The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack




LitRPGs are a vibrant new subgenre of sf and fantasy that derive from role playing and computer role playing games. 

Tusk and Blade by Lavelle Jackson

At first glance, Tusk and Blade is the story of Logan Sharpe, a man who attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge but ended up being rescued only to face the rest of his life as a quadriplegic. What the story really is, however, is the tale of Necro Redhammer, an orc chaos butcher in the game, Exodus Online. Necro’s tale is a pretty standard LitRPG adventure story wherein he learns the rules of the game, gains a bunch of levels, and kicks NPC butt. There are a few interesting twists. The orc society is an incredibly cruel one with very little by way of acts of compassion. That means that Logan is actually playing an “evil” character whose powers are enhanced by him personally feeling pain. He doesn’t come off nearly as evil as the actual bad guys, but Necro is by no means nice and the player seems to thrive on killing NPCs in the most brutal ways possible.

The more interesting storyline revolves around how Logan got into the game, but unfortunately it is dropped completely early on and never resurfaces. Facing a life as a quadriplegic, Logan becomes more suicidal than ever, but is totally unable to act on his despair. Enter a corporation with U.S. government military sponsorship that has secretly developed a totally realistic virtual reality system. They approach Logan and offer him a new life in their fantasy VR world. The catch? Logan will be uploaded into the system permanently and can’t return to his physical body. Naturally, this doesn’t seem like any kind of drawback to Logan considering his paralysis, so he consents without any understanding of why this arrangement might benefit the corporation and the U.S. government—and much to my disappointment, we never get even the slightest hint as to what those benefits would be. Once Logan enters the game there is no connection whatsoever to this initial, utterly fascinating, storyline.

This raises a tough question—why take the time to develop these extreme circumstances if they were to have no impact on the story? I didn’t have to have the complete answer in this first novel of the series, but it was a major disappointment that the “real world storyline” was completely dropped once Logan entered the game. It makes me wonder if the author even plans to continue it in the sequels—and if he doesn’t, Exodus Online will prove to be a very ordinary LitRPG.

I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Morgana by Nevin Lliev

Morgana is the fourth book in a LitRPG series called Everyone Loves Large Chests that follows the homicidal exploits of a mimic called Boxy. In the very funny first book, boxy starts to gain some basic intelligence when he successfully eats a first level adventurer. He then begins to develop skills and learns to explore his dungeon home all the while getting stronger and stronger.

In this fourth book, Lliev tries to refresh an idea that has gotten very stale in the preceding two novels. War is coming to the land and Boxy sees it as an opportunity to eat tasty humans and collect more shiny things. At the end of the last book, he advanced far enough to be able to change his race from mimic to doppelganger and this sets up a wonderful surprise in the novel. The other standout aspect of this book is a major military action that dominates the last 20% of the novel. Anyone who has tried large scale (i.e. tens of thousands of soldiers) military combat in their RPGs will appreciate the serious thought that Lliev put into this battle.

Unfortunately, the negatives far outweigh the positives this time around. The book is way too long for the amount of substance it provides. Forty percent of the pages could have been hacked out and no one would have noticed because nothing happens in them. I still like the overall concept of this series, but Lliev needs to streamline the text if he wants to get his adventure rolling again.

Heroically Challenged by P.T. McCordic

There are four things I really like about Heroically Challenged by P.T. McCordic. First is the world building. This is a story that really fits solidly in the LitRPG genre, but unlike most of those books it is not about a bunch of people playing a game (or trapped in a game). Instead it’s about people who live in a world where people can level up in a host of adventuring professions. McCordic actually found a way to make “ascending” make sense by having this new ability have entered the world alongside magic when the Blight started to devastate the land. Before this, there were no monsters, no magic, and no adventurers. Now, the new wizards of the world are trying to understand their newfound magic while the adventurers try and keep normal people alive.

Second, there’s an awful lot of humor in these pages. Most of it comes from the absurd situations they characters find themselves in, but a lot of it is generated by McCordic’s dry wit. It makes the whole book a lot of fun because you really don’t know what bizarre twist McCordic will inflict upon his helpless cast.

Third, the character Alyx was absolutely wonderful—so much so that I wish the book had started with his situation instead of that of the reluctant farmer, Erik. Erik’s not a bad guy, but he’s a little dry in the beginning where as Alyx has a gift for getting right into the middle of things from the moment he first appears on the page.

Finally, the thing that puts this book over the top is the absolute incompetence of the characters. They are the Stephanie Plumbs (inept bounty hunter from the Burg) of the fantasy world and their hopeless efforts added a lot to the overall humor of the story. Yet, at the same time, it was easy to empathize with them. They are all courageous, trying to do their part to save their world, but their inability to do even the simplest things without mishap makes their adventures priceless. To tell the truth, I wonder how many of us might find ourselves similarly challenged if we were forced to pick up a sword and try to chop a skeleton to pieces.

If you’re looking for something that takes a humorous look at the LitRPG genre, you should give Heroically Challenged a try. I know I’m looking forward to the sequel.

I received this book free from Voracious Readers Only in exchange for an honest review.

Team Newb by M. Helbig

I think a LitRPG novel works best when it mixes its action in the game with events in the real world. Usually this involves characters learning about themselves in the game and applying their new understanding to their real life problems, but M. Helbig has placed a great twist on this theme by having his main character essentially trying to find out why he was murdered and to get some justice for the crime.

Resolving this situation is not easy for Lucas because, let’s face it, he starts out as one really stupid player with no impulse control whatsoever. But as you would expect, he matures as the game is played which in practical terms means he gets smarter through a believable story arc. This shows up in his dealing with his murderer, but also in his interactions with other players in the game and in his ability to resolve the many problems he encounters in the game.

Other subplots also involve real world problems. One of the players is looking for his son who has been lost in the game while a different player has some strange interactions going on which appear to be connected to life outside of the digital realm. Lucas has to put a lot of the brain power he’s developing through playing into solving the mysteries that these two players bring to the game.

Which leads me to another place where Helbig excels. While he includes tons of damage counts and hit point checks in his prose, most of the important battles are not solved by in game skills but by clever tactics and problem solving. I suspect that if I were playing the game, this would annoy me, but as a reader it made for a much more enjoyable experience.

If you like LitRPGs and are looking for one that is both clever and humorous, you should give Team Newb a try. And if you prefer to read in audiobook format, you’re in for a very special treat, because Will Hahn has delivered another superbly theatrical performance.

Ordinary Hero by Ellis Michaels

One of the things that separates out a good LitRPG novel from a poor one is if the gaming experience impacts the player in his/her real life. Ordinary Hero seems designed for that purpose as it takes place in a simulation of the characters’ world and initially they do not realize that they are playing a game.

The action is fairly straightforward, balanced between James (our hero) having as much sex with as many women as is humanly possible (or probably more than is humanly possible) and James getting into dangerous situations in his need to keep impressing the women as a hero. There wasn’t a lot of depth here, but I think that might have been on purpose. If the storyline had been much more complex, James probably didn’t have the goods to resolve it. Still, watching him stumble through his virtual environment, figure out he’s in a game, and decide to play (in many senses of the word) was entertaining.

Michaels had the good sense not to end the story when James defeated the big bad, but instead brought James back to the real world where he had to interact with people he knew in the game and think about what he wanted from his life. There’s actually room for a sequel here as the player who was the big bad is clearly very angry that an “ordinary” guy like James managed to defeat him. It’s also nice to see James using his experience to change his life.

I received this book from Free Audiobook Codes in exchange for an honest review.

Earth Force by Shemer Kuznits

In Earth Force, Kuznits tries to imagine what would happen if the real world were turned into a video game. Everyone on the planet is transformed (unknowingly) into a video game character with the advanced healing we see in games and the ability to see each other’s levels. At the same time, some humans “warp” into monsters and begin killing and eating everyone else to become stronger. The novel focuses on a handful of people who figure out how to level up and start trying to defend the other survivors.

The basic plot is okay, but the new “game” that the survivors find themselves in doesn’t have the level of detail that Kuznits’ excellent Life Reset series has. Characters are leveling up but it’s harder for the reader to engage in their decisions because we just don’t have the degree of information Kuznits makes available in his other series. In addition to that, the dialogue is weak in this book and often feels childish. In the other series, the hero rarely talks to real people so this weakness didn’t become apparent, but it becomes a serious annoyance in this novel.

Overall, there is a lot of fun in trying to figure out the mechanics of this new world and how the characters will survive it. You can definitely imagine yourself playing this adventure and I suppose that is the point of the LitRPG subgenre.

Awaken Online: Catharsis by Travis Bagwell

One of my long-running complaints about LitRPGs is that while they all seem to start with a person in the real world living a crummy life that he or she wishes to escape, there is rarely any genuine synergy between the game experience and the real-life experience. We see character growth in the game, development of tactics, greater self-awareness, and often enhanced maturity, but that growth occurring in immersive game experiences rarely has any impact on the player’s real-life experiences. That’s not the case in Awaken Online: Catharsis. More than any other book which I have read in this subgenre, it consciously uses the gaming experience to influence how the player deals with life in the real world and it does so in a way that develops the plot in both game and life.

The book is a little bit slow getting started as it establishes just how crummy our protagonist’s, Jason’s, life really is, but once the game gets going the tension builds and the pages fly past. Jason gets expelled from school when the administrators side with a bully over him because the bully comes from wealth and Jason doesn’t. He seeks to escape his problems in an online game which is much more sophisticated than it first appears. We learn about this sophistication through a supplemental narrative at the beginning of each chapter. The game is run by an artificial intelligence which is out of control, making changes to the game rules, and demonstrating the ability to both access players’ memories and write onto their memories. But since there is money to be made, the company hides this from government regulators and starts the game anyway. Evidently they have never seen the movie, The Terminator.

In the game, Jason discovers that his nemesis Alex, is the hero of light, Alexion, who, because he was a beta player, has a ridiculously high level character. Jason is encouraged by NPCs to act on his desires (i.e. seek revenge and power) and become a necromancer. As he develops his skill he discovers that kills made by his zombies give him experience. He also discovers that his city is being betrayed by the nobles and the guards to Alexion’s kingdom, and so he decides to try and frustrate their plans. He takes his small horde of zombies and by using excellent tactics, is able to wipe out all the noble families in the city in one crazy night. His levels shoot skyward and he decides to take out the guards as well cleverly creating a zombie apocalypse and transforming the city into an undead metropolis called the Twilight Throne. This is big news in the online community and Alex/Alexion quickly swears to take down the undead setting the stage for the real conflict of the novel.

This is where the novel really shines. The contrast between how Alexion runs his army versus how Jason rallies his city and fights for them is quite strong. Jason is extremely clever using psychological warfare to defend the Twilight Throne. He gets roundly criticized by many players for this but essentially he is defending while they are making an unprovoked attack upon him. By contrast, Alexion continues to act as a bully without any real sense of strategy. It is purposely ironic that an evil person is running the forces of light while a good person is mobilizing the dark. Overall this is one of the stronger books in the LitRPG subgenre.

Life Reset by Shemer Kuznits

This is a very fun novel. Oren, our protagonist is probably the most successful player in the history of New Era Online (NEO) when a glitch in the system permits some of his most trusted fellow players to betray him by transforming him into a first level goblin. All his levels and accumulated wealth are lost and he’s transported deep into unexplored regions of the world to begin again if he can. The traitors expect him to delete his character and start anew, permitting them to inherit some of his most powerful and lucrative in-game powers, but Oren decides instead to rebuild his character and get revenge upon them.

As a plot, it’s not all that original, but it is a lot of fun for anyone who’s played these sorts of games to watch Oren struggle to master an entirely new branch of his game—one no one has ever played before. It’s a mix of leveling up, community building, and resource management that does get a little slow in the middle of the novel, but mostly it’s a fun and thoroughly enjoyable romp through the trials and tribulations of computer roleplaying games. So charge up your reader so you can enjoy Oren’s attempt to take the weakest race of monsters in the game and turn them into a world-conquering powerhouse.

Life Reset: Environment vs Player by Shemer Kuznits

In this sequel to the very enjoyable Life Reset, Oren, Dread Totem of his monster community, Green Piece, has a new and serious challenge on the horizon—the player characters are coming after him. The same group of players who betrayed him in the first novel have figured out where he is and are coming to finish the stealing everything Oren has created in the game and author, Shemer Kuznits, has cleverly managed to make this a real world crisis in addition to a gaming one.

To understand this, we need to take a step back and look at a few unique features in this gaming environment. Because of the enormous popularity of the New Era Online (NEO) gaming system, many of the top players actually make a living in the real world off the game. The most important part of this real world income revolves around “Prime” skills which are owned by the player who first thinks to create them. So if your player has made a new spell it becomes a “Prime” skill which he can give to other players and many times the skills are sold to other players. When Oren’s “friends” betrayed him they were trying to steal from him dozens (or maybe more than dozens) of prime skills that allowed him to live a comfortable life in the real world based on his gaming. In addition, Oren had built the most successful guild in the game (the Manipulators) which also added to both his game and real world wealth. Without Oren managing the guild and making all of these prime skills available to his guild members, the Manipulators are falling apart and all of this wealth is about to be lost to the people who stabbed Oren in the back. So the bad guys have developed a plan to save themselves: find Oren in the game, destroy his new goblin town, kidnap him and torture him in game until he agrees to use all his prime skills for their benefit. They have figured out that Oren, because of a glitch in the system that occurred in book 1 can’t log out anymore and so could literally be tortured forever. Notice how smoothly Kuznits has taken an in game rivalry and bumped it up into serious real world evil.

To protect himself (and eventually get his own vengeance by destroying the Manipulators so that he breaks the wealth of the betrayers) Oren has to build up the power of his goblin/hobgoblin/ogre community. This is the heart of the book—Oren learning to manipulate the system like the pro he is to permit him to take relatively weak monsters and boost them to a power level that will let them best some very high level characters. Kuznits does this very well, but it’s basically what he did for the vast majority of the first book and that part of the plot didn’t hold my interest this time. Fortunately, he has added some new subplots which did keep me intrigued. Oren is in danger of going native—forgetting that he’s really a human and not a goblin. There are some new players joining the game as monsters and one of them is clearly working for the Manipulators. Oren needs these players help to defeat his old guild, but can’t trust them. Also, his patron demon/god who wants to escape to cause the apocalypse is getting more powerful and closer to breaking out of prison. Again, Oren needs the power this creature is feeding him, but every success that Oren achieves brings Armageddon closer to fruition.

There is a lot to like about this book and the last fifth or so is all devoted to a mighty battle that everyone who’s played a computer roleplaying game will love working their way through to see how Oren bests a far superior force of player characters. That being said, I found myself skimming through many sections in the middle where Oren was building up his town and NPCs. I realize these scenes were important to the overall plot, but I think Kuznits could have trimmed this section down quite a bit and we’d have had a tighter, more action-packed novel. That being said, the last chapter lays out a lot of plot threads that have me looking forward to book 3.

The Savage Realms by Willard Black

On the surface, this book appears to have a lot in common with Ready Player One. Both novels are about a quest to find a treasure in an immersive online gaming environment but the similarities aren’t really even skin deep. In Ready Player One the hunt is a mystery that has people acting both in the game world and the real word, but in The Savage Realms, after a brief set up, all the action takes place within the game and takes the form of a classic fantasy quest.

The Savage Realms game is an unusually realistic gaming environment—so much so that it seems to steal a lot of the fun from the fantasy gaming experience. There doesn’t appear to be character levels. People learn skills the way they do in the real world. Injury and death is as painful as in the real world. To log out you have to travel to specific ports that might take weeks or months of journeying to reach and pirates attempt to kidnap characters who have just logged in to abuse and enslave them. The treasures in the game can be converted to money in the real world and this is facilitated by a banking feature. Frankly, the whole premise fascinated me, but the only reason for most people to be in the game appears to be that crappy as their game experience might be it is better than what most people are experiencing in the real world.

That being said…the actual quest to find the money is well done. The people who make up the heroine's adventuring party are well constructed and very important to the storyline. Their personalities matter and lead to a convincing and very exciting ending. The heroine herself has a moment of utter stupidity that was totally not believable and totally unnecessary to the plot (there were other ways for other gamers to find out that she thought she had the solution to the mystery of where the prize money is) but that being said, the story recovered and held my interest. Over all, I quite enjoyed this novel and would be interested in seeing more books set in The Savage Realms—especially if they would shine some more light on the connections between the lives of the players in the real world and the game.