So, let’s talk about subgenres within gamelit/LitRPG. This list is going to grow over time as I look at and analyze more books, and as I get reader feedback. I already took a stab at defining LitRPG/GameLit in another article, so won’t retread that ground here.
The first question is obviously, “Why do we need subgenres”? The answer is pretty simple. To the untrained ear, all metal sounds the same. To the trained ear, there’s a difference between thrash metal, doom metal, black metal, and metalcore. The need for subgenres increases in proportion to the level of interest someone has in a genre.
Is there a downside? Yes. Generalizations and genre-blurring can occur, which makes it difficult to know where to situate a work in a field. There can also be some pretension in a subgenre over what is or is not part of a subgenre, akin to the No True Scotsman fallacy. So when in doubt, ask the author. I will use the term “GameLit” as the umbrella term so I don’t have to keep specifying Gamelit/LitRPG.
I gleaned a lot of this from the excellent LitRPG database that Ramon Mejia has built up.
Crunchy vs. Creamy | Hard vs. Soft
This is probably the most well-known/debated subgenre in all of GameLit/LitRPG. H/t to Adam Myhr for getting me set straight on the origins and meanings.
In Sci-Fi, there’s long been a divide between “hard” science fiction and “soft” science fiction. Hard science fiction relies on actual science and making sure that the scenarios described are at least scientifically plausible. Soft science fiction either ignores the science aspects altogether or downplays them.
The easiest way to see this debate is the nerd debate between Star Wars vs. Star Trek (t.v. series, ignore the movies). Star Trek goes into depth about how ships work, alien planets and civilizations, philosophical dilemmas, etc. Star Wars has lightsabers. How do they work? Who cares?
Trying to convert soft sci-fi into hard sci-fi can cause a problem known as Jon Voight’s ballsack.
This divide doesn’t work well for GameLit, since calling something “Hard” has a different meaning. So the community came up with the idea of “Crunchy” vs. “Creamy”, referencing peanut butter types. Crunchy comes from “number crunching”. Any example of a typical Cruncy GameLit sentence from Survival Quest.
Damage taken. Hit Points reduced by 5: 11 (weapon damage + strength) – 6 (armor). Total: 35 of 40.
A creamy GameLit novel would simply tell you that the attack did 5 damage.
Certain subgenres lend themselves to more crunchy elements. For example, Dungeon Core novels tend to be heavy in their focus on stats and game mechanics, whereas most sci-fi/space gamelit tends to be lighter on the stats and game mechanics.
As for general criticisms, the main criticism of “soft” GameLit is that it is only a veiled mechanic for a fantasy novel, while the main criticism of “crunchy” GameLit is that it can lead to page bloat with statistics and mechanics that don’t add anything to the actual story.
Standard American Adventure GameLit
The standard American Adventure Gamelit novel is characterized by a person choosing a class, race, and starting stats, where they are given quests by a game system. They will typically meet up with either the Game God or ruling AI of the universe and discover that the adventure holds massive stakes that they are unaware of when they first enter into the game.
- Harems: The work may or may not include harems.
- Other parties. The work will almost always include additional NPCs or PCs who meet up to form a guild or alliance.
- Animal companion. Generally these novels will feature an animal companion.
- Generally crunchy. Most of these novels are generally crunchy, but some like Delvers LLC and The Feedback Loop are fairly soft.
- Overpowered protagonist. The protagonist will generally be overpowered in comparison to other PCs in the game, or in comparison to the NPCs encountered regularly.
- World of Warcraft inspired. The main theme of the game rules and World building will be heavily influenced by World of Warcraft.
Can be further sub-typified into adventures which emphasize resource building and NPC collection over just player progression. The best novel in this vein is G. Akella’s Realm of Arkon series, where the MC collects various NPCs to add to his army as he seeks to survive in the area he’s trapped in.
Another subgenre within this branch are adventures which emphasize resource management and city building. Books like Awaken Online and Ascend Online emphasize this aspect, as well as The Land. The criticism of this type of novel is that they can lead to the Tale of the Village Janitor where the MC spends an enormous amount of time running around town, collecting quests, and basically cleaning up after his town rather than any other progression.
These two subgenres within the main subgenre are not broken out though because they take place within the larger framework of the standard adventure. In most of these adventures, the player can log out and while in-game deaths carry a penalty, they do not result in the death of the player in the real World.
The player is typically seeking to escape into the game, as opposed to escape from the game. Novels where the player is actively seeking to escape the game are classified within the Apocalypse subgenre.
Criticism of this type of genre: Often formulaic. Worlds, plots, and characters will blend together from different novels. Plot can often be overly bent towards character progression. Because there are two Worlds and essentially two versions of the MC, one in the real World and one in the Game, it can lead to a Two Worlds problem where the real World is completely bland or where the real World would prohibit the game World from existing.
Overall, the standard adventure category is where the bulk of stories and the bulk of the most successful stories are written.
Standard Russian Adventure GameLit
Examples: AlterWorld, Video Game Plotline Tester, Way of the Shaman.
Almost all of the above applies to Russian GameLit. Some additional caveats.
More experimental. Russian GameLit is generally more experimental than American GameLit, particularly in later novels after the main arc has died out. However, the experimentation can also be more rewarding for experienced readers who used to seeing the same conventions over and over.
Criticism: The experimentation can be disastrous for the series. Often this is because series wait too long to wrap up and continue beyond the point where the main arc has been resolved. More often features language and ideas about women and gender roles that can be considered offensive to American/European readers.
Translations are very expensive and Russians are typically much poorer than Americans. Some translations are done completely through fan-service, so they may be of very poor quality.
Standard Japanese Adventure GameLit
Examples: The Gamer, Sword-Art Online, Overlord.
Same as above, but there is typically a greater emphasis on community and enjoyment from eating, gambling, and other activities as opposed to the strict adventure scenarios that the above two genres employ. (This is from a reader, as I haven’t been able to find any good translations of Japanese LitRPG).
Japanese GameLit is more often in the form of manga, light novels, and anime rather than traditional novels. Japanese Gamelit tends to come in a variety of forms, similar to the variety of different anime, manga, and light novels. Also, the same series can be available in multiple formats.
Korean Adventure GameLit
Examples: The Legendary Moonlight Sculptor
I’m even less familiar with this, but Legendary Moonlight Sculptor shaped several tropes used in GameLit novels:
- World’s first full immersion VR.
- Sick mother/sibling.
- Need to earn money playing the game because no other option.
- Ultra-greedy personality.
- Time dilation, 4 hours in game equal one hour in the real World
Dungeon Core Novels
Examples: Dungeon Born, Divine Dungeon, Dungeon Player
Dungeon core novels revolve around the formation of an NPC dungeon and the intelligence of the central “core” of the dungeon.
- Incredibly crunchy. Since the story revolves heavily around game mechanics, the story is often filled with verbose descriptions of every aspect of the game.
- Rapid progression. Most characters rapidly gain new skills, abilities, and attributes.
Criticism: The over emphasis on game mechanics vs story leads to mechanics without story. The characters are often stock characters with little individuality.
Examples: Threadbare, Everybody Loves Large Chests
Monster novels revolve around a monster or NPC in a novel gaining new levels of cognition and then having to deal with the game world with their new cognition. Very closely related to Dungeon Core novels in terms of progression and cons.
Examples: Phantom Server, The Gam3, Perimeter Defense series, Emerilia
Sci-fi novels revolve around a game world which features spacecraft, aliens, or interdimensional warfare. Alliances and factions are often emphasized over player or stat progression.
- Futuristic elements.
- Emphasis on different abilities of aliens vs. regular player.
- Emphasis on factions and alliances.
- Emphasis on weapons and items vs. player skills.
Criticism: The amount of game elements in these series tends to diminish over time as the story revolves around alliances/items instead of player progression. Often it switches over from Space Adventure to Space Opera. Typically more on the “soft” side of the GameLit spectrum, particularly the longer the series progresses.
Examples: Creatures and Caverns, Grum: Barbarian Barista
Subversive/parody novels take the typical GameLit formulas like overpowered protagonists or wunderkind player and flip them on their head. The player is extraordinarily bad at the game or underpowered.
Criticism: Because the genre is subversive, it either starts to get stale or it has to revert back to type. Reverting back to type means that the story starts to follow a typical adventure GameLit novel.
Table-top GameLit Novels:
Examples: NPCs, Second-Hand Curses, Caverns and Creatures, D&D novels
The rules of the novel follow from D&D and table-top inspired gameplay rather than from World of Warcraft or other MMO style games. The NPCs are typically aware of other Worlds and rules that influence their decisions, but accept gameplay elements as a natural part of the World rather than as a game system per se’.
Tabletop GameLit can have a few advantages over the MMO styled ones. Leveling in tabletop games is traditionally far harder than in MMO-style games, as well as the focus on a campaign lasting multiple days vs. being able to fulfill dozens of quests in one day.
Examples: The Arcane Survivalist, Life in the North, Delvers LLC (hybrid), Daniel Black, Apocalypse Gates, Feedback Loop (hybrid)
People are taken from their home World and dumped into a game or portal world where they are expected to either thrive or die. The defining feature is that the player is permanently killed if they die in the game, as opposed to the standard LitRPG where players will typically respawn with a penalty if they are killed.
The game is also typically more violent/adult-themed and can include elements like cannibalism, rape, slavery, and other mature themes. Players are typically seeking to escape from the game entirely, at least initially.
Apocalypse novels typically put very little stock into creating two Worlds, they tend to immediately go into the details of the game World rather than delving too deeply into what life on the regular World is like.
Criticism of the subgenre is that the mature elements are just there for shock value.
Examples: Halcyon Rising, Super Sales on Super Heroes.
Novel features a huge amount of harem building and a plot focused on accumulating harems to gain extra powers.
Examples: City of Champions Online, Super Sales on Super Heroes.
Novel features characters who are superheroes fighting against villains.
Examples: Desperate Times
Novel is about massive fighting in an arena style competition built upon squads and units rather than solo/group dynamics.
Examples: World Keeper, Camelot Dungeon.
Based more on God-games like Black and White, the story is told through the eyes of a game God, Dungeon Master, or ruler who has to manage resources, worshippers, and personnel.
Examples: Nightmare Game: Slayers.
Game World is more akin to a slasher or horror movie than a traditional roleplaying game.
Examples: Any Eden Redd novels or Alara Branwen novels
The Game world revolves more around sex and kink than character progression. Characters take part in a virtual World that releases them from their mundane lives and allows them to fulfill their sexual desires.
Examples: Anything Scottie Futch writes.
Like the ineffable Tao, the novel that can be described is not the true Scottie Futch novel.