From the time I entered my first dungeon decades ago, material components were treated the same as encumbrance and weapon modifiers against armor class – we discarded them.
For those of you who might be scratching your heads, I’m talking about spellcasting in Dungeons & Dragons (along with its many derivatives), in which magic-wielding characters usually need verbal, somatic, and/or material components toÂ cast their spells. Like encumbrance and equipment lists, material components were viewed in my circles as tedious and we ignored them, which incidentally made our magic-using characters more powerful. Still, the trade-off is largely worth it, and I never really understood how incorporating material components could be worth the trouble.
ForÂ my current D&D 5e campaign I announced that we’d be play the rules RAW (rules as written) as well as use the realistically medievalÂ Harnworld setting as my game world. For the first few months I ignored material components given that the players could substitute a component pouch (essentially a generic bag that assumes you have every material component that you need) or a spellcasting focus (such as a divine symbol or wizard’s amulet) for any material components. Problem solved, correct?
As it turns out, no.Â There was a caveat involved; any material component that had a cost attached stillÂ needed to be purchased.Â Â When one of my players pointed this out my natural inclination was to handwave that too in spite of my decision to play RAW. What possible benefit would be gained by enforcing it? This line of thought led me to reconsider material components generally and the narrative opportunities I was missing by not incorporating them.
Here are a few things from my brainstorming that I plan to incorporate into my campaigns even while still playing fast and loose with material components.
Parting PCs with their money. In the old days, the major reason for doling out treasure chests’ worth of gold was because the PCs actually needed it to make purchases, train for level advancement, hire help, build strongholds, and purchase magic items. While many of these needs have been mitigated over the years (indeed magic items went from being off-market to on-market to off-market again), there’s still some value in making the PCs purchase things on occasion.
It makes certain spells more prestigious. Even when the PCs are loaded with cash and don’t have a problem acquiring material components, the mere fact that there are certain spells that need to be considered above and beyond the daily routine make them more prestigious and, coincidentally, out of the hands of NPC spellcasters who don’t have that kind of money.
The trouble with thieves. Certain spells require valuable gems. This makes a spellcaster a magnet for thieves, especially if they load up on valuable gems that are consumed each time they use a spell. Jewelers and thieves may be in cahoots to fleece such spellcasters, who often may not realize they’ve been robbed until it’s time to cast the spell. Obviously, the theft of a component pouch or spellcasting focus is even more problematic and could be the focus of an entire game session.
Adventuring Dangers. Component pouches tend to be made of combustable materials and spellcasting foci can be subject to destruction by certain spells. A wise choice of spells could “disarm” a magical opponent in a single round. Similarly, collateral damage, such as a fire spell that leaves the target burning, can also threaten to disarm a spellcaster.
Scarcity affectsÂ spell selection. If there is a legitimate fear that material components could be at risk, players will factor that into their spell selection, choosing at least some spells that don’t involve material components (so they can’t be disarmed) or ensure that they have spells that use different types so loss of one type of material component (e.g. flammable ones) still leaves them with components for other spells.
Material components are natural, and national, resources. There are many ways material components can affect the geographic, economic, and political landscape of the world. Spellcasters from particular areas of the world may have regional spell lists that reflect what’s available to them. A wizard’s guild would push itsÂ government to secure material components that can’t be found within its borders, either through trade or conquest. A disease could wipe out a particular material component, making spells that rely on them rare or impossible until a new resource can be found, cultivated, or substituted (the latter giving a PC spellcaster an opportunity to experiment). The PCs may be hired to protect caravans that are hauling valuable material components.
Those are a few of my thoughts, how about you? Do you use material components in your magical campaigns? Do you find it more of an aid or a hindrance to running your games? Are you so fond of them that you don’t even allow the “cheat codes” (i.e. “component pouch? Bah! You’d better get your butt to the nearest herbalist or magical emporium if you want to be able to cast your spells!”) to handwave most of them?
How the Identify Spell Destroys the World from http://projectmultiplexer.com/2014/09/20/how-the-identify-spell-destroys-the-world/ seems relevant here. Even if the pearl isn’t consumed in 5E’s Identify spell.
That was one of the first ones I read. It’s dangerous when you apply theory to a world that didn’t consider it. It’s even scarier when you follow it to its natural conclusion.
Let me quote Dungeonomicon here (http://www.dnd-wiki.org/wiki/Dungeonomicon_(3.5e_Sourcebook)/Maginomicon#Material_Components:_A_Joke_Gone_Way_Out_of_Hand)
Material components are a joke. I’m not saying that they are metaphorically a joke in that they don’t act as a consistent or adequate limiting factor to spellcasting, I mean that they are actually a joke. Material components are supposed to be “ha ha” funny. The fact that even after having this brought to your attention, you still aren’t laughing, indicates that this is a failed attempt at humor. Most material components are based on technological gags, when you cast scrying you are literally supposed to grab yourself a “specially treated” mirror, some wire, and some lemons â€“ which is to say that you make a TV set to watch your target on and then power it with an archaic battery. When you cast see invisibility you literally blow talc all over the place â€“ which of course reveals invisible foes. Casting lightning bolt requires you to generate a static charge with an amber rod and some fur, tongues requires that you build a little Tower of Babel, and of course fireball requires that you whip up some actual gunpowder. Get it? You’re making the effects MacGuyver style and then claiming that it’s “magic” after the fact. Are you laughing yet?
Of course not, because that joke is incredibly lame and there’s no way for it to hold your attention for several months of a continuous campaign.
If the joke part is true, it’s not surprising. Gygax insisted that his game world be pronounced “Oith”. If that is true, wow. Props for inventing the game, but…really? I’m left with that same inward groan one gets when someone inflicts a pun onto the world on purpose.
In a 5E campaign I just started a player asked me if I was tracking spell components. My response:
“No. NO! I’m not dealing with that sh*t!”
Player’s response: “THANK YOU!”
It’s not that disagree with the idea of spell components. These are all good reason to have the mechanic. But this is just one of those things D&D refuses to do well. As a DM, the last thing I want to do is be the ARS (Arcane Revenue Service) and constantly audit my spellcasters to see if they have all the proper check boxes checked so they can have fun. And really, what’s to stop them from just lying about it? The components themselves are either world or tone breaking. There’s no good way to enforce them. And personally, wizards, especially low level wizards, have a hard enough time as it is. I like the idea but the roll out is too poorly done, and I don’t have time or energy to house rule a system that my players will inevitably fail to remember.
Ars Magica handled this much better, treating what would be “material components” as a spell focus. They were not required, but they made casting the spell easier and/or conferred bonuses. They also didn’t have that cheeseball “yuk yuk wink wink” quality to them.
In an attrition style game, this works. Other than that- what is the gain? If you make this part of the pitch or a clear established thing at the very start of a game it is better. But really, what do you gain? I see the mage characters becoming paranoid and wasting resources to guard their required items. Destroying an expensive focus item will wreck the mage trying to use a great spell, but now you (as the GM) told the player he or she can’t have that fun. Is the fighter’s epic sword as vulnerable?
Why are you stealing people’s fun this way? Disarming the spellcaster who can then do what? Shoot a crossbow with a terrible attack bonus, run away, hope the enemy mage already died and spend rounds looting the body for his spell component pouch? it’s like paralyzing the PC only with more feel bads because the PC can still act- just can’t accomplish anything.
In a game like Dresden Files, the focus items matter and a huge deal. Trying to do a powerdful spell to locate the enemy? It takes legwork to make it happen. Heck, most of a session can be done just working to gather the necessary items to cast a thaumaturgy spell.
But in D&D- what is the point? Spending a whole session chasing down a thief who stole the pearls needed to identify the new magic sword- just play board games that week and say “Sorry, I couldn’t prep something this week. We’ll get back to the game next week.” Or improvise something. The only way this works is if there is a recurring element and either a major or minor plot element about the thieves and merchants working together to screw the wizards (then you can make it a great class struggle). But 9 times out of 10, this is just an annoying and wasted session.
For your first paragraph, I immediately wondered how Torchbearer handles material components. I understand that it’s very much about making inventory management a key part of the game.
For paragraphs 2 and 4… I suspect it’s one of those things that has varied over the course of D&D’s history. By working hard to bring 1e players back to the fold, you’ll probably also bring back considerations from those editions, even if you handwave more of them (via spell component pouches).
I thought about Torchbearer while posting. I haven’t played, but I would guess that spell components would function almost like ammo. Hard to acquire ammo, but ammo nonetheless.
I still see most of the “make spell components important” gameplay quickly deteriorate into paranoid PC/player behavior and a loss of fun. Finding new components as part of an adventure to do something like apply a feat to a spell (with limited uses of the component) seems cool. But that is really just a cool scroll or potion given a re-skin; at least this works and does something fun.
Good article! I ran a Pathfinder campaign awhile back and ended up having a discussion with a player over some cleric spells and their material components. Bless/Curse Water (1st-level cleric) and Consecrate/Desecrate (2nd-level cleric) spells require 5 pounds of crushed silver (worth 25 gp) as a material component. In addition to that, Consecrate/Desecrate also requires a vial of (un)holy water (Bless/Curse Water creates a pint of (un)holy water). Creating (un)holy water ahead of an adventure, during down time, seems very reasonable. But being able to cast Consecrate in prep for a combat encounter against undead seems very problematic. How many 5-pound bags of crushed silver can you carry around in order to be prepared to potentially cast the spell over an adventure? 5? That’s 25 pounds for a cleric to carry on top of armor, weapons, and other gear. Instead, the spell is probably limited to just being a one-time use spell, at least until returning to civilization and securing another 5-pound bag.
Let me float another use for components past your glazing eyes: as forensic clues for what has transpired in the recent past in a scene.
No sooner had I started reading my first Randal Garret “Lord D’arcy” story I wanted to figure a way to make a forensic magician part of a RPG campaign (this was in my non-D&D playing interregnum). D&D 3.5 showed me that it would be possible to do IF I could find a GM willing to work with me (I wanted to play, not run this game).
I recommend the stories of Randal Garret to all if you can find them.
Given Pathfinder includes a general feat to Eschew Materials worth 1Gp or less ( http://www.d20pfsrd.com/feats/general-feats/eschew-materials—final ) and I have yet to see a mage type of PC that doesn’t take this feat I never really gave material components much thought.
I really do like the idea of them being optional but giving a small bonus to the spell if they wizard has it on hand, rewards the rping of components but doesn’t make them critical to playing a capable mage.