Dungeons & Dragons Behind Bars

“There’s D&D in nearly every [correctional] institution in California.”

This is the line that the introductory video for Let’s Play: Dungeons & Dragons in Prison, a documentary about the American justice system, and those who fight for the right to play roleplaying games within it, to paraphrase the film’s byline. D&D is a game played by people all around the world, from kids at home, to active-duty members of the military, to people like Kevin T. Singer, who has fought for the right to play while incarcerated.

This project is helmed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Elisabeth de Kleer, who has produced work from stations as varied as the BBC, National Geographic, VICE, and Netflix. She tells this story from the perspective of inmates who have sued for the right to play D&D (or their roleplaying game of choice) while incarcerated, and raises the thorny question of what the purpose of the American prison system actually is. Are the prisons in our country designed to punish wrongdoers, and to remove them from lawful society? Or are they made to rehabilitate people and aid in their eventual return to society?

The promotional video for the Kickstarter campaign for Let's Play: Dungeons & Dragons in Prison

From handmade d20s to homebrew roleplaying games, those who play RPGs in prison must be creative in ways that many who play on the outside never have to be. And as anyone who’s played D&D knows, group creativity breeds friendship, nurtures communities, and creates a burning desire to return to the world of make-believe time and time again—especially when the real world is made of concrete walls and iron bars. "We were hardcore,” said a former inmate at a California correctional facility. “We’d play from soon as we got back from breakfast to lockup. Saturday or Sunday—all day long." For many people, playing D&D is more than just a way to have fun, it’s a way to stay in touch with your creativity and turn your mind towards constructive, positive rehabilitation—even when dice and D&D books are forbidden within prisons.

Jared Rudolph, one of the inmates interviewed in this video, went on to found the Prisoner Reentry Network, a non-profit located in Oakland, California, that helps former inmates return to everyday life—a task that goes far beyond simply acclimating to life without bars. A pivotal moment for the Prisoner Reentry Network was created when a group of prisoners about to be released from California State Prison – Solano was shown an interview with a former inmate, in order to help them prepare for life outside prison. One of the inmates recognized the person in the interview as an old buddy who he had played D&D with in prison—and the PRN decided to help reunite the former D&D party, using it as an opportunity to use D&D as a “therapeutic opportunity,” one that is “unrecognized…in California’s prisons.”

This isn’t the first time that Elisabeth de Kleer has tackled the topic of D&D behind bars. Her first forays into the topic were a pair of articles published on VICE: Dragons in the Department of Corrections and How Inmates Play Tabletop RPGs in Prisons Where Dice Are Contraband. How do inmates play D&D without dice? How do they play without books? These earlier articles are a bedrock foundation for understanding the experiences of RPG-playing inmates, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of the story. The upcoming Let’s Play documentary, which is in its final few days of funding on Kickstarter, is told through the mouths of inmates and former inmates, sharing their stories and experiences of playing D&D in correctional facilities around the United States.

A smaller-scale documentary project about gaming in prison produced by de Kleer for Waypoint in 2017

The Kickstarter campaign for Let’s Play: Dungeons & Dragons in Prison hasn’t been funded yet. It describes its funding needs as such:

  • Fees for accessing and copying legal materials related to D&D cases. […]
  • Cost of putting together a professional camera crew so we can film gaming groups inside prison. (We've already done the most difficult part, which is getting soft approval to film in the first place. Now we just need funding to make the most of this special opportunity.)
  • Funds for hiring an animator to breathe life into hand-drawn inmate fantasy art and to create a visual style for the film. The art will be used to illustrate the story in a way that weaves together magical elements with real life. For example, the warden of the prison might be depicted as a dragon or “boss” and the prison itself, a dragon’s lair. These visual intersections of gameplay and real life show how the game becomes a platform to express and explore their inner struggles and demons.
  • Creating a marketing and distribution plan that will promote both the film as well as recreational therapy behind bars.

This documentary’s Kickstarter campaign concludes on August 14, 2019 at 3 PM Pacific Time.


James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of  Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of  Worlds Apartand a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.



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