A lengthy review of the nature of Certamen.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Most troupes prefer an Order where the law is determined by just principles, not force.
  3. 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.
  4. Certamen itself, as written, lacks interest as a play experience.

Let me, then, answer these with a perscription.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

Hi. Yes, I've been following that thread as well as the one I started about what other methods people use. As I'd said in my thread, I like what you did, but felt you were constrained by the core rules. I wanted to keep your ideas while changing the core rules.

I'll start by summarizing how we use it and our issues. We don't let it trump Hermetic law but rather see it as a way of settling disputes that are too small for tribunal. We also use it for temporary decisions (figuring it may get overruled at tribunal). Even playing young magi we have used it. We have enough tension because of the value of winning and the reputation that comes from it. So our troupe doesn't need prescription #1 (not that it would be a problem) and inherently uses #2. #3 it a nice way of giving a mechanic to the situation. #4-#7 are the crux of the matter.

#4 is the main thing for us. It's a bunch of boring dice rules. And vis is too valuable, so we don't tend to use it. Our current house rule is to add bonuses (I'll have to check, but I think it is +0 to +3.) to both the attack and defense values based on your description of what you are doing. It's a new house rule; we'll see how much it helps.

I had been thinking of something more complex, where you got to choose between about four or five attack methods and four or five defense methods. There would be a rock-paper-scissors type thing occurring, along with some other stuff. For instance, one of the defenses could be a gambit (named by the chess-style duelists) where you're willing to give up a little, but if the opponent takes that shot you'll gain a bonus for the rest of that duel. Similarly, a feint would have the same sort of effect on the offense - no damage but you might pick up an advantage on your next attack. Of course, there would be some more regular attacks and defenses, too.

A different suggestion I was given was just having it be a regular combat using only magic, but that all damage is fatigue instead.

#s 5 & 7 sound right. I agree that adding another skill doesn't help the situation.

#6 is something to address. Tremere have an inherent penalty of owing seasons to the house as well as possibly toward their covenant. They get to call upon resources in return for this. Assuming that is a wash, they are then weakening by not being allowed a normal Magical Focus. Plus the Magical Focus bonus gets way too large. Perhaps a special virtue that gives every Art +2 (like Puissant but only +2), but only during certamen?


As someone who started his "internet era" by joining several MW leagues as part of Clans Wolf, Snow Raven and Draconis Combine, ie where the "duellist code" isnt just much used but in high regard, i find that not even i use certamen much...

1 ) Yes, definitely.
2 ) Well, an order not based on principles would likely not survive, but those principles including duel as a way to resolve lesser conflict i think is still a good concept.
3 ) I can, but thats probably in part at least because of previous experience.
4 ) Unfortunately yes... And i dont have a clue about how to improve it either, even though i can usually come up with HR easy.
5 ) The concept may not be, but the game effect probably is. Let them have "Puissant Certamen" instead, and yes i know that skill isnt in 5th, we kept it however and stated that Certamen cant be taken as a minor focus.
6 ) It probably does. We play with alternative House bonuses for all houses and a total bonus worth a major instead of minor virtue(so a Tremere could still take the certamen bonus but could also pick more from the list). That mitigates it a little.
7 ) Its better for sure, but not a complete answer no.

A way to change certamen might be to take a cue from the BT universe and always aim for "levelling the field" as much as is possible and if that isnt possible, allow duel by proxy.
I dont think its possible for AM but the bidding system for the clans from BT is often quite good at making the following fights or duels alot more even. But at the very least that would probably require dragging in Art scores into it and that likely totally ruins the game as it goes totally into metagaming.

That sounds interesting...

We use it a bit in my troupe, sometimes PC vs PC (it has solved a number of problems in the covenant council), and more commonly PC vs NPC.

I agree that mechanically it is boring. But having said that it is relatively clean. It doesn't take too long to resolve. The mechanically boring bit, for me, is that once you start to lose there is no likelihood of recovery. If there are two evenly matched participants, once one starts taking fatigue penalties there is little chance of them winning. You are then usually just rolling dice until the inevitable conclusion.

The injustice of certamen hasn't really been a bother for us. I think because:
a) we have always assumed that repeated and great certamen injustices will eventually be punished by tribunal/wizard war. This means that PCs and NPCs are wary of being seen to be certamen bullies, and
b) we are playing in the Rhine tribunal. So masters always win against journeymen in certamen. This means that we avoid getting into situations where we need to fight certamen against masters. We are always fighting in our own class, so it is more evenly matched.
c) Partly because of a) certamen tends to be used mostly for trivial things in our saga. Precedence over book reading rights, redressing insults, etc.

We haven't had an issue with Tremere and Certamen. This is because we have no PC Tremere, and in our saga Tremere seem to be relatively minor amongst NPCs. I don't think that we have had a Certamen that involves Tremere, although we have had Wizard's War that involves Tremere!

The thing that I see is that the lower of certamen is likely to be tempted to resort to wizard war revenge if the issue is not trivial and tribunal law over rules it anyways.

The other thing I have seen about the rules and us in action is that challengee always has a huge advantage. There are 5 techniques and usually people have at least something in all of them. If you are very weak in one you can usually say pick again and you have a 3 in 4 chance of the 2nd choice hitting one that is okay. There are 10 forms though and very rarely does anyone has move than one or two good forms and they are rarely the same good forms as anyone else so if you challenge you have a very good chance of getting hit with a 0 or low score form even with the alternate choice while if you are challenged, there is good chance your challenger is going to be screwed. This is what happened in the couple certamen that I have actually done. (My mentem with some corpus and vim challenged someone based in Auram and Terram, she was trounced soundly and quickly).

The tremere focus thing just makes a bad situation with forms even worse. Why would anyone challenge a tremere to certamen, just go right to the wizard war. Tremere uses it to screw you, again wizard war in return. The main thing I remember from earlier editions was a reference somewhere of certamen breaking out in tribunal chambers over votes, political support and speaking for issues or to stop someone from speaking agianst your issue (even if you can't control their sigil when it comes to the actual vote). In 5th edition, I get the feeling that sort of politicing is dead and forbidden and trying it in tribunal means tribunal will censure you.

I hate to play the old-timer card again, but one of the things I always found interesting about certamen, that I feel got somewhat short shrift in this edition, was the phantasms. They were, IMO, a way to make certamen more than just dice rolling, just like evocative descriptions can make regular combat more than just dice rolling (which is really all it is too).

A Muto Corpus certamen can and should be more than just "roll attack/roll defense." It can resemble a classic shapeshifting duel, albeit an illusionary one. To encourage this, I always favored the rule that a good description of your illusion gave a bonus to attack or defense.

It seems to me that you are treating certamen challenges as if they occur in a vacuum of knowledge about your opponent.

In our saga, we take into account that The Order is social. So, you hear about what things other magi are good at, what certamen duels they have won in the past, etc. Which boils down to characters being able to make Int + Order of Hermes Lore rolls to get a feel for what their opponents good scores etc are. So, unless you are fighting someone from a foreign tribunal, you are not just randomly picking forms and techniques to duel on; you have at least a vague idea which are your opponent's best scores and roughly how they stack up against yours.

And, of course, you know all this before the certamen duel is even declared. So, if you think you will be hopelessly outclassed and if you are wise (which many magi aren't) you don't get into a situation that you think will result in certamen. This, I think, helps make certamen more viable for us --- and also means that Order of Hermes Lore is a useful Ability!

Certamen champions are already possible. If you are challenged you don't need to answer that challenge personally. That's how unGifted Red Caps participate...someone else fights for them.

Doh... Had forgotten about that. :confused:

So, thinking about the messages so far. The way that I think to ensure that Certamen works is:

a) Make sure that certamen is usually fairly evenly matched. The Rhine system where Certamen is only usually fought within class (Journeymen vs Journeymen, Master vs Master, Archmagus vs Archmagus) is enough to ensure this, I think.

b) Allow the characters to make Int + Order of Hermes Lore rolls to roughly gauge the relative Art scores of other magi --- so that magi are not randomly guessing Form and Technique --- and are not (often)surprised by their opponent's ability.

c) Allow Certamen champions.

d) Ensure that Certamen bullies are eventually censured by Tribunal or Wizard War.

e) Make the system quick to resolve, and without serious consequence (beyond what is lost as a result of the duel). This is so that PCs can engage in certamen often without bogging down a play session, and so that it is worthwhile to fight certamen over trivial things, and PC vs PC can be managed without too much acrimony.

f) Drop the Tremere focus.

g) The troupe needs to run some stories where the antagonists are magi but these magi are not guilty of something that they can be marched for. Certamen is not a reasonable response to Infernalism, but it is a reasonable response to disputes over vis ownership, rights to books and laboratories, etc. If all your stories involve magi fighting fae and demons, or even mundanes, then it is no surprise that certamen is not often used.

Richard's ideas are good. In fact the Int + OoH lore rolls to know stuff about the other mage was something I thought everybody did.... I like the "you fight in your own league" idea. Neat :slight_smile: However, that implies that you always have a handy dude "of your own league" to fight the certamen duel. OK if you can wait to solve the issue, but if it is an "on the spot" thing it might be difficult to have a suitable opponent ready.

We like certamen at a theoretical level, but find it dull. When we run it we run it like a combat experience. Where the challenger can only use one technique and the challenged can only use 1 form. Apart from that, it is run like a normal battle between the 2 sides. 3+ characters can take part in the certamen without problems here and it is much easier to solve mechanically. It is not a rarefied duel but a medieval tournament style, though (pitched battle with no killings).

If you want certamen to be long lasting, make it like a brawl battle: you lose 1 body level for 2 fatigue levels you lose, so you are likely to end the battle bruised if not outright wounded.

Tremeres can easily get puissant certamen for a +3 to certamen rolls. Not abusive but gives them an edge without crippling more interesting focuses and character specializations.


I always liked the idea of the Shift in david chart's rules for Certamen: "In every segment, after declaring the actions to be taken, each participant describes what their part of the phantasm does. On the following segment, each may try to Shift the certámen to a Technique or Form that the phantasm used in the previous segment." This gives a mechanical meaning to the descriptions of Phantasm, and makes the game more interesting as players (and the SG) constantly try to come up with cool descriptions incorporating their desired Arts and try to shift to their favored Arts.

I'm not sure how much I like the rest of his rules, as they are rather complicated and somewhat mechanical.

Even with these changes, Certamen still lacks the situational circumstances and tactical surprises that make real combat so much more interesting. Perhaps it is possible to include astrological/magical correspondence "terrain" to combat; perhaps Shape & Form bonuses, limited by Artes Liberales/Magic Theory? Tactical surprise can be inserted with TL styles and inventive choices of S&M and Shifts.

I do agree that Certamen needs to be more dangerous to be dramatic, and a duel-mentality fits well there. The final spell can perhaps be a spontaneous SG-controlled, and hence unpredictable, result of excess attack at the end of Certamen.

I've also mourned the fact that certamen duels are never effective in actual war. I always toyd with allowing the Tremere a secret technique to force an opponent into a Certamen, with the obvious harsh consequences for the loser. With proper phantasms, this could be a wonderful backdrop of warring wizards, but I'm not sure how to combine it with real warfare going on around them.

I think that certamen could be a lot more interesting if each side picks theri technique and form (with the vetos of course) and then you fight it out.

Just as you might get some warriors that fight sword and shield while others use greatsword and others use mace, you get varied weapons. Intellego Mentem vs Creo Ignem could be fastenating duel.

Order of hermes lore to learn about opponents is nice but when you are running newly gauntletted mages or going against a newly gauntletted specialist, you have very little information to know about your opponent. There is a huge advantage to being the one challenged as you are more likely to hit an opponent's weak spot. As a major dispute resolution challenge if you only challenge if you know the opponent's forms are compatible with your own, then it might as well not be there most of the time since most people will just head right to wizard war.

Really? If there is a chance that you get killed it is often mor eprofiutable NOT to go straight for wizard's war. WW is a last resort thinhg, not a common thing! A newbie with some vis to spare can get an ACME "archmage killer" charged item rather easily with a short trip to the local verditius store. Wanna risk that? As last resort it is OK, but I would be willing to aim for a second best if the first best it is an all or nothing and my soul going to hell (no twilight there).

Certamen as a concept is cool. At least most people seem to think it is for what I have heard/read. As a rules thing it is not, though. Here lies the problem of a quick and dirty conflict resolution factor that is neither fair, nor interesting as a playing experience.


I think it was much more balanced in prior editions where it was a skill that anyone could develop and get good at. Training could go a long way to balancing arts disparities.

In addition, the tremere had tendancy (not requirement) to take a knack (same as pussiant) with the skill which is a slight edge but no more than 1-3 on the dice which luck, better arts or training in a skill could manage to counter.

THe magical focus though means the tremere with 4 in each form (100 xp) and all the rest to get good techniques (and arts studies after apprenticeship in techniques) will usually have a good technique and an 8 (4 extra) for the form minimum. IF the tremere gets a 10 technique and some 8 forms, then the bonus is +8 which luck with dice won't offset and there is no skill that could be trained to offset it. While it is only applicable in certamen, with the legal backing of certamen it can be used to really bully tribunals (You can vote as you please but unless you beat me in certamen you will speak positively for my proposal to sway the tribunal in my favor).

Even a newly gauntleted magus has been an apprentice for 15 years. He's probably been to two Tribunals. Realistically, he should have a vague idea of what the other magi of the Order are good at --- especially the ones that are near him in age (+/- 15 years).

This seems unlikely to me. As a player, sure, my character has sometimes had a dispute with another magus, and I've thought well I'm not likely to win Certamen against him. This doesn't mean that I think "Wizard War!". After all, if I can't beat him in Certamen, why would I be any more likely to win in Wizard War?

Also, Wizard War takes forever to organise. First, it's really only worthwhile pursing (for victory, rather than merely causing your opponent to act paranoid for a month) if you are either much more powerful than your opponent or you have decent Arcane Connections to him. Second, you need to declare a Wizard War a moon in advance. So, Wizard War is not a good way to quickly resolve problems (neither from in-character, nor from out-of-character concerns).

My experience is that if I have dispute and I don't think I can win in Certamen, then I need to either find a champion or I need to just let the issue slide (and harbour a grudge!).

The problem, in my experience, was that no-one ever did spend the experience in it.

This is a nice idea. That would make a better Tremere certamen power: a way to force others to begin a Certamen duel (and remain in it until victory or unconsciousness).

Sure we did, and do.
Usually not terribly much xp perhaps, but often some at least.

Oooh that could get nasty. Has potential certainly.

I don't understand the desire for certamen to be 'fair'.

That just doesn't reconcile with my view of certamen or the cultural underpinnings that it gives vent to in Order society.

To my reckoning Magi value, above all else, magical prowess and knowledge. The egalitarian seeming cultural tendencies, which seem out of place in the setting at first glance, of the Order are based on this concept IMO. Magic and Gift are not gender biased so neither are Magi. At least not as far as other Gifted people are concerned. You have to respect their power, even if you don't respect anything else about them.

This basic tenet of Mage society is what Certamen is all about.

Powerful Mages don't like the idea of some young runt being treated as their equal. Certamen is inherently unequal and unfair, and it is intended to be. It is a test of magical knowledge and dueling skill both. Both of which favor the elders, and that is the way everyone who matters likes it.

I for one love the cultural aspects of this just the way they are and hate it when people try to insert modern egalitarian ideas into it, or avoid certamen because of them. To me this is a facet of the cultural realism of the setting.

Also, if someone lost a certamen and then declared WW, I'd say people would construe that as using WW to bypass the code and would not like it. It might not be something they would be called on the first time in favor of general peace, but ... repeated attempts would be a marching offense IMO. Certamen is a respected tradition, so people should ICly think it should be enforced.

I do agree however that mechanically it is rather bland and am open to suggestions to resolving that particular problem.

I know that my mages always considered Certamen as more important than any other skill other than magic theory and speak/scribe latin in earlier editions. It was a must have skill to be able to hold your own in the hermetic society even as warriors took brawl and a weapon skill and debaters took high philosphy. It was the non-tremere learning and paying attention to certamen that prevented a tremere domination of the order and the skill offset some of the issues of arts imbalances and bullying.

Oh, I agree it shouldn't be fair.

But, when it occurs in play it should be fair(ish). That is, there has to be reasons that the certamen duels that PCs are involved in are mostly against their peers. It's boring for the players if certamen is only ever used as a way for elder magi to get their way. Now, IMO, this really comes down to the storyguide providing opportunities for peer vs peer certamen rather than the actual mechanics of certamen itself.

That's OK though. There are no restrictions on what circumstances you can use WW.

Of course, if you commit a marchable offense in the course of WW, then sure you can get marched for that. And if people don't like you declaring WW willy-nilly, then sure they'll just WW you back. But there's nothing inherently wrong with resorting to WW if you lose certamen...except for the practical consideration that if you have just been whipped in certamen, there's a good chance you will just be killed in WW.