Reading Time: 6 minutes

I saw an unusual book offered for free on Amazon last week. Its author described The Whispering Crystals as LitRPG, or literary roleplaying games. The plot involves a young woman transported to an alien world, then sent through trials to learn to survive. As she slowly progresses in essential skills, she updates her character sheet like a tabletop RPG character would. As I downloaded it and began to read, my husband was laughing in bed next to me as he watched a 2016 anime called KonoSuba. Its plot centers on a young man transported to a world that operates much like an RPG video game.

Very quickly, LitRPG has become popular. Here’s the rundown on what it is, how it operates, and where to find it.

The history of LitRPG

LitRPG began as a genre around 2013. But its real origins stretch back to the 1970s.

When tabletop roleplaying games first became popular, one of the first things that fans of the games did was write fiction that used the games’ lore as story elements. Free Beacon calls this convention RPGLit. One of the earliest RPG-based fantasy series, Dragonlance, is still running strong. It’s obviously based on Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, or DnD), but it never mentions D&D mechanics. Many others have elements that clearly trace back to tabletop RPGs.

All of these series’ creators try to keep game mechanics in the background. They present skill progression and attribute enhancement, even improving their gear, in pure literary form. Nobody in these books gushes about finding a new sword with a +2 to hit bonus and a frost damage multiplier against kobolds. How gauche!

Instead, in books like The Fellowship of the Ring, authors describe stuff like magic weapons with ethereal, powerful language that conveys how much better they are than regular weapons:

For each of the hobbits [Tom Bombadil] chose a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen, of marvellous workmanship, damasked with serpent-forms in red and gold. They gleamed as he drew them from their black sheaths, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. Whether by some virtue in these sheaths or because of the spell that lay on the mound, the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.

The Fellowship of the Ring, quoted by Henneth-Annun Research Center

But LitRPG turns that convention right on its head and sends it packing. In this new genre, the mechanics become a storytelling element in their own right. Characters openly talk about gaining levels, increasing skills and attributes, and the stats of their gear.

YouTube video
Or perhaps they’ll talk about not improving their stats. Clip from KonoSuba. Incidentally, according to one language site KonoSuba is a shortening of “Kono subarashii sekai ni shukufuku wo,” which means “Give blessings to this wonderful world.” The anime’s creators apparently turned that phrase into “God’s blessings on this wonderful world.”

In a very real sense, LitRPG characters engage directly with the mechanics of their world.

The progression of LitRPG as a genre

Alongside RPGLit, LitRPG slowly trickled forth from the publishing world. The 1981 novel Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes has characters consciously interacting with Live Action Roleplaying (LARP) mechanics. One reviewer at GoodReads describes it as “the most sheer fun I’ve ever had reading a book.” He shares why, too:

It’s absolute popcorn fare for the dorkiest gamer, trekkie, cosplayer, or other form of geek with which you might be familiar. It’s pure fan service. In addition to the sheer [indulgence] of the setting (a nerdtastic mixture of the Holodeck and GenCon), there’s the undeniable message: victory, in the end, does not go to the swiftest, the strongest, nor even the fastest. It goes to the min/maxer. The rules-lawyer [triumphs]. May the best gamer win. The future belongs to the munchkin.

Dream Park review, 2012

Another reviewer calls it “pure wish fulfillment for the D&D/fantasy crowd.” With reviews like that, no wonder more stories would emerge in the genre. And they did. Once virtual reality worlds came into being, LitRPG took full advantage of the new technology. Ready Player One, published in 2011 and released in movie form in 2018, is arguably one of the most popular LitRPG stories.

But LitRPG itself wasn’t yet a recognized genre of its own—not until 2013. That year, a Russian publishing house, EKSMO, coined the term itself and began running LitRPG writing contests. They published the winners in anthologies.

LitRPG finds its feet in a gaming-friendly world

When the first science fiction and fantasy writers began dabbling in LitRPG-type storytelling, gaming was much more of a niche hobby. In particular, tabletop roleplaying games were not especially common. The people who played them were largely considered nerds and social misfits.

That reputation, however, was about to change.

By the 2010s, most people had played some kind of RPG video game. Gaming became a lot more mainstream. Suddenly, gamers and gaming alike were starting to be “cool.”

YouTube video
When I first saw this video, my misspent youth suddenly didn’t feel quite so misspent.

Even people who hadn’t played RPGs themselves were usually familiar with the various RPG game mechanics that had leaked out to other parts of online life, like avatar selection, profile and appearance customization, and editable settings files. So the idea of characters engaging directly with their “gameworld’s” mechanics made much more sense than it had in previous decades.

By 2020, a writing blog was telling people that LitRPG was “revolutionizing fiction.”

That blog also unpacks the elements of the genre: a different world, characters’ “meta-awareness” of the world’s mechanics, some sort of rulebook for those mechanics, and game-like character progression.

It all begins with the character’s introduction to a whole new world.

Isekai on steroids

Most LitRPG stories tend to fit within the category of isekai. This Japanese term means “otherworld,” and it’s extremely popular. In isekai stories, heroes are transported somehow to a completely alien, unfamiliar world—or, in the case of Kazuma, the hero of KonoSuba, gets reincarnated there after an utterly humiliating death. Once there, the heroes must figure out how to survive and thrive in that new world. Often, they seek to escape it to return home.

Almost all LitRPG stories are isekai. But not all isekai stories follow LitRPG conventions.

In the case of LitRPG stories, the new “otherworld” features distinctly gamelike elements. The character often has experience with RPG video games, allowing them to conceptualize its mechanics better.

That’s what we find in the 2020 novel Whispering Crystals by H.C. Mills.

In the story, the main character, Emma, realizes that her first challenge involves learning how to breathe this new alien world’s air. So she meditates and practices mindful breathing. After a while, she summons up her character sheet to see how much her breathing skills have progressed:

Screen capture from Whispering Crystals

She exults in her progress:

With this much progress, even I can be satisfied. With all the breathing I did, I not only got Respiration level 2, but my Lavi Pool also grew to 36. What’s more, because of the copious amounts of self-torture I applied, I even received the following notification.

[Image: Willpower has risen by 1 point!]

Whispering Crystals

And yes, if you look back to the character sheet Emma just saw, you’ll see a green +1 next to her Will stat. Now it’s 13. It was 12. Her strength and agility are both suffering from the toxic environment, sure, but she’s feeling a lot better about her chances of survival.

The appeal of LitRPG

One publisher, Level Up, theorizes that gamers enjoy reading about characters who act like players and win against tough odds without all the tedious grinding that most RPG games require:

[Y]ou can experience an RPG in a fashion that actual play thwarts: you can vicariously enjoy levelling up fast and engaging with the best high-end encounters that the game has to offer.

Level Up, “What is LitRPG?”

As they put it, LitRPG functions as “the reading equivalent of watching someone playing a game on Twitch or Youtube.”

And that makes a lot of sense.

Twitch streamers who can treat viewers in friendly, welcoming ways can make a lot of money just playing games and chatting. They’ve proven that there’s an audience interested in spectating game-playing, even beyond the people who watch e-sports. A similar audience has proven itself interested in watching and listening to gamers playing tabletop roleplaying games. Really, a novel featuring gameplay-like adventuring isn’t that far a stretch.

By now, LitRPG books abound on booksellers’ sites like Amazon.

So far, I’m enjoying my first LitRPG book and my husband is watching KonoSuba in the other room as I write this post. This may be a genre I’ll be enjoying for years to come. I hope you’ll enjoy it as well!

Avatar photo

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...