What Makes a Great LitRPG?
The best LitRPG is more than just a story with notifications and character sheets.
First and foremost, I am a new Author. Altered Realms is my first series. This isn't me lecturing authors, or readers and telling them what to think. This isn't even about how to be a good writer. This is my experience as a reader, first and foremost. I have read hundreds of LitRPG novels. The genre has quite literally enveloped every aspect of my life. It is slowly becoming my job, what I talk about, and a part of who I am as a person. This blog post is my attempt at relaying my opinion, as a reader, to other authors. It's about what makes a great LitRPG or Gamelit book specifically. When I have sold a ton of copies and won awards, I'll come back and edit this to reflect what I've learned. For now, if this helps even one new author write a better book, I've done my job. Here is my opinion.
There's good LitRPG & there's GREAT LitRPG
Good LitRPG tells a decent story, with a solid plot, stats, abilities, and a good hook. It could be a portal fantasy, sci-fi, stuck-in-game, or another world. It does not matter, every subgenre has good books and great books. With a good LitRPG, the reader absorbs the information like a sponge, only to wring out the contents before starting their next series. The book was good, well written, and the story was great, but there is a disconnect. A separation between the words on the page and the reader. Immersion fails, but the story is still worth telling. The issue is the immersion. People who read LitRPG are looking for a stopgap to fill the lack of real full-immersion-virtual-reality. They want to be in the game, not just read it.
The BEST LitRPG makes the reader feel like they are in the game itself. There is no disconnect between the imagination and the words on the paper or screen. Readers can hear the sounds, feel the dirt in their boots, and most importantly the stats and screens don't get in the way of the reader's immersion. Everything blends together seamlessly. When they put the book down, after reading it in one sitting, they know what it's like to be in this new reality. Because feel like they've been there. They have played the game or walked on the world you created. It's the hallmark of any great book, complete loss of one's self into the fictional world the writer has created. But how is this done, when things like stat screens, notifications, and typed out popup-windows get in the way?
"How do you include the gamification aspects of an MMORPG without tearing the reader from the world you've built?"
Answering that question is the difference between a good LitRPG and a great LitRPG. There is something inherently jarring about notification windows and stat screens, even in most video games. They are there to show progress, but they also pull you out of the wonderfully crafted universe you've become so involved with. They are a reminder that you are in-fact playing, or in this case reading. So, how do you include the gamification aspects of an MMO, survival game, or FPS without tearing the reader from the world you've built?
It's a question that I'm sure most authors in the genre ask themselves every time they start a new series (I know I did), and it's a difficult one to answer. The hard systems, numbers, and game-like structures of LitRPG are what make it unique and great. There are rules, they are clearly visible, and they act as proof of character progression. This allows readers to create their own characters, mess around with game theory, and develop their own strategies. It also breaks immersion. The best thing about LitRPG and Gamelit is also the single hardest hurdle to get over as a writer.
So, as a writer, how can you include the numbers and rules without breaking immersion?
My answer may be a little unpopular. You don't, or do you it sparingly. Now, I'm not saying to not include these things at all. I'm saying that you show the systems and progression indirectly. If you have to do it in a place that feels natural, where the reader would stop and check things out. There is a rule of writing and I feel it applies significantly here. Show, don't tell. There are a number of ways to explain your game system without actually explaining it. It can be shown through interactions with the world and other characters. Its limitations can be found through character progression or another character. There are as many ways to show a process as tell it.
I'll admit, I'm not great at this -newb author alert-. When I write my mind just pours words onto the screen, and I let it do its thing. I follow an outline and write. This leads me to throw in a list of skills and abilities. Sometimes it's easier to just copy and paste a character sheet to explain what happened, some time's it's appropriate and fits in with the scene. Most of the time it pulls the reader from the story and forces them to look, or listen to, at a block of words and numbers that has little bearing on the story itself. I struggle with this every time I write a scene where the main character checks their stats. What I've found is that readers don't need to see a character sheet every time the protagonist increases in skill or puts a point into intelligence. It's unnecessary and pulls people from the story. Show, don't tell or make it feel as natural as possible.
So how do I do this? -Take this with a grain of salt. I'm still new to this- When possible I use words. I try to describe what the character is doing, how they feel when they dump all of their points into strength. What that does do to how their weapon feels in their hands? Maybe the character's fireball is larger after they increase their intelligence. It can be anything. Show don't tell. When skills or abilities are gained I try to show the progression in real-time, in the story. The character gets better at the Swords skill, their swing becomes more fluid. They can feel it in their movements. I try to make it as natural as possible. When I can't I use a cheat... The third party.
In Altered Realms, the MC has an AI guide, whose settings can be adjusted. She, Aida, relays important information and hides notifications unless they are important. Essentially she's my filter. If I fail at showing or am having trouble making a stat increase apparent, I use her to say "Hey, you're luck stat just improved. Good job on not dying."
For me, a bit of conversation is less immersion-breaking than a stat screen.
To me, this looks a lot better than this:
Character 1 pulled up their character sheet.
What LitRPG Authors do this well and why?
This is getting long-winded *sigh*. So, to cap this off I'll leave you with this. Who does this well, in my opinion.
Jonathan Brooks stands out. He does it in a simple way. In his Dungeon World series, the character sheets are optional and come with a warning. The reader, or listener, can skip them. While this does break immersion, it is a nice way to let readers know that they are available and that the rules do exist. Up until the disclaimer, I always forget that the world is gamified. I just believe what he's telling me. Because he's good.
Dakota Krout has always done character sheets well, so well in fact that I can't even remember what the character sheets look like. Hell, I remember being completely enthralled in every book. Both his Divine Dungeon and Completionist Chronicles were so well done that he is constantly recognized as a leader in the LitRPG genre. I personally could not put them down.
Lastly, I have to mention James A. Hunter. He is the author of the Veridian Gate Online and Rogue Dungeon series. What I like about his presentation is his ability to break up stat screens into just the pertinent information and weave it into the story itself. It never feels like the veil is lifted. I read the snippet of stats and information as if they were just there. It seems natural. It flows. It's just well done.
There are others who do this really well. There are a ton of other great LitRPG authors. I personally believe that LitRPG and Gamelit genres have more good authors than bad. The stories are modern, well thought out, and engaging. It what makes me love it. But, this is about how to write great LitRPG specifically, and these three are who I model my writing after, at least for stat screens, notifications, and character sheets. So, if you're new to writing LitRPG like I am, pick up their books. Read them all, and learn. The craft of writing can be learned from reading any great author or class. Writing great LitRPG can only be learned by reading those who do it well. SO GO READ LITRPG BOOKS!
For inspiration check out my Recommended LitRPG Authors.