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Staring Directly Into the Invisible Sun -- A Review

Invisible Sun, the surrealist RPG by Monte Cook Games is definitely unique in many ways. While premium or high production value board games and LARPs have become increasingly common, the RPG industry version has been tame by comparison. Invisible Sun blows the concept out of the water. I've never seen an RPG that had shelving before.


Originally Kickstarted in 2016, Invisible Sun has a new Kickstarter running through Nov. 16 to fund a reprint. I had seen photos of The Black Cube, which is the core version of the game (versions with additional material exist), in the original Kickstarter photos, and it seemed impressive so a reprint Kickstarter made sense. When I was offered a chance to review the game I agreed because it had always intrigued me, but I hadn't gotten around to it.

Then it arrived – all 35 pounds of it.
Yes, you read that correctly.

The photos of The Black Cube do not do it justice. The cube itself is much larger than I expected (and heavier!). The map of Satyrine, the city that can be a starting setting for the game is a full-color, cloth map. The Testament of the Suns is a resin sculpture of a life-sized, six-fingered hand that holds an active card during game-play. Four beautifully illustrated, full-color, hardcover books (The Gate, which explains the game; The Key, which focuses on character creation; The Way, which is about the game’s magic systems; and The Path, which is the setting) are included along with stylized d10s, tokens, an art book, a ton of cards, plus a lot more. You can't help but be impressed by the quality and design of every component.

Invisible Sun is a game of surrealistic magic and the “real world” hiding behind the world we know. Created by Monte Cook of D&D Planescape and Numenera fame, the game echoes elements of mysticism like numerology, Kabbalah, etc. and embraces story game techniques. Instead of a GM creating a story and the players interacting with it and changing it, Invisible Sun focuses on player goals and cooperative storytelling.

Unlike games where the surrealism is limited to the art but the adventures are more creepy than surreal, Invisible Sun bakes surrealism into every part of the game. Want to create an antagonist? The Gate recommends a technique that is essentially a form of bibliomancy to create antagonists (flip through a book, select a word, flip to another page and select another word, etc. and then try to combine them in interesting ways). Or use the “cut up” technique from Dada and surrealists.

In both cases, Invisible Sun advises GMs and players to embrace the contradictions rather than trying to make them make sense. The concepts created wouldn't be used to create a story that the players are thrust into. Instead, everything starts with what interests the players, how they feel it might fit their character arc and build a story from the bottom up.


I could easily spend a thousand words or two talking about Invisible Sun and probably still wouldn't feel like I had captured it properly for a review. Whether it's details like how the d10s are used for zero to 9, not the conventional 1-10 results and why that's important for game play or more complicated topics like how the round Sooth deck changes the magic of the game's eight suns (nine if you count the invisible sun that rules magic), there's a lot to unpack – literally and figuratively – in Invisible Sun. Yet that doesn't mean the game is complex or crunchy. Just different.

And in many ways, that sums up Invisible Sun perfectly – different. Very different.

This article was contributed by Beth Rimmels (brimmels) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
Beth Rimmels

Comments

Blue

Orcus on a bad day
I'd love if you did a follow-up article on how it plays after a few sessions. There was a lot of excitement about the cube the first time around, but I haven't heard much after that - the actual experience of playing it.
 

Kcinlive

Villager
Invisible Sun always interested me. But I just don't know enough about it to buy it. I don't want to spend that kind of money on a game only to realize I and/or my player's hate it.
 

JohnnyZemo

Villager
I'd love if you did a follow-up article on how it plays after a few sessions. There was a lot of excitement about the cube the first time around, but I haven't heard much after that - the actual experience of playing it.
Yes. This. 100%.

This is a review of the game components, not the game. This is life in the Kickstarter era, people buying beautiful games that they never play.

Surely someone here at EN World has played the game. Any thoughts or comments on what it is like?
 

Ymdar

Villager
If you can't capture what the game is about only some bits and pieces of game mechanics then maybe you shouldn't write a review about the game.
 

Nebulous

Explorer
I suspect that it is a beautiful game with some fun aspects, but I also feel like it might be a pompous overindulgence.
 

Wraith Form

Explorer
If you can't capture what the game is about only some bits and pieces of game mechanics then maybe you shouldn't write a review about the game.
Indeed. Expand on WHY we should buy--or not buy--the game, how mechanics work, etc, but don't tease us.
 

HiReiMika

Villager
I've been told it's the most "board gamey" RPG out there. What does that mean?!
i have played and i didn't find it board gamey at all. I mean, there's a lot of tactile interaction, but that's pretty much where it ends. A lot of that is just physical counters and markers because your character spend and gain bene/qualia frequently. It's very story driven, a lot of it feels like the rules are there to guide rather than restrain what you could do. The limits of your imagination is where you can take the game, which is the opposite of board gamey to me personally as there is no direct path to victory. There's not even XP in the classic sense.
 

icedrake

Villager
I've been playing remote for a group that plays at the table for this game, and I have very very mixed feelings about this game. Its a beautiful high end product with cool themes and concepts, but I absolutely dislike the fact The Way isn't a digital book for easy reference.

There are two major issues I have with the game - 1. the game bills itself as a narrative driven and focused game, but then there are a ton of extra rules that layer on top of each other that you need to reference, so I feel like the system is getting in the way of trying to tell the story as a group; 2. there's too much to cross reference for the various books: if you want to summon a spirit as a Goetic (character class) you need to check your order page to see the limits of what you can summon and what tasks it can perform, check another book for the strength and abilities of the spirit.

The game also emphasizes downtime, so there's more 'homework' between sessions than simply sitting down and playing each week, and there's a ton of character growth and xp to be gained via these bluebook style sessions. If you don't like doing writing between games, I would not recommend this game for your group.

Overall, I think the game has some great mechanics, like character arcs, the concepts of magical houses and the secrets within, but Monte Cook went above and beyond to seed the mechanics across multiple books without digital pdfs and other physical artifacts, like the spell cards, that make this incredibly hard to absorb in one go. If you commit to the Black Cube, you're committing to playing this game and learning the system, there's just such a huge amount to raw data and rules to bite on the first go, its hard to wrap your arms around it at once.
 

HiReiMika

Villager
There's a great article on MCG's page about why one would enjoying Invisible Sun that gives more a vibe game play rather than raw mechanics or whats in The Cube. The game itself is impressive to behold, but it's what you do with it that really matters.
https://www.montecookgames.com/why-we-play-invisible-sun/

There's also a very fun actual play done by the folks at The Notion that you could watch if you want to see what game play looks like:
https://www.twitch.tv/iangamesmith

I've really enjoyed playing the few times I have and I cannot wait to GM. To really get into it is a labor of love. There are a lot of books and cards, it's not a straight forward game, but that's why I got it. There is so much in this game to chew on and more books coming for the next year or so. You can play with the rules primer and a 20 minutes intro, but you didn't buy 35 lbs of game for that. I don't think a quick review could have captured that easily, there are some long ones out there that I think dig a bit deeper.

I'm a big fan, AMA.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
It seems a bit like Mage.

How well researched and authentic are the magic systems and esoteric elements in it? Are they pure fantasy or do they mirror real world traditions and practices?
 

Psikosis

Villager
I'd love if you did a follow-up article on how it plays after a few sessions. There was a lot of excitement about the cube the first time around, but I haven't heard much after that - the actual experience of playing it.
I played it at Gen Con this year (2018). The system is quite RP heavy. Stat sheets are very basic. Each player has some stats, a background, and a fixed number of resources that may be spent to activate special abilities, which means activating powers/abilities seems to be fairly rare event. Again, the emphasis is on RP and problem-solving. The trick is to get your head around the rather bizarre world you are inhabiting. At risk of seeming contradiction or at least a bad pun, Invisible Sun requires you to 'think outside the box'.

I grabbed a copy from a FLGS who bought the retailer level so I have a copy. Like a lot of folks, I just haven't had time to sit down with it properly. Which is why this is just a first impression. I think you really need to play a half dozen or so games to get properly get into the game and it's world. So after one game, I'm interested, but not willing to declare it a rousing success worthy of purchase as a game. As a glorious vanity project that celebrates RPGing, it's worth the price of admission.

Sorry if this is as cogent as it should be. It's late and I'm tired...but I hope it's at least a bit helpful.
 
I am interested in the world, adventures, etc., but there is no way I am going to spend that much on a single rpg. It's a pity that they don't offer a less resource intensive version of the game, or at least a "world of" book.
 

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