11 July 2019
Treading the line ‘twixt genius and madness
One of the cardinal rules of clear writing is that you should almost never describe something as ‘unique’, because most of the time it simply isn’t true. So, bear that in mind when I tell you that Invisible Sun is a truly, genuinely, maddeningly unique RPG.
Coming from Numenera creator Monte Cook, Invisible Sun bills itself as a game of surreal magic and adventure, one where our waking world is revealed to be a vast illusion and dreamscapes form the true reality. It’s an intriguing premise, for sure, but even that only scratches the surface of what makes it stand out from the crowd.
To begin with, it’s probably best to address the elephant lurking in the room and admit that a small but significant part of Invisible Sun’s unique nature comes from its rather impressive price tag. Picking up the core game’s box set, portentously known as The Black Cube, is going to set you back well over £200. Even a set of PDFs comes in at around £75.
That would be an eye-watering price tag for even the most committed of board game buyers, and for most RPG fans it’s almost impossible to comprehend. However, there’s never been an RPG quite so packed with stuff as Invisible Sun.
The Black Cube’s heart may lie in the four hard-backed, beautifully designed rulebooks, but its flesh and blood comes in the form of countless cards, maps, markers, boards and notes. It even comes with a life-sized six-fingered hand for holding and displaying cards.
It’s a truly stunning display of physical grandeur, but there’s more to the game than props and gimmicks. The rules themselves are stuffed with interesting ideas about the structure of RPG storytelling, such as guidelines for running inter-session side-scenes by text or email – the most interesting of these is the way it approaches narrative arcs.
In most games the GM is the one who plots out the broad strokes of the campaign. When you play Invisible Sun, however, it’s the players who determine their own story arcs, long before any dice are rolled.
If a player’s arc points towards uncovering an arcane library, it’s up to the GM to build the story towards that point. If their goal is to avenge their father, sooner or later they’ll have the chance to meet the killer. Plenty of games like to cast the GM as the story’s facilitator rather than its master, but few commit to the idea quite so wholeheartedly.
In fact, it’s hard to think of anything that Invisible Sun doesn’t embrace body and soul. It feels like every time the designers made a choice about how something should work they turned the dial until it broke, leaning into the concept so fully that it straddles a line between enthralling and off-putting.
One of the most striking examples of this is the way it approaches language. Despite that fact that every player character casts magic, the rulebooks note that describing them as ‘wizards’ is rather gauche and old-fashioned. Instead, they are known as Vislae, though some prefer to be known as ‘esoterics’, ‘canny ones’ or any one of a half-dozen other rather flowery terms.
Almost every page adds a fresh word to the glossary, so rather than applying bonuses to rolls you build them into a ‘venture’ that you subtract from the difficulty of the task, creating a target number that you want to hit on a d10 – or possibly several of them, depending on how things are shaking down. Instead of levelling up you combine ‘joy’ and ‘despair’ to create ‘crux’, which you can spend to advance your abilities and position.
This, perhaps, is what best sums up Invisible Sun. It’s a game that straddles the line between indulgence and inspiration. While sessions are certainly enjoyable, now and then I have to shake the nagging doubt that assails me at galleries and experimental exhibitions – the question of how much of my enjoyment comes from the actual quality, and how much it owes more to the grand presentation and price of admission.
There’s no doubt that Invisible Sun is something unique. If you want to sip on liquid creativity and can spare the cash, you should start tracking down the few remaining pre-orders right this second. But if you’re a fan of stark simplicity and have little time for grandiose airs, there are probably better ways to spend your cash.
PLAY IT? – MAYBE
If you can ignore the price tag this is a truly incredible display of creativity and, even if you never play the game, it’s a fascinating read. However, that’s a pretty big ‘if’.
Designer: Monte Cook
This review originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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