Defining LitRPG

So, I have a blog called “LitRPGReviews” and I haven’t even said what LitRPG is.

giphy

This is for a fairly good reason.  I don’t care that much.  I am less concerned with the exact mechanics than I am in asking whether or not they contribute to the storyline, character progression, and narrative structure.  Several books I have read invest too much in the mechanics and not the other aspects, creating books I like to call Mechanics Without Story.  If you want to read more about that, I talk about books and the Minimum Viable Product in detail.

However, LitRPGs have become a variant of the Jake Paul Effect on YouTube.  Several videos that have Jake Paul in the title receive more views than videos which don’t have it in the title.  There are entire channels that just cover Jake Paul and have millions of views.

Likewise, using LitRPG as a descriptor used to be a good way to boost sales of a book that no one would read otherwise.  As market saturation has started creeping in, and more talented people have gotten involved, the ability to just have a novel say “LitRPG” and expect instant sales has dwindled.

Let’s rectify the definition portion at least.  The hard part about defining the genre is that there’s no agreed upon standard for what that definition should be.  At least the first codified attempt came from Aleron Kong, who gave it this definition:

1) A LITRPG SHALL involve some type of explicitly stated progression (ie leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc).

2) A LITRPG SHALL involve a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in.

The problem is that this definition is still very vague.  In order to clarify it, Ramon of LitRPGPodcast made a more comprehensive answer that gives concrete examples.

For Authors:

If you’re an author interested in writing a LitRPG story, we welcome you. Some of the best authors in the genre are first time writers and the community on the whole is very welcoming of new writers. Here is a bit more detail about how LitRPG differs from from other genres.

These are the guidelines I use when I review LitRPG stories. Point 1 & 2 are things most people agree on. 3 & 4 are things I specifically add for myself because I’ve read too many novels that have like a page of game stuff in a 400 fantasy page novel but still try to call it LitRPG.

These guidelines are based on, in part, what the LitRPG groups on Facebook agreed on as the minimum requirement of LitRPG. However, just like any popular genre of fiction, you’ll find lots of opinions about what is good LitRPG or what in particular they like about LitRPG. These guidelines provide enough structure to differentiate LitRPG from Video Game fiction or VR fiction, but still allow for a maximum amount of room for story telling.

1) The story exists in an RPG game world or world with expressly stated RPG game mechanics. This can mean that the story is set in an MMO, a VR game, an RPG game, a parallel or alien world, or anywhere else as long as there are expressly stated game mechanics.

Game mechanic examples (not specific requirements): Level up Notifications, Experience Points given for completing quests or killing monsters, learning game skills, item descriptions, and health/mana bars.

What type of game mechanics are in the story are of less importance than the fact that they’re not hidden away in the background from either the reader or main character. How much of the game mechanics that have to be shown to the main character is up to the author. A good rule of thumb: if the reader has been given enough information that they could roll their own character in your story’s game world, then you’ve included enough information about the game mechanics.

2) The main character progresses in an expressly stated way according to those game mechanics. For example: Leveling up, Increasing skills or abilities, increasing ranks, or increasing reputation. Also by expressly stated, I mean that it says it in the text of the book and isn’t something that’s inferred or something only the author would be aware of.

3) A significant portion of your story should be set in the RPG world. Even if the story has a section in which the characters go on a LitRPG adventure in a game, if it’s only a few pages long out of the hundreds that the novel is, it probably isn’t LitRPG. I usually look for at least 50% of the story being in the LitRPG game world.

4) Additionally, the LitRPG sections of the story have to have meaning. It can’t just be something that characters do for few pages but doesn’t have any impact on the story. As a general rule of thumb, if you can take out all the VR/LitRPG stuff out of a story and the novel is almost exactly the same, it probably isn’t a LitRPG story.

Now to be clear, these are just some agreed upon guidelines from the community. There’s a lot of other stuff related to good storytelling that still applies but these are just a couple things writers should be aware of if they’re interesting in writing a LitRPG story.

In yet another crack at it, Roryedd/Enthusiclast says:

  1. Story contains a defined game system.
  2. Takes place predominantly within a game world.
  3. Characters know they’re in a game.

And wikipedia, the source of all things used in a last-minute research paper, states:

LitRPG, short for Literature Role Playing Game, is a literary genre based on combining all the key components of MMORPGs with science-fiction fantasy novels.[1] LitRPG is a literary genre where games or game-like challenges form an essential part of the landscape. A LitRPG work simultaneously narrates the story of characters inside and outside of the game-world. At least some of the characters in a LitRPG novel therefore understand that they are playing a game: they are ‘meta-aware’

Author Blaise Corvin has also given a very succinct definition:

Stories where characters play a game (usually in virtual reality), or where the characters live in a world that has game-like mechanics.

So, where do we find the crossover?  There is no conflict with saying that story should predominantly take place within a game-like World.  That seems to be irreducible.  They also agree that there should be a defined game system in place.

However, Wikipedia and Enthusiclast state that the characters must be meta-aware that they are in fact, inside of a game.  I consider this crock for reasons I will explore later.

There’s some other difficulties.  The popular Perimeter Defense series is often considered sci-fi LitRPG, but there are some problems.  In the first novel, it starts off with the protagonist believing he is entering a game and has been selected precisely because he is the best player at a certain type of game:  Large-scale space fighting simulators.

However, there is no defined game stats introduced, except a “faction/personal” rating.  The problem is, by the third novel, we learn two important things (Spoilers if you haven’t read the series):

1.)  He is not in a video game, he has been transported to an alternate dimension and his real body has been killed off.

2.)  The faction ratings do not mean anything.  Someone can have a high faction rating with you and still hate your guts, or someone can have a -99 personal rating and still love you.

So it doesn’t fit the genre definition of anyone, except maybe in the first book.

In another twist, you have a book like Drew Hayes’ NPC series, which looks at the lives of NPC characters in a table-top D&D style game.  The characters are aware that there are other visitors to their realm (human players) but are not aware that they themselves are part of a game.  Even though they level up in their skills and abilities, they don’t do it in an explicit manner.

You can refer to these novels as LitRPG-ish or a new term that’s trying to gain traction, GameLit.  I like the term GameLit as a descriptor because it means that it removes the most controversial aspect:  How much RPG in there?  Explicit stat progression was one of the most notable features of RPGs for a long time, until other games borrowed it.

As a gaming example, let’s look at Fallout 4.  The greatest RPG ever made is Fallout 2, (I will accept Planescape Torment as an answer as well.)   Despite some improvements made in areas like combat and crafting, Fallout 4 left a lot to be desired as an RPG.  So much was removed compared to Fallout: New Vegas that some people ask if it should still be considered a RPG, and some people genuinely upset that it won RPG awards.

Ultimately, it’s the RPG elements of LitRPG that make it difficult, as even gamers can disagree whether a game like Fallout 4 should be considered an open-world adventure game or a RPG.  So let’s break it down.

Why is anyone reading this?

Before we can get to that, let’s ask “What’s the appeal of reading a book about video games?”

Part of that question revolves around another question, “Why do people watch other people play games?”  There’s two answers to that one.

The first is that certain gamers make it feel like you’re watching them play at their house, and provide a kind of commentary/running joke with the game footage. It’s designed to be like having friends over.

The other style of gamer that people watch are the masters of the game, the people who can do things that require crazy, tremendous skill.

Because of this, we have a lot of people watching others play a game like Player Unknown’s Battleground, but we don’t have a lot of people watching others play Candy Crush.

But there’s a problem.  For most of us adults, (I think the average gamer is 33 years old), we only have a very limited amount of time to play.  So there’s a huge nostalgia for the days when we could play a game like World of WarCraft or EverQuest for hours on end.  The games also catered to that with slow progression, lots of guild/grouping required, no clear instructions on how to accomplish tasks, etc.

As gamers got older, the video game companies responded by making games more “casual”.  It’s easier to level up, there’s no penalties on death, there are markers that indicate what enemy has the item you need, etc.  Paradoxically, by lowering the barrier to entry and skill, the games became less fun.  It’s like playing a game with cheat mode enabled.  There’s no real sense of accomplishment in beating a game that requires no skill to play anyway.

The result of this has been servers which still use the original copy of the game (sadly, Blizzard shut down one of the servers that was running this), a handful of mostly indie games which are specifically targeted to gamers who want to invest in taking the time to grow their skills, and some backlash at the dumbing down of video games.

One of the downsides to modern MMOs, in addition to the lowering curve of skill levels, is that everyone goes through the same quest line.  Everyone is the chosen one for a particular mission, which is really odd in a game with millions of players.  This is true of WoW based games, for example, where you run through the same cut-scenes as other players on a quest.

Several of the missions are cookie-cutter or boring:  Go fetch this and go do that.  Then there’s glitches.  Most MMOs have admins that are online in order to pull players stuck in rocks or that otherwise get glitched.

In LitRPGs, the game is usually controlled by an AI or game God of some sort.  Because of this, the quests are completely randomized to limit the number of “Fetch ten pelts from a wolf” style quests.  LitRPGs don’t have glitches, (at least, none of the ones I have read), so everything flows smoothly.  No server lag during a big battle, no players randomly disappearing when you need them, no long time to respawn into an area, etc.

As well, there’s a huge disconnect between being an epic warrior on an adventure and being a person behind a desk clicking on a mouse.  So most of the games feature heavy VR elements in order to transport people from the fantasy of playing a game into being an actual part of the game.

Likewise, the games are generally “hard”.  Some dumb this aspect down to extreme annoyance where the game is hard… if you aren’t the protagonist.  The protagonist will somehow figure out things every gamer knows and get huge level ups and experience points for it, because plot says so.

Summarizing, the majority of LitRPG readers are reading the genre because they want games to be more like what they’re like in the novels.

This is ultimately where some of the snobbishness comes into play.  If readers think that the book isn’t written exactly like the sort of game they want to play, they decry it as “Not LitRPG”.  Likewise, readers seem to give a pass on books that are bad if the game is something they would want to play.

How RPG is it?:

Sinister Design attempted a definition of RPG, if you can forgive the black background with grey text:

A game is a computer RPG if it features player-driven development of a persistent character or characters via the making of consequential choices.

Even this has some problems though.  For example, in most games you assume the role of a particular character.  I.e. in Far Cry 3, you assume the role of a generic white male protagonist, and all of the choices are part of the choices the protagonist makes.  You cannot ultimately change who that person is, even though there is explicit stat progression.

In some games, you can make choices within the realm of what that character would choose.  In Witcher 2, you get to make a big choice in the first Act.  Will you seek help from the elves, who are acting as a guerilla warfare force, or will you seek help from the Blue Stripes, a paramilitary organization?  You get a completely different game depending on which quest line you follow.  However, your actions are still constrained by what Geralt would reasonably do, you cannot roleplay Geralt the Village Idiot.

In other games, you do get this sort of freedom.  In Fallout 2, you can be a complete idiot with a low IQ and high strength.  Your adventure will be greatly different than someone who plays a fast-talking, high IQ and Charisma based character with low combat stats.  You can also side with different factions, resolve quest lines in multiple different ways, etc.

This goes back to the Fallout 4 question, should it still be considered a RPG?   As I’ll suggest later, RPGs should be seen on a continuum between heavy RPGs, light RPGs, and games with RPG mechanics tacked on.

Explicit Stat Progression:

This is generally LitRPGs most unique attribute.  For example, I reviewed the D&D book White Plume Mountain.  So, what makes a LitRPG novel different from that?

Certainly no one can critique White Plume Mountain for not being RPG enough, based entirely off of a RPG campaign adventure.  Characters also literally pull out their spell books and list off what spells they have available.

But there is no explicit stat progression.  A character might find a magical artifact, (a dwarven version of a gatling gun that uses crossbow bolts, a magical talking sword, a flame-breathing firehound pelt), but they are not given explicit stats.

Used correctly, explicit stat progression helps define a character’s personality via the choices they make.  The personality of a character who chooses a barbarian warrior class is far different than someone who chooses a healer/buff support class.  How they build their character, the choices they make in response to problems they encounter, and how it affects the novel are intricate parts of the novel.

Used incorrectly, you can end up with a lot of filler material, or what I like to call Whose Line Is It Anyway? builds.  Where the stat points are made up and don’t matter. My goto example is William Arand’s Otherlife Dreams.   The protagonist has 64 charisma, but a 1 in every other stat.  So he shouldn’t be able to carry and swing a sword, dodge an attack, jump higher than an inch, cast magic, level up new skills (usually an intelligence trait), or do anything other than smooth talk people.  But he’s fine.  He can do anything and everything very easily.

In some other cases, the build can make no sense, but will magically work because plot requires it to magically work.  Let’s go back to my days playing EverQuest for a little light on this subject.

Digression:

My first character was TelfEnchanter (He was an elf enchanter you see), and in his first incarnation, he was a min/max character.  The most prized attribute for enchanters was intelligence; secondarily, charisma.  The race that had those two stats highest had a fatal flaw:  No night-vision.

EverQuest had a zone restriction, so enemies would follow you around so long as you were in zone, known as ‘kiting’.  Without night vision, I found myself getting plowed into by a barrage of enemies randomly.  If you didn’t have night vision, you could only use a dinky lightstone to cast light around you, but that didn’t help much as it only lit up things directly in front of you.

In the next incarnation, I made a journeyman build with an elf base, having the coveted nightvision.   A journeyman build is where instead of min-maxing, you allocate points in a variety of attributes.  Allocating health/endurance is useless for a casting character, since they can’t wear any armor, the extra health doesn’t do much.  So higher dexterity and agility instead.

This meant I could take on low-level enemies in solo combat.  Enchanters gained new spells every four levels, so when I first leveled up, I could solo an enemy lower than me.  But two levels up, the enemies I would need to fight for experience could kill me.  So I would have to join a group for the last two levels.

Enchanters are used to de-aggro large groups of enemies, but since my intelligence was lower than many other enchanters, I couldn’t deaggro a very large group of enemies.  So I was pretty crap as a group companion.

So I had to rebuild my character yet again as an elf with high intelligence, even though that wasn’t the best choice for an enchanter.

That brief lesson should teach you something about what goes into character builds, you have to make tradeoffs and decide what sort of role you want to support in a group.

In any class-based game, a min/max character will beat a journeyman character.  Some games will put soft caps on min/max characters by making every attribute point cost double if you go above 20 in a stat, for example, but it’s still a generally better idea to be min/max than journeyman in class based gameplay.

End Digression

But in some of these novels, the character has a journeyman build in a class-based game, but this doesn’t turn out to be a major mistake, or at least a complicated build with limitations.  Nope, this turns out to be the super-build that enables them to crush all enemies.

In the worst cases, authors use stat porn (not to be confused with scat porn, do not google that), to either pad out the novel or to have mechanics without story, where game elements and items replace any sort of actual story and progression.

So, what is an explicit stat?   LitRPGPodcast/Ramon explains it very well, explicit stats can be via items, character upgrades, armor, weapons, etc.

Time in VR/Alternative World:

This doesn’t seem very controversial, but if the alternative World elements don’t matter, you can’t really call it a LitRPG novel.

I can understand if the first novel is being used to setup the second VR novel.   Michael-Scott Earle does this a bit in his first Lion’s Quest novel, where we spend a huge amount of time getting introduced to the characters, the World, and then the new VR World finally gets introduced, very late into the book.

Regardless, if you want to call a book LitRPG, you have to have lots of game-World time.   Otherwise, angry reviews will await you, as this is an irreducible feature of LitRPGs.

Characters in a game-like World separate from real-World

Often, this dichotomy leads to a problem I call The Two-World Problem.  The Two-World problem occurs because every LitRPG where the characters are from another World, (in this case, Earth), have to explain both the situation where they are from and where they are at.

Balancing this is incredibly difficult.  The best person to do this so far has been Travis Bagwell’s Awaken Online series.  The reason it works so well for his story is that he mirrors the conflicts between the real World and the virtual World.  It’s rather similar to the writing advice of John Truby:

The single biggest mistake writers make when creating characters is that they think of the hero and all other characters as separate individuals. Their hero is alone, in a vacuum, unconnected to others. The result is not only a weak hero but also cardboard opponents and minor characters who are even weaker.

Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 55). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

Even a book like Apocalypse 2020, which does the two worlds very well, doesn’t quite have the same impact because the scenes going on between them are very rarely reflecting each other.

This is usually how many LitRPG writers create their real-World, it has no connection to the fantasy World.  We have “This is happening in the real World” segments, then we have “this is happening in the game-World” segments.

In the worst cases, the Fantasy/VR world actively contradicts the real World.  Even three books in, I don’t understand how the Reavers could exist in Harmon Cooper’s World.  (I like the books, but this has been something that has consistently kept it beneath the 5 star mark.)

In other cases, the authors are so eager to get into the fantasy World full-time that they have a sequence of events that really only serve to get into VR, a critique I had of Blaise Corvin’s side series, Luck Stat Strategy.

There, he creates a great game/fantasy environment, but the scenes that take place in the real World are all literally geared towards the characters becoming full-time VR players.  They don’t hold much interest on their own and only serve to get the characters into VR.  In other examples, the real-World only exists to allow the player to cheat and doesn’t make any sense, as in Video Game Plotline Tester.

In some cases, there is only a brief mention of the outside World.  For example, in The Land, the main character is transported to a video game World and told he will live there forever.  He doesn’t freak out, or worry about his Mom, or his friends, or anything; he just casually accepts it and goes on.

Generally, the most successful novels keep the outside World down to a minimum, enough to establish plot and characters.  Usually the players end up either teleported or otherwise inhabiting the game for a significant amount of time, Delvers LLC for the former and Ascend Online for the latter.

In some cases though, there is no “non-game” world.  Dakota Krout’s Dungeon Born doesn’t have a “real World”, there is only the game World.  So characters do not have to be aware they are in a game-like World (a world with game-like rules), only the audience has to be aware that the characters are in a game-like World.

Metanarrative Commentary (characters aware they are characters in a video game)

I think this one is irrelevant.  Meta-narrative commentary works in Ready Player One because in addition to the odes to 80s and 90s geek culture, the game is called Oasis.  But an Oasis can be a mirage, and the book is an escapist fantasy that asks if escapist fantasies are good, by having the main character say his dream is to shoot himself into space and play video games for eternity, and we see characters spend money on digital fuel while there’s a real-World fuel crisis going on.

In any case, Dakota Krout does metanarrative commentary throughout his book, in a very not-subtle way, even though the people in the game do not realize they are in a game.  In most cases, the commentary isn’t very good or funny, and does nothing to move the story along or progress anything.

Even Ready Player One falls into this trap, often favoring geek nostalgia over plot progression and character development.

In any case, several LitRPGs deal with what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called “hyperreality”, where technology is so advanced that there is no meaningful difference in people’s minds between virtual reality and reality.   Since there is no meaningful difference, characters can’t tell whether or not they are in a game or whether the game is the real World.  (The Matrix movies often show Baudrillard’s books in various Easter Eggs).

You come to my website, you will learn random crap.  Sacrifices must be made and laws must be followed.

Conclusion

Rather than a binary definition of LitRPG, which some people use as a means of saying, “It reminds me of a game I played that one time”, I think LitRPG should be considered a fuzzy algorithm with all, some, and none of the characteristics defining it.

The more characteristics it has, the more it is a “hard/crunchy” LitRPG.  The less characteristics it has, the more it is a “soft/light” LitRPG novel.  If it fulfills none of the requirements, it is not LitRPG.

I use “game-like” World in deference to Baudrillard’s statement that we might not be able to differentiate between a real World and a virtual World in the future, so any portal fantasy with game-like elements.

  • If characters are aware they are in a game-like World, it gains crunchiness.
  • If the majority of the novel takes place in a game-like World, more crunchy.
  • The more explicit stat progression it has, the more crunchy it is.
  • The more game mechanics are used in the Universe, the more crunchy.

If you have a novel that is so soft that it’s basically a marshmallow, or it’s just tacked-on, you are better off defining it as gameLit or Portal fantasy or some other genre so you do not get angry reviews from fans thinking that you have tricked them.

Also note, as has hopefully been stressed throughout the article, that crunchy doesn’t automatically mean “good”.  Each “crunchy” choice has a corresponding series of tradeoffs that the author has to carefully balance to keep the story flowing and coherent.

So, let’s talk about another problem:  the sort of “samey” feel to many LitRPGs.   This is the problem with people raking a novel over the fires if it doesn’t remind them of a game they’ve played.  Most MMOs are World of Warcraft clones, the most notably different game is Eve Online.  In addition, the most popular LitRPGs are based on WoW.

So between those two factors, most people being familiar with WoW and most people being familiar with novels based on WoW, and an additional factor of people dinging novels that do not conform to a game they’d want to play (usually also WoW), there’s been a tendency to tread the same ground over and over again.   Writers got to eat, so they’re going to conform their novels, either explicitly or implicitly, to the market demands.

For the preferred terms, I like terms which do not imply a value judgment.  I.e. calling something “soft” LitRPG seems to define it as inferior, whereas “light” LitRPG doesn’t carry the same judgment value in the term.

Regardless, I hope terms like “soft LitRPG”, “light LitRPG”, or “GameLit” catch on, if it helps readers understand that a novel isn’t going to conform to certain genre expectations and that the novel will take a more experimental approach.  Put it on the book cover so everyone knows, or at least try to come up with your own modifiers to help people know what they’re about to read.

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