What Is LitRPG? An Introduction to Sci-Fi and Fantasy RPG Novels

Is it a book? Is it a game? It’s kind of both, but not really. The genre is LitRPG and here’s what you need to know about it.
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Plenty of video games have been based on books, with The Witcher and the Metro series perhaps being the most popular. We’ve also seen plenty of books based on video games, especially lore-heavy sci-fi games like Mass Effect and Halo. While these might touch on the same stories, they’ve very different than the actual games.

Enter the LitRPG, a new genre of book that takes more direct inspiration from video games. If you’ve ever wished that your fiction included more grinding for experience, you might have just found your new favorite genre of fiction.

What Is a LitRPG?

LitRPG may at once be more familiar and stranger than what you’re used to. If you’re a fan of anime, you’ve likely seen it in Sword Art Online or any of the countless other shows where characters become trapped in video games. Not every LitRPG book has a character trapped in a game, but a whole lot of them do.

It goes further though. What makes these different from standard science fiction or fantasy books is the focus on leveling up. It may not be called that, but LitRPG characters are often focused on getting more powerful to overcome some foe or to make their way out of some situation. If you’ve ever chased that “just one more level” feeling in an MMORPG, you’ll understand what the characters in these books are going for.

One thing that a LitRPG is not is a game book. I first dove into investigating this genre because I imagined some sort of combination of a choose-your-own-adventure book with a more involved plot. If I was really lucky, there would be some dice rolling. That isn’t the case. All the decisions in a LitRPG book are made by the characters.

Stats, Stats, and More Stats

Those decisions, of course, often come down to stats. Not your stats—you don’t count—but the characters’ stats. These characters, by the way, are more often than not obsessed with pushing these stats as high as they’ll go.

Again, this may not come across as especially new to anime fans well acquainted with power levels in Drazon Ball Z. As far as books go, well, it’s a fairly new thing. Some authors and readers even go so far as to say that without the emphasis on statistics, gear, and the like, a book isn’t a LitRPG.

A book set inside a game world but without the focus on leveling up and building stats should be referred to instead as GameLit. At least that’s what some people say.

Turn Your Brain Off and Start Reading

You may have guessed this based on everything so far, but LitRPG isn’t supposed to automatically mean a literary masterpiece. These books are often function over form, with an emphasis on plot (and stats, of course) over prose.

I’m not aiming to dismiss the genre here. Much like most of us enjoy a good summer blockbuster from time to time, these are meant to be fun, not to be studied. There’s room for excellent storytelling, but much as a video game doesn’t need a great story to be a fun time, these types of books can get away with a little less focus on the overarching themes and structure than some other genres.

Looking for somewhere to start? While it’s not a strict LitRPG, I’ve seen Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One mentioned often as a starting point. For a more full-on LitRPG, The Land: Founding is a very popular genre emissary that even has “A LitRPG Saga” on the cover. This is also the first in a series, so if you love it, there’s more where that came from.

Looking for Actual RPG Games?

While LitRPG books might have more in common with games than other types of books, they’re still books at the end of the day. If you’re looking for something where you can actually make decision and affect the story, you’ll need to look elsewhere. You could pick up and old choose-your-own-adventure book, or you could just, you know, play an actual video game.

If you’re looking for RPGs specifically, you’ve got a lot of choices. Traveling and want to take something along with you? Take a look at our list of great RPGs for the Nintendo Switch.

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