High Noon

GURPS Rules for the Classic Duel

by Brian Rogers

The hero faces off against the villain. Maybe one's a sheriff and the other's an outlaw, or they're a space captain and an enemy saboteur, or a maverick cop and a cold hearted killer. Maybe the expanse between them is a dusty street, or the catwalk of the warp drive, or a garbage strewn alley. That doesn't matter -- what matters is that all of the conflict between these two individuals has boiled down to this moment, where there is no other outcome than the drawing of weapons, the final shot. One wins, one dies.

It's a classic. It's the ultimate, one-bullet ending to a campaign. Born in the Western, it has migrated to other film genres and found them fertile soil. Unfortunately, it's also the only point where the phrase "cinematic combat" means "much more likely to kill you in an instant." So how do you include it in your game? It involves maintaining respect for the form, inserting some rules for "cleaner" violence and giving your players several rolls leading up to the climactic shot, so no one thinks that their character has just been killed by a single bad dice roll.

1: The Calling Out / The Final Conversation

Its customary for Duelists to engage one another before the final moments -- a combination of delaying the inevitable and sizing up the opposition. They may exchange one last set of insults, reveal the secrets of their master plan, reminisce about how things came to this pass or simply glare at one another. Regardless of what they say, they're weighing up and psyching out their opponent.

This is similar to a Contest of Wills (p. MA48), but one denying the loser the option of not fighting (once things have reached this stage, there's no turning back without facing the consequences discussed below under "The Form"). This is a contest of Will vs. Will, with the following modifiers. The better fighter gains +1 per 3 points his best combat skill exceeds his opponent's best combat skill. Add each character's Reputation to his effective Will (negative Reputation could help or hurt, depending on its nature). Making a successful Acting or Fast-Talk roll gives a +1 unless, opponent has Body Language, Detect Lies or Empathy. Alternately, making a successful Intimidate roll gives a +1, unless the target has base Fright Check of 15+ (counting bonuses from advantages like Combat Reflexes, Fearlessness, etc.).

Roll the contest until one opponent fails his roll (B87). The loser will suffer a -1 DX penalty for every point by which he lost the Contest of Wills during the course of the Duel. Losing the Contest of Wills means that the Duelist has had his nerve shaken or his mind distracted in this final exchange, costing him precious focus in the upcoming duel. This contest of wills is designed to stretch out the Duel, giving players and GMs alike an opportunity to make more rolls and accrue more of an edge before the bullets start flying.

2: The Form

The Duel is more than just a gunfight. It's the final gunfight, where both sides are willing to eschew things like cover, running, ambushes or other realistic stratagems that give one fighter an edge. In an ordinary gunfight, one side might be willing to escape, to run. For the participants in the Duel, there is no other way out except dealing or accepting a quick, almost bloodless death. So how do GMs make the Duelists accept those rules? Here are some options.

Fear: Once involved in the duel, Fright Checks are required to violate its rules. Fear of death is heightened, and the best action may be to use the rituals of the Duel to see it through without getting distracted by strategies. A successful Fright Check means that the Duelist's head is clear enough to try unconventional tactics. Failure means that fear has slowed the Duelist's thoughts, distracting him in the crucial early seconds of the Duel. The GM should consult the Fright Check table with a +3 rather than +3d. The roll is meant to show a second's distraction or hesitation, not full bore panic. (Of course, inexperienced gunslingers forced into a Duel may panic, but that's a reaction to their situation, not trying to clearly weigh tactics in a tight spot.)

Cheaters Never Prosper: Since the forms of the Duel have become almost a ritual, it may be easier for combatants to see their opponents' intention to cheat. If one Duelist plans to break the rules, the other gets a +2 on any Tactics, Body Language, Empathy skill check to predict his cowardice. The GM might make this a Quick Contest against the cheater's Acting or Will to see how well he hides his intentions. If the intention to break the rules is detected, the honest Duelist gains +2 on any rolls that the GM determines would counter that cheating (i.e., the Fast Draw roll if the cheater intended to ignore any set signal to draw, to spot and dodge any bushwhacking confederates of the cheater, etc.). GMs taking this option for preserving the Duel can liberally apply these bonuses, making cheating in the Duel a losing proposition for anyone other than stone-faced killers who no gunfighter could predict.

Honor: Cultures with significant Dueling traditions see violating the unwritten rules as a quick path to a negative reputation or loss of status. This may be a minor consideration for blackguards, but for honorable characters, or ones worried about having the reputation of a coward, it's a serious threat. The GM can apply negative reputation ("Coward and Cheat") or status (due to loss of honor or face) as appropriate, based on the degree of infraction and the number of witnesses. A -1 to -5 point penalty is common. The negative reputation may be among a specific class (other gunfighters) or commonplace if the event is widely publicized. Even if no one sees the event, the cheater will receive a 1 point quirk, such as "shifty eyes," "suspiciously touchy about reputation," or "guilty expression" as a consequence of his actions.

Magic: Of course, in a game with deities, spirits, magic, psionics or high weirdness, there may well be other powers that would enforce the rules of the Duel through their own powers and for their own reasons.

3: The Stance

In a situation as split second as the Duel, everything matters. Minor variations of stance affect the draw speed, target selection and accuracy. Duelists can chose to face their opponents at a slight angle, head on, fully sideways or ready to assume a crouch during the draw.

Facing at a sight angle (primary hand slightly closer to the opponent) cuts down target area without sacrificing speed or accuracy. This equates to making a standard Attack, with the usual Dodge roll to avoid any incoming attacks. It gives no special benefits or advantages.

Facing head on means that the duelist is focusing entirely on his attack, giving no thought to making himself a smaller target or to moving out the way. This equates to the All-Out Attack maneuver (p. B105). While not normally allowed for Ranged Weapons, it is permissible in the confines of the Duel. Duelists use this if they're sure of their Fast Draw and want an edge in their attack -- after all, if they hit, their opponent probably won't be firing back, making defense irrelevant. Only the +4 to skill, +2 to damage, or 2 attacks (quick drawing a pistol with both hands) options apply in the Duel.

Facing on the side or crouching are defensive stances, designed to minimize target area. Duelists who think they may lose the draw take these, hoping that it will make their opponent miss and give them a chance to strike back. Either stance gives the standard -2 to be hit for Crouching (p. B118), but both also give a -2 on their Fast-Draw Initiative (see below).

4: The Draw

In circumstances where speed is everything, the usual GURPS initiative rules are simply too coarse -- neither the 1d roll or Movement comparison are quite appropriate when two opponents are trying to beat one another in an instantaneous action. Instead, the GM should determine initiative in the first round of the Duel by using the duelists' Fast-Draw rolls to draw their guns as a Quick Contest.

First, use the Fast Draw rolls to determine actual success or failure in drawing and readying the weapon, as usual. Then use those rolls in a Quick Contest to see who Fast-Drew faster, called the Fast Draw Initiative. Apply a -2 to the roll of any character in a crouch or side stance. Apply the initiative bonuses for the Tactics skill to the rolls as well. The winner of the Quick Contest acts first in the first round of the Duel. If the loser of the Quick Contest is still standing after the winner's action, he acts normally, and initiative proceeds as normal for the remainder of the Duel. It's very rare for the Duel to last past one round, but it can happen.

5: The Shot

Obviously, the goal in any gunfight is dropping the other guy as fast as possible. In the Duel, where so little attention is paid to defense, it's even more essential. Duelists do this by making called shots to maximize damage. The traditional target areas are the Brain, Eyes, Vitals and Hands (assuming the character is an ultimately law abiding type who really wants to bring his opponent in disarmed but alive). The GM might want to apply a -5 penalty rather than the standard -3 for shots to the Vitals against crouching or side-facing opponents, due to the shift in target area.

Unfortunately for the clean, stylized combat of the Duel, these penalties are quite high. This makes abandoning called shots for un-penalized attacks an attractive option, which leads to longer, bloodier, multi-hit battles, destroying the whole image of the Duel. To make these sorts of clean-kill shots more attractive, GM should halve the penalties (round up) for attacking specific body parts as part of the Duel, since neither side is concentrating much on defense. The new penalties under such a rule are:





Vitals vs. side facing or crouching target   






In most cases, the damage done by one attack in the Duel -- a TL 5 pistol is likely to do 2d of base damage, ×1.5 or ×2 for bullet size, ×3 or ×4 for target area, for a low average of 20+ and a high of 80+ points of damage -- will reduce the Victim to -HT in one shot. Again, to keep the stylized nature of the Duel intact, the GM may want to rule that anyone taking a massive amount of damage (greater than ×2 HT) from one shot in a Duel should be declared dead. The GM can use the full rules for Shock, Knockout, Knockdown, Stun, and Death, but this may wreck the idiom if two very tough Duelists keep making their resistance rolls and fight on to bloody -5 × HT. If the GM isn't using the Instant Death option, shots to the Brain (with their automatic knockout option) become especially attractive.

Obviously, these rules don't simulate reality -- in real gunfights people don't line up, wait for the other guy to get ready and abandon dodging. But in the stylized world of Cinema, the Duel becomes the final conflict between good and evil, pitting skill against skill alone in a clean battle to the death, and it deserves to be recognized in gaming.

Article publication date: June 21, 2002

Copyright © 2002 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to webmaster@sjgames.com.