|The audience loves this guy. The rest of the players... not so much.|
As I mentioned in my last journal post, a mage-duel took place last session. Matt's sorc went up against a wizard of similar level, and he had a great time (though he went through a worrying number of action points...). Meanwhile, the rest of us were sitting around, dispersed among the watching throneguards, waiting for things to go south. They never did, though; Matt achieved a clean win, and the rest of us were sorely disappointed. It was a terribly boring event for four out of the six people at the table at the time, which is hardly an optimal outcome.
This isn't an uncommon problem for duels in D&D. I've seen it happen twice before; once was a mage's duel on an airship in Eberron, and another was a duel of swords in a dungeoncrawl (the BBeG, knowing himself outnumbered, challenged the party paladin to a duel, trying to exploit his honorable nature for a tactical advantage). Both times, the rest of the party sat around bored while the duelist's player had a high old time, and it was unfun.
I have, however, seen two reasonably successful duels pulled off. In the first, the party had actually been split, with the fighter fighting his duel against the half-fiend giantblooded gnoll berserker leading the siege of a town while the rest of the party dealt with a separate warband of gnolls many miles distant. This structure worked out very nicely; nobody was bored, and yet there was still the notable, dramatic event of "fought unaided in single combat against a powerful foe." The second success occurred during my Trailblazer one-shot, with a lizardfolk berserker challenging a champion of the party's choosing to single combat in a ring of battle. While this was taking place, though, the remaining lizardfolk sounded their drums of panic and engaged the rest of the party, since the rules of the duel were that 1) the duelists couldn't leave the circle until one was dead, and 2) nobody else could attack or aid the duelists. Allies were perfectly legitimate targets. This also was a reasonably good fight for all but the bard, who failed his save against the drums and fled. This, I feel, is basically the canonical solution - PCs never, ever expect the enemy to fight fair, and so during a duel the rest of the party fully expects to be attacked by whatever minions the duelist may have lurking in the wings. Sometimes, giving the audience exactly what they expect works out beautifully.
There are also two possible solutions which I have yet to try. The first I will term the Roman Solution, as it originated in the Dragon magazine issue on gladiators. Gladiatorial combat is just a long series of duels, and so the solution to party boredom that was suggested was a combination of "make sure everyone gets their time in the spotlight by dueling on a regular basis" and "have intrigue in the stands, in the gladiator stables, and elsewhere while fights are happening". Thus, PCs not actively engaged in the duel might be busy betting on the outcome, or under attack by members of a rival stable in a dark alley, or trying to rig the fight in some way (or prevent their enemies from rigging it), or otherwise occupied by something besides building dice towers and twiddling their thumbs. Effectively a variant of splitting the party, but one worth noting for its primarily non-combative nature - the other PCs are doing things, but those things probably aren't fighting.
Finally, I have yet to try the Rokugani Solution - duels which are either to first blood, or which are exceptionally lethal. Such a duel could work not by keeping the rest of the party involved, but by being exceptionally fast in terms of resolution time, such that the rest of the party doesn't have time to get severely bored. High lethality dueling also places that much extra tension on the duel and makes the decision to duel significantly more meaningful.