Dungeons & Dragons memoir oozes nerd nostalgia

Mark Barrowcliffe's humorous, self-deprecating memoir of his misspent youth, "The Elfish Gene," is another welcome addition to the growing nerdsploitation genre.

"I knew far more about the wants and needs of a golden dragon than I ever did a girl," he confesses early in his story. That's because at an impressionable age, he discovered Dungeons & Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game that was a sensation among adolescents in the 1970s and 1980s before it was supplanted by such online games as World of Warcraft.

With the fervor of a religious convert, a young Barrowcliffe immerses himself in his newfound fantasy world. His imagination shifts into overdrive as he applies the game's mores to his everyday life, whether they have any bearing on reality or - far more frequently - not.

An example of this appears early on when Barrowcliffe tries to extinguish his family's flaming home by conjuring a rainstorm as he waits beside his weeping mother for the fire department to arrive.

Usually, though, the stakes are little more than Barrowcliffe's own social standing and self-esteem. D&D soon becomes his main interface with the world, and he manages to disenchant nearly everyone he meets - even other devotees - by smothering them with his obsession.

This especially frustrates his efforts to charm the opposite sex, as when he insists on describing an admirer in D&D terms and unwittingly offends her by assigning a low score for desirability. "I have to say, she picked it up quickly," he writes. "Perhaps, I thought, there was promise she could learn the game."

The saddest thing about Barrowcliffe's childhood is how easily it could have turned out differently. What sets him apart from the other boys is not his addiction. Many of his peers are nearly as obsessive, although they tend to imagine themselves as soccer stars and commandos and other roles more rooted in reality. Over time, their fascination fades as they discover teenage pursuits such as girls, fashion and looking cool. Young Barrowcliffe covets the maturity he sees growing in the boys around him, but can't understand that his own development is confounded by his devotion to a game of make-believe.

However, he is far from alone, and that's where the book's appeal lies. Many of the experiences he describes resonate because they are universal to adolescence. Gamers, especially, will recognize themselves in the author's follies.

D&D's success isn't surprising, given kids' hunger for escapism, especially in the dreary British Midlands where Barrowcliffe grew up. It's also little wonder that some of the more sensitive young players of a certain disposition lose themselves in the game, finding its world of wicked sorcerers and rampaging ogres more hospitable than the school yard.

Unfortunately, Barrowcliffe spends little time describing his actual adventures in the game, which may make it difficult for readers who have never played it to understand how D&D could be so consuming. But he keeps it accessible to newcomers by skipping over the more arcane mechanics of gameplay.

D&D exerts a worrying grip on Barrowcliffe and his young companions, and some of them never grow up completely. Luckily, Barrowcliffe himself is just a late bloomer, and by the end of the book, he's a successful, married writer. His ability to look back at his experience with humor and grace is what gives his story a happy ending.

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