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Spell Duels

Spellcasters are no strangers to battle, but there’s a difference between the chaos of a huge melee, with dozens of feral monsters seeking to tear the caster limb from limb, and a more civilized duel between rivals seeking to settle a dispute. Make no mistake, these duels can be just as deadly, but the rules surrounding them make for a different style of combat—one in which both combatants can attack and defend with ease, allowing the true skill and power of each to determine the victor.

Starting a Duel

A spell duel is a form of combat, but unlike ordinary combat, the participants must all agree to willingly enter the duel and abide by its rules. If either side breaks the rules, it is considered the loser of the duel, regardless of any other outcome, and if its members continue aggressive action, the fight returns to the standard rules for combat.

The rules for a duel between spellcasters are usually very simple, but can be changed and altered by the participants, so long as both sides agree. Such discussions typically happen before the duel, allowing both sides to properly prepare, but as with all elements of a duel, this is not always the case. Most duels utilize the following simple rules.

  1. Each participant must fight alone and can receive no help from outside sources, with the exception of familiars or other bonded creatures.
  2. Each participant must fight with magic. The use of melee or ranged weapons is forbidden, with the exception of bonded objects and weapons that can cast spells, such as staves.
  3. The use of summoned or otherwise conjured creatures is forbidden, unless the duel expects such creatures to combat one another at the behest of the participants (rather than directly attacking the dueling opponent). This sort of creature duel is common among druids, summoners, and conjurers.
  4. The duel lasts until one of the casters has been knocked unconscious or otherwise prevented from continuing. Spells such as hold person do not end duels, but flesh to stone certainly does, assuming the target fails her saving throw. Some duels go to the death and are only ended when one duelist or team is a smoking pile of ash.

Duel Combat

A duel functions much like ordinary combat, with a few notable exceptions that make for a more exciting and challenging encounter. At the start of the duel, each participant makes an initiative check, just like in standard combat. Because duels are always planned and expected, there is never a surprise round. Alternatively, some duels start off with each side facing off, waiting for the other to flinch or break resolve. In such cases, substitute a Bluff, Intimidate, or Sense Motive check in place of the standard initiative check. The skill used is decided by the individual participants and is ref lective of their approach to the duel.

At the beginning of each round, the participants check the status of the duel (the GM may want to mark the beginning of each round in some way during initiative tracking as a reminder to check this status). So long as all participants agree to continue dueling, the duel goes on. If any one of the participants withdraws from the duel, the duel immediately ends for all participants, even those who want to see it continue. The participant or side that ended the duel is considered the loser of the duel. The duel’s remaining participants can, among themselves, agree to resume the duel, but this is considered a separate duel from the previous one and does not involve those who withdrew from the duel.

Each participant in a duel can act normally on her turn, but if she casts a spell, that spell must affect or target either herself or one of the other duel participants (whether this participant is an ally or an opponent). For example, a dueling mage could not cast haste on her allies and exclude herself, but she could cast it on herself and her allies. The same goes for offensive spells, such as fireball—the dueling caster must include one of her opponents in the duel among the targets of the spell, and could not affect some nearby creatures to the exclusion of her opponent.

In addition to the normal set of actions a dueling caster can perform each round, each participant in a duel may take a special counterspell action called a dueling counter, as noted below.

Dueling Counter

Each participant in a duel can take a special action once per round called a dueling counter. A dueling counter is similar to a counterspell, but is easier to use. When a dueling opponent tries to cast a spell, the targeted spellcaster can make a Spellcraft check (DC 15 + the spell’s level) as a free action. If the check succeeds, she identifies her opponent’s spell and can attempt a dueling counter. If it fails, she cannot attempt a dueling counter against that spell. A dueling counter is an immediate action that does not provoke attacks of opportunity. To attempt a dueling counter, the countering duelist must expend a spell or a spell slot of a level equal to or higher than that of the spell being cast. Note that characters who cast spells spontaneously (such as bards and sorcerers) must choose what exact spell they are using to counterspell in addition to the slot being used. The countering duelist must then make a caster level check against a DC of 15 + the spell’s caster level. Unlike when using a true counterspell action (which requires a readied action), even expending an exact copy of the spell being cast does not guarantee success. The caster attempting the counterspell receives a bonus or penalty on her check depending upon the level of the spell slot expended and the exact spell used, as noted in Table: Dueling Counter Modifiers. If the check is successful, the spell is countered—it is negated and the spell is lost. If not, the spell happens as normal and the duelist attempting to counter the spell takes a –2 penalty on any saving throws made against the spell’s effect.

Alternatively, a spellcaster can use dispel magic or greater dispel magic as a dueling counter. When a dueling spellcaster does so, she does not need to identify the spell being cast, can counter a spell of any level, and must succeed at a caster level check against a DC of 11 + the spell’s caster level. When dispel magic is used as a dueling counter, it is not modified by any of the circumstances in Table: Dueling Counter Modifiers.

Because readying to counterspell is its own action, a participant can choose to ready to counterspell and make a dueling counter in the same round. This is only useful if the participant is facing multiple opponents or someone with access to Quickened Spell or other abilities that allow casting two spells in the same round.

Table: Dueling Counter Modifiers

Circumstance Check Modifier
Spell is of a different school –2
Spell is of the same school, but not the same spell +2
Spell is of a higher level than the spell being countered +1 per level higher
Spell is the same as the spell being countered +10

Duel Results

While duels can be treated as another form of combat, they are usually done to resolve a dispute between colleagues or rivals and are not usually intended to end in death. As a result, duels are usually fought with a specific prize in mind. Arcane academies are known for having duels to assign important faculty positions and as competitions between students for valuable prizes. In some places, magical duels of this kind are so common that special areas are constructed specifically for duels. Such dueling yards are sometimes made with special magic that can be activated for dueling competitions, converting all damage to non-lethal damage and preventing or reversing magic that instantly slays a foe or does permanent harm. That is not to say that accidents don’t happen, and more than one student has lost a limb or even her life while on such “safe” fields.

Regardless of the conditions, most duels are serious affairs, with each side putting pride, honor, treasure, and even their lives on the line to win the day. While villains might try to cheat the rules and exploit every advantage, the more noble duelist sees the competition as a chance to prove her superiority and skill on the field of battle, using only her magic and wits. Mastering Magic

Section 15: Copyright Notice

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Ultimate Magic. © 2011, Paizo Publishing, LLC; Authors: Jason Bulmahn, Tim Hitchcock, Colin McComb, Rob McCreary, Jason Nelson, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Sean K Reynolds, Owen K.C. Stephens, and Russ Taylor.