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 to 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.
For 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 medieval 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. There was a caveat involved; any material component that had a cost attached still needed to be purchased. 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 affects 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 its 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?