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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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/or (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. They are arbitrary impediments that make for a tangled skein of convoluted rules, so let’s move on to examine the measures that the developers implemented with the intention of limiting the confusion, but whch they so badly botched that an article like this had to be written to clarify their rules.
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 sideline the discussion with linguistic sophistry.
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 spell component cannot have an associated price; and
- The spell component cannot be consumed by the spell (confirmed by Jeremy Crawford; see also here)
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 already proves 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, JC, 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 sheathe my weapon 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.
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, and spells that require conveying a message have a verbal component. Otherwise, magic is an act of silent will. This allows the players to come up with their own flavour to make their magic reflect their chosen tradition. If the druid wants to cast find the path to guide the party towards a place marked on an old map, they can use their extremely valuable, magical yew staff as a kind of dowsing rod. If the Light domain cleric wants to do the same, they can hold up their holy symbol and follow where it most strongly reflects ambient light.
The only exception to these stripped-down rules is if a spell should require additional steps or an inherent cost to prevent it from being abused. In these cases, the players should be given a wide latitude to come up with how they fulfill these steps. The heroes’ feast spell is a fantastic example: its effects are potent enough that it should require preparation and the expenditure of something valuable to ensure the party isn’t using it every day (or every fight). But a 1,000-gp bowl? What is the logic there? Instead, let the druid buy or harvest 1,000 gp worth of rare magical herbs from fey crossings, or let the War cleric ritually sacrifice a few warhorses and harvest the meat for the feast, or some other thematic option of the player’s own choosing. Stop letting Mike Mearls prescribe your fun.
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.
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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11 thoughts on “D&D Tips: Spellcasting Components and Focuses”
It occurs to me that the Warcaster feat may not even apply to focuses, as they’re not weapons or necessarily sheilds, regular arcane and druid focusses are adventurer’s gear.
So… If a wizard held say, a focus and a torch, they still may not be able to cast somatic-only spells even with the Warcaster feat.
When I look into this issue, I constant see people pointing to the Warcaster feat as the solution to “Characters with shields casting shield” but.. Right here is another situation where it’s a hindrance for… not having darkvision, or something.,
“Get out the focus to cast a spell… and then be unable to cast Shield or Absorb Elements on a reaction without having to drop stuff.”
That said, I don’t mind components as long as you can do the somatic parts with a focus… as long as the focus is for the same class as the spell. That makes sense to me.
Oh… about your unarmed strike as an attack of opportunity…
Use the shield as an improvised weapon! You can do that, right?
While I actually like components I can see your point of view. Though question, if you get rid of verbal doesn’t that get rid of a big utility of the silence spell. Or getting rid of somatic and verbal basically makes one of the things sorcerers do that make them different than other classes pointless. I get there are plenty of metamagic options to choose from but it’s supposed to be something unique to that class.
Also war caster can help other classes. So you forgot that a wizard, sorcerer, warlock, and druid can use a staff as a weapon, it’s considered a quarterstaff. So if they wanted to have a staff and something else in their hand it would allow them to cast spells that don’t require material components. There is also the bard and warlock subclass that allows them to use a weapon as a focus.
True some components make no sense when they are consumed, but that’s more for balance and if the DM doesn’t care then ignore or change it.
To add to this the Arcane Focus of a Wizards can be the Staff he uses to attack. Nowhere does it say it has to be a separate item. So the wizards can use the Arcane Focus (Staff) as a Spellfocus for the material components and have a sword in his other hand. If he has a particular spell that only has somatic then he`ll have to either sheath the staff or the sword.
A wizard’s arcane focus (staff) should be able to double as a quarterstaff, but a plain old quarterstaff isn’t itself a spellcasting focus. A quarterstaff from the Weapons table in chapter 5, “Equipment” costs 2 sp, compared to the staff mentioned under the Arcane Focus section in the Adventuring Gear table on the next page, which costs 5 gp. They’re the same weight, but the focus has been specially constructed to channel magical energies, so make sure you’ve bought the right item.
What About The Warlock?
Should A Hexblade Be Able To Be Used As A Focus?
Or Their Familiar Or Pact Weapon Or Tome? (Or Maybe Not The Familiar As That Could Get Weird)
Love your article and agree with you on all points. That being said, I would like to offer an alternate solution that I put in place for one of my campaigns. (Note this solution was put in place before the internet lol some 30+ years ago.)
My players and I disliked components even back when the game was young. We came up with a middle ground.
1. Components without an associated cost were removed.
2. Components with an associated cost, regardless of consumption or not, were moved to the preparation/recovery phase. We simply agreed that cost based components were required as a focus for initial learning of the spell and subsequent re-learning as part of daily preparation.
I still like your removal method but I am offering this for those DM’s and players who, for whatever reason, like the “idea” of components.
Thanks for your comment!
That is certainly another solution to the issue of the tedium around material components. Out of curiosity, when you say “and subsequently re-learning as part of daily preparation”, does that mean you have the caster pay the cost every time they prepare the spell? If so, do you find that it discourages people from taking spells like chromatic orb, which would have a 50-gp price tag every time you prepare it as opposed to the regular one-time 50-gp investment?
– the Archmage
Opps my bad. Short answer, we discussed it and costs were all considered one time expenditures.
Longer answer, components, if required due to cost, were only required in order to initially learn the spell and for memorizing or preparing after use. In essence we removed the “Consumed on use” factor of any component that had cost. As you pointed out a 1000gp bowl is a bit absurd.
We had discussed lowering the cost of a few and making them repeat costs due to the power of the spell but in the end we all agreed that a one time cost was sufficient.
Keeping in mind that this was back when D&D was new’ish and some of the stuff that came out in the various magazines had some bizarre component costs associated with them.
Question for you! Loved the article btw! What about the lesser restoration and other spells that raise someone from the dead? How do you feel about those requiring a material component?
Thanks for your question!
While lesser restoration doesn’t have any material component, spells that raise the dead (revivify, raise dead, etc.) are similar mechanically to heroes’ feast: they require a monetary investment to be sacrificed. Just like heroes’ feast, we agree that it prevents the spells from being overused, but we would rather the diamond requirement be commuted in favour of X gp worth of whatever you want. Diamonds could certainly still suffice, but casting revivify on a druid and using 300 gp worth of sacred herbs like silver fir, hazel, vervain, and pine is a lot more appropriate, as would 1 lb of platinum be more appropriate for a dwarven character with a smith background.
At your discretion, each character could assemble their own “revive bundle” as they adventure, keeping items of personal import on them that can be consumed by a spell to bring them back. This would give the DM a reason to personalize minor treasure that the party encounters such that the characters may want to hold on to things on occasion, as opposed to going to town and just converting everything to gp. Really, the amount of coin that adventurers carry already strains the limit of plausibility, so having them keep some of it as treasure solves multiple problems at once.
– the Archmage
One of the changes that I’ve made in my “a bit grittier than usual” campaing is how the spells that raise the dead work.
For the “material” components part, to use one of those spells, the participants in the ritual (because the are rituals) must meet the cost in two ways:
– Using an object woth the gp value (or more) hold dear to the character that they are trying to bring back. Which is comsumed (-Thanks! Where’s my magic sword? – Don’t worry about that, the important thing is that you’re alive…). This is the “real material component.
– “Sacrificing” as much “Vital Energy” as the material component value. In the form of XP (yes, experience points), shared between all the participants. They cannot level down, of course.
As per the rest of components for other kind of spells I just play along with the story:
-The wizard doesn’t want the leader of the cult they’re negotiating with to know he is casting a spells, well youwill have to conceal that somatic component. Maybe with a Charisma (Deception) check?
– You have to be quiet but also MUST cast that spell. An Inteligence(Arcana or religion) check should let you just whisper an otherwise loud verbal component.
– Usually, if the spell to be cast its not crucial for the story if you have the money to pay up the material component needed, you have the component in your ” components pouch”. If the spell would mean a great deal to the story, then it should be got in a miniquest.
First: Pardon my english.
Second and foremost: Love the article and the site!