How Inmates Play Tabletop RPGs in Prisons Where Dice Are Contraband
July 12, 2019 2:13 PM   Subscribe

In correctional facilities across America, inmates cluster around tables in the common room to play games like Dungeons & Dragons. D&D has become so widespread, some correctional facilities even have specific rules that address it. 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. But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.
posted by sciatrix (35 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
This...this is wonderful.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:18 PM on July 12 [6 favorites]


These various ways of constructing dice, or substitutes for them, gave me flashbacks to my copy of the D&D Blue Book and the little bit of stiff paper bound in the back that you could cut up into a bunch of numbered chits to draw out of a cup. Back before you could go into any comic shop and buy a little plastic box full of the whole set...
posted by egypturnash at 2:37 PM on July 12 [6 favorites]


Ear Hustle has an episode (partly) about gamers at San Quentin.
posted by kalessin at 2:44 PM on July 12 [7 favorites]


Clearly this is just the ex-teacher in me, but it's fascinating how the spinner has 10ths that are pretty consistent, but then the 20ths vary quite a bit. Also, same thing with the 8ths and the 6ths. Such amazing stuff.

Also, from the article: "We made dice out of card stock, toothpaste, and toilet paper. Rigorously tested, rolled right 85% of the time."

These guys seem pretty nerdy, so I doubt they're just pulling 85% out of nowhere. How does one go about determining that dice are 85% accurate?
posted by 23skidoo at 2:53 PM on July 12 [3 favorites]


Yeah, Christmas season of 1979, TSR ran out of dice and we had to use chits. It was less than ideal, but it works. I’m glad incarcerated people are getting to play. An imaginative outlet can maybe help mitigate some of the awful authoritarian environment (at least it did for me in Catholic school).
posted by rikschell at 2:59 PM on July 12 [4 favorites]


Everyone writing down a secret number, then revealing and adding them then mod 20 and adding 1 also works in leiu of dice.

(As long as you don't mind the mini-game of each trying to guess what number the others will pick in order to make your pick. Which probably contains er, a bit of prisoner's dilemma in it.)
posted by joeyh at 3:05 PM on July 12 [13 favorites]


This was a great article, thank you for posting it!

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....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)."


I don’t even play D&D or know that much about it, but it seems like it’s one of the least bad things inmates could get up to in prison.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:08 PM on July 12 [25 favorites]


23skidoo: How does one go about determining that dice are 85% accurate?

At a guess, there's probably a way to measure the difference between the actual distribution of, say, 600 rolls vs the perfect distribution for 600 rolls. If you're rolling 1d6 (one six-sided die), in a perfect distribution you would expect each number to come up 100 times. Measuring the difference between that and what you actually get would give some sort of percentage - I'm just not sure how the math works.

I once did a lesson for 1st-3rd graders on making graphs. It involved rolling 2d6 and graphing the results. One 1st grader really got into it and would do it for fun if he was done with the rest of his work. I kept having to tape additional pages of graph paper to the original. I think he had around 20 pages of results. He knew his (1-6)+(1-6) addition facts REALLY WELL. I asked him once why he thought some numbers came up more than others. He shrugged and said "I think God just makes it that way." I gave him a quick lesson in probability.
posted by booksherpa at 3:08 PM on July 12 [17 favorites]


I work at San Quentin and was supervising a physician's clinic in a condemned unit (death row). An inmate on the group yard had a heart attack and dropped. The doctor and nurse left to respond to the medical emergency leaving the inmate (patient) they had been seeing. When the inmate heard who was having the medical emergency and how bad it was progressing (massive heart attack, likely dead immediately despite good CPR), he was very moved and eventually started to cry. The deceased was his Dungeon Master. He had initially seen others playing and dismissed it all as nerd stuff. But he had joined up one time on a whim and gotten drawn in significantly.
posted by ericales at 3:08 PM on July 12 [49 favorites]


booksherpa said: At a guess, there's probably a way to measure the difference between the actual distribution of, say, 600 rolls vs the perfect distribution for 600 rolls. If you're rolling 1d6 (one six-sided die), in a perfect distribution you would expect each number to come up 100 times. Measuring the difference between that and what you actually get would give some sort of percentage - I'm just not sure how the math works.

Yeah, I was envisioning something similar, but to me it seemed like the only way to show that the dice were inaccurate was to show that they favored one number/s more than the others, which doesn't just tell you a percentage like "85% accurate dice", it also tells you which number/s are more likely to show up than others, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of dice. I think the only fair thing to do is let the players who use the dice know which number/s are more likely to come up when using the dice.

(I have clearly thought about prison dice too much.)
posted by 23skidoo at 3:37 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


*cough*
posted by juv3nal at 3:43 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


I wonder why the Idaho State Correctional Institution actually bans RPGs. Seems a bit random. Vestigial Satanic Panic?
posted by brundlefly at 3:44 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


So as not to just be an asshole, see also this video feature.
posted by juv3nal at 3:49 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


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.

Yeah. I have never been incarcerated, but I can relate to the notion of an authority figure being a gamer and finding a solution: in 1995, well before The Tragic Events Of changed border security at the US border, I travelled from my home in Canada to the Origins game convention. It was the final year of it being an itinerant convention (it settled permanently in Columbus OH in '96) and that year it was in Philadelphia.

I arrived at the border with a one-way ticket with plans to visit the convention and spend a bit of time with friends in New York City before heading home. The border control guy was skeptical of this venture.
He: "How long will you be in the US?"

Me: "Two weeks or so."

He: "You have no fixed date of exit?"

Me: "No, sir."

He: "How do I know you will not try to stay here permanently and get a job?"

Me: "I have a job starting in a few weeks in Toronto. I can give you the contact info and you can confirm it."

He: "Hmph. Where did you say you were travelling to today?"

Me: "Philadelphia."

He: "And what did you say you were coming into the US for?"

Me: "A convention."

He: "What sort of convention?"

Me: "Er, a games convention."

He [lightening up]: "You are going to Origins?"

Me: "Yeah."

He: "Cool. I tried to get this weekend off but I couldn't swing it. Have a good time!" [stamps passport]
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:54 PM on July 12 [34 favorites]


I wonder why the Idaho State Correctional Institution actually bans RPGs. Seems a bit random. Vestigial Satanic Panic?

Seemingly conflation with "gang activity." They hear about some activity where a group of maybe three to six people band together in a small group and deal out violence and do not care to understand more about it, but just ban it on general principle. Never mind that the violence is to imaginary hobgoblins and fungus monsters -- that part is just details. In my experience, guys in uniform are often trapped in a world-view so far away from nuance that it costs three dollars a minute to call there.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:58 PM on July 12 [6 favorites]


I wonder why the Idaho State Correctional Institution actually bans RPGs. Seems a bit random. Vestigial Satanic Panic?

Ooooh! I actually know the answer to this. A close relative of mine was working at Snake River Correctional when the ban was being considered, and that relative told me about it because they knew I played D&D. Apparently, the guards were afraid that D&D would be used to reinforce damaging relations in prison. I.E. a DM would dole out favors to those he liked, and use his position as DM to reinforce interpersonal or gang hierarchy outside the game. There was also a sprinkling of Satanic panic, sure, but the main goal of the ban (as it was told to me) was about breaking up inter-prisoner power structures.
posted by Philipschall at 4:09 PM on July 12 [13 favorites]


DM would dole out favors to those he liked, and use his position as DM to reinforce interpersonal or gang hierarchy outside the game.

While this is kind of an inconceivably dumb misunderstanding of how RPGs function, I do think that the term "dungeon master" has always been a bit of a curse on the hobby. I am very much with Robin Laws on this: at our table, we tend to say GM, and it stands for "game moderator". The relationship between the moderator and the other players is not hierarchical or patriarchal, and I like using a term that actually describes that, and has the added bonus of not making me sound like a purveyor of speciality leather goods.
posted by howfar at 4:34 PM on July 12 [13 favorites]


Be thy die ill-wrought?

Dragon Magazine, October 1983 p. 62

It’s easy to test for a biased die, by the procedure known as a chi-square test. The rest of this article consists of a simple description of the test...
posted by Robin Kestrel at 4:52 PM on July 12 [11 favorites]


A DM could dole out favors to people they liked though. I think it's absurd that we have so many people in the position of being told what games they're allowed to play and how.
posted by bleep at 5:11 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


I really like those Styrofoam cup dice. Very clever and they look fun to use.
posted by straight at 5:40 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


While this is kind of an inconceivably dumb misunderstanding of how RPGs function

I envy you, never having had a DM / GM who was so obviously doling out favors to players he liked and/or tormenting players he didn't like that the group fractured and at least one person quit RPGs forever.
posted by Etrigan at 7:07 PM on July 12 [6 favorites]


Well that is sort of what I mean: RPGs don't function like that, they fail.
posted by howfar at 8:02 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


To clarify. It is absolutely the case that RPG groups can and do have toxic dynamics, but they are a setting in which toxic dynamics ruin basically all of the fun. In wargaming you can still have a good game in a vile social setting. That's not really possible in an RPG, because of the outcome you describe. Role-playing games aren't a particularly good setting for toxic dynamics to fester, precisely because toxicity (in particular coming from the GM) is so detrimental to their success as games.

Which isn't to say that there aren't plenty of surviving role-playing groups with horrible dynamics: of course there are. But it is still, I reckon, impossibly dumb to think that RPGs (which only function properly when conducted in significant good faith) are more likely to sustain and propagate such dynamics, as opposed to all those historically male-dominated social activities where bullying isn't considered a bug, but rather a feature.
posted by howfar at 8:19 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


I cannot imagine a good reason to ban gambling in general in prison, much less role-playing games. Might as well ban books.

Turns out, by the way, that many books are banned in some prisons, as well as computers. I don't quite see how you can maintain the notion that they're supposed to be rehabilitating people when you quash intellectual pastimes. Much better to just give them weightlifting gear...

Well, I suppose there's no reason a manager running a prison would be brighter than one running a company.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:01 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


In wargaming you can still have a good game in a vile social setting.

[derail ahoy] In my experience, oh yah. Years ago I friend invited me to the regular Friday night miniatures games in his garage. These were serious old-school tin-pushers, with two sand tables set up in the garage. The games of choice that year were 1/285 scale WWII games, specifically the Russian Front.

Pertinent points:
• the newcomers (such as me and a pal or two I brought along) always always always got to play the Red Army.
• this was January in Canada, with temperatures outside in the -30 range. The garage was heated by a single small wood stove, rendering decent warmth if you stood next to it, but leaving the rest of the uninsulated garage still below freezing. The German players had their end of the table set up by the wood stove.
• the scenarios were written by the guys playing the Germans, and designed stacked in every scenario to be an overwhelming and gratuitous defeat in detail of the Russians. I recall one scenario where the objective required the CCCP army to march across a mile of empty field into German machine gun emplacements. Another required the Russians to use artillery to destroy an enemy HQ, but then it was revealed that the building we were shelling was actually a field hospital full of wounded soldiers: all Soviet POWs we were now killing with friendly fire. Ho-ho! You lose, comrades!

After three or four weeks of standing around in sub-zero temperatures on a concrete floor to act as puppets for Nazi assholes to enact their little weekly curb stomps, I decided that was plenty. On my final evening, I asked the opponents, “guys, I know you are much more versed in military history than I am, but I could have sworn I read something once about Germany losing the war.”

TL;dr — there’s a reason war gaming in prison is right out.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:13 PM on July 12 [12 favorites]


I cannot imagine a good reason to ban gambling in general in prison

It is dangerous to have one prisoner to be in debt to another.
posted by riruro at 9:34 PM on July 12 [9 favorites]


Fascinating article! As kids, we always used the drawing-numbers-out-of-a-hat method if no dice were available.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:37 PM on July 12


I cannot imagine a good reason to ban gambling in general in prison

Gambling is a pretty well-known cause of fights outside of prison. That one doesn't really surprise me. I could imagine that people who are unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs might think they are something like that, but I think they are pretty unlikely to be.

I learned that there is a D&D crowd in prison from Ear Hustle, the San Quentin podcast. I didn't consider at the time that dice might be an issue.
posted by atoxyl at 4:56 AM on July 13


A family member worked, until recently, as a corrections officer in a county prison. He told me about working a housing unit once and noticing a group of inmates around a table moving chess pieces around a board but also drawing from a deck of playing cards. When he went over to check on them, they reluctantly told him they were playing D&D. I guess they thought he was going to make them stop, but he didn't care as long as they were quiet and not causing trouble. He stood there for about 20 minutes watching these guys with gang tattoos play out their fight with a band of gnolls.
posted by maurice at 5:48 AM on July 13 [6 favorites]


I've wondered about the feasibility of this D20 substitute: the GM and player both write down a number from 1 to 20. Both reveal their numbers at once. They're added together, but totals over 20 have 20 subtracted from them, wrapping them around and continuing at 1. I mean yes, it's obviously not random, but each person has the ability to map the other's number to a value anywhere in the range. It seems like it should be "good enough," although it could potentially turn it into a psychological guessing game to try to roll well.
posted by JHarris at 9:56 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


That sounds infeasible mostly because it's relatively time consuming, with a side net of cognitively demanding while you're trying to game. Personally, I'd go for the spinner or chits-in-a-sock option every time.

It is, incidentally, going to be my weekly game in about an hour. I'm really glad that I'm going to be able to just roll a set of glittery sparkly dice or hit a button on my laptop instead of having to make my own.
posted by sciatrix at 10:42 AM on July 13 [4 favorites]


the GM and player both write down a number from 1 to 20. Both reveal their numbers at once. They're added together, but totals over 20 have 20 subtracted from them, wrapping them around and continuing at 1.

The pro-side of dice like this (in a dice-are-contraband situation) is that there's nothing to confiscate. The con-side is it seems pretty easy to game such a system and have the GM give certain rolls to certain players using codes to determine what number each should write down.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:15 AM on July 13


My cousin used to play a tabletop Cricket game with his friends in school. It used D6es but dice were banned in the library. So they'd take golf pencils and carve numbers on each face, and roll those.

Yeah, pencils are hexagons. It works pretty well!

I will say that I have used joeyh's method occasionally to roll a single DN where N <= 10. It's a "flash a number on your fingers" game, and we just count fingers down and wrap around to find the result.

It's good to see that the article mentioned the old "chits in a bag" method. Original wargames and proto-RPGs actually never told you how many to put into the bag. It was assumed that all players could infer the probabilities from the percentages, and use the correct number of tokens. Dice were a standardisation method that we became attached to later on, and computers freed us back to the flexibility of the chits without all the hassle!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:05 PM on July 15




There's a documentary in progress: Let's Play: Dungeons & Dragons Behind Bars.
posted by larrybob at 1:26 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


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