The Appeal of LitRPG

Reading Time: 3 minutes

For the past couple years I’ve been on a bit of a LitRPG binge, pouring the majority of my Audible credits into the genre and finding myself pleased with almost every purchase. To be fair, I’m only really following some of the more popular series, and there’s plenty of backlog there before I start getting adventurous in my audiobook selection, but I’ve been thinking about what it is in the genre that calls to me. Hell, I like the genre so much my current work in progress and the next few stories I have planned are all LitRPG.

Before I get too far, let’s define our terms. LitRPG is a rather niche genre of stories told through the lens of video games that have classic “Role Playing Game” mechanics. This could be introduced into the story as advanced Virtual Reality, full consciousness to computer upload, or sometimes with little narrative backdrop as to why there are game mechanics, though that last one blurs the lines a bit between LitRPG and whatever main genre the story is set in. I lean toward fantasy-based settings in my reading selection, but there are a number of other genres that hook into the conceit. Additionally, you can broaden the scope with the GameLit label, which is more of a catch-all and includes LitRPG as well as stories set in video games that don’t necessarily have traditional RPG character progression elements. If the book features experience bars, character sheets, and skill trees, it’s likely in the LitRPG realm, and almost certainly qualifies as GameLit.

I fell into the genre accidentally, having caught Dakota Krout talking about his Divine Dungeon series on a writing podcast and digging into his back catalog. I then ended up falling down the rabbit hole with his Completionist Chronicles, followed by Ascend Online, before detouring to Andrew Rowe’s LitRPG-adjacent fantasy novels. With Audible Plus including a handful of Viridian Gate novels at the moment and others in the genre I’ve been able to pick up another series while maintaining the ones I’m already invested in. I’m sure I’ll be upgrading for more credits once I actually pick up anything past the first book in The Land or Awaken Online.

I’ve names dropped these series so I could step back and point out that these are just the ones I’d consider mainstream in the genre. If you’re looking for a starting point any of the above are great. There are others like the Good Guys series, or The Wandering Inn, that I see regularly recommended that I just haven’t picked up yet. I’m sure I’ve left out other popular series that have just slipped my mind at the moment. There are many adjacent types of stories like Wuxia, Cultivation, and Dungeon Core that I know I’m leaving out.

The one thing all these stories have in common is a narrative framing based around rules and mechanics. There are numerical values tied to the characters, their abilities, opponents, and the world itself. This data clearly indicates what is or is not possible while also providing context or a point or reference. If it’s Harry Dresden vs some random fae, we have no idea who is likely to win in a fight. If it’s Smash Lampjaw, the level 7 puncher, vs Percy Winthrop III, the level 65 wizard, I have some context on skill gap. Add in a few chapters of world building, character voiced theory -crafting, and some close-call battles against Goldilocks opponents just within their ability to defeat, and I get even better context. Introducing mechanics or abilities detailed so granularity that a rounding error could kill a character just enriches the story that much further, if the author uses it correctly.

This shared space, where everyone has the same rules and options available, brings me back to raiding in World of Warcraft or doing PVP in Wildstar before it died. The feeling of working alongside, or against, others with the same goal, in a rules-based system, with the standard cavalier banter from that type of crowd is a hard feeling to reproduce without these elements. Seeing impossible feats from other players based on the time and effort they’d invested and knowing you could match or surpass them at some point. It’s a feeling on par with picking up a new book or notebook from the bookstore: potential.

LitRPG pulls on the nostalgia levers in my brain, while creating a stage for some really great tropes, and is a satisfying way to scratch the MMO itch without the grind or full time job level of time investment. If you’re a gamer, or looking for something related to your main genre with a twist, I’d recommend spending some time I. The genre. If you’re already familiar with LitRPG I’d like to know what drew you into the genre in the comments.