Escaping from Shadow: Monte Cook’s “Invisible Sun”

INVISIBLE SUN IS NOT a typical roleplaying game. The entry point for most roleplaying games is a core rulebook, like the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) Player’s Handbook. To play Invisible Sun, however, you must first obtain the Black Cube, an expensive and difficult-to-acquire artifact that holds 30 pounds of gaming materials. The Black Cube unfolds to create a small altar that contains a statue of a six-fingered hand (the Testament of Suns), which can hold one of 60 tarot-style cards (the Sooth Deck) that are used during gameplay to generate story elements and resolve actions.

The Cube also includes four beautiful hardcover rulebooks: The Key, which is used for character creation; The Gate, which explains gameplay; The Way, which explores the game’s various magical systems; and The Path, which describes the game’s setting. Finally, the Black Cube is also packed with character sheets, handouts, dice, tokens, cards, an art book, cloth and paper maps, a game board, a storyteller’s notebook, an envelope filled with secrets, and a set of props (including pamphlets, business cards, menus, wanted posters, and stationary) linked to the game’s setting.

Invisible Sun was written and designed by Monte Cook, a former student of acclaimed science-fantasy author Gene Wolfe. Cook is famous for his previous work on the D&D Planescape campaign setting and the roleplaying game Numenera. Invisible Sun appears to be his magnum opus: it is a game of surreal fantasy inspired by real-world artistic and occult traditions. Players assume the role of vislae — magicians who have awakened from their illusory lives in Shadow (the world-as-we-know-it) to discover the higher truth of The Actuality, a multidimensional magical realm loosely modeled on the Sefirot of the Jewish Kabbalah. Characters typically begin play in Satyrine, a 1920s-inspired city recovering from a devastating war, with characters exploring the setting and expanding their knowledge of magic along a series of open-ended paths.

One of the most impressive things about Invisible Sun is the way it draws upon Surrealism as a basis for narrative storytelling. The books frequently quote André Breton and other famous Surrealists, the art and design are strongly surrealistic in style, and The Gate offers in-depth suggestions on how to create surreal moods during gameplay. At one point, for example, Invisible Sun recommends using the cut-up technique (which the Surrealists borrowed from Dada and later passed along to William S. Burroughs) as well as other aleatory methods to generate weird juxtapositions to seemingly incommensurable elements and thus create surreal narrative effects. “The trick,” the book suggests, “is to not throw out the combinations that don’t make sense. Instead, ponder them and let your subconscious mind pull meaning from them.”

Here’s one example The Gate offers for using random selection to create surreal game elements:

Flip through a book — literally any book — and pick the first word your eye falls on, and then do it again. You might come upon “relative” and then “gradual.” That might not mean anything to you at first. But after you sit for a while, you think about what it would be to gradually become someone’s relative. What if there was a being that, after it spent time with you, eventually started to re-write your memories (and perhaps the past itself) so you started to believe it was your sibling? That’s an insidious and disturbing way to bond with you and get you to do what it wants.

Clearly, Invisible Sun has a different method for imagining antagonists than, say, the D&D Monster Manual, with its ready-made compendium of threats. Out of curiosity, I decided to test out how such a method might work in practice. The closest book at hand was Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums (2005), from which I drew the words “example” (page 65) and “changes” (page 10).

So, what exactly is an example, anyway? Broadly speaking, it’s something that serves as evidence to support a larger assertion: one makes a suggestion and then gives an example as supporting evidence. In this surreal fantasy setting, what if there were some kind of shape-shifting object that could serve as an example to confirm any given assertion? Behold the Changing Example: a creature or thing that yearns so deeply to please others that it becomes the evidence supporting whatever they wish to believe. Such an object could be terribly weaponized: imagine if it were to be dropped into a city, like a bomb, in such a way that it became evidence of the truth of all the different beliefs of the city’s inhabitants. Watch the holy wars unfold in the wake of its bizarre revelations.

Armed with such unusual inspirations, a storyteller could run an Invisible Sun story that explores themes and topics outside the scope of many other games. It is vital to note, however, that an Invisible Sun storyteller would never plan a session around these chance-inspired elements without linking them directly to the stories that interest players the most. This is one of the most revolutionary aspects of Invisible Sun: it offers a concrete system that structures gameplay from the ground up, based on player actions and concerns, rather than from the top down.

When you create an Invisible Sun character, you choose an initial “character arc” that defines what is most important to you as the game begins. There is a list of possible arcs, including “Aid a Friend,” “Develop a Bond,” “Defeat a Foe,” “Finish a Great Work,” and “Romance,” among many others (you can also create your own custom arcs). Arcs have multiple steps: they begin with an opening, advance through a number of developments, and conclude with a climax that leads to a resolution. Generally, the game suggests that only one or two steps should be accomplished per gaming session (because arcs need time to develop and resolve), and key aspects of character progression are based on completing steps in these arcs.

The entire story of the game is developed using character arcs. When multiple characters participate in an arc together, it then becomes a story arc, and all of the involved characters can progress through the arc’s steps and benefit mutually. During the character creation session (which happens as a group activity), the players establish a “desideratum” — or collective goal — based on the active arcs, and this desideratum establishes the direction of the game. After the desideratum is chosen, for example, the storyteller begins brainstorming challenges and encounters (such as the Changing Example) and connecting these to the arcs the players have chosen to explore.

Within this system, a storyteller never creates a generic adventure to serve as the basis of the game’s story regardless of the characters involved (e.g., “A dragon has kidnapped the princess, and you must rescue her!”). Instead, the story will always be generated by the actions and motivations of individual characters. This is a very different approach to storytelling than one finds in most mainstream roleplaying games. Some smaller independent games, like Apocalypse World, build stories from a collaborative player-driven process, but few offer anything quite like Invisible Sun’s character arc system. In this regard, Invisible Sun stands out as a revolutionary advancement among roleplaying games.

For anyone familiar with Surrealism in its historical context, however, it’s impossible not to notice that Invisible Sun’s key innovations occur on the level of gameplay design, rather than on the broader level of utopian social or cultural transformation. Real-life Surrealists like Breton, disenchanted with Western modernity in the wake of World War I, used strange juxtapositions and chance associations to reject what they saw as the tedious banality of reason and the monotony of bourgeois life. In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, Breton asserts that Surrealist practice is revolutionary: the more you do it, the more surreality becomes a superior reality. Surrealism, in other words, challenges what Robert Young refers to as the “ontological imperialism” of modernity — an arrogant cultural attitude that seeks to exercise mastery over the world by refusing to acknowledge its deeper complexity and multiplicity.

Given the ways that Invisible Sun draws on Surrealism and on various occult traditions, it seems reasonable to ask whether or not the game embraces or ignores the radical idealism of the Surrealist movement — and whether such idealism has something useful to offer in our current cultural context. What is the point, ultimately, of surreal storytelling in a roleplaying game? The Changing Example mentioned above is certainly more interesting than a D&D goblin, and resolving its challenges will not simply be a matter of attack rolls and hit points. But, at the end of the day, does the use of surrealist techniques within Invisible Sun open pathways toward any kind of superior reality? Does the game challenge our everyday status quo in any meaningful way?

Furthermore, what are we to make of the game’s occult influences? This is a game, after all, that uses a custom tarot deck, that mimics the map of reality offered by the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and that draws influence from Western esotericism. One does not need to believe in the existence of fireball-casting-run-you-fools fantasy magic in order to acknowledge that esotericism can nonetheless have profound transformative power. As Joshua Ramey argues in his book The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (2012), the philosopher Gilles Deleuze was strongly influenced by both Surrealism (via Antonin Artaud) and Western hermeticism, as evidenced by his powerful demand for belief in an invisible world, unmanifested yet realistically possible, lying outside the fixations of habit and routine that reproduce our commonplace social reality.

Both Surrealism and hermeticism, in other words, confront the shortcomings of our world and demand something better. Invisible Sun, by contrast, turns its attention away from the world-as-we-know-it; the game at several points defines itself as “escapism” rather than transformative practice, and it eschews any deliberate or intentional engagement with occultism. The “Precepts” chapter of The Path clarifies that the game is not intended to be “a true look at occultism or a ‘real world’ manual for magic,” and it notes that “great pains were taken to create a fictional, original occult. Thus, rather than the Tree of Life, we have the Path of Suns. Instead of Thelemic Magick, we have Vancian magic. And so on.” It further clarifies that “Invisible Sun is also not a treatise or manifesto with a new paradigm on reality.”

These disclaimers help avoid both the (absurd) charge that roleplaying games are linked to Satanic occultism and the (more reasonable) accusation that the game appropriates real spiritual and magical belief systems for shallow entertainment value. Additionally, however, Invisible Sun’s overt self-identification with escapism differentiates it from other works — like Alan Moore’s Promethea (1999–2005) or Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles (1994–2000) — that seek to operate metatextually, as transformative applications of metaphysical practice. Invisible Sun is not, in other words, a magical ritual embodied in the form of a roleplaying game: it’s just a game, and it is satisfied to limit its innovations to the domain of game design.

If Invisible Sun’s self-conscious embrace of escapism serves as the game’s thematic core, this reflects — perhaps at times unintentionally — the sometimes unbearable conditions of contemporary life that demand such escapism as a form of relief. In the introduction to The Key, for example, a short fictional narrative describes what it feels like to play an Invisible Sun character returning to The Actuality after having been lost in Shadow (the world-as-we-know-it) for many years. According to the narrator, Shadow is “a place of distraction and nonsense. Endless meaninglessness and trivialities.” The narrator then goes on to describe Shadow in detail:

In Shadow, I lived in a house, had a family, had a degree under my belt, and a job to earn money that passed through my hands and into the hands of others like a grinding wheel, all of us believing that amassing it was the ultimate goal, never realizing that doing so was impossible. I watched television and half paid attention to sports, politics, and culture, never recognizing that none of it made sense, never went anywhere, never accomplished anything.

Once I re-acclimated, I never missed Shadow. Once I understood the Actuality, I never looked back.

Invisible Sun’s critique of contemporary middle-class life faithfully echoes the Surrealist dissatisfaction with bourgeois modernity. Where Surrealists like Breton utilized aesthetic and occult practices to confront repressive mechanisms of social conformity, however, Invisible Sun turns away from the problems of our world and never looks back. The superior reality, from the game’s perspective, is somewhere distant from the place we live — a surreal fantasy world, separated from everyday life.

Yet oddly, even within Invisible Sun’s alternative fantasy worlds, some elements are much more real than others. In its discussion of Satyrine, the City of Notions (the default starting location for the game), for example, The Path notes that many of the people who inhabit the city aren’t actually real. Instead, they are “thoughtforms,” or phantom people without actual souls:

The people of the city go about their business, but many of them — in particular the laborers, the maintenance workers, the delivery people, the bodyguards, and others — are actually thoughtforms. In other words, they’re not real, but magical creations without consciousness, free will, or needs.

They “look and act” like people, but really they’re not. “Actual people,” by contrast, “typically hold occupations requiring training, talent, or adaptability.”

I must admit that this description at first caused me both anger and dismay. Is the game actually suggesting that working-class people aren’t real people? It gets worse, too, because The Path later clarifies that there are in fact “real” lower-class people in Satyrine, but life is difficult for them because they have to compete with thoughtforms for employment:

The lower classes here have it hard because they tend to lack the skills or education to get good jobs, but thoughtforms occupy most positions of unskilled labor. It’s easier and cheaper to obtain the services of a thoughtform housekeeper or laborer than to hire a real person. Most of those in the lower classes are unemployed, and many are forced into illegal activities to survive.

At first glance, this passage seems to literalize within the game the often-racist idea that people at the bottom of the social and economic ladder aren’t really people — and worse, that they steal the jobs of otherwise honest, hardworking citizens. This problematic assumption takes a set of ugly social attitudes and makes them the “truth” of the game setting: people in the global economy who perform unskilled labor for exploitative wages aren’t real; they’re just distant, fuzzy concepts. Real people, by contrast, have interesting jobs and do interesting things. Even real criminals are more interesting than working-class people; it’s daring and romantic to be a thief or a prostitute, rather than a housekeeper, because then at least interesting stories can be told about you. (I think that if a writer like China Miéville were running an Invisible Sun game, all the players would be thoughtforms; they would be very real, probably fighting a doomed revolution against the elitist middle- and upper-class magic users in Satyrine over the fundamental recognition of thoughtform personhood.)

Invisible Sun, in other words, has a number of strange attitudes about class — suspiciously, given that the Black Cube, which retails for $243, is clearly marketed toward gamers with not-insignificant disposable income. To be fair, thoughtforms are a minor element in the larger scope of the game, and they’re easy to fix — when I run Invisible Sun, I’ll likely jettison or modify the idea of thoughtforms (everyone in the setting counts as people) or include them as authentic entities fighting for recognition of their personhood. On another level, though, the game’s inclusion of thoughtforms perfectly captures the feeling that real people shouldn’t have to live those kinds of lives. In the real world, the kinds of jobs that thoughtforms occupy often crush the soul; in a superior reality, no one would have to live like that. The game’s commitment to escapism entails rejecting this problem: in Satyrine, you’re just not going to be a janitor or housekeeper; you’re going to be something more magical — that’s the whole point of the game.

Invisible Sun’s commitment to escapism therefore enables it to portray a superior reality that symptomatically exposes (like a photographic negative) many elements of contemporary life that are tedious and unbearable. The Path notes, for example, that within the game’s setting, “skin color, gender, and sexuality are not reasons to judge anyone else.” No one in Satyrine would ever get pulled over by the police for driving while brown; that simply isn’t a problem there (and there aren’t conventional police in Satyrine anyway). Pronouns are also a surprisingly easy issue to address: since all vislae exist simultaneously on multiple levels of reality, it is often appropriate to use “they” as the default pronoun for almost everyone. Furthermore, Invisible Sun is probably one of the most trans-friendly roleplaying games ever created: within the setting, people regularly visit “changeries” where they can modify their bodies into any imaginable form. Not only can characters easily swap their biological sex (and explore new sexes), they can also explore entirely alternative biologies. You might replace your head with a book, for example, or experiment with having seven arms that are all tentacles made of multicolored light.

Ultimately, Invisible Sun is an amazing roleplaying game. Its production design is breathtaking, and many aspects of its gameplay are brilliant and revolutionary. Furthermore, Invisible Sun perfectly and poignantly, if sometimes uncritically, exposes many aspects of the unbearableness of the actual world we live in. Our world sucks, the game says. It can’t be real. There must be other worlds where we can explore richer and more meaningful lives; where everyone defaults to “they” as their pronoun because of our gorgeous multidimensional multiplicity; where bodies can be reshaped at will to reflect an aesthetics of identity; where social inequities based on race, gender, and sexuality are nonissues; and where no actual people have to live tedious lives of abject drudgery.

This is an admirable set of yearnings. But what are the larger politics of escapism? After all, we don’t escape terrible things by stepping away from them and pretending they don’t exist. The Surrealists believed that a superior reality could manifest here and now by unleashing the repressed-yet-real possibilities held in check by the forces of bourgeois modernity. Roleplaying games have an astonishing capacity to mobilize affect; the people who play games like this are often creative, engaged, political, and participatory. What would it mean, then, to take Invisible Sun’s critique of contemporary life seriously — to activate the worlds it imagines, rather than imaginatively escaping into such worlds for just a few hours at a time? How might escapism become an exploration of better alternatives and a confrontation with the forces that prohibit them?

All roleplaying games are escapism; it is a testament to Invisible Sun’s creative ingenuity that it both foregrounds its own escapist nature and simultaneously provokes meaningful questions about what a better world might look like — because ultimately, we can’t just leave Shadow behind; our world desperately needs a rescue mission, not just an escape hatch.


David M. Higgins is the Speculative Fiction Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.