Today, we continue our review of the books in the Invisible Sun Black Cube with The Gate. The second book in the series of recommended reading given on the instruction sheet, it contains both player information in the first two chapters and then GM information in the rest of the book. Unlike The Key, this book launches immediately into the technical aspects of the game with no fiction to give it flavor.
The Gate is a mixed book. Part rulebook, part advice, and part reference for what may be an unfamiliar, even though commonly known fortunetelling set piece, the Sooth Deck (based somewhat off the Tarot). Set up like the majority of the Key, the two column with a center bar down the middle that contains notes, the book is easy to read with a similar evocative artwork to the rest of Monte Cook Games’ offerings.
The first portion of the book covers Gameplay from a rules standpoint. And the very first section covers game modes. Unlike the Cypher System or many other TTRPGs it has three modes instead of two:
- First is Action Mode. This is the mode with the most detail provided, at least mechanically, and the one where each player gets a turn. It is run similar to a combat phase, with each player taking a single turn before another gets a turn and is usually measured in “rounds”. It is the most traditionally recognizable of the three despite not really being discussed in other games.
- Second is the Narrative Mode. This mode is used out of combat and at the table, this is things each player does as their character from investigation, to simply telling a part of the story the group is developing together. While there may be mechanical actions that occur here, this mode is where order is less important and so there are not typically formal “rounds” or “turns”.
- Third is the Development Mode. This one is quite a bit different from the other two. For starters, it doesn’t always happen at the table. This is done between players, or players and GM with a single soothe card (in case mechanical results or difficulty levels are needed). This mode is entirely about the characters and their personal goals or trials, and things they can do singly or together that are outside of gameplay. This is also considered a side scene and can cover other things as well, like shopping, or flashbacks.
The next several pages go into rule details of how to use the different parts of the black cube during gameplay at the table. From the Path of Suns to the Sooth cards. It talks about how to use GM Shifts as well as using character summaries at the end of a session which is where the “currency” for character advancement is awarded (Acumen, Joy, and Despair).
Like all TTRPGs Invisible Sun is about the player’s actions and the challenges they face and that is what the next portion of the book covers. For those coming from other Monte Cook Games properties, there is a new concept introduced in Invisible Sun called Venture. Venture is used similar to what is the sum of Assets, Skills, and Effort in the Cypher System. The players calculate their venture, then subtract that Venture from the Challenge Level as determined by the GM to get a Target Number. They then roll one (or more in some situations) d10 against that Target Number. You can have success or partial success, sometimes however a GM can rule a failure as a success if it benefits the story in some way, called “success but”.
The third “rules” portion of the book is, strictly speaking, optional. It covers some of the advanced topics in running Invisible Sun that discuss some of what could be called the “higher mysteries” both mechanically and narratively in the game. Following that there is, as in other Monte Cook Games books, a fairly detailed section giving the Game Master some advice on running Invisible Sun and how it differs from running other games you may have in the past. Despite quite a few commonalities with the Cypher System and Cypher-adjacent games like Numenera, Invisible Sun really is its own animal and requires another decent-sized mind shift in order to wrap your head around both what it is and how it should feel at the table.
The final section of the book includes images of all of the Sooth Deck cards along with what is on them and some description as to what it may mean. At the beginning of the section there is some explanation on both how to use the Sooth Deck as required in the game on the Path of Suns, and potentially how to use it to do other things (like give inspiration for GM Shifts as an example). Finally, at the end of the book is a comprehensive index for topics in all four of the books found in the Black Cube.
I found this book helpful for my running of the game, but like the Cypher System, it required letting go of many preformed ideas and thoughts of how the game would be run. I gave up even more of the GM control in favor of player agency. Once I did, however, I found the game becoming enjoyable and rarely did I need to step in and redirect my players. They became engrossed with the game and were quite sad that we had to put it on hiatus until after the first of the year due to schedules, work and the holidays coming up.
My favorite part about the game became the development phase. It offered the ability to just sit and talk with a player and get their thoughts and input away from others, not just for their character, but get their input about what they’d like more of in addition to offering opportunities to actually roleplay one-on-one. I chose to use the development phase two fold, one for helping them improve their character and one for helping me improve as a GM, not just in this game, but in other games I have run. Invisible Sun, while perhaps not an innovation in gaming, has certainly stretched me as a GM in a direction I may not have thought to do otherwise with it’s focus on player-directed storytelling. That concept will certainly bleed into other games that I run. Happy gaming!
- Joann Walles