Table Top Group in a prison setting

I have been doing a Table Top Group here at my local youth correctional facility (prison for youth/young men). My focus is on skill building and using tabletop games as a medium to do that. I have been passionate about this for some time now and along the way, I ran into a podcast called Rolling for Change. This really changed my perspective on what I want to focus on and how I want to approach my group. That podcast really puts what I was thinking into a tangible idea. I have been running my group officially for a few months now with the focus on thinking about how gaming can not only transform some prior thinking errors you may have had but open your eyes to new ideas and feelings. My hope is to not only approach those topics but to also see if guys can recognize traits in themselves that may be exposed when playing. If we can recognize and discuss what those traits are, put a label on them, we may be able to work towards either identifying and correcting those habits or feelings, or just use this avenue to understand why guys are doing what they are doing so they can focus that effort in a more productive way.

I am still in the early stages of this process and getting guys used to discuss some of these things. After each group, we take about 30 minutes to sit down and go over the group and bring up the positives and negatives. We talk about what was easy or hard, then talk about why they were easy or hard. I try to ask the guys about any feelings they had about a certain game or situation. Again these conversations are new for a lot of guys so getting anyone to open up is a challenge at times, especially in a group setting.

Does anyone have any other ideas for my group that could be beneficial? Any questions or bullet points to touch on?

The guys I work with are between the ages of 16 and 23 right now and are here for a variety of different crimes. So far the group is going well but I want to keep moving forward and any new ideas or feedback would be great.


This is really cool! I want to think about it, but I also wanted to let you know that I saw it and thought it was awesome. :smiley:

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I don’t know if your scheduling permits it, but it might be a fun thing to do an explicitly role-playing session, where there aren’t any battles with monsters or mysteries to solve. Think like a bottle episode, where the characters are stuck somewhere and all they can do is talk to each other. Prepping for the session with some character-building questions, and having your players come up with their character’s own backstories and goals, and then share them with each other (in character), can be a really awesome way to encourage actual role-playing (which I think will make it easier to talk about traits/behaviors without making people too defensive).

I offer this from my own positive experiences; I played a game where the first play session the DM gave us each 10 “about your character” questions (which I believe were swiped from a creative writing course) that we filled out together. Questions like “what is your character’s favorite food?” “Are both of your character’s parents still alive?” “What is the biggest lie your character got away with telling?” “What is your character’s greatest fear?” etc. These questions served a couple of purposes - we got more acquainted with our characters, better defined the separation of player/character, we felt closer as a group because we did the exercise together, and our DM better understood who our chars were and what kinds of events and challenges would best fit what we (as both player and character) were looking for. I think this would give you even more opportunities to talk about traits and behaviors, and it might help your players get more comfortable with talking as a group, both in-game and during your post-game discussions.

This is really awesome, and I’m so happy you shared with us! I hope you’ll keep us updated about how the campaign is going!


This is a great idea. I don’t do RPGs in this group only because i’m not familiar with them. I would love to dive into that at some point because I feel like you can really make some strides with that if done properly. I hope to eventually get to that point, but for now we mainly play board game and deck building games. I have discovered I can use deck building games as a tool to work on impassivity. That has been really fun figuring out why guys take certain cards or if they were actually thinking before they acted. It’s an easy lesson to teach within the game that directly relates to a lagging skill that they may have.

I played a game called Bonanza the other day with a group of “tough guys”. They looked at that game and heard me explain it to them and they were not interested at all. I told them to trust me and that I bet they would like the game because it’s pretty cut throat and ruthless at times. All the guys stuck with it and by the end of the game they were really, REALLY into the game and even today were talking to me about the next time they can play the bean farming game. It was pretty cool. It was a cool discussion point at the end of group about not judging a book by it’s cover and how that relates to situations in real life.


Hi – This is my first foray into this group so I hope this reply is helpful.
As I read through your needs I immediately thought of my experience playing Magic the Gathering with my 4 sons and their friends.
For us, so much emotional learning went on through playing this game – I would highly recommend it.


So glad you are finding the show worthwhile. I used to play games with students at a similar facility. My most significant breakthroughs during my brief tenure were with cooperative games. These kids are very competitive with each other and the necessity of working together and considering the needs of the group over the needs of the individual was a foreign concept to many of them.


Wow! I am really excited about the work you are doing. Games can be such a great catalyst for self reflection. It’s also usually fun, and builds relationships when people come to the table with openness.

My first thought when I read your post was that cooperative games could be incredibly valuable, but the first game I thought of was “Unlock” which is a series of escape room games in which everyone works together to escape by building communications with one another. It kind of fires on all cylinders in terms of process. Cognitive skills are required to solve logic puzzles, social relationships have to be built in order to resolve the puzzle on time, and managing stress and anxiety is a factor as well. Also, it is incredibly easy to learn and set up. It does seem kind of ironic to play an escape room game with a prison population though.

However, I think you may be looking for more concrete suggestions regarding engaging and processing with the group. I can second the feelings on role playing games here. Even the development of a character can be a jumping off point for discussions about motivations, and fantasies of where life can take us. The rpg, Clockwork Dominion has a character building tree that lends itself well to that kind of discussion, plus some of the folks behind the game were/are therapists themselves so a great deal of thoughtful development was put into the character building aspects.

From your post, it sounds like processing is a strong facet of your program. I gather that self reflection and the generation of discussion is key to your plan to be a change agent. It all begins with relationship building. You are getting a group of people to enter a world that is likely very foreign to them. In that processing session after the game, look for ways to really engage the story that was generated. I expect things will get serious at times, but try to help them focus on what the game taught them about themselves and about each other. If you took the key elements of the game, and all players were actually engaged in this world of competitive bean farming, what would be the story generated. Start in the abstract and let the group direct where the specifics are. An open discussion with safe self disclosure from you about your experiences with gaming may encourage new perspectives in your group. How do you frame this activity to your group? I would suggest be open about your motivations. “When I played” game x “ I realized I am a very competitive person. So next time I played, I tried to change my approach to the game to see if I could enjoy the game without being so competitive”. Any self disclosure is fine as long as it is not triggering for you, and it is not meant to be manipulation of others. Instead it is inviting of open communication and sets the boundary for how we are discussing things.

Anyway I would love to hear more about how you structure this activity, and the challenges you experience in developing your plan. This is exactly the thing that I think needs more study and discussion. I am so pleased to hear that our podcast has been supportive of your work. I look forward to continuing this discussion.


Okay, I finally remembered to talk with my husband about this. He’s way more familiar with games than I am, plus this is kind of his job (just at a camp instead of a prison), so I figured his input might be helpful.


  • instead of direct q’s, use situational q’s or examples to bring about the point, like a metaphor
  • which character or piece is most relatable to you and why
  • avoid direct introspective questions, instead seek positive observations about others and why that’s meaningful to you
  • allow them to describe their character’s feelings instead of their own (if a character-based game, like an rpg)
  • depersonalizing helps getting guys to talk
  • use apples to apples green cards, have everyone choose a card that best describes them and why


  • forbidden island
  • castle panic
  • cooperative games
  • scenario risk: game master vs. everyone else in a setup that starts game master off with the upper hand, they have to work together to overthrow game master
  • ticket to ride or settlers of catan: learning to deal with unexpected changes
  • superfight: set a time limit, everyone lays out their arguments, then everyone has to vote on who they think would win, if time limit is passed without agreement, game master wins; learning to have civil arguments/discussions without coming to blows

The very few times I can get them to play one of the two cooperative games that I have they really enjoy it and I also feel there is an opportunity for breakthrough. Unfortunately I’m lacking in that department. I’m still on the hunt for more donations and specifically donations for cooperative games. I feel like these types of games are some of my best options for building strong skills in a department where many of them lack. Most of these guys are so self centered it’s good to have a game where the goal is what’s best for the team not just the individual. Just like you were saying. It’s a hard concept to learn and apply, but I think gaming is perfect for that. Thank you for your response. You guys do an amazing job on the Pod and I look forward to new episodes all the time to pull from for more ideas and topics of discussion. Keep up the good work and thanks again.


I have some guys that are really good at MTG but I have not played much myself. That is something that I would love to do, but the barrier to entry at the level I need to do it is pretty expensive. Because we are a prison and these cards hold a monetary value I would need to have have enough cards for every youth in group to have a deck. Currently I have 10 youth each Monday because I am not allowed to supervise more than on my own. Having enough cards for every would eliminate the issue of people stealing and trading cards. I also wouldn’t have to worry about guys getting upset if their cards were damaged in some way. I have considered making a bunch of proxy decks which would be a lot cheaper considering all I would need are sleeves. Anyway, this is definitely something to consider and I hope to get a chance to do.

I really feel there is a lot to that type of game that can be really beneficial. I do have some Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, but my guys are not too interested in that game. Anyway, thank you again for your recommendation.

This is funny, but I think this would be a great game to check out. This sounds like something the hits on many of the ideas i’m trying to move forward with.

As far as the RPG games go I have a co-worker who has a RPG game group that he does, however I have no idea how he approaches it or what his goals are for that. This is something that I should talk to him about and see if he has any ideas or where he is going with it. In that same vein I would love start my own RPG game as part of the group, but I have never done one before, nor have I ever been a part of one. Before I try to roll something like that out for the first time with this population I need to have a better understanding of how those games work.

I was a little unsure where you were going with this part of your message. I was hoping you could elaborate on this a bit more as I am having a little trouble understanding what you are meaning.

A lot of the discussion that we have in the group is obviously led by me and I try to give examples of how gaming has changed me from not judging a book by it’s cover, to understanding why I have some of the personality traits that I do. Self-reflection seems lost on many of these guys and part of that, I feel, is because of their motivations for being here. I have some guys here that really do want to enjoy gaming and are here for the experience, but I have others that are here just to get off their unit and drink coffee. They are clear with me about that and I have told them I am ok with that. I feel like games can reach anyone if they allow themselves to that opportunity. However, this does create a challenging dynamic. As often as I can I will share my experiences in specific situations hoping it can spark a conversation or some internal though. From time to time it sort of does, but most of the time I get something along the lines of “okay”. That is fine, we’re still in training. I think for now it’s just getting used to the idea and I need to remember to be patient with those type of guys. I mean it did take me several years to even realize what gaming had done for me.

Thank you again for your response and I hope to continue this conversation.

This is awesome. Thank you so much for your response. These are great ideas and the suggestions on the games and how to use them is wonderful. I may not have even thought to use those games in that way. Thank you again and if you have any more ideas I would greatly appreciate it.

I was thinking of playing ticket to ride today with the guys and now that you mentioned having to deal with unexpected change this may be a good lesson for the day. I have some other ideas for other games we play that might work with that as well. I was thinking of having the guys play Star Realms or Hero Realms as a group and tell them they have to start by attacking the person to their left. Half way though the game tell them that they are free to attack whomever they want. This should throw a curve ball and may create an interesting discussion at the end of group.

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Real quick, I said Unlock but I meant “Exit”… I have not played the Unlock games- I just got them confused. I will reply to the other questions as I can.


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Hey there, I think this is awesome and I am looking into getting something like this started in the juvenile justice setting where I work (similar ages). Any resources anyone has on outcomes I would appreciate. I am definitely going to be looking into the games above as well.


If you do and you need any ideas or tips feel free to ask. I don’t have any resources for outcomes at this time so unfortunately I can’t help you there.

I love the fact that there are others out there wanting to dive into the same outside the box skill development work that I enjoy. We need more things like this I feel. I really hope you get yours off the ground. Thank you for responding and I hope you check out other posts that I have put up.

What a great read! I’m interested in organizing something like this in our local prisons, which is how I came across this 3 years later :), do you have any suggested resources? I’ve done a little volunteer work in the prisons, but not much. This thread has been inspiring. Any advice would be much appreciated!