By Trevor PyleShe may not have faced dragons, but to tell the story of how Dungeons & Dragons has come to serve as an emotional release for death-row prisoners, Keri Blakinger embarked on another kind of epic journey.
“When Wizards and Orcs Came to Death Row,” which was jointly published this past August by The Marshall Project and The New York Times, details prisoners’ underground games of the fantasy game, a role-playing staple whose players embody self-created characters such as clerics, wizards and bards. As Blakinger writes:
To cope with the isolation they face daily, the men on death row spend a lot of their time in search of escape — something to ease the racing thoughts or the crushing regrets. Some read books or find religion. Some play games like Scrabble or jailhouse chess. Others turn to D&D, where they can feel a small sense of the freedom they have left behind.
Prison restrictions forced D&D-playing inmates to improvise: Lacking official maps, they draw their own; without dice, they craft spinners from paper and repurposed typewriter parts.
Blakinger was free of those limitations, but still needed creativity, persistence and patience to report and write her piece. To travel from idea and publication, she identified some possible sources based only on their prison nicknames and then had to coax details from them. COVID interrupted her work, as did job changes and various challenges working through the bureaucracies of the prison system.
Such persistence isn’t a surprise from Blakinger. She spent time in prison herself, an experience covered in her acclaimed memoir “Corrections in Ink” which, according to her website, follows “her path from figure skating to heroin addiction to prison and, finally, to life as an investigative reporter.” She’s now fierce in her coverage of the prison system. Her 2018 Houston Chronicle story on dental care in Texas prisons sparked reforms; in another Marshall Project story published in January 2023, she wrote about the varied and surprising ways prisoners use cell phones. In a sharp irony, her own book was banned in Florida prisons. (Her response is worth the click.)
Blakinger, who was on staff at The Marshall Project for most of the D&D project’s reporting, now works for The Los Angeles Times. She agreed to an interview about how it was reported and written. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
In the story, you allude to several years spent exchanging letters with prisoners. How did you first learn of Dungeons & Dragons being played on death row in Texas, and how long did it take to report the story from that first glimmer until publication?
It was somewhere around 2017, just after I’d started covering the death penalty for the Houston Chronicle. I was interviewing a man on the row, and he mentioned that they played “Magic: The Gathering,” and that they had to make their own cards to do so. I was intrigued, and then he volunteered that there was another game more popular than Magic — Dungeons & Dragons. But since he’d stopped playing D&D, he didn’t know much about who was still playing. So for the next few years, every time I interviewed someone, I’d ask them if they played and who they played with.
It turned out to be really tough to nail that down because a lot of the men were nervous about the idea of talking about their friends to the media. On top of that, a lot of the guys went by prison nicknames, so sometimes I’d speak to someone and find out that they didn’t actually know the real names of people they’d been gaming with for years.
By mid-2019 I at least knew enough about the mechanics of gaming on the row to do something with it, and in its first iteration this was a stage piece for Pop Up Magazine tour. Then in 2020, when I joined The Marshall Project, we started a conversation with The New York Times about what stories I had that could make for good magazine pieces — and we landed on this. For the next three years, off and on, I worked on this in the background alongside my other reporting. There were visiting restrictions, and COVID delays and I switched jobs in the middle before we finally got the piece in print this year.
How did you approach the incarcerated people you interviewed for this story?
One of the many tricky things about interviewing people on death row in Texas is that if you put in a formal request for an interview and the person says no, you can’t ask them again unless they have a “status change”— that is, if an execution date is set or cancelled. So any time I heard that someone was involved in the game, I had to make sure I wrote them first. If I didn’t hear back I needed to get their friends to reach out to them for me because I had to be sure that they would say yes before I put in a formal request.
Fortunately, I think it’s a lot easier to approach people asking about something like D&D instead of asking about something as fraught as their conviction or even the conditions on death row. I think it was a relief for some to finally have someone come along and ask questions related to someone other than the crime that landed them there.
Covering prisons and people who are incarcerated seems like one of the most impenetrable beats for a journalist. You’ve been able to pierce that veil before — I’m thinking of your excellent investigation of inadequate dental care for Texas prisoners, but there are other examples. But did this story offer new lessons about circumventing the particular challenges of reporting on prisons?
I was already pretty familiar with a lot of the inherent challenges. But I did have to wrestle with a different problem that was very specific to doing a long-term feature involving men on death row: Death. Aside from Billy, a few other players got executed during the time I was working on this. Of course it’s a given that that could happen when you’re doing any death row reporting, but I’d never had to put myself so much in the position of thinking through what it’s actually like to live with that — to live surrounded by people who are all going to be executed by the state. During one of my early interviews I asked a man if he played D&D and he said no, because the state had executed all of the friends he played with. That really stuck with me.
It sounds as if much of your communications with prisoners were by letter. Can you share a little more about that? How often would you would write? What topics were touched on other than D&D? Any advantages or disadvantages to sending letters?
Until 2022, the primary method by which reporters could interact with Texas prisoners was partially through snail mail. I say partially because I could email them and then the prison would print the email out and hand them the printed page — eventually. Then they could write me back via snail mail, either by hand or using their typewriters, though the prison commissaries were often out of ribbons for months on end. It was a hugely inefficient method of communication, taking days or weeks for letters to arrive. I would transcribe those into my notes and respond via email.
Then in 2022 death row got tablets. They don’t connect to the App Store or anything, and there is almost nothing they can do on them. But they CAN respond to messages through the monitored email system. So now it’s finally two-way email, although phone calls are still not an option for reporters.
But even though the email option is more convenient, it precludes having any privacy. With snail mail, inmates could mark things as designated media mail and if it was addressed to the physical address of a news room (i.e., not a reporter’s home address) the guards wouldn’t open and read it. There’s no equivalent to that in emailed communications.
With Dungeons & Dragons, that is usually not particularly problematic but there are still times when they can’t tell me certain things that may have influenced their gaming world — like a particular interpersonal drama or piece of backstory or act of abuse by guard. In-person visits don’t offer much more chance for unmonitored conversation. Like I said in the story, reporters can only visit any given death row inmate every 90 days, and the visits are through glass. All the conversation is through a recorded phone.
One decision that stood out to me was the inclusion of so much of Billy Wardlow’s D&D character and games; it feels as if the reader is sitting at the table with him as he weaves and and experiences Arthaxx’s story. How deliberate were you in giving that aspect enough room to stretch out?
I actually wanted to give that more space! There is so much more to the narrative in his game world that I never got to spell out. I was very intentional about getting in the important part — the resonances between Billy and his character — because I think the fact that these parallels exist says so much about how these men use the game.
A former colleague who’s a national-level investigative reporter messaged me about the story and wrote, ‘The description of Wardlow’s character and then contrasting it with him and what his future could have been — it set me to tears.’ Do you remember how you came to draw that contrast between Wardlow’s D&D character and the man he could have been?
I actually didn’t realize this parallel until after Billy had died, so I don’t know how intentional it was on his part. I remember the day I realized it, though. I’d actually become more familiar with his game life at that point than his real life. It was only when I was going through his court records that I suddenly realized the story of his life sounded just like a more tragic version of his character’s life. The parallels blew me away, and I wished I’d been able to ask him about it.
When I reread the story, I was struck by how it quietly touches on so many prison-condition “issues” without slowing down the narrative: the use of solitary confinement, arbitrary-seeming restrictions on reading materials, sentencing reform for those who committed crimes as juveniles. Was it intentional to touch on those, or did they just spin out naturally from the story you wanted to tell?
To me, that was always part of the value of this narrative — the ability to approach some of these issues from a completely different angle. For instance, instead of explaining at length the reality of long-term solitary confinement, I approached it by explaining at length the extent to which people have to go to survive it. I never wanted to tell the story just to tell the story; I always wanted to illustrate something about the system.
You rarely see stories about prisoners that touch on their creative interests, their ambitions, their lives beyond violence and addiction. I can’t imagine you would have spent years reporting this story unless you feel fiercely there’s a place for those aspects. Why should journalists pursue them, even if faced with institutional roadblocks or other obstacles to their reporting?
I think these stories can help us understand prisoners as complex people who are, fundamentally, people — not faceless prison ID numbers. But I also think that focusing on the “lighter” aspects of prison life and seizing on unexpected angles can offer a different way in to an impenetrable world that it is sometimes difficult to get readers to care about. And when that angle is something with such a distinct fanbase as D&D, you’re able to reach a broad demographic of readers who otherwise may not read about people on death row.
Have you ever played Dungeons and Dragons? If so, describe your character.
I’ve watched games, but I’ve actually never played! But last year the guys on the row created a character named after me. I am told that she is very powerful and I understand that she’s been quite a menace.
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Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and now is a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.