What is LitRPG? Where to Read and How to Write It
Our complete guide to LitRPGs. Learn what the genre is, and how to get started in writing it.
What is LitRPG? Where to Read and How to Write It
Fantasy is a popular genre for a multitude of reasons, but the genre can be so detached from reality that some readers find it hard to understand or follow. Worlds full of magic, monsters, and epic quests? Thousands of years worth of history and lore? Where is the connection for the reader? The way into the world?
LitRPG, a fairly new genre, is the combination of gaming and reading. It brings the interactivity of an RPG to the certainty of a novel and gets you invested in the characters within the characters. Anyone can write LitRPG, as long as they know where to start and what they’re writing about.
Still a bit lost? Here’s our complete guide to the world of LitRPG, from where it started to how you can write it yourself.
What is LitRPG?
Literary Role Playing Games, or LitRPG, is a slight misnomer. Rather than being the name of a series of games, it’s the name given to a genre of books that cover the topic of a regular person participating in and playing a virtual role-playing game. These games are often fictionalized versions of real-world RPGs and MMORPGs.
A Brief Overview of Role-Playing Games
To understand LitPRG (and not get lost in a world of acronyms), it’s best to get an overview of what constitutes a role-playing game.
A role-playing game is a game in which the players take up the mantle of a character and make decisions as that character rather than as themselves. These characters are built according to certain structures - usually based on statistics for their physical and mental aspects like Intelligence, Strength, and Health - which are then used in the game to determine the outcome of their actions. These games are controlled by a Game Master (usually shortened to GM), who interprets the rules and the appropriate statistics to guide the players’ progress.
This kind of game originated in pen and paper with tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder in the 1970s and 1980s. These games typically rely on the rolling of dice to determine actions and consequences and come in books with instructions for character building, environments, encounters, and general gameplay. Players sit around a table and talk through the story of their game, frequently using miniature figurines and maps to show character locations and keep track of combat (also because minifigs are fun to paint and collect).
Tabletop RPGs (or TTRPGs) often tell stories of fantasy worlds filled with humans, yes, but also elves, dwarves, demons, angels, and monsters. Players arrange themselves in a party and go out to complete quests, win rewards, and level their characters up to gain access to new abilities. As TTRPGs became more popular, new genres came about, such as the ever-popular Cyberpunk, a modern dystopian setting full of robotic advancements and technological weaponry, and Vampire: The Masquerade, a modern fantasy setting in which rival clans of vampires battle for dominance.
In the 1980s, the growing popularity of personal computers brought about an evolution in RPGs. Still wanting to participate in the story of a classic TTRPG adventure, game designers created virtual worlds that players could explore on their own. The role of the GM was taken over by computer automation, and character creation was simplified. These virtual RPGs usually had off-screen rolling which determined outcomes and featured interactive combat menus for combat.
Some of the most popular classic RPGs include things like
- The Dragon Warrior series from Square-Enix, a classic slay-the-monster-get-the-girl game
- Ultima, which was available on the Commodore 64 and featured first-person gameplay in a dungeon crawl
- Wasteland, the 1988 radioactive dystopia title that preceded the modern Fallout series
- The Baldur’s Gate series, which was directly translated from a setting for Dungeons and Dragons and follows many of the same rules
As internet usage became more commonplace in the 1990s, RPG makers incorporated it into their designs, and Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs (MMORPGs) were born. The most prominent examples today include World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV. MMOs combine the leveling up, statistics, and combat mechanics of single-player RPGs with group play, as players work together to clear dungeons or defeat raid bosses that would be impossible to do solo.
Turning Games Into Books
The LitRPG genre is actually nearly as old as RPGs themselves. It came about originally in the 1980s with the release of Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes (1981). This book and its sequels tell the story of a hyper-realistic virtual reality gaming theme park.
The characters of the novels - gamers and Live Action Role Players (LARPers) - play out the adventures of the games, while also dealing with intrigue and espionage playing out behind the scenes. It’s become something of a cult classic in the RPG community, seen as a campy, fun book that embraces the tropes of fantasy, scifi, and adventure.
The genre has expanded over the years to include many series, such as classics like the Tower of Gates series by Paul Bellow and the Crystal Shards Online series by Rick Scott, as well as possibly the most well-known example of the genre, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It also extends into the isekai (“other world” in Japanese) genre, but more on that in a minute.
The appeal of these books seems to be the passiveness of it. While gamers very much enjoy actively participating in RPGs - creating characters, directing their stories, and progressing them through the levels of the game to watch them evolve and grow strong - they are a major time sink and often require coordination with other people’s schedules.
For instance, the average duration of a session of Dungeons and Dragons can be anywhere from two to more than five hours. On top of that, tabletop games typically have parties of five or six players and a GM; anyone who’s ever been part of a group project will tell you that coordinating that many schedules is challenging at best and impossible at worst. MMORPG players may have to wait for their party members to be online to play, which can be just as unpredictable.
In digital RPGs (both single player and MMO), players may have to spend hours grinding for materials and experience. The games are fun, but having limited free time can be prohibitive in this particular hobby.
With LitRPG, readers can choose how much time they invest in the experience every time they pick up the book. They can read in short sprints or for an entire afternoon. Readers can progress the story according to their schedule and still see excellent results. And they can skip the grinding, which for many, is a blessing in and of itself.
The Difference Between LitRPG, Gamebooks, and Gamelit
There’s often some confusion about what counts as LitRPG; this is because there are a couple of similar genres that also cover the RPG spectrum - gamebooks and gamelit.
Gamebooks are, as it says on the tin, books that are games. That means that the reader of the story is the one playing a game, as they get to decide how the story progresses and reach one of multiple endings. Generally written for younger audiences - usually grade school children - gamebooks have become popular with all age groups.
The most famous example of gamebooks is the Choose Your Own Adventure series by R.A. Montgomery. This series, published from 1979 to 1998, was set in a series of parts. The introduction would give the reader options to continue the story by going to a specific page, where they would begin the next part and be directed to another page depending on their choices. This would repeat until the reader reached one of several endings, after which, they could start all over again and make different decisions.
The main difference between gamebooks and LitRPG is that LitRPG does not have an interactive element with the reader. Where LitRPG is written in standard first or third person, gamebooks are one of the only genres frequently written in second person (the perspective of “you”); the reader of a gamebook is directly addressed and asked to progress the story, whereas the reader of a LitRPG book is watching a character progress through a story.
Okay, you may say, gamebooks aren’t LitRPG. But what about the Dragonlance series? Or the novels about Drizzt Do’Urden and his adventures in the Forgotten Realms? Are those LitRPG? No, oddly enough. These books and others like them fall into the category of gamelit.
Gamelit covers books that are set fully in the worlds of a particular RPG. The characters within the stories are unaware that they’re in a game, and the readers do not get to see the statistics behind the characters’ actions. These are stories that explore the lore of a particular RPG world and are set up similarly to any other fantasy novel with the only distinguishing factor being the reader’s familiarity with the world is assumed to be on a much greater level.
The Dragonlance series by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, for example, takes place in the land of Krynn, one of the worlds that players of Dungeons and Dragons can explore in their games. The series is essentially a written account of such games, following a cast of characters from Krynn on their adventures. The same is true for the Drizzt Do’Urden books by R.A. Salvatore; Drizzt is a character from the Forgotten Realms setting for Dungeons and Dragons, who travels with his ragtag party of adventurers in several preset campaign settings as both the hero and an encountered secondary character.
The big difference between LitRPG and gamelit is that LitRPG features a protagonist who is from outside of the world of the game. While the setting is usually in the game, the protagonist remains separate and understands that they are playing in a fictional setting. In gamelit, the entire story takes place within the game universe, so that the characters are unaware that they are part of a game.
Who Reads LitRPG?
When the genre first came into being, it was most popular in South Korea and other Asian countries. Taiwanese author Yu Wo wrote the ½ Prince series starting in 2004, which became wildly popular across the continent. In Japan, manga like Sword Art Online by Reki Kawahara started getting extremely popular.
This may have been due to the popularity of the isekai trope (told you we’d get back to it). An isekai story follows a character that has been pulled from their own world into another and must figure out how to return. Think Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz if you need a Western equivalent.
Isekai is a popular genre in manga and anime, which actually dates back as far as the 1910s, with the first known familiar portrayal being that of a popular Japanese fairy tale of a man who rescues a turtle and is rewarded with a trip to the fantastical Dragon Palace. This tale, titled Urashima Taro, is one of the oldest animes on record, having had a film adaptation made in 1918.
In modern times, such massive series as Inuyasha by Rumiko Takahashi and Fushigi Yugi by Yuu Watase struck a chord with the shojo (young girl) fans for their relatable, interesting characters and big, fantastical arcs that lasted multiple seasons and resolved themselves slowly. These stories often included a modern character from our world being sent to fantasy lands, different time periods, or, in the modern world of LitRPG, their favorite video games.
These series migrated to Russian audiences, and authors there took the genre and adapted it to be more heavily reliant on statistics and the mechanics of an RPG. Authors like Dem Mikhailov, whose book Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones is credited as the first Russian LitRPG book, set out to write stories whose focus was on that leveling up and sense of in-game achievement rather than on the search to return to the real world.
Eventually, these novels and manga series were translated into English and broke the European and American markets. The series were introduced in the early 2010s to English-speaking readers and LitRPG officially became a cult favorite among nerds.
According to the informal research of some literary enthusiasts, the majority of readers for LitRPG are men. This, our enthusiasts theorize, is probably because the genre overwhelmingly stars protagonists that are men - though notable authors like Carrie Summers are increasingly putting the spotlight of RPG adventures on women.
How is LitRPG Set Up?
Like any genre, LitRPG has a series of tropes that crop up in its novels quite often. In this particular case, it's the idea of escapism and addicting gameplay.
Real Meets Game in Virtual Reality
Most LitRPG books start on the premise that our protagonist, usually a mild-mannered everyman, has been introduced to some kind of virtual reality game. These games are RPGs in which the protagonist has made their own character - so we’re watching a character within a character story.
These games are way more advanced than current VR tech; they’ll include five-sense immersion technology. Our hero can see the environment as clearly as if it were real, hear sounds in 3D, smell the food, and feel the swing of the sword in their hand. This is usually achieved by the character donning some kind of helmet, or getting into a pod where they’ll be fully tuned into the game.
Sometimes this functions normally, and we get interspersed scenes of the character’s daily life within the adventure. This can create a sharp contrast that shows us what the character sees as lacking in their real-world experiences and can lead to interesting dynamics exploring the dangers of overusing escapism. Often, though, something will go wrong and cause our hero to be trapped within the world of the game. When this happens, we usually get to see the character learning how much their real-world experience actually means to them and what they value.
The Stats Still Matter
Many LitRPG books, especially those originating in Russia or inspired by Russian publications, rely heavily on the stats of the games they’re written around. Readers will actively see how much experience a character is getting, what level they are, and how their skills evolve over time. This is often done by allowing the protagonist to see a pop-up menu of their stats within the game, as you would when playing VR games in real life.
Some find this aspect of the genre to be ridiculous. Paul Miller of The Verge comments that the “ unlikeable characters, casual sexism, and…plot completely bent to the main character's progression” of the series he was reading were made up for by the sheer silliness of including the actual buffs, debuffs, and damage points taken by the character. “How could I not love it?” he remarks and explains that he sees it as a mindless read with numbers showing off the progress.
But like it or now, it’s exactly that progress that drives LitRPG. Whether or not they come to it looking for an intensely personal and emotional story, readers of this particular genre fully expect to see the stats the characters see; it’s a part of how they experience the vicarious joy of leveling up through a difficult game.
The Joy of Leveling Up
Whether or not we as readers actually see the numbers, the joy of the genre for most comes from experiencing the rush that comes with increasing a character’s stats to the next level and taking on more complex missions. The competition of those missions, too, is a rush and inspires the character (and the reader) to want more. It’s addictive.
Miller admits that it’s not complex plots that draw him into these books, “it's the idea of a game where I'm always leveling faster than I thought I could, meeting challenges I think I can't beat and then beating them, finding hidden quests and talking to never-before-seen NPCs.” He says that reading LitRPG inspired him to open his MMORPG account back up, and let him rediscover what he loved about the game in the first place - the joy of progression and the feeling of achievement when you level up.
LitRPG lets readers experience that joy without the costs associated with playing an RPG - the money spent on the game, the countless hours of grinding, the endless research on wikis and forums to find the right items for an obscure quest, learning the right pattern for a particularly difficult fight, or enduring the repeated attempts to beat a boss that result in thrown controllers and all-night play.
As I mentioned, some people simply don’t have the time to devote to RPGs; being able to experience it through the eyes of a character in a novel at their leisure can help fill that need for a sense of character progression and increasing power.
Tips for Writing LitRPG
If you’re looking to become a LitRPG author, there are a few ways you can make sure you’re fully prepared. As with any other genre, there are tropes you can take advantage of and cliches to use sparingly; researching the world of LitRPG, both on the side of the novels and of the games, can help you write it more effectively.
Here are our top tips for writing LitRPG, including where to look for inspiration and how to get your work in front of the right eyes.
Level Up Your RPG Knowledge
One of the best pieces of advice for writing LitRPG is to be familiar with RPGs as a genre, and the best way to do that is to play! Many local game stores host open play sessions for Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Warhammer 40k, and other tabletop games. You can also join virtual tabletop games through Discord servers and dedicated tabletop gaming websites like Roll20 and DndBeyond.
You don’t even need to buy the rulebooks immediately in most cases; most game stores have copies available for reference during the game, and most systems have online rulebooks that you can look at between sessions. Test out systems and find one that you like, then go save the world!
Not into doing the paperwork of a traditional RPG? Try a virtual one! Some of the best RPGs for beginners include the Dragon Quest series, My Time at Portia, and, if you’re into Star Wars, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You could also try some of the classic DOS RPGs (made to run on the text-based operating system in the 1990s) like Hero’s Quest or Ultima VI. All of these games have relatively easy interfaces and quests that advance as you learn more about the game’s control scheme and mechanics.
Build a character and simply have fun with it! You can then use this player knowledge to build your in-novel characters and the world they are working within. Decide on the rules of your game world before creating your “real-world” character, then follow those rules as if you were actually playing the game. You may even choose to roll actual dice to decide the outcomes of some of their encounters!
Read Some LitRPG
The best way to learn to write in a genre is to read in it! Get yourself some LitRPG and start reading. You’ll want to explore series by different authors from different parts of the world so that you can get a sense of the tropes used across the genre.
Some of the best LitRPG series to start with are:
- The Chaos Seeds series by Aleron Kong, the man who literally owns litrpg.com as his personal author site. Follow Richter on his journey through The Land, and discover what has made Kong such a powerhouse name in the genre.
- The Tower of Gates novels by Paul Bellow, which follow Eric as he plays and gets stuck in an MMORPG demo gone wrong. Eric, now stuck as a rogue, travels with his friends and levels up as they try to find a way to escape. It’s also got some romance, so that’s a plus.
- The Crystal Shards Online series by Rick Scott, which takes us on the journey of Ryan, a survivor in a dystopian world who relies on a VR game to escape the pain of his real-life and quickly becomes overpowered by a lucky find.
- The Way of the Shaman series by Vasily Mahanenko, a Russian series that follows Daniel through his unusual prison sentence - carried out in an MMORPG!
- The Sword Art Online series by Reki Kawahara, an earlier entry in the genre that’s light on stats, which follows Kazuto, or “Kirito,” into the awesome MMORPG from the title…where all the players have been trapped until they can beat the highest level in the game.
Once you’ve read through a few books (or even a few series), take some time to write down and analyze what you liked and what you didn’t. Consider the tropes that appeared over and over again and the character archetypes that were employed for both the “real” characters and the NPCs. Doing this can help you break down the parts of the genre you want to emulate for yourself.
As a quick side note, be careful when reading novels while you draft. It’s an unfortunate reality that we tend to incorporate our current interests into creative works, and doing so too directly (say, by giving a character extremely similar traits or names to another series’ character) can lead to issues with copyright. Be sure to separate your reading time and your writing time as fully as possible.
Start with the Game
Writing LitRPG offers a unique challenge to the writer; you have to create not only a plot but also a system of game mechanics to govern an entire world within another world. So, to make sure that the rest of your structure makes sense, you should probably write up the framework of your game.
Ask yourself important questions about how the game operates, including:
- How is this game played? Is it immersive VR or a character getting lost in a regular computer game?
- What is the goal of the game? How do you win? What’s the prize for doing so?
- How are characters created? How much control does your protagonist have in the creation of their player character within the game? Are they predetermined or can your protagonist customize them?
- Is this a solo game or a party game? Are there different roles that your character can take on, and if so, how does that affect gameplay?
- What are the combat mechanics for the game? Is it turn-based or free for all?
- Can NPCs be damaged by player characters? What happens if they die?
Once you’ve answered these questions and have a framework, try out various character combinations for your protagonist. What class or race did they choose, if they have the option? Why? How is that going to affect how they progress through the story? What NPCs will they have to interact with?
Use the mechanics of the game as a jumping point for the rest of the plot. You may even choose to play it as you write it; as mentioned, you can roll dice for the outcomes of particular battles or attempts to do things and use the role to guide your writing. This can make the game more authentic to read about, and lessens the likelihood that you’ll accidentally have your character winning at every turn in what is supposed to be a game based on chance.
Motivate Your Character
Once you know the game, you need to know your characters. LitRPG plots can be simple, but they still need a driving factor, as does any other plot. That driving factor is your main character’s motivation to play the game they’re invested in.
Why does your character play this game? Are they getting away from their real life, or addicted to the grind of it? Did they join up willingly, or were they roped into playing? Can they get up and leave any time they want, or are they trapped? Explore these questions with your protagonist, and build your plot around their answers. You can up the tension by having an unwilling protagonist, or by having an addicted protagonist question what they’re working toward.
By giving your character a strong motivation to keep playing, you’ll give your readers a reason to come back for more, cheer them on as they progress, and commiserate with them when they face challenges and obstacles. In short, you’ll keep your audience engaged with the story if the story is engaging for your character.
Know Where to Publish
A major part of getting readers to see your book is knowing where to publish it. While you can publish LitRPG anywhere, there are a few options that might be most worth considering when you’ve got a manuscript in hand.
We’ve covered the benefits and drawbacks of traditional versus indie publishing before, but here’s an overview of which options would be best for LitRPG.
If you decide to work with a traditional publisher, then you’ll want to focus your efforts on the right subset of presses. The best presses to query with your LitRPG adventure are going to be science fiction or fantasy-focused and will have a few LitRPG titles under their belt already. This means they’re going to be familiar with the subgenre and have the right resources to help your book succeed.
Some of the top LitRPG publishers are:
If you do decide to traditionally publish, make sure that your manuscript is as clean and polished as possible before you send it out. You’ll also want a clear, compelling, and personalized query letter to accompany it.
Understand that you may be rejected several times before you land on the correct publisher for your novel.
Self-publishing is a good option for LitRPG as it allows you to retain the maximum amount of control possible over your manuscript. Of course, it also means that you shoulder the burden of the publishing process.
Where you choose to publish will have an impact on the visibility of your first book or series. In the world of ebooks, the LitRPG genre is saturated on Kindle Unlimited, but very sparse everywhere else. At the time of writing this article, a search for “LitRPG” on Amazon turned up over 50,000 results, and that’s only counting books enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. Running the same search on Barnes & Noble turned up 152 ebooks, Kobo had 215, Smashwords had 223. There’s no doubt Amazon has the largest user base of potential customers, but from a discovery standpoint, a LitRPG on Amazon is just one fish in an ocean of content, whereas on other platforms, it could stand out like a shark in a swimming pool, given the genre’s lack of presence elsewhere.
Still, going by the industry best is a good way to get your work in front of the largest audience possible. Some of the best ways to self-publish are through:
If you decide to self-publish, you may want to hire outside help to get your novel shelf-ready. Hiring an external editor, proofreader, designer, or potentially all three, can help you catch errors that your own eyes gloss right over and create a visually appealing book that can compete with traditionally-published design team efforts.
Web Novel Publication Sites
You may also consider releasing your work as a web novel. Web novels are, as the name implies, novels that are published online rather than as an ebook or through a traditional publisher. They’re often posted serially, meaning that the author releases a chapter at a time to their audience, usually on a regular schedule. Some authors, like Shirtaloon, who writes the He Who Fights With Monsters series, have found this method to be enormously profitable.
Posting your work as a web novel might be a good option if you have more than one title in the works, as a free book available on your website or a hosting platform like RoyalRoad (a very popular LitRPG novel site) or Webnovel, can help generate traffic and build your audience for future installments or series.
These websites are formatted very simply, often leaving room for author notes at the beginning or end of a chapter, and allowing readers to comment or like each chapter as it comes out. This gives you the unique advantage of interaction and immediate feedback on your work as it’s published.
As such, you can make changes on the fly to better reflect what your audience is expecting or lean into aspects of the writing that they particularly enjoy. It can offer you the opportunity to grow as a writer and carry those lessons into your next piece.
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We offer the option to self-publish your books on a customized, branded website optimized for the best reader experience. Readers can save their place, browse through a table of contents, and subscribe to authors they love and want to support.
And authors? You get to pick how and when your book is published. Want to release your book one chapter at a time? Go for it! Got a whole manuscript ready to print? Put the ebook out there! With Laterpress, you choose how readers consume your work, and how much they’ll pay. We think we compare favorably against many other platforms, which either don’t allow for monetization at all, only allow an invited subset of authors to monetize, or exercise total control over the value of your hard work.
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LitRPG is a fascinating genre. Created from a love of the games it’s based on, it’s pretty wholesome when you really think about it. The major appeal of the genre is seeing other people succeed in overcoming their struggles and grow, not just as characters in a game, but as people in a story.
Even if you aren’t particularly interested in playing an RPG in real life, you might get a kick out of watching a character you love battle their way through dungeons full of monsters, battlefields full of terrors, and a complex journey into accepting their own real-world selves. The genre is all about finding more about yourself through being someone else.
If you’re interested in writing LitRPG, then go for it! There are so many more stories to tell about heroes, new worlds, powers that grow with you, and the idea that anyone can be the champion of their own story if they’re only willing to put in the work.