May 10, 2024
5 min read

What is a LitRPG?

What is a LitRPG?

What is a LitRPG? Everything You Need to Know

Books have been a medium for hundreds of years. They’ve been used for both spreading knowledge, myths, legends and everything in between. But what about video game experience in literary works…? That’s right, a video game as a story in a book. Hope that got your attention! Now, let's get into the subject properly.

What is a LitRPG?

As it usually is with names, it’s mostly self explanatory. LitRPG stands for “Literary Role-Playing Game”. And, unsurprisingly, they’re stories about characters who basically “play” an RPG game within the story. As in they literally have stats, quest systems and other RPG mechanics created for the “character” to, well, simply interact with. 

They are stories told from the perspective of a player, who is living inside an RPG world. That’s the general idea behind the concept at least, now, let us dig deeper!

How does a LitRPG work?

LitRPGs share a common theme with other stories where a seemingly regular person is thrown into a world where impossible feats can be achieved, either through effort or bravery and commitment. 

The main characters themselves are often meant to be a bit of a self-insert for the reader. There’s a high degree of stat tracking, quest progression and general “gamey” feel to the experience. It’s a story in a book but it’s written from the perspective of an RPG gamer. The type that feels that grinding those sweet, sweet levels is the best feeling in the world.

The LitRPG Genre

The main aspect is, without a doubt, the character's progression. Levelling up their stats, improving their abilities, application of said abilities with progressively more challenging tasks. 

It’s meant to feel like you are inside an RPG. Even an MMORPG, depending on the story in the book. It is a bit of a power fantasy, most of the time. We like to see our protagonist strive through adversity and succeed where others would ordinarily fail. After all, we’re meant to see ourselves as the character.

What MMORPGs inspired LitRPG?

It's not hard to imagine people wanting to take part in such activities in real life.
Source: Final Fantasy XIV by Square Enix

LitRPG titles, while not yet defined as such, existed for around 25-30 years, the biggest MMORPG titles that could be the catalyst would probably be the MUD1 (Multi level dungeon), the world's first text-based MMORPG but also Ultima Online, which was considered one of the best graphical MMORPGs of its time. 

While there are more well known titles today, be it World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, the cornerstones and possibly the inspiration, were set by the early mentioned titles in the genre.

Genre Conventions of LitRPG

The stuff that makes these stories worth reading! In no particular order of importance we have:

  • RPG game mechanics - The world exists on these. Stats, abilities, levelling up system, the more detailed the more true to the genre the book is.
  • Character progression - It’s an RPG world and the protagonist needs to constantly improve as the story goes on. Each improvement should be noted, whether it’s an increase or decrease in stat or new ability with detailed description.
  • World within a game - The character is (in most cases) aware of the world being an RPG. And the world itself is often similarly “aware” of its rules and general feel. Character screens, names of characters, health bars are as common as an everyday reality for everyone.
  • Rules are rules - The in-game world relies on these. Everyone is bound and limited by them.  Typically the protagonist finds ways to bend or break certain rules to gain an edge over his opponents who blindly follow, instead of carving a path for themselves.

Subgenres of LitRPG 

Unsurprisingly the overall idea is in itself quite popular. And as popularity increases, new subgenres are being created to address parts that the original didn’t. 

These, as with everything in life, are quite loosely “agreed” upon. But they do seem to fit the general descriptors so we’ll go with it. And just to name a few:

  • Isekai - From the Japanese word meaning: other world or another world. The genre has the protagonist “transport” into a new RPG-like world from a regular earth-like world. There are subgenres within it as well, but that’s a general gist of it. Often focused more on fantasy and a lot less on sci-fi. Unsurprisingly it’s mostly a JRPG style world.
  • Village/kingdom building - The character’s main goal is to defend and expand his domain while seeing it prosper against other nations/factions who become more and more interested in the sudden growth of their previously poor neighbour.
  • Evolution - The character becomes some sort of monster like creature and through fulfilling specified requirements, they become more “evolved” versions of their species. These come with new abilities and stat boosts, they can often be merged together with the kingdom building since the character can bring evolution to his brethren to contest other hostile creatures within his sphere of influence.

There’re quite a few genres in general with new ones being created each day to fill up some niche the authors didn’t find and wanted to explore or see made. 

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Popular LitRPG 

Dungeon Crawler Carl by Matt Dinniman

Carl and Princess Donut having a casual run. Just showing off his impeccable fashion sense, nothing to see here!
Source: Dungeon Crawler Carl by Matt Dinniman

A world suddenly comes to an end and a whole globe is turned into a dungeon. The protagonist “Carl” together with his cat companion try to tackle the descent into an 18-level deep labyrinth while being watched and assisted by the mysterious “benefactors”. Think Hunger Games with humour and general wacky feel to it.

Sword Art Online by Reki Kawahara

That's a cute couple right there. Think they'll end up together?
Source: Sword Art Online by Reki Kawahara

The novels follow protagonist Kazuto Kirigaya, also referred to as Kirito, one of many people who started playing the titular virtual reality game Sword Art Online. 

Our protagonist connects with the use of his nerve-gear VR headset to enter a fantasy world of Aincrad. After spending some time within the game with a newcomer Klein, they discover that players are unable to log-out of it.

After that the players gather within the starter town location, which then has a SAO creator in-game avatar appear and declare that they are now trapped within the game. More over, if their character dies within the game, their lives will end in the real world too. Any attempt at removing the headset off of them would have similar results. Their only salvation? Conquering the final boss that is said to dwell in the 100th level of the labyrinth. The story follows Kirito and how he handles being trapped within this fantastical world and relationships he builds with fellow players.

The Way of the Shaman series by Vasily Mahanenko

Mix of sci-fi and fantasy world? Heck yeah, go LitRPG!
Source: Way of the Shaman by Vasily Mahanenko

The story focuses on the character Daniel Mahan and his unfortunate imprisonment within the virtual world called “Barliona”. It is the typical world of fantasy, with magic, monsters and of course other players. 

Our protagonist is forced into the class of Shaman, hence the name of the series. We follow his unfortunate imprisonment and his interactions with the world. All the while his character slowly becomes more powerful and more known through in-game grind and intersting characters he meets.

FAQs about Lit RPGs

Is LitRPG Limited to Fantasy Settings, or Can It Incorporate Science Fiction or Other Genres?

LitRPGs quite often incorporate virtual reality or augmented reality into their stories. The reality he’s in then could be either a fantasy world with magic or go with the sci-fi route, it’s all up to the author at this point.

Can Readers Who Aren't Familiar with RPGs Enjoy LitRPG Novels?

The LitRPG heavily focuses on the part that speaks mostly to RPG fans. 

The game mechanics of the world, character progression and general game-like feel. 

If someone isn’t familiar with the RPG genre at all, they probably never felt a need to read these books in the first place. But if they’d give it a chance, they might quickly build interest in both the games and the books.

Are LitRPGs Limited to Certain Age Groups or Audiences?

Not at all. Even if a lot of these are focused on young adult characters and how they deal with things within their individual worlds, there are also stories with more mature themes and stories for older audiences.

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