Unusual Forms of Imprisonment

Mihály Zichy (1827-1906) Title: Captive in the Prison Date 1850s
Mihály Zichy (1827-1906) Title: Captive in the Prison Date 1850s

Crime and Punishment

Author Keith Baker

Series Campaign Style

Publisher Atlas Games

Publish date 2003

The fortress of justice is an example of how magic could be merged with mundane defenses to create a heavily secured dungeon. But a theocracy, church court, or land ruled by wizards or sorcerers could create magical jails that are far more imaginative and effective than simple arcane locks. Here are a few ideas based around the judicial applications of particular spells. Any of these concepts could also be combined with a prison fortress; perhaps the most dangerous prisoners are kept in the reliquary ward located beneath the warden’s chambers.


Provided that he possesses the required level of mystical power, a tyrannical lich or sorcerer-king can simply imprison his enemies, using freedom to release them should the need arise. Imagine a central chamber with six cells. The lich can use one of the cells when he wants to interrogate a prisoner, and then he simply banishes her beneath the earth. If his memory is good and the cells are distinctive, he can just remember which victims have been bound beneath each cell; as a result, there are no markers to guide would-be rescuers – who would, in any case, have to be able to cast freedom themselves. Meanwhile, the prisoner herself can’t escape on her own, can’t cause any sort of trouble, and can’t be contacted by sending or located with scrying. As prisons go, it’s hard to beat.


Paul Friedrich Meyerheim: Dressur im Nebenzelt Date 1891
Paul Friedrich Meyerheim: Dressur im Nebenzelt Date 1891

To all appearances, a menagerie is a traditional zoo or aviary; a plethora of colorful birds or other exotic creatures are kept in gilded cages. In point of fact, these are prisoners who have been transformed into animal shape with baleful polymorph. The exotic appearance of the animals makes it easier for the jailer to remember the true identity of each creature (“The princess is the peacock, and the bandit king is the gold-furred fox”), and may help to locate any prisoner who somehow manages to escape. A menagerie can pose a real problem for would-be rescuers unless they can reverse the spell; after all, should the animals realize that you’re going to rescue someone from the prison, many will try to trick you into rescuing them instead of your friend.

At its core, a menagerie is a lower-level alternative to the empty prison. It’s not as secure, but it’s still difficult for the prisoners to cause trouble or escape on their own. However, some societies may use it as a means of rehabilitation, trying to select a form that will teach the prisoner a moral lesson about the crime that he committed. So you poisoned your brother? Well, why don’t you spend the next ten years as a snake, and see how it really feels!

Reliquary ward

The reliquary ward is a bizarre prison sometimes used by churches that have access to resurrection. In these societies, a prisoner may be killed and cremated, after which his ashes are stored in a heavily secured vault – along with the remains of dozens or hundreds of other prisoners. In principle, this is very similar to the empty prison; you don’t have to care for the physical needs of the prisoners, you don’t have to worry about riots or escape attempts, and the ward takes up very little space. This is especially useful for hostages or prisoners or war; they’re kept safely out of the way until it’s time to make an exchange, and then resurrected and returned to their people.

A reliquary ward could also be used as an unusual form of exile. Instead of being banished from a particular nation, the prisoner is banished from a particular time – reduced to ashes and kept in storage for years or decades, and then eventually restored. The criminal suffers the loss of her friends and family; meanwhile, the community has time to heal and forget the harm that she has caused. Needless to say, this is just as applicable to an empty prison, soul vault, or stone garden.

Soul Vault

If the sorcerer-king can’t cast imprison, he may compromise with Trap the Soul. Instead of a dank dungeon, he will have a fabulous vault of gems – many of which contain the minds and bodies of criminals or enemies of the realm. The soul vault has the advantage that prisoners can be easily transported in gem form; anyone can release the trapped soul by shattering the gem. The ash prisoners in a reliquary ward are also easy to transport, but you still need resurrection when you want to restore the prisoner.

Stone garden

The stone garden is a lower-level arcane alternative to the soul vault and the empty prison. Instead of baleful polymorph, flesh to stone is used to preserve prisoners and prevent escapes. This takes up a little more space than the other alternatives, but it is at least decorative. And if you want to rescue a friend and don’t have a flesh to stone spell available – well, it can be quite a challenge to break out of a royal palace while lugging around a life-sized statue!

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