From Complete Arcane
Whether their adventuring sees them engaged in courtly intrigue, plundering ancient crypts, or battling monstrous foes in underground ruins, all arcanists eventually return home. Away from dungeons, caverns, and the far planes of the cosmos, a spellcaster can rest, conferring with her peers as she absorbs the lessons learned from her adventures and begins to plan for the next one. But even within the reasonably safe confines of a mighty city or strong-walled town, arcane adventure always beckons. Rival factions or guilds of spellcasters plot or scheme against each other, sworn enemies seek opportunities to foil an adventurer's plans or steal her treasures and knowledge, and great tournaments and fairs offer the opportunity for prizes and glory in the public eye.
Few events are as spectacular or terrifying as a formal duel between two powerful arcane spellcasters. Even though arcanists frequently come up against each other in the course of adventuring, the chaos of the dungeon or the battlefield often makes an accurate measure of skill impossible. In this highest test of arcane ability, a single mage meets another mage in a ritual spell duel that observes ancient and honorable forms.
At its basic level, a spell duel is an agreement between two spellcasters who know that conflict between them is inevitable, and who wish to inject a kind of formality into what might otherwise escalate into a destructive brawl. No magic enforces the format of the duel except for what the duelists allow, and dishonorable spellcasters can and do break the rules. Once a caster gets a reputation for not honoring the rules of the spell duel, though, he generally can't expect his opponents to feel constrained by them either.
Spell duels are usually a feature of sophisticated and magic-rich cultures, representative of an effort to control random magical violence. Savage or evil cultures rarely bother to observe the niceties of the spell duel tradition, and rival sorcerers in an orc tribe are generally too eager to begin blasting at each other to worry about the details of formal challenge and round-by-round protocol.
The Formal Duel
A proper spell duel follows a precise sequence of events, beginning with a challenge made and accepted. In the case of a weak spellcaster challenged by a powerful one, little dishonor is attached to a refusal; powerful wizards who make a point of challenging mere apprentices often find that the scorn they're eventually shackled with far outweighs the satisfaction of their easy victories. Any powerful spellcaster is free to defend her honor against a challenge from any other party, though, even a much less powerful mage. As such, professional spell duelists often bait intended victims into making the challenge, leaving them with no way to escape dishonor or death without contravening the dueling tradition.
Once a challenge is made and accepted, the two duelists must agree on a place and time, as well as on whether the duel will be sanctioned for lethal or nonlethal rules. In many magical societies, these negotiations are handled by seconds - allies or agents of the dueling parties who attend to the necessary details and later witness the duel. Local laws or customs might require the duelists to wait a certain amount of time before their duel, submitting their differences to an arbitrator first in the hope of finding a peaceful solution, or waiting while a neutral official is appointed to preside over the match.
The choice of dueling ground is traditionally the prerogative of the challenged party, though it's expected that the appointed spot should be reasonably neutral and accessible to each side and any presiding officials. Due to the threat of collateral damage, many cities have ordinances against dueling in the streets, requiring spell duels to be fought in specific places - open parks with few buildings nearby, fields outside the city walls, or in the dungeons of the local wizards guild. Powerful wizards sometimes choose dueling grounds that are as potentially hazardous as anything the duel itself might unleash, such as on Avernus (first layer of the Nine Hells), or amid the raging flames of the Elemental Plane of Fire.
On the day of the duel, both combatants follow specific procedures:
- Both parties arrive on the field 1 hour before the appointed time. Neither party is permitted to cast any spell or use any magic item until the time of the duel.
- In a nonlethal duel (see below), each duelist is given a visual and magical inspection by the official, the seconds, or the other duelist to ensure that no prohibited magic items or spell effects are present.
- At the appointed hour, the official gives some sign (often a magical effect) that the duel has begun. Roll initiative.
- First round: Cast any spell that can be cast so as to affect only the caster.
- Second round: Ready an action to counterspell.
- Third round: Begin dueling.
The duel ends when one of the combatants yields, is knocked unconscious, or is otherwise unable to continue dueling (such as by succumbing to a successful dominate person spell). By custom, the dueling parties cannot make any magical preparations within 1 hour of the duel's start, but spells that last longer than 1 hour can be cast before the duelist enters the chosen site. Sometimes mages have been known to cheat by showing up only minutes before the duel (and after casting as many defensive spells on themselves as possible). An opponent is usually within his rights to insist that the duel not commence until 1 hour after the late arrival of the second party, but rash or confident mages sometimes decline to do so, unwilling to appear fearful of their opponent's preparations.
When the duel proper begins, the dueling parties use the first round to prepare themselves, usually by casting a defensive spell. The second round is a customary pause as both parties ready themselves for each other's next move. In the third round, the spells start flying. Because both parties have readied counterspell actions, whoever wins initiative can't gain an advantage that his opponent has no chance to counter. Duelists follow this procedure voluntarily only in adherence to ancient custom, and disreputable mages have sometimes been known to let fly with lightning bolts or vicious curses before their opponents are ready. Any duelist so attacked within the first two rounds is free to reply in kind with no loss of honor (as are his seconds, if the duelist is slain by such treachery).
In some dueling traditions, the official declares mandatory pauses in the action (usually a 1-round break after 3 full rounds have passed), providing both combatants an opportunity to tend to their defenses again or ready another counterspell action. Dismissible spell effects (whether on the duelist or his opponent) are expected to be dismissed by each combatant, and other ongoing effects are dispelled by the official, who is charged with having access to sufficient uses of dispel magic to allow him to maintain ultimate control of the duelists' spells. Many officials come prepared with wands or scrolls of dispel magic or greater dispel magic (for higher-level duels), paid for by the duelists themselves. Summoned monsters that can be communicated with are expected to be ordered to observe the pause in action, but officials have been known to expend significant dispelling power dealing with creatures that fail to follow their summoning casters commands to stand down.
Generally, any and all magic items are legal in a spell duel (within agreed-upon restrictions; see lethal and Nonlethal Duels, below). Fisticuffs, swordplay, and non-arcane spellcasting are also legal, for that matter, but few self-respecting mages resort to casting divine magic or brawling like drunken orcs as long as any spell remains in their arcane arsenal.
Lethal and Nonlethal Duels
A lethal spell duel is just what the name implies - anything goes. All spells cast function exactly as normal, and any contestant without a defense against disintegrate should have thought twice before accepting a high-level transmuter's challenge in the first place.
A nonlethal spell duel is generally designed to allow both parties to demonstrate their skill, or to satisfy a demand for honor that doesn't have life-or-death stakes. In a nonlethal duel, contestants generally agree to the following conditions.
- Death effects are forbidden, including effects that entail a serious risk of killing or permanently incapacitating the opponent outright, such as disintegrate or internal fire
- Spells with any energy descriptor, the force descriptor, or the shadow descriptor are voluntarily "pulled," dealing half normal damage.
- Spells that require melee attack rolls can strike to subdue within the specific formal conventions of the spell duel, taking a -4 penalty on attack rolls but dealing nonlethal damage instead of normal damage.
- Summoned creatures must be directed to strike to subdue, taking a -4 penalty on attack rolls but dealing nonlethal damage against an opposing duelist (though summoned creatures are free to fight other summoned creatures to the best of their abilities). As such, a caster in a nonlethal duel cannot summon creatures that he cannot communicate with or control.
- Spells that create an incapacitating condition (sleep, for example) are voluntarily dismissed or dispelled by an official after one combatant has been rendered unable to continue, resulting in a loss for that combatant. Spells that incapacitate but allow a save each round (such as hold person) are allowed to persist, potentially giving one caster a severe advantage as he pummels his opponent with spell after spell.
Naturally, characters who know the Nonlethal Substitution feat enjoy a significant advantage in nonlethal spell duels, since they need not reduce energy damage by half or take penalties on their spells' melee attack rolls.
Even under rigorous guidelines, nonlethal spell duels are not always safe - more than a few mages have died from injuries inflicted by a careless (or surprisingly lucky) foe. In particular, pulling damage and attacking to deal nonlethal damage while casting spells is difficult; for each such spell cast in a nonlethal duel, the DM rolls d% secretly, with a result of 1 indicating that some unexpected movement or action of the target caused the spell to deal full damage or lethal damage as applicable.
The restrictions of a nonlethal spell duel are voluntarily observed by each participant; nothing can stop a dishonorable or desperate duelist from abandoning observation of the nonlethal forms at any point during the proceedings. Intentionally casting spells for full effect during a nonlethal duel is regarded as poor form at best, though, and once one duelist abandons the nonlethal restrictions, the other is free to escalate as well (with no besmirching of her own honor).
Mages sometimes gather to test their skills in much the same way that knights and warriors meet to test themselves in contests of archery, jousting, or single combat. A tournament arcane is a great fair, festival, and bazaar that frequently causes all work in its host city to stop for a week or more, while both the highborn and the common folk flock to watch contests of magical might.
The Spire Perilous
The origin of this competition and the stories of its first appearances in tournaments arcane are lost to history, but the spire perilous remains a perennial crowd favorite. A brightly colored banner is fixed atop a high mast on the top of a tall tower (often a turret of a nearby castle or the bell tower of a local church), and all participating mages line up on the ground at the tower's base with one simple objective - without setting foot inside the tower, be the first to return the banner to the ground by any means. Tactics range from the obvious (fly, levitate, or spider climb to scale the walls) to the forceful (simply grabbing the prize with telekinesis) to the grandiose (summoning a force of air elementals to retrieve the banner and fight off any casters threatening to do the same). Teleporting to the top of the tower is specifically prohibited in many versions of the challenge, and all contestants must begin with no functioning spell effects (though in some cases, persistent spells such as a contingent feather fall might be approved by the presiding judge).
In most tournaments, overcoming the spire perilous is complicated by some formidable obstacle (a guardian for the banner, a nonlethal trap, or a spectacular barrier such as wall of fire). The real excitement, though, stems from the contestants quickly turning their magic on each other in an effort to prevent the competition from reaching the banner. Specifically lethal spells are discouraged or banned outright according to the rules of the competition, but questionable curses or dispels that just happen to place a rival in danger (such as causing a fly spell to fail when its beneficiary is a hundred feet in the air) are fine.
The Grand Illusion
Another of the most popular arcane challenges is the contest of the grand illusion. Wielding powerful illusion spells, mages create the most spectacular or fanciful images they can imagine, ranging from the mundane (flattering portraits of noble ladies) to the epic (living recreations of great battles) to the impossible (great golden trees whose butterfly blooms leave faint gleams of faerie light in their wake).
Contests of grand illusion are judged on the size, sophistication, fidelity, and imagination of each contestant's entry. Master illusionists can become renowned throughout an entire kingdom for a single spectacular display, with the promise to perform even the simplest spells garnering the winner invitations to any banquet or ball in the land for years afterward.
The Wizard's Menagerie
Arcane spellcasters are often associated with strange and wondrous beasts from all corners of the world (and sometimes beyond it), and a display of large and exotic menageries is another popular event during a tournament arcane. An arcanist wins great prestige for presenting the most outlandish and improbable collection of creatures. Menageries may be judged against each other in a formal review or simply displayed to public acclaim. Naturally, the master of the menagerie is expected to take steps to ensure the safety of all onlookers.
When formally adjudicated, collections are judged not only on the number of individual creatures but also on their rarity, appearance, and abilities. large, unique, and visually striking specimens are regarded most highly. Anyone can catch a monstrous spider and present the foul creature for display, after all, but only the most skillful and daring wizards would presume to cage a bulette or an adult dragon.
In an evil or particularly bloodthirsty society, a wizard's menagerie might serve as a stable from which the owner draws beasts and slaves for combat in gladiatorial contests against the menageries of other wizards. Gambling on such contests runs at a fever pace, and the wizard whose pets emerge triumphant from the bloody duels often claims a huge purse as his reward.
The single most iconic event of a tournament arcane is the dweomerlist, a test of arcane skill and combative mettle between mages. A dweomerlist is an open contest in which all competing mages are paired against randomly chosen opponents for battle in nonlethal spell duels, to the delight and amazement of all onlookers. Dweomerlists are particularly common in feudal magocracies, lands in which the mage's strength is an emblem of her right to govern and her readiness to serve her lord.
A dweomerlist is often structured in several tiers of competition so apprentices and archmages don't face off against each other. The format of the contest is usually a double-elimination tournament with multiple rounds. While most dweomerlists restrict or forbid lethal spells, death and injury are not unheard of. A few notorious mages have gained reputations, in fact, for unwarranted savagery in their tournament duels.
Dweomerlists are often seen by competitors and spectators alike as opportunities for fame and advancement, and ambitious mages seeking wealthy or noble patrons often enter as a means of demonstrating their skills to prospective lords. In some kingdoms, a great dweomerlist is held every few years to decide who will be appointed Archmage, Royal Wizard, High Spellguard, or to some similar post. In other lands, dweomerlists are regarded as outdated and fatuous affectations, empty of any significance other than determining arcane bragging rights.
It Just Got Away From Me
Knowing that any intentionally pulled or nonlethal melee attack spell has a random chance of dealing full lethal damage, duplicitous spellcasters sometimes attempt to deceive their opponent and any witnesses as to their efforts to keep a duel nonlethal. The duelist can attempt a Bluff check immediately prior to casting a spell for full lethal damage, and the opponent and any witnesses are entitled to Sense Motive checks (with a bonus equal to the level of the spell the duelist intends to cast) to see through the ruse. If the Bluff check is successful (and the spell deals damage successfully), it appears that the caster tried to pull or deal non-lethal damage with the spell he cast, but failed to do so because of an unforeseen movement on the part of his foe.
In the case of duels involving two player characters, the DM can ask for the intention to deceive to be relayed clandestinely. The DM then rolls the Bluff and Sense Motive checks secretly so that a character who suddenly finds herself blasted by a spell's full power won't automatically know whether the damage was intentional or whether the other character's spell simply became lethal accidentally.
It's also possible to run this bluff in reverse when an arcanist wants to conceal that he is trying not to kill his foe (useful in duels when a high-level spellcaster wants to teach a talented upstart a lesson but doesn't want to run the risk of killing him). This tactic is only effective when pulling the damage from energy spells (since taking nonlethal damage in a supposedly lethal duel is an obvious giveaway to the opponent).
Whose Illusion Was Best?
To determine the winning effort in a grand illusion contest, assign each entry an artistic value equal to the contestant's caster level + the spell level of the illusion (figment) spell used + the result of a Spellcraft check + the result of a suitable artistic skill check +1 for Spell Focus (illusion) or +2 for Greater Spell Focus (illusion). Suitable artistic skills include Craft (painting), Craft (sculpting), Perform for compositions with auditory components, or other skills as determined by the DM.
For example, Seras, a 10th-level illusionist with the Spell Focus (illusion) feat, is participating in a grand illusion contest. He uses persistent image (5th level) to recreate a famous dragon slaying. He gets a result of 29 on his Spellcraft check and a 13 on his Craft (painting) check, so the value of the illusion is 10 + 5 + 29 + 13 + 1, or 58.
His rival Therea is a 13th-level sorcerer who also has Spell Focus (illusion). She uses major image (3rd level) to create a fanciful scene of winged mice dancing with fairies, accompanied by a lively tune. She gets a 24 on her Spellcraft check and a 19 on her Perform (string instruments) check. The value of her illusion is thus 13 + 3 + 24 + 19 + 1, or 60, and Therea is declared the winner.
The numeric value is simply an abstract measurement of how impressive and artistically rendered the illusion was from the perspective of a neutral observer. Since grand illusion judges are rarely neutral, though, hometown wizards often enjoy a significant advantage over their rivals. The DM may decide to simulate this advantage by giving the hometown hero an additional bonus of +1 to +5.