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The LitRPG Writer’s Toolkit
So you want to write a LitRPG novel? This genre is growing in popularity, which is no surprise, given how ubiquitous gaming (video and table top) has become. Books utilizing LitRPG aspects play to a very specific demographic: gamers who like to read. It’s best if the author also fits into that demographic.
LitRPGs present their narratives in a game-like format, where the characters progress in skills, levels, etc. (like in a role-playing game), as the story unfolds. The characters usually know they are in a game or game-like setting. Though it’s open to many different rules styles and genres, the LitRPG mainstay is typically grounded in statistics that describe the character’s strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and equipment. This is the literary equivalent of playing Dungeons & Dragons at the table with a group, or playing Skyrim on PC/console. (Or EVE Online if you’re really into accounting…)
Writing a LitRPG brings its own set of challenges and considerations on top of all the others the author must deal with. What follows is a breakdown of the most important ones.
1: If You’re Not a Gamer, This Isn’t For You
Yes, I understand that heading presents a narrow position, but if you’re not a gamer, it’s highly unlikely you’ll enjoy writing a LitRPG. You probably won’t respect/know your target audience, or produce your best work. Like any creative endeavor, you must love what you’re doing—else it becomes a chore, and your audience will see this in the finished work. Readers know when you care about your story—and when you don’t. This doesn’t mean you should be a hardcore gamer that logs hours of playtime each day, or possesses an expansive library of titles and/or corebooks. It does mean you should be familiar with that subculture, and participate in it. If you don’t enjoy horror fiction, why would you write a horror novel? The same principle applies here.
LitRPGs are vehicles of story and character-building—which means your characters should receive/earn improvements to their abilities throughout the narrative. They level up, gain achievements, find better equipment, and so on—just like a player character in a traditional RPG. This is a core element of what LitRPGs are about: progression. The reader will expect this to happen, just as a gamer would expect rewards for hours of gameplay. It shouldn’t be overdone (every single action featuring a game element would get repetitive, fast), but it must be present. An example would be gaining experience for defeating an enemy or solving a puzzle, such as:
Ronar evaded the orc’s attack, then brought his warhammer down on the creature’s head. The orc collapsed at his feet, dead.
Orc Warrior, Level 2, Defeated; +350 XP
Dodge Skill Increased by 5%
Sylvana crouched lower as she picked the lock. The lockpick, though warped from her encounter with the firedrake, still allowed her to snap the device’s tumblers into place. She smirked as the lock clicked, and the door opened.
Sneak Successful; +250 XP
Pick Locks Successful; +500 XP
Achievement Unlocked: Perform a Rogue Skill with Damaged Equipment; +750 XP
+1 to Pick Locks Skill
These are simple examples, but you get the idea. There’s a variety of ways to present such information; this is an easy method, since the rewards follow the character’s actions. This avoids confusing the reader, and provides an immediate reward. Also, the game element is presented in bold text. This communicates to the reader that such text isn’t prose, but rules mechanics. You can choose to italicize or underline such text; I used bold here to illustrate its implementation.
3: Have Consistent Rules
Like a game, your LitRPG must have consistent rules. If only certain classes can cast a specific spell, don’t stray from that. If only gnome paladins armed with diamond-tipped forks can slay a Level 18 Gluttonous Ogre, don’t change that. Establish the basics early on: the format and what readers can expect. If your characters have a Health attribute, and they take damage in the course of the story, keep track of that. Readers will do the math, and they’ll know when you’ve fudged a game mechanic. If your archer protagonist has twenty arrows, and you enumerate their expenditure, make sure to mark that tally. If your hero has three healing potions, but you forget and let them drink a fourth one later in the story, readers will notice. If each item has stats, make sure to mention them when the character acquires them—and stay consistent with that format. These are small things, but it only takes a few mistakes to ruin the audience’s immersion. It’s best to keep all of these details in a separate document while you write; this will become your LitRPG bible. You will reference it often.
4: Keep It Fun
Gamers play games for fun and entertainment. This sounds obvious, and it should be, but some LitRPG writers forget. In short, don’t make your LitRPG story a grind, where every single detail comes with a game mechanic description. Don’t overdo it. The reader will want rewards and progress, but like a game, nobody wants it to feel like a job. Every single action doesn’t require a game mechanic element. Know when to use it, and when to move the narrative along. This is true for all genres of fiction, but it’s especially important for LitRPGs. Think of it as grinding out dungeons in Elder Scrolls Online for a specific set piece or motif chapter, or mining for hours in Minecraft to accrue diamond ore. That sort of thing might work in an actual game, but avoid using it in a LitRPG—unless you mention it in summation, or use it for comic relief. Avoid filling pages with needless game mechanics that don’t move the narrative along. Remember, you’re telling a story first—the game mechanics come second.
If you want to see how I use these tips in my own work, check out my HERO DAWN ONLINE fantasy LitRPG series, available on the Yonder app (and coming soon from Aethon Books!).
Image Credit: ID 240123327 © Marin Iurii | Dreamstime.com