(Material) Spell Components in Dungeons & Dragons

If there's anything in Dungeons & Dragons which is as controversial as alignment, and possibly even more roundly ignored, it's the idea of spell components. Some argue they are extraneous and irritating and ignoring them has no measurable effect on the game. Others argue that ignoring spell components entirely in D&D ignores an important--nay, vital--balancing element in the game. This article will examine spell components, how they developed in the course of the game, and the important role they play, at least starting with the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons iteration of the game.

To be clear, in the context of this article, unless otherwise noted, "components" refers specifically to material components, as opposed to somatic and verbal components. Pretty much everyone agrees that if you bind a wizard's hands and gag him, he won't be casting any spells. Indeed, that's standard procedure for parties wishing to capture a spellcaster without killing them. No, the components that are generally ignored are the material types. Let's look at why they are often ignored, the game balance role (if any) they fill in AD&D, their history in the D&D game, and ways (if any) that they can be incorporated that don't entail excessive resource management.



Constant Resource Management

Let's start with a concession for those who choose to ignore spell components (and I myself have been guilty of this far more often than not): tracking spell components can be onerous, and reduce a collaborative effort in storytelling to an exercise in painstaking resource management: how many pinches of sulfur or bat guano do you have in your pouch? How do you fit all that in your single spell component pouch and how is it organized? Do you have a lump of coal? 

It is largely for this reason, as well as a sense of hamstringing magic users, that people choose to ignore spell components. They think it's unfair for a magic user to quest to find spells, which can require deadly traps and risks, only to not be able to cast identify because they don't have a 100gp pearl. 

There's absolutely no doubt that this is the case. Detailed tracking of spell components is onerous and it does, to a point, hamstring magic users. It is, therefore, totally understandable when people simply ignore spell components. 

There's another side to the equation, however, and it involves as common complaint about spell casters in early editions of D&D, which spell components go a long way towards solving. That complaint is power disparity between classes. 

The Weakling Fighter

Please note I'm not attempting to argue the truth of the following section--merely repeating what is a very common complaint made by D&D players over the years. 

In a D&D game, at low to mid-levels, fighters rule. Their high hit dice, good attack probabilities and solid saves make them ideal characters. You can make one up in 5 minutes flat and tear through orcs, goblins and even enemy spellcasters like tissue. 

Flash forward to the point where characters get past tenth level. Magic users suddenly start to take on a much more prominent role in the game. Indeed, the spells they can cast at high levels, from Forcecage (which I know is not technically a material component, but the 1,000 gp of dimond dust that's consumed in the memorization counts, to my mind) to Bigby's Clenched Fist and beyond, are simply impossible for even a high level fighter to counter.

At mid-high levels, Fighters not only no longer rule the game, they're second-class citizens at best. This is especially true if the magic user can throw around powerful spells as they like, limited only by what they've chosen to prepare for the day. 

Some would argue that merely by virtue of having survived low levels of play, the magic user and illusionist have earned that status, and there's certainly something to be said for that. It still, however, doesn't do much to assuage the fact that the player running their beloved fighter now finds themselves largely impotent against spellcasters as the game progresses to higher levels. 

Spell component tracking, combined with properly tracking spell casting times, can be vital balancing factors in keeping the playing field even across the board. But even then, components weren't always as vital a part of the game as they became in later editions of the game. 

Spell Components in OD&D, Holmes, B/X, and BECMI

You can't address the issue of spell components without first acknowledging that, prior to AD&D, spell components did not exist in any official game rules. If someone can present me to a citation where they are discussed, I'd appreciate it, as I've scoured my OD&D books, my Holmes Basic, My Moldvay/Cook B/X, and my Mentzer BECMI as well as my later Rules Cyclopedia compilation, and spell components, as such, are not discussed. Spells have a name and description, and, as of Rules Cyclopedia, a duration and sometimes casting times. But there's no discussion of verbal, somatic, or material components. 

This means that material components first arrived on the scene in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. My thought (and this is nothing more than a theory) is that they were introduced specifically as a limiting factor for spellcasters, who in that game have access to more powerful spells than would be found in these prior games. 

Indeed, this lack of spell components makes it harder to defend their presence in AD&D, and much easier to defend the idea that the game did perfectly well in many iterations without material components, so why bother to include them later? 

Now all this being said, the first appearance of material components for casting spells does, in fact, arise before the advent of AD&D, or even Holmes. There is an article in the final issue of The Strategic Review, TSR's forerunner to Dragon Magazine.



The Pillars of D&D Magic

This issue, released in April 1976, carries an ad for Eldritch Wizardry, which was announced for release in May of that year. In any case, the article, entitled "The Dungeons and Dragons Magic System," and written by Gygax, expressly discusses the use of material components for spell casting.

Now, in this article, the expensive and/or rare components that would come to exist later in AD&D are not addressed. Material components, it is said, are assumed to exist for many spells, and require a "slight somatic and/or material component, whether in the prepartion of a small packet of magical or ordinary compounds to be used when the spell was spoken or as various gestures to be made when the enchantment was uttered." (The Strategic Review, April 1976, p. 3).

So here we have the genesis of material components, but not the detailed treatment we would later see.

Incidentally, and as a side note, this is a wildly interesting article on the development and intent behind magic in D&D, and is in my opinion a "must read."

Earlier in the article, Gygax outlines the four essential pillars of magic in D&D. The first is the verbal component, the words used to bring the magic to life. The second is the somatic component, the gestures used to manipulate the magical energies into form. Third is the psychic component, which refers to the mental attitude and acuity to cast the spell (in Vancian terms, the ability of the mind to temporarily hold the magical energies within the body of the wizard, until released by casting). Fourth are "the material adjuncts by which the spell can be completed (to cite an obvious example, water to raise a water elemental)." (TSR, Apr. 76, p. 3)

The Expanding Role of Material Components

I will admit that I haven't read every scrap of information about AD&D ever written. Few have, though I'm sure there are some among our grognard community who have eagerly devoured every scrap of every issue of Dragon magazine. I don't say that with any sort of disdain; I, in fact, admire those folks and wish I had the resources to do the same myself. I only mention it because I am forced to theorize on issues that may, indeed, have been answered at some point in time. 

I know, however, that Gygax changed his mind on many things, evolving his views as he grew and got older. His famous changing stance on Dungeons & Dragons RAW has been the source of heated debates for years (quick answer: he originally felt the rules were guidelines, then proclaimed for several years that if you weren't playing RAW, you weren't playing D&D, then went back to the rules being guidelines in his later years). 

His stance on how Alignment should be used in D&D was another shift. Thus, it stands to reason that the increased role that material components played in AD&D was the result of such an evolving stance on magic in the game. 

In the aforementioned article, Gygax says: 

"The logic behind it all was drawn from game balance as much as from anything else... Magic-users must rely upon their spells, as they have virtually no weaponry or armor to protect them... If magic is unrestricted in the campaign, D&D quickly degenerates into a weird wizard show where players get bored quickly, or the referee is forced to change the game into a new framework which will accommodate what he has created by way of player characters. It is the opinion of this writer that the most desirable game is one in which the various character types are able to compete with each other as relative equals..."

Gygax is also somewhat disdainful of high level spells in general, saying that he had no intention of ever publishing 10th level spells, and that the intent of the game was that it should take years of regular play (defined by him as up to a few times per week) to actually reach a level where 9th level spells were accessible. 

We probably also tend to level up way too fast in our games, incidentally. 

So there we have that. It seems to follow, then, that Gygax had a vested interest in what we now would call "nerfing" magic users at higher levels of experience. He wanted specifically to avoid the weakling fighter issue, and material components serve an important part in curtailing that. 


Material Components in AD&D

Okay, folks, after all that, here's the kicker: for all the argument and debate, material components don't play that huge of a role in AD&D. Here's the exact text from the Player's Handbook: 

"Material components for spells are assumed to be kept in little packets, stored in the folds and in small pockets of the spell caster's garb. Of course, some materials are bulky, and in these cases the materials must be carefully accounted for. Also, some materials are rare, and these must be found and acquired by the spell user." (PHB, p. 40)

That's it. You're assumed to have most material components tucked away on your person, but rare, bulky or otherwise special components, you have to account for. This, in many ways, nullifies the argument that tracking components is onerous, and at the same time discourages DMs from forcing players to track every last pinch of sulfur on their person.

Later editions, 5th edition in particular, have further clarified this to say that any spell that has a material component with a stated gold piece value must be specifically tracked; while others are assumed to be part of a spell component pouch, which the wizard should purchase occasionally to refill their supplies, and to be honest, whether or not you enjoy later editions of the game, that's a solid middle ground. 

There may, however, be situations where the PCs are in an area where bat guano and sulphur aren't common--say they're in an arctic environs, for example. In such a case, the DM could tell the magic user, "you've got x uses of the material component for your Fireball spell left. Track it." This is because in such a case, bat guano and sulphur become rare. 

In general, however, this is only going to restrict powerful spells such as Symbol, Trap the Soul, and the like. It is worth mentioning, however, that the PHB is inconsistent in this application--why have Bigby's Clenched Fist require a very specific material component, when Power Word Kill and Prismatic Sphere require only verbal components? There's also the question of why Identify requires what to a first level character is a tricky thing to come by in terms of a 100 gp pearl? 

To that, I have no answer, at least not in terms of the high powered spells. In terms of identify, I think the answer is clear in that Gygax didn't want people just being able to cast a spell to figure out what magic items do; he quite preferred the experimentation method. 

In the end, it may be best to turn to another comment from Gygax in the Player's Handbook: "Your Dungeon Master may add to or delete from a spell(s) and may even add or delete entire spells. he will inform you of these changes prior to selecting spells or when new spells become available to your character." (PHB, p. 40)


Closing Thoughts

In the end, I don't know if there's a solution to be had, here. I went into this blog thinking that material components were absolutely essential to balancing high level magic users against other character classes, but the simple preponderance of exceptionally powerful spells that don't require them has left me a bit cold on that idea. 

Of course, the precedent is written into the game, and it would be well within the purview of any DM to require rare and expensive material components for all of these high level spells. But the same people who would support the use of material components are generally the same RAW crowd that would rail against the inclusion of components that aren't in the rulebook, while those who don't include material components aren't likely to be turned around by the need for more components. 

Perhaps a better means of balancing high level casters is simply to pay close attention to the casting time of any given spell, and the conditions under which a fighter or other character can interrupt the casting of said spell

But that's been briefly covered elsewhere, and may be a topic for another blog. Cheers!

Comments

  1. Nice read. I like components, lean towards the resource management side of things. The idea of doing a quest for a component is great, especially if it is crucial to an overarching story. OR finally reaching the lair of powerful magic user and scouring the wizards stock of powerful supplies, pocketing components for spells not even known yet. Casting times are also important for balancing, sometimes my ad&d games feel more like a survival horror. In the end people should play the way that best fits them and should try to play a lot of different ways!

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  2. I'm fully in favor of material components in AD&D. I like the article in Dragon #81.

    So, I'll just comment on a side-issue. The reason that fighters become "second-class" citizens at high levels is that too many groups ignore the "endgame", which is where high-level fighters shine. The ability to call on troops beyond most other characters is a pretty useful power in high-level play. Only clerics rival them in that area, but that's another case of the intention behind high-level play, and the way the classes are balanced there, gets set aside.

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    1. THAT, sir, is an OUTSTANDING point.

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    2. Thanks. It's something I learned in literally my first game of D&D, where I played a Magic-User. The DM set me at level 1, even though he knew that we would be playing Tomb of Horrors. Not knowing anything, I asked if I could hire people to help me and spent all my GP hiring mercenaries. I was the only character to survive, even if it was partly due to the DM being unsure how to handle so many NPCs and just letting me give them unquestioned orders.

      And yes, we did lose a couple of characters to the Green Devil Face.

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  3. Although I'm a proponent of tracking spell components (and in fact all resource management in the game), I think a better way to balance the character classes would have been around the Experience Charts, and while there some attempt at that in the published rules, I think the attempt falls short. There wasn't any real attempt to make sure the classes level at the same time. Why not make the MU chart even steeper than it is?

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  4. "Indeed, the spells they can cast at high levels, from Forcecage to Bigby's Clenched Fist and beyond, are simply impossible for even a high level fighter to counter."

    Is that really true? Consider the AD&D rules for casting spells in melee (DMG65):

    "Spells cannot be cast while violently moving - such as running, dodging a blow, or even walking normally.
    [...]
    "1. Spell casters must note what spell they intend to cast at the beginning of each round prior to any knowledge of which side has initiative.
    2. Attacks directed at spell casters will come on that segment of the round shown on the opponent's or on their own side's initiative die, whichever is applicable. (If the spell caster's side won the initiative with a roll of 5, the attack must come then, not on the opponent's losing roll of 4 or less.) Thus, all such attacks will occur on the 1st-6th segments of the round.
    3. Intelligent monsters able to recognize the danger of spells will direct attacks against spell casters if not engaged by other opponents so as to be prevented from so doing.
    4. The spell caster cannot use his or her dexterity bonus to avoid being hit during spell casting; doing so interrupts the spell.
    5. Any successful attack, or non-saved-against attack upon the spell caster interrupts the spell."

    Forcecage is a 7th level spell, so it requires a 14th level magic-user to cast. The range will be 7". Our magic-user wanting to trap a 14th level fighter must trust to luck to win initiative - at a disadvantage of 3-4 segments, the casting time of the spell - and loose the spell in the first round of combat before the fighter can close the gap and enter melee.

    If the fighter wins initiative or is otherwise able to close with the mage, it's all over. The fighter's attacks will, per (2), always come in time to disrupt spellcasting, and with a 'to hit' target number of -2 (assuming no, or equal, magical to-hit or AC bonuses on each side) the fighter's attacks will /always/ strike the mage (twice each round, so even a spell like Stoneskin won't provide any second chance). The mage's only hope is to flee, which in itself prevents spell casting. The image that comes to mind is Conan the Barbarian picking up a sorcerer by the neck and throttling him.

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    1. A well reasoned point. Which I already covered when I said, "Perhaps a better means of balancing high level casters is simply to pay close attention to the casting time of any given spell, and the conditions under which a fighter or other character can interrupt the casting of said spell." And included links to the relevant blog entries that already have talked about everything you listed above.

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  5. Rebuke accepted, my apologies. I read your whole post but then somehow skipped the last paragraph, possibly because my lazy brain conflated the links with the labels.

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    1. No worries. It's probably a good thing to have it all spelled out in the comments here, anyway ;).

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  6. I too am a fan of material components, and rather enjoy selecting them for new spells that I design, such as this one for Control Light (a shadow master spell): "The material component is a ring forged from white gold and black adamantite, fashioned into a round spiral helix, with a minimum cost of 15,000gp; the ring is reusable."

    In general, I subsume non-costly material components as part of PC upkeep and maintenance: 100gp per level per month is quite the non-trivial amount of money, and, for higher-level PCs, could even include some pearls for identify ;)

    Allan.

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