Fixing Spell Components: Keep Your Flavour, Mike Mearls, I Don’t Like It


Disclaimer: To appease the small (but vocal) minority: rest assured, this article is simply tongue–in–cheek. I don’t hate Mike Mearls. Furthermore, Mr. Mearls is a very talented and creative individual whose reputation and integrity are very much capable of withstanding any of my criticisms, so there’s no need to leap to his defence. It’s okay to laugh as you read this article, nobody’s feelings are going to be hurt.— 


Before we get into the meat and bones of this article, I would like to share with you a quaint little story which illustrates my problem with this part of the game. (I know, I don’t share too much of my own creative writing here. I hope you enjoy it.)


Balthazar woke with an unpleasant jolt. Dull pain throbbed from his shoulder and his hip, both of which were resting against the hard flagstone floor, supporting his heavy, scaled form. A somewhat sharper pain was spreading from his leg, however. Remembering the ambush, and uncertain about just what wounds he may have sustained which might open up again if he moved too quickly, the dragonborn lifted his head. His vision immediately began to spin, but he shut his red eyes for a few moments and took some deep breaths. He realized, then, that his mouth was covered with a foul cloth that had been fashioned into a gag. He tried to reach up and pull it away, but he found his hands held with crude shackles.

Begrudgingly, Balthazar slowly rolled onto his shoulder blades and looked over to find Anastasia paused midway through winding up to kick him again. The young elven woman’s normally flawless appearance was dishevelled, her long, dark tresses in an unsightly tangle and a horrible bruise spreading from one eye that was partially closed. She, too, was bound and gagged. As Balthazar took in her current condition, he saw her jerk her slender chin to one side of the room, her green eyes also helpfully directing him. 

The dragonborn followed her gaze to the far side of the room. A barred gate seemed to serve as the sole entrance to this dank cell, its rusted metal and slight tilt testament to the age of the dungeon. Beyond the gate, visible in the dim, flickering light of a single oil lamp, a kobold in rough leathers of questionable origin was sitting in a ramshackle chair, its head resting against the stone wall. Its faint snoring was reminiscent of a serpent’s hiss. 

Balthazar looked back at Anastasia, and saw her scowl. The expression screwed up her perfect features even more and, if the circumstances hadn’t been so serious, the dragonborn would have laughed. The elf once again indicated at the far side of the room, and Balthazar turned his gaze again in that direction. There. At last, the dragonborn saw the object of the wizard’s preoccupation. Hanging from the wall was a large ring of keys. 

Now Balthazar did smile. Of course the wizard would need his help. He, the sorcerer who needed neither gestures nor incantations to cast spells, especially not the simplest of spells like what was needed for the situation. While Anastasia would have to perform intricate gestures and speak meaningless words, Balthazar simply drew on his innate reserves of magic and twisted the spell to serve his needs, as he had learned to do quite early into practicing his Art.  The dragonborn smiled as the key ring was lifted off the hook by an invisible force of his conjuring and gently drifted into the cell under his mental command. 

As he carefully plucked the keys from midair, Balthazar wondered for not the first time why wizards could not simply forego the obviously non-essential elements of spellcasting, as he did. 


It should go without saying that magic doesn’t follow the normal rules—otherwise it wouldn’t be magic! However, while it is important to not get preoccupied with how magic works, it is not unreasonable to expect that it at least works consistently. Unfortunately, that is something that magic does not do according to the standard rules of Dungeons & Dragons, and it drives me nuts.

No, this isn’t a rant about spell balance or bards being able to steal capstone spells from half- and one-third-casting classes far earlier than should be possible. This is a rant about spell components.

What Are Spell Components?

If you are new to the game, or maybe you’ve never played a caster before, spell components are the physical requirements you must meet in order to cast a spell. These components come in three forms: verbal (V), somatic (S), and material (M).

Verbal components include the chanting of mystic phrases and the careful intonation of words of power. The magic of the spell doesn’t come from the words themselves; rather, the words act like a harpist’s fingers, setting the threads of the Weave (the fabric of magic) in motion to produce a magical effect like the strings of a harp to produce music.

Somatic components are intricate gestures or forceful gesticulations. A somatic component could include tracing a warding sign in the air or placing your hands together in a certain way. A caster must have a free hand in order to cast a spell with a somatic component.

Material components are any object a spell specifies as necessary when casting it, such as a small, straight piece of iron for the hold person spell or a tiny ball of bat guano for the fireball spell. A character can use either a component pouch or an arcane focus (such as a wand or staff) in place of the actual material called for, provided that the material doesn’t have a cost listed for it. In other words, a character could pull out their wand and cast the fireball spell through it in order to avoid having to soil their hands with bat droppings because the spell doesn’t call for droppings “worth 1 gp”, but if they wanted to cast identify they would need a pearl worth at least 100 gp. If they wanted to cast continual flame, they would need a quantity of ruby dust worth 50 gp each time they wished to cast the spell, as the spell description states that the spell consumes the materials. A spellcaster must have a free hand to access the material components of a spell, but it can be the same hand they use to perform any somatic components.

So What’s The Problem?

The problem, my friend, is that the game presents these components as necessary, and yet they are obviously very much not. Each and every one of the components mentioned above can be eliminated using the following character options.

Arcane Foci

As mentioned above, material components can be mostly eliminated in favour of an arcane focus. The possibility of swapping out the bat guano tells us that there’s nothing about bat guano that is necessary for the magic of the spell to occur.

Subtle Spell

This sorcerer metamagic option eliminates the need for verbal or somatic components. From this, we can see that there’s nothing about the verbal or somatic components—the incantations and the gestures—that actually are necessary for the spell.

War Caster

This feat allows you to perform the somatic components of spells even when you are holding weapons or a shield in one or both hands. Like Subtle Spell, it’s an indication that there is nothing magical about the gestures that a spellcaster makes.

So The Rules Pretty Much Undermine Themselves?

Not only are you correct, you’re more correct than you know. Let’s take another look at the War Caster feat. On the surface it looks like it solves all the issues, right? Wrong. Notice that it doesn’t say that you ignore the material components of spells? As confirmed by Jeremy Crawford, you still need a free hand to access the spell components (or pull out your arcane focus). Essentially, the feat only helps you for spells like firebolt, which have no material components. Otherwise, you still have to drop something you’re holding (like your weapon) in order to cast the spell. That’s right: even when WOTC tries to help you avoid the this needless, cumbersome mechanic, their efforts are still thwarted by the imbroglio that they had every opportunity to dispense with throughout the upheavals that defined the transitions between the past editions.

Seriously, the whole Weave of magic was destroyed in the Forgotten Realms setting; you’d think that they’d finally have taken this opportunity to fix this issue as it was being remade.

So What’s Your Radical Solution To This One?

Simple: ignore spell components. Get rid of them entirely. Gone.

Now that we’ve totally dispensed with them, let’s start to bring them back, but only where they make sense as a function of the spell’s mechanic. Confused? Let me help you.

Verbal Components

When do you actually need verbal components? When you’re casting fireball? Hardly. You’re not shouting the flames into existence; get your head on straight. No, you need verbal components when you are casting a spell that requires communication with a target, such as geas or glibness. There are no magic words, you don’t say “Abracadabra! Alacazam!” or anything else as needless (although you could if you want). Instead, you say what you want to say (“Stop trying to shove your flavour down my throat, Mike Mearls”) and the words carry the weight of magic behind them.

Somatic Components

Although not quite as easy as verbal components, the solution to somatic components is still pretty simple. You need somatic components when:

  • The spell has a range of touch. Big surprise, a range of touch means that you have to touch the creature. That’s obvious.
  • The spell requires an attack roll. This could include a melee or ranged spell attack. Thematically, this means that you’re accumulating the energy of the spell in your hand and then directing it. If the spell calls for you to make a melee weapon attack as part of the action of casting it (as some spells from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide do), the spell does not have a somatic component, as this might lead people to think that some kind of action is required beyond the melee weapon attack.
  • The spell involves material components. See below for what few material components we are keeping.

You do not need a somatic component for such spells as blade ward, which only seem to require it because it supposedly involves tracing a warding symbol in the air. There are no warding symbols. There are no magic symbols of any kind unless you physically draw one and enchant it, as you do with most of the spells that have ‘symbol’ in the name.

Material Components

Before I start on my solution to this infuriating issue, I’d like everyone to repeat after me the golden rule that will help us remember what we are trying to accomplish: bat shit is not magical. Excellent, with that established, I will lay out my solution to this now out-of-control issue and endeavour to explain it below.

  • Spells no longer require sundry materials. Forget carrying around a hunk of amber for your lightning bolt spell, or a dead cricket for your sleep spell. If it doesn’t have a gold piece cost associated with it, it’s not important.
  • Spells no longer require meaningless props. My favourite example of how ridiculous some material components are is Drawmij’s Instant Summons, which requires that you crush a sapphire in your hand in order to summon something else into your hand. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t crush a gemstone without a hammer, and I certainly couldn’t go through the process of doing so in the middle of a battle, which is how the spell is quite clearly envisioned to work. Likewise, I understand that a forked metal rod is supposed to be a tuning fork, the resonance of which helps the spellcaster locate their intended destination, but where are you going to find one worth 250 gp, as called for in the plane shift spell? And while with a spell like awaken it can be at least be assumed that the agate would be somehow placed inside the plant to serve as a nexus for the magic that animates it, even that conceptualization breaks down when you consider that the spell can also be used to grant sapience to a beast, which would not be able to tolerate a gemstone inside of it. And what’s the deal with heroes’ feast requiring a gem-encrusted bowl? They don’t expect everyone to eat from the same dish, do they?  And why does chromatic orb need a diamond worth exactly 50 gp, anyway? What’s wrong with one that’s worth 49 gp, or one that’s worth 500 gp that you need for another spell? These props, and many others like them which I could continue to list all day, are meaningless, and can be dispensed with, whether altogether or in favour of more reasonable options (see below).
  • Use spell foci instead of material components for spells with a casting time longer than 1 action. See below.

As you can tell, my solution to the material component requirement is a bit more delicate than the “burn them all, salt the earth, consecrate the ground, and set a holy order of knights to watch over it for eternity” approach I have taken to other components. This is for reasons of balance.

I can understand why the developers want to have components which cost a lot of cash for some spells: it curtails runaway use of them. Obviously, a group of adventurers won’t want to invest so much of their funds into constantly casting a spell like heroes’ feast, which has a 1,000-gp price tag. That’s reasonable, and I agree entirely with the premise. What I don’t agree with is the execution, and there are many reasons why. One of the most obvious, of course, is that market prices fluctuate.

Say you are an incense merchant who imports their goods and a new trade route opened up that allowed your competitor to sell their product for a cheaper rate, forcing you to drop your rates, as well. Now, that’s bad enough, but what’s worse is that you are selling the same amount of stock for less so, when the priests of the temple of Pelor come in to buy 1,000 gp worth of the materials for their hallow spell, they can only buy 900 gp worth from you. Same thing with the diamonds they need for their resurrection spell; all the gems that you had cut into just the right size and shape for this purpose are now of marginally less value, just enough to make them insufficient for the purpose. At the end of the day, it’s all the same quantity and quality of materials that you sold before, but now it doesn’t meet the monetary value that the spell has arbitrarily set. So you can do nothing as the temple takes their business to a vendor who can supply their needs. Thanks, Mike Mearls.

My solution to this insanity involves taking all of the spell components that we are still using after the revisions we made above and lumping them in with the other type of material component: a spell focus.

Spell Foci

The game already has spells which require a focus, but they aren’t really different than material components; they behave in exactly the same way, they just happen to be more expensive on average. For example, the spell identify  requires “a pearl worth at least 100 gp”. It’s not a focus, but you need to have it. Meanwhile, the spell scrying requires “a focus worth 1,000 gp, such as a crystal ball, a silver mirror, or a font filled with holy water”. What’s the difference? It isn’t just about price, because the spell shapechange also calls for a very expensive item, “a jade circlet worth 1,500 gp”, which isn’t a focus. Once again, there appears to be an absence of consistency in the rules, so let’s revise them.

  • Only spells with a casting time longer than 1 action (and which previously had a material component with a given gp cost) will require a spell focus.
  • The cost of the focus is determined by the mechanics of the spell. Spells that take longer to cast require more valuable foci, and those which consume their focus have drastically reduced costs. See below.

The following text should be considered to replace the section titled “Material Components” in chapter 10, “Spellcasting” in the Player’s Handbook:

As you can see, this revision is intended to place the flavour options back where it belongs: in the hands of the people playing the game. The nature of the spell components, how to gather them, and their final cost are all at the discretion of the DM, with the players empowered to come up with interesting ideas of their own. Moreover, with material components removed from spells that have a casting time of up to 1 action, nobody has to drop anything in combat to pull out sundry items. Forget having to somehow crush a sapphire to get your back-up staff into your hand in the middle of combat with Drawmij’s instant summons, or having to pull out a diamond worth 50 gp (as opposed to the one worth 300 gp that you have for a different spell) to cast chromatic orb.

War Caster

I know, this also solves the issue of the war caster feat having previously been useless! Awesome. However, without somatic components being as large of a part of the game anymore, maybe we should take a second look at it now to make sure that it still is worth taking. My final revision in this article is to change this feat to the following:

With the addition of the last bullet point, we are finished. We have now fixed spell components in 5th Edition. Congratulations! Thank you for going through this journey with me, and I wish you all natural 20s on your rolls!

 

 

10 thoughts on “Fixing Spell Components: Keep Your Flavour, Mike Mearls, I Don’t Like It”

  1. This is needless dumbing down of spellcasters and also makes them way more powerful.

    Think of Silence spell – awesome spell against spellcasters.. If most spells lose Verbal component, it becomes pointless and spellcasters lose yet another weakness. To counter Silence, you’d need Sorcerer with Subtle spell – but Sorcerer is not as versatile or powerful as Wizard is.. It is well balanced and I like how the components work. Even War Caster works well.. It’s pretty easy to use your weapon or shield as spellcasting focus and thus eliminating need for non-consumed materials 😉 I’d, however, probably require some roleplaying if you choose focus instead of materials. Oh and I allow sorcerers to have no focus since source of their spells are themselves.

    1. Thanks for replying!

      It’s long been my personal conviction that the silence spell is simply antimagic field for bards and clerics available a whopping 12 levels sooner than the wizard and sorcerer gets theirs. That the particularly discriminatory use of the spell which you describe falls by the wayside with my revision is, to me, a happy consequence.

      I like your idea about incorporating an arcane focus into a weapon. The rules already allow you to do this, but it requires a specially-constructed staff. If you wanted to play, for example, a dual-wielding eldritch knight (which I’ve never done, but which sounds like it could be fun if that’s the character concept you’re going for), then you can’t very well do that if you have to pull out your staff whenever you want to cast a spell. And even if you did incorporate the arcane focus into your sword (perhaps a special gem in the pommel), that would mean that you would have to pull out your sword every time you wanted to cast a spell. You can imagine that would probably get you into trouble.

      These were all considerations that I entertained when I came to the conclusion that, if you actually abided by all rules, you were forced to abide by some rigid constraints on your play style in what is supposed to be a game where you can develop your own character (or world) theme. And that’s the major issue I have with the current magic system: there’s no room for individual creativity. It is for this reason that many people I have spoken to have told me that they wilfully ignore most component restrictions, and at that point you have to ask yourself “Why not just come up with better rules, then?” Hence this article and why it was written to appeal to the frustrations that players have over a very non-intuitive game mechanic.

      1. Silence is not an anti magic field! All magic already there works as normal. Only disables the casting of spells with the verbal component.

        As for eldritch knight, you only need to use 2 hands when attacking. So you can cast a spell while holding your sword with one hand and have the other free for components and then grab with both hands and attack.

        1. Thanks for your comment!

          I would respectfully disagree with your opinions, and here’s why:

          1) There are only nine spells in the Player’s Handbook that do not have verbal components. Whether or not the silence spell creates an actual area of anti-magic, it prohibits spellcasting in such a way as to be synonymous with the anti-magic field spell.

          2) If you wish to play a sword and board eldritch knight, you have to either drop your sword or your shield in order to use the majority of your spells because you need a free hand to do the somatic and/or material components of a spell. Even an arcane focus requires a free hand to hold, which is why the War Caster feat does literally nothing if you are an arcane caster—it is designed for clerics and paladins who can incorporate their holy symbols onto their shield. It’s a clear example of flavour dictating playstyle, which is why we came up with our fix.

          1. well it’s a 20ft radius centered on where you choose too. It’s easily stepped out so its not that powerful. Another thing hampering its power is that it occupies the concentration slot meaning no more haste for friends in trade for a spell that its easily avoided (unless in a really tight space). In 3.5 this spell was much more powerful because it could be cast on an item, meaning you could cast on a melee and the could go around with a silence spell.

            As for the eldritch knight you’re correct. Sword and board is not made for this class but i think that’s fine. It’s more a 2-handed weapon style, weaving around some spells and the class is balanced like that. Getting the benefit of more AC, getting to attack and still cast spells is not what the class is about. But as David said you could allow for the sword to be used as focus so only spells with priced materials would be off limits.

          2. Silence is a 20-foot radius invisible area. Not easily stepped out of at all if you guess the wrong direction to move in. You can easily waste your movement (and action to dash) going the long way through to get out of the spell’s area. If the area of the spell was visible, it would be another matter. And a 20-foot radius is 40 feet across; not small at all. That covers the entirety of most rooms and easily gets the majority of a large chamber.

            The spell is so broken that it ranked among our top ten WORST spells in Arcane Emporium, Vol. 7, where we fixed the most problematic spells in the game.

  2. As for the homebrew on spellcasting components, I have to agree with David. It would throw a lot of the balance and even step on the toes of the sorcerer metamagic subtle spell (that you didn’t even present a solution to).

    The only thing that I would consider using is the spell foci but even there I think you’re over thinking it. Wouldn’t it much easier to just allow to use the 300gp diamond for the spell costing 50gp? 5e is very friendly on DM ruling and this sort of thing would be fine in any table without needing to introduce a new mechanic to spell casting. And I really doubt there exists a game where a player would go buy a 50gp diamond and the vendor would say “Sorry but the diamond price went down and those i have in stock are only worth 45gp now”.

    So in the end, I would just rule that you can use the same materials if they are more expensive.

    Just a final note on the crushing a gem. Describing the spell, one could just say that the magic flowing crushed the gem as the spell goes out. Its not like you need the strength to crush it and make a STR ability check 🙂

  3. I agree with a lot of the complaints about how spells work, but I don’t agree with the way it is gone about. I don’t see the need for a lot of homebrew on top of the rules when you can handwave a lot of it and not loose flavor.

    In my games, I handle it this way:
    For verbal components, it doesn’t matter what the person says as much as the fact that they say something. It’s more a way of focusing the magic than it is a set of definite incantations or tones. An Elven trained caster will probably say “fireball” in Elvish, and a Dwarven caster will probably say it in Dwarven.
    Somatic components still require at least one free hand. It’s another way of guiding and focusing the magic. War Casters have simply learned how to make variant gestures with their weapons.
    Material components, however, do not require a free hand as long as they are reasonably on one’s person (someone is more than free to reach into a spell pouch for flavor, of course). The magic “reaches” into the pouch and uses or consumes the component. That being said, I really only care about the material components that have a cost anyway. If they don’t have a cost, it’s simply a matter of not being necessary, you stock it in your pouch whenever you hit a town, or a spell focus eliminates the need.

  4. So what about casting detect thoughts while dining the king? Currently you’d have all the guards surround you as soon as you start waving your hands and speaking gibberish. It’s a very hard spell to pull of undetected.

    But with your rules I’d be able to covertly point a magic focus at the king under the table without anyone noticing. It’d make using magic on friendlies so much easier that it’d make the spellcasting characters much more powerful. Maybe the words and movements arn’t very magical but they do balance the game.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      We would argue that kind of thing is easily handled by proper worldbuilding. If magic exists, establishments will consider how to monitor, police, and negate it.

      If a king does not have magical protection against divination spells, such as with a ring of mind shielding, he needs to stop spending the realm’s money on frivolous things. In all likelihood, such a thing would be part of the royal regalia that gets passed down generation to generation. Likewise, spellcasters capable of casting spells such as Mordenkainen’s sanctum would have no shortage of work making such spells permanent anywhere people of importance meet for official negotiations (such as the dinner table), perhaps finding ways of allowing the hosts to circumvent them to get the upper hand.

      You can also give other ways of allowing magic to be detected. Perhaps it causes a slight charge in the air or a tingle in the back of your teeth. Expert spellcasters can perhaps try to disguise this effect, but the more complicated the spell the harder that becomes. You don’t need to have gestures to give limitations to magic.

      Best!
      – the Archmage

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