On death row, Dungeons & Dragons offers a chance for new role

“This is one situation in which they can take control of their narrative, so they can rewrite the story and envision a world in which they are not seen as the bad guys, but the heroes who can save the world.”

By Shelly BrisbinSeptember 13, 2023 3:26 pm,

For the 200 men on Texas’ death row, prison is a more isolating experience than it is for many other inmates. Death row residents live alone in their cells and have very little chance to interact physically with other prisoners.

Some of these men have an escape – for a time, they can slip into a world of wizards, spellcasting and mythical adventure, all made possible by the role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons

Journalist Keri Blakinger wrote about D&D on Texas death row for the Marshall Project and the New York Times Magazine. She says D&D players on death row have had to improvise game materials like maps, dice and playbooks, all of which are restricted in Texas prisons. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How did this story come to your attention first?

Keri Blakinger: This has been on my radar since probably 2016 or 2017.

One of the first few times that I visited death row when I was at the Houston Chronicle, one of the men that I spoke to casually mentioned that they sometimes played Magic: The Gathering. And I was fascinated and I asked for more. And then he also mentioned that they played Dungeons & Dragons and again, I was just fascinated.

He said that he didn’t play anymore and he didn’t know a lot of details about the people who still were playing. So I had to sort of suss that out on my own. And for the next few years, every time that I would go, I would ask whoever I was interviewing if they played Dungeons & Dragons and asked them to tell me more about their game and if they knew who else played.

And eventually I sort of homed in on two particular people, Billy Wardlow and Tony Ford, who both were big into playing the game and seemed to be really well-respected by the other people who were players, and just by the other people that were on the row generally. I guess somewhere around 2019 I started focusing on them and their friendship and how they had built this friendship through the game, despite having lived in solitary confinement for two plus decades.

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Well, that’s a natural next question, I think. How logistically is this possible, given that Dungeons & Dragons is a complex undertaking, even if you’ve got a full kitchen table at your disposal. How are these guys doing it?

Well, there’s a lot of workarounds that they have to come up with on death row. Prior to 2000 or 2001, death row used to be at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville. And there they had cells with bars on the doors and they could actually get out and sit around a table together some, to game.

And then there was an escape or an escape attempt from death row. Afterwards, all of death row moved to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, and that was a much, much higher security facility. And they were then essentially always in solitary, which, you know, makes it harder to game.

So some of this relies on shouting out things from cell to cell, passing kites (prison slang for notes), you know, and other just sort of clandestine communications. Sometimes if one person is out in the common area, then they can talk to people who are still in their cells. But it’s harder to game when you can’t sit around a table together. 

But there’s also a lot of other workarounds. Dice are banned in most prison systems, and that means that they have to make spinners or they have to set their calculators to do an automatic number generator so that they can roll that way. And there’s other things – like most prison systems, you can’t have maps. So they’re drawing a lot of their own maps.

The books that you would need are generally allowed in Texas prisons. Some states actually ban them. But they’re expensive. They’re hard to get past prison censors. And you have regional search teams that’ll come in and raid the cells and take or destroy all their things. So it’s just hard to maintain belongings, even valuable ones, over a long period of time if you’re in isolation in a Texas prison. So there’s a lot of workarounds and creativity. And at times, they’ve had nothing.

One of the things that stood out to me was, at one point when they were all in lockdown and I don’t know, extra isolation, I guess, would be the best way to describe it. In the weeks after the escape, Billy (Wardlow) had been DMing – meaning acting as a dungeon master, he’d been DMing a game just out of his head with nothing. Like they had nothing. And he was just creating the whole game on the fly for them.

There are lots of games, conceivably, that inmates can play or do play, I’m sure. Why is Dungeons & Dragons popular with some of these folks?

I think there’s a few things.

I think that, first of all, it’s really immersive and engaging. It has a narrative and characters and a story. And in that way I think it appeals a little bit to escapist desires.

But I think it’s also a way to have a different kind of social interaction that doesn’t always feel safe or smart in prison, necessarily. It allows people to come together in different ways and can sort of be like therapy. 

The other thing that I think has stood out to me is that these are men who have been defined for decades by their worst act. And this is one situation in which they can take control of their narrative, so they can rewrite the story and envision a world in which they are not seen as the bad guys, but the heroes who can save the world. And for people who’ve been defined by something they did 20 and 25 years ago – the thing that will always be most linked to their name – I think that this is a particularly meaningful therapy and escape.

One of the people who you’ve mentioned in this story and that you really focus on is is Billy Wardlow. Can you just say a little bit more about the role that he played for some of the other inmates as the Dungeon Master, one of the main forces behind organizing these games?

They often had multiple games and sort of multiple gaming crews, you know, on the row. So there were different people who served as Dungeon Master and still serve as Dungeon Master at different times. Tony (Ford) has done this at times as well.

But I think one of the things that people liked about Billy was that he was very consistent and he liked to have sort of specific gaming times, that it was a thing they could all look forward to playing. And he was known for creating very intricate worlds, sort of very detailed plotlines and characters. And he was seen as something of a peacemaker, a calming force.

So he, I think, was also able to really lean into the ways in which the game can be a kind of therapy for people. (Billy Wardlow’s death sentence was carried out in 2020.)

How have people responded to this story so far?

It has been so overwhelmingly, surprisingly positive.

I feel like a lot of the times when I write about stories about anything vaguely happy or positive relating to people in prison at all, I get this sort of torrent of negative responses, and in this case I didn’t. In this case, almost all of the comments left on the New York Times web site were positive. And most of the emails I got were positive. And it was really heartening to see that there are at least some situations in which people can rethink how they view people in prison and people on death row.

One of the really neat things is that I had a few people that design games reach out to ask if there was any possibility that some of Billy’s belongings could be used to help try to make a game based on the world that he created. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. You know, obviously there’s copyright issues and things like that, but I think it’s been a really heartening possibility.

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