The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange [Soho]
D&D escape fantasy for the masses
Around 1975, my cousins and I invented the core element of the modern role-playing game. Alongside the Powe brothers—Joe, David and Mike—I imagined myself in worlds overrun by spies, pirates, giant monsters and superheroes. Superheroes were the troublemakers, as arguments over whose character was stronger, faster or (pardon the grammar) more invulnerable during some imaginary battle often derailed anything resembling play. Our solution: We assigned numbers, one to 25, to describe just how super the Tarantula was versus, say, Cerebrus. Play resumed, and all was right with the worlds.
Our elaborate playtime codification mirrored the way the 1974 game
Dungeons & Dragons worked, though as kids we never played it. In
his fine first memoir, novelist Mark Barrowcliffe reveals he was not so
lucky. According to The Elfish Gene, the author spent his youth in an
imaginary world recognizable by Lord of the Rings fans. A bleak
childhood in 1970s Coventry, England—which in Barrowcliffe’s rendering
seems almost as glamorous as a multilevel parking deck—pushed him away
from reality. He chose wizardry over drugs, kobolds over bullies, the
company of his own gender over feminine charms. These choices,
naturally, had their consequences.
“I think girls really do help boys mature; they at least get them focused on someone else, teach them to think about other people and what happens if you don’t,” Barrowcliffe writes. What he got instead was an obsessive focus on his preferred form of escapism and a sarcastic, know-it-all one-upmanship that chased away any nonplayer of D&D not already frightened off by the endless recounting of his “campaigns.”
As Paste readers may recall, D&D is a game waged face to face with 20-sided dice, characters created by most of the players, and an antagonist-filled setting designed and gradually revealed by a single player, the Dungeon Master. Players make characters to fit one of several fantasy archetypes (Fighter, Cleric and Magic-User), each of whom has predictable strengths and weaknesses that are numerically indicated.
Barrowcliffe himself fit into a different range of archetypes. Elfish Gene amounts to a portrait of the artist as a young nerd. But he’s not alone in that category, and the book’s main failing is a large, sometimes confusing cast. It includes Kevin the Nazi, Lee the Cryptofascist (Britain’s National Front was all the rage) and Andy the Bad Example. Not really Barrowcliffe’s friends, these kids competed with him and one another in the ways many Western teenagers do: bickering nonstop about the thing that tied them together, falling out and then regrouping like pathetic lovers. Despite the fact that few of them could stand Barrowcliffe’s company in those days, he kept getting invited to games because, well, he owned the only D&D set in Coventry.
Any cynic could guess the heartbreak that awaited young Mark once the game became more widely available. A nerd’s nerd, and bereft of any social finesse, Barrowcliffe was blindsided when the other boys excluded him. Instead of enlightening the unwelcome youngster to the shape of true friendship, this betrayal led him to meet Billy the Renaissance Boy. Billy is Barrowcliffe’s most memorable conjuration, Falstaff as a brilliant, self-deprecating, game-addicted youth. Billy truly enjoys Mark’s company, but Barrowcliffe reminds readers that friendship was not a quality he grasped back when he quested after elfish gold. Young Barrowcliffe groped for some sort of dignity by bringing together his new (and only real) friend with the boys who were his role models but also had spurned him. More heartbreak, rinse, repeat.
What, readers might wonder, did Barrowcliffe learn from his stints as a Fighter, Cleric and Magic-User? Certainly he learned about the uses (and abuses) of fantasy—the subject of this incisive, sometimes touching remembrance. Although he never states the formulation so straightforwardly, Barrowcliffe very likely attributes his career as a novelist to his time as a role-player. I base this conclusion on my own experience, summed up by the inscription I wrote to each of my cousins in the first role-playing-game book to which I contributed: “Thank you for being one of the architects of my imagination.”