What is LitRPG? And why should you read it?

Conor Kostick By Conor Kostick, 4th Jul 2018 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Fantasy

LitRPG is a sub-genre of fantasy and SciFi, where gaming is central to the story.


It was perhaps inevitable that with the growth of Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) there would arise new works of SciFi and Fantasy that engaged with the new plot lines and character challenges that came from considering the possibilities of stories involving people playing or being drawn into a MMORPG. It has been argued that everything ever written can be boiled down to seven plots and that these have been with us since the days of the ancient Greeks. But with MMORPG-related stories there are lots of original plot lines. For example, if death is no longer permanent, because an important character is virtual and can be restored, you could write a story where a detective investigates her own murder!
Early examples of such stories include Tad William's Otherland series (from 1996). There, the characters can enter into full immersion into virtual reality. And in this series, William's takes advantage of the fact that as people can cross into virtual reality they can reinvent themselves to explore the question of identity. One of his central characters appears to be an all powerful game warrior, but the muscular avatar is being played by Orlando Gardiner, a young boy with progeria, whose weak real body has to be sustained with medical care.
My own Epic (2004) is premised on the idea that a fantasy MMORPG has taken over a colony's economy and everyone has to create an avatar and play the game for the sake of their wealth and legal standing.
Meanwhile, in the far east, enthusiasm for these kinds of role-playing games also led to books with plots inspired by the idea of action within the game world being crucial to the real world. In Taiwan, Yu Wo wrote the first of her series of nine 1/2 Prince books in 2004, while in Japan, the first of the very popular Sword Art Online series by Reki Kawahara saw publication in 2009.

The Russian dimension

These early examples of books with MMORPGs as central to their plots were not yet grouped together as a genre, but that changed in 2013, with the decision by EKSMO, Russia's biggest publishing house, to begin publishing titles in a series they labeled LitRPG. This Russian initiative has defined the genre and explains the origins of the name. In an English-language country the more obvious term would have been RPGLit.
Soon, this type of literature was being sought after by readers and a particular pleasure of the genre is that of vicariously enjoying success in a MMORPGs. Success that as a player it would take years of play to achieve.
So many authors and readers of LitRPG have focused on the in-game achievements of the characters that there is a body of the community of fans that insist LitRPG has to contain text that tells the reader - almost as an aside - the current stats, levels, abilities, etc. of characters. Most favour a broader approach to the genre and their expectation is only that an MMORPG is central to the story, although some have coined the term 'gamelit' to cover books that are light on the game mechanics and character progress, while still involving a MMORPG.

Why should you read LitRPG?

Like any genre, LitRPG has its great reads and its fairly weak ones. Perhaps, though, even the least well crafted is worth a read, especially if you've been frustrated by the difficulties of participating in the high-end raiding or need for elite gear in a real MMORPG. These books provide the antidote to such frustration as you can cover the progress of a character in the game with a short read of a few hours. At their best though, they are more than a substitute for gaming, they are a genuine contribution to a new literary form, one that allows the author and the reader together to explore new character and new plots.
As of July 2018, the genre largely exists in the form of eBooks. But that might well change with the growth in popularity of these titles. And at least one traditional publisher, Ockham Press in the UK believes the genre will have a mainstream future, having launched an imprint, Level Up Publishing, specifically to attract LitRPG authors and publish printed versions as well as ebooks and audiobooks.


Epic, Fantasy, Litrpg, Mmorpg, Scifi

Meet the author

author avatar Conor Kostick
Writer and historian. Commissioning editor for Level Up Publishing.

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