You’ve always felt like this wasn’t your home, that the world was missing something. Well, you were right, you just forgot why. You need to come home, the War is over, and the Shadows are growing darker. Come back with us into the light of the Invisible Sun.
Monte Cook Games is creating waves with its new RPG Invisible Sun, on Kickstarter right now, which whispers sweet nothings of changing the way we play RPGs altogether. Head Snail-Wrangling Gnome Darcy Ross teamed up with Mika Talley, a visiting vislae from the Actuality, to pull secrets from the very mouth of Monte Cook himself.
To protect these critical nuggets of truth from the inevitable decay of the Shadow, we’ve provided both an audio recording and a slightly abridged transcription. Indeed, the decay has already started, and a portion of the audio was lost. Look to the section “The Extremely Secret Unaired Question About Secrets” to catch up after listening.
The final secret we barter for (see “Will Trade Soul for Secrets” section at the end) should take effect today or tomorrow, as the Invisible Sun Kickstarter starts winding its way back through the Nightside Path of Suns! Watch out for big changes on the Kickstarter.
Darcy: Hi, I’m Darcy from Gnome Stew.
Mika: And I’m Mika from The Actuality.
Darcy: And today we’re going to wring secrets of the Invisible Sun out of Monte Cook, co-owner of Monte Cook Games and the weird mind behind Ptlolus, Planescape, Numenera, and much more. Thank you for coming on Monte.
Monte Cook: Thanks for having me.
Mika: So your Kickstarter has already been hugely successful hitting the funding goal in about two days despite much of the game being largely a mystery. What would be your basic elevator pitch for this game to people who haven’t really heard very much about it?
Darcy: I think we’re going to break a couple pieces of that off and delve into them, because we’re really excited about a couple of elements of the novelty that you’re presenting for us. So, we’re Cypher System fans…
Mika: Yeah we are.
Darcy: YEAH we are.
Monte Cook: Me Too!
Darcy: The element of discovery is a sensibility shared between the two game systems, but Invisible Sun is not a Cypher System Game. Can you give an example where you are introducing a non-Cypher System mechanic or sensibility or element that tailors it to the surreal fantasy setting? Can you tell us your favorite one that really supports this different type of game?
Monte Cook: Wow I have to narrow it down to just one?
Darcy: (laughs) We’re happy to have you talk for more. We’re trying to give you an out.
Monte: Very closely related is the other thing that comes to mind as a brand new mechanic: the way that dice rolling works in this game. Basically, when you attempt a task, similar to the Cypher System, the GM is going to set a difficulty, and the player is going to take some modifications to that difficulty and try to lower it. We don’t call it difficulty in Invisible Sun, we call it challenge. It’s the same kind of concept. The idea is that you roll a die and you see if you can succeed at that challenge, but where it gets really interesting is if magic starts to come into play.
Most of the time, magic doesn’t really affect the challenge, the number you need to roll, but it allows you to roll more dice. So suddenly you’re rolling two dice to see if you can get a six, which increases your odds. It appeals to the game designer in me, the way that works, because your odds of succeeding at a task that is more difficult with two dice is different than if the task is simpler with two dice. So that becomes a very interesting mechanic to play around with. The reason that is so significant in Invisible Sun is that the first die the die you’re always rolling is called the mundane die. The extra dice you add on are because of magic, so they’re magic dice. If you get a failure roll on a magic die, it has a different effect than if you get a failure roll on a mundane die.
Darcy/Mika: Very cool. Great. Thanks so much.
Monte Cook: Developing your character’s background is what we actually formalized as a process and call foundation. It is like in the Cypher System: you’ve got a sentence that describes your character. One of the elements in your sentence in Invisible Sun is your foundation. Your foundation includes your background, where you live, who your friends are, the sort of the things that makes your character a person.
Monte Cook: And you can develop that, and maybe a big part of your background is what you did in Shadow. Maybe you were something really interesting. Maybe you were a police officer or maybe you were are a criminal, and so that plays into who you are as a person. But maybe you don’t care about that. Maybe that part is not interesting to you. The foundation becomes as big or a small a part as the player wants.
Darcy: I really like that there seems to be a through line of plurality in this game – you’re fitting different peoples’ interests in the same game.
Darcy: I’m glad you brought up the character sentence. You guys have been slowly doling out information about what all those pieces are and what can go there. And so we’re going to try to wring a little more out of you. I just ran Planescape second edition at Gen Con had a blast.
Darcy: And one of the elements that I really liked with that Planescape setting is the factions and how the factions interplay. You guys have given us a little information about one of those chunks of the sentence, your order, which is who your friends are, how you’re interacting with magic, or what kind of magic you have. You’ve said that whatever order you’re in, you can advance through or progress within that realm. I was wondering if you could give me an insight into how the order plays out roleplaying-wise, or how you can see that playing out at the table. Is it a group of people that you might be interacting with, like a faction in Planescape? Is it coloring your philosophy or how you treat other people? Can you tell me what that’s going to feel like at the table?
Darcy: Awesome. Thank you so much. My follow up is, which order would you be Monte? Of the ones you’ve announced so far, or is it a secret one.
Darcy: Awesome. I really like Wheel of Time, I feel like with that and Avatar, magic is this built thing as opposed to a regimented thing. Very cool.
Different Player Types
Mika: In the Kickstarter you said that the game recognizes the differences between types of players and accommodates people who want simpler characters, or non-magical characters, even multiple characters. I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit? Does the Development Mode help that mechanically?
Monte Cook: Yes and no. The people who want really simple characters, this option is really more for… Let’s say you’re getting ready to have a game on Friday night and your cousin is visiting from out of town. Everyone has all these well-developed characters, and you want to insert her into the game. Well, what you would do is create what’s called a shadow character which is a really simple character to make and play. It takes just like two minutes to put together a shadow character. That character is not going to have a lot of magical options or whatnot, but it’s a character with agency that can do things and still act in the game and has abilities, but they’re pretty simple straightforward abilities. It’s very quick and you can take this game which is sort of complex and involved and insert someone into it really quickly. That’s kind of what I mean. You know, there are going to be people who are just like “I just want to play a shadow character. I don’t want to think about it between games, I just want to show up on Friday night.” A shadow character is going be fun for that person. I don’t remember the rest of the question. I’m sorry.
Mika: That’s okay, me either. So… non-magical characters and multiple characters?
Monte Cook: Right. One of the options that’s going to be available in the game is you’ve got these characters which are all really simple to create and simple to play. So simple, in fact, that if you’re going to take that option as a long term option, it might get a little dull in comparison with the other characters. So imagine if instead of playing a shadow character, you are playing three of them, right?
Darcy: That’s a term I usually hear with respect to board games, right?
Monte Cook: Right.
Darcy: That asymmetrical board game play style, it feels like you’ve got a couple of elements here that are taking cool lessons from board games and bringing them into the RPG world which sounds very fun to me. Thank you.
Development Mode – Play Away From the Table
(Alternate Title: When Your Mom Says To Go Play Outside)
Darcy: We haven’t talked about the third mode of play, yet, but I am just so excited by it. Let me try to explain it. The third mode of play is Development Mode, which is however you’re engaging with the game away from the table. That could be just you and the GM, it could be you and a couple other players, etc. And you’re going to have an app that supports this. You can use the Sooth Deck to generate random effects for you to interpret from and play with. Is that an accurate description?
Monte Cook: It is. Yes.
Darcy: I was curious to know how far can this go. Do you imagine that the diversity of play with this new element added is going to be pretty vast? Could you have a game that’s on hiatus for six months and have it only be played by Development Mode until later? Like, how much can this mode of play sustain? Do you think do you see it more as like a patchwork between real sessions, or do you think it can stand alone pretty strongly?
Monte Cook: I think it all depends on the players. I am a player and I have played with players who could probably play only Development Mode and have a great time. But, to be perfectly up front about it, that would be very, very much a group storytelling kind of thing. Much more. I want to be careful how I say this, but it’s almost not a game at that point, but a group storytelling thing, which I think is great.
Darcy: It’s just different.
Monte Cook: But yeah, I can see going for a long time using only Development Mode. As we’re beginning to playtest and run it, you know I’m doing both very heavily. There’s Development Mode between every single regular session and usually, if I’m the game master I’m doing that a number of times and I’m doing it in different ways. One person is saying I want to go do this thing, so she and I got off and talk over coffee or whatever, but with another person I might be interacting with solely through email or whatever (because the app doesn’t exist yet). And that’s fine too, right? I haven’t done it, but you know you could just you could do Development over the phone or text.
Darcy: Smoke signals!
Mika: I’m so excited about Development Mode. I was in the seminar when you were talking about it, and I like welled up with tears a little bit. I was like “Get it together. You are in public.”
Monte: It really appeals to certain kinds of players.
Mika: For certain kinds of players, it’s going to be huge and it’s going to fill out the story for people that at the table might not be as chatty, or if there’s somebody that wants to railroad everything into combat all the time. (That guy is always at the table.) But you were in another interview with OCDcast on July 10th, talking about that guy at the table that’s always on his phone and how Development Modes can kind of pull that guy back in. Did you intend for it to also be available at the table, or was that just something more for that guy that’s like not quite as engaged as everybody else at the table?
Designing Invisible Sun
Darcy: Awesome. We wanted to pick your brain briefly about how this design process has been. I think you mentioned that you’ve had this in the works for almost two years, so it’s been on your mind for a while now. Can you tell me why this is so special to you? Like, what elements of it are keeping you up at night? That’s the thing that’s kept this in your heart for two years and the thing that’s pushing you through Kickstarter, which is a pain in the butt? Tell us why it’s so special to you.
Mika: “This is going to be great, right?!”
Monte Cook: You know, it’s a very different experience. It’s actually a very vulnerable experience. But anyway that wasn’t your question. Your question was the development process. So I started really thinking that this was going to be a game two years ago. It’s something that’s been sort of more on the back of my mind even longer than that. You know, in the same way that Numenera was a lot of different things that were kind of in the back of my brain and they all kind of came together. Invisible Sun is very similar.
So for me, the surreal aspect of it comes from probably the fact that when I was a kid, almost all science fiction and fantasy art was surreal in some way. Very rarely did we get exactly what’s going on in the scene of the Lord of the Rings, it was kind of presenting a metaphorical kind of thing. My kid brain wanted to take that stuff and making all literal. So I would see some science fiction book cover, and (I’m just making this up) there would be this giant hand thrusting its way out of the ground. And there’s like a city on the hand, or whatever, and I wanted to create a setting where there really was a giant hand coming up out of the ground and there was a city in the palm and that really was true. That’s always been a part of me and I love that kind of art all the time. I’m a big fan of like Michael Parks and Vladimir Kush, and all these different artists that do stuff that they probably don’t mean to be taken literally. But I like to, you know. (Lots of laughing.)
Darcy: I love this it’s like we fail at being surreal and make it real. It’s a great game.
Because it’s different now. We’re busier, there’s a lot going on, the internet exists. It might be time for us to look past the way things were back in 1974 when Gary and Dave invented D&D, and see what else we can do. I’m sure that other designers will come up with other and probably better solutions than I have, but Invisible Sun is my first shot at it.
Darcy: I could even see [Development Mode] even being helpful for new players, right? I feel like I run one shots for people who are new to RPGs and are super into it, and are so excited when they leave and then there’s this energy crash of trying to schedule a game and everyone’s busy. I don’t know, it would be nice to maybe let them engage with it this other way.
Mika: After Stranger Things came out, I cannot count the number of people that were like “Oh my god could you please be my Dungeon Master.” I’m like “I’m a Game Master”. I was like yeah, I would love to run a game for you, when is good for you? And they’re just like, “Well how’s next month?” I don’t know how next month is.
Darcy: Something to look forward to. My other design question is just a simple one. I’m curious, what the hardest part of designing this so far has been? Is there some element that you’ve played with a lot of different ways, or that just emotionally feels difficult to find the perfect version of for you?
Monte Cook: You know obviously there’s always big challenges with the design. Lately…So one of the things that’s actually surprisingly difficult in game design is coming up with the terminology.
Darcy: And words are so important for it.
Monte: Yeah. Right. And so you’ve got the Planescape cant and this sort of Victorian London but in the multiverse thing going on, and when Planescape really works, I think, is when it’s truest to that. Invisible Sun has something different. It’s sort of more… I don’t know quite how to describe, but there’s an elegance to it. There’s a sophisticated kind of… an intelligence that doesn’t talk down to players. Invisible Sun assumes that you’re smart, which I personally always love. I like it when creators, you know make something that assumes that I’m smart and they’re smart and
Monte Cook: Right. I think we are all smarter than we give ourselves credit. We all deal with that. And so I think that Invisible Sun has that and so the terminology has to fit that. I maybe have mentioned one of the stats, one called Qualia.
Qualia is this concept sort of in philosophy, of how information goes in your brain and becomes an idea. There’s this whole cool concept that it is all deeply involved in consciousness and everything, and so extracting that into Invisible Sun seemed appropriate. That’s a term that I am in love with and worked hard to get there. So, the terms, I guess is the short answer to your question here.
GMing a Smart, Surreal-Flavored Game
Mika: Speaking of difficulties, there’s a growing concern that I’ve noticed in communities of writing for Invisible Sun from a GMing aspect because it is so surreal, it’s SO it’s so surreal. I’m already writing for Invisible Sun just so that I have like enough information that I can draw and be like oh and then this happens. Are you planning on having anything for GMs to help them get that surreal taste, like the Weird Deck in Numenera?
Mika: That’s great. Yeah that’s wonderful. I’ve been seeing a lot of people that are just like I’m not weird enough for this, I want to be that weird, but I’m not.
Darcy: But we’re looking up at your baby and we’re panicking because we can’t read the GM advice section!
Monte: Ha ha ha.
Darcy: As information trickles down, I’m like, it’s okay, they’ll hold my hand like they did with Numenera.
Mika: It’s gonna be fine.
Monte: No I mean one of the things that I will say is, I can speak only for myself but for me I’m very inspired visually. The great thing is that there is so much great art. Some of it is older, right, those 70s book covers from science fiction fantasy, but newer cool stuff too. In Invisible Sun we’ll provide this big long list of artists to look up. The internet’s such a great way – you can literally see the complete works of every artist you’ve ever wanted to see with a few keystrokes, right? So there’s a lot of inspiration out there if you look for it.
The Extremely Secret Unaired Question About Secrets
Mika: So secrets are a huge part of the game – it’s sort of like the crux of the game, like social currency almost. In most roleplaying games, when one character learns something, they immediately share with the group. They do a spot check tell everybody “Look it’s a bug bear”. Or they discover something, like somebody has an ulterior motive, and they they warn the group immediately, with the exception of a couple of very fun players. It’s pretty standard. But there’s this idea that secrets are so important and that maybe this is the secret is going to bring you higher in your order or something like that. Do you think that there’s going to be less disclosing things between players, and do you see that being more difficult for gameplay, or do you think that’s just going to be all in the fun?
Monte Cook: I hope so. In my concept of the game, it’s not so much players keeping secrets from each other, except where it’s really fun. If you watched the gameplay video, one character, Jen, goes off and has a side scene in Development Mode and then comes back. She has the secret to get past this barrier, and gets to have the spotlight on her for a moment to reveal, “I know how to do this!” and it’s this weird visual thing she gets to do and describe. That revelation of the secret is a really cool moment in the game for the player. What I don’t see is players keeping a lot of secrets from each other, although some people will get off on that I guess.
Darcy: They’re going to do it whether you plan for it or not.
Monte Cook: And if they do, there’s room for that in Invisible Sun and it’s fine and I don’t think it will get in the way of gameplay, at least not any more than normal. Maybe even less actually – if you’ve got a lot of stuff going on in side scenes and the rest of the group never knows, it doesn’t actually hurt the group game play, it just enhances your own.
Keeping Track of Side Stories and Development Mode
Darcy: That leads into one more question I had. You said elsewhere that this Development Mode is giving us opportunities to be more like a TV show or a movie, where the camera can follow different groups. You can have a solo scene, you can go have a duet, and we don’t have to railroad it to where everyone must be in every scene at every time.
I think my players will eat this up, but my concern currently is that it could get a little overwhelming if things start fractal-ing out a bit. I’m nervous as a GM that I might give out some secrets in certain scenes and then I don’t know who really brought up to speed on what. I’m sure sometimes it can be a side plot, but if I am giving out some main plot information in Development Mode, do you think it potentially poses an issue for a GM to bring all those secrets together? Or is that just kind of going to be on the players to deal with? I think players are going to be happy they have secrets, but I go back and forth like “This will make my life so much easier” and “Oh my god I can fractal this out to infinity and get totally overwhelmed.“
Mika: I’m going to need spreadsheets and diagrams of secrets.
Monte Cook: It is interesting that you bring that up because one of the things that goes into the Black Cube that we haven’t really talked about much at all, just because there hasn’t been time… People have criticized us I think a little bit, like “Oh you haven’t told us everything about the game.” That’s just because there’s so much to tell! We’re not intentionally being cagey or anything.
Darcy: Super cool!
Mika: Yeah this is a first time I’m hearing about it-
Monte: It’s the first time I’ve talked about it.
Mika: Oh my god and I’m so excited about it because I was definitely like I’m like there’s going to be spreadsheets. I’m just going to have like a whole Google Drive of Madness.
Darcy: You can still have that.
Mika: Oh, I will. That’s happening now. Now there will also be a notebook.
Darcy: Yeah. Thank you so much. You’ve given us a ton of information and I feel really good about this. We’re really pumped.
Mika: So excited.
Will Trade Soul for Secrets
Darcy: But, I think we have to end with that I hear there’s there’s a currency of soul trading in Invisible Sun. If we were to loan you out a portion of our soul would you give us a secret?
Mika: I can give you a lot of emotions, I hear they’re pretty good currency too.
Monte: They are actually! You guys really have been reading a lot.
Mika: Oh, that day after the seminar I stayed up till 4 in the morning pulling apart the code on your website.
Darcy: I’ve been getting a lot of audio fiction in my email. It’s been great and terrifying.
Mika: We’re very scary people over here.
So here’s a secret – it’s about the Kickstarter. We’ve got the Path of Suns, I’m sure you’ve noticed. You know the Suns are changing, we’re moving our way down. But part of something that we have hinted at with the Path of Suns is that there is also a Nightside Path where you go through the Path backwards. So there will be changes to the Kickstarter when we start going through the Nightside Path.
Darcy: Awesome. That’s a good secret.
Mika: That’s a great secret.
Darcy: What emotion would you like?
Mika: I could probably cry with joy right now if you’d like.
Darcy: A half pint of joy.
Mika: I’ll send it in the mail.
Stay Tuned for More Invisible Sun Secrets
Darcy: Excellent. Thank you so much Monte. This is fabulous. We’re so pumped and thanks for spending the time with us.
Monte: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Mika: Do you want to do the plug of “and you can see us at” …
Monte Cook: You can go to the Invisible Sun Kickstarter, or you can go to montecookgames.com and get the link there and some articles that we’ve been writing. In fact, just today [August 23rd] we published an article that I wrote about how Invisible Sun approaches introverts, of which I am one. So it’s a topic that is near and dear to my heart.
Darcy and Mika: Great. Thank you. Thank you.
Darcy: And you can find me @darcylross on Twitter and such.
Mika: And I’m @hireimika – it’s in Japanese, nobody can spell it.
Darcy: It’s going to be in the show notes, it’s going to be great.