THE ELFISH GENE:
DUNGEONS, DRAGONS AND GROWING UP STRANGE
by Mark Barrowcliffe
Soho Press, Inc.
(November 2009, $14, 288 pages)
I have a confession. While in high school during the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was fascinated by odd, awkward and distant boys who played Dungeons & Dragons, fascinated almost to the point of a forbidden crush. They were so different, marching around in heavy black trench coats and big black boots. They avoided attention because it was usually derogatory and spoke to each other in a sophisticated nearly foreign language about things of which I could relate only vaguely back to J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. They seemed to possess a knowledge of a secret world which buoyed them during the boring and sometimes cruel existence of life as a teen on the outside of normalcy.
The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe brought me back into the secret world that I had wondered about. This memoir is a lively, honest, hilarious and at times heartbreaking recount of Barrowcliffe’s adolescence as a committed Dungeons & Dragons Gamer.
At age 12, Mark Barrowcliffe chose an obscure path of wizard, warrior, evil priest or dwarf over the the more conventional path of typical rebellion. He didn’t tread lightly. He dove right in and immersed himself entirely in a world where the socially awkward boy from Coventry, England became Alf the Elf, Foghat the Gnome or Effilc Worrab, an elf warrior with the head of a mule.
Barrowcliffe describes his total preoccupation with Dungeons & Dragons as, “an obsession, a way for damaged people to damage themselves further.” The Dungeons & Dragons game became a connecting lifeline for ostracized, similarly obsessed dweebs in the mid-1970s. It was an unprecedented narrative story game that armed the players with paper, pencils, oddly shaped dice and exquisite imagination. The game typically went on for days, which for the school-aged Barrowcliffe, was from Friday afternoon to mid-Sunday afternoon. He played non-stop with a cast of memorable characters, including the most remarkable, Billy, who welcomed Barrowcliffe to the gaming table with, “Sit down between the wind and his nobility!” He then let out an enormous fart.
The Eflish Gene exposes the world of geeks and role-playing gamers. Barrowcliffe spares no humility; he was the lowest echelon in his world. His frank, self-deprecating observations of his own annoying mannerisms and over-the-top enthusiasm while playing are amusing. The responses and reactions of the other players to Barrowcliffe’s Alf the Elf are cruelly entertaining. The unforgettable characters live for the secret world of superior knowledge. They are smug in their sequestered realm which is in reality just an escape from the cruel world of normalcy. It was boys’ world because there were no girl players. Girls would destroy the game. It was a world of “bullied, power hungry twerps with no discernible skills and absolutely no hope of a girlfriend.”
Girls ultimately provide the escape ladder for Barrowcliffe’s painful extraction from the fantasy obsession of his awkward youth. The recount of his extraction from the world of Dungeons & Dragons and its circle of cloistered misfits is a bit sad yet necessary in order to for him to successfully navigate the real world. Typical of most superior-minded nerds, he takes on a tone of snide disdain when revisiting the Dungeons & Dragons gaming tables. Perhaps this is a reflection of wasted youth? Regardless, reading about this fantasy world of war gaming geeks is well worth the time spent.