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Youth of Horrors
on 31 October 2008
As a 30-something male who spent a good deal of my teen years playing wargames and role-playing games, I'm squarely within the target audience for this "growing up geeky" memoir by English novelist Barrowcliffe. However, much as I desperately wanted to revel in the trials and tribulations of his '70s Coventry youth, I just wasn't ever able to connect with them. It's kind of obvious to say, but when a memoir doesn't work for me, it's because I'm not really enjoying the company of the author.
My problem lay in the combination of his obsession with D&D and his total social ineptitude. Don't get me wrong, I'm fully aware of the obsessions of youth and had my own ones, however that never really turned me into the complete idiot that is Barrowcliffe at ages 12-15. (To be fair, he repeatedly admits with hindsight that he was an exceedingly annoying and foolish kid -- but that doesn't make his antics any less cringeworthy.) Maybe the problem is that he only had one obsession, whereas all my gamer friends have multiple obsessions, ranging from sports to music to cars to politics to art, etc. By this standard we were more "well-rounded" than Barrowcliffe and his cohort, even though we were still generally social outcasts. The difference was that we generally didn't worry too much about it, and made plenty of good friends through other interests. So my experience with gaming kind of contradicts one of the book's main themes, which is that "normal" kids don't play RPGs and engage in imaginative play.
It's also somewhat illuminating to me that he basically ditches D&D after reinventing himself as a heavy metal fan, and immerses himself in a different social space. None of the gamers I know ever really stopped gaming by choice. For us, there was never any problem gaming on Friday night, going to a punk show with a girl on Saturday, and playing football on Sunday. It wasn't until we reached our 30s and had more career and family commitments that we had to let go of RPGs, simply because it was impossible to schedule regular 8-hour gaming sessions.
And for all his elaborations on how D&D dominated his life, Barrowcliffe rarely succeeds at explaining what makes it so compelling. Quite the opposite, his descriptions of gaming sessions sound utterly awful. Then again, I didn't start playing until I was in my late teens, and the overall tenor was a whole lot more mature than the chaotic, backstabbing sessions described in this book. Some of the gaming stuff he describes is amusing, but mostly it's just kind of sad. In the end, I guess the book is perfectly fine as a memoir, I just had a very hard time relating it to my own D&D experiences. Certainly there are some funny anecdotes, interesting stuff about the early days of RPGing, some quite good stuff about coming of age in England in the '70s, as well as a rather heartbreaking story of friendship lost. But mainly, the book just made me wish that one of my old gang of gamers could find the time to DM a cool mid-level campaign for us.