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"…and therefore you shall hang, not for that you stole sheep, but rather that sheep may not be stolen"

Judge Buller

Basic Information

Execution, also known as capital punishment1 is a form of punishment consisting of the killing of the offender at the behest of lawful authority2. Outwith the control of lawful authority it is more commonly called homicide - and of course there is plentiful debate about who has authority where and when.

The purpose of execution varies by time and place - in some it will be a lex talonis repayment for taking the life of another, in others a more generalised response to some other offence. More utilitarian motivations might be the possibility of deterring future criminals from committing the same offence, to prevent the same criminal from re-offending or, in highly utilitarian societies, to save the cost of imprisonment. Often vies with exile as a way of removing unwanted members of society.

The means of execution also varies from the relatively humane to the utterly horrifying - and most forms of corporal punishment and torture will serve perfectly well as a means of execution if prolonged. In many cases, the less complicated and theatrical the method of killing, the easier it is for all concerned. Many cultures have a range of methods, depending on the status of the condemned and the crime for which they are being killed - more horrific and theatrical styles being employed to punish more severe crimes.

Execution is, of course, the profession of the executioner, sometimes also called a headsman or hangman (dependant on his trade), or by some older title such as carnifex. In some settings he may also have other roles - such as gaoler, undertaker, torturer or officer of the law. He may be a full time public official, a private citizen retained at need, a condemned criminal reprieved for the work (in era where the job is unpopular), selected by ballot or even a stranger. A particularly perverse society might even make it the subject of a gameshow.
Some methods of execution may not require a professional executioner - stoning for example, farms the duty out to the whole community, whereas sending the offender to a gladiatorial arena sees him killed as part of the sport by professional gladiators, fellow criminals or arena animals.

May be more or less severe as a penalty in non-historical settings where magic or sufficiently advanced technology make death less of an obstacle. Historically executed criminals were often thought to form part of the restless, angry dead and were prone to returning as vengeful undead unless special precautions were taken in their disposal3 and their body parts were sometimes thought to possess magical powers - the Hand of Glory for example was traditionally made from the hand of a hanged man.

Interesting cases may arise when the chosen form of capital punishment fails to kill the condemned - some cultures regard survival (or, in some cases, repeated survival) as proof that the subject was unfairly condemned, others that it is inhumane to keep at it, or that the sentence was for the means of execution to be carried out, and once it has been the body, alive or dead, is released to its next of kin. More pragmatic cultures are prone to accept the sentence of death and keep trying until it is achieved.

Execution should be distinguished from both assassination and killing in war as these do not constitute punishments - by definition the agency of the killing lacks lawful authority over the target in both cases.

See Also


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • If the PC's are captured by a BBEG who happens also to be a ruler with legal authority, they may face execution.
    • If the bad guy is not a ruler or some kind of magistrate, he's more likely to just kill his enemies without all the pomp and circumstance.
      • Then again, in some cases, he may invest the killing with a bit of ritual, in order to intimidate others who might consider crossing him in the future, as in the "gangland executions"
  • A more fun scenario would be to have the PC's trying to save an NPC buddy/person of importance from a scheduled execution.
    • Especially if they are actually guilty and are being quite justly executed.
  • Given the way that some PCs feel entitled to carry on, they may very well end up facing execution at the hands of a ruler with legal authority who isn't a villain. This is the logical result of treating urban environments as an above ground dungeon.
  • A less common situation, but one which might lead to interesting moral questions. One or more of the PC's are called upon to perform an execution. Perhaps only members of the PC's status or class are legally permitted to do the act, or they were selected by the magistrate for other reasons. What if the punishment seems extreme, or if the PC suspects that the victim may be innocent?
    • This kind of situation, of course, requires players who enjoy role-playing moral conundrums and requires care on the GM's part that they don't feel they're being railroaded into a bad situation.
    • It would also be appropriate for a character along the lines of Severian from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun4 or even, in a congruent setting, a Paladin5.
  • With undead and resurrection magic around, special precautions may be needed to keep the condemned from coming back.
    • Or if execution is a lesser sentence than it is in our world for the above reason, special procedures may be needed to make sure the condemned can come back easily. Botched executions might be particularly horrific, because the condemned was expecting to be back after his buddies scraped together some diamond dust.
  • If an afterlife is known to exist, executions might involve spells or some other effort to send the condemned to a specific one.
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