What are the top LitRPG books of all time?
By Conor Kostick
Once you’ve been bitten by the LitRPG bug, you’ll want to keep reading works in the genre. And the good news is that there are hundreds of LitRPG titles to choose from. So many, in fact, that a common question in forums is to ask what are the best LitRPG books ever? Here’s my own answer to that question. Of course, it is highly personal and I don’t claim some kind of objective authority. But these are the ones that I enjoyed reading, that are well written, have engaging characters, strong plots and, of course, a game or game-world in which the drama unfolds.
I don’t include our own Level Up titles in the list, this is a compilation of great LitRPG reads made as a guide to promote the whole genre, rather than our books in particular, but I do think Level Up books would be there or thereabouts. Hopefully, you’ll see them crop up in other lists of the best LitRPG books!
Having chosen my top ten LitRPG books of all time, I realised I had missed one out that I really wanted to include, so apologies for not having the heart to cut any to make room. I also didn’t include Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, even though it would have been up in my top five, because while there is a game of sorts in the virtual world of OASIS, searching for Easter Eggs doesn’t give LitRPG fans the engagement with game strategies and levelling that many look for.
Here then, is in fact a top eleven LitRPG books!
LitRPG top eleven (counting down towards the best LitRPG book ever!)
11. Hack: A LitRPG Novel (Tower of Gates, Book 1)
A new VR fantasy MMORPG has recently built, but it is not yet public. A youthful Eric is the son of one of the developers and can sneak his friend Sarah and her boyfriend Josh into the immersion tanks to try it out. Disastrously, however, when the three companions want to leave the game, they cannot. Now things turn serious and the need to level up and be able to challenge not only dangerous NPCs but also the power bases of other human players, who for one reason or another have managed to get a head start in the game. The game world has vast levels, up which our protagonists decide they must ascend to discover what is really going on and, hopefully, a way out.
Erik plays a rogue build, Sarah a spellcaster and Josh a warrior. The book is strong on LitRPG elements: character sheets, combat as game announcements (‘Your bash HITS the villager for 7 damage’) and levelling. The book has faults: we could be made to care more about the characters, who are relatively thin on emotional intensity, despite a rivalry between Eric and Josh for the attentions of Sarah. But it also has a real sense of mystery, of our entering a massive alternate world whose rules we don’t understand but need to master to progress and escape. In that sense it reminded me of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, one of my favourite books in my youthful discovery of SciFi and Fantasy.
10. The Land: Founding (Chaos Seeds, Book 1)
Having been drawn from a fantasy MMORPG to a pocket of the universe in which a similar game is real, James, now calling himself Richter, explores his new environment and starts a long journey to levelling up and becoming a powerful, destabilising force. Not the least of his advantages is that he gets to resurrect after death. Aleron Kong often comes in for a lot of criticism, in part not related to the books but his self-promotion, which includes the claim that he is the ‘father of LitRPG’. The books, however, are good. True, there are weaknesses, notably how shallow are most of the characters, especially the female ones, and for many readers, the humour wears thin after a while. But any fair consideration of this series should acknowledge that it does some things very well. The setup is well explained, the game is a real challenge and the reader’s engagement with the process by which Richter acquires new gear, magic and skills has the intensity that many look for in LitRPG. For Audio, having plenty of tables doesn’t work so well but in the written books, journeying with Richter as he completes quests and gains power is compelling and fun.
9. Crota (The Gods’ Game, Volume 1)
Rohan M. Vider
This is an odd choice, I know. But I’ve placed it at nine because while there are a lot of LitRPG books that are better written and produced, something about the experience of reading Crota lingered with me long after I had finished. It is a tragedy and has a remorseless game environment which is impossible to beat. And that’s interesting in a Pincher Martin kind of way.
After his death on Earth, the main character, Kyra, has been accidentally drawn to a universe of competing gods. And although a free soul is a potentially destabilising, the gods care nothing for his existence, casting him into a realm where high level undead rule and where there is no possibility of a new player being able to progress. For me, the appeal of the read was the incredibly difficult obstacles that Kyra has to face. It’s like creating a new character in an online game and being place in a raid zone. Only death might mean your permanent extinction. What would you do? Crawl off and hide? But how are you even going to eat and drink. Is there any exploit you can find to gain experience and levels?
Unlike a lot of LitRPG books, where the main character has an edge and the fun is in seeing how a powerful magic item or ability can be used to maximum effect, there are no shortcuts here, just grim, grim struggle.
Full of game mechanics and stats (which amount to around a fifth of the book) this is all about strategy. And it is proof that LitRPG can be a great read by getting the gaming side of things right, even if other aspects of the writing fall short.
8. Blood Eye (Land of Dreams, Book 1)
At the time of writing, Amazon sales of this title suggest it has been missed by the LitRPG community. Maybe because it doesn’t have the term LitRPG prominent in the title. Yet it deserves attention because, unusually for the genre, it has a fully rounded main character who I found immensely sympathetic. And once you find yourself urging on a character then his or her struggles to progress make the reading experience a very pleasurable one.
In this case, we have John in a near future world where most labour intensive jobs have been replaced by drones. There are no longer ways for an honest, hard worker to make a living. John, our hero, is trying to get by and save himself and his parents from poverty. One way to generate income is to succeed in Land of Dreams, a fantasy MMORPG. This becomes clear to John as he plays the game and makes some intelligent choices. Not that there are any shortcuts for him.
The writing is good, the quest ideas even better, so as well as the overall story of John’s struggle for a decent life, the subplots around the in-game events are thoroughly enjoyable.
7. Advent (Red Mage, Book 1)
Our real world experiences an apocalypse caused by alien invasion and Petty Office Drew Michalik has to cope with the fact that it is now effectively a game, a game without mercy where death is real. This isn’t a mainstream LitRPG in that Drew doesn’t level up as a character class, but he does improve his powers by levelling spells and a complex system of gem attunements requires him to think strategically. Fortunately, as a veteran of World of Warcraft and Pathfinder, Drew is adapts fast.
The real fun here is to think about how you would cope if suddenly you were five floors deep in a military complex without power and full of monsters. No food. No water. No light. Game on. I especially enjoyed the first half of where Drew had to improvise from the items he obtained in a janitor’s closet and emerge with torches, a means of carrying gear and a real chance of escape from the building.
Much to the amazement of other survivors who rally to him, Drew really seems to have the measure of the post-apocalyptical world and this creates some interesting tension when senior officers with much less ability to cope try to give alternative leadership.
6. The Crafting of Chess: A LitRPG Adventure
The great aspect of this LitRPG read is that it has a plot that works to bring about a powerful resolution to the story by the end of the book. Many LitRPG books are so focused on the progress of the characters in game that they otherwise have only a meandering, rather purposeless plot. Here too, we have a very sympathetic main character. Brought up by his hustler grandad, Nate (who plays Fair Quest under the name of Chess) knows all the scams, but he wants to get away from that life. One way is to use his talent for chess to win on the streets and make a few dollars. Better are the fantasy card game tournaments he can do well at. But best of all, the new MMORPG Fair Quest (generic fantasy), offers a $2m prize for the completion of a particular quest.
Into the game he goes and the book is rich in game mechanics. In particular, as the title suggests, it really explores the opportunities to advance via crafting. Knowing he is unlikely to be able to get ahead of the race via conventional strategies, Nate invests in his relationships with NPCs and makes clever, strategic choices about his game career path.
Another positive is the morality of Nate and how it works in his favour at crucial moments. This book is the David Copperfield of the LitRPG genre.
5. AlterWorld: Play to Live. A LitRPG Series (Book 1)
AlterWorld is a game into which you can upload your consciousness. Since Max has terminal cancer, he is desperate to secure virtual afterlife. Being an experienced gamer, he chooses to enter the environment of a fantasy game and play a high elf warlock. His class can use summoned pets, which proves essential to his rapid progress in the game. The guild politics of the virtual world are great and once Max develops a recipe for simulating the experience of smoking, he is in demand by all guilds. All this is terrific and watching Max strategising with the game mechanics in mind keeps us turning the pages.
I have to issue two warnings, however. The first is that this is not YA/crossover (which tends to be where LitRPG fits) it is definitely adult. Rus explores the consequences of a virtual world in which you can’t die but can be wounded over and over. How would someone set about harming their enemies? By torture. I found such scenes grim but very credible and important even for helping us realise there are real stakes at play in Max’s efforts to level. Unlike some LitRPG words, where death and failure don’t matter too much, in AlterWorld the consequences of defeat can be devastating.
The second is that the series goes rapidly downhill as the author indulges in sexism, racism, homophobia and Russian nationalism. Not simply in the views of the characters, but in the messages of the books. And the problem with this is not just one of politics (presumably, there are Russian readers who welcome these messages), it ruins the characters. If a female character, for example, is forced by the author to behave in a certain way that suits a sexist message, then she soon becomes two-dimensional.
Despite that red flag, I have to recognise the first book at least as a great contribution to the genre.
4. More than a Game (Fayroll, Book 1)
Another Russian classic of the genre and another fantasy world. Harriton gets a lucky break when Raidion Corporation select him to promote their game Fayroll by producing a newspaper covering in-world events. This gives him state-of-the-art equipment (a full immersion capsule) but also creates a tense outside-the-game plot. Who are his new employers? How are they so powerful. While we enjoy Harriton’s escape from a low income into the high life, there is definitely something sinister about the circles he is now mixing with.
Fortunately, his success in the fantasy game as Hagen the Warrior is crucial to the success of his journalism. Soon the whole, massive gaming community are wondering who this character is. The guild politics in Fayroll are fascinating and in one particularly memorable scene, Hagen joins in an enormous raid where certain allied guilds attack the castle of another.
Unusually, Harriton is new to online gaming, but this gives an effective way to inform the reader about the mechanics of the fantasy world, how spells work, how characters can advance, etc. As Harriton learns, so do we.
Harriton is funny, smart and irreverent. In particular, he knows when to show respect, whether to those in power in the game or out, or even to NPCs, but also when to act decisively.
Again, I have to flag that even in the first book, but especially as the series goes on, there are problems with sexism in the author’s (as well as the characters’) values. But again, the game journey of the main character is completely absorbing and means that the first Fayroll book deserves a place in this list.
3. Ascend Online (Ascend Online, Book 1)
Marcus and his gamer friends decide to try the latest craze, Ascend Online, which is an immersive fantasy game with potential rewards for successful players. An experienced gamer, Marcus takes his time over his character build, eventually developing a ‘Spellsword’ character. When at last he enters the game it is to find himself naked and in the middle of a battle between goblins and a small village. After the action settles down, Marcus spends as much time, more maybe, on crafting as levelling and combat.
The reason this book is so high up in my list is that I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Marcus finds solutions to the various challenges of the game. More than that though, while no prude (note, lots of swearing), he is very moral and does his best for the NPCs of the small community he is now helping to flourish. This leads to him having to find a strategy that might have a chance of victory in a massive battle to defend the village. As well as overarching plotting, which is great and has some interesting AI conflicts, there are lots of sub-plots and local quests that keep you turning the pages, among them, a really engaging interaction between Marcus and a puma, about which I can’t really go into details without spoiling the read.
2. Catharsis (Awaken Online, Book 1)
This is a superb read for lots of reasons. An important one is that there is an overarching story that gives meaning and urgency to events in the game of Awaken Online. It is a high school drama, where the elite bully the poor and in particular Alex, son of a top executive in the game company, brings about the expulsion of Jason, who is at the wealthy school on a scholarship and whom Alex thinks is unworthy of being there. Set up, knocked down and isolated even from those he likes, Jason makes a major comeback entirely on his own efforts and entirely through success in the game.
Playing as a Necromancer, Jason deviously and brilliantly creates a path to power, one that is shocking in that it cares nothing for the usual ‘good’ style of play. Following quest lines that reveal the city of Lux, in which he is resident, is run by a corrupt aristocracy, in fact Jason has no scruple in aiming for an undead-friendly environment.
As he grows in power and therefore real world fame, Jason finds himself up against Alex, who has all the advantages of being a beta tester with an company executive for a father. Their struggle is really epic. Speaking of which the prose is excellent throughout and it might be wishful thinking, but I’m inclined to think there is a complimentary nod towards Epic in the final paragraph where the all-powerful game AI introduces itself to Jason.
And now for the drum roll…
In my opinion, the number one LitRPG book of all time is…
1. Survival Quest (The Way of the Shaman: Book 1)
Unfortunately for Daniel Mahan and through no fault of his own other than naivety, he is imprisoned for eight years. The sentence in near-future prisons is carried out while fully immersed in a virtual world: Barliona. Barliona is a classic fantasy world and Daniel is assigned, against his own preferences, the class of Shaman. Still, that has one small plus, he can aggro rats in the mine in which he has to work every day, hewing in-game ore to meet his targets. Killing rats is one, painfully slow, way to grind up a level or two. And with no better options, this is what he does. After all, one can but dream of one day buying his way out of the mine but also out of his sentence. That’s an option for in-game millionaires.
What makes this book particularly appealing to me is the character of Daniel. We are absolutely rooting for him throughout, especially as he demonstrates kindness and generosity to his allies alongside a determined resistance to his enemies. The writing is wonderful, totally immersive, and there is a philosophical strain to the values of the NPCs, especially those who follow the path of the shaman that make the interactions between players and AI have real depth.