I’m apparently in a writing theory mood today, so we’re getting a second post about progression fantasy. I’d planned to write all this in one post, but it’s a little cleaner to do it in specific sub-topics, so let’s get to it. Some of this will be elementary to readers who are already familiar with the subgenre, but hopefully it’ll be useful to people who are just getting into it, especially prospective authors who might be trying to figure out what makes a story of this style work — or not work — for specific readers. So, let’s begin with something basic.
How Do I Measure Progress?
There are many different ways to measure progress within a progression fantasy narrative. The most commonly utilized in popular works that tend to be identified as progression fantasy is the presence of clearly marked “levels” of some kind. When Will Wight and I were first discussing options for naming the subgenre concept, “LevelingLit” or “LevelLit” was one of the options, because this concept is so integral to many progression works.
What does this look like?
Well, it depends on the story, but the clearest examples fall into a two main categories:
- Numeric Levels: Characters have levels that are measurable in numbers. This is common in LitRPGs, where someone might have a character class and level, much like in a RPG — for example, our protagonist may start as a 1st Level Wizard and level up from Level 1 to Level 99 throughout the series. Notably, the amount of granularity in the level system is extremely important for determining the feel of the setting. In a story where characters range from Level 1 to a maximum of Level 20, ala classic Dungeons and Dragons, every individual level is likely to feel more impactful than in a story based on Disgaea, where you might have character levels reaching into the thousands or beyond. Disgaea is an extreme example, but it’s not uncommon to see LitRPGs with character levels that reach or exceed 99, in which case leveling up may feel less and less important over time. The difference between level 1 and 2 may still feel huge, but it’s unlikely that readers will care as much about going from Level 127 to Level 128, unless that particular level has something incredibly special to set it apart.
- Titled Levels: In Cultivation novels, characters often have specific levels of power with named titles. This is true for both original Chinese works, where you might see levels like “Foundation” and “Nascent Soul”, as well as western works that are loosely or directly based on these. It’s frequent in western-style works based on Cultivation novels to have a clearer scale of improvement from a westerner’s perspective, which may involve naming levels in a progression with titles that resemble something in the real world we’re more familiar with than Taoist concepts. Cradle is a great example of this, with levels like Copper -> Iron -> Jade -> Gold. Jade’s presence may be somewhat less intuitive, since it’s not a metal, but the rest of it is something a western reader could probably intuit a hierarchy from. Bastion‘s levels are based on European-style noble titles, like Baron, Count, and Earl, which also lend themselves to a relatively clear progression.
Both of these styles have analogues in the real world, at least to limited degrees. Numeric levels might be considered comparable to weight classes for boxers or wrestlers, since they can be clearly measured. Titled levels might be seen as similar to “belts” in martial arts (e.g. white belts -> black belts).
It’s also worth noting that progression fantasy can exist without numeric or titled levels. In these cases, it’s more common to show relative progress, rather than absolute progress. An example that I like to give for this is Danny’s progression in The Karate Kid. He goes from getting stomped by Johnny at the start of the story to being able to win a fight at the end. Thus, his progression is demonstrated through his comparison to other characters, rather than an absolute measurement system. This is less commonly accepted as “progression fantasy”, but I consider it to be valid, and cases like Mother of Learning and Mage Errant are excellent examples.
Differences in Power Levels
Power differentials between levels — and characters —can make or break a reader’s experience with a story.
It can feel absolutely awesome for a character to go up a level and then beat an opponent they couldn’t scratch earlier. For some readers, this is exactly why they’re reading progression fantasy — to see a character’s power rise and to see them conquer previously insurmountable challenges.
This approach is absolutely valid, and it’s one of the most common styles. It is not, however, the only approach with merits. Very large differences in power between levels can make it harder for other characters to feel relevant if they do not keep up with the main character, for example. For some readers and writers, this is the ideal — eclipsing everyone is part of the fantasy — but it doesn’t work as well for stories focused on group progression (see below).
Another element with larger power gaps between levels is that it becomes harder to justify a main character punching above their weight, which is often another core fantasy for some progression fantasy readers…but the opposite of what others want. Characters constantly beating higher-level opponents can be awesome to some people, but hugely off-putting to others, as it may make levels feel irrelevant. This is frequently a complaint in LitRPGs, where numeric level discrepancies can be huge, and it can be hard to take a story seriously when a Level 6 protagonist beats a Level 75 antagonist, especially if it’s easy.
As a writer, it can be important to figure out exactly how much of a difference between levels feels reasonable to both allow for obvious improvement and allow characters to feel relevant in combat with characters outside their level range. If every titled level (say, going from Carnelian to Sunstone) is a ten-fold or greater improvement in speed, strength, and resilience, it stretches plausibility for some readers for a lower-level character to be able to contribute at all. Titled levels generally need to feel somewhat significant, however, because they tend to be much less frequent than numeric levels, and there tend to be fewer of them. Thus, if you have an end-goal in mind for “character must be this strong at the end of the series”, and you only have 6 titled levels to work with, you need for there to be at least some clear progression. For example, Arcane Ascension’s titled levels tend to represent a difference in power of about 1.5x to 2x compared to the previous level — and this is granular within levels, rather than being a “burst” of power improvement that happens when a level goes up. As a result, someone who is at the high end of Carnelian might be, say, 20% slower than a character that is at the low end of the next level, Sunstone…or they might actually be faster, if they have a more speed-focused attunement. This allows for characters to compete with higher-level ones, which is something I prefer, but it’s something many readers will strongly dislike.
Another element that authors can consider is asynchronous ability progression — meaning, not all of a character’s attributes improve at the same rate. In Arcane Ascension, for example, a Guardian’s strength improves along with their attunement level…but a Mender’s generally does not. As such, a low-level Guardian might still be able to out-punch even a maximum level Mender. This can be contrasted with classic Cultivation novels, where things like speed, strength, and resilience often improve at the same rates.
One very common approach to this is to make leveling more meaningful for offense and utility than defense. This is often true in magical school progression stories, like Mage Errant, Mother of Learning, and my own Arcane Ascension. It allows levels to feel like they still allow for clear benefits, but while the characters may get both stronger passive and active defenses (e.g. spells, items, etc.), their defenses to not scale up exponentially in the same way their other powers might. As a result of this, high-level characters can be more easily hurt by lower-level characters under very specific circumstances — like through surprise attacks, using specific weaknesses, or powerful magical items. You can still potentially stab a high-level Elementalist with a knife if you get close enough and they don’t have any countermeasures active. It’s noteworthy that while this is a common approach, it is also something a large number of readers in this subgenre find unsatisfying.
Group Progression vs. Solo Progression
This is a big topic as well, and one that has clear ties to the previous one. Is the main character intended to be progressing on their own throughout the story, or do they have allies that are supposed to stick with them throughout?
In the former case, it’s generally more acceptable to have larger power differentials between character levels. In the latter, though, this gets messy — you can end up with very lopsided battles where some characters feel relevant and others can simply be ignored by the opposition. That’s not to say that group progression with huge power differentials can’t be done, of course — look at Dragon Ball, which is one of the most iconic examples of the genre as a whole. It’s popular, but one of the most common complaints by fans is that many of the main cast have largely become irrelevant because they simply cannot keep up with Goku, Vegeta, and maybe Gohan and Future Trunks if the latter pair are the current focus of an arc.
For some fans, this is working-as-intended: Goku and Vegeta are there to be the best, and everyone else exists to be used as measuring sticks for how overpowered both they and their antagonists are. For some readers, however, that may not be the “group progression” experience they’re looking for.
Some stories address this problem through areas of specialization, which I touched on briefly above. By giving characters different areas they progress — strength for some, speed for others, magic for others — you can potentially have individual characters be very dominant in one area but others still remain relevant. This approach is easiest to see in RPGish stories with character classes or analogues to them, where a 20th level fighter still might immensely benefit from the presence of a 10th level wizard and 10th level cleric for backup in spite of their overall level difference.
This is something I’m going to address briefly, but it’s important:
Many progression fantasy readers hate any form of progress loss. There are cases for this to happen in specific forms of progression fantasy, most notably those that are clearly designed with resets in mind — RogueLike LitRPGs and Time Loops being common cases — but even those generally have a form of progression in terms of character knowledge and mastery.
If you’re writing something more analogous to a magical school story, or a dungeon crawler, or a Cultivation novel…just be careful about this. That isn’t to say there’s never a place for setbacks, but progression losses are a factor that will scare off more readers than virtually anything else. This can be offset to some degree by turning the loss into an upgrade — a common example would be a blinded character that learns a supernatural sixth-sense to be better-than-sighted at fighting — but this type of approach should still be used with caution. Any sort of supernatural fixing of disabilities can be deeply upsetting to some people who have those disabilities. While some readers do fantasize about having their disabilities magically fixed or providing them with benefits, this is a nuanced subject and I would advise research and discussion with people with relevant experiences. Simply “fixing” progress loss can be simpler, but the longer it takes to resolve, the more likely you are to lose readers.
Organic Progress vs. Cheats
“Cheats”, in this specific subgenre’s nomenclature, generally refer to unique advantages given to the main character. These “cheats” may be because of a character’s secret bloodline, a long-lost artifact they found, a magic system exploit they discovered, a crippling disadvantage that turns into a strength, a wise hidden master that teaches them — or all of the above. Some rarer variants are out there, too. The core idea, though, is that it’s a factor that sets the main character apart — and generally, if not always, improves their rate of progression speed directly or indirectly.
Iron Prince would be an example of a “cheat” that has a direct impact on progress speed — the main character has the world’s highest “Growth” stat, making their other statistics improve faster than anyone else. This is, in many respects, one of the clearest implementations of one of the core progression fantasy formulas in any literature. Notably, just having a high potential growth rate doesn’t always feel like a “cheat” — the level to which it increases someone’s progress matters. Ling Qi in Forge of Destiny advances faster than your average Cultivator, but within the boundaries of normalcy for her society. Mechanically, she might advance 25% faster than peers with similar resources, or twice as fast as “average” Cultivators. Raidon in Iron Prince, however, advances at more like 20x faster than your average person — which is what makes it feel like a “cheat”, rather than just something a person is good at.
A slightly less direct “cheat” would be something like the Chamber of Spirit and Time, where Goku in Dragon Ball can spend a year of training time in a single day due to the time compression effects of the room. You see similar elements in many time loop stories, especially The Menocht Loop.
An even less direct cheat would be something like a unique character class in a LitRPG, which doesn’t necessarily grant any direct improvements to gaining power, but the unique abilities offered by the class give the character a progression advantage (or just a direct power advantage for their current level, often accompanied by an ability to “punch up” to fight people above their level).
One critical distinction in progression fantasy books is what types of cheats the main characters have, if any, and the resulting impact on the speed of progression in the story.
Cheats are so important for some readers that they may not consider a book to be progression fantasy if the main character doesn’t have one. In many cases, a reader wants to watch a character advancing at a lightning-fast pace relative to others, climbing to the greatest reaches of power for the setting in record time.
That is not true for every progression fantasy reader or writer, however. More grounded narratives with characters advancing at normal — or slightly-above-average — rates both exist and can be successful, albeit with the caveat that their pacing will feel too slow for certain subsets of readers. Books like The Brightest Shadow and Forge of Destiny are clear examples of this more organic style of progression, with the characters having minimal advantages over ordinary people in their own setting. My own Arcane Ascension books are also much closer to an organic style, whereas Keras in Weapons & Wielders is much closer to a “cheat” character, since he has largely unique character-specific advancement methods in Diamantine and Soulbrand that other people cannot easily emulate.
Naturally, I have — as an author — done every single thing on this list that I’ve mentioned has a chance of scaring readers away. This is deliberate, because I tend to prefer styles of progression that feel more like an ordinary person advancing within a setting rather than an unstoppable force of power progress (although Keras is arguably closer to the latter). I do this knowing that these decisions will alienate some of my readers, but endear others, even if they are fewer in number. I encourage every aspiring writer to make these decisions consciously with the knowledge of how they may impact both your story and your response from readers.
That’s it for today. Thanks for reading!