Probably one of best clichés of high-fantasy literature are the magic duels between powerful spellcasters. The brutal clash of potent spells, filing the air with fire and thunder, rending asunder the walls of reality… that kind of stuff. The problem here it’s that Pathfinder (or D&D, or “your favorite d20”) doesn’t accommodates that kind of battle, specially due to the limited way counterspelling works. Let’s admit: they’re not very dramatic.
Before starting to write my totally unbalanced house rules, I’ll like first to clarify that I don’t think that Pathfinder’s magic rules are bad. Quite the contrary, they’re funny and engaging, demanding a good deal of planning and foresight from players and DMs. Most important: they work very fine inside Pathfinder’s parameters of dungeon crawling and scenario exploration.
Having said that, the following rules were created to better simulate the kind of magical exchange we see in the literature (and also to give an extra layer of tactical thinking when there’re spellcasters around). Originally I was trying to simulate the magic duels of the Dragonlance campaign run by a friend of mine a couple years ago. In his games, counterspelling was a free action and limited only by narrative constrains. For example, if your wizard was targeted by a cone of cold he could cast – as a free action – a wall of fire as a counterspell. The reason behind that was that a wall of fire would stop a blast of freezing air. It fit thematically. Although charming from a narrative point of view, this approach reduced the whole magic battle to a simply resource-depleting match – the guy with more spells would always win.
In my home campaign I’ve being tinkering with the following rules. Basically, every time your spellcaster is targeted by a spell and is not flat-footed, he has three choices:
1) Suffer the spell effect normally, like any other character.
2) If he has a dispel magic prepared (or as known spell) or the specific opposite spell (for example haste/slow), he can cast it an immediate action to counter the attacking dweomer. Follow the normal rules for counterspelling for each situation.
3) If he has a spell of the same level or higher and of the same school, he can use to attempt a counterspell. The spellcaster must succeed at a caster level check, following normally the dispel magic rules. To use this option, he must have a Ready Action or sacrifice his next Standard Action (this last option can only be attempted once per round). The Improved Counterspell feat is removed from play.
If a tie occurs in any counterspell caster level check, roll on the Wand of Wonders (or any of your favorite wild magic tables).
The rules above greatly increases the chances of defense by any spellcaster against magic, which I find thematically appropriate. After all, characters like wizards and clerics should be able to reflexively protect themselves against incoming mystical attacks in ways other than just saving throws (or a few and limited spells already up).
If you also thinks that spellcasters should have better chances to survive against magic attacks, you may be interested in this new spell:
LESSER DISPEL MAGIC
School abjuration; Level bard 1, cleric/oracle 1, druid 1, inquisitor 1, magus 1, sorcerer/wizard 1, witch 1
Casting Time 1 immediate action
Components V, S
Range personal (see text)
Target one spell targeted at you
Saving Throw none; Spell Resistance no
This spell works like a dispel magic used to counterspell, but with the additional limitation that it can only be cast as a reaction to a spell or spell-like ability targeted at you. It follows all the same rules of counterspell found in dispel magic, with one exception: lesser dispel magic only protects the caster. If the attacking dweomer is an area spell or affects multiple targets, a successful lesser dispel magic will only protect the caster. All the other targets are still affected normally.
P.S.: And for the record – Order of the Stick rocks!