The Kickstarter campaign for Monte Cook Games’ Invisible Sun wrapped up in September 2016, declaring itself the most successful crowd-funding campaign ever for a new RPG property. Monte Cook Games has form in this area, but they outdid themselves by raising more than US$660,000 from 1800 backers. If that math sounds weird, it’s because each backer was prepared to pay at least US$197 (around AU$250) plus postage for one of the most expensive RPGs in history.
Not that they won’t be getting their money’s worth. Invisible Sun’s secrets come packaged within the stunning Black Cube – an object said to be an element from the game setting which protrudes into the real world – crammed with books, cards, tokens, a board, an app and a statuette of a hand (that we’re being assured is integral to the game).
But it wasn’t just the goodies and rewards that made this game so successful, it was the Kickstarter campaign itself. Over the course of a month, a series of GPS coordinates led backers to geocaches hidden throughout the US and UK (alas, not Australia) which contained riddles and clues to unlock ‘doors’ on a website, or which hinted at Keyfalls – annoyingly brief rainfall events in unfriendly time zones, where keys fell from the sky and backers could change their pledge to collect a set of metal keys for the game. I have no idea what these keys do, but I spent hours trying to catch those damn things and I was not alone! A small community coalesced around the campaign, sharing their thoughts and even sharing their fan fiction.
This was a campaign worth watching for its own sake and one whose innovations will be copied by many. Sure, this could be dismissed as hype and the campaign was maddeningly short of actual information about the game’s mechanics, but this was a deliberate strategy to build the mystery of what lies within the Black Cube.
Mystery and secrets are essential to Invisible Sun. The very world we’ll be playing in is hidden from our view and populated with beings and cabals who guard their secrets and realms. This multi-dimensional surrealist fantasy is called the Actuality and at is centre is the city of Satyrine. Years ago, the city was devastated by a magical war and much of its population fled into the realm known as Shadow – our own world. Hidden in this safe if mundane reality, Satyrine’s refugees and veterans have slowly begun to return to the Actuality to rediscover their own real lives.
Though we’ve had only glimpses of Satyrine and the eight realms surrounding it (each of which is under the influence of its own sun, not counting the invisible sun itself, or the dark side of each realm), we’ve already seen a range of fictional influences. Monte Cook has noted the work of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Mike Mignola, Doctor Strange, Alice in Wonderland, the art of Vladamir Kush and Salvador Dali, and the music of David Bowie.
The art and components within the Black Cube promise an immersive experience and much of what Monte Cook Games has said about Invisible Sun is themed around escaping from reality. And they recognise how hard this is for those of us who’ve grown up with RPGs, but who now have things like jobs, families and ironing. Taking a hint from Skype and programs like Tabletop Simulator which have made RPGing easier, Invisible Sun comes with an app intended to facilitate play away from the table, as player’s schedules and their ideas permit. And if a player can’t make it to a game session? No problem – they’ve just temporarily disappeared back into Shadow. It’s okay, it happens to the best of us. These may not be new ideas, but they do make the Black Cube more inviting.
When I first cracked open the original Dungeons & Dragons red box at just 12 years of age, it was because of its promise to transport me into another place. Once there, my experiences would help me grow over time and change the world my character lived in. Playing an RPG offered a sense of agency lacking in my real world. I could take control of my life and environment in a way that was unavailable to me as a child (and arguably as an adult). And that world would persist over time and not disappear with the final page of a novel or the end credits of a movie. The escape would potentially never end. It was a transformation into something larger, more fantastic and more fulfilling than the real world.
Of course, that little red box didn’t quite live up to expectations, but it did kindle a love of RPGs that has persisted for more than 30 years, which has continued to see me dive into new systems in the hope of finding worlds worth exploring.
It’s like being a kid at Christmas. But saying, “What’s in the box?” isn’t just a prosaic question born of greed. It’s a promise. It’s something director JJ Abrams has built his career around. By carefully controlling the publicity leading up to each of his movies, Super 8, Cloverfield and especially The Force Awakens, Abrams has given his audience’s imagination time to bloom and for the expectation and excitement to build. This is something Monte Cooke Games clearly understands for Invisible Sun.
That will really be up to the 1800 of us who pledged to buy these ridiculous things. We’ll bring the Black Cubes into our bedrooms, basements, dining room tables, empty classrooms and game clubs, and it will be our job to unpack and discover its mysteries to impart on our players. We will be responsible for sharing the thrill of discovery and creating our own secrets for players to discover. I may not know what those keys do, but I know damn well I’m going to hand one to a player and say, “Be careful what you open with this”. And if that player wants to interrupt their working hours with a character plot point via an app, that sounds like a great way to avoid falling back into Shadow.
What’s in the box? That will be up to each of us. And as they say, we’ll meet you at Zero’s.
Images copyright Monte Cooke Games 2016.