Non Player Character (Chapter 2: Outside Looking In)

Non Player Character is a work-in-progress but I wanted to share it while I work on the first draft. Please bear in mind that this is an unedited work, but hopefully you will still enjoy it!

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Chapter Two: Outside Looking In

I backed up, bumping into the doorframe. Though I kept my gaze low, I could feel their eyes on me, like someone had turned several searchlights in my direction. ‘Nice to meet you,’ I mumbled, as I had been trained as a little girl, but what I wanted to say was, ‘There’s been some sort of mistake, I’m not supposed to mix with people.’

‘I suppose,’ said a woman sitting behind a dragon art screen. She had long black hair streaked with blue and pinned into a merciless bun. Her dark eyes weighed me in a way I didn’t like, and she was impressive in a harsh, angular way, like a sculpture of a dictator. She wore a knitted cardigan in a mixture of reds, blues, and greens.

Another woman tossed her ombre curls leaned forward resting her hands on the table. ‘Don’t fucking listen to Pauline, she’s not a people person. And possibly not a person at all, but some kind of rule-obsessed cyborg.’ She was wearing what looked like a blue tennis dress, branded leggings, and another hand-knitted cardigan, this one deep red.

‘Hanna,’ The first woman, Pauline, could take a tone that was only one step above a growl. She frowned at the other woman.

A big guy with a well-groomed beard framing his smirk turned in his seat, putting his elbow on the back of the chair. ‘Better sit down before a fight breaks out. Unless you’d find that amusing; I know I would.’ He gestured to the seat between him and a pale guy with his hood up, and although I hated being walled in by strangers I couldn’t see a non-awkward way out of it. I edged in between him and the other guy — as narrow-boned as the first guy was broad.

‘I’m Ellis,’ said the first. He looked like the kind of person who liked to shake hands, but perhaps he could read my nerves in the tight set of my shoulders, because he didn’t attempt any of the many hated social niceties I avoided.

‘Tar,’ I replied, before remembering that Arries had already introduced me.

‘Short for Tara?’

‘Short for TarAntula!’ Arries said excitedly, taking the seat across from me.

I didn’t really like telling people my full name. It led to assumptions, some of them woefully accurate. ‘Just Tar,’ I said.

I glanced at the man sitting on my other side, but his head was lowered, his expression hard to read between the pale hair flopping into his eyes and the white hoodie he wore with hood drawn. His fingers drummed on an open binder thick with character stats and spells — more paper than anyone else had in front of them, except possibly Pauline, as I couldn’t see behind her special screen. I sort of wanted to ask him about it, but as he hadn’t spoken yet, I couldn’t see how I could.

‘Rex, are you going to introduce yourself?’ Arries asked in a patronisingly encouraging tone that made me grimace in sympathy.

‘It seems that you just did,’ he replied. He turned his head toward me, so that he was looking at me without really looking at me, which was honestly a relief. ‘Sorry. Welcome to the party.’

I dipped my head in acknowledgement.

‘Do you need help making a character?’ Pauline asked. ‘I’m willing to assist you. Or I have a pre-generated character you can play if you’d prefer. An NPC I was planning to introduce if we didn’t find another player.’

‘I um … I’ve actually already made a character,’ I said. ‘If that’s all right?’

There was a beat before Pauline said, ‘Of course.’ I tried to hide my embarrassment. I wondered if this was a Dungeons & Dragons faux pas. Even among other geeks, I was the awkward one … ‘Mind if I take a look?’

I handed Pauline my character sheet and supporting materials, thicker than anyone but Rex’s.

‘You didn’t find the rules confusing?’ Arries looked impressed. ‘I always find the rules confusing.’

‘Beginners usually struggle,’ said Ellis. ‘You must be crazy smart.’

I didn’t think I was stupid, but I was pretty sure it was more down to the week I’d spent poring over the rulebook and looking up character build ideas online than any inherent cleverness.

‘Or a total nerd,’ said Hanna, as if she could read it on my skin. ‘No offense to you other nerds.’

‘Hanna … you’re playing D&D too.’ Ellis rolled his eyes.

Hanna shrugged. ‘A cool person can play D&D and still be cool. Nerdiness is inherent. You fucking nerds were already in too deep before we started. And rules nerd is on a whole other level. That’s the bottom of the pile.’ She bared her teeth at me. ‘Don’t worry. I’m great with nerds.’

‘And children, I bet,’ I said, then blinked as she burst into laughter. She laughed like a bear might laugh, throwing her head back and guffawing.

‘Fucking burn,’ she said, one hand on her chest. ‘I’ll remember that.’ But the words held no venom. If anything, she looked pleased.

‘So what’s your class?’ This from Rex, beside me. His voice was mellow and hesitant.

‘Cleric!’ Arries jumped in before I could say anything.

‘Oh my god, do we need a cleric,’ said Hanna. ‘We’re always this close from a total party kill.’

‘Because you keep getting us into fights we can’t win,’ said Ellis.

‘No. Because P won’t balance the fights for a party without clerics!’

‘You’re not dead yet,’ Pauline murmured, still looking through my sheet.

‘I’m not a cleric,’ I said. I looked at Pauline to see if this would be a problem, just as she finished the last sheet.

‘This is good,’ she said. ‘You even wrote some backstory I can work with. Most of them have barely glanced at the rules.’ She passed it all back to me.

‘I definitely glanced at the rules,’ said Ellis, spreading his hands.

Hanna rolled her eyes. ‘What’s the point of having a dungeon master if I have to learn the rules?’

‘I make the story,’ said Pauline, face impassive.

‘The players make the story,’ said Hanna.

‘Both can be true,’ said Arries, looking anxiously between the two.

I looked around the group. With all their fast-paced bickering, there was a feeling of family about this group. I got the sense they had known each other a long time, and I liked that, but it was hard not to feel like an intruder.

There was a lot here I liked. The room, with its wall lined with alphabetically organised board game shelves and an entire bookcase devoted to RPG books of all kinds. The way all the chairs around this long table were padded computer chairs, as if this whole room was set up specifically for gaming.

But liking it didn’t make me feel any more comfortable, or feel any less like I needed to bolt. I kept my exit strategy in my mind — I’d told my mum to call me in an hour. If I couldn’t cope, I would use that call to make my excuses.

‘Are you a spellcaster?’ Rex asked quietly while Hanna and Pauline’s standoff continued over Arries’ head. His words distracted me from the increasingly knotty feeling in my brain.

I smoothed my hands over my carefully crafted character sheet. When I’d been building it, it had seemed like the most incredible character in the world. I’d customised everything the game allowed, sucked in by the depth and complexity you could build into a character just by following the basic rules. I’d been excited to become her, however briefly, and at his question I could feel stats and backstory bubbling up. ‘Actually, I’m playing a –’

‘No meta-gaming!’ Pauline’s voice was sharp. Her head whipped around to face me. She looked like she’d been mid-argument with Hanna.

The words dried up in my mouth.

Fuck, Pauline. Don’t scare her.’ Hanna rolled her eyes.

Pauline inclined her head. ‘Sorry. I don’t allow meta-gaming — using outside, out-of-character knowledge in game. Your introduction will be more natural if the other players know nothing of your character until you’re introduced. Speaking of which: you might as well forget all the names you just learned because you’re only allowed to refer to each other by your in-character names.’

‘Is all Dungeons & Dragons as strict as this?’ I asked.

‘Pauline’s a natural dictator,’ said Ellis. ‘We’re very lucky to have her here.’

‘Instead of in Parliament,’ said Hanna.

Arries smiled encouragingly. ‘Don’t listen to them. Pauline’s lovely.’

‘Deep down,’ said Ellis.

Beside me, I heard Rex murmur, ‘She’s the best. Only the axe murderer DMs ever are.’

Pauline’s watch beeped; she casually muted it, but the whole table fell silent. I glanced at my phone — 7pm, the official start time. I took my bag of dice — 7 odd little polyhedrons — out and spilled them onto the table.

Pauline took a long breath. When she next spoke, her voice was even and calm.

‘Barely escaped from the betrayal at the Silver Palace, the Ninth Rain slog through a swamp, wounded, pursued, and uncertain who to trust. The shapeshifter posing as Queen Ivemaya has taken control of the Southern Kingdom, and you decided that your only hope was to disappear, and make your way through the Long Sands to the kingdom of Munaria. Night is falling …’

As she wove a story recapping the group’s most recent adventures, I could feel it coming alive before my eyes. The players started to chime in with their own actions — what they wanted to do now, in the present, occasionally rolling dice to resolve actions. But I could barely process the mechanics of the game. It was all background noise to the story — to the adventurers of the Ninth Rain, who I was soon to meet.

I let myself sink into the character of Astara, druid of the Silver Grove, waiting for Pauline to signal my entrance, and hoping desperately that I wasn’t about to screw this up.

 

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