For Ford, there was one silver lining. At Polunsky, he could finally play D&D with a death-row legend: Billy Wardlow. . . .
D&D turned associates into a crew. After they started playing together at Polunsky, Ford noticed that when Wardlow was in charge of the game, the other guys didn’t bicker as much. As Dungeon Master, Wardlow created vast and intricate worlds. He could play without books or hand-drawn maps and could run the game on the fly, improvising the narrative as he went along.
Some D&D crews on death row liked to play at random times, diving into a fantasy world whenever the mood struck. But when Wardlow ran the games, he liked to set a schedule, usually starting around 9 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, sometimes playing until they fell asleep. It was the rare activity Ford and his friends could look forward to, a time when no one would talk about legal cases or lost appeals.
Sometimes, through their characters, they opened up about problems they would never otherwise discuss — abusive parents, fractured childhoods, drug addictions — unpacking their personal traumas through a thin veil of fantasy. “With Billy, D&D has become our therapy,” Ford wrote in 2019. . . .
And whenever Ford and Wardlow were housed near each other, they played D.&D. Some games were small, with only three or four players. Others looped in more than a dozen men. Most often, Wardlow was the Dungeon Master, but sometimes Ford took on that role instead. . . .
On a sunny morning in a lush area of Eberron, Arthaxx was hard at work on a new invention when a green fog swept in, rolling down from the palaces. Arthaxx saw it coming and fired a spell, but the magic clashed with the mist and his spell came to life, attacking its creator. Arthaxx fell unconscious.
When he woke up, he saw the face of a stranger covered with magical runes. Seven years had passed, and the world he knew was in ruins. By that point, an evil moon called Atropus had begun orbiting the planet, bringing down a foul rain that made the dead rise from their graves.
Even the animals that men killed for food came back to life before they could be eaten, their flesh writhing and pulsing with a dark energy. The gods had disappeared, locked away in an hourglass prison. Without them, good magic no longer worked.
Arthaxx came up with a plan to defeat the moon and save the world — but victory came at a heavy price. Half the adventurers died, and the survivors soon realized they still needed to free the gods. To do that, Arthaxx cast a spell to turn himself into a more powerful being. It was potentially a winning move, but it was risky, too: The being had a tendency to explode, especially if he suffered a serious blow.
No matter how powerful Arthaxx was — or how much his Dungeon Master wanted him to prevail when the crew faced off against a horde of villains — the outcome came down to chance. “One of the things of D.&D. is that it’s the roll of the dice,” Ford told me, leaning toward the glass between us during one of my visits. “And if you make a roll of the dice and your dice roll is too low to be able to save you,” he said, “then, you know, you bite the bullet.”
With a flick of the spinner, Arthaxx was gone. The rest of the raiding party continued on, but without his help, they all died. Afterward, some of the men decided to start over. But not Wardlow: He knew he didn’t have enough time. The state canceled his April execution because of the pandemic but set a new one for July 8, 2020.
As the weeks crept along and the execution date remained firm, Wardlow and Ford realized they were trapped in a story line they were powerless to imagine their way out of. “You have this certain reality,” Ford told me. “Not only are they telling you that one of your best friends that you consider your brother is going to die on this particular day, but that you pretty much have nothing that you can do about it.”
In the spring of 2020, Wardlow decided to start one last game, a smaller, simpler campaign that he created for a few of his friends, involving a mythical city and a quest to save a magic sword. “I’m sure you’ve seen those Final Episodes of your favorite shows,” Wardlow wrote to me in his last letter on June 24, 2020, which he composed on his prison typewriter. “That’s what this is like. Although I hope this isn’t the Final Episode.” Two weeks later, the state executed him.