Did you play Dungeons & Dragons in high school? Maybe you’ve seen Stranger Things and watched those boys play in the basement? Or you or someone you know has played Pathfinder or any of the numerous other role-playing games out in the tabletop gamer-verse? You and your friends take on the persona of a wizard or a fighter or some other hero, roll a bunch of dice, and do battle with any number of foes in an imaginary theater of the mind. The game is directed by a Game Master (GM) who tells the story, comments on what happens when, and tries to make the playing experience as realistic as possible. You go on quests, gather gold, and sometimes wreak havoc in imaginary towns with imaginary people. When you’re done, you take your dice and go home, leaving the NPCs behind, never giving them another thought until the next time you play.
What are NPCs, you ask? Allow me to explain. Non-player characters or NPCs are key to any good role-playing game but they’re always relegated to the background; not really key to the story but they provide goods and services and the occasional bit of information that helps move a story along. Think of them as extras in a movie or the residents (and old West bad guys) in Westworld. NPCs are the tavern keepers, the merchants, the gate guards, the port workers, the bandits, the stable boys – you get the idea. You interact with them as you need to throughout the story, usually just to get whatever supplies or information you need, and then move on to the next big adventure. The NPCs just kind of … disappear. Or do they? Here’s where we find out!
So, a few guys get together for some gaming one night, don’t listen to the big clues they get from the GM, and end up dead. Really quickly. They die in a tavern from accidentally poisoning themselves. The characters as a group are slumped over the bar, dead. No reviving, no spells to cast – just dead. Did I mention how dead they are? Time to roll new characters and start a new adventure, leaving this scenario behind.
Meanwhile, in the tavern, the bartender, a local guard, the mayor’s daughter, and the tavern owner are stuck with four dead bodies. What to do? These inexperienced adventurers are coming through the town all the blasted time, making a mess, getting killed – when will they learn and what are these four NPCs supposed to do with the bodies? How rude!
That’s where the plot of NPCs takes us. Not with the players, but with the game. The players have moved on, but the NPCs have to clean up the mess. While searching the bodies, the foursome realizes the the dead dudes were on a quest for the king (barely started, but still). Afraid of taking the blame for the inept dead adventurers and incurring the wrath of the king, the four NPCs decide to take up the quest and, at the very least, move the suspicious deaths away from their small village. After all, the writ is for a rogue, a paladin, a wizard, and a barbarian. Nobody has actually met or even knows the names of the dead, so subs can easily be put in place. And so the adventure begins!
*Modest spoilers ahead about things that happen very early on in the story!*
Meet Thistle, a gnome and the tavern owner, who decides to be the rogue because he’s used to making shady deals; Grumph, the half-orc, who bartends and intimidates with his brawn and is so obvious to fill the role of barbarian; Eric, the human guard and the son of a deceased Paladin who takes on that role now; and Gabrielle, a human and the daughter of the mayor who is highly educated and agrees to be the wizard. However, when the first big fight ensues, the devout Thistle sends up a quick prayer to his god as he uses his weapon; Eric, the Paladin, is more clever and agile in fighting without his uncomfortable armor; the brawny half-orc is able to cast spells from a found spell book; and Gabrielle rages into the midst of the battle swinging a mighty axe. Stop, rewind, switch places and our crew fits more comfortably into new roles they never knew they could fill.
I liked the twist on the NPCs starting out in obvious roles but then changing places with each other into roles you wouldn’t normally expect them to play. It happens fairly early in the book, so it’s not a big spoiler. I don’t think people who haven’t played role-playing games will be lost in the story and people who do play will enjoy this immensely. One of the best early gags is that Gabrielle is kidnapped so frequently by goblins as a plot point for adventurers that she has become friends with the kidnappers. They’ve taught her to speak goblin and to hunt and track; they let her bring books along when it’s time to kidnap her again; and they have a particular horse they let her use every time they kidnap her. She looks forward to the “kidnappings” as mini-vacations from her ordinary life! Hilarious!
Again, the part of the book I described is very early on, and there is plenty of additional adventure for our crew. Who knows? It might even spark an interest for your own gaming! Drew Hayes, the author, has quite a few irons in the fire as you can read for yourself on his website. There are more books in the NPCs series, as well as some other works, podcasts, videos, etc. I’ve included an interview with Hayes here on a show called Nerdrotic that I found on YouTube and another interview on a broadcast about Sci-Fi and Fantasy marketing here. Enjoy!