This question is a little nebulous unfortunately and perhaps a bit disturbing.

The evil-empire in my WIP captures Mages and breaks them down into loyal and obedient servants. The Mages aren't as dehumanizedas the Sul'dam, no their breaking is much slower and insidious working on both mundane and magical levels and if executed successfully produces true subservience and loyalty.

It is from the mundane side of training and conditioning.

So I ask what some of techniques and practices used to breakdown an individual's will and recondition them specifically servitude?

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    $\begingroup$ Your question title is not quite right. It seems to imply that a salve is not a person. I'd recommend something like "from an independent person to a subservient person". $\endgroup$ – Samuel May 20 '15 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ See: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/14561/… $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske May 20 '15 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ Well if you don't want to follow the seanchan's approach, then follow examples of what the Wise Ones did because (from what I remember) they could make people do anything. Except Rand ofcourse because he was being stupid allot of the time. $\endgroup$ – Necessity May 20 '15 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ Why would this be worth the risk? I would think an evil empire would kill the mages and enslave less dangerous captives. $\endgroup$ – GrandmasterB May 20 '15 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ Don't worry about disturbing.. I think my answer is much more disturbing ._. $\endgroup$ – Aify May 20 '15 at 21:11

11 Answers 11


To break people, recruit them into a cult.

Steven Hassan has written several books about the mind control practiced by destructive cults. The acronym BITE refers to Hassan's four factors of brainwashing: behavior control, information control, thought control, and emotional control.

  • Behavior control: The organization teaches believers to behave without questioning, not to associate with outsiders, and to spend time performing rituals or proselytizing.
  • Information control: The organization is the only source of truth; other sources of information shall be distrusted.
  • Thought control: Believers are expected to internalize the organization's doctrine as "truth". They are encouraged to adopt an us-and-them mentality and refrain from critical thinking.
  • Emotion control: Associating love with the organization. Guilt. Fear of the outside. Fear of punishment for not meeting the organization's standards, up to and including everlasting punishment.

See also more details about BITE and how it applies to human trafficking.

In fact, several real-world religions have been accused of practicing BITE techniques, especially Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons. Jehovah's Witnesses in particular are known to use shunning to cut off former members from their families. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) uses BITE as well, according to Hassan's article in The Huffington Post.

Try to catch the mages when they're children, before they've been given a chance to go to a more relatively mainstream magic school such as Hogwarts. Children are especially vulnerable to BITE techniques.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm going to share this answer to myself in order to read all the links you posted later. I didn't know about this. $\endgroup$ – rpax May 21 '15 at 5:18
  • $\begingroup$ The Evil Empire catches mages when they're young in their own territory. Enemy mages are captured rather than killed when ever possible. Not only do they deprive hostile states of a valuable resource they gain that resource for themselves. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus May 21 '15 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ Is a cult really considered destructive if it leads its followers into living very happy, fulfilling lives, establishing close, nurturing and successful relationships as well as financial stability? ISIL is obviously destructive, but Mormons tend to live very happy and productive lives when they stay true to the morals of their church. $\endgroup$ – ShemSeger May 21 '15 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ @ShemSeger If a religion's "shunning" practice tears apart a family when a member leaves, then it can get destructive. I've added the clarification to my answer. $\endgroup$ – Damian Yerrick May 21 '15 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ @tepples - Your edit makes your answer even worse, especially considering it paints "shunning" as an acceptable or sanctioned practice, which couldn't be further from the truth. I can't exactly speak for the JW's but if a Mormon family is "shunning" one of their family members because of their personal choices, then they are not living in harmony with the gospel. Church leaders continuously discourage exclusive behaviour, and encourage all members of the church to adopt a doctrine of inclusion. $\endgroup$ – ShemSeger May 21 '15 at 22:34

It's different for every person. There won't be any guaranteed method that operates on human psychology (without magic).

If you keep them for long enough then one effect might be Stockholm Syndrome. Over all situations this is not very common, occurring in about 8% of hostage situations. It's a strange thing that people do, kind of similar to battered person syndrome. With no guaranteed way to achieve this the attrition rate for captured Mages will be quite high.

If you allow the use of magic, including devices like for the Sul'dam, then things become a little easier.

The trick is the same as for training any animal (including humans), consistency. With consistent, unfailing feedback on actions that are ok and those that are not ok a person can be trained to be subservient in far less time with much better results. This is the principle that makes things like shock collars for dogs incredibly effective. It is also the reason people don't try to walk through walls on a normal basis, because the wall always wins.

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    $\begingroup$ Great comparision. $\endgroup$ – rpax May 21 '15 at 5:15
  • $\begingroup$ The last paragraph causes me to remember the definition of insanity I had once heard/seen, but can no longer find online: Attempting to try the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results each time. My end conclusion was that your strategy would only fail on someone who is insane. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble May 21 '15 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble It's a comment commonly attributed to Einstein. $\endgroup$ – Samuel May 21 '15 at 20:02

I think there are 2 main ways to keep people subservient. Lets start with the more common one.

1) Fear

If you want to break someone, this is what you want to steer towards.

As long as you keep them scared of what could possibly happen to them, they'll behave. It's a simple concept and often very efficient. Examples that come to mind, for example, is any hostage situation. The armed villains have weapons and threaten the hostages lives - the hostages listen and do whatever the villains tell them to do, eg: get on the ground, hands on your head, etc.

Start with the initial fear, and condition it so that they're always scared, hence breaking the individuals will.

In fact, you don't have to continuously apply pain/torture techniques. You just have to do it once, bad enough that they never want to feel it again, and then remind them once in a while that they'll feel it if they don't obey.

If you're actually looking for a technique... just take one of your prisoners, put him under Chinese water torture (while hidden from the rest of the prisoners). When he breaks and goes nuts, bring him into the public and show him around to the prisoners, and don't tell them what you did to this guy. Make them use their imagination. Then, rip out his nails one by one, burn half of his body, slowly flay the other half of him with a blunt knife, and then send him to be drawn and quartered. Then go and kill his family the exact same way, in public.

(And if you really want to make it bad for them, somewhere along the flaying process start putting salt on his wounds. Literally. Don't forget to make your prisoners do the drawn and quartering of their comrade. Whip them forwards until he gets ripped apart.)

Edit: Courtesy of Jason C for reminding me of this. You can also deprive the prisoners of nourishment and make them work for it. If they don't work, they don't eat.

2) Loyalty

This is the nicer way to do it, if you don't want to break them after capturing them.

Give them something to obey for. A prize, perhaps. Any sort of incentive.

Or, give them someone to worship - an idol, maybe a lover? People will do (almost) anything for the people they love...

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    $\begingroup$ Disturbing enough to work... $\endgroup$ – Others May 21 '15 at 2:18
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    $\begingroup$ Along these lines, you may be able to get some extra inspiration, for both fear and loyalty, from bcotb.com/…, e.g. positive punishment: "if you disobey, your child will be killed", negative reinforcement: "this magic necklace of pain [or whatever] will hurt you until you obey", negative punishment: "you will be given food as long as you remain loyal" etc. (the prize example is positive reinforcement). Essentially the ideas here are various extreme forms of positive/negative punishment/reinforcement. $\endgroup$ – Jason C May 21 '15 at 15:13

DJMethaneMan was IMHO on the right track. These mages would essentially be similar to slave soldiers such as Janissaries or Mamluks. So recruit young, strict discipline etc. And yes, the methods are not really that different from those use by any other military. Discipline is discipline. The difference is that it would encompass the entire life from early on to the grave.

But those wikipedia links should give you some ideas.

  • $\begingroup$ yes, and such slaves will degenerate in few generations, exactly like Janissaries or Mamluks did. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. May 21 '15 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar Yes, such institution gives the "slaves" vastly increased importance and influence. This fundamentally changes their relationship with society and place in it. This requires the system to be adjusted to match. Otherwise corruption is inevitable. And this would repeat every generation. I doubt there is a fundamental reason preventing the system from keeping up with the change, but it is unlikely in practice. So corruption of the system is very probable. This is not dependent on the particular solution adopted, I think. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi May 21 '15 at 16:20

My father was in the USMC and they screamed and exercised his defiance out of him. If he didn't exercise and obey he got beat up (it was in the late 60's) and screamed at until he did. After a while he mindlessly obeyed without question. Run your future slaves through some sort of boot camp where those who don't make it get executed. Break their will this way and build them back up to live to serve you.

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    $\begingroup$ The boot camp process doesn't work on everyone; certainly not to the point of turning them into mindless automata or completely loyal followers. For many of us, it wasn't a matter of will-breaking, but of learning to go along with situational constraints. Remove the constraints, and the behavior changes. Besides, in those days most if not all Marines were volunteers. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 20 '15 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ The training conditioning could definitely serve as a source of inspiration. And so could incarceration. One of my issues is with home the captive mages are to be housed. In small cell like rooms, the isolation used to help to break them. Or in massive uniform barracks, the communal deprives the individual of privacy and to a degree individuality. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus May 21 '15 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus I would suggest using individualized cells....they are likely being "conditioned" against their will. Separating them until they are "conditioned" will limit their ability to plot against you before they lose their minds. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat May 22 '15 at 12:48

You mentioned the Wheel of Time in your question with the Sul'Dam. However, there is another epic fantasy series called Sword of Truth. In this series, there are 3 main ways to make mages (and others) into obedient slaves.

The first method is through the torture of a Mord'Sith. A Mord'Sith is a once kind woman who was tortured until she is broken. She has the capability of turning someone's magic against them, and basically tortures the person until they're their slave.

The second way is through a Rada'Han. this has a very similar nature to the a'dam the Seanchan Sul'Dam use to enslave their damane.

The final way is through the mind control of a Dream Walker. A Dream Walker can slip in through the cracks in a person's mind and stay there, basically controlling their mind.

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    $\begingroup$ The supernatural side of things is that the captives' minds are being subjected to corrosive-whispers. that slowly but surely indoctrinate them into servitude. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus May 21 '15 at 12:53

I am not sure what you mean by mundane. But the "easiest" to break someone is physical or psychological torture (clockwork orange, full metal jacket or game of thrones come to mind). But that is not insidious at all.

As Aify mentioned you could play with love. Find someone/something each will fall in love with and they can be controlled. How many real-life fiction events prove that power. However, when there are too many Mages to subdue, that might be difficult. Furthermore, your control is only as strong as the loyalty of the object of the love. Typically if one Mage is in love with a woman loyal to you, everything is fine. If the loyalty of that woman flickers, you loose the Mage.

One efficient way, often used in fiction as well is simply drug. You drug them surreptitiously. If the drug is rare enough, they will have to be dependent on you to provide further. Now that would be a long-term plan. However fear/love/promises of price could work for the time the drug effect to kick in.

As an illustration, you can look at the myth about the Sect of the Assassin. The story goes that the leader, the "Old Man in the Mountain" was capturing some young people, bring them to their "secret" society, where they had everything: women, alcool, etc. and hashish. Then they were sent out and had to fulfill obligations for the Sect for hope of coming back to Alamut. Meanwhile the drug kept them in control. In reality, the use of hashish and its etymology with assassin is probably untrue, and most likely linked to a misunderstanding of European in the region.

  • $\begingroup$ Nicely done. I was going to mention the drugging option myself but you covered it well... $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky May 21 '15 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ By mundane i meant not a product of magic. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus May 21 '15 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, so my answer fits. I still like the drug thing. It could also complement the "cult" described by @teppies $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin May 21 '15 at 19:28

Have a lobotomy be part of the mundane training. That is a rather drastic brain surgery, which is surprisingly "easy" to perform. All you need is a chair with a clamp to really fix someone's head, a T-shaped spike with a small blade at the long end of the T and a hammer to drive the spike through the skull bone behind the patient's (i.e. victim's) eyes. Each side of the brain will be treated separately by cutting at defined depths and angles. There's no worry about damaging the brain because that's the sole reason to do this.

Medieval tech should allow this. Medieval knowledge does clearly not. But you got magic in your story, surely this helps figuring out how the human body works.

The long-term effect of a lobotomy is that the patient (read: victim) will never be agitated again. He or she is emotion- and partially mindless. The patient is conscious during the procedure and is asked to solve algorithmic problems. As soon as he has problems with that the procedure is deemed a success. The problems will decrease, when the brain tries to repair itself but some things may need to be learned again. However the part of the brain that controls emotions like anger, ambition and stuff that's usually driving a person is more or less irreparable. The only other short-term effect is that the victim looks, as if he had been punched brutally on both eyes.

Before you ask: No, I'm not making this up. The real-world inventor was driving through the USA in what he called the lobo-mobile performing this stuff multiple times a day. You can read about it on Wikipedia:


BTW. John F. Kennedy's sister is supposed to had this done to her before disappearing from public attention. If the rumor is true, the idea was to control her lifestyle unfitting to the Kennedy's public status, i.e. she was meeting too many boys at a too young age.

Humans look like a sad species, if you know what they do to each other.


Everyone can be broken, have no doubt. I would say to find something personal to hold against them. Some kind of "lock" that keeps them in line at all times before they're broken, and remind them that you hold the key.

Depending on the source of magic for your WIP (either personal power, or naturally occurring pockets to tap into), you could sap their power from them and turn it against them to break them. Brainwash them in the process, showing them that the way they use it is wrong, and your method is right.

  • $\begingroup$ The supernatural side of things is that the captives' minds are being subjected to corrosive-whispers. that slowly but surely indoctrinate them into servitude. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus May 21 '15 at 13:06

Sharing information and social representations are powerful tools to control people. You can think about how our opinions and emotions are shaped by mass media. Sharing responsibility and mass psychology are also interesting dynamics (see Bandura's works and classical social psychology, think about fascism, and how it was simple to venerate a dictator in a huge square crowded of people). Remember that everyone can be turned into a behavioral and cognitive circle, that nourish itself, after a single moment of moral weakness, fear or incertitude can turn to the mainstream!


Since you mention Wheel of Time... (spoilers about one of the Forsaken)

Graendal, one of the Forsaken, was a master of Compulsion. This weave ("magic") created an urge in the target to please the person who casted it.

While it was possible to cast it very strongly on a person, this usually caused mental damage. So it was best to cast a light version of it if you wanted a long-term servant.

Graendal used compulsion and would also stimulate the areas of the brain which cause pleasure or pain. This combination would get people to do anything for her.

In the same vein of thought as the Sul-dam, you could have a collar or other object which casts a similar enchantment on whoever is wearing it.

Perhaps all mages are required to wear that "mark", as a symbol of their being a mage. Anyone wearing the mark is enchanted to want to please your God-Empress.


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