The Grading System

This is a discussion on what I perceive as some weaknesses in LitRPG books.  Every genre of writing has certain tropes that can be used for good or ill.  In programming, we call these “patterns” and “anti-patterns”.  An anti-pattern in programming is something which seems like a good idea at first, but quickly presents problems the longer you develop software.

Bad tropes work the same way in novels.  Often, when presenting something as a bad trope, reviewers just state, “That’s a trope” and this ends the criticism.  To me, this is useless.  It’s more important to understand why something is bad than *that* something is bad.

These problems do not relate to spelling, translation, or bad grammar.  Many of these books are translations from another language, and as long as I can understand the intent behind the language, it does not bother me.  To repeat advice from Rick Gualtieri (Tome of Bill) and Steve McHugh (Hellequin Chronicles), there are three things you should not skip out on if you are an author, independent or otherwise:

  1.  A good line editor
  2.  A good cover artist
  3.  A good copy editor

A line editor makes sure that the book is technically sound.  Do you use the correct spelling, punctuation, word choice, etc.  In contrast, a copy editor makes sure that the book is technically sound and looks for internal consistency in the novel.  A general editor is a combination of both.

If you can’t hire one, then try to get people to do an alpha read of your novel.  Put it up on various forums meant for authors so others can give you feedback.  A poorly edited novel can kill a book.

A cover artist is obvious, but the cover is the first thing people see.  If it doesn’t hook people into looking at it, the rest of your work isn’t going to do any good.

So outside from these technical details, here’s a list of writing anti-patterns in LitRPG novels.

  1. What Level Am I?
  2. How Many Powers Do I have?
  3. Does Anyone Remember What I’m Doing?
  4. You should probably keep the outside World out unless you have good reason not to
  5. NPCs are not replaceable: Or the Girl in the Fridge Problem
  6. Creating a real villain: Or Don’t Kick The Puppy
  7. Side Characters Matter
  8. Vanilla Wafer Good Guy
  9. In Another Life…

What Level Am I?

This problem occurs in books that have level 1000 players or other high levels. Leveling up is a critical part of a good LitRPG. We should feel a sense of accomplishment when our hero levels up, just like in a game. It’s a reward for a job well done.

When levels get too high, there’s no sense of accomplishment. What’s the difference between a level 450 paladin and a level 451 paladin?

The result is that authors tend to try to cheat this system by having all their high-level characters get huge level jumps. E.g. jump from level 350 to 410 in a single quest. This robs the tension out of the game and makes leveling up feel mundane.

If you need a game example, play Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity.  There is a strict level cap system that maxes out at level 16 with the DLC.  Because of this, you have to think hard about what sort of skills and systems you wish to choose.

How Many Powers Do I have?

This is like the first problem, some authors give their characters so many powers it’s hard to follow. It often feels like “Lord of the Plot Coupons”.

I do recommend the use of plot vouchers to your attention if you’re at all interested in writing multi-volume epics of quest and adventure, because they’re terrifically easy to use and the readers never complain. You can issue your hero with a handy talisman of unspecified powers at the beginning of volume one, and have him conveniently remember it at various points over the succeeding volumes when he finds himself surrounded by slavering troglodytes or whatever, with no obligation to explain it…

Your main character can get out of any situation with the handy use of a special power, only granted to them.  This means there’s no real tension in the battles since whenever authors introduce this plot device, they inevitably keep falling back to it when there’s a problem in the book.  (Full discussion on plot coupons)

Another way of saying this is that you can easily end up with a broken power curve if you watch anime.

The voice actor for Krillin in Dragon Ball Z joked about what he called “Gee Goku” days. That is, they’d take him to the studio and all he’d say is “Ok Goku” and “Gee Goku”. Goku was so overpowered by the end that none of the other characters even mattered.

Groups are generally an important part of LitRPGs, (which is one of the defining characteristics as opposed to most urban fantasy or similar genres), and when you have a character with six hundred skills, it makes you wonder why they need anyone in the group besides themselves.

This is one thing that annoyed me in the Selfless Hero trilogy. Our hero can do anything: Make advanced weaponry that no one else can, conjure spells no one can protect themselves against, brew the most powerful potions, and earn more gold than entire kingdoms, etc. Then everyone says he’s selfless when he turns down minor trinkets. It’s not selfless to turn down things you don’t want.

And just from a reader’s point of view, I don’t remember each of the 42 special skills that a main character has. When I need a dictionary to keep track of the action, the novel is going to crawl. Like leveling up, powers are what defines the character in the World.  There’s one series that has a sentence painfully close to this:

I cast nanobot destruction followed by revenant construction, but that put my nanobot count down to 10000.  I needed more nanites, so I used transfusion on the nearest alien tech, allowing me to use nanodrone force shield.

I’m exaggerating, but this comes painfully close to a real scene in a book.  The player uses ten oddly named powers to defeat his enemy, but I have no idea what he’s doing.  It’s hard to invest in a story where you have no idea what’s going on.

It’s one of the things that’s done well in the Harry Dresden book series. Even though Harry is a powerful wizard, he relies upon a staple of spells to get his work done.  In LitRPG, Aleron Kong’s The Land and James Hunter’s Viridian Online have both restricted their main characters to a set of specific skills.

Many of the foibles of LitRPG novels occur in Anime, so I recommend that you watch critical anime commentators like Mother’s Basement and Digibro to learn about broken power curves or plot devices that can cause problems to your book.

Does Anyone Remember What I’m Doing?

Some LitRPGs forget to answer the question why our hero is doing anything. Thus the plot kind of meanders about with no real meaning. I think when most people talk about the Alterworld series going down at the end, that’s one thing they’re complaining about.  I call this the Tristan Shandy style of plot development.

By the time I got to book 7, there didn’t seem to be any focus or obvious goal, such that you could probably trim half the book and not lose anything. I had the same problem with The Selfless Hero trilogy. The series seemed to be finished by book 2, and after reading book 3, I believe it really should have ended at book 2.

The common term for this problem in other genres is “One Damn Thing After Another.”  This is now hard to google because an author thought this would be a clever title for a book.  Python Django had this problem whenever the movie Django came out.

This refers to having events loosely happen instead of a single thread connecting them together.  Tension occurs in a story when the characters want one thing, and the book conspires against the characters to prevent them from achieving the goal.

Your characters should also be the agents of change in a novel.  When the novel is one thing after another, it changes the focus from the characters achieving a goal into the characters becoming passive receptors for what the novel does to them.

While subplots are important, they should take place within the context of one grander plot.  “Level up and get loot” is not a plot.

You should probably keep the outside World out unless you have good reason not to

Picking on AlterWorld again, Rus introduces Russian nationalism at book 4 as a plot element. But that makes the story start becoming a hodgepodge of things not related to actual Alterworld.

A large portion of the novel relies upon believing that the characters and people are real, even inside the virtual World. Once the outside World begins to intrude on it, the virtual World starts to crack. In Alterworld‘s case, adding in the extra plotline did nothing for the book series and if you removed it completely, you’d end up with stronger novels.

The basic rule of fiction is this.  The World needs to be believable.  If you introduce two Worlds, you have to explain the motivations of people in the first World and the second World.  You have to explain what the first World is like vs. the second World.  It’s not impossible because Travis Bagwell did it in Awaken Online and Robert Bevan did it in Caverns and Creatures.

But both authors spend a huge amount of time setting this up.  Several LitRPG authors try to rush to the plot and then introduce the outside World, with no introduction to it.  This is a mistake.

Examples of books which jump immediately to the new World and don’t look back:

  •  The Land begins with the hero playing a game, then he gets approached to visit the land. He signs up for it, and boom, we’re off.
  • In Selfless Hero, he wakes up in the video game.
  • In Off To Be The Wizard, he discovers a file that gives him wizard-like powers and gives himself a boost in income, but that triggers the FBI investigating him. So he escapes into another city.
  • In Daniel Black, he wakes up to a distress call from a Goddess and gets a choice to either accept or reject her invitation to the new World.
  • In Viridium Online, the World is about to be destroyed so the protagonist digitizes himself in the first three pages.
  • In Perimeter Defense, he’s given a job by a rich man to takeover his character and in the game in about the first dozen pages. He never goes back to the real world.

So either you need to write the novel with two fully-fleshed out Worlds or you need to write a novel with only one World.  Writing a novel with two badly thought out Worlds is a disaster.

For those that object with, “Why should I care about the person in a game World?”, then you missed the point of writing.  If you have to ask why you should care about a character in any fiction work, introducing some outside World isn’t going to solve the problem.  The problem is that the character is either unrelatable or the plot has no reason for existence.

After all, why should anyone care about what goes in Westeros?  But people do care about Westeros, because the stakes have been set up properly.

NPCs are not replaceable: Or the Girl in the Fridge Problem

The girl in the fridge is when comic book characters loved ones get killed as a common trope. This is why book three of the selfless hero annoyed me.

He kills off one of the NPC females, the most annoying one, and then makes the hero act as if this is a big deal. When we get to book 3, he replaces her in the harem and that’s that. Being that the Group is a big factor, (see 2), killing off a NPC should have more weight than picking the least likeable person you have and killing them off so the PC can have a moment.

In different format, this happens in Soulstone: Awakening by Jason Cipriano.  Each of the characters has the same personality, and there are several scenes where they try to one-up each other.

As a rule of writing and general stage direction, a novel requires different personalities to play off each other.  This is why the Buddy Cop format has existed for the past four decades:  A by-the-book cop paired up with a loose cannon.  Because their different personalities will create scenes naturally.

If you want to see a movie this fails in, get GhostBusters 2016.  Each character tries to be comedic relief, and none of them are.  It also quickly gets annoying.

Done right, see Drew Hayes NPCs or Robert Bevan’s Caverns and Creatures.

Creating a real villain: Or Don’t Kick The Puppy

When you think about a good villain, you think of Vaas from Far Cry 3, Handsome Jack from Borderlands, the Terminator, the Joker from Dark Knight, Javert from Les Miserables, Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs, Iago from Othello. Even Nicodemus in Dresden has a definitive purpose to what he does.

Several of the LitRPG villains are rapists or general scoundrels. They have no defining characteristics or features outside from “generally evil”. Most have little to no backstory. (Full discussion on creating a villain or good guy)

The best villains are the ones that represent either a foil to the main character or are people the main character could have become. This means that they make the character question who they are and what choices they have made, rather than being easily recognizable as “Guy I Must Kill”.

If you can’t have a major villain because of Point of View problems, then have proxies. Harry Potter did this with Voldemort being just “He Who Shall Not Be Named”, but Harry had to constantly battle his proxies and slowly reveal who Voldemort was through the various books.

Awaken Online does give us a real bad guy, though I think he rushed to make him a little too evil too early. He has a backstory, a reason why he hates the protagonist, and some personality. This is why I say I think he made him a little too evil too early, we’ll have to see how he crafts this in his next book, but it might go into caricature if not done skillfully.

Going to Shakespeare, the conflict in Hamlet is between Laertes and Hamlet.  Hamlet has mistakenly killed Laertes’ father after his father,Polonius, was eavesdropping on a conversation between Hamlet and Hamlet’s mother.  Hamlet is dating Laertes’ sister, Ophelia.  Ophelia goes insane after Hamlet pretends to go insane to try to root out whether or not his uncle murdered his father.

Thus we know why Laertes uses a poisoned rapier against Hamlet.  We know why he’d want Hamlet to die, even using dishonorable means.  We may not agree with Laertes treachery, but we know why he did it.

Side Characters Matter

This one is self-evident, but it’s one of the things that Alterworld did very well.  MMOs, particularly older ones, rely upon group builds supplementing your own character. A game taking place in a MMO should therefore have personalities and traits that balance out the main character.

Vanilla Wafer Good Guy

This is last on the list because LitRPGs are about the grind of a main character. This is a bonus, because the main character is often bland and boring in the outside World, but becomes super powerful and awesome in the game. But outside from existing and not being evil, many of these main characters don’t have much personality.

Robert Bevan does this well. Julian, Dave, Cooper, and Tim have distinctive personalities. I love “Survival Quest” but if you were to ask me to describe the main character… he’s a dude?

You can’t really describe him the way you can Luke Skywalker, (farm boy), Han Solo (cocky rebel) or Tyler Durden (Misanthropic Anarchist).

In Another Life:

When an author can’t figure out how or why the main character should be powerful, they simply say, “Because s/he played a completely different game (X), and has moved to a new game, s/he now has powers from the other game!”
The problem is obvious, a big part of LitRPG should be like playing Dark Souls.  The joy of Dark Souls is you start off as a wad of goo, getting beat down by low-level enemies.  By the end of the game, you’re a titan that bestrides the Earth.  There’s a huge sense of satisfaction being able to blow through enemies that used to send you running away in fright.
If you are going to use this tactic, make it have a point besides an overpowered MC with no reason.  In Harmon Cooper’s Promixa Universe series, you can bring in items from another Proxima Universe into the game.  The downside is that if the item conflicts with the World you’re in, you suffer massive penalties for using it, which leads to players crafting all sorts of items just to try to get around the rules.

2 thoughts on “The Grading System”

  1. This is a very well written article, that applies well to a lot of different Genres of fiction. I was looking for some tips and tricks specific to writing LitRPG books and well, this was terrific. I have been working my way through my book, refining the systems and trying to breath more life into my characters, but it can be tough when I think… Why does the main character do anything, other than being an avid gamer obviously?

    As I progressed through the first book in my world, the character is a little bland in the beginning, but it is the adventure and the characters he meets that give him purpose. Finally I found a good mix of bland gamer and actual personality that had alpha read well so far.

    I plan to re-read this a few times, and make sure I am not missing a key element from the list. Sincere thanks for putting together such a good list.


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