D&D 5e: Compelled Duel Issues 2


A couple of months ago, cherished reader Jonathan McGee asked me for my thoughts on the 1st-level spell compelled duel. At the time, my answer could be summed up as, “I’m not sure I’ve thought about it at all,” so I told him I would give it some work when I could. Well folks, today’s that day.

Some Background

Compelled duel is the only straight-up paladin tanking spell. It’s as much of a nod as we get back to the 4e paladin’s Divine Challenge feature and the 3.5e Knight’s Challenge feature of the knight class. The concept is clear: the honorable warrior challenges enemies to honorable, personal combat as a means of focusing attacks on themselves rather than their allies.

  • How does a dishonorable enemy or one who can’t even comprehend honor (such as a beast) intersect with that?
  • Who is constrained by the terms of honor, and how?
  • What does violating the terms of honor do?

I don’t want to get too far into the weeds of discussing tanking mechanics from previous editions; what you need to know in brief is 4e’s Divine Challenge marked the target and inflicted automatic damage if the marked creature made an attack (in 4e, this includes casting a spell) that didn’t include the paladin as a target, and the feature ignored the mental capacity of the target. A creature currently under a divine challenge was immune to other divine challenges. By default, the paladin could only challenge one creature at a time, but limited-use features could challenge additional targets for at least a short time. In this way, paladins were excellent single-target tanks but underwhelming for tanking larger groups.

Compelled Duel
1st-level enchantment

Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

Setting the spell at 1st level is good for anything that wants to be a class’s bread and butter. That Concentration duration is a bad problem. It means this spell is competing with a lot of the other paladin spells, especially anything with “smite” in the name, or Vengeance paladins with hunter’s mark. Also, um, the point of this spell is to make someone come beat you up instead of anyone else, so they can just stab their way out of this spell – especially if you don’t have a great Con score. Concentration durations are brutal for melee spellcasters, and put excessive priority on War Caster.

You attempt to compel a creature into a duel. One creature that you can see within range must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, the creature is drawn to you, compelled by your divine demand. For the duration, it has disadvantage on attack rolls against creatures other than you, and must make a Wisdom saving throw each time it attempts to move to a space that is more than 30 feet away from you; if it succeeds on this saving throw, this spell doesn’t restrict the target’s movement for that turn.

There’s a lot going on here. First: a successful Wisdom save negates. That’s rough, considering that it’s a rare paladin that gets up to an 18 or 20 Cha, or even a 16 in the early game. The paragraph contains two separate saving throw situations: one for initial casting, and another for ongoing effect. This is framed a bit confusingly in the text, since we’re used to On Fail followed by On Success – but here On Fail applies to initial casting, while On Success applies to the ongoing effect.

The ongoing effect comes in two separate parts. First, disadvantage on attack rolls against creature other than you, which is exactly what you’d expect from 5e pseudo-marking – but it leaves out times when the target forces a saving throw. In 5e parlance, some spells are attacks because they use a spell attack roll mechanic, while others are not attacks because they use a saving throw mechanic. This is a weird arbitrary thing, but it’s insanely important. So don’t bother using this on any primary spellcaster except a warlock, because warlock is the only class that uses spell attacks as their main mechanic.

The second effect is that the creature has a make a Wisdom save to move more than 30 feet away from you. Stopping enemies from fleeing is good, but if it does get away, you have to close the distance again on your turn, or the spell ends (see below). I’m not 100% sure how you’re supposed to parse this: imagine a situation where the target is already at 30 feet away. It tries to move one space, fails its save, and doesn’t move. Has it used 5 feet of movement? All of its movement? Can it try again this turn by spending another 5 feet of movement and rolling another save?

The spell ends if you attack any other creature, if you cast a spell that targets a hostile creature other than the target, if a creature friendly to you damages the target or casts a harmful spell on it, or if you end your turn more than 30 feet away from the target.

Now we get to the much bigger problems with the spell. This spell restricts your side as much or more than it restricts the enemy. The target has disadvantage to attack creatures other than you? Well, you lose the spell completely if you attack or cast spells on creatures other than the target. The spell places no restrictions on your target’s allies, who can do their level best to kick the crap out of the paladin. (In fairness, this is the paladin’s job.) But you also lose the spell if any of your allies damage or cast a hostile spell on the target. The bad guy might miss, but no one else wants to attack them at all? Christ, you’re doing them a favor.

Alternatives

There’s got to be something better than this, if it’s competing for a spell slot against +2d8 radiant damage that is guaranteed to land because you don’t declare it until after the hit, or healing 1d8 + Cha. Personally, I’d like to re-explore the damage splash of Divine Challenge, but I’ll offer a bunch of options because I’m not currently in a place to playtest it myself.

  1. For the minimum change: Your concentration on this spell isn’t disrupted by damage from the spell’s target. When the target deals damage to a creature and it hasn’t dealt damage to you this round or with this attack or effect, that damage is halved. (This makes the spell do something useful against fireballs.)
  2. Remove the Concentration requirement from the duration, and when the target deals damage to a creature other than you, you gain advantage on the first attack roll you make against it before the end of your next turn.
  3. Remove the Concentration requirement from the duration, when the target deals damage to a creature other than you, it suffers 1d6 + your spellcasting ability modifier radiant damage. (If I used this, I’d tack on an At Higher Levels clause to inflate this at 1d6 per slot level above 1st.)

I assume that playtesting showed that applying a lot of restrictions on the NPC’s behavior was excessively frustrating for DMs, who now had to manage a new set of limitations for one NPC among many in an encounter. Maybe there’s some design space for creatures to voluntarily submit to the honor duel and receive alternative effects. What we really want is a way for Sturm to call out Kitiara or Lord Soth, right?

I think the attempt to keep an enemy from fleeing is the least important element here. The false knight fleeing in ignominy is a correct narrative element. At the same time, “everyone has sanctuary from you” also isn’t it. I don’t mind at all if the spell becomes language-dependent, or doesn’t work on a creature that doesn’t understand any language. A compelled duel with a wolf or ooze doesn’t fit what I think the spell’s concept is.

I’d probably change the name from compelled duel to honor duel, because the narrative of mind-controlling someone into fighting only you is incredibly ugly for paladins without some kind of more explicit honor component. We want this to be beneficial to the paladin and their party, but without veering into looking like licensed bullying (which is the one good part about the spell stopping your allies from attacking the target.

My personal preference, then:

Honor Duel
1st-level enchantment

Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V
Duration: 1 minute

You attempt to compel a creature into a duel. One creature that you can see within range must make a Charisma saving throw. A creature that can’t understand a language automatically succeeds this saving throw. On a failed saving throw, the creature is drawn to you, compelled by your divine demand. For the duration, it has disadvantage on attacks against creatures other than you, and it can’t end its turn more than 30 feet from you.

The target can choose to fail this saving throw, and if it does, it immediately teleports to a space of its choice within 10 feet of you that you can see. For the duration, it has disadvantage on attacks against creature other than you, and it can’t end its turn more than 30 feet from you. Once during the duration of the spell, it can ask for quarter as an action, which you are obliged by the spell to grant; it can immediately expend a hit die and regain hit points equal to the result of that die + its Constitution modifier. It can’t attack or cast a hostile spell in the round that it asks for quarter. You can’t attack it or cast a hostile spell on it on your next turn, but you regain hit points equal to your level at the start of that turn. It must make a Wisdom saving throw each time it attempts to move to a space that is more than 30 feet away from you; if it succeeds on this saving throw, this spell doesn’t restrict the target’s movement for that turn. If it fails this saving throw, it can’t move away from you again until the start of its next turn.

If a creature friendly to you damages the target or casts a harmful spell on it, the target can roll a Wisdom saving throw. On a success, the spell ends. If you end your turn more than 60 feet away from the target, the spell ends.

(And yes, I know that the middle paragraph is just too complicated and has too many resultant effects – I just want a way to dig more into the honor theme.)


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2 thoughts on “D&D 5e: Compelled Duel Issues

  • Rob

    Come for the cogent and insightful analysis. Stay for the Dragonlance references 🙂

    I appreciate that you bake choice and trade-off into these modifications (like with your Crown of Madness rework). I’d be curious how this plays out both when PCs are casting and when they’re on the receiving end. I may have to add this as an NPC action. My players haven’t shown much interest in this spell themselves but they’re also tactically very good at tanking and haven’t needed it to keep the enemy attention on the shiny paladin.

  • Mark Lewis

    A Swashbuckler Rogue’s Panache ability is a better compelled duel than Compelled Duel. Very similar benefits, no concentration, and unlimited uses. It allows them to flee, but as you point out, that’s an acceptable (perhaps even desirable) outcome to issuing a challenge.