The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange

Book cover for Elfish Gene depicting red cartoon dragon and character sheet for Dungeons and DragonsThe Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe is just as much about growing up in Britain in the 1970s as it is about early Dungeons and Dragons and a few other select RPGs. It is also a very quick and entertaining read. Barrowcliffe lays out the premise of his book on the second page, explaining that he lived and breathed RPGs (and fantasy) from the age of eleven to sixteen, followed by twice-a-week sessions until he was twenty. The Elfish Gene captures this impressionable time in his life, as well as how he transitioned out of role-playing. If you are expecting an old timer’s feelings on World of Warcraft or the move from 3.5 to 4th Edition, look elsewhere, but if you enjoy reading about the Arduin Grimoire, the Empire of the Petal Throne, and numerous juvenile D&D arguments, The Elfish Gene is a must-read. The book is also exceptional if you like occasionally poignant films and books about adolescence and an author’s reflections on his youth. If the characters in Stand By Me were D&D players of the 1970s I think you would have something close to Barrowcliffe’s book.

Barrocliffe’s Style

Barrowcliffe’s writing in The Elfish Gene lends itself to the reader imagining and predicting where a particular chapter is headed. When a chapter has a title like “The Gathering of the Clouds”, the reader can imagine what problems might befall the young Barrowcliffe and rain on his life. This is usually a good trait in writing. In most chapters though, Barrowcliffe writes a few paragraphs or pages about a development in his role-playing life, but then meanders off on some side quest explaining a facet of British society in the 70s before the main quest is rejoined. While such delays build anticipation, they can get quite frustrating. Aside from minor issues with him getting to the point though, his style in The Elfish Gene is quite strong with ample explanations of RPG terms when needed and layered references to preceding portions of the memoir. The Elfish Gene is thoroughly engaging, even if the author’s eventual move away from role-playing in university had me shaking my head and left a bitter taste in my mouth. I am grateful though that Barrowcliffe’s departure from RPGs allowed him to pursue a course in journalism and to take up writing, eventually producing this memoir that I have enjoyed so much.

Barrowcliffe’s Humor Gene

Perhaps more importantly than his ability to tell his own tale, Barrowcliffe’s writing is full of humor. No, I didn’t laugh uproariously as I read The Elfish Gene, but I was generally entertained and chuckled through a good portion of it. While he was getting into D&D in 1977 and I first played it in 1989, I immediately recognized a number of his gamers as familiar from my own junior high friends. The personalities of gamers have not really changed in the intervening twelve years – or even thirty – and Barrowcliffe brings these personalities across with humor, even if a character only persists for a few paragraphs. There’s the overly-literal, argumentative characters who make such perceptive statements as “Football is for morons and thugs … Superior people play Dungeons and Dragons.” There is the loquacious DM Steve who introduces a Strider-like character, “His cloak is of motley, and his breeks are spattered with the mud of a hundred journeys. Tall if he, and imposing of stature, though he sits unassumingly. Perhaps you might not remark him on first glance until your gaze lingers a little longer and you see the burning coals that are his eyes!“. Then there is the frustratingly brief Dave who is always “A man in a cloak.” Barrowcliffe doesn’t spare himself though. In fact, he’s the main source of humor. His pride in obtaining the nickname of Spaz is just the start of his social obliviousness that pops up again and again throughout The Elfish Gene.

This ignorance and boorishness make for some of the best moments of his memoir, which I was dying to share with my wife. Almost every role-playing layman he meets is subjected to interrogations on Dungeons & Dragons and Barrowcliffe’s evangelism for the gaming hobby that consumed his life. When he writes that “I knew far more about the wants and needs of a golden dragon than I ever did a girl,” Barrowcliffe goes on to demonstrate that with example after embarrassing example. When presented with the chance to go to second base with an older girl at the age of 11, Barrowcliffe instead expands on D&D’s appeal, “Look. It’s the best and most sophisticated wargame ever devised”. Incredibly, he doesn’t drive her away and a humorous exchange about her Charisma score of 6 ensues. This sets the stage for later encounters. When first visiting a proper game store, Barrowcliffe introduces himself to the proprietor thusly:

‘I’m Spaz Barrowcliffe,’ I said, ‘I called you earlier on. D&D magic-user level 25, EPT priest level 4,’ (Billy was a bit of a martinet when it came to seeing the rules were followed) Traveller marine with a pretty good platform of skills, if I say so myself.’

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ I said. ‘Elves can’t go beyond ninth level as magic-users, so why have I got one of twenty-fifth level? In one word, “Wish spells.”‘

The owner is understandably non-plussed and a bit confused and the boys later speculate that the shop owner plays a “Fiftieth-level human cleric, no races… probably with the Mace of Cuthbert and some other one-off magical items. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be overly laden down with potions. Invisibility maybe, but he’d have CLW and CSW as spells so he’d more than likely trade them in for something more magic usery.” The book abounds with such humorous encounters and I found most of them to be on the light-hearted end of the spectrum. Barrowcliffe reserves most of any negativity or venom for himself, but again, he is also the most comical character in the memoir.

Further Thoughts on the Elfish Gene

The Elfish Gene is quite meaty and also surprisingly thought-provoking for a book about RPGs in the 1970s. I know that I will be returning to it for his insights on RPGs, gamers, and gaming, but the following immediately stuck out to me about the book.

The Pursuit of the Supernatural and the Occult

By the time I got into D&D, there were still murmurs of charges alleging ties from RPGs to Satanism and the occult in Dragon Magazine’s Forum section and in letters to its editors, but I had missed most of the furor of the 1980s. Barrowcliffe ironically was one of those players who actually was trying to cast spells and summon demons. As he writes, “When I say I thought I could be a wizard, that’s exactly true. I really did believe I had latent magical powers, and, with enough concentration and fiddling my fingers into strange patterns, I might suddenly find how to unlock the magic inside me.” Barrowcliffe was inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and his own desire for untold untapped power hiding within him. While I have to confess to still trying to move things telekinetically from time to time, Barrowcliffe really went a lot further with humorous results as he tries to perform a magic ritual in an English graveyard with his aptly-named friend Rat, who once tried to summon Cthulhu. As Barrowcliffe surmises, “Summoning Cthulhu is roughly the same as trying to summon Peter Pan.” Instead, Barrowcliffe attempts a Golden Dawn ceremony after studying Aleister Crowley’s teachings and having experimented with magic mushrooms. As he demonstrates though (and Rat too), there are a number of role-players who try to tap into the supernatural. Whether they really proportionately exceed other children or adolescents trying to do the same, is a matter for further research. In Barrowcliffe’s view on his obsessive interest, “D&D didn’t encourage my leanings towards trying magic of my own at all. In fact, it frustrated them.” He argues that instead D&D gave him a more stimulating outlet for his interests, but this doesn’t quite explain why he persisted in trying to cast spells as he got older.

British Politics and Class System

I think students of classism and domestic British socio-politics of the 1970s would benefit from a read of The Elfish Gene due to Barrowcliffe’s anecdotes and observations. Aside from the role-playing and coming of age aspects, class and politics really make up the rest of the book and were a huge part of Barrowcliffe’s teenage reality. Soccer or football might get a line or two, but there are pages and pages on socialism, communism, and fascism. Barrowcliffe grew up working class and later flaunts it when he arrives at university and his classmates long for any sort of street cred. Earlier though, his Nazi-admiring gamer friends who are pretentious and think of themselves as upper class get a firm reminder that they are instead very much working class and are merely being pretentious twats. I do think this third element of the book might turn off other American readers or be a bit incomprehensible, but in saying that I might be the pretentious twat.

Further Readings and Games to Explore

While I do plan on rereading The Elfish Gene again, it has also opened up other books to explore, starting with Barrowcliffe’s other novels. I did read through the first several chapters of Girlfriend 44 before abandoning it and didn’t even make it that far into Infidelity for First-Time Fathers before quitting it too. Deprived of references to RPGs and fantasy, his characters are just too nasty, mundane, and British for my tastes, but I will be trying Lucky Dog as well as his M.D. Lachan books. As he explained in his April interview on this site, M.D. Lachan is Barrowcliffe’s fantasy pen name for a historical fantasy series involving werewolf Vikings. He also has a similarly historical fantasy series forthcoming under the pen name Mark Alder about the Hundred Years’ War.

Elric looms so huge in The Elfish Gene and was such a massive inspiration for Barrowcliffe’s RPG characters, campaigns, and world settings that I will have to read Michael Moorcock. Similarly I now want to read Le Guin’s Earthsea series to see what the fuss is all about too. Then there is Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT). While the vast, vast majority of The Elfish Gene is about D&D, maybe ten to fifteen percent is about EPT, created by linguistics professor M.A.R. Barker. In one very entertaining chapter of the book, Barrowcliffe and GM friend Billy play through a session of EPT while Barrowcliffe’s parents watch a quiz show. As Barrowcliffe characteristically explains EPT to a London shopkeeper as an adult, it’s “The original role–playing game,’ I said, ‘published just after D&D in 1975, though after Chainmail. You have heard of Chainmail? First available through the Owl and Weasel fanzine, precursor of White Dwarf?'” Barrowcliffe celebrates EPT for its novelty and linguistic and economical detail, including its own language and the chlen pack animal whose hide forms the basis of game’s economy.

Barrowcliffe’s Supportive Friends and Family

Earlier I mentioned that the book could be the Stand by Me of 1970s English D&D players. While there is no dead boy by the train tracks, The Elfish Gene has its share of emotional moments and friendships being strained and reaffirmed. Barrowcliffe’s parents appear from time to time and when he is exiled from his D&D group by the older boys, it is Mrs. Barrowcliffe that makes her son a Kermit the Frog stuffed animal which he later uses as a lizardman which he names Krrrllkccr and it is Mrs. Barrowcliffe who finds her son a new wargames club to join. They rather tolerantly allow their son to host 20+ gamers for Saturday gaming with an evening’s notice, which has his mom baking 60 scones and making sandwiches to host them. Other tolerant parents also appear including Billy’s father, an avowed fascist and gun collector with a live hand grenade in his collection. Billy himself is a larger than life character, both literally and figuratively and the loss of his friendship is keenly felt both by Barrowcliffe and the reader. For all the gamers in Barrowcliffe’s life, RPGs were an outlet to be something other than what they were at the time (just as RPGs are now), but the gamers’ friends and family also allowed their obnoxious loved ones to have some respite from the real world to even be able to explore their imaginations. Like some of my friends in junior high (and perhaps myself), Barrowcliffe was particularly obnoxious. It says a lot that his family and friends were supportive and nurturing enough to see him through to less obnoxious times.

Mark Barrowcliffe on The Elfish Gene

The Elfish Gene is Mark Barrowcliffe’s humorous 2007 memoir on his involvement in role-playing in the British Midlands in the 1970s. For Barrowcliffe, role-playing really was Dungeons & Dragons with some Empire of the Petal Throne and forays into Traveller mixed in. The Elfish Gene is as much about teenage awkwardness and social battles as it is about D&D. Craven Games will be reviewing the book in the future, as it is an excellent book about games by a gamer. Mark Barrocliffe has written a number of other books under his own name, his MD Lachan pen name, the new Mark Alder name explained in the interview below, as well as having ghost written a number of works.

Delving into The Elfish Gene with Mark Barrowcliffe

Book cover for Elfish Gene depicting red cartoon dragon and character sheet for Dungeons and Dragons

American Cover for The Elfish Gene (Soho)

CG: Several bits of minutiae, I see that you have a different cover in Britain that’s not the character sheet and dragon one. Why is that?
MB: It’s just the publisher’s choice. I liked the US cover very much despite the fact the character sheet was from a later version of D&D to the one I played.

CG: What’s this “bohemian ear spoon” that your character Efflic has in his inventory and was reversing your real name to use as your character’s pretty popular back then? Did Porter and Billy do this too?
MB: Not as far as I know they didn’t. Effilc Worrab sounds good, not all names do when they’re reversed. A ‘bohemian ear spoon’ is a pole arm. It took the internet to be invented for me to discover that.
CG: Did you actually use it as a weapon?
MB: Don’t think so. When D&D first started all weapons did the same 1-6 damage (as far as I recall). I was a bastard sword man for fighters once AD&D came out – a bit anachronistic for my berserkers!

CG: Have the sales been different in the UK versus the US or Canada? 
MB: I honestly don’t know! I really don’t think about that, I just cash the cheques if and when they arrive!

CG: You were the oldest of your brothers, did any of your younger brothers follow you into D&D?
MB: My younger brother played as part of the 1980s craze. I had a great disdain for his approach, which seemed to be based on enjoying himself rather than realism, immersion, endless haggling over rules and the working out of deep psychic imbalances.

CG: One thing that made me blink and had me checking when the book was published was your assertion that computer games led to D&D’s “own undoing”. What did you mean by that?
MB: Computer games killed paper-based gaming. Or rather, they reduced it to about the level it was at when I was playing. D&D was no longer a mass market product in the computer age but a niche hobby.

Geeky teenaged Mark Barrowcliffe on the cover of his memoir The Elfish Gene

UK Hardback Cover (Macmillan)

CG: How embellished are some of the scenes in The Elfish Gene, if at all? Were you really that much of a bore and what did you leave out? I couldn’t get over your idea of chatting up the girl at the bus stop or your introduction to the game store owner.
MB: Not embellished at all. In some cases I toned down the reality because I just didn’t think people would believe it. Chigger, for instance, made my life a misery for about a year. I didn’t want to write ‘A Child Called It’. The Elfish Gene is, at heart, a humorous book.
CG: Chigger obviously has left a deep impression on you and a slight bit on me as a reader. You glossed over his attack on you in your own house. What actually happened?
MB: We had an argument over the interpretation of some rules. I won.  He hit me and kicked me repeatedly until my dog bit him and my friend, who was the same age as me (4  years younger than Chigger) but bigger and a talented rugby player told him to stop. Like many bullies, he wasn’t a very happy person and, to be honest, if he’s still miserable then I’m not too bothered!

CG: At some point you’re out in your anorak in the rain in the book, but was anyone describing you and your friends as anoraks back then in the 70s? How were you treated in your pre-cloak wearing days or was being in your school’s war games club a bit more socially acceptable then?
MB: Anorak was not a term of abuse then. I think the wargames club was something other kids just didn’t understand. It also didn’t grip our imaginative lives in the same way D&D did. I never walked around imagining myself as a Napoleonic general. I did imagine myself as a D&D character and acted in a way that drew attention to that. D&D drew more notice but I don’t think it had achieved any real nerd stigma then, simply because it wasn’t understood. Our clothes and attitudes made us socially unacceptable, the game was just an aspect of that.

Barrowcliffe the Author

CG: In your interview with Slushpile in 2009, you mentioned developing a game set in the Viking age and a three book deal for fantasy novels. This is you as M.D. Lachlan? What’s been going on with that, you have Wolfsangel and Fenrir, what about the game?
MB: The game never happened because I am too busy. Yes, this is me as MD Lachlan. I have three books now – Wolfsangel, Fenrir and Lord of Slaughter, which is launched in July in the UK. I’m really proud of the books and think I’ve done a good job of writing the sort of fantasy I like to read – mythic, scary, weird. 
CG: What would your game have been like? Would players have the option of being a werewolf knight?
MB: I had only thought of the magic system, which would have involved the collection of runes. The more runes you have, the more powerful you are in magic but the weaker and more insane. The werewolf, as in the book, would be linked to the fate of the main magic user. When one character had 24 runes she would effectively be Odin and the Fenris wolf would appear to fight her.  Men would not be able to use magic – the Vikings thought magic very unmanly. The rules didn’t quite apply to gods, though. Odin is god of magic but he has gender-bending qualities, as do a few of the Norse gods, including Thor. Knights existed around the time of the early Vikings – the Franks had them. It might, therefore, be possible to have a werewolf knight!

CG: For anyone who reads The Elfish Gene and wants more Barrowcliffe, what should we read next?
MB: My book Lucky Dog is fun – about an addicted Poker player whose dog starts talking to him. Otherwise, I’d recommend the fantasy books. They’re not at all funny, or if they are I’ve done something wrong.

CG: Who did you have in mind for the “posh” cover for one of your fantasy novels you said you dream about from your interview with Gemma Noon?
MB: Maybe like the cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel or the original Lord of the Rings. Some sort of subdued thing. I am a hopeless artist who can hardly do stick men so it’s the sort of thing I would know when I saw it.
CG: Even now have you stayed away from fantasy humorists like Piers Anthony and Terry Pratchett?
MB: Not stayed away but neither have I avidly devoured them! I like Terry Pratchett’s work when I come across it but I’m not the sort to wait outside the bookshop all night for his latest release! I have some humour in my latest book and even Wolfsangel and Fenrir have some comic characters.

CG: George R.R. Martin’s world is fairly grim and dark. Have you visited the Songs of Fire and Ice series?
MB: Yes, I love it. Martin has an enviable way of making you care about his characters. It’s dark in a different way to Wolfsangel. In Wolfsangel most of the characters are good. Even the main villain is not evil just because she’s a nasty piece of work like, say Joffrey. The darkness in Wolfsangel comes from the struggles of the character’s against the destiny the gods have set them.

CG: What are you working on right now?
MB: A new fantasy book under a new pseudonym. It’s set in the Hundred Years War in Europe – beginning in 1337 and taking in the great battles of Crecy, Potiers and Agincourt. It’s a historical fantasy and a lot of fun. I anticipate the main character might raise a few eyebrows stateside. The provisional blurb reads ‘Meet Dowzabel. A good man. Who fights for the devil.’ He’s a revolutionary
CG: Will Joan of Arc be making an appearance?
MB: Eventually the Witch of Domrémy will appear, yes.

CG: What’s your own writing schedule like? How do you proceed with your day? Do you have a goal in words?
MB: It depends. When I ghost write I do 5000 words a day but that’s either celebrity autobiography or very straightforward thrillers. At the moment, with my new book, I’m doing 2000 words a day but that grinds to nothing occasionally when the plot gets difficult to work out. I will also edit very extensively once the book is finished. But I do write quickly.

CG: How much of being a modern author is not about writing, but marketing, self-promotion, and managing the industry? You mentioned a blurb earlier and I read about the release dates of the Sons of Hurin in the UK. I also read about shelf placement as a controllable science.
MB: Yes, my new pen name is Mark Alder, in order to get the book into the eye line right at the start of the fantasy section. A lot is about promotion, even for fairly big authors. Unfortunately I’m not very good about it!

More Elfish Barrowcliffe

British teenage youths on the cover of The Elfish Gene promoting Coventry. 1976

UK Paperback Cover (Macmillan)

CG: Did your mom or dad take notice of Billy’s departure from your life and ever suggest patching things up? She seemed really supportive when you became a pariah initially.
MB: They noticed but they didn’t try to do anything about it. I wasn’t nearly as upset as I was when I was thrown out of the D&D group. I think I didn’t realise how valuable Billy’s friendship was too me for a few years after he went. Teenage relationships are transitory and, as I had other friends, I don’t think my parents were too worried about it. Also, it cost them less in cigarettes.

CG: What were you like as a DM or GM?
MB: I never really liked being a DM, as we called them. I did enjoy the world building but not so much running the games. I think a lot of my stuff was based in a world I was interested in – Celtic or Viking, full of horrific, strange magic and I spent some time trying to get all that right – particularly as I got older. It was fun but not as much fun as being a player. Weirdly, I think the experience of writing is nearer to being a player in D&D than it is to being a DM. I’m a ‘seat of the pants’ writer – I don’t plan. So when you’re writing someone’s experience it’s more like playing a character, revealing things, being shocked or fascinated, than it is the more formal world building process the DM employs.

CG: You tried to be a real life druid of sorts, devised your own warlock class, and tried to use your own magic as a kid. Were the majority of your PCs magic users of some sort? 
MB: Yes, when I was younger. As I got older I started running a berserker character (based on a character class from a fanzine) and also a vampire and anti-paladin (the Melnibonéan character class I devised).
CG: There have been increasingly more classes and races. None of them tempted you out of your D&D retirement? Were you even aware of AD&D 2nd Edition or Magic: the Gathering?
MB: Obviously I was aware of these things. I have arranged a game recently, but it’s not new stuff that has tempted me out, but the old. I’ve found a fellow Empire of the Petal Throne gamer nearby.

CG: What was your favorite D&D spell?
MB: I never met a first level magic user who didn’t choose Sleep first. Detect Magic? Yeah, right, kill 10 orcs with that! Nothing too fancy I’m afraid, probably Fireball. The third level spells were the ones that transformed magic users from being weak fight dodgers to the heavy artillery of the game. Or Fly. I’ve always wanted to be able to fly! Like I said, nothing too imaginative!

CG: I was just reading Michael Stackpole’s Pulling Report from 1990 in defense of RPGs which had come under attack as Satanic. Your own attempts at real magic in The Elfish Gene were at best comical and delusional, but they’d have made good fodder for Patricia Pulling if the book came out two decades earlier. What did you think of the scare in the 80s? Did you notice it at all?
MB: Well I wasn’t a Satanist. I was into Crowley’s Golden Dawn magic, much of which involves the attempt to summon angels, so it could be seen as just an esoteric branch of Christianity. I thought the scare in the 1980s was spread by morons, firstly because D&D led no one to Satanism, second because, if it did, who cares? As I noted in the book, an interest in the occult is much less dangerous than horse riding or motocross. And it gets you out of the house, at least. Most of the witches I’ve ever met are much more straightforward and pleasant people than the sinister evangelical tub thumpers who get so hot under the collar about them.   I noticed the scare in retrospect; it just didn’t take hold in England. The UK is not a religious society compared to the US – few western societies are. Over here, about 7 per cent of people consider themselves practising Christians. So there just isn’t the manure for the seeds of such ignorance to grow in.

Mark Barrowcliffe’s Treasure Chest

American cover copyright Soho Press, used with permission. UK covers copyright Macmillan, used with permission.