Thursday, June 29, 2017

Precursors to LitRPG Books

As you might expect, the LitRPG genre didn't burst onto the scene fully formed. It is a genre that owes quite a bit to a number of sources, not the least of which are tabletop role playing games and video games. With that said, there were a few books that came out before the LitRPG genre existed that filled a very similar role.

While these books aren't generally thought of as part of the LitRPG canon, it's easy to see how they helped to spur the development of the genre. They follow some of the same general rules, but they're still their own particular branch of fiction. Without them, though, it's hard to see how LitRPG could have evolved into its current form.

Guardians of the Flame by Joel Rosenberg

Beginning in 1983, Joel Rosenberg's Guardian of the Flame series began following a road that most LitRPG readers already know and love. His stories involved a group of college students who participated in a role playing game, and who eventually found themselves magically transported to that world. While there, they fought to survive in a hostile environment and had to decide whether they wanted to stay in that world or if they want to return home.

If any of that sounds familiar, it should - you're looking at what would become one of the stock plots for LitRPG. While the genre does, by some accounts, date back to the 1980s, these books are rarely lumped in with the rest of the genre. Instead, they are considered to be more of a straight fantasy series. The 1980s had a number of novels and other forms of media that involved characters crossing between worlds. Guardians of the Flame tended to be lumped in with that genre.

In retrospect, the only thing that keeps Guardians of the Flame out of LitRPG is a lack of focus on progression. Beyond that, it's absolutely the kind of bedrock foundation on which the rest of the genre was built. It's a good look at how you don't have to base the world in an MMORPG to get the same kind of effect for the reader.

Fighting Fantasy Books from Lone Wolf

If Guardians of the Flame was the precursor for the types of worlds and stories in which LitRPG would flourish, the Fighting Fantasy books were a good look at how character growth and stat progression would impact the genre. 
These books were less novels and more single-player tabletop RPGs, working as a strange mix of RPG and choose-your-own adventure book. They were certainly popular enough to keep a strong following for several years, but they definitely never made it into the mainstream.

The original series of Fighting Fantasy books has fifty-nine different adventures, so there was never any shortage of plots available for characters. As readers made choices and progressed, they'd be guided to different page numbers. 
It was possible to lose the story and kill a character, but most choices would lead to some kind of progression. It absolutely captured the kind of movement that LitRPG would become known for, but it did it more in the context of the game itself. It was a strange middle ground between RPGs and what would come next, but one worth exploring nonetheless.

The fact that the story is presented as a game really keeps Fighting Fantasy from being LitRPG. It did help pave the way for some of the more game-like books, though.

These two book series were only two of the precursors to LitRPG. You can find many of the same concepts in other books and other forms of media. It just goes to show that LitRPG really was waiting to be born - it just took the right confluence of events for all of the elements to come together. 
As you read through a lot of older fantasy and sci-fi, you can definitely see where these ideas came from. As the genre becomes more established and more well-known, it's likely that several older books will retroactively be added to the canon of the genre. 
Given how vague the definitions of LitRPG can be, it's likely that many older books can be considered to be forerunners to what readers love today.