Tl;dr: If you plan on writing LitRPG, you should read Bevan’s books.
Robert Bevan is the author of a series of books called Caverns and Creatures. It is the most devastating critique of the fantasy genre, and LitRPG genre in particular, that I’ve ever read. Yet, no one has explored how and why it is so subversive.
When I think of LitRPG done wrong, I think of Liam Arato’s The Gold Farmer. In it, the main character is clearly the author, a character type known as a Marty Stu.
The NPCs only exist in the universe to tell the main character how wonderful and exalted he is. He’s the most powerful being in existence, every woman wants to marry him and have his babies, every male character wants to be him. It’s frankly an autoerotic novel disguised as a LitRPG novel.
The main character has literally done nothing to deserve any praise, but has it heaped on him every moment.
In contrast, when I think of LitRPG done right, I think of Blaise Corvin’s Delvers LLC, Aleron Kong’s The Land, James Hunter’s Viridian Online, and Travis Bagwell’s Awaken Online. In these stories, the main character earns their rewards, goes through personal struggles, finds out that their actions have consequences both good and bad, etc.
But none of these actually subvert the LitRPG genre. In the typical LitRPG genre:
- The main character is boring and uninteresting in the real World.
- Gets transported and/or kidnapped into a new World.
- Suddenly becomes super powerful and godlike.
- Every man is envious of the main character.
- They get the girl or usually girls (this is wish fulfillment after all). Sometimes guys.
- Literal gods and goddesses seek them out.
- The entire virtual World revolves around the main character and their every decision.
The difference between good and bad isn’t whether or not they become super powerful; it’s whether or not the story justifies them becoming powerful. No matter how much of a loser the protagonist is in the real World, when they get into the game World, they will be the greatest thing that’s ever been.
It’s precisely there that Robert Bevan kicks down the genre’s tropes and monkey stomps it into the ground.
Bevan’s critique is that if you are a loser in the real World, getting transported into a mystical fantasy land isn’t going to suddenly turn you into a winner, anymore than winning the lottery is going to suddenly make you great with money.
Seriously, go look up what happens to most lottery winners, it’s not a happy story.
Robert Bevan goes so far as to suggest that you might even be a bigger loser in the fantasy World than you are in the real World, because the ancient medieval times didn’t have the luxurious social safety nets we enjoy right now.
The way he does this is by introducing us to our four protagonists. The main protagonist is Tim, a person who could have been anything he wanted, but decided to take the easy route in life. Dave, Tim’s best friend, who constantly lets himself be bullied around by everyone. Cooper, someone who spends his life insulting other people because he never could amount to anything. Finally, there’s Julian, who is Dave’s friend and what most authors would traditionally use as a protagonist. He’s good-hearted, but incredibly naive about the game World.
Tim and his friends play Caverns and Creatures just to have an excuse to get drunk and goof off. Because of this, the hardcore C&C players ignore them, and they have to go online to find someone who is willing to be the Game Master for their games. They find someone, (Mordred) to be their GM.
Except he’s a hardcore gamer, and the repeated insults of Tim and Co. cause him to banish them to a game realm where they will learn to take the game seriously.
And this is where the book shines. In most LitRPG novels, what the heroes do doesn’t really matter. Even in better ones like Awaken Online, he slaughters an entire city and it just becomes reborn as a dark empire. There’s really no consequence for his actions, certainly not in the sense of what would happen if you actually went into a town and started slaughtering everyone in it.
Several books in the LitRPG genre are like this, even when the protagonists do awful things, they face no real damage for doing it. There’s always some half-assed justification for everything they do that makes it ok.
Not so in this game. Cooper’s first action is to cut off the head of a guard that insults him and stick into his bag. Because of this, the guards start looking for him and his friends to kill them outright or bring them back to be hanged. And far from being the immediately overpowered badasses of most books, they are weak and pathetic.
The players are stuck dealing with the fallout from this action, and the characters behave in the game World exactly like they do in the real World. Tim is still an irresponsible alcoholic, Dave still lets himself get bullied around, Cooper is well… he’s Cooper, and Julian never seems to get the game rules.
The characters aren’t meeting royalty, being revered as heroes, and consorting with gods. Nope, they’re miserable peons, mostly hated and reviled by the population of the World. The other players trapped in the game reverted back to their old habits, playing it safe, leading them to never level up and avoid danger. Again, it’s a powerful meta-critique disguised as fart jokes, a la’ South Park. Transporting these people into a magical fantasy land didn’t change who they were as people, so the same problems they had in real life manifest themselves in the game World.
Finally, the main characters follow this same pattern. Tim has tons of potential, but chooses to squander it by wallowing in self-pity and alcohol. Because of this, rather than getting the girl, he ends up completely blowing it and she picks Julian instead. Again, a huge subversion of the trope that the hero gets the girl just for existing.
Likewise, the stat choices have a huge payoff in the game. Julian is charismatic, so he’s the face. Cooper is both uncharismatic and unintelligent, so he can’t read, spell, and even when he tries to do something intelligent or charismatic, it backfires because the rules of the game simply won’t let that happen.
It’s a nice bit of World building that many LitRPG authors could learn from. Too many novels shove pages and pages of stats that don’t matter in any way, shape, or form. The exemplar offender in this category is William Arand’s Otherlife series. Despite having a one in all stats but charisma, he never has any problems. He can cast magic, fight with swords and daggers, read books and signs, communicate intelligently, and basically do anything he wants. His stats have no impact on the story whatsoever.
So, is this a five star series? Not quite. There’s a few things holding it back.
The first problem is that any subversion book is immediately handicapped. I.e. George R.R. Martin wrote Game of Thrones as a subversion of the Arthurian tales where a wise king will rule. Instead, the best leaders are killed brutally. This works at first, but I couldn’t continue past the fifth book since all the characters I cared about were already dead and the books were limping along with a few second-string players.
In Bevan’s book, the subversion of the genre means that Cooper, Dave, Julian, and Tim never develop as characters. Their foibles are pointed out, and it’s shown that this means most people transported to a magical kingdom would be the same social station they are in this World.
But they never grow beyond this, because this is the source of the comedy in the novels. In improv acting circles, there’s a sin known as Going for the funny, which means trying to be funny in an improvised scene. When it goes wrong, watch the new Ghostbusters movie. There’s no real plot being driven forward or scene being enacted, it’s just people standing around, being told to do stuff in the hopes something interesting will come out of it. You can also watch Kung Fury for more in the same vein, where there’s no real characters or plot, it’s just jokes.
Bevan isn’t as bad as either of those examples, but he’s limited in far he can push the plot in a World where the humor and impetus are derived from the foibles of the characters. Since they can’t grow as characters, most of the story is a series of coincidences that happen to the characters.
The other problem this creates is repetition of scenes. You will recognize the same gags being reused, deriving from the same problem.
Finally, there’s the fact that the source of humor is potty humor. If this isn’t your bag, leave early. It only gets upped over time.
Overall, I’d give the series 4 out of 5 stars. Yes, there’s some repetition, some serious gross-out humor, no real character arcs, and an overabundance of coincidences to move the story along.
But the parts that it does right (Pillsbury Jesus) are hysterical, the thought put into the World, the way that stats interact with the characters and World, and the way that Bevan forces a reader to confront how their escapist fantasies really just mask their own inadequacies is more than enough to make visiting a C&C adventure worth your time.
Some updates on it:
Q: Hasn’ t Cooper changed in the series?
A: Not really. The reason Tim and friends were banished is because they were almost all dicks to Mordred, but Cooper especially. In book 5, Cooper thinks about whether or not to pee on a rope. But then he does it. He hasn’t really confronted the reason why they’re in the mess that they’re in, that he’s often rude and hostile to other people.
He does have a magic axe that is mentoring him into being a better person, but as of the last book, he hasn’t gotten the lessons down yet. The question is, like Pinocchio, will he do the right thing when Jiminy Cricket isn’t around, or will he revert to his old ways? The story of Pinocchio is about how a created boy learns lessons about honesty and hard work from his encounter with the World, thus becoming a “real boy”.
Cooper hasn’t reached that point yet by a long shot, although it’s some progress that he at least considers not being a dick to everyone he meets. But it’s not really progress if he considers not doing something he would usually do, and then just does it anyway.
Q: Isn’t this a problem with all character driven comedy? Readers want it to be funny, but they also want character growth. This character growth can destroy what’s funny about the books.
A: Rick Gualtieri wrote the question, another great author. Check out the Tome of Bill series, if you enjoy Bevan’s work. And if you enjoy Gualtieri’s work, check out Bevan’s. I’ll circle back to this in a second.
Yeah, this is a problem. Hence I wrote, “he’s limited in far he can push the plot in a World where the humor and impetus are derived from the foibles of the characters. ”
It’s a delicate balance, and I respect Bevan’s craftsmanship because he can go wrong in one of two ways. One way is to overdo it, such that the series loses all of its focus. Think of Men in Black 2, which changes Tommy Lee Jones’ character so completely that he’s a shell until the point where they bring him back.
On the flip side, you can go the route of Hangover 2, and just repeat everything plot point for plot point. An author has to walk a razor’s balance between two cliffs, and it’s why successful comedy sequels in movies are rare.
So, how does Gualtieri do this in the Tome of Bill series? By giving Bill room for growth outside of his immediate problems.
Bill, the character of the series, is a guy who likes to coast through life and not take big risks. His first time taking a big risk, going to a party where a hot woman invites him, results in him being turned into a vampire and almost forced to commit the vampiric equivalent of seppuku.
The fact that he never goes for what he wants results in the later books him developing an anti-Bill, a monstrous representation of himself that represents all of his pent up wants and desires without any restraint. Like any good shadow story, he has to learn to integrate these darker aspects into himself without being destroyed by them.
Additionally, he has two choose between two women. The first one, Sally, is the one who got him into the vampiric mess, but also proves herself to be a worthy ally and friend.
The other is Sheila, who is a woman that Bill has pined over for years, but never actually made a move on. Again, this goes back to the central conflict of Bill’s personality.
The Sally/Sheila plotline is used to add more depth to Bill while still serving to highlight his main problem, that he doesn’t take a proactive role in his life. Both of these subplots are used to reveal Bill’s main problem and give him room to grow via his relationship with Sally/Sheila, while also not fundamentally changing him too drastically.
Now, do you see what Rick did there? He got me to talk about his books without even trying. Bow to the Sensei.