The LitRPG or “Literary Role-Playing Game” has become prominent in recent years. Franchises like Sword Art Online inherit ideas from the Matrix - you’re plugged into this virtual world, and if you die in VR, you die for real - and add RPG mechanics like levels and quests.

There are some things I don’t like about the LitRPG genre’s more notable works, but I like the genre as a concept. So what would I do with it?

Let’s talk about some things I want to avoid.

I’m not super fascinated by isekai stories - the hero is physically projected into another world, either through reincarnation or some other means. What has spoiled me most on it is what specific stories do with it, namely harems of self-effacing slave girls and elements of nihilistic cruelty. The idea that you’d be pulled into another world to be a hero is already a big power fantasy, and I have definitely learned about some people whose fantasies I do not care to hear about.

I’m really not a fan of “die in the game, die in real life”. There’s too many problems with it when you apply it to commercial video games. For starters, what causes your real-life death? SAO tells us the bad guy designed the VR helmets to kill the user. How did that escape the notice of everyone involved in manufacturing them? How do you keep the physical bodies of hundreds of players from wasting away over weeks or months - especially their eyes, if the equipment covers those? Worst of all, why is there a sequel? What kind of person is going to play a second game like this when the first one was literally killing people?

MMORPGs let you play characters who aren’t yourself - your appearance, gender, species, and so on need not be the same. Some stories have fun with this, some have done some frankly uncomfortable things about “scanning the player’s body” to identify their sex, and some just assume the player and the character are conventionally attractive and move on. I’m very much not a fan of locking characters into looking the way they look in real life. Let them escape - let them choose. It’s a game.

Some LitRPGs stretch my bounds of believability with how they introduce their MMO mechanics, particularly with ideas like “cheat skills” or player-specific skills. In the real world, designers would consider it a failure of game balance for a single character to utterly destroy a pack of similarly leveled players in PVP, whether he’s the protagonist or not. Even in cutthroat games like EVE Online, where better skills and more expensive ships can grant victory, there’s always a bigger fish and a single player might wipe someone else out, only to be blown up in space by someone else who’s even better equipped.

Enough complaining! Let’s design my ideal LitRPG setting.

First, there must be something at stake that’s worth playing for. This could be an incredibly valuable prize (Ready Player One), rescuing or protecting someone important (.hack//SIGN), or stopping something that could affect the real world (Summer Wars).

Second, we’ll make in-game death matter without kililng players. This might be a little complicated, so please bear with me.

  • Many real-life games have a “level loss on death” feature, and our game does too.
  • The catch is that how much you lose is something you can select - and the more you risk, the better loot you can get, the better dungeons you can enter, and so on. A lot of stuff is gated behind the higher levels of risk.
  • To achieve the stakes worth playing for, you must play at this high level.
  • There’s a crisis in the game where NPCs who are necessary for you to level up aren’t available. This could be because they’re becoming sentient on their own (Half Prince, Overlord), or because of outside interference.
  • This means if you lose enough levels, you can’t level up any more, at least until the problem is resolved somehow.
  • Thus, character death can lock you out of contributing any further, but you still get to keep your character and hang out in the starter towns, and creating new characters won’t do you any good either.

Third, we’ll let the players program the game, at least to an extent. This could be client-side macros, add-ons, or some other mechanism. Such game extensions can give experienced players an edge, and players can trade extensions with each other or code their own. Indeed, World of Warcraft has widely regarded certain addons like Deadly Boss Mods as mandatory to play the game, and developers tune their encounters around such mods. In our world, extensions have limits - for example, you can’t just flood the game server with commands, and some operations might cost real money to perform. But as a believable mechanism for “cheat skills”, I’d buy this.

Fourth, we’ll make sure the players’ lives outside of the game matter too. I love shows like Recovery of an MMO Junkie because they’ll tell stories with actual adult characters, logging off and doing actual things outside the game. I liked the Subaru/Tsubasa relationship from .hack//SIGN, which came as a surprise to both the audience and the show’s characters.

All that remains here is to find a challenge worth playing for, a reasonably cool VR system, and a collection of characters whose stories we’d enjoy following. But that’s for another post.