The title of this post is the second half of the sub-head of Mark Barrowcliffe’s memoir – The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons & Growing Up Strange (a memoir) – so I’m going to be taking a little stroll down memory lane and reviewing the book but also a large(ish) slice of my past. Buckle up.
If we’re friends on Goodreads, you’ll know that I just recently finished reading the book, taking an inordinate amount of time (well over a year) to finish the damn thing. That’s not a bad thing nor is it an indictment of my interest level in the subject matter or the quality of the writing. It just means that the story, such as it is, only grabbed me about halfway through and the bookends of the book (ha!) are much weaker.
Here’s a trailer:
Let me back up.
The book is a memoir that relies heavily upon D&D as a backdrop and not the other way around. If you’re looking for a book about the early days of D&D that might also feature some funny quips about being a teenager look elsewhere.
Here’s the thing: Barrowcliffe is a really excellent writer who can write some insanely funny dialogue (or remember it well) but his self-deprecation is borderline self-loathing and I think that fact cuts a bit too close to the bone.
You see, I was one of the folks around his gaming table. Figuratively.
I was insecure as a middle schooler and early high schooler.
I had an insanely well-manicured fantasy life.
I wasted (not really a waste, but still) many days/late nights/early mornings/all-nighters huddled around a gaming table with my Jolt Cola and a bag of salty snacks.
I think the part of me that didn’t like the book is the part of me that still can’t quite acknowledge how maladjusted and weird I was back in my own youth, struggling to figure out myself, other people and young women (only one of whom I actively remember gaming with us. Once.).
The best parts of the book – other than some of the more hilarious put-downs and bad behavior of the boys around the table – are those indelible sense memories of actually playing the game and affinity he (and I) had for the look & feel of the source materials: the game books, character sheets and ephemera.
This is where I jumped down the rabbit hole.
Reading the book spawned all kinds of memories of my initial game purchases, at a Toys R Us in Marietta, GA no less.
The D&D stuff sat in a bin, low to the floor at the endcap of the action figure aisle (near Strongheart & Warduke), facing the books – as if kids in a toy store in the 80s wanted to get a book for their 10th birthday. Feh!
My interest was in the fantasy, the wonder, of playing a game that came without a board or pieces, but merely a set of rules and illustrations.
I’d seen the TSR/Marvel cartoon series (now out on DVD!) a year or two earlier – the year of the book purchases would have been 1987 or 1988 – so I understood the mythology, such as it was, of Dungeons and Dragons, and so I pawed the books but didn’t have the cash on hand to afford 2 or 3 (let alone even 1) of the $20 tomes.
My first purchases were actually modules for D&D, AD&D and Gamma World, not that I knew what any of these things were. Try being a 7th or 8th grader spending time at a sleepover with your buddies and trying to reverse engineer a rules system from 24 to 32 pieces of paper. Good times. [I *may* still have these modules in a box somewhere. They came from my parents house with a ton of comics, books & toys.]
When I finally did have the cash on hand – after a birthday or Christmas – I found the books on sale. I was able to buy AD&D 1st Edition stand-bys Unearthed Arcana, Player’s Handbook & Dungeon Masters Guide. Of course when I actually started playing regularly in 1989 or 1990 our gaming group was using AD&D 2nd Edition, heavily modified with older rules because of an older brother of one of the group. I can still remember arguments over calculating THAC0 and even the pronunciation of that key metric: (Thay-coh versus Thack-oh; the “th” sounds like “thistle” in both cases).
Around this time, I actively started collecting comics again – I’d gotten a TON of comics from my great grandmother in Michigan as a younger kid – and bought my first set(s) of polyhedral dice at Dr. No’s (at that time called Dr. No’s Books, Records & Comics). A few years later the comics industry would go full speculator, the records were gone and all the gamers were obsessed with Magic: The Gathering (me included), a past time that followed me to college.
The games in high school were epic. Rowdy, raucous affairs fueled by caffeine, unchained imaginations and the raging male hormones of puberty and early manhood. A game about swords & sorcery was the perfect outlet for our burgeoning masculinity.
I want to remember all the good bits – the laughter, the camaraderie and the storytelling – not the awkwardness of youth: pimples (warts) and all. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like the book as much as I might have otherwise, because I recognized too much of myself and others in the characters/caricatures of Barrowcliffe’s past. Nobody wants to be the asshole DM with the God complex or the Tolkein fanboy or the dreaded Min-Maxing Rules Lawyer.
Much like Barrowcliffe, I’m no longer an active gamer, though I’ve dabbled in MMORPGs recently (mostly WoW). In college, as I’ve said, I played M:TG, but I also tried out F.U.D.G.E, so I eased my way out of it.
I sometimes think I’d like to have those experiences again – the late nights and the hurling dice; the cackling and the cracking of skulls – but I’m not that person anymore, not entirely anyway.
In the end, maybe that’s the best/worst thing I can say about the book: that maybe some things are best left in the past. Fun to remember from time to time but not to be revisited or relived. (And, I’ll admit, fun to collect. I bought some old guidebooks, ones that pre-date my initial purchases, at a yard sale a few years back.)