Creating Punishments - The Art of World Building
Sep 092021

Inventing punishments is a fun aspect of world building, especially if we’re feeling sadistic. We have real world ideas to draw from and can create our own. We can decide later which punishments go with which crimes, but if we’re feeling poetic, we can devise penalties that teach a clearer lesson about breaking a specific law. There are typically more laws and crimes than punishments; for example, jail time is used for a wide array of offenses.

We don’t need to go overboard inventing punishments, especially ones we aren’t going to use. If we invent some, we might benefit from one extreme, horrible, and memorable punishment and several much lesser ones. We want someone to react very seriously to being threatened with the terrible one. But lesser offenses and consequences are far more common, and our characters won’t take them seriously, just as a parking ticket is an annoyance and little more. These punishments offer a chance to show the presence of the law (and making our world seem more complete) in ways that don’t overtake a story.

Remember to imagine ways characters can resolve, avoid, or minimize a punishment. Sometimes we get a choice of a day in jail or paying a fine, for example. If we’re nice to an officer, maybe we get a warning instead of the ticket. In corrupt places, there’s always bribery. We’re always looking for a way out so give the characters known ways to minimize their punishment; they’ll be aware of them unless in a foreign land.

A basic decision is whether capital punishment (i.e., death) is accepted in the society. This is typically reserved for the most serious of offenses, such as murder, rape, treason, war crimes, crimes against the innocent (children), and more. When there is no feasible way to deter criminals from repeating a heinous crime, this led to the death penalty. For example, if we have a wizard who used magic to commit such a crime, and it’s possible to prevent them from doing magic ever again, capital punishment is unlikely (removing their access to magic will prevent a repeat). In a nomadic tribe, death may be more common due to the lack of prisons, but an established society with cities may have less need of it.

There are many ways to kill someone in state sponsored execution. The next table lists several:


Boiling AliveImmersed in boiling liquid of various kinds
Blowing from a GunTied to the end of a cannon, which is then fired through the victim, blowing them to pieces
Blood EagleWith the victim prone, the ribs are removed and placed to resemble wings
Brazen BullRoasted to death inside a brass bull with a fire underneath
Breaking WheelTied to a wheel that slowly breaks all the bones, may slice the skin open
Burning at the StakeBound to a stake and burned alive by a fire under and around a person
CharivariParading an offender through the streets to mocking jeers of a crowd
FlayingSkinning someone alive, which leads to slow death
Hung, drawn, and quarteredDragged behind horse, hanged to near death, disemboweled (sometimes emasculated), beheaded, and finally cut into four pieces, head placed on a pike atop rampart walls
Impalement Vertically or horizontally shoving a sharpened stake into the body and leaving the victim hanging above the ground on the stake
KeelhaulingTied to ropes and dragged along rough/sharp bottom of ship
MazzatelloA blow to the head knocks the victim out, the throat then slit
SawingCutting someone in half with a saw
SchwedentrunkForcing copious amounts of foul liquid via funnel into the victim
Slow SlicingA literal death by a thousand cuts and removal of body parts

Exile is another option if value systems inhibit capital punishment.

To invent punishments, we use our imagination and the setting we’ve created to find uniqueness. People may be modified, such as with chemical castration for sexual crimes; a variant might be eliminating access to magic for wizards or have cybernetic implants removed (or added) in SF. If we’ve invented unique plants, animals, or locations, we can use them as punishment. The latter are especially useful for either banishment or temporary placement, like a jail. Merely being exposed to a phenomenon that we developed in chapter five (“The Supernatural”) might be useful. A plant may be harmful. An encounter with an animal likely to produce death can be used in a trial by combat. What if there’s a local monster no one can kill but they’re hoping someone can and criminals get the honor of trying? Succeed and go free. Otherwise…

These are ways we can leverage other world building creations. Assigning a punishment to a crime is a matter of matching severity. Harsh governments like an absolute monarchy maybe have the punishment not fit the crime, but others generally strive for fairness, even if what they’re doing makes questionable sense, as in the case of some trials by ordeal we previously examined. To people of that time, they were accepted and believed, and this will be true of most within such a society, so consider what this says (to our audience in particular) about how wise they are and their beliefs. As an example, if trial by water and sinking means innocence, the society believes it or wouldn’t be following this rule of law. Do we want our readers to roll their eyes about this, or our SF characters that arrive in a less advanced world? And is the idea of God saving the innocent true or essentially superstition? A SF character could scorn this only to discover that it’s true. Be sure to consider how our audience and characters will react to punishments they find in other lands.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: