NPCs (Spells, Swords & Stealth #1), by Drew Hayes

I can’t really say why, but now and then I pick up a book that tries to turn role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons into a narrative. Most are pretty awful with attempts to bring excitement to a world of rolling strangely shaped dice to control spells, wizardry and combat.

This book takes an interesting twist by focusing not on the main characters but on the non-playing characters (NPCs). If you haven’t played one of these games, these are the characters who you meet on your quest and interact (normally fight) with. “You enter a tavern,” the dungeon master intones. “Near the bar stand a dwarf, a ninja, and a buxom bar wench.”

This book starts out with a narrative close to this but then takes a Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author) twist. As the players imagine they’re traveling on a quest in a new game their characters hit an event that leaves the four of them dead at a tavern table. The narrative then picks up with the passive characters who search the bodies and find papers saying that the four have been invited by the king to take part in a quest. Conveniently the names have been left off the papers and the four characters decide to take up the quest.

As they take up the quest they find out that something odd is happening in their world, with strange adventurers (game players) arriving and killing or dying with little apparent motivation.

Hayes makes the story work with four characters who are all easy to like, even a half-Orc who finds a magical book that allows him to begin experimenting with magic. They work together to fight off evil creatures as well as an elf who guards a magical item that controls the alien adventurers but can’t seem to touch the four citizens of this world who’ve taken on an alien quest.

The four interact in fun ways and the action is clear and well-written. The book comes to a nice end with room for a sequel.

As these books tend to go this one is a welcome change on trying to animate something that can be dull enough in real life without being turned into a novel-length narrative. It even makes some winking commentaries on the idiotic aggressiveness of the human players compared to the NPCs. A fun book for teens and gaming enthusiasts. Interesting if not compelling for pure fantasy fans and other summer readers.