A Detour into RPG Fiction

After many playtests and iterations, it crossed the pivotal milestone of being a fun game. It seemed like the sensible next step would be creating content and artwork for it, but a little voice inside was telling me to write books about the game’s universe. I’d recently fell in love with a new literary genre whose stories came from RPGs, and the flavor from a series of novels could spice up my game. The longer I listened and wrestled with this notion, the more it made sense.

At the end of 2019, I put my game on the back-burner and outlined a seven-book series based on my board game. In January, I began writing book 1, and finished the rough first draft in seven weeks; after another seven weeks of editing, I started the cover art. I was passionate about the enterprise because it felt like I was fixing things in the genre I discovered, called litRPG. After reading dozens of litRPG books there wasn’t a single series that I could recommend to fellow enthusiasts; each one has problems severe enough to make me cringe. Perhaps my book feels the same way to other authors. In either case, I hope to distinguish my work for fans to consider calling my novels RPG fiction instead of litRPG.

What is litRPG?

A new style of story-telling emerged from Russia a decade ago called litRPG, or literary role-playing game. Russian writers have translated their novels, and English-speaking authors have since joined their ranks. It has become popular in countries like Japan and South Korea, but it’s still an undiscovered subculture for most Americans. I first discovered it a year ago, but I’ve torn through 38 litRPG titles even though they’re relatively lengthy books.

It’s easiest to explain litRPG by comparing it to Jumanji 2. The story’s main characters 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. True litRPG characters interface with game mechanics like health, experience points, items, spell acquisition, and NPCs. The Ryan Reynolds movie, Free Guy, is similar in that he realizes the Earth is a giant MMORPG. I think once people understand what this genre is, it’s going to go mainstream.

How underground is litRPG?

It’s difficult to judge the popularity of new genres because book sales are never released, and the Amazon sales rank fluctuates greatly every few hours. Amazon doesn’t even have a category for it. LitRPG authors are all self-published, so they have zero exposure. I can surmise that none of them have been picked up by a publisher because self-publishing makes more sense. litRPG books are selling so well online that authors eschew the headaches of working with corporate sponsors, sharing creative control, and signing away licensing rights.

Let’s look at the initial books of popular fantasy series next to those of popular litRPG titles. They’re relatively close. These side-by-side comparisons show that litRPG sales aren’t dwarfed by bestsellers listed on USA Today and The New York Times. Considering that litRPG books are new to the market, it’s impressive that their ratings stack-up against titles adapted to mainstream media.

Book 1 in Series Year Amazon Reviews
Misborn 2010 2,800 (films in production, DMG)
The Magicians 2009 3,000 (4 Seasons on SyFy)
An Ember in Ashes 2015 1800 (films in production, Paramount)
Creatures & Caverns 2012 1,400 (litRPG)
The Land 2015 4,300 (litRPG)
Awaken Online 2016 2,200 (litRPG)

As I write this, the Goodreads app lists under a thousand books with litRPG in the title (authors do this because Goodreads has no category for it). Despite this small number, litRPG books comprise about 6% of top-sellers in the fantasy category, which lists over 12 million titles. In late 2019, a litRPG sequel peaked in sales at #5 out of 32 million titles.  This genre is selling, so why hasn’t it broken into the mainstream?

Why isn’t litRPG more well-known?

As I’ve said before, this movement remains underground because its authors are self-published. But there are other challenges.

litRPG doesn’t sound good. Video games haven’t transcended into other media. Attempts have resulted in terrible movies, and there’s often a stink on licensed adaptations. Contrast these expensive failures with comic books or anime who enjoy a healthy cross-pollination of films, toys, shows, and, yes, video games. The name “litRPG” is weird too. It’s confusing and doesn’t explain itself very well. It’s not apparent why stories set inside games make for compelling reading. litRPG also sounds like clumsy fan fiction or uninspired licensed novels where the main characters are never at risk.

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, dude! You can put that in there!” Publishers have long-held onto licensing rights and can help market properties adapted by film studios. Self-published authors cannot achieve the same exposure. Peter Wier’s self-published smash-hit The Martian wasn’t optioned by Twentieth Century Fox until Penguin Random House purchased the print rights in March 2013. Without publishers, there is no advertising or retail presence; there’s no brand, like Marvel or DC; there’s no safe stamp-of-approval for new customers. Without all this, it takes a lot of digging to find good titles.

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, 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, and they 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. 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 bizarre, and are almost always evil. A popular series once described them as “steely-eyed suits being followed around by sheepish, corporate analysts.” This kind of characterization isn’t just crazy; it’s lazy writing. Any Google search could inform authors about the gaming industry. They could even buy The World of Warcraft Diary on Amazon.com, hehe!) For reasons beyond my understanding, many stories end with the main character terminating the MMORPG itself, which is quite a hostile comment on gaming. Instead of slaying the dragon or orc king, the closure for the series is often destroying the game, which, I’m guessing, is supposed to be a happy 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. Maybe it’s a culture shock to Russian paradigms, but the 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 insults where there aren’t any, but half the books I’ve read contain shocking opinions about females. I’m not talking 1990s old fashioned attitudes; I’m talking 1890s.

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 myself from litRPG entirely, but the genre is so new, 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 many 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, this storytelling is the most addictive reading I’ve encountered, and my literary tastes are broad. When an RPG series is well-written, it celebrates the spirit of geek culture and ignites the gaming itch to “see what happens next.”

RPG fiction fosters obsessive reading habits. These books are so hard to put down that when you do, your curiosity will drive you crazy until you pick them back up again. Like games, RPG fiction characters move forward, usually towards clear goals and sensible objectives. After establishing the rules, characters hit the ground running toward their short or long-term ambitions. Incremental changes pull the reader through the story. Once you’ve experienced this pull, it’s hard to go back to the plodding pace of traditional fantasy series.

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. These changes aren’t in lieu of story or character development; they’re in addition to character arcs, mysteries, and creative hooks that one encounters in fantasy epics. RPG characters establish new relationships with the NPCs around them. Old relationships change as the main characters become more ensconced in the game world. Enemies are frequently dynamic, and gradually improving their seats of power, especially if they’re other players.

Action 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 cannot happen in an RPG universe creates more tension. The audience understands what “tanking a boss” means. Things like mana costs and creature levels give a deeper understanding of what’s happening in the chaos of battle.

It takes fewer words to accurately describe things: Physical descriptions were 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. Because there is a shared vocabulary, 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. Traditional fantasy sticks to mostly lore and character development, and can only gloss over aspects of the game world. RPG writers can quickly relate to how magic, combat, items, crafting, village construction, or morale works. If a character has 450/1000 toward reaching 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 the character crosses the “friendly” threshold.

RPG fiction defines and quantifies the world. Like Brandon Sanderson’s novels, readers aren’t passive observers; they understand what’s going on. Compare this to The Lord of the Rings. We never understood Gandalf’s capabilities. But RPG readers know why magic users avoid melee with warriors. They understand concepts like healing and crowd-control. They can enjoy guessing how a protagonist might use their items and abilities to survive an encounter.

RPGs are fertile ground for story-telling. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re surrounded by creativity when you walk into a comics store? RPG fiction feels the same way, partly because the gaming culture is already rich with flavor. The many ways an RPG can come to life lies at the heart of this genre. NPCs or monsters can become self-aware and behave differently. Main characters might turn into 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.

There are a lot of ways to play RPGs. When I was on the WoW dev team, the designers were fond of saying, MMORPGs are everything to everyone. That’s how I feel about this type of fiction. Some authors focus on characters crafting items, others on village-building. Characters often have amusing relationships with their pets, who also develop new abilities throughout 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 plots are in fantasy, science fiction, or post-apocalyptic MMORPGs. There are even scenarios where present-day Earth becomes “gamified” by aliens, magic, or gods.

What am I writing then?

I’m following the typical Blizzard formula: Find a cool proof-of-concept that I enjoy, identify its flaws, and develop a product so polished it becomes a must-have for fans. It’s a tall order, but it just takes hard work.

I am focused on my seven-book series that’s set inside a fantasy MMORPG. 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. My board game will come after, and I think the flavor I put into these books will make the game better.