In 2016, I was engaged in writing an Important Work about Important Things and Deep, Serious, Topics. Or so I thought I was. In truth, important work does not get done by intending to do Important Work, but only by actually doing work that is important. Although I wrote on Deep, Serious, Topics, which I usually enjoy, I was burning out quite rapidly. My medium of choice – a young adult novel – was not quite the right medium, and I began to detest my writing time.
I also, like every author, had a deep pool of ideas I batted about at my whimsy. After reading the light-hearted fantasy webserial Mother of Learning, I was inspired to pluck one such idea out – a serious take on the videogames of my youth–and write it. It was initially my side project, but I soon abandoned the Important Work in favor of writing it exclusively. It was a blast, even if it was not Important, and I finished the entire novel in about three months.
I called it The City and the Dungeon, after the two archetypal elements of the world. One was a vast magical metropolis of human adventurers and clashing politics. The other was a still vaster subterranean realm of unknown depth, of endless monsters, traps, and treasure.
I call them archetypal, because I have played numerous, numerous computer role-playing games (or RPGs for short) where this, and nothing else, is the setup. The point was to cut down on any unnecessary plot and get on with all the adventuring. But I always wondered what it would be like if it really was the case. Thus the story: a serious, but full-hearted take on the less serious but still full-hearted games of my youth.
I was not the only one to have thought of it, I discovered, as I searched for ways to market this somewhat unorthodox idea.
No, it was not all that unorthodox. I discovered I had not merely written genre fiction, but subgenre fiction. Yes, like the space marine novel, the Pride and Prejudice variation and the bear-shifter romance, my work fell into one of those tiny niches on Amazon: mine known as LitRPG.
There was, and is, nothing wrong with this. After all, pure entertainment is as valid a reason to tell a story as any other. I can speak only of LitRPG readers, but we (for I immediately started to read in my own genre) are a voracious bunch, some easily devouring multiple books a month, a week, or even a day. And so I believe the same of all other subgenres. Who knows if that space marine novel lights the beacon of heroism in some young man’s heart? Perhaps for some young woman, life without bear-shifter romances would quickly become unbearable. Although I had worked some deeper themes in, subtly, the story was truly just to make people – including myself – happy. And happy we were. But more on this in a moment.
The LitRPG, short for Literature RPG, is an inversion of a certain category of games. In a roleplaying game, rather than individually designing every possible interaction of some muscle-bound barbarian with the rest of world, the creator assigns a number – say, 15 – to represent his Strength, and so on for all his other attributes. Rather than say the Sorceress is wise, we give her a Wisdom of 18, and let complex formulae determine how that translates into more powerful spells.
In all of this, these “statistics” are considered to be the virtual equivalent of a baseball card – they describe, not define. LitRPGs turn that on its head. No, the barbarian has a Strength of 15, ergo he is muscle-bound. The Sorceress not merely knows she has a Wisdom of 18, but she can do the math herself to determine how much damage her fireball can do. These statistics that were formerly abstractions become the ontological basis of reality.
My own LitRPG is about how a human being who touches the mysterious Cornerstone becomes a numerical entity himself – a delver, a creature of stats and levels and hit points and discrete abilities. Anything can be gained as a delver – beauty, power, magic, wealth. But what is truly yourself, when everything that you thought you possessed was merely a number? This is the question I proposed to ask, a question that can really only be asked in a LitRPG, and I feel I asked it successfully. Or, at least, my fans liked my answer. The City and the Dungeon was and is my most popular work to date. At its height, it was ranked #396 in all Amazon’s Kindle Store, and I sold enough copies to change not merely my career, but my life.
Lesson learned – You can be of more benefit to society and yourself by writing an entertaining work, regardless of how philosophical it is or isn’t. After all, I’m sure Jesus heard and read stories for entertainment, just like you and I. “I was bored and suffering, and you wrote a book that took my mind of it for a little bit.” But I did title this “Beauty in the Literature RPG,” and so I’ll leave on a more particular note to Catholic writers.
I had decided early on, when I decided not to write an Important Work, to generally leave Catholicism out of it. But as a layman-but-theology-nerd, I could not help but see places where theology was relevant. Some would inevitably worship the titular Dungeon, but a few, the labyrinthodules, would only venerate the Dungeon while worshiping a divine, transcendant Creator. And I decided, since I was on that subject, to sneak in a little discussion about veneration versus worship.
Meanwhile, I had also wanted to write a work that evoked myths and deep, transcendent mysteries. Though it is still a matter of stats and numbers, I decided that delvers could become like angels, through the use of the proper magical Angelstone. Being a fan of angelogy, and irritated at how angels are usually represented in fantasy as sexy ladies with wings and war bikinis, I broke out Ezekiel. The Cherub that appears in the story has four heads, four wings, and is covered with eyes.
That, by far, has gotten the most reaction of my secular readers. I heard complaints about the theology, but I lost count of the times people bring up the angels – always positively! Because, in the end, it’s not “truths” people read stories to hear – it’s Beauty. And Beauty will save the world.
Matthew P. Schmidt is a science fiction and fantasy author who writes primarily for the young adult audience. His most prominent book, The City and the Dungeon, is the book you just read about, presumably. In either case, he lives in Martins Ferry, Ohio