by Mark Barrowcliffe
It’s not that angst–filled accounts of dysfunctional families, lousy childhoods and the terrors of addiction aren’t interesting to read about. It’s more that sometimes you need a break and want to read a relatively trauma–free memoir. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, check out Mark Barrowcliffe’s “The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange” (Soho, 2008). With his clever title and frequently hilarious prose, Barrowcliffe details an adolescence that, if not entirely neurosis free, never devolves into the oh–poor–me miasma that characterizes so many memoirs these days.
In 1976, at age 12, as a geeky kid growing up in Coventry, England, Barrowcliffe discovered the charms of a recently invented (in 1974, by Gary Gygax), multi–player role–playing game called Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). As he was introduced to the intricacies of its most notable aspect, the 20–sided die, Barrowcliffe was soon spending all his free time engaged in searching for treasure, amassing knowledge (in order to advance to a higher level) and fighting off enemies. As Barrowcliffe describes it, playing D&D not only widened his horizons by introducing him to boys far removed from his social and economic class, but mostly it got him through the horrors of being a boy who didn’t fit in anywhere, particularly not at the all–boys school he attended. One of my favorite parts of the book is how he describes his parents’ bemused reaction to his new hobby, and especially the time he casually asked his mother if he could have some friends over to play and several dozen boys ended up spending not only the day, but well into the night, hunched over a D&D game, scattered throughout the Barrowcliffe home.
When I began this book, I knew just a tad about Dungeons & Dragons (I’ve never played it), and I found it fascinating to learn about its genesis and subsequent development, all from the point of view of a pretty normal (if geeky) kid, who would go out and spend his allowance on whatever new D&D addition was announced that month. Barrowcliffe is forgiving of the intense awkwardness of his teenage self, to the point of being able to laugh at himself about it, and we laugh along with him (even when we’re wincing in sympathy over some of the events he describes).