Roll for Plot Complications - early musings about the LitRPG genre

For a year or so now I've occasionally seen the term "LitRPG" floating around, mostly attached to stuff in bundles.  I kinda figured it referred to journaling-style games, usually solo endeavors where the game rules simply provide a framework for writing a story, but I was wrong.

After reading James Nicoll's review of Super Supportive, I decided I needed to actually look up with LitRPG meant, because I was clearly wrong in my assumption.  I checked a few sources, and the upshot seems to be as follows:

A LitRPG is a work of fiction in which some or all of the characters in the setting can access game mechanics and/or statistics.  They don't need to live in the world of a game (JRPG, TTRPG, whatever), but this is common.  There just needs to be some element of gamification that people are aware of and can work to improve should they desire it.

In short, a story where some or all game mechanics are diegetic.

The term itself has only been around about a decade, but a lot of stuff pre-2014 can be pulled in under its umbrella.  While I haven't read Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame books, for instance, they apparently qualify according to the Wikipedia entry on LitRPG.  The protagonists are sucked into the world of the fantasy TTRPG they're playing, an while doing the isekai thing they interpret things in terms of the game mechanics.

However, being in an actual game world, either by portal fantasy/isekai or by having been born there, does not seem to be necessary for LitRPG.  There just needs to be some mechanic by which one or more characters can see their character sheet or otherwise look at game mechanics undergirding their lives.

For instance, from Nicoll's review, it does seem that Super Supportive is not in a game world, but rather the aliens who grant humans powers have found a way to gamify the process.  The powers come in standard sets, people can check their stats, etc.  

To Bulma, DBZ is a dating sim.
One could see the "Scouters" from Dragonball Z as a sort of quasi-LitRPG element, as they quantify prowess and multiple characters have access to them or figure out how to accomplish the same thing without devices.  The Scouters alone do not make DBZ a LitRPG, though.  I haven't watched enough Dragon Ball Super to know if things get more explicitly gamified by the various godlike entities running the universes, though. 

Sometimes you get a regular SF story with an embedded and quite explicit LitRPG-style situation.  Larry Niven's Dream Park is one of the more notable examples of that type.  It's a primary world near future science fiction story about a murder mystery at a high tech theme park, and not a LitRPG overall.  Within the eponymous park itself, however, the characters all have access to character sheet information, their actions are affected by explicit random number generators, and they gain XP and other improvements to carry from one scenario to another.  It's a sort of part-time LitRPG.

Mind you, just being in a game world part-time or full-time does not qualify for being a LitRPG.  The 1980s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon dumped the kids into a D&D world (which recent comics have retconned as being the Forgotten Realms setting), but the closest they got to game mechanics was that the Dungeon Master was present and annoying.  They didn't even all have D&D classes as the game existed at the time.  Similarly, the more recent Honor Among Thieves movie, also set in Forgotten Realms, is not a LitRPG.  They don't follow game mechanics particularly well (or at all, sometimes), it's just a story set in the game's world.  They aren't aware of having numerical scores in anything, and the extent to which they do follow mechanics is implicit rather than explicit. 

That said, as a new-ish genre, the rules are still being worked out, and I've only accidentally brushed up against the corpus of LitRPG stories.  A lot of stories are LitRPG because the writers set out to make LitRPG, and the "explicit mechanics" aspects could range from mere color to being vital to the story.  The line between implicit and explicit game mechanics can be quite blurry, especially in works predating the coining of the genre name.

For instance, D&D inspired a LOT of fantasy novels, in the 1970s and onwards, not just those that were licensed D&D properties.  Sometimes you can see levels and spell slots and class restrictions bubbling just below the surface.  In the Thieves' World books, to pick an example I've read a lot of, you could sometimes see bits and pieces of gamerism underpinning things, such as when Shadowspawn was clearly picking up a Fighter level so he could use a proper sword, or how Hazard Class mages were clearly supposed to be an indicator of class level above a certain number.  But those stories were not written explicitly as "Shadowspawn is a L10 Thief and L1 Fighter, here's his AC"and do not qualify as LitRPG unless you make the term so broad that it's hard to distinguish from SF/F in general.

Similarly, stories that spun out of someone's TTRPG or MMO games aren't LitRPG either, not unless the mechanics are explicit within the story.  The Secret World Chronicles series might have been a City of Heroes group with the serial numbers filed off, but the mechanics were filed off too.  Sure, this character might obviously be an Energy/Energy Blaster, and another might be a Regen/Martial Arts Scrapper, but they're never actually referred to that way.  If anything, the setting creates its own in-world ratings and classifications rather than talking about character level or whatnot, and they're the sort of thing that's plausible for government or NGO schemes.

Anyway, while I literally just learned the proper meaning of the term this week, it's pretty clear I've been reading LitRPG manga.  Just looking at reviews from 2024, here's some candidates and my assessment of how well they fit the genre:

Reborn As A Vending Machine, I Wander The Dungeon: This couldn't be MORE obvious, as Boxxo is frequently checking his character sheet, watching his durability points and so forth.  The extent to which anyone else can see character sheets is less obvious, but that's partly because he still can't ask about it thanks to his limited vocabulary.

The Great Cleric: Again, pretty blatant.  Not only does he check his stats (as seen in the header image), a lot of the NPCs do so as well, so it's not like he's unique in his ability to do so (although he did take a skill that makes him better at it than average).  A major plot point early on is the question of why he can't seem to gain any XP and level up, and one of his trainers often warns him that a high level doesn't mean you can't die in a fight.

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear: Another isekai, this one has the protagonist expecting to be in a game world (Great Cleric and Boxxo did not expect this), just not the one she ended up in.  She regularly checks her character sheet, and again this seems like a normal thing for people to do.

Easygoing Territory Defense by the Optimistic Lord: Production Magic Turns a Nameless Village into the STRONGEST FORTIFIED CITY: Definitely an isekai, and the world feels like a JRPG setting, but so far almost definitely not a LitRPG.  Some implicit game mechanics do leak through at times, especially regarding mana reserves and rigid magic types, but this lacks the explicit and diegetic mechanics that characterize a LitRPG.

I'm In Love With The Villainess: This one is kinda borderline, especially if you insist on an RPG as the game, since Rei is reborn in a dating sim game.  I'll allow it, though.  Where it remains borderline is in the fact that explicit game mechanics rarely show up, and often do so purely through the memory or imagination of the protagonist, who has memorized the game.  But game-style option bubbles do pop up for her occasionally, and assuming they're not just completely her imagination, that gives some explicit game mechanics visible to one person in the setting.

I'd call Delicious in Dungeon just outside the generous and blurry halo of LitRPG, at least as far as I've read (volume 3 as of the writing of this essay).  Yeah, there's game-like statistic blocks, but they're for the food rather than the characters, and they don't seem to be diegetic.  There's a lot of implicit game mechanical stuff under the hood (such as the explanation why game-like elements such as easy resurrection for a fee exist), but they just live in a game world without having the mechanics floating in mid-air for them to read.

As far as prose novels and shorter works go, nothing I've read lately seems to ring the LitRPG bell.  The closest I think I've come lately is Ryk Spoor's Choosing the Players, in that the isekai'ed protagonists do sometimes interpret things through game mechanics, and the world has a lot of standard game elements like a formal Adventurer's Guild, but I don't think it quite qualifies as LitRPG despite that and its somewhat game-related title.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Associate Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), would like to reroll some things on his own sheet, is an occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.

Roll for Plot Complications - early musings about the LitRPG genre Roll for Plot Complications - early musings about the LitRPG genre Reviewed by Dvandom on Wednesday, June 12, 2024 Rating: 5
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