A while back I posed a question on Twitter about duels. I had been watching the Quick & the Dead (a truly guilty pleasure movie I will almost always stop and watch for a time if it is on.) And I was taken with the concept of duels, specifically the idea of the one shot or one blow and over duel. Not some kind of prolonged sword fight like you would see in most movies. But something like the first one with his sword out and swinging wins the duel. If you grew up watching samurai and Kung fu movies you would know what I am talking about.
There are 2 elements in D&D 5E and Pathfinder and similar systems that hinder attempts at recreating this kind of duel. First is the initiative roll and order. To be clear it helps to go first in D&D, but it is not like being a quick draw artist is going to win battles for you. It is more a case of shock & awe, where you can maybe demoralize someone but chances are you will not kill your opponent before their sword leaves the scabbard.
The second is the core D&D concept of Hit Points, specifically that this number rises as you get more experienced. That is a core concept of D&D and Pathfinder. There are other systems that handle it differently. Some of them, like GURPS, are amazingly lethal, others make it nearly impossible for the heroes to die, like 7th Seas. But regarding the concept of the duel, there is pretty much no way you will be able to kill an equally experienced opponent with a single blow of your sword in D&D after first or second level.
I’ve been thinking about it. And the best answer I can come up with would do something with either surprise or the advantage concept in 5E. I’m just thinking out loud here, this is not a fully formed concept.
Two figures square off, swords in their scabbards, within a sword’s length of each other. They roll initiative. If one of them beats the others initiative by X number they have beat the other to sword draw so much that they get a surprise round before you go to regular combat initiative order.
This would mean that someone who is fast enough could get in 2 rounds worth of attacks before their opponent even does something. From 5th level on this could mean 4 attacks (or more.) And let’s say they are using a longsword and have decent fighter strength. That is 4 attacks with an average of +6 to hit, doing 7 HP on average, which translates to at least 20 HP damage on average. That’s not going to kill someone. But if you stick with the averages, your 5th level fighter has 48 HP at 5th level. So taking almost half your HP in damage before you even draw your weapon is a big deal. If your GM is a reasonable person, and you are not fighting a berserker or undead creature that is immune to psychological effects, you could ask for some kind of morale check at that point.
Alternatively, you could say that if someone began the fight with enough of a difference in initiative then they gain Advantage on their initial round of attacks. This would not give the extra attacks that the surprise option gives, but it does increase the chances of hitting and possibly getting a critical hit. This accomplishes the implied goal of one fighter having his weapon ready and attacking before the other is even ready.
One of these would be the closest you could get to the kind of duel I am talking about without fundamentally altering the mechanics of the game. I will have to play with these some. The nice thing about running the game with the boys is that I can use them as guinea pigs to some extent and so long as no one dies a horrible death they will still have fun with it.