There’s a niche of LitRPG novels that get high reviews that I call “mechanics without a story”. If you were to ask most novelists and critics what a fiction story consists of, you’d get an answer like this:
Not all of these elements are essential. The Maltese Falcon barely has a plot and most of Alfred Hitchcock’s works don’t. Both use a plot device called a McGuffin to get the story rolling because they created character-driven novels. The plot of Pulp Fiction (and almost all of Quentin Tarantino’s works) is less important than the characters.
It’s generally understood that if you lack in one area, you need to make it up in others. Tarantino makes up a lack of plot with style and characters. Hitchcock often focused on hammering home a theme, North by Northwest used videography to create feelings of isolation.
The LitRPGs I’m speaking about are novels that don’t have a story, just mechanics. If you ask anyone what the book is about, or if the book were anything other than LitRPG, the book wouldn’t stand up. Because it would be about nothing.
Thus most of the reviews that I read describe absolutely nothing about the novel. What was it about? Uh… liked the mechanics. Yeah, but what was it about? It had a nice stat system. Yeah, but what about the characters?
I could go into more depth about the common problems I see, but author Janice Hardy has a nice list on her blog under “Common Problems”.
You have no plot
The problem with many LitRPGs, as I’ve already detailed on my list of sins, is that they have no plot. A guy is running around and doing things. The specific sin is “Does Anyone Remember What I’m Doing?”
Let’s detail some basic plot elements. What happens if the protagonist dies? Why is he bothering to do anything? (Almost all of these stories use a male protagonist). What is his goal? What is his motivation? What is stopping him from his goal? What must he overcome to complete his goal?
As one example, Dungeon Born has a protagonist who will die if people destroy his dungeon heart. He has no memories and no personality. Why does he care? Why should we care? Particularly because he’s able to hide his dungeon heart and allows people to traverse his cave easily, but we also know that he can just level up slowly from absorbing life that comes in.
Thus the plot is just he can level up faster. That’s not a plot.
There is a certain type of novel that uses this called a Picaresque plot, but I don’t recommend it. You typically end up with something that’s known as a Kudzu Plot.
You have no characters
I tend to prefer character driven stories over plot driven ones. Thus I have a slew of offenses for a bad LitRPG. “NPCs are not replaceable: Or the Girl in the Fridge Problem”, “Creating a real villain: Or Don’t Kick The Puppy”, “Side Characters Matter” and “Vanilla Wafer Good Guy”.
A well-written character should have two dimensions. The first can be called their moral traits. What sort of person are they? Do they lie, cheat, steal, kill, etc. If they do these things, why do they do them?
An example is the trilogy of books Paul Kidd wrote for Dungeons and Dragons. There are two primary characters, “The Justicar” and “Escalla”.
“The Justicar” is not a character. He’s the embodiment of the concept of justice, which brings him into conflict with paladins, clerics, and evil people in general. His best friend is the trapped soul of a hellhound that he rescues from a paladin that wanted to torture the hellhound for all eternity.
Escalla is a character. She lies all the time, but that’s because she’s a fairy princess and hasn’t experienced much of the World. She lies to pretend she’s more knowledgeable and experienced than she really is. She also lies when she thinks the truth is boring because she wants to live up to the stereotype of faeries being fun-loving tricksters.
Because she has a moral trait and a reason behind her moral trait, she is an actual character. Meanwhile, “The Justicar” does not, as his name implies. He simply is.
If you were to ask me for most of these novels what the motivations of the characters were or what their personalities were like, I would draw a blank.
This is where most LitRPGs that have ridiculous overrated reviews, (most of these books are maybe 3 stars being generous), come in. They have some gameplay mechanism. Great.
But they don’t have a World they inhabit. Though not exactly a LitRPG novel, Drew Hayes’ NPC series shows how this works. The characters have to deal with adventuring and its conventions within a World that informs it. The generic “Mad King” in most RPGs is an actual mad king. When a group of adventurers die in a tavern that the NPCs own, they have to assume their personas to keep the mad king from destroying their village.
Outside from mechanics, some of the offenders like this and this don’t have any real world or settings. I talk about this extensively in Shandifying a novel, a neologism that means building a World where the interactions occur naturally.
Because they don’t have any real settings, they use “As you know Bob” for setting the environment. “As you know Bob” is when two characters exposit things at each other. “As you know Bob, the main building is two blocks north of here…” This is sometimes known as the “Used Furniture” syndrome, where it’s just like Tolkien except…
Author Patricia C. Wrede has a nice world-building list.
The PoV has two main modes: first-person and third-person. The first-person viewpoint is the more intimate viewpoint, the readers know exactly what the narrator is thinking or feeling. If you use this, you cannot step outside of it.
I often find in bad novels, the narrator will suddenly know things about the motivations of other people that they shouldn’t. This is technically known as a “viewpoint glitch”.
Even worse, the point of view clashes with the characters. In Soulstone, the main character is supposed to be a 20-something year old engineer, but he comes across as a 30-something fiction writer trying to impress us with his nerd credentials.
In Dungeon Born, he has a will-o-wisp make “sexual” jokes. Uhh… what?
The worst offender by far is The Trapped Mind Project, where the point-of-view is supposed to be a 40-something engineer trillionaire, but sounds more like a 20-something that hasn’t graduated high school.
“Classic” novels tend to have greater themes, no one is going to beat Shakespeare in this realm. But a decent fiction should be about something more than the novel. Novels with greater themes tend to stick longer. The themes of these books are…?
For example, here’s the picks from the Libertarian Futurist Society for the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award:
As Easy as A.B.C., by Rudyard Kipling (first published 1912 in London Magazine), the second of his “airship utopia” stories, portrays a crisis in a twenty-first century society where an unpopular minority calls for the revival of democracy, and a largely hands-off world government is forced to step in and protect them.
Conquest by Default, by Vernor Vinge (first published 1968 in Analog) is his first exploration of the idea of anarchism, in which a stateless alien society visits an Earth recovering from nuclear war. The story combines a novel approach to the problem of avoiding the decay of anarchy into government with an evocation of the tragic impact of cultural change.
Coventry, by Robert A. Heinlein (first published 1940 in Astounding Science Fiction) envisions the Covenant, a social compact under which breaking the law, as such, cannot be punished unless actual harm to someone has been demonstrated. The story contrasts that society with a lawless “anarchy” into which those who break the covenant are sent.
Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut (first published 1971 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), satirizes the idea of radical egalitarianism with a portrayal of a society where all talented people are compulsorily brought down to average — until one gifted youth rebels against the system.
Starfog, by Poul Anderson (first published 1967 in Analog) envisions a widespread interstellar society millennia after the fall of a Galactic Empire, unified by the Commonality, a mutual aid organization. The story explores methods of carrying out large-scale projects through voluntary cooperation and market incentives under conditions where central control is unworkable.
With Folded Hands … by Jack Williamson (first published 1947 in Astounding Science Fiction), uses science fiction to satirize the modern “nanny state” and explore an ethical theme: the peril of unrestricted authority, even (or especially) when it is used totally altruistically to take care of those subjected to it.
In these stories, the theme is obviously about an anarchist society, whereas the opposite is Lord of the Flies where the boys attempt at self-rule is disastrous and someone who threatens the social order is hunted by other children.
I don’t know if “bad” can be considered a style, anymore than “bland” can be considered a way to make dishes, but the problems are numerous. There is no style to the books. They exposit and narrate, poorly.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote about style, and the best advice is from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
My advice to all indie authors is get a good editor, but I suppose some won’t because if they hired an editor to remove all the unnecessary parts, they would only have a ten page novel.