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What is LitRPG? | All about fantasy?

Updated: May 27, 2021

For many readers, LitRPG may be thought of as a sub-genre of fantasy. And that’s not surprising – after all, LitRPG means ‘literature role playing game’, and the best-known role-playing game of all time (Dungeons & Dragons) is based on fantasy.

What Is LitRPG | Gamelit & Progression Fantasy Blog

More broadly, a lot of people closely associate fantasy with roleplaying, and fantasy is in general one of the most popular genres of fiction, so it’s an easy link to make.

However, LitRPG stories don’t have to take place in fantasy settings.

The essentials of LitRPG include a story with game elements and explicitly described game mechanics, often within a VRMMO game. These features lend themselves just as well to genres such as sci-fi, horror, and many more.

Fantasy is, in any case, quite broad – not every fantasy involves a D&D-style sword and sorcery plot, with wizards, orcs and so forth. Some stories might be set in a dark fantasy setting, urban fantasy, historical fantasy, and so on. You get the picture.

This blog post will take you on a journey away from the civilized realms of mainstream fantasy and on to an exploration of less well-charted frontiers. We will begin with alternative types of fantasy, and then on to even more distant types of LitRPG setting, with recommendations of some classics (or classics-in-the-making) along the way.

Level up for reading this far!

1) Dark fantasy and horror

Dark fantasy is subgenre that incorporates the frightening and disturbing. Granted, a lot of fantasy contains violence and brutality anyway, but dark fantasy generally takes this to the next level, with nightmarish elements of various kinds. This can include horror-like foes and things that tap into our deepest fears. Undead are often a key feature of dark fantasy. For some, a book may also be seen as dark fantasy if the protagonist is morally ambiguous or downright evil.

In many ways, the horror genre can overlap a lot with dark fantasy, especially if it focuses on fantastical threats such as demons or zombies rather than on real-world human ones (serial killers and such like). However, horror comes with its own set of tropes, which arguably make it a little less flexible and varied than dark fantasy.

LitRPG titles in this subgenre include:

· Age of Stone: A LitRPG Dungeon Core Adventure (Rise of Mankind Book 1) by Jez Cajiao

· Kaiju: Battlefield Surgeon: A LitRPG Adventure by Matt Dinniman

2) Low fantasy and urban fantasy

Most roleplaying games and many of the major fantasy classics that easily spring to mind (LOTR, Song of Ice and Fire, etc), can be defined as’ high’ fantasy, meaning that they take place in a fictional world.

In contrast, ‘low fantasy’ stories take place in the real world, usually in the present day (though not always – see below). Often, the fantastical/magic elements are known only to the initiated, rather than being common knowledge. Classic non-LitRPG examples of such stories include The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, and the Harry Potter series.

Urban fantasy can therefore be seen as a type of low fantasy, and is probably by far the most popular one nowadays. It is distinguished by usually having a city setting, and although it is often contemporary, these stories could also take place in the near future (e.g., Shadowrun) or the past (perhaps bringing in elements of steampunk). It can also overlap with dark fantasy (e.g., Stranger Things, vampire stories).

LitRPG titles in this subgenre include:

· Berserker: A LitRPG Urban Fantasy Adventure (Apocosmos Book 1) by Dimitris Gkirgkiris

· The Time Master (Interworld Network I): LitRPG Series by Dmitry Bilik

3) Historical fantasy and historical fiction

Historical fantasy tells stories set in a previous era of world history. The most obvious example might be medieval times (given that so many RPGs use medieval technology anyway), but other options include ancient Greece and Rome, early Chinese or Japanese history, the old West... in short, just about any documented period!

The genre also includes stories which takes place in the real world and in a past historical era, so it does overlap a lot with the category above. However, these stories tend to go further back in time than most urban fantasy stories.

Historical fantasy can be distinguished from the broader category of historical fiction in that it doesn’t attempt to portray a realistic version of historical events, and instead embraces things like gods, magic and monsters. A classic such as The Odyssey could therefore be considered to be a historical fantasy – it both tells a historical story (about the siege of Troy), and includes mythic creatures.

LitRPG titles in this subgenre include:

· The Great Centurion: Punic Wars (A Real LitRPG Roman Series) by Angelus Maximus

· Sparta Online book 1: Nemesis by J. F. Danskin

4) Post-apocalyptic

Now let’s consider life after the apocalypse!

In a post-apocalyptic novel, it is typically the case that the structures of our conventional society (policing, nation states, etc) have either completely broken down or are badly dysfunctional. Survival against all the odds is a key theme.

Certainly this genre can (and often does) overlap with dark and urban fantasy – zombie apocalypses being the obvious example, or any situation where monsters become a major feature of everyday life.

And as with the above category, you could have a post-apocalyptic story which fully embraces fantasy elements (dragons roam the land in the year 2100, for example), or one that attempts to be more ‘realistic’.

Bearing in mind that LitRPG most commonly takes place within a VRMMO or other simulation, the apocalypse doesn’t need to have actually happened for the purposes of the story. Instead, the main character could be playing a post-apocalyptic video game, and for some reason get ‘stuck in the game’.

Alternatively, the main characters could be experiencing an actual apocalypse. Many writers have thought of scenarios where this will both open things up to fantasy elements again (space orcs from another world?) and/or lead to gamelike-statistics somehow being visible to people or otherwise affecting their survival.

LitRPG titles in this subgenre include:

· First Song, Book One (Anthem of Infinity 1) by Blaise Corvin & Outspan Foster

· Life in the North: An Apocalyptic LitRPG (The System Apocalypse Book 1) by Tao Wong.

5) Sci-fi

Some people might define science fiction as a form of fantasy – given that the stories are fantastical rather than real – but clearly it is so huge and multi-faceted that it is very much a genre of its own. I mean, I could easily discuss the many sub-genres of science fiction in a similar way to the subgenres of fantasy, taking in space opera, time travel, superheroes...

There are of course quite a few RPGs based in sci-fi settings, as well as massive novels, games, and TV series, so on the face of it, this should be a good option for LitRPG or gamelit, too.

At least from what I have seen, there appear to be more cyberpunk sci-fi titles than traditional 'utopian' (Star Trek/Asimov) types of sci-fi, with quite a lot of post-apocalyptic and fantasy crossover along the way. Some top LitRPG titles that could reasonably be classified as sci-fi include:

· Winter Harvest: A LitRPG Sci-Fi Adventure (Space Seasons Book 1) by Dawn Chapman

· Earth Force (Relict Legacy Book 1) by Shemer Kuznits

Challenges to categorizing the LitRPG genre

I hope that this overview has expanded your perception of LitRPG a little, and perhaps inspired you to try out some of the lesser-known subgenres. If so, you hereby level up again!

Of course, this is just my own personal viewpoint, and no doubt there many different ways that subgenres in general and particular books can be categorized.

In fact, I see LitRPG novels as particularly hard to categorize in terms of genre on account of the fact that there are often at least two parts to the narrative, and sometimes more. In a typical VRMMO or portal fantasy, the story often begin

s in a contemporary or near-future world and then switches to an in-game one that looks very different.

A post-apocalyptic world could therefore be used as a framing device rather than the main setting, with the bulk of the action taking place in a setting that more resembles a traditional high fantasy.

In a smaller number of books, creatures or characters from fantasy worlds do the opposite – become aware of or find themselves in the real world in some way. And in a few titles (’Dominion of Blades’ by Matt Dinniman springs to mind), we don’t necessarily know much about the ‘real’ world until later in the story. There may even be LitRPG novels that genre hop, taking the reader from a fantasy world to a sci-fi world to a contemporary society... and so on.

But these rich and varied ways of writing in the genre are what make it so much fun! A more extreme divergence is the Royal Road series by Glayax/Jonathan Smidt, which focuses on tennis! The breadth of the genre is a strength.

As long as there is at least some resemblance to a video or tabletop RPG and there is at least some focus on stats and mechanics (for at least some of the book), we can still call it LitRPG. There is no need to be restrictive, as long as readers are enjoying the stories.

And all of that is to say: it doesn’t have to be traditional fantasy to be LitRPG.

Continue the conversation

I'm sure I will have missed some subgenres or books that I should have mentioned. If so, why not continue the conversation on the LitRPG Forum on Facebook or Discord?


About J. F. Danskin

J. F. Danskin is a Scottish writer of fantasy novels. His work spans several sub-genres and he is currently writing the fantasy LitRPG Shadow Kingdoms series and the historical fantasy LitRPG Sparta Online series. He has also published a complete series of historical fantasy books set in medieval Scotland, entitled the Druid Stones Saga.

Thank you for reading!

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