The modern concept of crime and punishment is very reliant on the ability to disarm and restrain and control an individual (think handcuffs, the dividers in police cars, and jails). How can that be replicated in a world where even a wizard's apprentice has a much power as an armed man with a handgun? I've seen stories where magical restraints are present, but you can't write that into every thorp and hamlet, even in Eberron.

How can you restrain a magic user in a fantasy setting?

Either answers that conform to modern concepts of crime and punishment or answers about restraining a magic-user in a psuedo-medieval setting are acceptable.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I advocate a good burning at the stake as the most effective, historically accurate method of magic user restraint. \$\endgroup\$
    – RMorrisey
    Commented May 24, 2011 at 2:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why is this on hold? It's an answered question from 8 years ago, with 137 votes between the question and accepted answer. I'm not sure how this stack or the asker benefits from this getting dredged up and VTC'd. Can someone elaborate for me? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kyyshak
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 17:29
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ @Kyyshak It no longer fits the standards of the stack, so we close it to prevent new answers (note the comments as of time of writing). It should in all likelihood be locked as historic, but that requires a diamond, non of whom have done so yet. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 17:50
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Kyyshak to make explicit what someone_evil implied, the reason this question is being looked at is because it got a new answer that shows just how little this question fits modern stack standards. It's that activity that put this question in the sight of people. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 18:05

7 Answers 7


There are a number of fascinating assumptions on sovereignty and justice in this question. A sovereign entity is one who, in the normal course of events, holds or can enforce a monopoly on force. Justice has always been pragmatized to respect sovereignty. This answer is written from a historical/realistic perspective.

Consider the institutions of high and low justice1. Quoth the wikipedia:

High justice is held by all states and the highest vassals in the European type of feudal society, but may also be acquired by other authorities as part of a high degree of legal autonomy, such as certain cities; which in time often obtained other high privileges originally reserved for high nobility and sometimes high clergy. Other such privileges could include a seat in a diet or a similar feudal representative assembly, before the third estate as such even aspired to such 'parliamentary' representation, or the right to mint coins. These privileges indicating its so-called liberty was an 'equal' enclave in the territorial jurisdiction of the neighboring feudal (temporal or ecclesiastical) Lord, sometimes even extending rather like a polis in Antiquity.

[Low Justice] is the level of 'day-to-day' justice, minor cases generally settled by limited fines or light corporal punishment. It is always included in the jurisdiction of the High and Middle Justiciarians, but also by many petty authorities, including many domanial proprietors, who sat in justice over the serfs, tenants, et cetera on their land, or rather assign a steward or the likes to do so for him, or allow a form of jury trial.

There are absolute pragmatic reasons for the existence of these different levels of "justice." The most fundamental is the "who's going to arrest that huge bugger with a sword, then?" Low justice represents the ability to hold a monopoly of force over a subset of the populace (those poor schmucks who can't afford shiny armor, horses, and very very shiny swords.) High justice, being a thing of nobles, means that the majority of nobles could indeed have a monopoly on force (due to the feudal system) and effectively go to war with whomever broke High Justice. As this was an expensive proposition, only the most serious of crimes were listed here.

People exempt from the monopoly of force (in a Hobbsean sense) are sovereign. The best illustration of that is from Stephenson's Snow Crash (caution, harsh language):

"Well, we're not saying it's him," Squeaky says. "But! need to know if this character" -- he nods at the corpse -- "might have done anything that would have made Raven feel threatened."

"What is this, group therapy? Who cares if Raven felt threatened?"

"I do," Squeaky says with great finality.


"What the f*** did you think you were doing, a****e?" Squeaky says, so pissed that Hiro steps away from him.

"That f****r ripped us off -- the suitcase burned," the Crip mumbles through a mashed jaw.

"So why didn't you just write it off? Are you crazy, f*****g with Raven like that?"

"He ripped us off. Nobody does that and lives."

"Well, Raven just did," Squeaky says. Finally, he's calming down a little. He rocks back on his heels, looks up at Hiro.


Hiro is mortified by this idea. "Is that why everyone was telling me not to f*** with Raven? They were afraid I was going to attack him?"

Squeaky eyes the swords. "You got the means."

"Why should anyone protect Raven?"

Squeaky smiles, as though we have just crossed the border into the realm of kidding around. "He's a Sovereign."

"So declare war on him."

"It's not a good idea to declare war on a nuclear power."


"Christ," Squeaky says, shaking his head, "if I had any idea how little you knew about this s***, I never would have let you into my car. I thought you were some kind of a serious CIC wet-operations guy. Are you telling me you really didn't know about Raven?"

"Yes, that's what I'm telling you."

"Okay. I'm gonna tell you this so you don't go out and cause any more trouble. Raven's packing a torpedo warhead that he boosted from an old Soviet nuke sub. It was a torpedo that was designed to take out a carrier battle group with one shot. A nuclear torpedo. You know that funny-looking sidecar that Raven has on his Harley? Well, it's a hydrogen bomb, man. Armed and ready. The trigger's hooked up to EEC trodes embedded in his skull. If Raven dies, the bomb goes off. So when Raven comes into town, we do everything in our power to make the man feel welcome."

Hiro's just gaping. Y.T. has to step in on his behalf. "Okay," she says. "Speaking for my partner and myself, we'll stay away from him."

At the end of the day, most adventuring parties are Raven. They've got poor impulse control and a nuke on their mounts. Town authorities will almost certainly try their best to be as respectful as possible to the people with the nuke, recreating the idea of High Justice. When the heroes become sufficiently disruptive to the incomes of other sovereign individuals such that they are willing to go to the expense of functionally going to war, then adventuring parties fight.

The fundamental concept is this: you can only police that which you have the power to police. While this concept is alien to modern thinking, it is everywhere to be found in the past (and why crossbows were so very annoying to knights).

Here are some traditional forms of dealing with this problem.

Noblesse Oblige

A tradition of honor

This really is the best solution for the peasants. For nobles to self-police such that they don't do these things. This requires a high number of adventuring groups, but with a decent number, getting a reputation for poor impulse control will eventually sour important deals. This then creates negative feedback on that impulse control and creates a sense of tradition. Once most parties subscribe to this, then there will be significant social pressure on those who don't. This also applies to mages and all other sovereign entities.

Priests exist as professional talkers-to-nobility

One of the really important roles of Rome in the past has been as "talkers-to-nobility." They tried to steer the impulses of nobles towards useful pursuits by inventing the idea of chivalry from what amounts to whole cloth. This was only middling effective, but the idea is useful: super-national institutions can be highly effective as ways of transmitting grievances, guidance, and advice to sovereign entities. On a practical level, if a member of the party isn't behaving, a priest or equivalent will usually plead with them. It's important that the individual pleading is not part of the local power structure, but affiliated with it.

Threat of overwhelming force

Here is the "so declare war on them" set of options. First, the overwhelming force must exist. Which means that the leaders of the land (as ex-adventuerers) must care enough about the problem to be willing to go to war with the mage/adventuring party. On borderline cases however, the threat is enough.

Threat of overwhelming force

While this tends to be couched in nicer terms, it boils down to someone in a position of power noting that if this keeps up, there will be pain. This threat will be phrased differently in different lands, but sovereigns who refuse to employ and enforce their monopoly on force ... cease being sovereign. The idea of "consent of the governed" is one of those modern concepts that just doesn't map to before the enlightenment.


Quoth the wiki:

Parole is "the agreement of persons who have been taken prisoner by an enemy that they will not again take up arms against those who captured them, either for a limited time or during the continuance of the war".

Again, this is using war interactions since those are the only ones possible between sovereign entities. This is the other side to the threat. Where if a mage/party is doing something naughty, and are caught, they are asked to give their Parole. What this boils down to is: "We don't want to go to the expense of killing you, and you don't want to die. So promise you won't do X again, and we'll both be happy, OK?"

Declared Outlaw

Outlaw is a fascinating term. It comes from the time where people could not be hauled up before courts because of a depressing lack of man-power in the "justice system." The act of declaring someone "outlaw" requires that a nation have a set of laws in place (so it's rather more modern than parole). However, it simply notes that such and such an individual is "outside the law" and therefore enjoys none of the protections of the law. The subtext is: "And it'd be nice if someone killed him." The threat of this is actually quite nasty, since there's no penalty (beyond the individual's responses) for defrauding, murdering, etc.. the individual. It also signals that there's free and legit loot to be had to other adventuring groups.

Hold people/things forfeit

Hostage taking is an absolutely legal aspect of warmaking. It's generally a lot easier to secure whatever you hold hostage to good behaviour than the individual or party themselves. The trick for it to be legal is that it must be part of a contract, functionally, between the two parties. Illegal hostage taking generally doesn't make the contract for good behaviour beforehand. This doesn't work very well.


Better as a longer-term solution, most feudal governments already have large administrations designed for the keeping, education, and general preservation of "allied" hostages. The "page" system may have roots here, giving hostage youngsters a chance to participate in the court of their sovereign. For a fantasy game, gifts of quarters in the palace of whomever wants to try to be sovereign over the party are a very interesting payment, especially with the communicated subtext that their families will be well cared for. So long as the adventuring party doesn't do anything foolish like wipe out a town. As part and parcel of this, aristocrats will be performing their traditional job (more detail) in D&D games \footnote{Keeping adventurers happy}. Hostage-to-love as a phrase exists for a reason. Most communities will be actively encouraging their best people to enter into a relationship with these adventurers for all sorts of reasons. Adding a reason to not nuke the community is pretty high up there.

Still, in more pragmatic and larger cities, they may ask for members of the adventuring party to willingly act as hostages (excellent for a city-game when one of the members can't make it.) While this is unlikely, it may be the case in a city on the edge, during or close-to war, or other tense times. It's also a great way to completely subvert the players' expectations of adventure to allow the people who volunteered to be hostage to be well taken care of, given anything they want to drink, and then returned unharmed, with all of their gear well cared for.

Bail or a deposit

In most cities, it's a lot easier to lock coin away than it is members of an adventuring party. A city that does this on a regular basis will have established a fiat currency and insures that its shops only accept that currency. At the gates, magic users and party-members will be asked to place a deposit (that they will get back, with interest) forefit on their good behaviour. They will then be able to use this deposit to pay debts incurred in the city. Done well, both the adventurers and the city prosper. It would also make a fantastic side-quest to be commissioned to hunt down a rogue who had the audacity to try to steal from The Vaults. (or to steal from said vaults...)


This is not a new problem. Magic users and adventuring parties are, in a realistic world, sovereign entities unto themselves. Sane sovereigns recognise this and deal with them accordingly. The small crimes are written off and the larger crimes cause limited war. While here are magical means of neutralising magic, they belong in a much more modern game that provides for an efficient police force for everyone. For clues to how this works, take a look at the Powers comic, a police procedural dealing with enforcing the laws against superheroes.

1 Also a fascinating novel by Jerry Pournelle, remarkably apposite to the discussion.

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    \$\begingroup\$ 'The idea of "consent of the governed" is one of those modern concepts that just doesn't map to before the enlightenment.' -- Or get paid anything more than lip-service after the enlightenment. You can count the number of instances in the last several hundred years of the governed withdrawing their consent without it devolving to a shooting match on your fingers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Perkins
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 16:52

This depends a great deal on the setting.

Many settings include mundane means for neutralizing magic. In this case, you can pretty much assume that every town has access to some means of imprisoning casters, assuming they have enough knowledge to make it work.

  • In D&D (as of at least 3rd edition) spell casters needed the ability to speak and move freely to access their full repertoire. Imprisoned spell casters would consequently be gagged and tied up. If they use material components, those would be confiscated. A guard would probably also be required to deal with the remaining spells.

  • In Shadowrun, magic is tightly bound to sight. A mage can't use magic to affect something that he can't see. Prisons can therefore be assumed to have some manner of blind fold available.

  • Other fantasy settings tie magic to hand gestures, voice, physical foci (wands, charms, spellbooks), and so on.

If there is no mundane answer to magic, then most small towns will need to rely on outside assistance. Fantasy settings are rife with wandering witch hunters, or anti-magic organizations. Magic in these settings will often be regulated, controlled, or banned outright.

  • In Exalted, the Wyld Hunt is tasked with hunting down and destroying young Exalts. When a town has a problem with an Exalt, they need to call in outside assistance. To be an Exalt is to carry a death sentence.

  • In Dragon Age, the Chantry maintains a specialized military force known as the templars with powerful anti-magic abilities. They supplement this force by heavily regulating and isolating mages.

Regardless of how magic works in-setting, maintaining a guard over captured magic-users is definitely a good idea.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Addendum: Law enforcement and military in Shadowrun use a mage mask - a ski mask-type restraint which blinds and gags the mage, and creates a migraine-inducing humming sound so they can't concentrate. \$\endgroup\$
    – RMorrisey
    Commented May 24, 2011 at 2:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RMorrisey that might work in some D&D settings (Eberron) as well. Seems a lot cheaper than an anti-magic field. \$\endgroup\$
    – C. Ross
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 17:09

I don't believe in overly magical solutions to problems like this, because even in D&D worlds, people able to use magic are such a minority that it doesn't make sense to have it be a major part of everyday processes.

Most wizards don't have a lot of escape type spells. Sure, they might have magic missile, and that's bad. About as bad as some prisoner having a shiv and stabbing a guard with it. Stabbing one guard doesn't get you free, it usually just gets the ever loving sh*t kicked out of you by the rest of the guards. The Man (tm) is bigger than a wizard, at least until he's high level. If you are an actual high level wizard, which is rare, and if somehow the medieval popo got their hands on you, which is even more rare, then sure, you have an issue and they would use more extensive restraints.

Largely, justice for wizards would work like anyone else. Most prisoners don't maniacally try to escape, because they understand there's a high likelihood of getting killed in the process or being wanted on an even larger scale even if they do succeed. They get fined or flogged or banished or executed; imprisonment is a pretty rare medieval punishment. In medieval type settings "restraint" is usually either very temporary - in which case a wizard is bound and gagged till trial - or permanent, in which case they are stuck in an oubliette for a long long time. Prisoners of war and political prisoners are the main exceptions, except in really big cities.

There might be "fitting" punishments, where a wizard who commits a major crime with magic gets their hand cut off or tongue put out, which usually curtails that at least to some degree. If a culture would chop off a thief's hands or a rapist's junk, they'll take out a wizard's tongue.

A town might call on some other resident caster to inspect a spell book (to see what spells someone has to determine their level of threat), and might try to have detect magic going during a trial (or an irritable bailiff with a whacking stick standing behind the defendant). If magic comes from spell books or familiars or whatever, they'd deprive them of those.

But bottom line is, in most cases, "add a gag to those chains" is sufficient.


Depending on the setting, there can be many answers.

  • If there are anti-magic devices, they of course can be used to render the magician helpless or at least impaired. A classic example is the anti-magic field (spell) in D&D.

  • Depending on the rules, there may be ways to effectively limit the ability of a caster to operate. The caster could be drugged, restrained, distracted by various sensory stimuli, etc.; generally not very pleasant, but anything that the rules say gives a major penalty to spellcasting or makes it impossible can be used as a law enforcement measure.

  • If the magician is not extremely powerful, and it is possible for observers to detect magic usage, the magician can be constantly guarded. This is especially true in settings where technology is of comparable or greater power to magic. For example, in Shadowrun you could have any puny magician able to summon the weakest spirit watching the other magicians, and triggering security drones to fire tranquilizer darts or somesuch if the spirit reports a problem (or dies, or is usurped by the imprisoned magician).

  • Much more powerful magic could be used to trap the magician somewhere they cannot escape or can otherwise prevent them from using magic in a problematic way (D&D: flesh-to-stone, polymorph, sink, geas, etc.).

  • Law enforcement could choose other penalties--a reliance on fines, corporal punishment, or other methods where justice can be meted out immediately or restitution can be given immediately (exile, confiscation of the magician's magical artifacts, etc. etc.).

  • The magician could always be killed if it is too much trouble to treat them in a humane way. ("Using lethal magic" and "resisting arrest with the aid of magic" could be capital offenses, and then the situation would frequently end up with a dead magician.)

If there are enough magical criminals to need these measures in every thorp and hamlet, then there are probably enough responsible magicians for some to be on the town watch (or whatever) to help implement these measures.


In AD&D it was easy, once you had them, you take their spellbook away. They couldn't prepare new spells.

Psionicists though were a real problem, as you couldn't do anything to prevent them from using powers. You'd really need some sort of psionic dampener on them.

Priests and Druids you would take away their holy symbol, which depending on your interpretation was required for them to cast spells.

Take one step over, and do Dragonlance 5th Age, there's nothing you can do to prevent a Mystic or Sorcerer from casting their spells. If they had something that could get them out, either directly or indirectly, they were getting out.

GURPS, depending on what restrictions you had in place for magic use was much the same. No way to keep them locked in if they had the right spells.

This would lead to something fairly logical - "Burn the Witch!" You wouldn't try to restrain a spellcaster, you'd execute them. Without having some sort of alignment system in place, such as a town run by someone LG, there wouldn't be a good reason not to do it. Of course the system with alignment has some straightforward means of restraining magic users and preventing them from casting spells, so it ends up only coming down to the Psionicist, which thanks to not having to do anything obvious to cast spells, probably wouldn't be identified as such.


Possible answers:

  1. Even very powerful beings can be brought down by many, many not so powerful beings. It is even true today in a realistic setting: If you e.g. fight against a 100 men tribe with spears and you alone are equipped with assault rifles and magazines, you will still lose if they charge you (human wave attack). Yes, they will have terrible losses, but they will still overwhelm you. So if the mage is not capable of both taking out terrible damage and having enormous defensive capabilities (invisibility, steel skin or teleportation), he/she is screwed.
  2. Magic does not make you invulnerable: Archers/Sharpshooters can take mages out, if necessary from behind. Other options are poisons, traps, waiting until a mage sleeps etc.

  3. If the mages are a small minority in a vast majority of non-mages, they could set up a codex that all members will hunt down and kill any offenders who abuse their power. This may a viable option if they need to fear that continued abuse will led to a war which they will result in their extermination.

  4. Mages could have disadvantages which can be used against them. In the Dark Eye any contact with iron seriously disturbs magic abilities, so mages are chained or wrapped in chainmail. There are materials like Koschbasalt which are impenetrable for magicians and can be used to build cells. Some systems offer the ability to create mana-free zones where magic does not work. Some priests may conjure anti-magic fields. You can take their books/spells away from them or tied them up/gag them.

  5. Mages could work as enforcers, justice personnel or you can hire them as headhunters. So even a small village terrorized by your PCs may knew where to find or hire people who know how to handle abusive mages. In fact, both in reality and settings a huge difference in power needs to much harsher punishments, so I have no problem to kill unruly PCs.

  6. Mages could been imbibed with something which makes identification very easy. A specific unusual feature (no navel) of their bodies, the ability to identify the caster of a spell like a fingerprint, the ability to tell the exact location of an offender. If you cannot hide and everything you do can be found out, you will be much more compliant.


I use cold iron shackles which drain magic away - but thats for towns and cities -local villages tend to render fingers wagglers unconscious and put them i a hood and hogtie them .

  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you point to where in the rules it says cold iron shackles drain away a spellcaster's magic? \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 15:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ObliviousSage I just noticed this question has no game mentioned. It’s a Worldbuilding.se–style question about fantasy settings in general, with not much in the way of practical constraints. It doesn’t even mention how magic or spellcasting should be assumed to work. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 16:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Huh, you're right. Should probably be closed as too broad, then. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 16:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ObliviousSage Yeah, that’s my vote. It’s an ancient question that I think doesn’t really work in today’s standards and much more populous community. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 16:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi user3490206, welcome to rpg.se! This old question doesn't really reflect the sort of questions we get now and has been closed. But there are lots of other questions you can answer. Take the tour, visit the help center and feel free to choose a unique name for yourself. When answering other questions its good to try to provide some support for your answer as well as your opinion. Good luck and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 6:54

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