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Basic Information

Punishment is something unpleasant done to curtail lawlessness or disobedience. See also Crimes, Criminal, and Crime and Punishment Tropes. Usually a punishment presumes that an offense has been committed and seeks to either exact retribution against the offender, to reform him or to provide a deterrent example to him or to others.

To be rightfully called punishment, the act should also be committed by or at the behest of a lawful authority (within a given definition of "lawful"), otherwise it's just an assault (or suchlike). Who has the right to punish who for what has long been a cause of fallings out between the ruled and their rulers. Underlying this there is the question of who has authority to punish whom - and massive cultural differences apply here as well, from times and places where minor offences may be punished by an extrajudicial beating from the police to those where parents are forbidden to use corporal punishment (or practically any other kind of punishment) on their own children.

Generally, there are considered to be five basic purposes for punishment:

  • Rehabilitation: encouraging the person to become "better" and less likely to commit the act again.
  • Removal: making the person physically unable to commit the act again.
  • Deterrence: discouraging the person from committing the act in the first place.
  • Retribution: "an eye for an eye", harming the person as they have harmed others for the sake of justice
  • Restoration: setting things right by undoing the harm done to the victim; usually the domain of civil courts where the distinction exists

Punishment can usually be divided between the capital (involving the death of the person punished), the corporal (involving physical harm not intended to result in death) and the social/financial involving loss of resources and social esteem. Noting, of course, that these could overlap - most forms of corporal punishment can become capital if overused and the administration of any form of punishment can also have social and financial side effects.

Modern punishments

Despite common misapplication, Parole is not a punishment. It's actually a reward for good behaviour and rehabilitation, or a way to ease Prison Over-Crowding. The equivalent punishment is typically referred to as probation and can appear similar, hence being often confused for parole. Since Paroled criminals are typically put on probation and Parole Officers are often assigned to supervise non-paroled probationers, the confusion is exacerbated and so parole sometimes is seen as a punishment, but it's generally far superior to the alternative.

Archaic Punishments (though, admittedly, some of these still happen today)

The following, whilst officially forms of trial rather than punishments, were also common form in previous years and were often quite capable of serving as corporal and/or capital punishments in their own right:

Disturbing Futuristic Punishments

Disturbing Fantasy Punishments


2. non-fiction book: Curious Punishments of Bygone Days by Alice Morse Earle
3. non-fiction book: The Pirate Primer by George Choundas

Game and Story Use

  • The extremes of punishment a society will go to says a lot about that culture or government.
    • Lawful Evil will have harsh and brutal punishments.
    • Lawful Good might have more humane punishments, but is likely to go the public humiliation or punitive measures route.
    • Chaotic Good will focus more on rehabilitation and reform, seeking to deter rather than punish. On the other hand, such a society might be inclined to tolerate vigilante justice, even while preaching forgiveness.
    • Chaotic Evil likely has no laws, and relies on lynch mobs or private vendetta.
    • Likewise, due to any number of cultural, historical, or societal factors, it's entirely possible that a given legal system might use one or more punishments that seem entirely out of character (and either brutal or laughable) from our modern western perspective. The Colonial Era relied on whipping and bilboes pretty extensively, but you'd hesitate to characterize the Founding Fathers as Lawful Evil for that.
    • A society with a high focus on personal liberty and autonomy may well regard imprisonment as less humane than corporal punishment … and possibly even capital punishment. Other societies may be quite happy to award fines for very serious offences (see weregild above) or punish for things that outsiders see as trivial. Places where public funds are at a premium may be reluctant to imprison (and/or have very nasty prisons) and either substitute other penalties (see the Colonial Era thing above) or outsource imprisonment … for example as bonded labour.
    • Expect significant values dissonance between times and places in general - modern western cultures have a bias against "inhumane and degrading" punishments, but ideas of what is and is not "humane" vary and in some cases degradation may be a deliberate part of punishment: many cultures deliberately use the prospect of public shaming as a punishment and deterrent. The "right to be punished" may also exist, where it is seen as proper and beneficial for the offender to have their crimes redressed by punishment and thus their karma (or whatever) rebalanced.
      • Medieval English judges would occasionally consign victims of violence to the care of their attacker - with the understanding that the attacker's punishment would depend on the end state of the victim … a full recovery would mean a relatively lenient sentence, whereas death within a year and a day mean the attacker would be punished as a murderer (typically with death). Obviously this tended to create a strong incentive for the best care possible2.
      • Likewise, there may be dissonance about "how bad" a punishment is: one society may consider caning to be brutal and inhumane, while their neighbors consider it something that's over quickly and allows the punished to return to normal life quickly.
  • Sometimes, the Players have screwed up really bad, and you just have to punish the characters. May be you feel that all suspension of disbelief would be lost if the local authorities did nothing. You may be motivated by concern that you'll "lose control" of the campaign if you let them get away with that. Whatever the reason, it's always good to know what your options are, so you're not forced to escalate straight to Wanted Dead Or Alive.
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