Pathfinders of GameLit series #3
Through laughter, Drew Hayes makes us care
What started off as a glancing one-shot dalliance has blossomed into full-fledged (one-sided) ardor. I thought I might give his amusing 2014 role-reversal story NPCs an afternoon’s attention, and soon found myself down a weird and wonderful rabbit hole brimming with fun and sympathetic characters, surprising storylines, and long, enjoyable narratives in genres ranging from superhero science fiction to humor, from urban fantasy satire to GameLit/LitRPG.
Given our affinity for characters who find themselves navigating a predefined game world and knowing that Drew is an author on the vanguard of the modern LitRPG trend, I first sought out NPCs thinking it would be a lighthearted tale of adventure for four hapless background citizens who find themselves thrust into the spotlight by unexpected circumstances. To be sure, this story does deliver on that promise, but as I discovered with all of the work by Hayes that I’ve encountered, it offers much more in terms of the emotional and daily lives and histories of those NPCs. In other words, here is a LitRPG story that promises a fun romp and then sneaks up on the reader with its depth and narrative sustainability.
Early in the book, one of the player characters dismisses any fate that befalls the town’s tavern keepers, guards, farmers, bards, dignitaries, etc. by noting they are “just NPCs,” so who cares? A few chapters in, one realizes that they may in fact care much more about those background citizens than they do the players themselves. As a player who struggles with the indiscriminate killing and looting of sentient game world characters, I have always found it easier to aim my arrows at aliens, zombies, and Nazis, so this concept resonates strongly with me on a personal level. Additionally, it serves to truly develop the setting into an immersive experience. These characters are not two-dimensional props positioned solely for the players’ amusement.
Admittedly, Hayes likely did not set out to write a manifesto for the rights of non-player characters, and it is a testament to his writing skill that the book works so well to offer the reader what she seeks from the story. Fun, simple fantasy with a twist? NPCs provides it. Enduring and sympathetic inner worlds of supposedly minor figures? Check. Parallel development of contrasting plots and character arcs between human players and NPCs? It’s all here.
Digging deeper into Drew Hayes’ career and backlist, we quickly find that he is an author’s author, dedicated to sharing information and highlights from a journey that has taken him from indie geek enthusiast writing the superhero stories he wanted to read to beloved established writer with a strong and diverse fanbase. The folks at the noteworthy On the Shoulders of Dwarves podcast recently featured Drew as a guest, where he took listener questions and spoke at length about his career, the business and artistic decisions he has made, and some of the writing techniques he has developed over the years. He has also appeared on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast, where his comments about mistakes he sees writers make (like skipping over the small moments!) still ring true and give a hint as to how he achieves believable and enduring characters, even in light-hearted novels.
He also offers frequent personal insights on his website’s blog, and serves up premium Patreoncontent for supporters on a regular basis. All of his public efforts demonstrate a genuine regard for fellow writers and gamers and fans, and he takes a refreshing and welcoming community-minded approach that helps to boost the success of all the genres in which he moves.
Part of that community-building is the wildly successful actual-play podcast Authors & Dragons, a hilarious Pathfinder adventure that Drew has been producing with fellow writers since 2015. Together with Robert Bevan, Joseph Brassey, Rick Gualtieri, John Hartness, Steve Wetherell, and previously Rob Kroese, they’ve put out nearly 100 episodes plus several side quests so far and have developed such a dedicated group of listeners that they have organized a full-fledged A&D Convention in Las Vegas in September. The podcast stands out in the crowded field for several reasons, mainly the storytelling chops of the players, the fast pace of the sessions, and the undeniable humor in their roleplaying. It is immediately apparent that this group enjoys each other’s company, which adds to the spirit of the show, and yet they never forget that they have an audience. It’s a playthrough podcast that allows listeners to feel like participants in the story, a feat not easily accomplished.
And so, in the matter of a few weeks, I confess to having progressed from passing acquaintance with Drew Hayes’ work to enthusiastic reader and supporter of his many contributions to our community. He provides a wonderful example of an artist who has found his way to living a creative life by crafting fun and emotionally-rich stories and paying it forward to help others succeed in the industry he loves. I hope he continues to blaze these trails for a long, long time.