I’ve written about common game design flaws in LitRPG before. Now I want to talk about common flaws about how a game system is presented. Even LitRPG books that I like are prone to these, which is concerning. I thought Survival Quest was pretty good, but it seems to be the root of this problem (because other LitRPG copy from it a lot): Skills that get unlocked at random when you first use them.
I mentioned during my readthrough of the book that a huge amount of Danny’s success ultimately comes down to having developed the Crafting skill kind of out of nowhere in a fugue state. It allows his jewelcraft skill to punch way above its usual belt level and apparently normally requires a special quest to unlock. While I liked Survival Quest overall, this particular bit aggravated me, in no small part because it became a trend. Whether it’s Danny unlocking crafting through his weird fugue, Jason getting into a tiny and exclusive club of magic users by passing a personality test, or even experienced veterans being taken by surprise by tier two class unlocks in Threadbare, LitRPG is full of people stumbling across special powers totally by accident.
Any time this happens, my question is always: Why? Why is the protagonist the first one to figure this out? Why is it, in a game with somewhere between tens of thousands to several billion players that no one has stumbled across this extremely effective combo before? Particularly as the numbers reach into the stratosphere, practically any course of action, no matter how unlikely, becomes something that someone else would’ve already discovered, and once a game breaking secret gets out, it will spread like wildfire. Everyone will want in on it.
This gets really egregious when it’s used to explain why the protagonist gets to be the protagonist at all. Threadbare and Survival Quest dodged this at least partially by having the protagonist have other good qualities, but this was one of the biggest flaws of Awaken Online. Although Jason allegedly has a mega-brain that allows him to outwit all of his opponents, in practice he has a grand total of one clever trick and otherwise makes use of basic stealth gameplay and minion mastery (and a “terror campaign” that is somehow effective despite the fact that many people play horror games for fun), which is only effective because he’s the only one who gets to have the necromancy toys.
I get the idea behind these secret unlockables. It’s meant to evoke the concept of exploring a new world. The problem is, and it’s bizarre how many LitRPGs forget this, an MMO is not portal fantasy. It’s an MMO. It has a player population, and they maintain wikis. None of the books I listed are entirely without excuses as to why that doesn’t apply (Danny doesn’t get wiki access until the very end of Survival Quest, Awaken Online is a brand new game and the secrets haven’t been cracked yet, etc. etc.), but firstly, those excuses are rarely entirely sufficient (if Crafting is so amazing, it should be common knowledge, the means of achieving real ultimate power in Awaken Online are dumb even after you know what they are) which means they fail to disguise the fact that the protagonist is being handed extra power for no better reason but to justify their pre-eminence in the game, and second, it means that the book is failing to make full use of its premise. Awaken Online in particular was bad about this, serving up an endless cavalcade of excuses as to why its MMORPG behaved exactly like a portal fantasy instead of just making it portal fantasy.
People who explore in MMORPGs are intentionally handicapping themselves because they want a certain experience. Unless your protagonist is actually, intentionally making that choice, then the vast majority of information they get on the world, including the vast majority of effective builds and strategies, should be coming from the community, not personal discovery. If you’re contriving excuses for why they can’t even though they’re playing to win, then why are you doing an MMORPG story at all, when apparently a core part of the MMO experience – the community – is something you don’t want?