Invisible Sun Design Diary 6: We Need Secrets

I’ve written in other venues about the “thrill of the hunt.” And by that, I mean the hunt for that one back issue of a comic series you loved, that old album by the band you loved, or that out of print book by that author you loved. These “hunts” were a big part of my youth, and the very concept is gone now. Everything is easily found on the Internet with a few keystrokes.

But there’s more to the phenomenon than just the hunt for material goods. Decades ago, it was hard to be an expert on something—even something frivolous. If you wanted to deep dive into something, it took time, determination, and sometimes a bit of creativity. When my friends and I could quote Ghostbusters verbatim back in the day, it was because we went to see the movie over and over again in the theater. If someone knew about a rare, alternate track by Elvis Costello, it was because they immersed themselves in Elvis Costello fandom over the course of years. When my friend could recite the names of all the First Age elves mentioned in The Silmarillion, it was because he pored over the book and made the list himself. Now, all of those things could be accomplished with a quick Internet search.

This isn’t “back in my day” complaining. I love the fact that all this information is readily available at our fingertips. We’re better off now, despite the loss of what I’m talking about. But I think there’s still something in human nature that wants to discover. To hunt. To learn some secret not easily found—or, perhaps more importantly—not found by someone else. For some of us, we don’t want to read about someone else’s discoveries; we want to make them on our own.

And therein lies much of the soul of Invisible Sun. Because at its core, Invisible Sun is a game about discovering secrets. Some of these secrets are in-game, for your characters to discover. But some are for players to discover. Secrets in the box (the Black Cube), secrets in the text, secrets in the art, secrets in the… well, that would telling.

I think there’s a certain type of person (of which I am one), that craves that kind of thing. We tried very hard to reinforce this idea in the Kickstarter. We created geocaches, we hid puzzles in some of the promotional text, and we slipped secrets into web pages. Some (but not all) of these were found, solved, or discovered.

The initial playtest documents are out in the wild now, and I imagine a few playtesters are saying, “this is all well and good, but where are all the secrets?” Well, the game has to work independently of secrets and puzzles. The discovery of such thing enhances play and builds on the flavor of the setting and the game, but it cannot be required. So the game itself—the stats, the spells, the rules (what our testers are testing)—is secret free.

And yet. The idea of discovery and secrets is still built into the rules. Now, this comes in many forms. Most straightforward is the fact that there are mechanics called Secrets. Secrets are special capabilities that a character can acquire by learning a secret. One might learn the secret language of spiders, the secret to making your spells last longer, or the secret to stealing ideas right out of people’s heads. Less straightforward is the capability of the GM to hold back information so that it can be discovered in-game. Take, for example, the spells in the game. The spells come on cards in Invisible Sun, which gives the GM the ability to pull a few cards of the (massive) deck and save them to be discovered later. Maybe the GM decides the whole concept of the Deeps of Sleep is something they want to be discovered by the PCs in the course of the game. The GM pulls out any spells, ephemera, or objects of power that have to do with the Deeps, and saves them all for real (rather than simulated) discovery. When the PCs find such a spell (and thus the very idea of the Deeps of Sleep), it’s new to the character, but also the player.

Even the character sheets (called Character Tomes, because they are big and detailed) are really just journals for the players to record the world as they discover it. The assumption is that they will be discovering many secrets, and will need to record all they learn. They are hunters, and secrets are their prey. Secrets make characters more capable, and give more options, but also flesh out the world. Remember that the very core story of Invisible Sun is “the world isn’t what you think it is.” Smart players will quickly realize that even as they start the first session in the Actuality, walking the streets of Satyrine, their discovery of the truth—the real truth—of the world around them is not complete. It’s just begun.

Monte Cook
Monte Cook

<p>Monte Cook has written hundreds of roleplaying game products, along with numerous short stories, novels, nonfiction titles, and comic books. He is probably best known for his work on such notable titles as Planescape, Ptolus, the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (which he codesigned with Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams), Arcana Evolved, and of course Numenera and the Cypher System. He is a cofounder of Monte Cook Games, and is our lead designer.</p>