In the other place, where I am no longer a participant, there is, apparently, some discussion of the nature of certamen in a revised book, and of the Tremere virtue that allows extra skill at Certamen. I'd note that when I wrote about Certamen in TL, I wrote with the rules as they stodd as my base, but if there is some sort of possiblity of a revision, my ideas for such would be as follows.
Certamen is broken, as it stands. I note that players do not regularly use it, and rules are for use. Therefore, Certamen is broken. Let us consider the reasons for its lack of use, and method whereby its user may be, in some sense, enocurages to see if it is salvagable.
Beyond the observation that certamen is unpopular, which is attested by polls on this board, a certain amount of conjecture is necessary. I would like to explicitly note,for the purposes of the discussion that follows, that you, writing that you, personally do not match my conjectures, is not of so great a value as you suggesting an alternative conjecture. That is, this is not really the place for a polling of how people currently play, but rather how they wish everyone played.
Allow us then to proceed to my conjectures:
- Most Ars games are played with young magi. Certamen does not favour the young, and is therefore not popular because it is seen as a hamfisted form of bullying by NPCs.
- Most troupes prefer an Order where the law is determined by just principles, not force.
- Certamen is not versimilitudinous for most readers: that is, they cannot see why the Order should allow such a thing as certamen to have so prominent a role.
- Certamen itself, as written, lacks interest as a play experience.
Let me, then, answer these with a perscription.
Certamen differs from duelling in the real world because it lacks risk: indeed, it has been made increasingly less risky for magi over subsequent additions, because the free spell from 3rd edition has been emasculated in the current edition as "A free spell, that if it breaks Hermetic law will see you hunted by Tribunal." In a real duel with pistols, there is an excellent chance, even if you are a skilled duelist, that the poor duelist you face will kill you stone dead, even if your shot hits him. By making duelling safer for PCs (and all young magi) we have unfortunately also made it entirely safe for older magi, who therefore have no reason not to use it for trivial things. Certamen, other than as sport, should carry the strong risk of harm. This prevents its trivial use against PCS ,and increases its dramatic tension when used.
Certamen is currently conflated between its role as a trial by combat and a duel of honour. This causes all sorts of odd problems in terms of Tribunal activity, the Code of Hermes, and other such things. It would be better the have the code be simply the law, and have Certamen act, within the Code of law, as a method of agreed arbitration that has strong social force, backed by a Reputation mechanic. So, if two mages are in dispute and one offers Certamen, the other may decline, but in doing so, he gets a poor Reputation as one who is not only weak and cowardly, for Certamen is rarely fatal for simple bouts on minor matters, but who lacks friends who will stand by him in Wizards War. In short, he is a politcally negliible person. Let us imagine that once, Certamen did have legal force, but that it was lost after the Sundering, and henceforth it has only social force. It is seen as a step between Tribunical law and Hermetic War, allowing for the settlement of disputes in a way that is seen as effective and binding among those magi with force to make War.
A reputation mechanic, and a strong emphasis on the fact that the Code is enforced by volunteers who are likely themselves duelists, makes Certamen a politically-sensible thing, as opposed to the current state, where it serves no function except as a thing to be overturned by the votes of tribunals. Separating certamen from its current role as a trial by combat, and changing it to a dispute resolution mechanic by consent, or a method of gaining social cachet, or a way of demonjstrating your reasonableness when you are faced with an insult which is widely considered just cause for war, makes a lot more sense, in my opinion, and allows us to develop an ettitquette of dueling, which allows a unique roleplaying experience.
Certamen is boring for several reasons. It is basically a series of dice rolls, and that's dull. The resource allocation elements are basically "Do I buy the fight with more vis?", which is again, not interesting. In game, there is this idea of warring phantastica, but there's no actual mechanism to force players to do the hard work of describing what they are doing. RP bonuses should be -explicit- and -large- in this section. The options given in TL were a start at giving certamen options other than "roll the dice!", but they are overwhelmed by the dice in their importance, or simply allow a complicated game of rock-paper-scissors. It lacks psychological elements, based researching then balking or distracting the opponent, which would be interesting. It lacks a group version, which would be interesting. It lacks the ability to cause serious harm to your enemy, or to fail and really hurt yourself, which would make it dramatic and act as a brake on older magi. It lacks the ability to change Form or Technique during the battle, or to battle across forms and techniques.
The special Tremere skill at Certamen is a poor idea, from an in-game perspective. The American duelling code of the C18th said each man must have a straight-bore pistol, single shote of no more than nine inches. Would you, so armed, consider it fair to allow a man to come at you with a Colt Peacemaker? The Irish duelling law of the Middle Ages has as its basic concept that the blades of the duelists must be equal in length. Would you, armed with a dueling knife, allow a man to come at you with a chainsaw? Who then are these idiots in the Order who let their law be based on a game which, rather than being a true show of the likely outcome of war, is a sham?
The Certamen focus cripples Tremere as a player house, because Certamen is both boring and mandatory. It's also, from the perspective of the other houses, clearly rigged which makes its use rare compared with any other focus.
A certamen skill is not the answer: that's a point-sink for Tremere, if they retain a strong interewst in duelling not shared by other houses. If you want characters to use certamen, then making them rubbish at it unless they are specialists is the wrong way to go. The Tremere virtue, by the way, does this: it makes everyone else rubbish at Certamen. So, they don't bother.
House Tremere, after the remake, could keep No Sigil. It might get a version of Patron as its house virtue instead, to model their cohesiveness, which woudl leave them free to buy a focus, if they wanted one, with a statement that their house likes X, Y and Z. The certamen focus IMO, undercuts its own usefulness, because it takes skilled certamen out of the reach of the PCs.