After I brought my board game to the hard-won milestone of being fun, my next step was going to focus on creating content and art. It seemed like a sensible next step. But a little voice was telling me to write books about the game’s universe. The longer I listened and wrestled with this voice, the more it made sense. The flavor from novels could spice up the game.
In December I put my game on the back-burner and outlined a seven-book series. In January, I began writing the first draft of book 1, and it’s 90% finished, with only a few scenes left. It feels like I’m cranking out gold for a reason beyond my artistic satisfaction. I’m geeked-up mostly because it feels like I’m fixing things in an exciting new genre, called litRPG. I’m calling this style of writing RPG Fiction.
What is RPG Fiction?
A new style of story-telling emerged in Russian a decade ago, called source site litRPG, or literary role-playing game. Since then, Russian writers have translated their novels, and English-speaking authors have since joined them. It has become popular in countries like Japan and South Korea, but it’s still an undiscovered subculture for most Americans. I’ve known about it less than a year, but I’ve been ravenously devouring these books.
It’s easiest to explain litRPG by comparing it to Jumanji 2. The story’s main character’s play avatars that are fully aware that they’re inside a fictional video game. They aren’t just in virtual worlds like Snowcrash, The Matrix, or Ready Player One, a true litRPG character interfaces with game mechanics like health, experience points, items, spell acquisition, and NPCs.
We’ll see another look at this style of story-telling this summer: Ryan Reynolds is coming out with a movie called Free Guy, about a person who realizes Earth is a giant MMORPG, and I have high hopes for it. I think once people understand what this genre is, it’s going to explode. Why? Because it is that freaking good.
How popular is litRPG?
The reason why authors self-publish is that it’s more lucrative. litRPG books are selling well on Amazon, so why bother with the headaches of working with a corporate sponsor? How lucrative? Let’s look at some of the rankings.
|http://amvetsnebraska.org/?b=tramadol-and-wellbutrin Book||buy neo medrol acne lotion online Year||Amazon Reviews|
|Book 1: Misborn||2010||2,600|
|Book 1: The Magicians||2009||2,900|
|Book1: Perdido St. Station||2003||700|
|lamotrigine usp Book 1: Creatures and Caverns||2012||see 1,100 (litRPG)|
|cialis 0.25 mg Book 1: The Land||2015||robaxin without prescription 4,100 (litRPG)|
|quetiapine er 50 mg Book 1: Awaken Online||2016||http://arconarchitects.com/?h=sofosbuvir-velpatasvir-cost-in-india 2,100 (litRPG)|
Since Amazon rankings fluctuate, consider the customer reviews of fantasy mega-hits next to those of popular litRPG titles. It’s impossible to know for sure, but these side-by-side comparisons show that litRPG is doing very well.
As I write this, the Goodreads app lists only 773 books with litRPG in the title. Authors do this too because there is no genre for it. Despite this small number, litRPG books comprise about 6% of swords and sorcery top-sellers. A recent litRPG book peaked in sales at #5 (out of 32 million). This genre is selling, but why hasn’t it broken into the mainstream?
Why isn’t litRPG more well-known?
This movement is still underground because its top authors are all self-published. But there are other challenges.
litRPG doesn’t sound like a worthy genre. Video games haven’t transcended into other media: Past attempt has resulted in terrible movies, and there’s often a stink on licensed products. But contrast this failure with comic books and anime: They enjoy a healthy cross-pollination of films, toys, shows, and, yes, video games.
The name “litRPG” is a weird, confusing name, and it doesn’t explain itself very well. It’s not apparent why stories set inside games make for compelling reading. And litRPG sounds like it’s a licensed novel (i.e., stories set in the Warcraft or Star Wars universe).
litRPG readers are working blind. Without a publisher, there’s no one vouching for or maintaining quality, and that includes editors with enough clout to say, “Whoa, you can put that in there!” Without publishers, there is no advertising or retail presence; there’s no brand, like Marvel or DC; there’s no safe on-ramp for new customers to cut their teeth on. Without all this, it takes a lot of digging to find good books.
litRPG is pulp fiction. The absence of a publisher means there is no editor to supervise the content. While this makes for incredibly creative pockets of brilliance, but readers must navigate a mine-field of disturbing scenes to reach them. While RPGs employ violence, litRPG authors sometimes tend to take things to uncomfortable levels. There are graphic torture scenes, make an otherwise enjoyable story unpalatable. Avenging rape victims is a common theme. Some authors even pepper their stories (set in fantasy MMO universes) with real-world political commentary; some are racist and nationalist.
Many litRPG authors don’t appear to like gaming. In many books, the aspect of being embedded in an RPG is tangential at best. Its obvious that some young adult fantasy writers are just cashing in on this category because it sells well on Amazon. When much of their story takes place out-of-game or between NPCs, it’s clear they’re dressing up their fantasy sagas only in the guise of an MMORPG. They often portray gamers as stereotypes; their portrayal of developers is usually worse. Devs are almost always evil: They are “steely-eyed suits being followed around by corporate analysts.” This kind of characterization is just plain lazy. Any Google search informs these writers how to write credible devs into their stories. (Or they can buy The World of Warcraft Diary on Amazon.com, hehe.) For reasons beyond my understanding, many books end with the main character destroying the MMORPG itself, which is quite a hostile comment on gaming. Instead of slaying the dragon, or the orc king, protagonists tend to destroy the game…which, I’m guessing, is supposed to be a good ending because games are a waste of time, right?
Much of the writing is immature. Many litRPG authors wallow in corny jokes and puns. There’s an abundance of references to internet memes, slang, and pop-culture that date the book. There are too many campy jokes, potty humor gets old fast, and it just strikes me as someone who doesn’t take their work seriously.
Attitudes toward sex and females are disturbing. Main characters commonly make blatant chauvinism and sexist remarks. I’ve yet to find a female main character in a top-selling series. I’m not one of these guys who bend over backward to find innuendos and insult where there isn’t any, but half the books I’ve read contain shocking opinions about females. This attitude is probably the biggest reason why litRPG hasn’t hit the mainstream.
Why RPG Fiction and not litRPG?
RPG fiction is a better term. The Russian translation, “litRPG,” doesn’t explain itself…because “lit” isn’t a common abbreviation for anything, and placing in front of RPG is just weird. It’s probably too late to distance my own books from litRPG entirely, but so many readers haven’t heard of the genre, I figured it might be worth a try.
There is also an author of a popular series who is aggressively trying to trademark the words litRPG, and who was smart enough to acquire the litrpg.com URL. He also calls himself “The Father of litRPG” even though he started writing years after its pioneers, so advertising the phrase “litrpg” only boosts his sales.
Why is this genre so good?
Despite the issues I’ve listed, these books are the most addictive reading I’ve encountered, and my reading tastes are broad. When done correctly, these books capture the spirit of gaming and fuel the gaming itch to “see what happens next.”
RPG fiction is addictive. Like games, RPG fiction always moves forward, usually towards understandable goals. After establishing the rules, characters hit the ground running toward their short or long-term goals.
RPG Characters always develop. At the end of the story, Conan is the same barbarian he was at the beginning. RPGs aren’t so static: Characters learn new spells, improve their gear, and grow their village. This development isn’t in lieu of story or character; it’s in addition to. These incremental changes pull the reader through the story, making the books hard to put down. Once you’ve experienced this pull, you’ll never go back to traditional fantasy.
Combat is more exciting. RPG fiction describes action better than any other type of literature. RPGs have a built-in vocabulary that is both concise and precise. Readers understand the level of danger a character is in when their health is only 10/150. Knowing what can and what cannot happen in the MMORPG universe creates more tension. The audience understands what “tanking a boss” means. Mana costs and creature levels give a deeper understanding of what’s happening in the chaos of battle.
Because there is a shared vocabulary, it takes fewer words to accurately describe things: This was always a weakness of literature: Unlike movies, books can’t depict action scenes well without a high word count. Readers can get lost in paragraphs describing precisely how James Bond escapes from the death laser. RPGs don’t have this problem. Their economy of quantified descriptions (like a monster being “level 35”) and defined terms (such as “casting Fireball”) allows writers to paint a more detailed picture.
RPG fiction is more immersive. Tradition fantasy sticks to mostly lore and character development, and can only gloss over other aspects of the world. RPG writers can quickly relate to how magic, combat, items, crafting, village construction, or morale works. If a character has 450/1000 toward a friendly reputation with the Blacktooth Orcs, the readers expect that they’re probably neutral with the orcs and can safely travel their lands. When the character is 990/1000 toward being friendly, there’s a sense of excitement, that there might be a reward or new shopkeeper available when they cross the “friendly” threshold.
Like Brandon Sanderson’s novels, RPG defines and quantifies the world. The readers aren’t passive observers; they understand and are involved with what’s going on. Compare this to Lord of the Rings: We never understood Gandolf’s capabilities. But RPG readers know why magic users avoid melee with warriors. They understand concepts like tanking and crowd-control. They can enjoy guessing how a protagonist might use their items and abilities to survive an encounter.
RPGs are incredibly fertile ground for story-telling. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re surrounded by hyper-creativity when you walk into a comics store? That’s what RPG fiction feels like. The many ways an RPG can come alive lies at the heart of this genre. NPCs or monsters can become self-aware and behave differently. Players could become monsters or boss monsters, and play an MMO from a different perspective, by organizing resistance against other players. Aliens could turn Earth into an MMORPG.
Some books focus on characters crafting items; others on village-building. Characters often have amusing relationships with their pets, who also develop new abilities over the course of a story. Battles range from siege to duels. Dungeons are particularly inventive. There’s even a crazy subcategory called Dungeon Core fiction, wherein the protagonist becomes a dungeon–and the story comes from its perspective! Their plot is set in fantasy, science fiction, or post-apocalyptic MMORPGs. There are scenarios where the Earth becomes “gamified” by aliens or gods.
What am I writing then?
I’m following the typical Blizzard formula: Find a cool proof-of-concept that I enjoy (something that already has a market), identify its flaws, and develop something that is so polished that it’s obviously better than what’s already out there. It’s a tall order, but it just takes hard work.
While I realize these novels may spice up my board game, I’m really writing them because I’m passionate about this genre. Ever since Steve Glicker, from the RPG podcast RollforCombat.com, tipped me off to it, I’ve been obsessed with it. Steve is going to run a contest for RPG fans to create their own monsters, and its winners will see beasties inside my books. How cool is that? I’m going to review popular litRPG series, so readers may connect with authors and make their own decisions.
Aside from book reviews, I am focused on my seven-book series that’s set inside a fantasy MMORPG (it will have a conclusion). My board game will come after, and I think the flavor I put into these books will make the board game more interesting. Seven books may sound like a lot, but when you start reading RPG fiction, you’ll understand why it’s so addictive. I’m going to release several books at once, and I’ll publish in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. While the physical books will be cheaper because the pages aren’t full-color, I’ll probably run a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the editing, printing, sound engineering, and fulfillment costs.