Book genres such as mystery, action and adventure, romance, and suspense have been around for almost as long as authors have been writing books. Other categories, such as science fiction, cyberpunk, or urban fantasy are more recent ideas but have still been around since the mid to late 20th century. One of the most recent additions to the list of literary genres is known as LitRPG. The term was invented less than a decade ago but the category already offers a host of great books that are considered “must-reads”.
LitRPG is a portmanteau that means Literary Role Playing Game. The literary piece is a reference to the fact that it is a book genre while the second part of the term is a nod to RPG video games where this genre borrows themes and conventions from. The books are identified by their video game RPG elements. The characters in these books are in a game or face video game-type challenges. They must level up and manage their video game attributes like strength, skill, and damage.
Just because the term that now defines this genre was coined in 2013, doesn’t mean that every book in the category was written in the last seven years. You can go back to the advent of RPG and the modern video game in the 1990s and find titles that were written in this style years before there was ever a term for the group of books. On this list, we will look at the shining examples of LitRPG and recommended some of the most important books to read therein. Here is the list of best LitRPG books of all-time.
1. City of Golden Shadow – Tad Williams – 1996
City of Golden Shadow (Otherland, Volume 1)
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This is the first book in Tad William’s seminal LitRPG series and is a perfect example of a LitRPG classic that was written more than a decade before the term was even invented. While some may argue that it is not pure LitRPG because it doesn’t have quite the focus on leveling up and game strategy that has come to define the genre, it is the forefather of many of these books which is why it makes this list.
The book was ahead of its time both in terms of themes and technology. The plot revolves around a virtual reality online world known as the Net where the citizens of the late 21st century spend much of their lives. When Renie Sulaweyo’s little brother falls into a coma after a visit to the Net, she must retrace his steps and go deeper into the VR experience than she ever has before to uncover the mysteries of a mysterious group known as the Grail Brotherhood.
2. Sword Art Online: Aincrad – Reki Kawahara – 2002
Sword Art Online 1: Aincrad
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As the LitRPG genre was developing in the early 2000s, there several areas that these works predominantly came from. North America and the UK were both hotbeds for these books and the term would actually be invented to describe a series of Russian entries into the category. In Asia, Taiwan’s ½ Prince and Korea’s Legendary Moonlight Sculptor are both great works but nothing from that area of the world had the cultural impact that Sword Art Online did in Japan. These “light novels” (like U.S. YA novels) have sold over 20 million copies worldwide and inspired a slew of movies, TV shows, and video games.
Sword Art Online is a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (VRMMORPG) that is set in an online world called Aincrad (hence the name of the first book). When 10,000 players are invited to test out the game, they end up trapped with the only way out being to beat the 100-level game. Two years in, there is still a ways to go and almost half of the original player have died in the game which also killed the in real life. Kirito, the teenage main character takes it upon himself to find a way out.
3. Epic – Conor Kostick – 2004
By Conor Kostick Epic (Avatar Chronicles) [Paperback]
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This is one of the first great examples of a book that is pure LitRPG. Written in the early 2000s, author Conor Kostick’s tale of the virtual game called Epic is full of game strategy and characters working to acquire bezants, which is used as currency both in the game and in the real world. It is the first of a trilogy known as the Avatar Chronicles which was written between 2004 and 2007. This book has been nominated and won a number of Young Adult (YA) fiction awards.
The main character if the book, Erik, is a disillusioned teenager whose parents were mistreated in the Epic world by the nine-member Central Allocations (CA) panel that controls most of the world. Stuck in the lower classes of society without much recourse though, Erik creates a female avatar named Cindella and focuses on trying to win a massive amount of treasure any defeating its guardian, Inry’aat, the Red Dragon. By putting all his character points into Cindella’s beauty, he is able to make friends and gain power that may help him defeat the Red Dragon and ultimately take on CA.
4. Halting State – Charles Stross – 2007
Halting State by Charles Stross (2008-09-04)
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Here is another early LitRPG work published well before the term was coined. It is set in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called Avalon Four and centers around a bank heist within the game of “prestige items”. Stross wrote a sequel to Halting State in 2011 called Rule 34. He planned to write a third book in the series, tentatively titled The Lambda Functionary but the book was delayed and ultimately scrapped by the author.
The book starts out by alternating chapters from the POV of Sue, a policewoman, Elaine, an insurance investigator, and Jack, a former programmer and MMORPG fanatic. While the three narratives start independently, they converge as the book goes on. The three protagonists must find out who is behind this robbery and how it connects to the world of hackers and cyberterrorism.
5. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline – 2011
Ready Player One
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This is by far the most well-known book of the genre thanks to Steen Spielberg’s 2018 movie based on the book. Just like The City of Golden Shadow above, some will argue that this isn’t exactly LitRPG. This argument is based on the fact that the characters exist in the virtual world but don’t necessarily have to level up and that hunting for Easter Eggs is not the same as characters’ upping their powers. Even if it is not a perfect category fit, it has inspired many of the authors in this world which is why it makes the best LitRPG books of all-time list.
Wade Watts is a poor teen from Oklahoma City in real life but in the virtual world of OASIS, he becomes a celebrity when he becomes the first player in the game to find an Easter Egg that gives him a key to a gate. As his quest to unlock more gates continues, Parzival (Wade’s online name in the game) encounters new friends, enemies, a possible love interest, and an evil corporation called Innovative Online Industries. Opening the final gate and earning control of OASIS becomes a race between good and evil.
6. The Game is Life – Terry Schott – 2013
The Game (The Game is Life)
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This is a good entry point to the LitRPG genre for many people because it is not as hardcore about RPG game theory and video gamer tropes as some of the books that will follow in this list. If you are a fan of The Matrix or Hunger Games, this is a book that you should like. It is certainly VR video game-based science fiction but is still very accessible for people who are not already huge fans of these books.
The book tells the story of Zack, who wakes up on Earth, which is the virtual reality world of the Game. The Game is played by teenagers for the entertainment of the beleaguered residents of the planet Tygon. The better you do in the game, the better your life will be when you finally die in the game and return to Tygon. Before Zack leaves the game, he is determined to be the #1 player and reap the benefits of that lofty position.
7. More Than a Game – Andrey Vasilyev – 2014
More Than a Game (Fayroll)
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More Than a Game is the award-winning debut novel from Russian master of sci-fi and LitRPG, Andrey Vasilyev. This is the first of 11 books that are currently available in English. Vasilyev has written a 12th book in Russian as well which is expected to be translated and available to English-speaking readers sometime soon. These books are all part of Vasilyev’s Fayroll series which is the name of the MMORPG game where much of the action in the books take place,.
The first book in the Fayroll series starts with society reporter Harriton Nikiforov assigned to do a story on a new swords and sandals MMORPG from a company called the Raidion Corporation. Nikiforov is given a free VR pod and a subscription to the game. As his character, Hagen the Warrior, Nikiforov gets addicted to the game and the more possessions, power, and influence he earns in the game, the higher up he starts to climb in real-life Moscow society. The higher he climbs both online and in the real world though, the more danger he encounters.
8. Survival Quest – Vasily Mahanenko – 2015
Survival Quest (The Way of the Shaman Book #1)
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Many lists of the best LitRPG books of all-time have Survival Quest and the rest of the seven-book Way of the Shaman series by Vasily Mahnenko at or near the top of the list. Epic author Conor Kostick, who helped define the genre, says it is the best LitRPG ever written. Whether it is or isn’t, it is absolutely one of the most well-known and highly-regarded works of LitRPG that have been written to date. It is also chock-full of LitRPG tropes such as leveling up, crafting, stat counting, and more so if you can get into this book, then you should love most of the other books on this list.
When Daniel inadvertently gets in trouble with the law and is sentenced to 8-years in prison, he is sentenced to “full-immersion” in Barliona, a virtual game world with elves and dragons and monsters. As a lowly Shaman, Daniel spends his days mining and breaking rocks and mining virtual copper. In order to strengthen his virtual character and collect enough resources to get out of the prison system, Daniel must complete missions, defeat other characters and gain points and supplies to ultimately accomplish his goal and get his life back.
9. The Land: Founding: Chaos Seeds: Book 1 – Aleron Kong – 2015
The Land: Founding: A Litrpg Saga
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The title may be a mouthful but the book by Aleron Kong is a huge hit in the LitRPG world. It was one of the top-selling books and audiobooks of the genre in 2017 and is beloved by ROG fans everywhere. It is the first in the 8-book Chaos Seeds series which has been described as Ready Player One meets Game of Thrones. The only big difference is the very in-depth RPG themes that this book offers which true fans of the category can’t get enough of.
Richter, the book’s protagonist is tricked by a player and suddenly transported from a video game to another world of magic. The world is populated by all sorts of creatures from goblins to fallen gods and Richter must act quickly to adapt to the world and grow his power. The story is all about town-building, leveling up, defeating monsters on quests, and strengthening the character’s powers. What sets this book apart from others with similar aspects is the humor Richter does this with and the morally-ambiguous choices he must make to survive.
10. Awaken Online: Catharsis – Travis Bagwell – 2016
Awaken Online: Catharsis (Volume 1)
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Awaken Online is a 4-book series by Travis Bagwell that includes 4 main books, a 2-book spin-off series known as the Tarot series and 3 novellas that, in true LitRPG fashion, the author calls “side quests”. The 4 main books in the series are this book, Catharsis, Precipice, Evolution, and Dominion. Bagwell himself is an interesting story. He is actually a lawyer by trade and a gamer/ LitRPG fan in his free time. He simply decided to start writing this type of fiction for fun one day and now his Awaken online series appears on most lists of the best LitRPG books of all-time.
The first Awaken Online book introduces us to Jason, a teen to struggles with relationships at his private school and has absentee parents at home. He finally finds a new, exciting outlet in a new, super-advanced VR game called Awaken Online. At first, Jason thinks the game is boring so he starts messing around until one day, he realizes he may have just become the game’s big, bad boss villain.
11. Ascend Online – Luke Chmilenko – 2016
Ascend Online is both the name of the 3-book series and the title first book from Canadian author, Luke Chmilenko. In what has become a somewhat common story in the world LitRPG, Chmilenko had a day job (he was in IT security) like Travis Bagwell and he released his first book in serialized chapters like Terry Schott before him. In a genre as new as LitRPG, it is not uncommon to see this DIY spirit from creators as opposed to more established genres that are populated by seasoned, professional authors.
The idea behind this novel centers around a group bored young friends who take the leap together into an exciting new virtual video game. One of the friends, Marcus, gets immediately separated from the group when he logs on. Instead of being on an exploration with his buddies, Marcus is thrown right into the middle of a goblin attack on a small village. Marcus helps rally the villagers and turn back the goblins. Grateful for the leadership and fighting skills, the village asks Marcus to stay and help them get stronger. When he agrees, it leads Marcus down a path of adventure and danger he could never have imagined.
12. Viridian Gate Online: Cataclysm – James A. Hunter – 2016
A former Marine and current professional author who has written numerous urban fantasy works including the Yancy Lazarus Series, Legend of the Treesinger, and MudMan takes on the LitRPG genre in his epic series, The Viridian Gate Archives. The series has all the LitRPG tropes that fans of the genre love and the compelling story will keep readers plowing through the pages of all 7 books in the series that are currently available.
The year is 2042 and an asteroid is about to hit and destroy Earth. A few lucky lottery winners will survive in government bunkers but the rest are doomed. That is unless they are willing to take an incredible gamble and joins a VRMMORPG that kills one out of every six people who try to transition their consciousness to the game. EMT Jack Mitchel is willing to take that risk and once inside the game, uncovers a corporate conspiracy theory that is turning the game into a world controlled by Earth’s richest citizens. Now Jack must defeat monsters, AI, and ruthless players to make his way up through the game.
13. Life Reset –Shemer Kuznits – 2017
One of the things that some players really enjoy about RPG games, in general, is the openness and fluidity of the world and the characters. You can play the hero and build castles and save damsels in distress like in many traditional video games. In many of these games though, you can also play the villain or the thief or the monster and this is something that allows players to tap into their dark side a bit in a safe environment. Life Reset is one of the first books in the LitRPG genre to tell the story from the perspective of the monster as he plots to gain power and get revenge on those who’ve wronged him in the past.
After years of playing New Era Online, an MMORPG, Oren wakes up in the game one day to find his powerful character gone and replaced with an entry-level monster. This is a result o a betrayal of some of his most trusted friends and allies in the game. Stuck in the game now, Oren must use his extensive knowledge of the game to build up his monster from nothing, create a powerful monster clan, and take revenge on his former friends turned enemies in order to get his life back. This is the first book in author Shemer Kuznits 4-book New Era Online series.
14. Sufficiently Advanced Magic – Andrew Rowe – 2017
Fans of the 80s video game The Legend of Zelda, Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, or anyone who can’t get enough of magic and wizards will enjoy this book. It is the first in the Arcane Ascension series by Andrew Rowe and sets the scene nicely for the next book in the series, On the Shoulders of Titans, and the books that seem sure to follow. It is a story about a wizard in training and of a brotherly bond that propels one brother to stop at nothing to find the other.
Corin Cadence’s brother Tristan started his ascent up the Serpent Spire 5-years ago and has not been seen since. The tower is filled with all sorts of monsters and other unknown challenges but for those who get to the top, they are rewarded handsomely with magic powers. Corin must now conquer the tower to find his brother but first, he must learn enough magic to begin the trek. For this, he must attend Lorian Heights to learn the skills he needs. Here, he meets friends, mentors, and also a mysterious group known as the Whispers who may have a hand in Tristian’s disappearance.
15. Underworld: Level Up or Die! – Apollos Thorne– 2017
The book’s title, Level Up or Die! is a tagline that can be used for many LitRPG books. However, what makes this book a little different than some of its cohorts is that the action starts once the main character logs off from his MMORPG and is sucked into the underworld. The fact that the story takes place in a surrealistic game-like environment and not an actual RPG leads some to question the veracity of calling it LitRPG but everything about this story is note-perfect for the genre. The series, despite the category confusion, is very popular and has led to 4 other books in the series from Apollos Thorne.
When a teenaged gamer named Elorion finishes an intense session of his favorite game and returns to his real life, he comes face to face with an evil demon who drags him to the underworld. Here, he finds he is one of 20 students who have been kidnapped by the demon. They have been given the power of magic as well as the tools to level up and increase their powers in this world. Now, Elorion’s goal is simple and laid out right in the title – level up or die!
16. The Luckless – A.M. Sohma– 2017
One of the frequent criticisms of the LitRPG genre is the lack of strong female characters, let alone a strong female protagonist. While some of the early works in the genre didn’t have this problem quite as much, as the genre shifted towards books created for male gamers by male gamers, this problem became much more pronounced. This 2017 book by female author A.M. Sohma (a pen name of the well-known fantasy romance writer K.M. Shea) helps remedy this situation with this female-led book and series, known as the Second Age of Retha series.
Kit is an experienced gamer who has played the MMORPG the Chronicles of Retha for a very long time. She is getting bored with the game and even creates joke characters such as an elf dancer just to keep things interesting. When the game experiences a software glitch and Kit finds herself stuck in the game though, things get a lot more interesting. Now, her only way out is to fight her way through the levels of the game and defeat the final evil character. With the help of a rag-tag bunch of other low-level players, Kit must find a way to finish her quest and get out of the game. If you enjoy the trials and tribulations of Kit, you can level up to the next two books in the series afterward.
17. The Crafting of Chess – Kit Falbo– 2019
So many of the books on this list are the first book of a series. Some of these series are only two or three books long while others have a dozen or more volumes. This can be a great thing because when you love a book, with its world and its characters, you want to spend as much time there as possible. However, this can lead to cliffhanger after cliffhanger with no conclusions and the feeling you are reading a never-ending saga. What is nice about Kit Faldo’s The Crafting of Chess is that it is a one-off novel where there is a beginning, middle, and end as well as an all-important sense of closure.
Crafting, or making things that are important to the game, is an integral part of RPG games and this book is a great place to see a lot of this gaming action. Nick is a young chess hustler who takes down small-time players with his grandfather in the real world. When he takes on the persona of Chess in the MMORPG Fair Quest, he sees a way to bigger things. Using his crafting ability and the skills that make him a great chess player, he takes on a quest that rewards players with $2 million if they complete it. While he is not the most powerful player, he may be the shrewdest which could change his life inside the game and out.
18. The Clan: Play to Live – D. Rus – 2013
Russian author D. Rus is considered one of the fathers of LitRPG and his first book, AlterWorld, was one of the first books published in the freshly minted genre in 2013. The book and subsequent Play to Live series have become international bestsellers in Russian as well as several other languages including English, Korean, German, Polish, and Czech. The success of this series has put its creator near the top of the list of most influential authors of the genre. It is a book that many authors who followed have tried to emulate to varying degrees of success.
In the near future, the world of MMORPG games has created a worldwide pandemic known as “the perma effect”. This is where a player’s mind is taken over by the virtual world and the human body goes into a coma and dies, leaving the player forever stuck in the game. For many, this is a scary proposition but for people with little hope in the real world, it is a risk they are willing to take. Terminal cancer patient Max is one of these hopeless souls who decides to take the risk and try to live on in a game. Along with a few friends and the love of his life, Max starts from the bottom and fights to level up in the hopes of experiencing the perma effect and achieving mental immortality.