LitRPG, an acronym for Literature Role Playing Games, blends fantasy with video game elements and mechanics. These mechanics must typically play a vital role in the world for a book to be considered LitRPG, otherwise a book might be considered GameLit, or just plain Fantasy or Science Fiction.

 

What is LitRPG?

 

The history of LitRPG

Early fiction began incorporating video games into fiction since the inception of MMORPGs, and even before that. However, the central conceit of stories about worlds with video game mechanics only began to gain real traction in 2009 with the creation of Sword Art Online and its anime adaptation 3 years later.

In 2012, the same year as the first season of the SAO anime, the first of what would come to be known as “LitRPG” appeared in Russia. However, it was only a year later when the actual name LitRPG (ЛитРПГ or литературная РПГ in Russian) was coined and began to be used to describe the fledgling genre.

The genre finally reached Western markets in mid-2014 with the translation of the first three of D. Rus’ Alterworld series from Russian into English, marking some of the first LitRPG to be widely published. 2014 saw 22 books that could arguably be described as LitRPG published. An additional 66 books were released in 2015. By 2016, the genre had gained a foothold and could be considered to be in full swing with 116 books published in a single year and even a mention in The Verge.

The success of several books, particularly in 2016, led to explosive growth of LitRPG. With almost 400 books released in 2017, and over 800 by the end of 2018.

Of course, the genre’s development wasn’t without bumps in the road. In late 2017, following an extended trademark controversy, an offshoot genre, GameLit, was spawned.

 

History of LitRPG

 

What actually makes LitRPG what it is

Putting aside differences between GameLit and LitRPG (which are often nebulous and poorly understood and mostly used for marketing decisions, which means, in brief, call your favorite books whatever you want, they’re going to get written anyway), the genre can be subdivided into two types: Crunchy; and Creamy.

Why?

Peanut butter. Peanut butter is why. Don’t worry, it doesn’t make sense to us either. (Don’t let the conspiracy theorists get to you with all their talk of crunchy = number crunching)

Crunchy LitRPGs are books that are stat and system message heavy, while Creamy LitRPGs are books that are stat and system message light. Don’t understand? Here are two different passages to help show the difference.

Kordrakh leapt toward him with a roar, spittle flying, axe raised high. Sam’s eyes went wide as they took in the shining arc of steel. Unable to move out of the way in time, he activated [Acceleration]. His stamina dropped by 500 points, almost half his remaining total, as his heartbeat suddenly filled his ears. No longer a frenzied drumming, but a muted roar as time slowed around him.

 

You are afflicted with [Fatigued] -your health and mana regeneration have been halved.

 

He reached into his pocket, his motions languid and jerky, as if his arms were pushing against molasses.

 

The axe descended as Kordrakh flew at him. Sam’s questing fingers found the caltrop bead in his pocket and, with speed borne of desperation, tossed it to the ground before raising one arm and activating [Shield Impenetrable]. His already abused stamina bar dropped into the red, only 142 points remaining, barely enough for a single skill.

 

You are afflicted with [Drained] -you will no longer regenerate health and mana.

 

The caltrop bead shattered against the ground, unleashing a tidal wave of vicious-looking spikes in every direction. But the axe still fell to meet the opaque lens of force that was Shield Impenetrable, the sharpened edge barreling into it with over a ton of weight behind it.

 

You have taken 231 HP bludgeoning damage.

 

The Shield blocked the blade, but it couldn’t block the blow. Psychedelic spots swam in Sam’s vision as he felt his arm snap and a single thought consume his consciousness. He was going to die.

 

versus

 

Kordrakh leapt toward him with a roar, spittle flying, axe raised high. Sam’s eyes went wide as they took in the shining arc of steel. Unable to move out of the way in time, he activated [Acceleration]. His stamina dropped precipitously as his heartbeat suddenly thundered his ears. No longer a frenzied drumming, but a muted roar as time slowed around him.

 

He reached into his pocket, his motions languid and jerky, as if his arms were pushing against molasses.

 

The axe descended as Kordrakh flew at him. Sam’s questing fingers found the caltrop bead in his pocket and, with speed borne of desperation, tossed it to the ground before raising one arm and activating [Shield Impenetrable]. His already abused stamina bar plummeted even further, barely enough for a single skill. His whole body ached, afflicted by a terrible lassitude.

 

The caltrop bead shattered against the ground, unleashing a tidal wave of vicious-looking spikes in every direction. But the axe still fell to meet the opaque lens of force upon his arm, the sharpened edge barreling into it with over a ton of weight behind it.

 

The Shield blocked the blade, but it couldn’t block the blow. Psychedelic spots swam in Sam’s vision as he felt his arm snap and a single thought consume his consciousness. He was going to die.

 

So… What’s the difference? Both have skills, presumably levels and quantified levels of Stamina (and presumably Health and Mana). So what makes them different? It’s the size of the role mechanics play in the story. Crunchy LitRPG is like peeling back the skin of the story to reveal the muscle and bone beneath. Creamy LitRPG (and to an extent, GameLit) leaves the skin only slightly displaced with most of the muscle remaining hidden. But make no mistake, the muscles and skeleton are still there. Because for a story to be LitRPG the gamified mechanics have relevance to the story. The story doesn’t even necessarily have to be set in a game for it to be LitRPG.

Why?

Because a LitRPG story is only as good as its mechanics.

 

What makes LitRPG what it is

 

What isn’t LitRPG

In early to mid 2017, something changed. Amazon is like an ocean of books. And every ocean has its sharks. To continue our ill-conceived metaphor, profit therefore is like blood. And by 2017, the blood was certainly in the water. Writers, typically from the “romance genre” (read: harem/erotic), and looking to make a quick buck, swarmed the growing genre believing that there was money to be made by re-imagining their old failed erotic stories inside a video game. Others wrote fantasy stories, just inside a video game.

Apart from the sudden glut of catgirls, the dreaded self-validatory phrase “just like a video game” within the first 500 words and being, to use precise literary terminology, ‘absolute nonsensical shite’, these books all had one thing in common. They sucked had no cohesive or coherent mechanics that were relevant to the story.

Oh, sure. There were stamina bars hitting zero after twelve seconds all across the board (twelve seconds apparently being a long time) for the influx of dysfunctional protagonists of these so-called ‘novels’. But the protagonists’ inability to sustain their exertions (among other things) had no actual bearing on the story.

For example.

Marty Stu set aside his box of items stolen from Monica’s kitchen, giving one last wistful look at the dirty oversized spoon he’d stolen when her back was turned – if only he could have been the big spoon as she licked turnip stew off it. He watched her as she walked down to the river, white robe flowing around her.


Marty Stu respected women, so he gave Monica a five second grace period before unfastening his britches and pulling out the year-old baguette from her pantry. He always stuffed it down his pants to impress her. He rubbed his hands softly over the moldy surface when suddenly an errant gust of wind set Monica’s robe aflutter, exposing a perfect snow-white ankle. A status screen – just like one in a video game – flashed across his vision.


Your stamina has reached 0 – you are an inspiration to men everywhere


Marty Stu couldn’t hold it any longer. He dropped his moldy baguette as he lost control of his body. His bones creaked and cracked as his Werewolf’s Curse activated at the worst possible moment. Unable to control his admiration for Monica’s culinary expertise, he leapt toward her and gave her a chaste kiss on the neck.

 

“Monica, I love you and your level 100 cooking skill!” he growled as the taste of her filled his throat. “Monica? Answer me. Tell me you’ve been waiting for this moment for your entire life.”


Monica didn’t reply as vital red fluid bubbled from her neck, her body weakly convulsing.


Marty’s hand brushed against Monica’s robe, now soaked with red. “Monica, what is this? You’re so wet. Let me take you somewhere warm to dry off.”


Being a gentleman, Marty Stu waited another five seconds before he took her silence as consent and carried her off into the sunset. Where both he and Monica were burnt to a crisp – because the sun is hot. They both lived happily ever after. Neither of them ever saw that pesky status screen again.

 

Author’s Note: Big Twist! This is all actually happening inside a video game. Now click this link to skip to the giveaway draw at the end of the book and give me 2800 extra page reads in the Kindle Unlimited program, the prize is a bottle of chloroform for the winners – because while diamonds are a girl’s best friend, a bottle of chloroform is a man’s drinking buddy.

 

So, why isn’t this LitRPG. There’s even a status screen Marty’s Stamina hits 0 instead of 142 and unlike Sam’s it’s just like one in a video game – and there’s even an Author’s Note at the end to confirm it. Monica has an OP cooking skill. Instead of a pesky skill with a postnominal adjective (Shield Impenetrable), there’s a Werewolf’s Curse, and BAGUETTES! Don’t forget the baguettes. Surely baguette stroking is the language of romance (read: harem/erotica). Or is that French? We’re not sure what the difference is… but we’re getting sidetracked.

Whether or not the story is set in a game world is irrelevant, as is whether there’s stat screens or skills or stamina bars, because that’s not what LitRPG is.

The game mechanics must play a role in the story, they are a narrative aid to the story, something without which the story wouldn’t be able to function. That’s what makes a book LitRPG.

In this, The Wandering Inn, is a great example. It is a slow paced, character driven novel, with little action, not set in a video game, there are no stats or status bars, there’s only levels and skills, and stat screens for neither of these can be called up at will. But it’s LitRPG because the skills that do make an appearance influence the story considerably, and an excellent example of a good one – if character driven novels are your thing, check it out, you will not regret it (if you prefer action check out Randidly Ghosthound) both of these are free and on RoyalRoad. To find LitRPG books on Amazon, use our LitRPG Book Finder.

 

In the next post we’ll be discussing what makes a GameLit book.

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