by Drew Hayes
Next time you’re playing an RPG, please try to be considerate about where you die.
Unfortunately for the inhabitants of the Maplebark Inn, a band of careless adventurers have stumbled in after eating bad mushrooms and have now found precisely the wrong place to pass on. For the gamers who were playing the adventurers, it’s not a big deal--after all, that’s what backup characters are for. But for the NPC characters, there’s no such thing as a re-roll, and now they have to handle four rather suspicious deaths. To make matters worse, the now deceased adventurers had been summoned to the capital city by the Mad King himself. The King tends to shoot first and ask questions later, and when he is unhappy, he tends to spread it around with a big sword. But the NPCs see one little loophole: if they continue on the quest, then the King might never connect their village with the disappearance. All they need to do is take on the roles of a barbarian, a paladin, a wizard, and a rogue...how hard can it be? As Thistle the gnome puts it,
“‘We’ll loot the bodies and be on our way.’
‘The words that start every great adventure,’ Gabrielle quipped sarcastically.
She might have been surprised to discover how accurate that statement truly was.”
NPCs is straight-up squeefully adorable. It’s not subtle, it’s not deep, and it’s not profound, it’s just awfully, awfully cute. The idea of following the “forgotten characters” might not be particularly novel, but there’s something charmingly original about Hayes' take on the theme. For example, on why untrained adventurers end up on quests in the first place:
“‘Why does he [the king] keep employing random adventurers who can be so easily killed?’ Gabrielle wondered.
‘Again, because he seems to like leaving a trail of of destruction in his wake,’ Eric reminded her.”
The people inhabiting the RPG world have started adopting the adventurers’ slang, even though
“No one had discerned a standard meaning for the word pronounced as ‘pone’ despite its recent surge in usage.”
I'm actually not a gamer and have never played an RPG, but this book made me want to give it a try. I suspect it's even more entertaining if you actually get all the references.
I also enjoyed the basic character setup. Gabrielle, the mayor's daughter, spends most of her life being repeatedly kidnapped by goblins and rescued by adventurers. Since she spends so much time on the road, she's taken up woodcraft, scouting, and fighting as hobbies. Eric is one of the many guards who are, without fail, outsmarted by both goblins and adventurers. Thistle the gnome is a part-time henchman who worships Grumble, god of minions. Grumph is a half-orc bartender who is far more intelligent than he appears. I loved how they initially set themselves up in the roles suggested by the stereotypes, but eventually they end up finding their own true vocations. Sure, that's become a trope in its own right, but it's still cute. At some point, though, these false adventurers turn into true adventurers, with all the associated stereotypes, and I think that detracts somewhat from the story.
I think one of the reasons that I enjoyed this so much is the way that I read it. Since I can’t handle prolonged cuteness, I read the book in small chunks, interspersed with more serious texts (specifically, Vicious, which is a history of human brutality to wolves, and the self-explanatory Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers.) Maybe the book’s main idea isn’t precisely subtle, but it’s light and cute, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying the NPCs’ adventures. NPCs was adorable enough to make me consider picking up another book by the same author, The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant. Come to think of it, the title alone is enough to sell me on it. Another for the TBR...