple as “+1 level for x, y, z and -1 level for a, b, c.” That’s in fact the easy way to make zilats and the possibilities there are endless. At the same time I can also put effort into making some awesome NPC creations with the special ability rules in The Gate and especially with the fantastic ideas in Teratology. From the players’ perspective they could establish whatever they wanted in the setting and be comfortable knowing they weren’t creating tons of work for me in imagining. You want to have a massive blanket fort in the middle of the neighborhood (a real thing, we called it the Tentadrome)? That’s no problem, consider it made!
In the end, the expansiveness of Invisible Sun means that you have so many directions to move in and explore. If you really just don’t care for the floaty, telepathic Blue Sun then that’s absolutely fine. You never have to go there and the GM still has seven other Suns to explore with entire worlds on them. More likely, though, you might be very picky about what spells to spend your Acumen on and will be happy to know that the base game alone comes with more than 300 spell cards (also more than 200 each of incantations, objects of power, and ephemera if you’re counting). Even if you (somehow) can’t find what you like in those 300 cards then I’m here to tell you that I made up probably a dozen homebrew spells and ephemera in my campaign so far and none of them took very long nor did they break the game with crazy effects. This is a flexible and robust system that can accommodate a whole lot and also withstand some truly bonkers stuff and keep on chugging. Don’t be afraid to Think Big (like I said) and push boundaries because that’s what this game is all about.