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What’s up, storytellers?

What’s up, storyteller? I’m Clark Rowenson, the magic engineer, and it’s time to talk about magic.

An important aspect of my coaching style is helping writers craft strong systems that make for high-quality storytelling. I do this, in part, by breaking down what works into easily digestible chunks so you are better equipped to make the decisions that help you build a well-balanced and amazing system that fans obsess over. Today we’re revisiting the relationship between power arcs and progression curves and why they are so important.

Today I’m walking through some case studies and looking at some of my favorite LitRPG systems to examine how they’re set up. We’ll analyze the power arc and progression curve and how they relate to each other in some of the most popular LitRPG series. We’ll take a look at Dungeon Crawler Carl by Matt Dinniman, Viridian Gate Online by James Hunter, Ascend Online by Luke Chmilenko, He Who Fights with Monsters by Shirtaloon, and then we’ll also touch on some Dungeons & Dragons mechanics.

A LitRPG author stands up against a massive enemy dragon representing the difficulty of balancing power dynamics and progression arcs in LitRPG storytelling.

Evaluating these structures can help you develop your mechanics thoughtfully and effectively for your novels, games, campaigns, or other creative works. So, let’s jump into these LitRPG case studies and see what mechanics inspire you.


Dungeon Crawler Carl & Viridian Gate Online

The first two case studies I want to cover are Dungeon Crawler Carl and Viridian Gate Online. I’m mentioning these two together because there are some similarities between them.

The book cover of LitRPG novel Veridian Gate Online: Cataclysm by J. A. Hunter featuring a hero doing magic in a fantasy setting.
The book cover of LitRPG novel Dungeon Crawler Carl by Matt Dinniman featuring the hero of the story running away from a goblin.

Each of these LitRPG series follows the standard linear power arc. With each level, you get a set number of stats to allocate however you want. They follow the same, straightforward power arc from beginning to end. However, it’s not always a perfect trajectory. There are some little bumps, changes, and squiggles along the way.

With Dungeon Crawler Carl, for example, players can pick their new race, their class, and their advanced class. However, with those things, it’s less about a boost in power level and more about the refinement of individual play style.

Viridian Gate Online is a little different. VGO is what you would expect from a standard MMORPG. It has exponential decay like what you would experience playing World of Warcraft, for example. Players get through the first levels pretty quickly but then things start to slow down. You find yourself having to do more and more epic stuff to advance through the higher levels.

A character studies which skills they may want to advance when they level up in order to maximize power and progression.

Back to DCC, Matt Dinniman built it in such a way that the pool of experience you need from level to level increases. The requirements to level up grow with each level. But Dinniman manages it narratively in a fashion that makes it feel more linear. Things slow down a little bit as you move up, but not a ton. The boosts and spikes are related more to what you do than any planned progression curve. That’s because the linear growth is slow enough, dangerous enough, and realistic enough that levels alone aren’t a deal breaker unless you’re tens of levels off. There are cases all the time of characters dealing with things that are a higher level than them, that are bigger threats. That’s a huge part of Dungeon Crawler Carl. So, it all works out.

VGO has exponential decay progression. Dungeon Crawler Carl has linear progression, even though mechanically DCC is designed to have exponential decay progression. There are also opportunities for power spikes, which is more of an advanced topic.

The Magic Engineer, C. R. Rowenson, demonstrating the differences in power and progression between Dungeon Crawler Carl and Viridian Gate Online, two popular LitRPG book series.However, when you’re dealing with power and progression, you also must consider the presence of anomalies and whether you want those anomalies to exist or not. For example, if people do exceptionally well or if they find a rare artifact that is enough to give them a big boost, that can throw off both the progression curve and the power arc.

For example, in Diablo 3, if you can get legendary gear from later in the game and equip it at the beginning of the game, that would change things drastically. It would triple your stats and give you enough power that it would change everything at the beginning. That’s why you’ll often see level caps and stat requirements which automatically put a gate on those huge spikes in power. So, at your level, finding a piece of legendary gear isn’t going to suddenly break your character.

With Dungeon Crawler Carl, there are fan boxes and prize boxes. If you get a high-tier reward, it can be a game changer. In fact, that ends up being a major plot point in some of the books. Without giving anything away, a lot of people get Celestial prize boxes, the highest tier of prize boxes. But, because of how things happen, only one person can open their box and collect the celestial prize. The prize is so potent that it gives them a huge spike in power and makes them one of the number one, most powerful players for several floors. He becomes a serious problem for everyone and everything. He’s essentially an invincible powerhouse because he got this reward. So, while the power level is linear, there are opportunities for spikes and jumps.

In VGO, depending on what you do and the missions you get, there is some gear and other things that can create boosts.

Ascend Online

The next one I want to talk about is Ascend Online by Luke Chmilenko. Ascend Online works a little differently. It’s very interesting. Instead of just being linear, there are linear portions, but then you hit a wall until you’re able to meet the requirements to progress forward. When those requirements are met, there’s a big jump and then it becomes linear again.

By breaking it into these stages and milestones, he’s able to give each of these their own kind of progression curve. Overall, the progression ends up turning into exponential decay as you would expect from any MMO. However, it accelerates and decelerates slightly as you hit those different milestones. And the milestones are class-related.The Magic Engineer, C. R. Rowenson, demonstrating the power and progression curve in Ascend Online a popular LitRPG book series.So, being a classless beginner, you have a set number of stats that you get at every level, and then you hit your base class and you start getting additional stats, so your rate of power growth goes up, and the abilities you get go up. You become more versatile and more powerful. The same thing happens when you hit your advanced class, and then with any tiers after that. That’s where these stages come in. You experience normal, linear progression until you hit your base class bump and get the power spike.

With Ascend Online, the slope of the power arc starts relatively flat and then gets steeper and steeper with each bump. When you look at each section, you’ll see that the difference between a beginner and the base class is quite small when compared to the gap between someone who has just unlocked the base class and someone about to unlock their advanced class.

I really like Ascend Online. Chmilenko does the same thing with not only character class but with trade crafts. With blacksmithing and leathercrafting, you go through various stages including apprentice, journeyman, and master tier. This unlocks a whole new playing field. These skills go from being just something you progress to having their own skill trees as well as feats and abilities that you can develop around those specific crafts. There are more tiers for you to build through. This is all part of what makes Ascend Online so interesting. The curves change depending on where you are as you pass through these different milestones.

The book cover for LitRPG novel Ascend Online by Luke Chmilenko featuring a fantasy hero facing a dangerous mountain lion.

He Who Fights with Monsters

The next one I wanted to talk about was He Who Fights with Monsters. This one is interesting because the power arc is exponential. It’s fairly normal for cultivation. There’s a normal tier with normal people. Then, as you unlock essences you start gaining powers. Once you get all of your essences unlocked you enter iron rank. From there, you have to get all your abilities unlocked and get them to a certain level, then you go to bronze rank, then silver, gold, and diamond.

This structure has spikes similar to what you see with Ascend Online in terms of power level within the tiers. The difference between someone just starting in iron rank and someone getting close to moving into bronze rank is not that big. However, every time you jump rank, there’s a huge boost in power. You gain resistance to everything below your rank. So it’s more challenging for an iron ranker to fight a bronze ranker than it is for two bronze rankers to fight.

The book cover for LitRPG novel He Who Fights with Monsters by Shirtaloon, a.k.a. Travis Deverelli featuring a hero with a starry cape overlooking a fantasy world.

The disparity gets bigger and bigger with each rank. That means that it’s more difficult for a bronze ranker to fight a silver ranker than it is for an iron ranker to fight a bronze ranker, and so on. So the power arc has these spikes, but it forms an overall exponential growth curve because each step is bigger and bigger. So when you level up to iron you get a boost, iron to bronze is a bigger boost, bronze to silver is an even bigger boost, and so on.The Magic Engineer, C. R. Rowenson, demonstrating the power and progression curve in He Who Fights with Monsters, a popular LitRPG book series.All of this ends up creating an interesting curve, which is also supposed to have a rapid decay in terms of progression. This is also where we can run into some interesting things because there’s the mechanical setup and then there’s what we actually see in the narrative.


Anyone who has read He Who Fights with Monsters is welcome to disagree, correct me, or we can have a deeper conversation about this. However, for me, as I got to the later books, it felt like what we were experiencing in terms of the progression curve did not match what was explained in earlier books.

In earlier books, it is set up to be a pretty rapid exponential decay regarding the stages. For example, you can get through iron fairly easily in like a year or two. Then, bronze is supposed to take you longer than that. And then going from bronze to silver is supposed to take significantly longer than that, with silver to gold taking much more time, and gold to diamond taking huge amounts of time.

However, by the time we get to the end, it seems like those time scales have been compressed. Now, part of that might be due to narrative reasons with Shirtaloon/Travis not wanting people to get bored and continue the progression. Yet it can feel off because it’s not just the main character. There are other people where, all of a sudden, they’re gold rank when only about a year or so has passed. I was under the impression that going from silver to gold took decades of dedicated work, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So, to me, it feels like there’s a little bit of inconsistency there of how it was presented and how it actually plays out.

Dungeons & Dragons

I have one more thing I’d like to mention and that’s Dungeons & Dragons. I talked more about this in this video here. You start as an above-average person and can go all the way up to demigod. In this example, the curve is close to linear, but not quite due to how the classes work. At different points, you get stat boosts and ability boosts, which makes it more of a staircase. And different thresholds will lead to bigger steps than others. As you go from level to level, the boost in power that you’re going to get from one to the next is going to vary.

So, with D&D it has a general progression curve with exponential decay when it comes to progress, but the progress is actually entirely up to the game master because they can decide to throw out experience however they want. So the actual progression curve in the system along with the mechanics is exponential decay. And the game master can override that however they want, for good or ill.

I’ve played with people where we played for six years to get to level 14. And then I was in another game where the GM seemed to level us up every single session and he gave people any magic item they wanted. Then, he wondered why everybody was overpowered and smashing through everything that he put forward. In that example, he didn’t control the progression curve.

A Dungeons and Dragons player contemplates his next move after the Game Master describes his surroundings in a tabletop game setting.

Another interesting thing with D&D is that the power arc varies from class to class. There’s an overall trend, but on top of that, different classes progress in different ways.

A fighter, in terms of mechanics, starts out stronger and gets some bigger boosts. Then, as they level up, the steps and increases stay consistent. But wizards and other spell casters, on the other hand, tend to start with small steps, and then the power boosts get bigger and bigger as they unlock higher and higher spells.

This leads to an interesting place. In the beginning, wizards are underpowered and die easily. However, by the end, they’re often some of the main damage dealers for the party. And, while there are rogues and other things, the classes that just rely on melee without special abilities end up slowing down in their power arc compared to magic users and certain blends as you get to the higher and higher levels.


I hope this information was helpful and interesting and that you feel inspired to create your own LitRPG system. I’m always here if you need any additional guidance or coaching. Having a well-built system creates a solid foundation for the rest of your story. It’s the framework upon which you’ll build out your setting, characters, and plot. As always, keep writing and stay awesome.

If you have any questions regarding this or other topics, or if you have topics you’d like me to cover, click these links, fill out the forms, and I’ll potentially cover your topic on my YouTube channel and blog.