When RPG collides with fiction and anime

When RPG collides with fiction and anime

Reading time: 6 minutes

I saw an unusual book being offered for free on Amazon last week. Its author described The Whispering Crystals as LiteRPG, or literary role-playing games. The plot involves a young woman transported to an alien world, then sent through trials to learn how to survive. As she slowly progresses in important skills, she updates her character sheet like a tabletop character would. As I downloaded it and started reading, my husband was laughing in bed next to me while watching a 2016 anime called KonoSuba. The plot centers on a young man transported to a world that functions much like an RPG video game.

Very quickly LitRPG has become popular. Here’s an overview of what it is, how it works and where you can find it.

The history of LitRPG

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

When tabletop RPGs first became popular, one of the first things fans of the games did was write fiction that used the games’ history as story elements. Free Beacon calls this convention RPGLit. One of the earliest RPG-based fantasy series, Dragonlance, 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 equipment, in pure literary form. No one in these books is rushing to find a new sword with a +2 to hit bonus and a frost damage multiplier against kobolds. How rude!

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Instead in books like The Fellowship of the Ringwriters describe things like magical weapons with ethereal, powerful language that conveys how much better they are than ordinary weapons:

For each of the hobbits [Tom Bombadil] chose a dagger, long, blade-shaped, and sharp, of wonderful workmanship, damasked with snake-forms in red and gold. They shone as he pulled them from their black sheaths, made of a strange metal, light and strong, and set with many burning stones. Either by some virtue in those sheaths or by the spell that lay upon the pile, the blades seemed untouched by time, unsullied, sharp, sparkling in the sun.

The Fellowship of the Ringcited by Henneth-Annun Research Center

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

YouTube video

Or maybe they want to talk about not improve their stats. Cut off KonoSuba. By the way, according to a language website, KonoSuba is short for “Kono subarashii sekai ni shukufuku wo,” which means “Give blessings to this wonderful world.” The anime creators apparently turned that phrase into “God’s blessings upon this wonderful world.”

In a very real sense, LitRPGs engage characters direct with the mechanics of their world.

The progression of LitRPG as a genre

Alongside RPGLit, LitRPG slowly emerged from the publishing world. The novel from 1981 Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes features characters that deliberately interact with Live Action Roleplaying (LARP) mechanics. A reviewer at GoodReads describes it as “the most fun I’ve ever had reading a book.” He also shares why:

It’s absolutely popcorn-worthy for the baddest gamer, trekkie, cosplayer, or other kind of geek you might be familiar with. It’s pure fan service. In addition to the clean [indulgence] of the setting (a nerdtastic mash-up of Holodeck and GenCon), that’s the undeniable message: victory, in the end, doesn’t go to the fastest, the strongest, nor the fastest. It goes to min/max. The regular lawyer [triumphs]. May the best player 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 these, it’s no wonder more stories are popping up in the genre. And they did. When virtual reality worlds came into being, LitRPG took full advantage of the new technology. Ready Player Onereleased in 2011 and released in film form in 2018, is arguably one of the most popular LitRPG stories.

But LitRPG itself was not yet a recognized genre in its own right—not until 2013. That year, a Russian publisher, EKSMO, coined the term itself and began running LitRPG writing contests. They published the winners in anthologies.

LitRPG finds its feet in a game-friendly world

When the first science fiction and fantasy writers started dabbling in LitRPG-style storytelling, gaming was much more of a niche hobby. In particular, tabletop role-playing games were not particularly common. The people who played them were largely considered geeks and social misfits.

However, that reputation was about to change.

By the 2010s, most people had played some sort of RPG video game. Gaming became much more mainstream. Suddenly, both players and games started to become “cool”.

YouTube video

When I first saw this video, suddenly my wasted youth didn’t feel right pretty so misused.

Even people who hadn’t played RPGs themselves were usually familiar with the various RPG mechanics that had leaked into other parts of online life, such as avatar selection, profile and appearance customization, and editable settings files. So the idea of ​​characters engaging directly with the mechanics of the “game world” made a lot more sense than it had in previous decades.

In 2020, a writing blog told People that LitRPG “revolutionized fiction”.

That blog also unpacks the elements of the genre: another world, characters’ “meta-awareness” of the world’s mechanics, a 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 isekai. This Japanese term means “other world” and it is extremely popular. IN isekai stories, heroes are somehow transported to a completely foreign, unknown world – or, in the case of Kazuma, the hero of KonoSuba, is reincarnated there after a completely humiliating death. Once there, the heroes must figure out how to survive and thrive in the new world. Often they seek to escape it in order to return home.

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

As far as LitRPG stories go, the new “otherworld” has distinctly game-like elements. The character often has experience with RPG video games, which allows them to better conceptualize the mechanics.

That is what we find in the 2020 novel Whispering Crystals by HC Mills.

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

Screen capture from Whispering Crystals

She exults in her progress:

With so much progress, even I can be satisfied. With all the breathing I did, not only did I get Respiration Level 2, but my Lavi Pool also grew to 36. Also, due to the large amounts of self-torture I used, I even received the following notice.

[Image: Willpower has risen by 1 point!]

Whispering Crystals

And yes, if you look back at 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 both suffer from the toxic environment, yes, but she feels much better about her chances of survival.

The appeal of LitRPG

A publisher, Level uptheorizes that players enjoy reading about characters who act like players and win against tough odds without all the tedious grinding that most RPGs require:

[Y]you can experience an RPG in a way that actual gaming prevents: you can instead enjoy leveling up quickly and engaging in the best high-end encounters that the game has to offer.

Level up“What is LitRPG?”

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

And that makes a lot of sense.

Twitch streamers who can treat viewers in friendly, welcoming ways can create one a lot of money just playing games and chatting. They have proven that there is an audience that is interested in watching games, even beyond the people who watch eSports. A similar audience has shown interest in watching and listening to players playing tabletop RPGs. Really, a novel with game-like adventures is not that far.

Now LitRPG books abound on bookstore 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 will enjoy for many years to come. I hope you will like it too!

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