D&D Tips: Spellcasting Components and Focuses

The subtitle for this article is “A Pedant’s Guide to the Infuriating Minutiae of Spellcasting”. Spoiler alert: we hate spell components and we want you to hate them, too.

We have spoken often and loudly about our frustration with the rules about spell components in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Part of our vexation is about the imposition of flavour, but mostly our grievance is based on the failure of the developers in their stated efforts to curb the excessively confusing elements of spellcasting, putting an end to the kinds of minor—but crucial—rules that we have compiled here. However, the rules being what they are, let us get down to the business of examining how spellcasting components and focuses work.

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Spellcasting Components

Every spell in D&D has at least one spellcasting component. As described on page 203 of the Player’s Handbook:

A spell’s components are the physical requirements you must meet in order to cast it. Each spell’s description indicates whether it requires verbal (V), somatic (S), or material (M) components. If you can’t provide one or more of a spell’s components, you are unable to cast that spell.

Verbal components are the careful intonation of mystical words (“Abracadabra, Alakazam!”). The words themselves are apparently meaningless (or, at least, they don’t hold magic themselves), they are like a lutenist’s fingers strumming their instrument to produce music—only instead, the spellcaster is plucking the strings of the Weave to achieve certain magical effects.

Somatic components are the gestures and motions involved in casting the spell. These range from making intricate gestures to grand gesticulations—because somehow a gesture is needed for a spell like divine favour, which is characterized in its description as “a prayer”.

Material components are the particular objects called for by certain spells. They generally fall into one of two categories: an expression of one of the laws of magic (Real Magic by Isaac Bonewits clearly belongs in the list of books that inspired D&D magic in appendix E, “Inspirational Reading”, in the Player’s Handbook) or a gag (see invisibility requires a pinch of talc… which you blow on the invisible creature… so magical).

We like to think that this is the intended gesture for
counterspell. It’s also our reaction every time Jeremy
Crawford tweets about spell components.

Mechanically, these requirements are tantamount to obstacles. A spell that has a verbal component cannot be cast by a character who is “gagged or in an area of silence”; a spell with a somatic component cannot be cast by a character who does not have “free use of at least one hand”; and a spell with a material component cannot be cast by a character who a) does not have the material component and b) does not have a free hand to use to hold that component (note that the hand which performs the somatic component and the hand which holds the material component can be one in the same).

It is important to note that these components are all obviously not necessary for the magic to be cast. A sorcerer with the Subtle Spell metamagic option can ignore verbal and somatic components of spells, and any creature with innate spellcasting requires no material components to cast their innate spells. Yet here we are trying to disentangle the skein of spellcasting that comes along with them, so let’s move on to the measure that the developers implemented with the intention of limiting the confusion, but so badly botched that it resulted in an article like this having to be written to clarify their rules.

Spellcasting Focuses

Because this is an article about pedantry, we should point out that, yes, ‘focuses’ is acceptable in place of ‘foci’. Yes, the word ‘focus’ is a Latin nominative noun of the 2nd declension, and therefore the ‘-ī’ ending is preferred by Classisists, but any amateur linguist knows that it is a loan word with its own meaning in English (it’s Latin for ‘hearth’…) and, therefore, follows English language conventions, including the morphological shift ‘-(e)s’ to denote plural. There’s a lot to be frustrated about being discussed in this article already, don’t make a mountain out of this mole hill. 

Some spellcasting classes have an option to eschew the component pouch that would normally supply their material components in favour of a spellcasting focus. There are a few restrictions on this, by RAW:

The nature of an acceptable spellcasting focus is outlined in the class entries, and summarized in the Spellcasting Focuses table, below. It should be noted that you still must have a hand free in order to handle the spellcasting focus (clerics and paladins can incorporate their holy symbol into their shield, combining the two).

A great many people may already be surprised to find that certain classes, such as rangers, do not have any eligible spellcasting focuses and therefore must use component pouches. We have had to point this out to many sword-and-board eldritch knights who wanted to play their characters RAW and also cast Melf’s acid arrow without dropping their sword or shield to pull out some powdered rhubarb leaf and an adder’s stomach, or dual-wielding arcane tricksters who wanted to cast invisibility without dropping one of their shortswords in order to pull out an eyelash encased in gum arabic. While there is some simplicity in allowing these things to be easily treated as expended uses of a component pouch (keeping down the bookkeeping), these elements still commit the fatal flaw of imposing arbitrary flavour over a character’s archetype. (This is why we came up with a better eldritch knight, a half-casting arcane class that uses their weapon as an arcane focus, which you can find here.)

To make it even more complicated, even though clerics and paladins can channel their spells through their symbol-emblazoned shields, ignoring some material components (which we have already seen to be completely superfluous), if a spell doesn’t have a material component but still has a somatic component, the spellcaster still has to drop their weapon or shield in order to do the gestures. Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford, in a truly spectacular display of mental gymnastics, explains this using the rules as written, below:

… [A] cleric’s holy symbol is emblazoned on her shield. She likes to wade into melee combat with a mace in one hand and a shield in the other. She uses the holy symbol as her spellcasting focus, so she needs to have the shield in hand when she casts a cleric spell that has a material component. If the spell, such as aid, also has a somatic component, she can perform that component with the shield hand and keep holding the mace in the other.

If the same cleric casts cure wounds, she needs to put the mace or the shield away, because that spell doesn’t have a material component but does have a somatic component. She’s going to need a free hand to make the spell’s gestures. If she had the War Caster feat, she could ignore this restriction.  [Source]

We’re not going to bother trying to work out what Crawford means when he talks about performing a somatic component with the shield hand, because the fact that this is possible and yet not possible based on whether or not the spell  has a material component is just the clearest indication of the utter irrationality of the system. We couldn’t write anything to more assuredly make the case that this system is horribly flawed. Come on, Mr. Crawford, either you can do the gesture with the shield in hand, or you can’t. You need to pick one. Likewise, you need to decide if these gestures are either necessary or not, and stick to that.

The Action Economy Won’t Save You, Either

Now, here you might say, “I think my DM is a reasonable person who is fine to let me simply tuck one of them away to get a free hand and then bring it back out”. And that’s fine, if you’re not playing RAW. You see, part and parcel to this problem is that the action economy limits the number of things that you can handle in a turn. As written on page 190 of the Player’s Handbook:

You can also interact with one object or feature of the environment for free, during either your move or your action. For example, you could open a door during your move as you stride toward a foe, or you could draw your weapon as part of the same action you use to attack.

If you want to interact with a second object, you need to use your action.

What this means, of course, is that if you have to pull out your spellcasting focus or put away your weapon to perform the somatic component of a spell, you can’t interact with another object (or that object again). And good luck convincing a DM that is watching these rules that you can just nicely tuck your weapon under your shield arm and also effectively use your shield. That weapon is going to fall to the ground the moment you raise your shield to block an attack. Hopefully you have a mean right hook for the unarmed strike you’ll have to make for opportunity attacks.

War Caster

Surely there’s a feat to resolve this! Well, the developers certainly tried (emphasis on “try”). In practice, however, their solution is far from perfect, and disproportionately favours two classes over all the others.

The War Caster feat allows you to perform the somatic components of spells even when you have a weapon or a shield in one or both hands, which seems like it would solve the problem. If you’re a cleric or a paladin, it does… most of the time. Because the feat doesn’t also allow you to ignore the material component of spells, you are still confounded by minutiae. If you want to cast a spell like protection from evil and good, which consumes its spell components, you still need to put away your weapon in order to pull out the materials.

For other classes that don’t get to incorporate their spellcasting focuses into their shields or weapons, War Caster is far less effective and is hardly even worth consideration because you still have to have a free hand for the component or the focus. Even if you are at a table where the DM allows feats and you choose to spend one of your character’s precious few ability score improvements to take it, you’re still unable to do sword, shield, and spell. It just doesn’t work; you must pick two. (This was one of the primary reasons why we came up with the Battlemage class.)

Make It Stop!

Frankly, we believe these rules—and spellcasting components themselves—to be arbitrary and vexatious impediments on the magic system. At our table, we ignore spell components outside of a few specific types of situations (spells with a range of touch or that require an attack roll have a somatic component; only spells that require conveying a message have a verbal component; and so on), and we have a lot more fun than if we were to enforce these restrictive elements of the game.

If something seems like it should require more effort to complete, the caster can come up with the rule themselves. The druid wants to cast find the path to guide the party towards a place marked on an old map? Forget the bag of teeth, the druid’s magical yew staff is worth way more and is a nexus of natural energy and can easily become a kind of dowsing rod. The cleric wants to cast heroes’ feast before the big fight? Nobody is ever going to have 1,000-gp bowls that you can purchase just to be consumed by this spell (who eats a bowl, anyway?); buy 1,000 gp worth of rare magical herbs from herbalists in the city. Or, better yet, go to fey crossings and spend a day harvesting the ingredients yourself. Stop letting Mike Mearls prescribe your fun.

Conclusion

So there you have it, every fun-killing consideration that prevents you from running your character your way (if your DM can even keep track of the many and preposterous requirements in order to call you on them), as well as our suggestion to simply throw out the entire Spell Components section of the “Spellcasting” chapter in the Player’s Handbook and have a much more enjoyable time not trying to meet the designers’ unrealistic expectations.

If these rules frustrated you… good. Spread the word. If everyone keeps calling out violations of these ridiculous expectations, more tables will throw them out and maybe—just maybe—the developers will finally learn that these are elements of the game that should have been left behind back when Elf stopped being a class.

That said, remember that the point of the game is to have fun. Don’t make this the millstone around your neck if it’s going to simply frustrate your fellow players. Some people, for whatever inscrutable reasons, would rather have the minutiae and will go to great lengths to rationalize the paradoxes (or happily dismiss it with a handwave as “it’s magic, it doesn’t have to make sense”). While we want spell components to be gutted, we’d rather not see your table suffer the same fate. Don’t let this be a cause for your table to break up.


Edit Log:

2018/05/04 – Added a note about Crawford’s tweet clarifying that a spellcasting focus cannot stand in for spell components which are consumed by the spell.


Do you have a horror story about how spell components caused arguments or otherwise derailed the game? Do you have another suggestion to add to this post? Leave a comment below! We’d love to hear from you!

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