I know. You read a critic and think, “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you do better?” Well first, I work two jobs including being a full-time programmer. If you aren’t aware, programming is changing rapidly and I’m in a bit of a “Red Queen” situation where I have to run as fast as I can to stay in place.
The second is that the skills needed to be a good author are not necessarily the same skills as being a good critic. A good author is de facto a good critic, since they have to judge and criticize their own work, but the inverse is not necessarily true. Likewise, someone who is a fantastic editor may not be a good author because they are different skill sets.
Also, authors have a hard time criticizing other authors. The reason is obvious, it usually just comes out as sour grapes. I.e. author A is criticizing author B because author A is jealous of author B. Instead, authors typically promote the work of other authors they like and you can see from an informal look at whose work they share whose work they don’t like.
Nonetheless, I will attempt to provide a free, (yes, it’s free!), template for starting off your LitRPG novel. Yes, you should change the characters and the actual events, but it will provide plausible answers to questions.
In many of the LitRPGs I’ve read, the reaction to this virtual World is odd, to say the least. For example, a quick question, “If your immersive video game literally hurts people, why would anyone play it?” Have you ever participated in a “Dog Brothers” fight?
No? Well that’s because it’s really painful. Most people go out of their way to avoid pain. So why would anyone be playing a game that deliberately hurts them?
Further, what company would think this is a good idea? What government would allow this?
As soon as you begin examining most of these novels, the premise breaks down fast. Now, yes, LitRPG novels should be about the actual World and not the setup, but shouldn’t we try to make the setup plausible? So I present to you, the Universal Setup to your future LitRPG novel.
Daniel McAlister stared out the window at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He’d won the election. He’d won the election. The only problem is he didn’t want to win.
Daniel was a historian and economist by trade. He was in his early fifties and if he couldn’t be described as good looking, he wasn’t physically offensive. His waistline protruded comfortably, giving him a grandfatherly look. His black, horn-rimmed glasses, his close-cropped salt and pepper hair that matched with his receding hairline made him look respectable, like a mental image of a professor. His trademark brown suits and loafers reinforced the elderly professor look. He thought his look would tarnish his appeal with Americans, who generally preferred the talented amateur over the professional. But somehow, that hadn’t stopped them from voting for him.
He ran for office on the idea that getting his name out there was going to be good for his career. His book American Prosperity became a bestseller. This was partially because a loophole in American law allowed him to buy copies of his books with campaign funds and distribute it as “campaign literature”, but interest in his books spread naturally even outside of his infusion of capital. He expected to do a speaking tour, give lectures, and get a handsome speaking bonus at Universities. If he didn’t have plans for a luxurious lifestyle, he had plans for a very comfortable one.
However, the nominee for his party lost right before the roll count due to an ongoing sex scandal, as a mistress was unveiled by a tabloid magazine. The internet quickly picked up all the sundry details and that man’s bid was over. As the only person left, even with a meager 6% likelihood of winning, he picked up over 57% of his party’s votes after the scandal proved that the party was backing a losing horse for the primaries.
Figuring he had nothing to lose, Daniel went all in. He promised to restore manufacturing, white collar work, cut taxes, raise industry, deregulate the market, and any other promise that seemed like it would flip voters in a strategic region. It worked. True, the fact checkers pointed out that his endless promises were impossible, and his high level of economic training taught him that you can’t both cut taxes and raise spending, but since he didn’t expect to win, he promised everything in the World.
Except he did win. The face captured by television crews on the night didn’t show the face of a man victorious. They showed the face of a man at a poker table who went all in with a two and a seven off-suit. His opponent said that the election was rigged, and while denouncing this as absurd in front of the cameras, he explored every legal angle he could to try to find any evidence that would support the idea that the election was rigged. They all came up empty. He had won.
What Daniel learned writing American Prosperity is that it was all over. The population kept getting older, and social services meant a larger portion of the federal pie was being spent on old people. Politicians could rally against higher costs, but when push came to shove, old people were where all the votes were at, particularly in local elections. No one wanted to vote in favor of cutting benefits to the elderly, no matter what they would say as a matter of party position.
The increasingly old population applied to prisons as well, with prison costs going upwards of 100 billion dollars and only rising. Special interests were heavy here, as the 100 billion provided jobs to communities and employed huge swaths of people. So, trying to cut that also didn’t work for the same reason, political leaders would lose huge amounts of money if criminal justice reform ever occurred, which is exactly why it never did.
Incredibly low numbers of young Americans meant there wasn’t a tax base to support the massive amounts of spending the government did. Worse, the rise of automation and artificial intelligence meant that the white collar and blue collar jobs these young people had once done were gone. Even worse, the young people were starting to catch on and riots and protests had spread out as a result of growing economic malaise.
His rival had run on the platform of high taxes on the wealthy and that the wealth created by automation and artificial intelligence could be redistributed to the young people. While that went over well with most of the young population, the older population couldn’t stomach the idea of not working for pay, and the result was those old people elected him to office.
He knew that if that plan was ever enacted, all that would happen is the rich people would flee. It’s not hard to relocate if you have wealth. And that made him face a problem. If he couldn’t deliver, he couldn’t leave. He wasn’t wealthy, or not real wealthy anyway. His study of history told him that peasants with pitchforks wasn’t that far off, and that noble heads were usually the first thing that adorned pike sticks. The sagging revenue and the increasing debt meant that if something wasn’t done, investors would stop buying American bonds. And if that happened, it would trigger hyperinflation and America would look like Greece or Venezuela. He had to come up with a solution or hope he could kick the can far enough down the road that someone else would be first up for a lynch mob.
That left him in the Oval Office with the wunderkind Richard Cox. Dick Cox. Richard was a 32-year-old Wall Street investor turned Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He had financed most of the AI that replaced human workers. Richard looked like a Wall Street investor, complete with a power suit, power tie, power cuffs, a sharply cut hairstyle with highlights at the end, and immaculate manicured nails. Even though he looked fit, Daniel could tell that Richard never did a hard day’s labor in his life. Looking at the marble busts of great men before him in the oval office, Daniel wondered if his decision would put him on a pedestal like that one day.
He looked at the touch screen projection that Richard put up. The title was “How Technology Can Save Mankind from Itself.” The historian part of Daniel’s brain remembered that people who promised salvation had a poor track record of it.
“So”, Daniel began, after clearing his throat, “What’s your proposal?”
“Simple,” Richard began. “First, do you know the cost of all social services in America?” The projection slid forward. On this slide, it showed a table from the Appendix of American Prosperity.
“Of course,” Daniel sighed. Richard using his own data against him was a bastard move, and he knew from watching interviews that this was what Richard liked to do, which was why “Dick” was the more common moniker people used when talking about him.
“It’s 4 trillion dollars. Add to it the costs of running the government, the cost of paying down interest payments, and the cost of defense and well, you have no money.”
Daniel paused and waited for Richard to continue. He went on.
“There was a time when America invested its money in new technology, but now they only invest in war. 14.6 trillion for all the wars America has fought over the past 30 years, 10 trillion dollars in military spending is unaccounted for, but what has this country given to technology? Trinkets. What I’m calling for is a renewed investment in technological research. One with consumer and military applications.”
“And where will I be getting this money from, since as you’ve already pointed out, I’m broke before the fiscal budget even begins.”
Richard made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Details. AIs have replaced human workers, but there is a flaw in all AIs. Tell me, have you ever read the book A Million Random Numbers with 100000 Normal Deviations?”
Daniel read some boring books in his day, economics isn’t known for its high prose and titillating reads, but that wasn’t on the list. He shook his head.
“See,” Richard said, a smile growing, “The reason that book exists is simple. Computers do not generate randomness. In fact, they wouldn’t work if they did. A computer, when given the same input, should always produce the same output. That’s what makes them efficient. A human, meanwhile, can vary greatly in productivity on the same task based upon hours slept, marital satisfaction, mental acuity, and so many other factors.
That means computers don’t generate true randomness, they generate pseudo-randomness. To get true randomness, you must add in factors like heat of the processor, or amount of memory in use, etc., because otherwise the computer will predictably create the same ‘random’ numbers.”
“And how,” Daniel asked, “Does this relate to AI technology?”
“Simple. An AI can perform a task and do it often enough until the most efficient algorithm for that task. But it cannot generate entropy. It’s not random, it’s pseudorandom. Suppose then, that we ask a simple question. Why did the US military do so badly in the Middle Eastern wars? And the answer is simple when you remove all the silly emotions people have about it out of the way. The answer is the military prepared for Vietnam war, but instead found themselves fighting a completely different type of war. They had vehicles that had no armor protection against RPGs, IEDs, and bombs.”
The projection flickered to a new image of a transport vehicle destroyed by an IED.
“They had a firearm too long to shoot effectively out of a vehicle.”
The projection moved to a change from the M16A2 to the M4, which is ten inches shorter.
“They had no idea how to handle the tribalistic mentality of those nations, instead they were used to thinking in terms of nation-states instead of tribal allegiances and factions. In short, the US military was completely unprepared at every stage of the way.
The pentagon’s response to this has been to wage endless war to try to constantly refine battle tactics, but… that’s so expensive.”
Another table from American Prosperity flickered on the touch screen, listing the total cost of all US wars. Daniel was going to have to delete the appendix to that book after this presentation.
“What if, instead, we could put people in the Middle East with exactly those tribal allegiances and watch it unfold in a simulated environment. What if, instead, we had real US military personnel try to win over those people? We could watch in real time as our military leaders learned what works, what doesn’t, and see how rebel groups adapt to our knowledge. Best of all, instead of being played out in a global theater where everyone is learning from our tactics, only we knew what was working and started adapting our strategies accordingly?”
Daniel could see the immense value of a system like this, but nothing existed like this. It’s like discussing which Jedi force power would be best to use. It might be fun, but the Force isn’t real and you’re not a Jedi.
“And where would we get all these people, for this fictional World?” Daniel asked.
“Oh, that’s the best part.” The glint in Richard’s eye had a twinkle of madness, but Daniel dismissed it as projection on his part. “We have tons of surplus population. Think about it. If we could create a virtual World that can simulate war conditions, we can start with the elderly. People who are just sucking oxygen can now be put to good use. Instead of having to get $50,000 titanium kneecap transplants, they can be teleported into a World where they are healthy and spry. They will have what feels like real knees again.
We can put prisoners into the World, injecting their knowledge into realistic rogue and failed states and black market transactions.”
Daniel objected. “We don’t have the money to take care of them now, how are we going to feed and shelter them while they’re hooked up to your virtual World?”
“Oh, that’s where things get really interesting.” Richard’s smile said that this was where things became interesting. “Our machines can completely map out the consciousness of a human being. Once that occurs, there is an unfortunate side effect that they can’t leave the game.”
Daniel was stunned. Was he hearing this right?
“To clarify. You’re saying that this kills them?”
“Of course not. It simply replaces their temporal existence into another place. You wouldn’t be ‘dead’ if you were to say, live on Mars instead of Earth, right?”
Daniel knew bullshit when he heard it. But his keen economically trained mind already knew what the ramifications of this were. 4 trillion added to the economy. Urban blight would be gone as tons of formerly closed real estate would be opened, ending gentrification problems and avoiding another housing bubble.
The projection changed again, this time, another appendix from American Prosperity. This one showed the rate of growth after the Black Death. After the Black Death passed, a huge amount of prosperity occurred as the wages grew tremendously from all the new market positions available.
His economic training told him that this was the rational decision. Some people would have moral qualms about this, but economics gives clarity. You can see the World without any pesky moral considerations entering the equation, simply inputs and outputs.
“How much do you need to get this operational?” Daniel heard himself asking.
Now ask the questions. Why would the government go along with this? The answer, to gain valuable knowledge about future war conditions and remove all the costs that prevent them from using money how they would like.
Why would anyone sign up for this? Because they’re specifically targeting criminals, old people, and people with disabilities, the sort of people who would love to have a chance at this. Your protagonists can be lovely old people, people who have some disability, people who were wrongly accused of a crime, a minor criminal who stole bread, the list goes on.
Who is our villain? He’s not necessarily a villain, but if Richard does become evil, you can understand that it’s not because he’s twirling his mustache and cackling evilly, but because he genuinely believes that his technology must be as realistic as possible. So if he hurts people, it’s to collect data, not because he is Satan incarnate.
Or if you want to turn Daniel into a villain, it’s because he believes that he’s doomed unless he can come up with a radical solution. Or you can have a rogue AI be the bad guy.
What sort of World can you build? Any World. Although Richard is selling this idea as a key to the future, the game could run space simulations, alien invasions, life on other world simulations, middle Earth simulations, Wild West simulations, etc.
In five pages, you have a believable setup to a LitRPG story that doesn’t require suspension of disbelief. And here’s the good news. If you think outside the box, there’s literally hundreds of reasons like this that you can start your own LitRPG novel.