Combat is central to all role-playing games but, particularly in fantasy ones, there is scope for more formal contests chief amongst which is the duel. This product is designed to empower the duel as something more than just using your chosen system's combat rules in a one-on-one combat between individuals who have role-played their way into a situation that can only be resolved by a fight.
Primarily designed for D20 Dungeons & Dragons, and with appropriate variant rules for HackMaster highlighted, the flavour text at the very least can be used whatever game mechanic you have chosen. It's a fascinating collection of material that will enhance the 'alternate reality' of any fantasy society where carrying weapons is common, and giving offence may easily cause them to be drawn and used.
The first chapter deals with the concept of duelling, describing some of the circumstances that might lead characters to challenge someone else to fight one - or be challenged in their turn. It also looks at the common forms that a duel might take, both physically (on foot, ranged combat, on horseback, a duel of wits and so on) and in terms of the parameters that can be set (to the death, to first blood, restrictions on magic use, etc.). The issue of legality is briefly touched on, as is the attitude of different races towards duelling as a concept. It might have been interesting to hear how some of the common character classes view it - a mage might have a different opinion from even a sorcerer, while someone who lives by the sword would probably think nothing of using combat to resolve a difference of opinion!
Next comes a chapter of 'tools of the trade' - weapons commonly used for duelling in Kenzer's Kingdoms of Kalamar setting. If your game is set elsewhere, the weapons are still useful although you might want to amend the background to blend them with your own campaign world. One fascinating example is the duelling belt, a wide tough leather belt popular amongst quarrelsome folks which can be removed and wrapped around the off hand as an improvised buckler or swung loosely to attempt to trap your opponent's weapon. For fashionable ladies, there's an armoured corset so you can retain your figure and be protected all at once! There are some useful feats for the D&D players, which will enhance your close combat skill irrespective of whether or not you engage in duelling, as well as ideas on how to use other skills to good advantage (if these appeal, try reading the Combat Zones section of Mastering Iron Heroes which has plenty more ideas in this style!). Here you will also find some notes on spells that are useful before or during a duel (if the rules permit...) including new spells such as Create Obstacle (under your opponent's feet, one assumes) or Vanishing Armour - which renders armour invisible although it is still there and protecting the wearer. Hmmm. One could have fun with that!
Chapter 3 looks at fighting styles. These are used to give the character the ability to specialise and focus on a particular way of fighting over and above a specialism in a given weapon - much as a martial artist may study judo or karate or la savate. If you are using the D&D ruleset, this is done by taking appropriate feats; while HackMaster players spend building points to develop the desired style. Basic styles reflect whether you use one or two weapons, or a two-handed one, or add a shield; while the advanced styles include mixtures of movement and weapon use, or enhanced defensive use of a shield. Alas, we still don't have anyone offering rules for the offensive use of a shield - if you have ever been bashed in the face by a shield-user in combat you will know how well a shield can be used as a weapon as well as something to protect yourself with! That aside, it is a fascinate way for those who want to develop specialised fighting skills to train in something quite different from what the next fighter is doing. No doubt schools and specialist trainers will soon arise in any campaign world where these rules are adopted.
Next is Chapter 4: Prestige Classes. Aimed primarily at the D&D player (seeing as HackMaster doesn't have 'prestige classes' per se), here are a range of combat-oriented options which will allow a character who qualifies to develop mighty specialisms in the direction of his choice, from a Dwarf Axemaster to an Ultimate Archer, with a few unarmed and less-specific ones as well. Each is presented with not just the necessary notes to develop a character down that path but details of how an NPC of that class can be used to advantage as well, a nice touch.
For HackMaster players, the same range of options are presented as 'packages' which may be taken during character generation for a given building point cost.
Chapter 5 presents three duelling societies, which can be used as presented or as a basis for designing your own. Characters may aspire to join, or may encounter them as patrons, allies or foes during the course of their adventures. These societies are quite comprehensive organisations, combining such areas as training facilities and a lively social life, and can be regarded as a club like the sort you'd visit based on the sport you play or another hobby that interests you. The details presented include admission policy, training costs, likely location in a campaign world, services available and some prominent personalities; as well as an indication of the role the society might play in your campaign.
Appendix A contains 'Notes for the Dungeon Master' and gives some ideas for incorporating a duelling culture into your game, as well as how to actually administer the details of an individual duel when it comes to pass... even a few ideas of how to cope with potential boredom amongst those players who are not duelling when one of them is busy dealing with a challenge. There are some sample duel encounters to get you started at running duels, any of which could lead to a fair bit of adventure.
Finally, Appendix B presents a collection of duellist NPCs so that when you decide that a duel is appropriate suitable opposition can be found. Statistics are in D&D format only, but the overall style and flavour of each NPC could be used as a basis to build a HackMaster character.
Overall, this is a good example of a niche book looking at one specific activity within the alternate reality of your game - and it's a good one, with potential to add a lot of flavour and interest, and cinematic adventure.
Return to By The Sword: Duelling in Realms of Fantasy page.
Reviewed: 10 September 2006