—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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!