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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 January 2009
For the record, I have never played Dungeons and Dragons. What's more, I wouldn't have the slightest idea where to even start playing.

Fortunately this didn't keep me from understanding the basics of what is going on in "The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange," which is basically all about coming of age in 1970s England with the help of then-new-and-impressive Dungeons and Dragons. Mark Barrowcliffe gives the constant impression that he was intensely annoying and possibly insane, but it's a fun little read about the passionate obsessions of youth and the appeal of ubergeekery.

In the summer of 1976, Barrowcliffe was aspiring to be cool and edgy, with a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex. Then he discovered wargaming in school.

And by attempting to weave more fantastical stuff into his wargames, he inadvertently fell in with a new school club that was playing an utterly new kind of RPG -- Dungeons and Dragons. Soon Barrowcliffe was not only a gaming fanatic for anything fantastical, but was also enamored of "Lord of the Rings," Michael Moorcock, Led Zeppelin and anything else with a faraway fantastical edge. Suddenly everything else in life went to the wayside to make room for a strange world of dungeonmasters, elves, magic-users and primal bad guys.

Unsurprisingly, that level of obsession tends to cause a bit of annoyance -- from family, friends, and members of the opposite sex (well, what do you expect when you greet a "slattern" with a cry of "What, fair maiden?"). And Barrowcliffe soon discovered the downsides of D&D as well as the upsides -- including oblivious parents, dabblings in chemical "magic" and an egomaniac dungeonmaster -- as he struggled through an adolescent's rapidly changing world. Hoo boy.

"The Elfish Gene" is fundamentally a book about "growing up strange" -- it's definitely saturated in Ye Olde Role-Playing Games from beginning to end, and Barrowcliffe's obsessions are undeniable ("I'd already begun to suspect that the D&D system might not be the EXACT recreation of real life that I'd taken it to be"). But in many ways, it's the adolescent journey of a highly imaginative adolescent who's struggling to find his place in the world, and uses D&D (and many accompanying games) as the doorway to that.

And Barrowcliffe is fearless in exposing all the dorky, dumb things he did as a teenager. It takes some real guts to show the world that you were once immature, irritating, enslaved by the concept of "cool" and tended to dress like a total dork. Fortunately he's able to strike a nice balance between self-deprecating mockery (both then and now) and rosy-hued nostalgia for the 1970s, his hometown and the feeling of being an overenthusiastic young boy ("I think the idea that women might fancy good-looking, well-adjusted men who are nice to them is too much for the average fantasy-head to bear").

But despite his adrenaline-charged forays into strange worlds full of mystical beings (and apparently a lot of ethereal maidens), the real drama here is in the real world. Barrowcliffe roams through shops, makes (and loses) friends over his beloved D&D, and has it shape every single part of his persona. Most shockingly, he gets kicked out of his first group by the chilly, egomaniacal Porter, and though he finds a haven with older gamers there's still plenty of tension and conflict. Call it a cautionary tale for people who try to misuse their dungeonmaster power.

But despite the clashes between gamers (usually because of Porter's inexplicably dislikes), Barrowcliffe crams the book with funny story after funny story. You can't make this stuff up -- chemical "fireballs" in a bathroom, RPGing with cosmetics, purple prose, teenage Nazis, and the distinct lack of breeks. And he has a knack for funny, wry prose in any situation ("I will make your flesh sing a song of ecstacy such as will echo through the caverns of your soul. Happily shalt thou spend thy sweet seed." "Right, cup of tea?").

"The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange" is an off-kilter, ubergeeky memoir of adolescence in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, and Mark Barrowcliffe knows how to keep it fun and interesting.
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VINE VOICEon 13 May 2008
This book is laugh out loud funny, especially if you've played any form of Role playing game.

For some reason D&D largely passed me by, I played a bit of traveller & MERP at Uni but never really got heavily into it, however I was right in the middle of the nerdy computer/sci-fi/fantasy world.

Mark Barrowcliffe brilliantly evokes adolescense with its strange obsessions, malfunctioning body parts and crippling social anxiety.

Where I would disagree with him is his analysis - he claims D&D ruined his teenage years, whereas I rather suspect he would have a had a pretty ropey time, D&D or not. I certainly did. He says he was never bored whilst a teenager which seems like a pretty good deal to me. Also D&D honed his narrative skills - a novelist's bread and butter, surely.

However if you ignore the analysis, and the rather depressing Coda this is an excellent read and very funny, too.
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VINE VOICEon 6 May 2009
Mark Barrowcliffe, with affection and humour, details the world of a little understood interest group - the teenage Role Playing Game enthusiast.

Though a little younger and not quite as obsessive as Barrowcliffe in his youth, I found his memoir to contain many semblances to my own life, not least the flight from reality that that obsession brings. A few scenes reminded me, cringingly, of moments in my own life.

The pseudonymous portraits of his friends and enemies bore strong likenesses to the people I met rolling funny shaped dice and they have all the strange reality that fiction rarely captures.

The humour is deployed well and is not (despite what one over-defensive reviewer contends) at all spiteful or vengeful but good-natured and forgiving. A couple of times I caught a fit of the giggles, which returned a day or two later when offered a smokey bacon crisp.

If you are or have ever been a geek, then this will help you to reflect on what makes us, us.
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on 19 October 2009
Mark Barrowcliffe is a former stand up and current writer of comedic fiction; this is what I gleaned from the inlay in his books and tbh this was perfectly enough for me. However, not for Barrowcliffe as `The Elfish Gene' is a book about his teenage years and his obsession with the RPG game `Dungeon and Dragons'. For the most part the book is a sweet, but slightly self indulgent, look at growing up as a dweeb. I myself was no social butterfly and enjoyed the camaraderie in the book. The book is about growing up, but also heavily D&D, to the point where I do not fully understand who the book is aimed at. For people not into the past time there is far too much description of game playing and they will get bored. For fans of D&D they will find an unpleasant book that has a nasty feel.

The problem with the book does not really come about until towards the end when Barrowcliffe mentions his later years - university until becoming a writer. In about 50 pages he manages to undermine the entire book. The moments of selfishness and stupidity that plague his life as a teen are seemingly due to hormones; you think. Turns out that Barrowcliffe is just a unpleasant man who spent university bullying others then leading a life that he dismisses as dull (I'm sure all his former colleagues who look fondly on these years are very happy). He claims to be a better person now, but then rips into others with a venom that left me uncomfortable. As a stand up I must assume his act was to be mean to other people and not self deprecating. Barrowcliffe was a teenager who lived in a fantasy world and had an inflated sense of his own importance; now he is an author who lives in reality, but is still inflated.
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on 6 November 2007
Yes I thought it is a great title, really caught my eye. Though I have never played D and D, I am a girl after all, I have been caught up in the video game world of Dungeon Master on to Oblivion so some of the technical stuff made sense.

However I liked this is a coming of age book, especially since it was set in the seventies it brought back all those memories of "Sale of the Century", sweeties, heavy metal. Actually I didn't really want to remember sale of the century, but hey ho.

We see how Mark came into contact with D and D and introduced it to his friends, who promptly took it up and then excluded him. There is also a wonderful sense of his driving passion for the game which echoed the kind of passion most of have as teenagers, though it is not usually for role playing board games.

It really felt as if the author was being very honest, especially as the picture he paints of himself is an annoying little oik. It's really good storytelling that does draw you in to keep on reading. And also some very funny moments, the laundry basket comes to mind!

Good writing from the days of the selfish elf!
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on 3 September 2013
I am a year younger than Barrowman, so entered all the D&D phases a year after him, but aside from that this is the story of my role-playing life, presented in laugh-out-loud and well-observed detail. Although there are certain popularist elements, like the title, which suggest a sneering look back on the whole world he has since grown out of, in truth 'the Elfish Gene' really gets to the heart of what made fantasy role playing games so special, so addictive and some life altering in the 70s and early 80s.

A lot of the negative reviews really don't appreciate the whole 'Life on Mars' feel of the time. How conformist, how difficult to branch out and make statements about lifestyle and values. We played a game that literally had no female players (I think I met my first female role player in the early nineties), that simply had no hold in the mainstream (I saw a news item about it on Nationwide once, otherwise it was a charmed circle of devotees.) Like Barrowman I had a moment of revelation aged 13 when one of my role playing friends said he wasn't interested in football, it was a game for morons. This was 1980 and every boy played football and followed teams. Suddenly Dungeons and Dragons gave us permission to speak this unspeakeable thought and enter (as its own authors explicitly stated) a higher and more intellectual world.

All of which makes it a bit difficult to be dispassionate about the book. If you know a role player and don't play yourself (you may be married to one, for instance...) this is the book to explain what made and makes them tick. If you do play/did play there will be a continual sequence of 'that's so true! I remember that!' which you have to share. It gives a voice to all of those for whom the Nick Hornby-type 'We all liked Footie' 'We all had our first faltering drugs and sex experiences at school aged 16' books have nothing to offer because we were, quite literally, much too busy exploring the City State of the Invincible Overlord for such lowbrow, mundane pursuits. It is funny and ultimately very poignant.

Barrowman and Porter and Billy and all the rest of the characters who people this memoire were pioneers to the mainstream world of World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls, The Lord of the Rings films, gigantic sections of fantasy books in high street booksellers and amusing songs on You Tube about Isengard we all now inhabit.
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on 10 January 2014
Technically this is a well-written book. Sometimes funny, and the characterization is superb. Sadly, it characterizes a monstrously unlikable character, who refuses to learn anything from adversity, doesn't grow and consistently blames external factors -a game- for his problems.

It is written in an memoir format, and is the story of a hideously unsocialized boy who discovers Dungenos and Dragons. The boy comes across as a terribly repellent person, and the adult, looking back at this socially misplaced childhood appears a dissassociative personality. All the things that went wrong in his life is the fault of Dungeons and Dragons, not the fact that he was a social misfit. And his life, he believes, would have been much better if he had never picked up the dice. However, the book provides ample evidence that he was badly dysfunctional socially long before he discovered Dungeons and Dragons.

He supposes life would have been much better if he had found a different, more "normal" interest, but the book subtly illustrates that his the subject of his interest was not the problem, but the intensity of it. Looking at it with a readers eye, it seems unlikly that the main character would have been any less obsessive over a different interest. He'd simply have ended up in a subculture less tolerant of social misfits.

In writing this "memoir" the character believes he would have been much happier if the game had not conditioned him to expect more out of life and sparked his imagination. This is written by the adult character, a successful writer looking back on his life. He imagines that without the game dragging him down, he would have gotten better friends, a more "normal" social life, and a career not burdened by his own expectations. He never explains how the socially inept boy he was would have done so much better in the Coventry of the 70s. His reasons for believing that a "normal" adolescnese in 70s UK would be better than what he had is unclear.

To the reader it shines through that the game gave the character everything that led to success in his life. The imagination, the vocabulary, the ambition, everything that made him a popular writer. While he bitterly blames it for all his personal failiures, his life history is basically a best-case scenario for the boy we come to know through the book.

Unlike the other reviewrs, I don't think it is intended to be an honest autobiography, but a character-portrait presented as an memoir. I went to the authors website and he seems to be doing D&D contentedly. Entirely unlike the bitter alter-ego of the book, who rejects it utterly. The problem is that by using his own name, and probably quite a bit of his own history, the author becomes too strongly identified with the utterly unlikable character.

Basically, he is too subtle in showing that the character is someone who was salvaged by dungeons & dragons. The writing is taken at face value and its not a pretty face.
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on 29 October 2015
The story of a smug, arrogant, judgemental and unlikeable boy who decided to stop playing DnD. The author seems to thinks that his decision made him a better person, which is actually not the case. Quite the opposite, I would say.

A sad, bitter and quite pathetic charge against role-playing games, which still has one positive aspect: the guy is not a DnD player anymore. Good riddance - who would like a player like that at the gaming table?
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on 18 January 2009
I personally loved this book, but I fear that it might be aimed at a minority audience and not to everyone's tastes. However, I'm not saying that's a bad thing as there's no book, film or piece or music that everyone loves, is there?

The other reviewers and the synopsis given in the book's description tell you pretty much everything you need to know about this book, so I'll keep this short. It's an autobiographical book about a teenage boy growing up in Coventry in the UK in the 1970s. He is a bit of a social outcast but finds 'friends' and relief in the newly released Dungeons and Dragons. He quickly becomes obsessed with game and soon starts talking and dressing like his character and looking at the real world as if the rules of D&D somehow govern real life.

If you can identify with any of this or you know someone who was/is strongly into wargaming, or particularly roleplaying, then you'll probably enjoy this book. It's an interesting read in itself, but it does go into some detail about the game that will probably pass most people by if they're not at least vaguely familiar with sci-fi/fantasy/RPGs/fantasy or something similar. There are some really funny anecdotes in the book, as well as a few sad ones, and I couldn't wait to read the next chapter every time I was forced to do something else like eat or sleep.
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