Crystal Awakening Launch Events!

Hello, everyone!

This coming week is the launch for Crystal Awakening, the first expanded universe novel for the Arcane Ascension universe!

For those of you who aren’t already aware, Crystal Awakening, is a story that takes place on Kaldwyn — the same continent that Arcane Ascension takes place on — but it’s written by another author (Kayleigh Nicol). This is the first book of that type for my setting, and I’m hugely excited about the launch. Style wise, this is purely a spire climbing series, and it follows a veteran group of climbers rather than novices. As such, there’s less of an obvious focus on character progression (especially in the first book), and more of a focus on just climbing through the various floors of the spires and solving their challenges. If you enjoy the dungeon crawling elements in my books, I encourage you to check it out.

To celebrate the book’s launch, Kayleigh Nicol — the writer for this book — will be joining me for Discord Q&A stream on Monday, November 28th at 6:00PM PST on the Climber’s Court Discord Server. For those of you were lucky enough to manage to get a copy of the paperback early, please don’t spoil the contents of the book for anyone there! We’ll be taking questions, but let’s keep them spoiler-free for this book, as well as for AA4, since the audio version of that book isn’t out just yet.

After the launch stream, we’ll be doing an AMA the following day — Tuesday, November 29th — on reddit’s r/fantasy. This will be an all day thing, so stop by at any time. Kayleigh will probably be answering questions early in the day, and I’ll probably be answering them in the evening.

Preorders are up for the Kindle edition here. Paperbacks are already available and can be bought here.

Distinctions in Progression Fantasy Styles — Part 2 — Different Fantasies

In my previous post on Distinctions in Progression Fantasy Styles, I discussed a number of different ways to break down differences in individual characteristics. As my fellow progression fantasy author Sarah Lin pointed out in a reply on the reddit post, it may be possible to loosely group many of these characteristics into broader categories, which may in turn mirror reader preferences.

Based on this, I took a stab at identifying how these similar categories matched up and grouping them into a table. I’ve expanded this table since my initial post reply, both as a result of my own further exploration and a clever contribution from reddit user TheColourOfHeartache, who suggested a “generalist vs. specialist” protagonist distinction, that I’ve also included in the chart.

So, let’s take a look at what I came up with and explore it a bit.

Fantasy of FairnessFantasy of Uniqueness
Organic ProgressionCheats
Core Loops Including FailureCore Loops Excluding Failure
Smaller Power Level DifferencesLarge Power Level Differences
Group ProgressionSolo Progression
Setbacks PresentMinimal or No Setbacks
Slower Progression PacingFaster Progression Pacing
Slice-of-Life ElementsAction and Plot Focused
Specialized ProtagonistsGeneralist Protagonists
Focus on World and Magic BuildingFocus on Character Goals

I used the top line to give these category names based on what I feel the “core” fantasy of each style is.

What I call a “Fantasy of Fairness” emphasizes having effort translate directly into reward. This does not actually have to be a completely fair or balanced system — it rarely is, and elements like “nobles and wealthy people have advantages” are usually still present — but the foundation of this style, in my opinion, is the fantasy that “an ordinary person who works hard can power up”.

A “Fantasy of Uniqueness“, however, has a fundamentally different core fantasy — it’s the fantasy of being able to have a special characteristic that sets the person apart from everyone else. For this reason, this story style generally focused on how the main character’s unique abilities (which are often underestimated and/or initially treated as flaws) set them apart and allow them to advance faster/better/etc. than ordinary people.

I’ll also provide some quick explanations for each category, although I’ve handled many of them in more detail in other posts.

Note that in all cases, these things exist on a spectrum.

Organic Progression vs. Cheats: This line distinguishes between works where characters, especially the main character, have “cheats” — massive and generally unique advantages that help them to advance faster than others — or progress at a more ordinary pace for the setting. An “extreme” cheat would be something like Solo Leveling, where the main character is literally the only character in the setting who can level up. A somewhat less extreme cheat would be Raidon in Iron Prince, who has an S-Ranked “Growth” statistic, allowing him to increase his power at something like 20x the standard speed for characters in the setting. Characters can have advantages without them feeling like “cheats” — Ling Qi in Forge of Destiny is noted to have a higher-than-average talent, which lets her increase her Cultivation level faster than the average Cultivator of her age, but it’s probably like a 20%-50% improvement. This is notable, but it’s not a unique advantage within the setting, and other advantages (e.g. people with better resources) can be enough to allow other characters to advance at the same pace or faster. As such, Ling Qi’s advancement feels more organic, and less like a cheat.

Core Loops Including Failure vs. Core Loops Excluding Failure: There’s a whole post on this topic — Progression Fantasy Core Loops — so I won’t dive into this deeply here. Basically, the distinction is straightforward — does the main character generally repeatedly fail at a challenge (such as fighting a specific opponent or learning a new technique) before they succeed? Stories where the main character progresses with minimal failure have a distinctly different feel than stories where failure is a core part of the learning process. Both of these are common in progression fantasy — a story might not have much failure if the “fantasy” of the story is the main character having future knowledge to use to base their decisions on (e.g. A Returner’s Magic Should Be Special or Omniscient Reader), but the main character may fail over and over if the story is a time loop and based around repetition as the premise (e.g. Mother of Learning).

Smaller Power Level Differences vs. Larger Power Level Differences: In some stories, the difference between character powers as they advance is either comparatively small or focused on specific characteristics (e.g. more mana, more flexibility, or offensive power rather than defense). In these cases, a lower-level character might be able to defeat a higher-level one through specialization differences (e.g. a rock>paper>scissors style advantage), exploiting specific weaknesses, elements of surprise, clever pre-planning, personal skill differences, or some combination of the above. In other stories, however, the power level distinctions tend to include massive boosts that cannot generally easily be overcome. If going up to the next level as a Cultivator represents a 1.5x difference in speed, strength, and durability, it feels plausible that someone might be able to overcome that advantage. If it’s a 10x or greater difference, that may feel too significant for any level of skill or preparation to compensate. Stories that focus on the main character’s personal uniqueness often have stark power differences, where a high-powered character might be effectively invulnerable to a lower-level one — see Dragon Ball, for example. This can be contrasted with works like magical school stories that often allow for more flexibility for lower-level characters to out-fight high-level ones under specific conditions.

Group Progression vs. Solo Progression: This is a big one. For some readers, the core fantasy is a single person becoming overwhelmingly powerful, and in those cases, having a party of adventurers that split the focus can feel like an unnecessary splitting of narrative focus. For other readers, having a group to share the experience of leveling with can be a huge part of the hook. Many popular works are a middle ground, with two or three characters working together, sometimes with a partner dynamic (romantic or otherwise). This middle-ground approach with 2-3 characters can allow enough focus on the “main” character for many of the readers that are looking for a central hero that levels quickly, while still appealing to people who want a party dynamic.

Setbacks Present vs. Minimal or No Setbacks: This mirrors the core loops including/excluding failure section pretty closely, but it also speaks to the consequences of said failures. There’s a distinction between failure with minimal consequence — say, losing your first tournament match against a strong new opponent when you have a chance for a rematch later — and a loss where it costs the character something more tangible, like a level of progression, etc. Fantasies of Uniqueness tend to want to avoid any form of long-lasting setback, whereas Fantasies of Fairness may allow or even embrace this idea. Middle-grounds may have minimal setbacks that are resolved relatively quickly, or perhaps setbacks that lead to long-term gains (e.g. the hero’s weapon breaks, but is reforged stronger).

Slower Progression Pacing vs. Faster Progression Pacing: This is probably one of the most important characteristics for readers — how quickly is the main character leveling relative to other characters in the setting? How quickly are they leveling relative to the word count of the book or serial? Both of these factors are hugely relevant for the enjoyment of different types of readers. For some readers, slow progression feels more immersive, and those readers might love reading hundreds of chapters at any given level of progression while the character slowly explores the world and interacts with other people. For others, if the main character isn’t leveling at a blistering pace, they’re not getting the adrenaline rush from power-ups that is their core reason for reading. Many popular series find a middle-ground of some kind — roughly something like “the main character gains one titled level per book”.

Slice-of-Life Elements vs. Plot and Action Focused: How much time does the story spend on things that are not immediately relevant to the core plot, like spending time with side characters that aren’t immediately relevant to the core conflicts or progression? This is another major factor that can influence how a story feels. If there are a lot of characters and scenes that are functionally outside of the “core loops” of the fantasy, this can create more of an immersive feeling for readers who feel like they want to be watching the daily life of the main character. For others, everything that is outside of the core loop feels like filler content that could be cut to improve the pacing. This is a huge difference in readership preferences and this distinction can be a part of what makes or breaks reader enjoyment.

Specialized Protagonists vs. Generalist Protagonists: In settings where the main character is intended to be unique and/or the singular focus of the narrative, it’s more likely that they will have an expansive and generalized skill set, rather than being extremely focused on a single thing. Conversely, group progression stories are much more likely to have specialists in a single area. This is most evident with stories that have a character class style structure, where a group progression fantasy might have a main character that is a mage with supporting characters that are a warrior and a healer. Solo progression characters are more likely to have skill sets like “Summoner” or “Beast Tamer” or “unique classes” that allow them to effectively handle multiple niches on their own.

Focus on World and Magic Building vs. Focus on Character Goals: This closely parallels the Slice-of-Life vs. Action Focus and overlaps heavily, but rather than talking about scenes that expand the setting in terms of character interaction and daily life, the distinction here is that this is talking about whether or not the series includes scenes specifically dedicated toward exploration of the world and the magic system details. While it’s common for all progression fantasy to have some exploration of both of these concepts, the specific distinction in style here is whether or not we get significant time dedicated to exploring the world and magic system outside of the main character’s specific areas of focus.

For example, a story where the main character has the Summoner class is highly likely to include some discussion of how the Summoner class specifically works. A Fantasy of Fairness, however, is more likely to include significant content on how other classes work, how the general class system as a whole works, how various different classes influence society, politics, economics, etc.

Similarly, a Fantasy of Uniqueness where the main character is a commoner working in a society dominated by nobles may spend significant time on a specific noble family the main character the main character is seeking revenge on, but a Fantasy of Fairness is much more likely to talk about several different noble houses — and commoners in different areas — and how the governments in different regions work, even if it’s not immediately relevant to the main character or the plot.

Where do Popular Works Fall?

In my experience, the current progression fantasy community tends to have a leaning toward a Fantasy of Uniqueness — or, at a minimum, the most vocal members of the subreddit are more strongly represented by this demographic. With that being said, the most popular works of the genre — things like Cradle and Mother of Learning — tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with Cradle leaning more toward Fantasy of Uniqueness and Mother of Learning leaning more toward Fantasy of Fairness.

There are so many variables here that any sort of “rating” for where each work falls is going to be hugely subjective, especially since it’s difficult to know how much weight to put on any individual characteristic over the others.

For example, the Menocht Loop has many characteristics that make it primarily lean toward a Fantasy of Uniqueness, but due to the starting conditions involving a time loop, it involves a lot of failure, which is generally more representative of Fantasies of Fairness. Due to the way the loops are structured — and the narrative structure of the story — those failures do not generally cause large setbacks for the main character’s power progression, however, which means that the story feels lighter in terms of setbacks than certain other time loop stories might be. As such, my personal rating for The Menocht Loop leans more heavily into Fantasy of Uniqueness, but other readers and authors might disagree.

Conclusions

Overall, I think these individual categories add up to an image that can make or break the reader experience for any given story — and, in many cases, make certain readers feel one story or another does or doesn’t even “fit” with the progression fantasy model.

For readers who are looking for a Fantasy of Uniqueness, stories that combine slow progression, group progression, setbacks, and other Fantasy of Fairness qualities may not feel like progression fantasy to them. This means that they might not enjoy books like Forge of Destiny or The Brightest Shadow because they don’t have the focus those readers are looking for.

Conversely, readers who are looking for a Fantasy of Fairness might struggle with something like Solo Leveling that focuses heavily on the growing awesomeness of a single character.

Once again, I hope that this has been a useful post, both for readers trying to understand the subgenre (for their own education or to find more works they like) and for authors who might benefit from looking at things through this particular perspective.

Take care, everyone, and have a great week!

-Andrew

Mid-Term Election Voting Day in the United States

Just a quick post to encourage people who haven’t already voted to go out and do so if the polls are still open in your region (or to mail your absentee ballots if you still have one and it hasn’t passed the deadline in your state). I wish I’d posted this earlier, since I know polls may already be closed in some time zones.

If you don’t know where to vote, or if you are eligible to vote, I recommend looking at the official government website on the subject.

Thanks to everyone who already went out to vote! It’s very important.

Have a good day, everyone!

-Andrew

Distinctions in Progression Fantasy Styles

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.

Progress Loss

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.

Closing

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!

-Andrew

Progression Fantasy Core Loops

Hello, everyone!

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on the subject of writing, and based on some recent chat on the progression fantasy subreddit (www.reddit.com/r/progressionfantasy), I thought it’d be fun to talk about some distinctions that have emerged within the subgenre, their appeal to different styles of readers, and how some might “feel” more like progression fantasy to some readers than others.

Let’s get into it.

Types of Progression Loops

In gaming, we often talk about the experience of playing a game in terms of the “core loops” that are part of the experience. These “core loops” refer to actions that are commonly repeated by the player throughout the game in order to accomplish their goals and/or enjoy the game experience. A common example in role-playing games would be what I’m going to call the “RPG Loop Type 1“.

  • Go to an area with monsters.
  • Defeat monsters to gain levels and items.
  • Return to town or proceed to the next town.

This is a very simplistic loop, and many variations exist — for example, one might return to town early if they earned enough gold to purchase a new weapon.

Next, there are certain RPGs that have mechanics for skills that can be improved through usage. In this case, these have a loop, which I’ll call “RPG Loop Type 2“, which looks like:

  • Learn a new skill.
  • Perform skill repeatedly.
  • The skill improves, allowing for learning new skills or improving this one further.

Another common loop is less focused on directly grinding for rewards, and more focused on doing tasks assigned by other characters/items/etc. This would be what I’ll call the “RPG Loop Type 3“.

  • Accept a quest.
  • Perform the steps of the quest.
  • Turn in the quest and get a reward.

Some games are designed specifically to push the boundaries of player skill, either with specific encounters or the game as a whole. This may result in a different type of loop, which I’ll call “RPG Loop Type 4“.

  • Enter area and attempt to complete it.
  • Fail, often being sent back to the start.
  • Try again.

Many variants on this last loop require effort to recover things that have been lost (e.g. items dropped, experience lost, etc.) Some common examples of this include Roguelike games (named based on certain similarities to a game called “Rogue”), and Souls-like games (due to similarities to the Demon Souls/Dark Souls franchise). You can also see elements of this in older massively multiplayer games, such as Ultima Online or the original Everquest.

Notably, these three core loops both translate very well into some of the core loops that are often found within the progression fantasy subgenre. Let’s talk about a few of those.

First, what I’ll call “Progression Fantasy Loop Type 1” (readers from the original progression fantasy post on this, sorry – I’m changing the numbering here to make it a little cleaner). This loop looks like:

  • Find opponents.
  • Fight and win.
  • Get new abilities.

This corresponds to RPG Loop Type 1, and it’s the most common loop in stories that are explicitly attempting to resemble video games, such as LitRPGs, where a character might literally gain experience points and levels in the same fashion as a game character. It’s also a commonly found loop in shonen battle manga, where fighting strong opponents is a critical means of achieving new breakthroughs in power.

That’s still fairly common, but the most common loop in progression fantasy literature is what I’ll call “Progression Fantasy Loop Type 2”, which corresponds to RPG Loop Type 2, and works virtually identically:

  • Learn a new skill/spell/technique.
  • Perform the new thing repeatedly.
  • The thing improves, allowing for learning new skills or improving this one further.

This is generally the bread and butter of what most people are looking for in progression fantasy — direct, on-screen training with clear improvement relative to the character’s former abilities, and frequently compared to other characters as well.

Next, “Progression Fantasy Loop Type 3” is similar to the RPG Loop Type 3, but generally has less of a direct questing focus, except in LitRPGs that are expressly designed to resemble game core loops. Rather, it often looks more like:

  • New plot conflict arises.
  • Character confronts conflict.
  • Character gets stronger due to conflict, and/or rewards from successfully addressing said conflict.

This is commonly the case in books that have specific arcs with focused on individual problems, as opposed to slice-of-life series or series that tend to have longer-term over-arching problems that aren’t as quickly resolved. This particular distinction — the presence or lack of this style of content — is one of the (many) critical factors that can be used to distinguish some types of progression fantasy from others.

Basically, if the book has problems that are introduced and resolved in the same book, this makes the pacing and style of the book feel fundamentally different from series that do not involve pressing concerns (often the case in lighter fiction and parodies) or books that introduce conflicts and do not resolve them within the same book (which is frequently the case in very long-running series, as well as series that involve player interaction, such as books based on forum Quests, tabletop games, etc.)

Another element that can be important for how Type 3 loops feel is proactivity/agency for the protagonist. If the protagonist actively hunts down tasks to perform — be they quests, new areas to explore, or other challenges — this feels fundamentally different from a character that is reactive to challenges that arise. This is true in all forms of fantasy, but I feel it’s worth calling out here because it can be something that has a large impact on how progression fantasy readers relate to a specific type of protagonist, as well as the general feel of a story. For example, Dungeon Core and town building stories lean heavily toward protagonists and narratives that are reactive, rather than proactive, and authors should be aware that this kind of does not suit every reader. As such, authors in those subgenres may want to look for opportunities to make the protagonists still feel like they have agency, even in those more limiting situations.

Finally, we have “Progression Fantasy Loop Type 4“, which is analogous to “RPG Loop Type 4“, but my definition is a little more general:

  • Try a task and fail.
  • Train.
  • Try task again with and improve or succeed.

The presence and frequency of this try/train/repeat loop is a major marker factor in how a series feels to readers. Frequent failures will make a character feel more “human” or “grounded” to some readers, but “weak” to others (or, in some cases, even to the people who find the character more grounded). For many readers, repeated failure is an element that gets away from why they are interested in progression fantasy, and thus, this type of thing can scare many readers off. Conversely, a character that never fails may be uninteresting to other readers, who may feel that the story lacks tension and stakes.

An author that chooses to rely heavily on one of these loop types or another will create a great degree of enjoyment for a specific audience that enjoys that core loop, but potentially frustrate others. As such, many of the most popular progression fantasy series employ a mixture of these styles, with varying degrees of focus on one or another. In many cases, the specific focus is heavily influenced by the specific type of progression fantasy (LitRPGs lean toward monster killing for XP, Cultivation leans toward skill training loops, etc.) Authors who defy expectations within their own sub-sub genre might find that readers reject their style as a result — or readers might be happy by the change of pace, depending on the specific reader’s expectations and how well-executed it is.

All of this ties closely into other elements of progression, such as the speed of progression, progression levels, etc. That, however, will be the subject of different posts.

Arcane Ascension 4 – The Silence of Unworthy Gods – Is Out on Kindle Now

Hey, everyone! The book went online faster than I expected, and it’s showing up now on the US Kindle store. Hopefully it’ll be available in other regions over the course of the evening, too. You can find the US version book here.

The paperback and audio are still on the way. I’ll have the paperback available in a few weeks, followed by the audio later this year. The audio book target release date is December 27th, and we’ll have a preorder page up for that soon.

I hope everyone loves the book! And if you enjoy it, feel free to drop by the Climber’s Court subreddit or Discord community to participate in the discussion about this book and future ones.

More updates on other books coming soon.

Best,

-Andrew

Arcane Ascension 4 Update and Cover Reveal

As I write this blog, I’m uploading my final manuscript for Arcane Ascension 4 – The Silence of Unworthy Gods – to Amazon. I’ve marked it as ready to publish.

Now, what does that mean in terms of a launch time?

…I have no idea! It could be any time in the next 72 hours. Based on past launches, my expectation is that it will go up sometime tomorrow. I’ll post a link as soon as I see it available in the store.

In the meantime, I’ll be on the Climber’s Court Discord starting in about an hour (6PM PST) for a Q&A and some chat about the series as a whole. I can’t wait to hear what people think of this one – I think it’s probably the strongest book in the series thus far, and it has a lot of things I know people have been waiting eagerly for.

Best,

-Andrew

Arcane Ascension 4 – Pre-Launch Q&A on Discord

Hello everyone,

AA4 is coming very soon – at least on Kindle. Paperbacks and audio will be later, as per usual. My hope is that I’ll be able to get the Kindle edition up this weekend, and if not, hopefully the next.

To celebrate, I will be doing a Q&A on the Climber’s Court Discord tomorrow evening. I am targeting a start time of 6-7PM PST, but this may be delayed if I’m currently in the midst of book setup during that time frame.

Basically, most of the prep for the launch is done, but I’m awaiting the final version of the cover and doing my final check of the files. This means some very small last-minute edits, making sure things like the table of contents works properly, links work properly, etc. Assuming all of this gets done, my hope is that the book will go live sometime either very late Saturday night (on Pacific time) or Sunday, but Amazon can take up to 72 hours to approve books, so it’s hard to say.

I owe a major thanks to my graphic designer for working overtime to try to get the cover ready for this weekend. (Thanks, Shawn!) Hopefully we’ll get this up and running in time for this weekend – if not, my fallback launch date is Saturday, October 8th.

I’ll have more info on the audio book version soon – a preorder page is going up soon, but I don’t have an exact date (it depends on when Audible approves it).

I’m hoping to give people a first look at the cover art tomorrow as well.

Hope everyone is having a great Friday and has an excellent weekend,

-Andrew