For anyone who hasn’t picked up Six Sacred Swords yet, there’s a giveaway for the Kindle edition up over on Goodreads! I’m giving away 100 copies. If you’re interested, you can enter the giveaway through Goodreads for a chance to win one of those copies!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Six Sacred Swords by Andrew Rowe

Six Sacred Swords

by Andrew Rowe

Giveaway ends March 18, 2019.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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Over on the new /r/progressionfantasy section on Reddit, someone asked for advice on writing progression fantasy. I put together a basic list of some things that I thought were worth discussing, and I figured I’d copy it over here in case anyone is interested.

Notably, not everyone is going to agree on these points. There are plenty of different ways to write an effective story – these are simply things I’ve found that work for me.
Character Roles in Progression Fantasy

As a general rule, I have a strong preference toward systems and settings that allow for different characters to progress in different ways. This allows for multiple characters to be relevant, even if some of them fall behind in terms of the overall power scale, as long as they have a sufficiently unique niche.

For this reason, it may be a good idea to have an underlying system that supports diverse character styles. A classic example of this is character classes in RPGs. A 20th level fighter is vastly more powerful than a 5th level wizard, cleric, or rogue, but the other classes still offer things that the fighter might not be able to do on their own.

It’s also wise to consider whether important character attributes like speed, strength, and resilience should advance separately to some degree. For example, in Dragon Ball Z, a character’s overall “power level” increases all of these attributes – which often leads to the more powerful characters being better at virtually every relevant factor in a battle. There are still some techniques that can be game-changers, but I think a story like Dragon Ball would have benefited greatly from having some characters being specialized in different areas (e.g. Yamcha is high speed for his relative power, Trunks is high physical damage for his relative power, Gohan is high energy damage for his relative power, etc.)

For this reason, I often have magic and advancement types that explicitly only improve one or two things at a time (and often with downsides to other attributes). In Six Sacred Swords, for example, Keras’ “Body of Stone” technique makes him stronger and more resilient, but at a cost to his speed. (Notably, a technique like that does exist in Dragon Ball, but it’s outscaled to uselessness almost immediately because the speed penalty is so large. It would have been more interesting, in my opinion, if someone developed a variant of that technique that was actually useful.)

This is all for stories where you want multiple characters to be progressing and relevant – which, as a general rule, I personally find more compelling than only watching the growth of a single character.

Weaknesses in Progression Fantasy

Weaknesses can both be a good way to enforce the relevance of multiple characters and to show growth as a person gradually learns to overcome some of their weaknesses.

Notably, weaknesses that are irrelevant to the character’s style are (in my opinion) less compelling than weaknesses that are relevant. For example, physical weakness as a wizard has to be fairly extreme for it to serve as a major detriment. Physical disadvantages for a close-range physical fighter are much more immediately relevant, and thus, in my opinion, more compelling.

I would also resist the urge to “solve” or “fix” these weaknesses immediately. Working through a weakness can be a good long-term goal, and it can (in my opinion) feel unsatisfying to see it just wiped away without much difficulty.

Don’t Skip to the End

A part of what makes progression fantasy compelling, at least to me, is seeing the gradual process and the difficulties a character goes through on their journey. If a character jumps from Level 1 to Level 99 in a single book, that doesn’t really serve the same purpose. That can still be an interesting story for some readers, but it has a different sort of appeal from watching gradual growth.

Effort = Reward

A big part of the core of progression fantasy is, in my opinion, the feeling that the power increases are being earned. It’s okay if a character gets some kind of advantage from time to time because they’re clever, or hard working, or just barely survived. It’s less satisfying, in my opinion, if it feels like they get everything for free or simply because of good luck.

Other People Should be Competent and Believable

A common trope in some forms of fantasy is for the protagonist to excel simply because they found something that would very likely be immediately obvious to any number of other people (from our world or otherwise). If possible, avoid this type of thing.

For example, if someone gets super popular because they’re the only one playing an “unpopular” character class in a game with a million players…that doesn’t really make any sense. People data mine statistics and theory craft about every class in MMOs, often long before the content even sees a public release. And in cases where things aren’t super public yet, that’s an even greater reason for people to be trying whatever they feel like (and thus not having any “super unpopular” classes).

Any Power Available to Society Should be Applied by Society

Similarly, think about the common applications of the types of magic and technology that exist in your world and how they might be applied by the average person.

Resurrection, for example, would have a huge impact on cultural and religious views of death. The conditions under which resurrection can occur would be important, and you’d expect that important people would try to make sure that they can meet those conditions if they’re ever threatened (e.g. having powerful priests on retainer).

Teleportation could have potentially huge impacts on things like trade and the flow of information.

Elemental magic could have tremendous impact on crop growth, influencing weather, power generation, and even simple things like city lighting at night.

This is more of a “general hard magic” thing than just a progression fantasy thing, but it’s especially important here because progression fantasy often allows for unlocking potentially society-altering abilities over time. This means you should be prepared to address how the already powerful are utilizing their power, as well as how any characters that gain power might use their power.

For example, if no one has ever reached a high enough level in space magic to unlock teleportation before, the main character learning teleportation opens up a lot of options for them. They can choose how they want to trail blaze in terms of using teleportation for things like mercantile, spreading messages, etc.

This also applies on a moment-to-moment level. If a character has an ability that clearly would “solve” the situation, they should at least consider using it. (No author will be perfect at this, but keep an eye out for abilities that offer easy solutions to a lot of situations, like super speed, teleportation, and time travel. Be extremely careful giving these out.)

Interactions Between Magic Types

Similar to the above, but also consider things like how teleportation might interact with another character that is learning to make spells permanent, or another character that learns how to increase the area of effect of spells, etc.

If you don’t want certain things to be combined, establish why they can’t be early on.

Influence of Power Increases on Plot and Pacing

Consider the places and times in the story when you want things like this to “unlock”. If characters uncover these abilities too early, it may influence your narrative significantly.

For example, if you want it to take a long time for the heroes to return home after a quest, you may not want to let them get powerful enough to learn teleportation or flight magic before that point in time, or you might want to have a reason why they do not learn those specific spells.

Reliable Progression vs. Dramatic Moment Progression

Something to decide on early on is if you want a clear, linear method of progression or something that allows for more spontaneous “moments of awesome”. It’s absolutely possible to have a middle ground, but think about this ahead of time and how it will impact your story.

If power increases feel completely arbitrary, you run the risk of readers losing immersion in the believably of the story. If your progression is too steady, however, it may also feel boring or uninteresting.

Another element of this whether or not you want to tie progression to emotional catharsis. This is extremely common; a character has some sort of breakthrough, generally about their own inner struggles, and suddenly powers up. (See: Stormlight Archives, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, etc.) This kind of thing can be extremely satisfying if utilized effectively, but it can also be super cheesy if it feels arbitrary and unearned. If you choose to go this route, try to spend some time setting it up beforehand to make sure that the character’s path makes sense to the reader.

Methods of Progression

Think about which types of progression feel the most applicable to the story you want to tell, and which ones you want to explicitly exclude. Try not to change these mid-way.

For example, early on in Dragon Ball Z, the Saiyan characters learn that they grow significantly more powerful any time they get close to dying. This is a progression mechanic, and one of the characters figures out how to “game” this by getting badly injured and rapidly healed.

After this, that form of progression is largely forgotten for a long period of the story. It’s only relevant in a few patches, and explanations of why it isn’t used again are largely retroactive.

Avoid doing things like that. If you introduce a method of rapid progression, expect that people will try to use it repeatedly, unless there’s a good reason for them not to.

It can also be interesting to give different methods of progression to different characters. When yo do this, those characters should, at points where it may be relevant, be shown to be considering those types of progression (even if they choose not to). To go with the easy Dragon Ball examples again, Piccolo can gain power by fusing with other members of his species. He rarely seems to consider doing this, however, even when presented with situations where it might be relevant or useful (e.g. the most recent tournament arc).

Antagonist Progression

Keep in mind that if progression exists, your antagonists may also be progressing. This can offer challenges to your protagonist that aren’t often found in other forms of fiction, because they might have to find unique methods of progression that outpace their opponents.

Elements of Choice in Progression

When a character has to make a choice in the progression process, this can make it more interesting. This both helps ensure that niches are maintained and helps the reader engage with the story by thinking about what they would do when presented with the same choice. Even a disagreement with the protagonist can help with reader engagement. Just try to make sure that any choices offered feel at least somewhat reasonable; if the choice is too obvious, or the protagonist makes a choice readers might strongly disagree with, you could potentially run into trouble with your audience.

Options vs. Linear Power

As a general rule, adding something new to a character’s list of abilities that they can actively take advantage of is more interesting than just a straight power increase.

For example, adding a new special attack that has a condition – like, say, a Backstab attack that requires hitting an opponent behind – is generally more engaging to a reader than a +2% additional bonus to critical hit rate.

Similarly, when a character already has a bunch of attack spells, adding a utility spell is probably more interesting than just another larger (or different) attack.

That doesn’t mean straight power increases can’t happen. Rather, I would recommend interspersing them with adding new abilities so that the power increases themselves can be larger and more relevant when they do happen. And, once again, those power increases do not need to be global; a character can get a boost to speed without it increasing their strength or resilience at the same time, for example.

Conclusions

My TLDR version is that the key elements are variety and internal consistency. Allow for characters to be interesting and distinct from each other, and give them different progression goals and paths. And when powers are available, make sure people at least think about using them when they’re relevant.

I’ve mentioned this in other places before, but Will Wight’s Cradle series is one of my favorite fantasy settings. His latest book, Underlord, is out today. I was lucky enough to read it ahead of time, and I consider it one of the strongest books he’s written to date.

If you’re interested, you can find it here.

I’ll have more updates on my own works soon!

I’ve been chatting a lot with my fellow fantasy writer Will Wight, who writes very similar fiction to my own. We’ve never quite fit in with any established fantasy subgenres, and we’ve always had trouble finding a way to appropriately describe our works. “Almost LitRPG” and “Inspired by Xianxia” weren’t quite perfect.

Jess Richards suggested a new term – Progression Fantasy – and we’re going to make good use of it.

Progression Fantasy is a fantasy subgenre term for the purpose of describing a category of fiction that focuses on characters increasing in power and skill over time.

These are stories where characters are often seen training to learn new techniques, finding ways to improve their existing skills, analyzing the skills of opponents, and/or gaining literal or figurative “levels” of power.

Progression in the subgenre title specifically refers to character power progression, not other types of progression (e.g. increasing wealth, noble rank, etc.) that occur in stories.

This subgenre heavily overlaps with LitRPGs, GameLit, xianxia, xianhuan, and shonen battle manga, but progression fantasy titles do not necessarily fall into any of these categories.

For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives would fit the model of progression fantasy, but would not be in any of the other mentioned genres/subgenres. Sword Art Online is both a LitRPG and a progression fantasy. Dragon Ball is both a shonen battle manga and a progression fantasy.

The vast majority of “academy” style stories have at least some degree of skill or power progression within them. Of those stories, the ones that fit this particular subgenre the best are the ones that have clearly quantifiable power growth, such as numeric leveling and unlocking higher level spells and abilities. That said, quantifiable power growth isn’t strictly necessary — it’s just one of the easiest ways to identify something that is a clear fit for the subgenre.

A good test to see if a story fits the subgenre of progression fantasy is if the Book 3 version of the central protagonist could easily defeat the Book 1 version of the protagonist in a conflict. If the series is more than 3 books, the Book 5 version should easily beat the Book 3 version, and the Book 7 version should beat the Book 5 version, etc. (Two books is being used in the example because it’s okay to have some arcs where character progression slows, stops, or even reverses, but there should generally be some forward momentum.)

This can be applied to genres outside of books as well. Shonen anime is a clear example, and you’d use story arcs rather than books to “test” if a character is growing in strength. For example, Goku from Dragon Ball demonstrates clear and consistent power growth throughout his series.

Clear Examples

Some examples of the types of character progression that would qualify a story as being a progression fantasy are below.

Note that these contain minor spoilers for these titles, since they discuss the types of character progression that occur in these series.

  • In the Cradle series by Will Wight, martial artists train to reach higher levels of Cultivation by perfecting their body, mind, and spirit. At each level of Cultivation, they gain access to increasingly potent abilities.
  • In the Arcane Ascension series by Andrew Rowe, mages train to increase the amount of mana in their bodies. This allows them to cast stronger spells, and eventually, to increase their Attunement Level and gain formidable new powers.
  • In Mother of Learning by Domagoj Kurmaic, the protagonist is a mage who is stuck in a time loop. As he repeats events in the loop, he gains new abilities, more mana, and more powerful spells.
  • In the Traveler’s Gate Trilogy by Will Wight, the protagonist trains in the titular House of Blades, unlocking new abilities and items with each room he successfully conquers.
  • In Six Sacred Swords by Andrew Rowe, Keras practices existing magical techniques that increase his physical strength and durability, and also gains new spells and techniques throughout the story.
  • In the Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson, members of the Knight Radiant can advance to different ranks, each of which provides additional powers.
  • In The Tutorial is Too Hard by Grandara, Lee Ho Jae is transported into a game-like “tutorial”, where he gains levels and abilities as he attempts to survive the deadly scenarios it prevents.
  • In Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama, characters train to grow stronger and learn new techniques, and later in the story have numerically quantifiable power levels.
  • In Hunter x Hunter by Yoshihiro Togashi, characters begin the story without any clear form of “magic”. Once they learn it, they gradually begin to develop and master their own personal techniques throughout the story. This is a good example of a case where progression is clear without there being any obvious numeric leveling.

These examples aren’t anywhere close to exhaustive; they’re intended to be a starting point. Many, many LitRPGs, xianxia stories, and shonen anime fit into this model. It’s much harder to find western-style fantasy novels that fit this style, however, which is part of the reason why a subgenre term is being created.

Borderline Examples

There are a lot of stories where the character is learning things, but without as obvious of power progression. Harry Potter increases in magical prowess over the course of his books, but there isn’t a good way to measure how much he’s progressed. Vin grows in knowledge throughout the Mistborn series, but it’s hard to say whether or not she has any significant power gain between books.

LitRPGs where the central protagonist starts out extraordinarily powerful and doesn’t get much stronger — such as Ains in Overlord or Rimuru in Slime Tensei — are also borderline cases. (The progression in those cases comes largely from town building and from the power increases of side characters, which is relevant to this genre, but less so than if the central protagonist was gaining power directly.)

Stories where only one character of an ensemble cast has progression are also borderline cases. Star Wars Episodes 4-6, for example, are something of a progression fantasy for Luke Skywalker, but not the rest of the cast. This is another borderline case.

Progression fantasy generally focuses on progression in combat ability, but some stories may offer other forms of progression that have a similar feel. Technological uplifting stories are closely related to progression fantasy, for example, as are time loop stories. These are also “borderline” cases that are worth potentially discussing in progression fantasy communities, but it’s worth knowing that they’re not what everyone will be looking for in the subgenre.

If you like this kind of story, we’re setting up places to talk about it with other readers.

There’s a new Facebook group here, and a subreddit here.

I hope that this concept is useful for people to find more works that they love.

The paperback version can be found here!

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If you missed the annoucement for the Kindle launch, the Kindle version is here!

If you’re waiting for audio, good news – Nick Podehl is recording again for this one, and we’re expecting the book to be out around the end of April!

Hey all,

Six Sacred Swords, my Arcane Ascension prequel, is now available on Kindle!

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While this is a prequel to the Arcane Ascension novels, it focuses on a different cast and can be read either before or after them. For those of you who have already been reading the Arcane Ascension books, you’ll recognize a few familiar names and faces, but there isn’t a lot of direct overlap – aside from Keras Selyrian, who serves as the protagonist of this series.

Paperbacks should be coming soon. Audio will take at least another couple months, but we’ll try to get it out much sooner than last time if possible.

I hope everyone enjoys the book!

I’ve uploaded the Kindle version of Six Sacred Swords. It’s now under review and should be available within the next 72 hours.

The paperback will be just a little longer (maybe a week or two).

Audio will be considerably longer, but we’re planning to get this one recorded much more quickly this time. I don’t have an exact date, and I’ll update the blog when I have more details.

I’ll post again when I know the Kindle version is available!

Hey all,

My editor has informed me that I should be getting my notes back on Six Sacred Swords today.

Without knowing the scope of what I need to change, it’s tough to give an exact release date – but I’m reasonably confident it will be before the end of the month. In a best case scenario, it might even be within the next week, but I don’t want to make any promises.

In the meantime, I have a book recommendation.

The Ruin of Kings

The Ruin of Kings is the first novel in A Chorus of Dragons by Jenn Lyons. I was lucky enough to be able to read an early copy, and I absolutely loved it. Early reviews are comparing it to everything from Game of Thrones to The Name of the Wind and Lies of Locke Lamora – and I see elements of all of those in there.

Essentially, it has a Locke-esque rogue protagonist, but he’s telling his own story (Kvothe style), in a setting with a lot of Game of Thrones style political intrigue. There’s a frame story as well, as well as some other narrator fun – but I won’t spoil that. Overall, I’d actually say the feel of the story is probably closest to Locke Lamora, with some amazing atmosphere, characters, and world building.

…and it has footnotes! Footnotes!

I probably shouldn’t be so excited about that, but I am. You’ll see why if you check it out.

If you’re in the mood for a darker epic with tons of interesting characters and intrigue, I strongly recommend this book.

I’ll post another update when I have a better idea of how long my edits are going to take (or possibly when the book is out, if it ends up being really quick).

Hey all,

Six Sacred Swords, my prequel to the Arcane Ascension series from Keras’ perspective, is almost finished. I’m just waiting on my final notes to come back from my professional editor, then after I make those changes, the book should be good to go.

As per usual, the Kindle edition will be first, followed by the paperback relatively quickly thereafter, and finally audio some time after that. We’re going to try to have this recorded much sooner after the Kindle release this time, but I don’t know what the release date will be.

This book is more of a side-story and very adventure focused. If you enjoyed the dungeon crawling and tests in my Arcane Ascension books more than the school content, this is probably something you’ll like. If you’re more interested in the magic theory and classroom stuff, you won’t see as much of that type of thing here, although there’s still some hints of how magic works and some training and experimentation.

This also serves as part of the bridge between the War of Broken Mirrors and Arcane Ascension books. Once War of Broken Mirrors book 3 (Defying Destiny) is out, you’ll have a pretty clear idea of how the stories connect, although there will still be a fair bit of time between Six Sacred Swords and the first Arcane Ascension book. That detail will be filled in over time throughout subsequent Keras books and possibly some other spin-offs I’m not ready to talk about just yet.

Anyway, the book is getting close to finished, and I hope to share it with everyone soon. There probably won’t be pre-orders for this one – I plan to launch it the day it’s ready, rather than setting a specific date in advance.

As per usual, Daniel Kamarudin is my amazing cover artist. You can find him here. Shawn T. King did the graphic design and typography for this one (and On the Shoulders of Titans). You can find his page here.

Here’s the cover!

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Hey everyone!

At long last, On the Shoulders of Titans is out on Audible. You can find it here.

Audio Book Cover Medium

In addition, Six Sacred Swords is currently with my editor, and the cover art is almost done. I’m hoping to have it out within the next couple months.

I’ll have more updates soonish. In the meantime, I hope people enjoy the audio book!

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