Progression Fantasy – A New Subgenre Concept

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.

11 thoughts on “Progression Fantasy – A New Subgenre Concept

  1. This makes great sense.

    I’ve read a good number of the recent LitRPG releases, but often I consider the ‘video-gamified-world’ isn’t exactly what I’m after. It was easy to notice once I realized I started preferring scenarios where the game in question is ‘run by a dynamic AI’ or some other hand-waiving that lets the characters essentially step away from the rigid, arbitrary numerical mechanics and just treat the game like a real world. The more detailed the mechanics get, the more the story starts to suffer from weird hybrid-rule inconsistency and overhead.

    Which seems to go against the whole point of the genre in the first place. So if I like it better the more the authors deviate from the genre, it’s a good indication that I’m not actually interested in the specific genre but just in the stories typically told within it.

    Which translates nicely to understanding why I like your Broken Mirrors and Arcane Ascension (and now Six Sacred Sword – seriously we need a common name to encompass all these interlinked series) series. They’re the stories I want to hear without the arbitrary video-game rules or the 5 minutes of stat-sheet listings every two audiobook chapters.

    If you really want this name/concept to catch hold as a usefully descriptive category, someone should go and make a TvTropes.org page about it. Sort of a fiat-accompli, but it’ll get the job done. Especially because you’ve already done the ground work of enumerating correct, borderline, and incorrect media examples, which is what the site thrives on.

    1. I’m glad you think it’s a good idea!

      You’ve definitely identified the types of stories I’m trying to focus on. I hope this categorization is useful for people to find that type of story if it takes off.

      You’re also right that I need an “umbrella” name for all my universe stuff. I’ve been thinking about that for a while, but I still haven’t settled on one.

      Completely agree that a TVtropes page is a good idea…but I’m not sure I should make one myself. That seems a little too self-aggrandizing? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll do it eventually if no one else gets around to it.

  2. All these recommendations and I’ve read all the ones I want to. Damn.
    Hopefully the suggenre takes off so I can find these myself..
    I just finished 6 sacred swords too. I liked it (avoiding spoilers) but still want me some puzzle solving dungeon crawling like in arcane ascension.

    Cradle, travelers gate, storm light archive, and the arcane ascension books are my favourites out of my collection of nearly 200 books. I find it very hard to find ones that follow similar guidelines.

    1. My hope is that if the subgenre thing works, it’ll be easier for all of us to find more books like these. =)

      Thanks for reading Six Sacred Swords! I’m glad you liked it. I’m planning to have more puzzle stuff in future books in general, although the direct sequel to Six Sacred Swords will probably not have much – that’ll have to wait for the third book in that series.

  3. You really made my day with this piece of news! Certainly, It was harder and harder to find new books like these ones through all the litRPG already existing.

    PS: My friends and I used Evolution Fantasy and Infinite Fantasy to refer to this subgenre, and now I’m curious about how did other people call it.

  4. Hey Andrew, I remember talking to you early on and how you weren’t quite satisfied with either LitRPG or GameLit as a way to describe the type of fiction you write. I’m happy to see you embracing something that you can make your own.

    I love the amount of thought and consideration that you and others have put into the nascent genre. I look forward to seeing it grow and prosper.

  5. LOL I guess I did this with my Space Opera book series Universe in Flames then, MC (and side characters) goes to similar Shonen Anime progression in terms of powers. But 15 books in I find it a little daunting to always find bigger bad ass baddies to deal with, I mean, sometimes it feels like a never ending soft-reset cycle to level the playing field :). Same a DBZ really, Once you have Vegeta able to destroy the planet early in the first arc, then where to go from there :)?

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