HD&D: Spell Components

Part of me really likes spell components. I like the flavour. I like the image of the wizard grubbing around in his belt pouch, swallowing a spider and then scurrying up a shear rock-face. It’s evocative and it adds to the story: “Well, I would cast acid arrow at the troll, but I seem to have run out of powdered rhubarb.”

Unfortunately, spell components are also a pain in the backside. If you’re a wizard, they are a nightmare to keep track of. Unless you’re unnaturally excited by penny-pinching exactitude the chances are that you’re not going to want to make a note of the 8 cp you’ve paid for an adder’s stomach. In terms of story, spell components are to be encouraged. In terms of mechanics, they’ve always been discreetly overlooked.

As I come to write up the HD&D spell list, I have realised that they cannot be overlooked anymore. I need a satisfactory way of dealing with components right now. It would be too much work to retrospectively apply a system of component management later on. So what do we do?

Fourth edition uses components as a means to limit the casting of powerful spells (or rituals as they insist on calling them). All rituals have a gold piece value to cast, and you simply spend a like amount of gold’s worth of components in the casting. It is simple, but drains absolutely any flavour from the system. I want to do the complete opposite: I don’t want components to add any mechanical complexity to spellcasting at all. I just want them to be there to make the spellcasters look cool.

So how do we go about it? Here’s some thoughts:

Materials and Foci

Third edition made a distinction between material components and foci. Materials are the components that are consumed in the casting of a spell. Foci are usually slightly more expensive components that can be used again and again. A cleric’s holy symbol is a divine focus. Normally, that’s all he ever needs to cast a spell.

I’m going to introduce two new descriptors into the game: Foci and Materials. Those keywords will appear in the description of every spell, and quickly tell you whether such components are required.

I like the distinction between materials and foci. Once a spellcaster has amassed the requisite foci that he needs for his spell selection he never needs to worry about managing the foci again. Selecting foci is therefore no more hassle than buying equipment. It only needs to be done once, when a wizard or other spellcaster gets hold of a spell. It’s the ephemeral components, the Materials, that are more of a worry.

It’s not just a question of expending resources (gold) to buy Materials. It’s also a matter of keeping track of them when you use spells. If a caster has ten adder’s stomachs then he can cast Melf’s Acid Arrow ten times before he needs more components. That strikes me as a little too complicated. We need to find a way to manage Materials better.

Now, if we were using the proposed Wealth System then this would be less of a problem. Most Materials would be so cheap that they would fall beneath a wizard’s credit rating. So buying them wouldn’t be an issue. However, the consensus was in favour of a Mercantile system of asset management, so we’re going to have to try and make Materials work in those terms. Here are my ideas on the subject:

Buying Materials

All materials used to cast spells can be divivded into Common, Uncommon and Rare categories. Common components have no monetary value. A wizard can pick them up with very little hassle. Arcane outfitters may sell common components for convenience sake, but they’ll be so cheap that we can effectively ignore their cost.

Uncommon components are a little trickier to come by. They have a monetary cost, but it is usually quite small. For simplicity sake the cost of uncommon components is standardised at 1 gp per casting. A successful DC 15 Streetwise or Survival check is enough to mooch up these materials without having to fork out any money at all. One successful check will get you ten castings of spells with Uncommon components.

Rare components have a significant cost. That 500 gp of powdered diamond dust you need to sprinkle on the ground to curl your enemie’s toe nails? That’s a rare component. You buy Rare components in the same way that you buy foci. If you want multiple castings of the spell, you must buy multiple doses of the components. 5000 gp worth of diamond dust for ten castings of the toe-curling spell.

Now don’t fret too much about this. Spells with rare components are few and far between, and they are almost certainly high level spells. I will deliberately excise the sillier monetary costs from the system. You won’t need powdered diamond to cast stoneskin, for example.

Tracking Components

The descriptions of all spells with Materials or Foci will tell you specifically what the components are. That’s far more evocative than simply referring to generic “arcane components” as 4e does. The material component for the Tongues  spell is a small clay ziggurat. The player or the GM can describe the casting of the tongues spell using that component as colour if they want to. Everyone’s happy. However, when it comes to managing how many components you have left the rules become a little more abstract.

All spellcasters are assumed to carry their spell components in a pouch or a belt. Should they ever lose that pouch or belt they can’t cast any spells at all (unless the spells require no components at all, of course). This is important, because it means that it is still possible to neuter a wizard by stealing his spell components. That should be a viable tactic to use against spellcasters in HD&D.

As long as the wizard has his pouch or belt, then he always has enough components to cast Common spells. He simply never runs out. Or more accurately, he does run out but he can easily replenish the components off camera. No worries. No book keeping. Lovely.

The use of Uncommon materials does need to be recorded. However, this will happen in the same manner as managing rituals in 4e. The wizard buys or scavenges a certain gold-piece value worth of Uncommon components. We know that each Uncommon component costs 1 gp, so the recording the casting of such spells becomes easier.

For example, Skachec the Wizard (there’s a name from the past) goes into a magical boutique and buys 200 gp worth of uncommon spell components. They are a mixture of all manner of weird things – as noted in the spell descriptions – but from the point of view of the rules, it’s just a bunch of stuff that costs 200 gp. That 200 gp of uncommon components lets Skachec cast spells 200 spells that use uncommon components before he needs to replenish his resources.

Whenever Skachec casts a spell with Uncommon components he can just make a note of it with simple five-bar gates on his character sheet. When he’s running low, he just goes and buys some more. Or scrounges some more. There’s no more book-keeping involved than a ranger keeping track of his arrows.

Foci and Rare materials need to be noted as separate named items on the wizard’s character sheet. If the spell need a ruby the size of a man’s fist, then the wizard needs to note that he has three such rubies on his character sheet. The casting of spells that require Rare components will be unusual and game-shaking, that the act of deleting the material consumed from your character sheet shouldn’t be too onorous.


Introduced in 4e, residuum is the wildcard spell component that can be used in place of any material component in the game. It can’t be used instead of a focus. Like uncommon components, residuum has a gold piece value. So you can use 1 gp worth of residuum instead of an uncommon material. All rare components also have gold piece values, and you can use a like amount of residuum instead of the named material.

As long as the wizard has some residuum on his person, then he can continue casting spells with common materials indefinitely. Should he lose the residuum, or consume it in the casting of other spells, then the wizard can’t cast common spells either.

Instinctive Casters

For the most part, the use of spell components is only something that casters of acquired magic need to worry about. A sorcerer wouldn’t need that clay ziggurat to cast tongues. A wizard would. However, some of the spells cast by instinctive casters may still require important foci, or rare components. If this is the case, then it will be mentioned in the spell description.


Any thoughts on this? I know that some of you hate spell components with a passion. I want to keep them in the game, but I don’t want to use them as a stick to beat characters with. I think that these rules are a reasonable compromise, and will work in play with a minimum of fuss. Anyone agree with me?


5 thoughts on “HD&D: Spell Components

  1. First point is that the mechanics of this look fine. I’m not sure where spellcasters will be going to buy their 1gp components (where in Uris would you buy 200gp worth of components) but that’s another matter. I think it would work perfectly well.

    That said, I’m not a fan of spell components for minor magics. Big rituals should require funny ingredients but Acid Arrow? I don’t really see the point. I don’t remember any interesting magician from legend or fiction rummaging around for spell components. Gandalf, Merlin, Sparrowhawk from Earthsea? Nope. I assume there must be some, but I can’t think where. Maybe somebody in Jack Vance, as that’s where the other D&D concepts came from?

    I much prefer the idea that both 4E and Pathfinder use (in different ways) of focussing magic through an arcane object like a wand, staff, weapon or a good old orb. I think this brings a flavour that fits better with epic high fantasy than swallowing spiders does. It also fits in with Clerics using their Holy Symbol, which has been a part of the system for ever. I would propose that a wizard could use this wand, staff etc in place of simple components. I think components should only be used as a matter of course for ritual type spells.

    Another option is to use spell components as a way of beefing spells up, in the way that the Book of Vile Darkness allowed you to use powdered angel’s wings or demon hearts to improve the effects of spells. By finding unusual components, you could improve damage, duration etc of spells cast. This would make spell components mechanically important rather than just a way of ticking off the number of spells cast.

  2. You can buy spell components in Uris at Quodpoke’s Magical Supplies. Really. Quodpoke was one of Jhasik’s creditors from long, long ago. But that’s besides the point.

    What you’re saying here is really interesting.

    Looking through the spells I have already written, I have jettisoned most spell components for divine spells in favour of the Holy Symbol. Why not do the same for wizards and other casters? And why not let the caster choose the implement he uses – staff, wand, orb – and have those implements grant him different effects and benefits. And why not simply excise all those pesky material components completely?

    Yes, this is very promising.

    So what are we saying? Do wizards actually need their focus to cast magic? Are we taking a leaf from Harry Potter? Are wizards impotent without their wands? After all, even Gandalf couldn’t work magic without his staff, could he? (In the film, I can’t remember if it’s also the case in the book).

    Talents and feats would exist to allow spellcasters to master a particular implement and gain additional effects when spells were cast through them: in much the same way as 4e does it.

    And perhaps psionics doesn’t require these implements at all. Something else to set psions apart from wizards and clerics.

    As you say, some immensely powerful ritual magic would still need components. And components would still exist on Iourn. They wouldn’t be required to cast spells, but they would be optional additions that make the spells more potent.

    It’s not just the Book of Vile Darkness that has such rules. Unearthed Arcana has a whole section dedicated to metamagic components. For example, if you cast the spell Cause Fear using the powdered remains of ancient bones, the spell is automatically maximised. That’s quite cool, isn’t it?

    Under the system the individual player would decide how much use he wanted to make of components. If the act of juggling his inventory is not simply his bag, then he can simply ignore them. But if he has the resources and patience then he can use material components to great effect.

    This is much better than the rules I came up with! I am excited to implement this.

  3. I agree with Daniels suggestion about Foci replacing common and uncommon components. I think some of those spells which are particularly troublesome like teleport and resurrection should still retain components in an attempt to limit their use. I really liked the fourth edition foci and the way that they could be enchanted in the equivalent way of a magic weapon, but for spellcasters.

    I also like super-powering spells with optional components. I think that adds the flavour of spell components without them becoming a hassle. I reckon that if a spellcaster is seperated from his focus rather than being completely useless they should be severely downpowered. Perhaps by halfing their caster level and the maximum level spell that they can cast.

  4. Thanks, Steve. I’m completely convinced this is a good idea. I’ll let the thread lie for a couple more days, and then I’ll start to build some definitive HD&D rules for implements and materials components.

  5. Neil says:

    I like Daniel’s idea about components and focii but I don’t agree with Steve that it should massively downpower spellcasters, just say they don’t have the benefits or are slightly downpowered DC increase by a point or two or something. I also think that sorcerors shouldn’t need focii at all.

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