Friday, August 12, 2016

Some Thoughts on Invisible Sun

On Monday (August 15, 2016, for those reading this later), Monte Cook Games will launch a Kickstarter in support of a new tabletop RPG called Invisible Sun.  The game was revealed at Gencon last Saturday, and that reveal has been followed by some viral marketing efforts that have been kind of fun (you can see some of it here).  It was probably the biggest tabletop RPG announcement to come out of Gencon, and I am all but certain to back it beginning on Monday.

You can't really talk about Invisible Sun in isolation from Monte Cook and MCG, so here is a quick primer.  In the relatively small world of tabletop RPGs, Monte Cook is at the top of the heap in terms of visibility and lineage.  Back in the 1990s, he was a writer and designer on Dungeons & Dragons for TSR, probably best known for coming up with the Planescape setting, which in turn lead to the cult classic and critical darling video game Planescape:Torment.  When D&D was bought by Wizards of the Coast, he was a lead designer on the 3rd Edition of the game (2000).  He then went out on his own and developed a series of well-regarded products under his own the Malhavoc Press label (this is the period of time when I was not involved with tabletop RPGs, so I'm familiar with this stuff only by reputation).

After a brief period where he was associated with what became 2013's 5th Edition of D&D, Cook launched a Kickstarter for a new game called Numenera in 2012.  This Kickstarter raised over a half-million dollars, and spun out into a full-fledged game company, a line of Numenera products, three other games using the same game engine (2014's The Strange, 2015's generic version of the "Cypher System" rules called, well, The Cypher System, and a version designed for younger kids called No Thank You, Evil!), and five more wildly successful ($200k+) Kickstarters to support those products.

I was late to the MCG train--I missed the initial Kickstarters for Numenera and The Strange, but I have backed three of their follow-on Kickstarters.  My experience is that MCG and their Kickstarters produce well-written, visually stunning, high-quality products.  From a game point of view, I think the Cypher System rules are a breeze to run and to teach (probably the easiest rules set I have found), with only a few problems that have cropped up in play.  On the setting side, I really, really like The Strange (think about shows like X-Files and Fringe and even a bit of Doctor Who to get a flavor), but I am more ambivalent about Numenera, whose far future lost world setting hasn't really "clicked" for me (more on that later).  In this analysis, I appear to be in the minority of the Wisdom of the Internet, which tends to love the settings and not love the rules as much.  Be that as it may, MCG has become one of my two "go to" game design companies (along with British game company Pelgrane Press, about whom I will surely be writing in the future), and I would recommend their stuff to anyone looking to get into the hobby or to find new games to check out.

In any event, all of that is prelude to talking about Invisible Sun.

From what we know, it is not a Cypher System game, but one with a new but similar rules engine.  What was most intriguing about what MCG has released so far is that Invisible Sun seems to be innovating, or at least trying to innovate, on the basic experience of playing a tabletop RPG.  They are promising some kind of system for having interactions between the GM and a player or players that occur away from the game table, but integrate back into the table experience in some manner.  They are also promising better support for online play, which is clearly at least part of the future of tabletop RPGs.  During the announcement seminar at Gencon, there is mention of trying to create a play experience that is comfortable for both introverts and extroverts, which is something that I don't think has been meaningfully addressed in RPGs before.

I think these sorts of conceptual innovations are really exciting and much needed.  The basic play experience of tabletop RPGs has not changed since the invention of D&D in the 70s, and I think it is positive that folks are at least thinking about how to make that experience better and more accessible.  We don't really need yet another set of mechanics for how to figure out if your character can hit someone they are trying to shoot at, but genuinely new ways of playing could really be a step forward.

The stuff they are talking about, however, seems very ambitious, and I worry a bit that they might be over-promising.  For example, in that announcement seminar, they mention designing the system so that players who miss sessions do to other commitments have that fact seamlessly integrated into the game's story.  Which sounds great, but their example of how that is done is "well, in that session that you missed, your character was lost in the Shadows."  That works, but it's not exactly revolutionary--"Bob's character is off doing some side-quest for this session" is a tabletop RPG staple for those kinds of circumstances, and this idea is not all that different.  But even if Invisible Sun can't 100% deliver on its promises, moving the ball forward in these areas will make for an interesting game and hopefully will push the overall state of tabletop RPGs forward.

My bigger concerns come with the setting.  I should say up front that I expect more information immediately before the launch of the Kickstarter, so it is sort of unfair to say anything definitive at this point.  But, from what we have so far, it is not really grabbing me.  The idea seems to be the basic Gnostic concept that several RPGs have tapped, that the world we see is not the "real" world and super awesome special people are able to transcend the world of the Muggles to reach reality.  Speaking of Muggles, Cook described the setting as "Harry Potter if it were written by Philip K. Dick" and calls it "surrealist fantasy."

Perhaps this is a failure of my imagination, but I'm having a hard time coming up with a picture of what "surrealist fantasy" or "Harry Potter via PKD" is going to be like.  The bits of promotional art that have been released are all super weird (and beautifully done, but that is almost a given for MCG at this point), such that it's hard to say what it all adds up to.  For example, there is a piece showing keys raining down from the sky, and the keys open doors that presumably take you to new places.  That's a very interesting and engaging concept, but I feel like it doesn't really have any sort of context (at least, not yet) to be able to fit it into a vision of a world.

More specifically, my concern is that I will have the same experience with the setting of Invisible Sun as I have had with Numenera.  Numenera is chock full of weird and unique setting set-pieces, but I've never been able to find a center or a handle that brings all of that together.  My initial reaction to reading the Numenera material was "this is all super interesting, but I have no idea what to do with all of this cool stuff--what kinds of stories do I want to tell in this world?"  Even after running some Numenera games that went reasonably well, I don't feel like I've found that narrative hook or hooks.

Some of this, I think, stems from intentional design choices.  Numenera is set a billion years in the future, after at least eight hyper-tech civilizations have come and gone, leaving behind bits and pieces of technology that those remaining have to pick through.  The Numenera gamemaster's advice sections repeatedly highlights the importance of keeping the setting weird and unpredictable, emphasizing that the characters in the world do not, and really cannot, understand how any of this stuff works.  It does this, I suspect (and maybe it says this somewhere), to protect the creative freedom of the GM--so long as the GM doesn't have to explain why anything works the way it does, he or she is free to add in anything one can think of without having to worry that it will contradict some previously established bit of lore.  Having lots of handles does constrain what the GM can do with the setting.  But the downside to this approach is that the GM isn't given as many jumping off points for coming up with his or her own stuff, leaving a feeling that he or she has to create "in space."

I recognize that this is very much a personal preference thing.  There are clearly lots of folks who found hooks immediately with Numenera and have charged off into the sunset.  So I'm not saying that the hooks and jumping-off points are not there; it's more that I have a hard time finding them.  Plus, I had basically the exact opposite experience with MCG's other tent-pole product, The Strange--one read through and I had a laundry list of ideas and angles (though, The Strange is in many ways a more structured setting, which, while open-ended, behaves according to a clearly articulated set of rules and has some big-picture concepts that are baked in).  So it's not like the MCG folks can't design, or even can't design things that resonate with me.  Whatever weird alchemy there is with fictional settings and the reader, Numenera and I don't really have it.

Anyway, my concern is that Invisible Sun feels similar enough to Numenera that the same thing is going to happen--I'm going to get to the end of the book and think "this is incredibly imaginative, but I have no idea what to do with any of this."  In wanting to make the setting surreal, I worry they will make a setting that is hard for me to really engage with and figure out how to use.  But, maybe not--again, it is hard to tell what we are looking at, given how little info we have about the game.  The MCG track record is more than strong enough for them to earn the benefit of the doubt.  And even if the setting is not my cup of tea, I am interested enough in the meta-mechanics that it will be worth it to me to back the Kickstarter.  I'm eager to see what they do in that space.

"Cautiously optimistic" is probably the best summary of my perspective on Invisible Sun.  It's getting a lot of hype, and that hype is probably deserved.  We'll know more on Monday.  

Update:  Actual Play Video posted on Friday (8/12)


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