Bitter 537

Stan stood at the front of the chapel, waiting for everyone to find a seat. Forty-two people had answered his call. Forty-two didn’t make much of a rebellion. He stood quietly as people found a place, many of them sitting right at the back even though there was plenty of room up front.

Did they think this was school? They were the cool kids who didn’t want anyone to think they cared what teacher had to say?

He was annoyed but he closed his eyes and breathed. Leadership required a sense of detachment. A clear mind was hindered by emotion. His success would be based on how well he overcame obstacles, not by wishing for obstacles to not exist.

“Can you guys at the back come closer?” he said in a neutral voice. “I want to keep this private and discreet, not have to shout. That’s why I only invited a few of you. The ones I know I can trust.”

Make it sound like they were special, the elite members. Use your weakness as an advantage. He smiled. There was always a way forward, if you were willing to focus on the problem and not the injustice.

“I only came to tell you I’m leaving,” said a large man dressed in mismatched pieces of armour. “I’m going to join the Empire.” Groans sounded around the chapel. “They’re offering a Level 2 helmet for all new recruits,” he said defensively. His current headgear was a cloth cap. His name tag said Sir Juke. Stan had no memory of him joining.

“That’s fine,” said Stan. “If you want to leave you can go. No hard feelings. Anyone else? I don’t want what I’m about to tell you getting out. I have no intention of sharing my information with the rest of the playerbase, that would completely cost us our advantage.”

“Maybe I’ll stay and hear what you’ve got,” said Sir Juke.

“No, no, this is the first part of our big push, I can’t have any leaks. I told everyone when they signed up, there’d be a quiet couple of weeks as we made our preparations, and then we’d be full on. If you want to go, go now. If you stay, I expect you to be in it for the long haul and everything I tell you has to be kept confidential. If it turns out anyone here broke ranks and let the enemy know what we’re doing, or even if they let it slip to a friend outside of the rebellion, that person will be marked for death.” He paused for dramatic effect. “That means we will hunt you down and kill you back to a Level 1 scrub.”

Sir Juke was still standing, not moving.

“Well?” said Stan. “Still going?”

Sir Juke sat down.

“Okay, good.” He’d managed to avoid losing another player, but that was the least difficult part of all this. Insisting he had a secret strategy to defeat the Empire was easy if he didn’t have to reveal what the secret was. Once he told them, then it would start to get tricky. They would start trying to punch holes in everything, and he had to be able to seal them up convincingly.

“Go on, then,” said a voice from the multi-coloured gloom.

“You’ll have noticed that this game isn’t like a regular RPG. You can’t just level up by running around killing everything or farming low-level mobs.”

A grumbling murmur spread around the chapel. They had all encountered the same problem.

“You probably think the difficulty levels are borked or someone accidentally set it to hell mode by accident.”

More grumbling. He was saying things they related to. He had their attention. Their discontent was ripe and ready for the picking.

“I can assure you it isn’t a mistake. I’m sure all of you are experienced gamers, but this isn’t that sort of game. Well, it is, but the mechanics are a little different from what you’re used to.” Now came the hard bit. “What I’m about to tell you is going to be difficult to process. It’s probably not what a lot of you signed up for, but it will make a world of difference to how you progress in this game. In this world.”

Stan took a deep breath and explained the situation. He told them about the special interactions with NPCs. He did his best to sell them on the idea of AI so convincing you’d think you were speaking to a real person. He painted a picture of amazing secrets that could be uncovered if you managed to get past the seemingly robotic facade and built a relationship with the NPCs, making sure to stress how hard it was, but also making it clear that it made no difference what level you were.

There was some scepticism, which was to be expected. Ultimately, he knew the only way to truly convince them was to show them. Even in a virtual world where nothing was truly real, seeing was believing.

“Choose two of you, two guys you know aren’t bullshitters, and I’ll show you what I mean. They can report back to the rest.”

“Why can’t we all go?” said somebody.

Stan threw his hands up. “This isn’t going to be easy. You can’t just walk up to an NPC and engage them in chit-chat. The more people I take, the less likely we’ll get anywhere. Look, I know how all this sounds, but you’ll have a much better idea of what’s expected once you accept what I’m saying is true. And even then, that’s just the start. You’re going to have to put your dreams of killing dragons with bolts of lightning on hold for a while. But once you see what’s possible, you won’t regret it, I promise you.”

It was a facile promise. He had no idea if they would react to the NPCs the way he had. He didn’t even know if he could repeat what Britta had done. It would have been a lot easier if she had agreed to help him, but she had rushed off to do her own thing. He couldn’t blame her, she had already opened many doors for him. There was a very high chance that he would try to talk to an NPC and get no response at all and look like a fool. It was a chance he was willing to take. It was up to him now.

The thought of it gave him butterflies in his stomach, which he hadn’t felt since he was a child, going to work with his father and being treated like a little prince. The world had looked big and exciting back then, and had rapidly shrunk, his excitement fading as the novelty wore off. Now he had the chance to recapture that thrill.

Two of the congregation were selected, a muscular man with dark hair, and a blonde woman in a white robe. The man was Rob Roid, a thief, and the woman was Clem, a cleric.

“Okay, good,” said Stan. “Let’s go. The rest of you stay here, we shouldn’t be long.”

They returned in half an hour to expectant faces. Stan strode to the front, the other two following with wide eyes and jittery expressions.

“Well?” said someone.

It had been dicey. He had gone to another hot food vendor and tried to get a job as Britta had. He had been met with a blank look and a list of food items for sale. He received the same response no matter what he asked. His witnesses were not impressed and quickly grew impatient. Then he remembered how Britta had used the idea of helping the competition to force an unscripted response.

Once he brought up the peanut vendor and news that he was taking on new employees — which was technically true as he had offered Britta a job — the man became more open to discussion. Soon, he and Stan were chatting about how to increase sales by adding salt to food and offering beverages. The man volunteered details about his family and how his wife was being very pushy, urging him to make more money. Steering the conversation into talk of ungrateful women had been easy.

The other two players had watched with mouths hanging open. They had interacted with NPCs on many occasions but never had they had an encounter like this. Their unbridled enthusiasm was more than enough to intrigue the other forty.

Questions were thrown at them, ignoring Stan, which was fine by him. The excitement in the small church grew as they began to realise there really was something to Stan’s claims. Something none of them had even dared to believe possible.

The atmosphere had completely changed. Optimism about the new style of gameplay was very high and all forty-two members of the rebellion were ready to take matters to the next level.

Now Stan just had to convince them to get jobs.

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