Gabriel R

How Inmates Play Tabletop RPGs in Prisons Where Dice Are Contraband

Elisabeth de Kleer

In correctional facilities across America, inmates cluster around tables in the common room to play games like Dungeons & Dragons. And they do it without dice.

Gabriel R

At Play in the Carceral State is a week-long series investigating play in, around, and about prisons and prison culture. Learn more here.

It may sound like a strange juxtaposition: hardened, tattooed offenders donning the cloaks of fantasy characters. Yet both former inmates and correctional officers agree: D&D is more common in prison than you might imagine. Most facilities have at least one game going. Some have a player in every cell block. According to Micah Davis, a former inmate and Dungeon Master imprisoned in Texas, "We had our own table in the dayroom. That's saying something. Aryan brotherhood table, Mexican mafia table, black guy table, and D&D table."

Some of the players are lifelong gamers, who would be doing the same thing if they were on the outside. Others hadn't even heard of D&D until getting locked up. But faced with a dearth of creative outlets, donning a metaphorical robe and wizard hat quickly became a welcome diversion.

D&D has become so widespread, some correctional facilities even have specific rules that address it. For example, if you are unlucky enough to become incarcerated in the Idaho State Correctional Institution, you are probably not going to be passing your time rolling D20's. From the correctional institution's 2014 Handbook:

The following activities are prohibited. Participation in any of these prohibited activities will result in disciplinary action.
• Horseplay
• Gambling or games of chance
• Manufacturing of dice, dominos, chess sets, cards, or any other form of games
• Role playing games (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons)

Even in states where RPGs are allowed, restriction on the use of dice can complicate gameplay. In an effort to crack down on gambling, most correctional facilities in America don't allow offenders to use or create dice.

Yet as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Necessity and, as the case may be, boredom. In their efforts to circumvent the ban of dice, prison players have come up with a variety of ingenious ways to make rolls—everything from making the illicit dice themselves to designing intricate spinners out of batteries and paperclips.

Dice made from paper templates. Pencil stubs and colorful plastic pieces serve as miniatures. Photo courtesy of Melvin Woolley-Bey

HANDMADE DICE

When plastic dice are banned, a common work-around is to simply make one's own. Depending on the resources available, there are a seemingly endless number of ways to go about it.

For those with friends and family on the outside, the easiest way to get started is to ask a someone to send a dice template. A D6 template might get flagged in the mailroom, but a D20 template isn't likely to be something the CO's will recognize.

Joe, a former Massachusetts inmate went for the template approach: "We had origami dice patterns mailed in along with the trial 5th rules. Not having glue we had to improvise with the things we could get on canteen. Stickers on shampoo bottles are surprisingly useful. Maps were done on cardboard boxes we would get from inmate workers. On searches they would wreck our dice for gambling, so the templates were important."

"I never ran or played in a game where the PCs had to escape from jail or prison. Too on the nose. Come to think of it, we tended to avoid the trope of being in a dungeon filled with monsters as we were already in a dungeon filled with monsters." — Micah Davis

When glue's not available, there are plenty of sticky alternatives that can be found in prison, like jam or toothpaste.

"Jail toothpaste is cheap and turns to glue when it dries," says Joe. May Holmes-Roys, who spent time in the Washington State Department of Corrections, used a similar process: "We made dice out of card stock, toothpaste, and toilet paper. Rigorously tested, rolled right 85% of the time."

Origami dice perform best when weighted, but that can be its own challenge. Table salt and laundry detergent both make great fillers, as does sand.

A former inmate from Ohio who prefers to go by his Reddit handle "Pariahdog119," describes the process of making a sand-filled origami die: "You'll need the following: Cutout dice template, thin cardboard (saltine cracker boxes are OK,) fine sand (the finer the better, don't use dirt,) paints, glue, and for your hardest theft yet, clear poly coating from Maintenance. Cut out the cardboard using the dice template. Paint it and add the numbers. Fold and glue all sides but one. Let dry. Fill with sand. Tap make sure it's very very full. You don't want it rattling around. Close and glue shut. Add several clear coats to seal seams and protect your colors. Don't try to bounce the dice, you'll smash them. Roll them out the side of your hand or cup gently."

There are endless materials around the prison that can be carved into dice, like soap, aspirin, and deodorant. "Trying to remember which numbers go on which side is the hard part," reflects Gabriel R., a former inmate from Pennsylvania.

Your standard D6's made out of molded toilet paper. Photo courtesy of Gabriel R.

During his time behind bars, Gabriel made dice using one of the most common resources of all: toilet paper. "You don't even need glue, just toilet paper," he says, "The way I did it is just by folding it into very thick square, wetting it, and then shoving it into a square corner, say a window sill. You do this over and over again, applying water when it starts to dry out, alternating corners. Eventually you have nicely shaped square. You have to continue shaping it as it dries with your makeshift corner jig. It shrinks a bit and gets quite hard."

Where May was housed, "No one ever got in trouble (that I know of) just for making them. If someone pissed off a C.O [corrections officer]. they could theoretically get written up for making dice (gambling paraphernalia) but mostly the cops didn't actively harass us in closed custody. If a person lost their dice it would more likely be during a one of the big shakedowns, where the cops go cell to cell and throw almost everything out on the tier. As in the real world, folks in prison hoard random stuff. They'd go through and throw it all away once a month, once every few months, or whenever someone OD'd on meth or something. When I got to medium and then minimum custody they really stopped throwing dice away, and in fact those kind of tier wide cell tosses were much rarer."

"Pariahdog119" offers the following advice: "If the prison bans D&D, play Pathfinder. They're pretty stupid and won't know it's the same thing. Never have a six sided dice. Use a d12 numbered 1-6 twice."

Photo courtesy of Bryan Hibbard

SPINNERS

Luckily, when getting caught just isn't worth the risk, there are plenty of other ways to make rolls that don't involve dice at all.

While incarcerated in Texas, Micah Davis decided not to tempt fate: "We never used dice. That was asking for problems with the cops. Each unit made its own rules regarding D&D paraphernalia. Some didn't allow the books. Others wouldn't allow character sheets. Dice however are forbidden system wide. As an alternative we made spinners."

Spinners involve more parts, but are less likely to disappear in a shakedown.

Jeremy George, a former correctional officer with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and a gamer himself says he turned a blind eye to the spinners. "A number of inmate gaming groups I saw used carefully crafted spinners with marked concentric rings, each ring represents a different dice. The spinner arm was usually a paper clip, which was technically minor contraband, but usually not worth confiscation."

Typical spinners might come together from equipment like you see here from Bryan Hibbard, a former inmate from Florida. He made his using a paper clip and pin from a AA battery. "You can buy batteries from the canteen if you have money on the books," he says.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Hibbard

Formerly incarcerated in a US Army jail in Korea, Thommy "Uewneeq" Irvine describes how he created a unique spinner out of styrofoam cups: "We used two styrofoam cups (in a military jail). The inner, at the bottom we wrote 1-4, slightly higher we did 1-6, higher yet 1-8, then further up 1-10, then at the top 1-20. On the second cup we carved out little windows large enough to show the number below. The DM would spin the inner cup under the table until the player told him to stop, he'd then line up the next number on the appropriate dice slot."

Even though spinners don't explicitly violate any rules, like everything else inmates possess in prison, they can be seized. Micah Davis reflects that while imprisoned in Texas, "We were constantly getting things confiscated by the cops. First thing you do each and every time a guard walks into the wing, you hide the spinner and everybody stops play. Some guards were cool with it, others ambivalent. More common were the assholes looking for any reason to screw with you so you hide your spinner under a book or something till they leave. Still lost a few."

Photo courtesy of Thommy "Uewneeq" Irvine

PLAYING CARDS

Strange as it may seem, many prisons that prohibit dice in an effort to stem gambling do allow inmates to own packs of playing cards. Cards can be divided up in various different ways to randomly draw numbers.

According to Aaron Klug, a Dungeon Master at the Colorado Department of Corrections, this can be achieved by removing all the Jacks, Queens, and Kings from a set of 52 cards. That leaves you with Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 of all four sets. "Separate them into two colors and piles, red and black. Select one color as numbers 1-10, the other as 11-20."

When multiple decks are available (and you don't mind marking up the cards), it helps to write the die number directly on the card.

Then again, if you're willing to write on the cards, you may as well do a lottery system and save your cards for a good old fashioned game of Spades.

This works by writing the numbers 1-20 pieces of paper, then to draw them from a hat, or coffee cup, envelope or even—as one inmate has suggested—a discarded gym sock. Need to roll a D6? Set aside all but numbers 1-6. The original blue box set of D&D contained chits that could be used for this purpose. Old Scrabble tiles, beads, and dominoes are more creative solutions, especially if there's a Sharpie on hand to write the numbers.

Credit: Elisabeth de Kleer

MAPS, MINIATURES, AND CHARACTER SHEETS

For some groups, the drive to get creative goes beyond the fabrication of dice. While materials like miniatures, maps, and character sheets are usually permitted in theory, finding the resources to create them isn't always easy. "4e was the worst for prisoners." says Micah. "Gotta have maps and minis for everything."

While incarcerated in a Massachusetts jail, Joe found a way to tackle the challenge: "Minis were made by using a chapstick tube to punch holes in flip flops, and use the circular punched out bits that we would mark for our characters or monsters." As with any good play session, they made sure to stock up on gamer fuel ahead of time, "We would always binge snack on cookies and chips while playing, but as we didn't have soda it was always tea or hot chocolate when we gamed."

In Ohio, Pariahdog119's group created elaborate battle maps with pieces gathered from other games. Risk infantry represented players, Trivial Pursuit wedges = medium NPC's, Scrabble tiles = large NPC's, Trial Pursuit pie holders = Huge NPC's, and a peanut butter jar lid became a Colossal. All laid out on a map of half-inch squares.

Photo courtesy of Micah Davis

According to Micah, character sheets were gold and players had to hand-make all their own handouts, such as this in-game contract a fellow player named "Hate" made for a Pathfinder game. "Poor bastard made like 10 copies," Micah says.

Benign as these materials may seem to anyone familiar with tabletop gaming, many inmates will tell you it's not uncommon for correctional officers to mistake their gaming materials for something more nefarious. To the novice guard, an in-game contract with the devil looks an awful lot like satanic materials; D20's are gambling paraphernalia; and maps, escape plans.

"I never ran or played in a game where the PCs had to escape from jail or prison," Micah says. "Too on the nose. Come to think of it, we tended to avoid the trope of being in a dungeon filled with monsters as we were already in a dungeon filled with monsters."

Fortunately, a few correctional officers are gamers themselves. These are the guys who are more likely to come to a player's rescue when his gaming materials draw negative attention.

Jeremy George, a former correctional officer in Texas, is one of them. "Once during a unit lockdown, the inmates cubicles/property were being searched for contraband, when a Lt. saw a detailed gaming map during the search. He took it, thinking it was some kind of escape plan/ unit map, but I quickly explained it was just a D&D map. He dropped the matter calling me a nerd! Ha! After that, many inmates knew I was a gamer and would ask me about upcoming supplements and games (especially when the 3.5 Pathfinder game was released)."

Photo courtesy of Aaron Klug

When Jeremy observed the games, he saw that the inmates were not just passing the time, they were learning to work cooperatively and building character, "I firmly believe gaming can help to combat the rampant mental illness in our prison system." So in a system rife with misconceptions about gaming, he did what he could to support the players: "I always encouraged these groups and always took time to explain what they were up to to any curious staff. Games were often a common ground for me to gain the respect of inmates (trust and respect are a big deal in prison, for officers and inmates alike)."

Have you come up with or encountered an alternate method of making rolls behind bars? Or do you still have your old maps and character sheets from prison? Send photos and stories to elisabeth.dekleer@gmail.com

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