I think Complete Arcane describes pulling damage with spells. Basically, a caster holds back and deals half damage with spells or makes said damage nonlethal.
Can anyone clarify on the details of this rule?
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Complete Arcane on Lethal and Nonlethal Duels says, in part, that those involved in a nonlethal spell duel generally agree to, among others, the following restrictions:
- 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. (176)
The section continues later, saying that
Naturally, characters who know the Nonlethal Substitution feat [that's formerly the feat Subdual Substitution but renamed by Complete Arcane and appearing on page 81] 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. (ibid.)
However, the restrictions don't seem to be able to be used voluntarily outside the confines of a formal spell duel. In fact, the rules for arranging a spell duel (175-6)—and, in particular, a nonlethal spell duel—make it sound as if all of a spell duel's restrictions are unique to having arranged to hold a spell duel in the first place, itself "usually a feature of sophisticated and magic-rich cultures, representative of an effort to control random magical violence" (175). Perhaps—and, here, I speculate—these restrictions become available to casters only after going through a spell duel's six-plus "specific procedures" (ibid.).
Thus, unless the DM rules otherwise, it appears that outside a formal spell duel, a typical caster simply can't opt to voluntarily deal half normal damage with spells that possess an energy desciptor or the force or shadow descriptors.1 Further, a typical caster can't "strike to subdue" so as to deal nonlethal damage with many spells that require an attack roll by suffering a –4 penalty to that attack roll (for example, like one can with a melee weapon that normally deals lethal damage). Actually being in a spell duel is, it seems, for whatever reason, simply necessary to be able to opt to modify spells in such a way.2
1 While a caster can deal less damage by opting to "cast a spell at a lower caster level than normal,… the caster level [picked] must be high enough for [him] to cast the spell in question, and all level-dependent features must be based on the same caster level" (PH 171 and here). So, for example, a Wiz10 can cast the spell fireball as if his caster level were 5 (yet not usually even lower) so that the spell deals 5d6 points of fire damage instead of 10d6, but such a fireball spell will only, among other limitations, have the range of a fireball spell as if cast by a level 5 caster, 200 ft. shorter than a Wiz10's normal fireball spell's range! During a nonlethal spell duel, by contrast, only the fireball spell's damage is halved, all other effects remaining unchanged. Also, some spells deal a fixed amount of damage, unchanged by casting them at a lower level, making a casting them at a lower than normal level usually pointless if the goal is reducing the damage they deal.
2 Magic of Faerûn describes a similar but different enough process of settling disputes among casters in its section on mageduels (14-17), the special conditions of which are generated not by mysterious unmentioned means like spell duels in Complete Arcane but, instead, by the Forgotten Realms campaign setting's goddess of magic Mystra herself, who "altered [magic] to allow for a system of combative spellcasting that allowed rivals to test their strength against each other without causing mass destruction" (14). This kind of explanation ("The gods have decreed it so!") may sit better with players who balk at their mighty wizards being unable to employ, for no directly stated reason, a nonlethal spell duel's restrictions outside of a spell duel.
As for a regular rule? No. There is no rule which allows you to decrease your effective caster level on a spell to make it non-lethal. You can decrease your caster level to do less damage, but unless the spell itself says its non-lethal, spells always do lethal damage.
There is a pathfinder feat called Merciful Spell which allows magic to deal nonlethal. But the same feat does not exist in core 3.5 (likely does in 3rd party).