Thursday, February 5, 2015

NPCs, by Drew Hayes

This week I'm reading a fantasy satire titled NPCs, originally published as an e-book by Drew Hayes. For those of you unfamiliar with the term (Which I suspect will be very few of my readers) NPCs, or Non Player Characters, are supporting characters at best and obstacles at worst for the players who are the main characters in whatever narrative it happens to be.  As I'm sure you can imagine from the title, this book explores the lives of the NPCs in a tabletop fantasy akin to Dungeons & Dragons and how they deal with the incredibly strange people called Adventurers that wander into their world and start killing all of the local wildlife.

The plot actually follows four characters originally NPCs content to live out their lives in the village of Maplebark: Thistle a gnome and retired professional minion; his friend Grumph, a half-orc bartender and brewmaster; Eric, a local member of the town watch; and Gabrielle, the mayor of Maplebark's daughter. When four adventurers come into Grumph's tavern late one night, take a single drink of mead, and suddenly keel over dead everyone's lives suddenly became infinitely more complicated. This unlikely foursome will have to take up the quest of the now deceased Adventurers and fake their newfound roles long enough to survive. At least, that's the plan anyway.

Overall, this book was rather enjoyable for me, especially as an experienced tabletop player. I especially found the DM's frustrations with the players that just want to murder and loot everything as a familiar experience considering some of the people I've played with over the years. I will say the opening chapter is a little weird because it explains concepts like NPCs, which is helpful for people who are unfamiliar with tabletop games, but I'd think the overwhelming majority of people picking this book up would be familiar with such concepts. Once you get into the fantasy adventure from the perspective of the NPCs, though, the book really takes off and I found it really enjoyable. It reminded me a lot of John Scalzi's Redshirts because it's taking the same theme of looking at the lives of background characters but in this case a tabletop fantasy game rather than a science-fiction TV show. And because they're different in terms of genre and the mechanics of the setting it results in different books that are still able to talk about similar themes.

In that same vein, towards the end there was a lot of playing with the fourth wall in a very similar way to Redshirts where fiction influences reality and reality influenced fiction. I'm not quite sure if I understood all of it because frankly it's some pretty deep stuff, but it's still a very good book. I think my only real complaint is that the writing at times got a little purple with its prose, something I've experienced in the limited amount of fanfic I read, but I'm willing to tolerate a few literary flourishes from the author because he's bringing something both familiar and new and perhaps most importantly enjoyable. This book manages to be both insightful and fun, something I really like encountering in a novel.

As I may have mentioned in my review of Redshirts, I've always had a certain fondness for the background characters in stories. Often because I always sort of assumed I'd be one of them. So there was a lot of appeal in reading about NPCs and how they marvel at Adventurers who treat life as something that they can simply buy more of from a merchant. (And when you think of some of the stuff Adventurers do it's downright crazy if you think about it logically.) Furthermore, as an avid tabletop player I quite enjoyed a little poke in the ribs at the inherent silliness of the genre. If you're a fantasy gamer and an old hand at D&D, Pathfinder, or something similar, you'll probably get a few good chuckles out of this book. Or at least a good adventure.

- Kalpar

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