The strengths of LitRPG

LitRPG, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a literary genre combining the conventions of RPGs with science-fiction and fantasy novels. While some readers are attracted to the genre by the “game-like” aesthetic, one of the things that seems to keep pulling those same readers back to the genre is the fact that LitRPG, by utilizing the conventions of games, is able to do certain things more easily and often more reliably than other forms of written fiction. Here are some of the things that LitRPG seems to do particularly well, especially relative to other gernes:

LitRPG tends to have more consistent systems

In fantasy, the author’s use of magic usually falls somewhere on a spectrum between “hard magic” (where the magic follows rules that are defined and usually explained directly to the audience), or “soft magic” (where the magic is mysterious and characters’ magical abilities aren’t always well-defined). Lord of the Rings is more on the “soft magic” end of the spectrum: it’s not really clear what Gandalf’s exact powers are; we just know that he’s a really powerful wizard. On the “hard magic” end of the spectrum, we have authors like Brandon Sanderson, whose Mistborn series defines “allomancy” as a set of eight powers, each tied to a specific metal: tin enhances your senses, iron allows you to pull metal objects toward you, and so on. When we find out that a character is a “tin-eye,” we know exactly what powers this gives them access to.

LitRPG tends to be closer to the “hard magic” end of the spectrum. There are some LitRPG with “softer” magics where the rules aren’t clearly defined, and LitRPG itself exists on a spectrum between “crunchy” LitRPG (which is strict about quantifying how the characters interact with the universe’s “game rules” with things like damage numbers and notifications about status effects) and “creamy” LitRPG (which is less strict), but LitRPG by default tends to lean much closer to “hard magic” than it does to “soft magic.” We don’t know what kinds of magic Gandalf is capable of using, but in a LitRPG, finding out what kinds of magic a character can use may be as simple as just glancing at their character sheet, something that authors will frequently provide for at the end of chapters.

This is one of the things that tends to be least consistent about the genre (like most kinds of speculative fiction, it exists along a spectrum between “hard” and “soft”), but fans of “hard fantasy” will probably find themselves more at home with LitRPG.

One of the main benefits of having a consistent system is that it allows stories to be honest and consistent about characters’ abilities. When two mages face off in a duel, shooting each other with energy blasts, who wins? Different types of stories handle it differently. Some stories (unsatisfyingly) see the fight through to its conclusion without really communicating why a particular character triumphed over another, instead focusing more on how cool the attacks looked, or what kind of dialog was exchanged during the battle. (Older shounen manga series are often particularly guilty of this. Sometimes, characters will be described in terms of their “power level,” but oftentimes this will be nebulous in terms of what exactly it means: can a character with a high “power level” take a lot of hits? Do a lot of damage? Some combination of both?)

LitRPG usually at least tries to have an explanation for why one character beat another: both characters have hit points, each attack does damage, and one character managed to reduce the other character’s hit points to zero before their opponent did the same thing to do them. Usually, the story will have (or pretend to have) rules governing how much damage each hit does. For example, certain characters may be weak against (or have resistances to) certain kinds of magic, and thus might take more damage from a fireball than from an icy blast.

Other stories can do this too, but LitRPG tends to much more heavily lean on specific tropes that often appear in RPGs (like elemental resistances, or certain types of armor being more resistant to magic vs physical attacks), and then often tries to be more consistent about them. Systems like these allow characters to come up with specific solutions to “game the system” and take advantage of the world’s mechanics. For example, in LitRPG, it’s much more common for characters to come up with solutions that feel “video game-y,” like “this enemy I’m about to fight uses lightning attacks, so I should go do this sidequest that will reward me with a wizard robe that will resist lightning.” LitRPG is also much more likely to quantify these kinds of things by saying things like “This robe improves lightning resistance by 30%,” instead of defining it in more nebulous terms.

These traits might not necessarily appeal to all readers, but for readers who like reading about universes that play by a consistent set of rules, these can be big draws. Different LitRPG stories tend to play things differently, but they all tend to have one thing in common:

LitRPG has explicit “hit points” (and that makes tracking fights easier)

A lot of movies treat their characters like they have “HP bars”: they can get a certain number of times, until they’re unable to continue fighting. LitRPG tends to be honest about this fact, and you can often measure (roughly) how close a character is to defeat (or victory) by looking at their HP bars.

Most fights in the real world are brutally short. A single wound inflicted by a knife, gunshot, or even a well-placed punch can be enough to incapacitate someone to the point where they’re no longer able to offer an effective resistance.

Fictional stories usually don’t end so quickly: we tend to like our fights drawn out. (Of course, there are exceptions, like the famous movie moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones shows why it sometimes pays to bring a gun to a sword fight, but this moment is played for laughs.) We generally don’t like our victories (or losses) to feel fast and arbitrary, and having the good guy and bad guy trade punches for several minutes often makes the result feel more “earned.”

Some stories do this well, by showing the impact that each blow has on a character, but done poorly, a movie fight can often feel like it’s two action stars just trading choreographed blows that lack any sense of real impact: the more hits there are, the less decisive each hit feels.

In the same way that levels allow LitRPG to clearly communicate the power level of characters, hit points allow LitRPG to clearly communicate the relative strength of different types of attacks. We intuitively know that a kick does more damage than a punch, but how much more? Look at the damage notifications (if you’re reading “crunchy” LitRPG that has all of the numbers laid out), or look for language that the author uses to communicate the relative amount of damage each attack is doing.

Some LitRPG stories still manage to flub this part, and some non-LitRPG stories manage to do it well by using descriptive language (or in the case of film, visual language) to communicate how “hurt” different characters are during a fight, but it’s often much easier for LitRPG battles to give a sense of progress.

Of course, LitRPG sometimes gets to bend things a little, such that the strength of one blow doesn’t allow you to cleanly predict the damage of the next: maybe they figure out a way to “aim for the weak spot” and inflict a massive amount of damage. Maybe they get lucky and score a critical hit (hopefully in a way that doesn’t feel like it cheapens the outcome).

Hit points are one way of showing the amount of “progress” that has been made during a fight, which is just one example of the following point:

LitRPGs (often) offer a clear sense of progress

One of the most important things that tends to keep readers engaged in a story is a clear sense of progress. Readers like to feel like they’re getting closer to a goal. Most stories achieve this in a variety of ways: for example, a mystery novel might begin with the detective considering a list of suspects, and each time they eliminate a suspect as a possible perpetrator, they get closer to finding the real culprit. (Detectives can also “make progress” by gathering more clues, talking to more witnesses, and so on.)

Of course, protagonists aren’t always the ones who are making progress and moving the story forward: in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one character sets out with the goal of collecting six “infinity stones,” and we can see him gradually get closer to his goal as he collects more and more of his stones. Looking at the current tally of how many infinity stones he’s collected allows us to roughly quantify how close he is to his goal, and with each stone he collects, we feel ourselves getting closer and closer to the story’s conclusion. Likewise, in a “time bomb” plot, there’s a sense of urgency that moves us through the story, which each bit of time that passes leading us closer and closer to the conclusion.

Some fantasy stories provide a sense of progress by following a travelogue plot and putting a literal map in the front of the book, so that when the characters announce at the start of the book that they intend to travel to the Lonely Mountain to collect the treasure that awaits them there, the reader can get a rough idea of how close to (or far from) they are from their intended destination by following their progress on the map.

There are a variety of methods that stories can use to provide the reader with a sense of progress, and some are more subtle than others. (For example, in a story about a character learning to become more empathetic, each time they commit an act that exhibits empathy, they leave the reader with the impression that they are getting closer to the goal of becoming a more empathetic person. Even if “become more empathetic” might seem like a nebulous goal, it allows us to define what kinds of behavior from the character move us closer to that goal, and which behaviors move them further from that goal.) Stories that fail to provide that sense of progress tend to elicit a common complaint: “Nothing is happening.” “The characters are stuck and not going anywhere.” “They haven’t accomplished anything.”

LitRPG offers a clear form of progression: characters are constantly “leveling up,” and each time they “level up,” they become better equipped to take on the next challenge that they encounter. And because LitRPG tends to follow the conventions of RPGs, it feels much more common in LitRPG for characters to acquire new equipment and “upgrade” to a better sword or armor midway through a story. Likewise, characters are often learning new skills, or unlocking new classes: all of these are ways that a character can feel like they are making progress toward a goal — even if that “goal” is never clearly defined to the reader!

Of course, it’s still incumbent on the author to create a story that allows the characters to progress in ways that are interesting. But LitRPG seems to have a much higher floor when it comes to giving the reader a sense of progress: if the numbers keep going up, the reader will feel like the character is getting closer to their goal, and this can work even in cases where the plot isn’t particularly well-crafted. There are all sorts of ways that the author can undermine this: for example, if a character goes through the equivalent of a “training montage” and gains 10 levels off-screen, it can risk trivializing the sense of progress that readers get from a level-up. But LitRPG is a genre where authors frequently give readers that must sought-after sense of progress with each chapter, even when they’re not consciously aware that they’re doing it.

In some genres, a “side quest” might run the risk of feeling useless (especially if the main character spends a bunch of time doing things that don’t actually give them progress toward their main goal), but in the context of a LitRPG, every side tangent at least provides the characters with exp which gives them measurable progress toward the goal of “leveling up” and becoming stronger and better-equipped to take on the challenges that await in their “main quest.”

LitRPG is (usually) more honest about power levels

A lot of speculative fiction is shockingly opaque when it comes to power levels, particularly in the superhero genre that has achieved massive popularity in the past few years (largely thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

I generally enjoy MCU films, but allow me to pick on it for a bit: it’s kind of silly that The Avengers (2012) frames Thor and Black Widow as peers on the battlefield. Thor’s powers include the ability to control lightning, and he can crush Iron Man’s gauntlets about as easily as most of us would crumple paper. On one occasion, he allowed the energy of an entire star to pass through his body because he just happened to be in the way. By contrast, Black Widow’s most combat-relevant power is the ability to fire a gun really accurately, and her weapon of choice is the same Glock 26 that you’ll find in the hands of thousands of real-world police officers. (The Glock 26 is an effective weapon against unarmored humans, but The Avengers are in a line of work where they frequently come into contact with non-human enemies, many of which are capable of shrugging off 9mm rounds.)

That’s not to say that Black Widow is useless. Far from it: she’s skilled in subterfuge and the art of disguise, and when it comes to killing bad guys discreetly, she’s probably a much better choice than Thor. When it comes time to interrogate Loki, they rely on Black Widow, not Thor. And it’s no coincidence that some of Black Widow’s best moments in the MCU happen in Winter Soldier, a spy movie where her abilities as a spy predictably come in handy. But when a portal opens above New York and the city is being invaded by aliens who aren’t likely to be fooled by her clever disguises, it’s a bit silly that the movie frames the two of them in a shot that treats a spy who can aim her gun really well as a peer of a Norse god. (Black Widow isn’t the only one who seems out of her league next to Norse gods and a Hulk who managed to survive an impact with the earth after falling from a height of several miles — SNL did an entire sketch about how Hawkeye is hero who’s only real power is that he’s an archer who can aim really well, and how he might not be the most helpful hero in that very situation.)

The Avengers gets away with this basically through lies of omission: it can show both Black Widow and Thor in the frame looking equally cool, and essentially tricking us into thinking that they’re both contributing equally to a fight. It’s easy for the film to make Black Widow’s action scenes look just as interesting as Thor’s, and in the midst of that, we might forget just how wildly mismatched their power levels are.

LitRPG, for the most part, doesn’t hide its power levels: it tends to play with them face up, and quantify them as a literal “level.”  A level 80 knight can be assumed to be more powerful than a level 60 knight or a level 30 knight, and you can make assumptions about the relative power levels of characters based on their levels.

Some books handle this differently — for example, some LitRPG worlds have linear power scaling (wherein one level 40 character might be twice as strong as a level 20 character, and thus potentially contribute less to a fight than a group of level 20 characters fighting in tandem), while others have power levels that are logarithmic (in which case a single level 40 character might be able to completely shrug off hits from a duo of level 20 characters).

Of course, characters are more than just their power levels: some characters might be able to cleverly outsmart or outwit higher level opponents. But when the underdog wins, quantified power levels allow us to see just how much of a gap they overcame.

These criteria (mostly) define a target audience

While the above points summarize some of the “advantages” of LitRPG, none of these are explicitly “good” traits. Some people like reading stories with clearly-defined power levels and prefer fight scenes where they can track exactly how close each character is to being knocked out of the fight, while other people might dislike LitRPG for exactly the same reasons. That being said, LitRPG, as a relatively young genre (the term “LitRPG” itself not seeing use before 2013), has seen explosive growth in online web fiction, and it seems to have tapped into an audience that really desires stories with these traits.

Over the past few years, I’ve had a number of chats with authors who have asked the question: “Should I be writing LitRPG?” It’s hard to come up with an answer that doesn’t sound tautological, like “You should write LitRPG if you like the genre.” I hope that the above points do a better job of communicating the appeal of LitRPG: if these “advantages” of LitRPG sound similar to the traits of stories you enjoy writing (or reading), then maybe LitRPG is a genre where you might feel at home.

Also, you may note that this section (like many of the sections before it) has a header that contains a qualifier: LitRPG mostly appeals to a certain type of reader, and tends to be written in a certain way, and usually follows certain conventions, but as with most things, these are tools more than rules, and if you want to experiment within the genre, no one is stopping you. (However, if you write a story labeled as “LitRPG” that fails to contain many of the elements that are core to most readers’ enjoyment of the genre, you probably shouldn’t be surprised if those readers have a hard time enjoying the story you’ve written.)