LitRPG novels are like a good game of D&D. You have elements of a game, a story-driven narrative, and characters with the power and means to influence the ability. LitRPG novels are similar to well-crafted crafted pen and paper campaigns created by the most dedicated of Dungeon Masters. Like a good DM, LitRPG authors try to storytelling in a game world. In a way, LitRPG novels aren’t that different than watching a game of D&D unfold. You have a story, characters that enter and exit the narrative, and most importantly, character progression and governing game systems that bind all things.
Player 1: “I’m going to tell him I’m a professional lion handler and that he should open the lion’s cage so I can get to treasure chest inside.”
Dungeon Master: “Roll deception.”
*Player 1 rolls a D20, visibly grimacing at the result.*
Player 1: “Natural 1, that’s a critical failure.”
*The Dungeon Master smirks, preparing to make Player 1’s life a lot more interesting.*
Dungeon Master: “He acts like he believes you then reaches for his overloaded ring of keys. The keys clank together as he rummages for the correct one. Finally, he finds it and puts it in the lock, twisting it to the left and motioning you forward. As he opens the cage, you feel a surprisingly strong pair of hands on your back and you are shoved inside the cage, almost losing your footing and falling face-first on top of the lion. “You’re no professional lion handler and I thank you for lowering my food costs!” As the door is locked, you turn to face the lion, now very much aware of your presence. The jig is up.”
Scenarios like this play out in Dungeons and Dragons and other pen and paper RPGs all the time. There is a refreshing quality to pen and paper RPGs where players have the ability to do pretty much anything. Whether it’s a good idea or not–well, that’s not always the point. The point is the flexibility in action and the fun and adventure of having control over the game world. disaster and triumph are only a dice roll away, and even in the face of disaster, hilarity can ensue. LitRPG, a fiction genre which usually comprises elements of both Fantasy and Science fiction, is a lot of fun because more often than not, it captures the feel of a good old-fashioned D&D Campaign. Like any other novel, there is still a plot, a character-driven narrative, and substance to the book. But there are also game systems that govern the game world that the characters inhabit–at least for the majority of the time, in the story.
Your sword swing is simple, but there’s a beautiful elegance in the raw, unfiltered power channeled into that swing. As the steel slices through the air, you have no doubts that it’s going to do damage if it connects with its target. If it connects. *Rolls D20 with disadvantage*
The Power and Danger of Character in LitRPG and D&D
In pen and paper RPGs, dice have a big impact on the results of character actions. Players are able to manipulate the results of those dice through skills, character attributes, and abilities. LitRPGs are like watching a game of D&D unfold. You understand the story, can see the narrative unfolding over time and can start to see the different motivations players have. In games, there is sometimes the conflicting element of split motives. Players might want something different than their character–and those differentiations between character and player motivation often times make RPGs a lot more interesting. This is an element of interest and differentiation that LitRPG does really well. Authors often keep players and their characters separate from one another, but it isn’t uncommon to see the motives of the two entities start to come together into something between.
Take for example an evil character. The D&D alignment system allows players to know how their character will behave in a lot of different situations. Whether they’re inherently good or inherently evil creates black and white situations where certain choices are eliminated for a player just because that choice wouldn’t realistically align with their character’s motivations. In simple terms, they would have no way to justify what their character is doing if they made their choice, and it would break some of the immersion with their character. A character with a chaotic evil alignment isn’t going to go out of their way to climb a try and save a kitten. In fact, they may decide to set the tree on fire for fun–it’s probably the quickest way to get the cat out of the tree after all. That character doesn’t really care what happens to the cat, that fact is irrelevant. They behave erratically, but usually, they aren’t going to do good things for anyone but themselves. If the player piloting the evil character isn’t a bad person themselves, there’s the chance they accidentally (or intentionally) make a choice that doesn’t make sense for their character. When personalities of players and their characters start to meld, things get both interesting and dangerous for others.
A lone glistening tear streams down his face. He trusted you with everything, and now everything you built together is crumbling away, faster than seemingly possible. The worst part is that he knows it can’t be a mistake. There is no explanation other than a severe misjudgment of your character. Now it’s too late.
Builds, Skills, and Unparalleled Flexibility
Writing in a world governed by game rules gives a basis to the constraints of characters as they progress through the game and develop their characters and abilities. Like D&D, LitRPG characters can often be as simple or complex as wanted, and there is a lot of room for full or complete customization of player build, classes, or abilities. It gets even more interesting when the game the story is taking place in is classless or makes classes so rare or hard to obtain that they’re very rarely seen. The ability to choose how to allocate attribute points, points in skills to enhance or modify their abilities, gives character development more depth and also lets readers follow along and see if they would make different choices than the characters based on the available abilities, points, and constraints.
The rotund dwarf belches, a deep rumbling that seems to continue for an unnatural, unholy amount of time. As he gulps down yet another mug of ale, you find it increasingly strange that this is the most talented bearded axe wielder on the continent. Well, he does have an impressive beard.
Loot. Loot. Loot.
Probably the best part of D&D and LitRPG is the loot (my opinion). It’s what makes the risk worth it. The thrill of overcoming adversaries is great, but what does that matter if there isn’t a treasure chest to open at the end? Everything can be taken, and most things have value. The real question is often: “Well, how much can you carry?” Loot, be it currency, new equipment, or ancient knowledge is extremely important for fueling and directing player progression. Why build a mage when you loot a legendary axe and are still a low-level character with the possibility of refunding the points you spent? Well, maybe you’d rather sell the axe and get a head start on getting some good equipment for your mage. Well… what if the vendor screws you over on the buying price?
Loot is amazing. Aside from intrinsic motivators, nothing quite has the impact on player motivation than loot, even after they have acquired it. Gathering rare treasure or artifacts that are coveted by other players can be exciting and dangerous. If player versus player is available in the world, maybe the character with the sweet loot has to conceal their find until they can find the right buyer. They wouldn’t want a target on their backs, after all. Loot is also a great motivator for players to take on additional risk. Up the potential rewards, and suddenly that super dangerous situation doesn’t seem like such a stupid idea anymore.
You carefully maneuver deft fingers along the wooden chest, careful to avoid the sunken segments which are scorched with the Spider Queen’s ichor-like venom. It is like acid, and it is eating away at the dark polished wood. With increasing eagerness, you flip back the lid of the chest, careful not to burn yourself on the venom. What you see makes everything you have been through worth it.
Something about LitRPG really captures the feel of how important teamwork is in RPGs. Think you’re going to solo that boss? Maybe you should think again. Teamwork in LitRPG is all about working together to accomplish great things. The scope of teamwork will differ from book to book, but in almost every novel, it’s an important aspect. Where the individual might not necessarily be overpowered in the game, perhaps the team might seem that way, especially if they play well together.
Aiden recoiled as the serpent slithered across the blood-soaked battlefield. The distance was closing too fast. Still, what else could he do? He steeled himself, gripping his sword and shield tighter and preparing to deflect the glistening fangs of the monster. If he could do that, then maybe he would live. The snake’s attention was suddenly drawn to Kira as she blasted the beast with a missile of ice, the prismatic shards from the spell scatteriing across the dusty ground. Rushing forward with his newfound opportunity, Aiden readied himself to save Kira.
The genre really captures the feel of getting together with friends, kicking back and drinking a couple beers, and having a good time. If you haven’t read any LitRPG yet, get reading. If you have, there are more great stories waiting.
Be sure to check out my own LitRPG novel, Stratus Online: Awakening right here.