Samurai duels are an important part of any Japanese themed campaign, and I'm looking for a good method to run such duels in my own campaign.

Ideally, such a system should include:

  1. Pre-duel phase: both duellists size each other up, determine the best stance and wait for the best time to attack. This mental preparation could possibly include Will saves to remain cool and not attack prematurely, or Sense Motive checks, as described in Ultimate Combat.
  2. Attack phase: this is the actual duel, made up a combination of three basic forms of attack.

Forms of attack (based, I think, off Musashi's "Book of 5 Rings"):

  1. Attack: A direct attack to kill the enemy. Attacks will generally target unprotected areas, with common targets being the head, wrists, abdomen, and throat.
  2. Defence: A move to stop an enemies attack. Defensive moves will aim to turn the enemies weapon aside and keep the defender protected.
  3. Counter Attack: A move where the purpose is to turn the attack from the opponent into an attack against them. A common counter might be to force the opponents attack to slide off your sword and thus opening then up to your counter.

Samurai duels were, historically, often deadly for both contestants, and I'd like a way to simulate this too. I haven't used the duelling rules in Ultimate Combat, so I'd like to hear from you if have. Did you use them for a samurai duel? Did you modify the rules at all?

  • \$\begingroup\$ How important are these duels to your game? Are you ok with house rules, or suggestions for alternate systems entirely? \$\endgroup\$ May 18, 2014 at 12:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm planning to sell the campaign and I'd like to offer alternative rules for duels as part of a source book. So, if the rules work well, I think they would be very important and a useful way to give characters spotlight at key moments in the campaign. I'd love to hear whatever people have to say though. \$\endgroup\$ May 18, 2014 at 13:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think there's any sane way to do such a thing with the d20-system. I'd just change the system altogether. I might elaborate into an answer if nobody else does. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    May 18, 2014 at 15:56

1 Answer 1


In D&D 3.0 there was the Oriental Adventures release that was a d20 version of Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), which is heavily based on feudal Japan in a high fantasy setting. In that one they simply added a skill called "Iaijutsu Focus" and new uses for Sense Motive to read your opponent.

[Iaijutsu Focus] Check: (OA pg58-59)

If you attack a flat-footed opponent immediately after drawing a melee weapon, you can deal extra damage, based on the result of an Iaijutsu Focus check. In addition, if you and your opponent both agree to participate in a formal iaijutsu duel, your Iaijutsu Focus check replaces your initiative check for the ensuing combat.

In an iaijutsu duel, you and your opponent make opposed Iaijutsu Focus checks, and the winner accumulates extra damage dice according to the accompanying table. You can also use Iaijutsu Focus in preparation for striking an inanimate object, assuming no distractions. Your extra damage is halved, just like your ordinary damage. This is the technique martial artists use to shatter objects

Starting at a roll of 10 you get +1d6 to your damage with a successful Iaijutsu roll, with +1d6 for every 5 you score higher is another +1d6 (max +9d6 at 50 or higher). There are feats and classes (Most notably the Iaijutsu Master prestige class on pg41) that compound on these rolls if you want to specialize. Although the Samurai basic class from OA was rather disappointing to me as it seemed to try and blend fighters and anointed knights (Book of Exalted Deeds).

Sense Motive checks had the added functionality of letting you know a character's level (DC 15), Iaijutsu SR (DC 20), and full attack bonus/damage with primary weapon (DC 25), and is the first step of an actual Iaijutsu Duel in this system.

Next comes comparing the skill rolls as the "focus" phase, and then the "strike" phase:

Iaijutsu Duel [Strike Phase] pg 82

The first round of an iaijutsu duel’s strike phase is essentially a surprise round: Each combatant can take only a partial action (usually a single attack) in addition to drawing the weapon (a freeaction, assuming each duelist has the Quick Draw feat). With a successful hit, a duelist deals the bonus damage achieved through his Iaijutsu Focus check in addition to normal (or critical) weapon damage. The initiative winner strikes first, naturally. The initiative loser, if he survives, must attack on his action as well—he cannot hold back the ki he has focused. Note that since the loser is not attacking a flat-footed foe, he does not get the opportunity to strike with his bonus damage dice from Iaijutsu Focus.

If the initiative check is a tie, the attacks actually occur simultaneously, with both samurai considered to be flat-footed. On rare occasions, two samurai have been known to strike each other down in the same instant in what is called a karmic strike. After the initial round of the duel, the two samurai can continue fighting in normal combat, if both survive. They no longer receive any bonus damage dice to their attack rolls unless the circumstances under which Iaijutsu Focus checks may be attempted somehow arise again in the course of the fight (the combat ends and one or the other returns his weapon to its sheath)

There is a Samurai base class in Pathfinder, although it seems to be more of a tank than what you're looking for. Truthfully, if you want to have something based around counterattacks, your best bet is to work around Attacks of Opportunity but otherwise there don't seem to be many features built into PF that I know of for more fluid movement beyond "you get +X to AC/To Hit/Damage if trigger met". Once again tagging to OA, there's a feat called "Karmic Strike (pg63)" that while in effect gives you a -4AC and if an opponent hits with melee you get an AoO against them.

Ultimately as a personal note, I don't feel that d20 truly captures a give and take system even if I try to factor in Swashbuckling Adventures source material that tried to port 7th Sea materials into the game. With those there were more defined rules for counters (IE riposting) which helps add some customization but still doesn't quite do justice if you're familiar with the source materials. Even though L5R still uses a one turn/round structure but the rolling mechanic, and (seemingly FASA inspired) turn structure allows for a lot less convoluted turn where a D&D turn can explode rather quickly into several parts attempting to be contained in exactly one moment.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Its ultimately worth noting that, because these rules are already published by someone else and almost certainly subject to copyright, OP wouldn't be able to compile and include these rules into the sourcebook they intend on publishing. Not at least without permission. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    May 18, 2014 at 20:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jason_c_o - You can't copyright rules, only content. He might not be able to use the text verbatim, but the rules- totally up to being used. Brandon Blackmoor posted an excellent assessment, including references. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chuck Dee
    May 18, 2014 at 22:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, the core question asks about anything already available \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    May 19, 2014 at 3:17

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