There is a glittering gem of a sub-genre in the darkest recesses of fantasy’s vast, teeming dungeon: LitRPGs. LitRPGs, or literary role-playing games, are pretty much what they sound like. Similar to role-playing games on a computer or tabletop classics like Dungeons and Dragons, the characters in these stories find themselves thrust into a world of dangerous creatures, quests, loot, items, and, of course, leveling up.
Like the dregs of any genre, many LitRPGs are bad. The books on this list are not. In moments, some of them even brush against the ephemeral ceiling of greatness. That being said, it does not follow that this genre is for everybody. Readers should these gates with caution, both treasures and dangers await.
I scoured the internet and read dozens of litRPGs and compiled this list of the actual five best examples of the genre—several of which I couldn’t find on any other top five list. (Just a note… these are not necessarily in order. I had a great time reading all of them.)
My Top Five Best LitRPGs
Dungeon Crawler Carl by Matt Dinniman (Support Matt on Patreon)
When stepping outside to chase his ex-girlfriend’s cat, Carl watches as every building on earth is suddenly flattened. All over the planet, stairways open up to a subterranean labyrinth filled with traps, monsters, and loot—a dungeon so enormous, it circles the entire globe. Carl and the cat, whose name is Donut, find that they, and everyone else still alive, are contestants in an evil, galaxy-wide game show in which they must fight to survive, and, of course, level up and they descend deeper and deeper. Imagine Survivor with “murder dozers.” (See cover.)
Point of Order: Before going on, let’s talk about that cover. If you are anything like me or lots of other people on the internet, you might be tempted to judge the book by it. There is that giant yellow apocalypse font. There is a grinning goblin wearing a pot on its head (piloting the aforementioned “murder dozer”). For some reason, there is a cat running along in the bottom corner. And there is our hero, Carl, who looks like he is fresh out of a Top Gun spinoff series but for some reason isn’t wearing any pants. The cover sure doesn’t say, “Curl up with me next to a fire. I’m a normal book.” But if you give Carl and Donut a chance, they’ll win you over. I see that cover now and think, “Oh. There’s my buddy Carl. Ha. Still not wearing any pants. What a guy.”
Dungeon Crawler Carl doesn’t take itself too seriously. How could it when one of the main characters is a sentient cat named Princess Donut who shoots magic missiles out of her eyes? At the same time, however, it has a lot of heart. The story has a moral backbone without becoming moralistic, and a dark, playful streak without becoming lurid. (Okay, sometimes it is a bit lurid, but that is part of the fun. I never thought I would enjoy the recurring joke of an evil AI with a foot fetish so much. It gets me every time.)
Carl is the ultimate Everyman anti-hero. He is rough, crude, smart, kind, and practical. Part of the charm of the story is that the bizarre, hostile, and horrific situations Carl is put in only serve to more deeply reveal the ironclad goodness and beauty beneath his gruff exterior. In the words of another fantasy hero worth reading, Carl is good people.
If you have the chance, listen to the book on Audible. Jeff Hays, the narrator, is one of my favorites, and Sound Booth Theater makes the audio experience come alive.
One word of caution, friends. To say that Dungeon Crawler Carl has some objectionable material in it would be putting it mildly. If you have content sensitivities, this book may not be for you. If you’d like some help thinking through what to do with objectionable content when you encounter them in otherwise worthy books, listen to the fantastic lecture “Encountering the Fall in Fiction” by Lindsey Patton.
He Who Fights With Monsters by Shirtaloon (Support Shirtaloon on Patreon)
It is fun to see how litRPG authors solve the problem of getting a normal person into a world that functions like a game. Is it an alien invasion (Dungeon Crawler Carl, The Gam3)? Is it a VR capsule that generates a lifelike video game world around them (Life Reset, Awaken Online, Ascend Online, The Crafting of Chess, The Land)? In He Who Fights With Monsters, Jason, the main character, gets sucked into another dimension by an evil wizard’s spell gone wrong. It doesn’t turn out so great for the evil wizard, but Jason finds he quite likes his life in his new world.
Jason’s new world is beset by monsters, but he discovers a knack for killing them—and getting himself embroiled in the heart of local political intrigues along the way. The story plays with a delightful irony: Jason is basically a nice, modern Aussie bloke, but the powers he keeps acquiring in his new world are definitely the kind the bad guys usually get. For instance, his familiar is an “apocalypse beast” that takes the form of a bunch of leeches that live in his blood. Yuck. He cuts himself and they spray out on his opponents, eating them alive. If Jason were to leave the creatures free to continue their killing rampage, the leech monster would soon become strong enough to destroy the whole world. Move along, folks, no soon-to-be-evil overlords here.
In the typical, down-beat humor that fills the book, Jason named his apocalypse beast, “Colin.”
The good news for fans of He Who Fights With Monsters is that it is really, really long. The books weigh in about 600+ pages. I found myself wishing they were longer.
Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike (Support J. Zachary Pike on Patreon)
This book made me laugh out loud. A lot.
The jokes have a meta-level satire to them, playing with language and weaving game dynamics into the story in a way that adds another dimension of fun and hilarity. Gamers out there will experience a deeper level of humor than your average Joe.
Unlike the other books on the list, Orconomics doesn’t feature a player from the “real world” coming into the fantasy world. The characters of the story are natives and their world just happens to include things like levels and quests and all the bells and whistles of any self-respecting role-playing game. However, similar to the other books on this list, the story centers around the unfolding narrative arcs of a handful of compelling characters.
The story features a washed-up has-been of a main character, Gorm the dwarven berserker, who has fallen from his glory days into the bottom of a keg of ale. Gorm accepts a quest to help a goblin and is dragged out of his personal abyss and into important events happening in the larger world. Along the way, he gathers a motley crew of similar misfits-with-a-heart-of-gold and the stage is set for a thrilling plot, compelling character transformations, and lots of laughs.
Here is just a taste of the humor in J. Zachary Pike’s short, but loveable series:
“The exact ratio of irony to matter in the universe is known as Nove’s Constant, and by definition, it’s more than you’d expect.” Son of a Liche
“It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. In the same vein, desperation is the father of compromise, panic is the sister of slapdash improvisation, and despair is the second cousin of quiet apathy. By that reckoning, dinner was a dismal family reunion.” Son of a Liche
And the series is not without the occasional nugget of wisdom:
“A weak mind is a malleable one. Once it is convinced it has been lied to, it begins to lie to itself. Once persuaded that it is hated, it becomes hateful. Once made to fear violence, it becomes violent.” Son of a Liche
Awaken Online by Travis Bagwell (Support Travis on Patreon)
The first book of the Awaken Online series had me at “high school loser gets bullied and then finds power in a game to fight back against the real-life forces arrayed against him.” The storyline is a classic because it is irresistible.
Warning: The next paragraph has spoilers. Read at your own risk. If you want to skip the spoilers, just jump down a paragraph.
Not long after the book begins, (another) Jason finds himself (also) saddled with dark powers and is plonked down in a medieval-ish city. Jason chooses the necromancer class (because, why not?) and starts raising undead minions as any self-respecting necromancer would. The situation quickly starts to get out of hand, but Jason is apparently from the “in for a penny, in for a pound” school when it comes to necromancy. Soon a dark god gets involved, people are getting zombified left and right, Jason acquires the in-game AI as a personal pet, and he finds himself the ruler of a newly-minted undead city. And that is just the first half of the first book!
OK. Spoilers over.
The two things about this story that make me really love it are:
1. The AI can read the player’s memories and builds the story around them to suit the unique places they need to grow as people. What a setup for character development! This could have been a heavy-handed plot device, but I like what Bagwell does with it.
2. Events in the game are constantly influencing and being influenced by real-world events outside the game. As the series goes on, the stakes in both the real world and the game world just get higher and higher.
Life Reset By Shemer Kuznits (Support Shemer on Patreon)
The book opens with Oren, the main character, sitting in the lap of luxury at the center of an in-game empire he has built. A few brutal twists of fate later, Oren has been stripped of all of his levels, his loot, his stuff, and is locked inside the body of a sniveling, level 1 goblin. He is cast out into the wild, monster-infested hinterlands where he, of course, begins to hatch his revenge schemes. Naturally, they involve building a new empire—this one entirely composed of monster allies—to take back what was once his. It is just good, clean litRPG fun.
The series features an interesting (but morally confusing) relationship with one of the goblin NPCs, real-world government plots, dealings with (I’m sensing a theme) dark gods, and all the dungeon crawling you could ask for. If you liked the early Warcraft games and just wanted to be left alone so you could command your little peons to go mine more gold, you’ll like Life Reset. That is basically Oren’s life.
Honorable Mentions: Game Lit
If you want to be technical about it, litRPG is a sub-genre of GameLit (which is itself a sub-genre of fantasy). No list of this kind would be complete without a few honorable mentions from the parent category.
Skip the movie, buy the book, and stay up late reading as Ender outwits every opponent that crosses his path.
Ready Player One
Ditto for the movie. The book is much better. Ready Player One is the story of a nobody who rises to prominence because he solves a series of unsolvable puzzles in a high-stakes digital treasure hunt. What is his superpower? He dominates at ’80s trivia. (It does actually make sense if you read the book).
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