"To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock;
In a pestilential prison with a life long lock;
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
Of a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!"
— The Mikado, W.S Gilbert
Tools of the trade
In cultures where nobility or warriors are expected to "die by the sword", a heavy two-handed sword will be used. Such a weapon will be balanced with the majority of the weight at the far end of the blade, so not just any two-handed sword will work, you'll want a special Executioner's Sword.
Beheading with a sword or axe is a little unpredictable. A good blow, by a master headsman with a proper (and recently sharpened) instrument can kill in a single (presumably painless) stroke. However, if one or more of those factors is absent, the death can take several chops. Three blows is common, and it took 10 strokes to execute Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury. As such, it is traditional to give a gold coin to your headsman to motivate him to do you in as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Sometimes more complex mechanical devices are used, such as the Guillotine, Halifax Gibbet, Scottish Maiden or Fallbeil. A common misconception is that the Guillotine was invented to speed up executions during the French Revolution. In fact, it was invented before the revolution, not for speed, but because it was believed to be more humane than the sometime's sloppy headsman's axe.
As mentioned above, in some cultures the sword is reserved for those of special standing or birth. According to tradition, Saint Paul was beheaded rather than being crucified as many of the other Christian martyrs were, because of his status as a Roman citizen. Commoners are typically dispatched with an axe, and people given an intentionally dishonorable death will face some other, more horrific form of Capital Punishment, such as being Burned At The Stake, Hung, or put on the Breaking Wheel. This was true for most of Europe during the Middle Ages.
However, in China, decapitation was considered more horrible than hanging. Even though hanging typically had longer suffering, it at least delivered the body to your ancestors in a mostly un-mutilated fashion. Other cultures that have strong links between the condition of the body and the nature of the afterlife may likewise consider beheading among the most dishonorable forms of execution.
In Japan, Samurai were permitted to decapitate warriors who had displayed cowardice by fleeing from battle. Beheading was also the second step in seppuku, making that act of suicide a form of assisted suicide.
Nazi Germany executed some 40,000 people (many of them convicted of political crimes, or being resistance fighters) via the Fallbeil between 1933 and 1945. Germany abolished beheading as a punishment in 1949.
Still in use
Despite being a grisly and brutal form of execution, beheading is still practiced in some parts of the world.
It is often used by guerilla and insurgent movements trying to "send a message", such as by the Taliban and other Militants in northwest region of Pakistan. One video that was leaked from that region shows these to be extremely gory and horrific prolonged executions, performed by a 12-year-old headman.
Saudi Arabia is notable as being a sovereign nation that still uses beheading as a form of execution. It is relatively common for the Saudis to behead more than 100 people per year. They have even beheaded foreign nationals without notifying their embassies until after the fact.
- Charlotte Corday
- Klaus Störtebeker - he is famous for allegedly walking past his crew after he was beheaded.
- List of people who have been beheaded
- Madame Guillotine
- Off With His Head
- Sword of Justice
- Vorpal Sword
Game and Story Use
- As evidenced by the section on cultural and historical perspectives, the method of execution used by a culture communicates a great deal of information about the culture and it's values.
- It'd make for an interesting characterization for an NPC villain to surrender only on the provision that they be beheaded with a sword, "as is proper for a nobleman to meet his fate".
- Beheading is probably a very inefficient and messy method of execution if your game doesn't have mechanics for critical hit or The Drop. I mean, most GMs would probably improvise a near-instant fatality given a textbook beheading situation for a mundane extra, but when a non-human (or high Hit Point hero or villain) is being beheaded, it might not be so cut and dried. I suppose if you really wanted to drive home the brutality of a situation, you could roll out attacks and damage, and have that dictate how many hits it took.
- Which implies Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury must have been a high-level character with lots of hit points.