HD&D: Spell Components Redux

Following the recent post on Spell Components, Daniel made a number of very sensible suggestions regarding the use of spell components in HD&D. Steve seconded everything he said, by which time I was already convinced. With no hint of dissenting voices, I am now publishing the new new rules on spell components. I’m quite excited about this.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Verbal and Somatic ‘Components’

The second and third editions of D&D helpfully pointed out which spells required the caster to speak (a Verbal component) or wave his arms about in a mysterious fashion (a Somatic component). By and large, this is a complication that I don’t want in HD&D. I think it’s far easier to say that all spells require some degree of Verbal and Somatic activity on the part of the caster. Therefore if the caster cannot speak or cannot move, then he cannot cast spells.

This makes metamagic feats such as Still Spell and Silent Spell all the more useful.  The few (the very, very few) spells that don’t have a verbal or somatic component will have the “Nonverbal” or the “Nonsomatic” descriptor. So basically rather than singling out spells that do have a verbal or somatic component, HD&D singles out the spells that don’t. As there are far more spells that do, than there are that don’t, this should make things much simpler from a book-keeping perspective.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that you can forget all about verbal and somatic components. When you see “spell components” mentioned in HD&D, the phrase is specifically referring to the tangible paraphenalia that is required to cast spells: your general run of the mill eye of newt and so on.

Material Components and Foci

A focus is an object that the spellcaster uses to direct the energy of a Weave. Spellcasters will favour a certain type of focus in exclusion to all others. If a character’s class presents a choice of different types of foci, then the caster chooses one focus at first level (or whenever he takes his first spell-casting talent) and sticks with it throughout his career.

A focus is not expended or consumed when a spell is cast. A caster can use it again and again. The most common types of foci include wands, staffs, orbs and holy symbols. A wizard using a wand as his focus would use that wand in the casting of all his spells. Plenty of wizards in the world of fiction rely on their wands or staffs to cast their magic. Before fourth edition, this archetype wasn’t supported by D&D: so let’s give 4e credit where credit is due in this regard.

In contrast, material components are ephemeral objects that are consumed with the casting of a spell. The type of material components differ from spell to spell. Some powerful spells require material components in order to function at all. However, for the most part material components are optional additions to the casting of a spell. They are used in combination with the focus to grant the spell an added or more potent effect.

The Focus

The type of focus differs from class to class, and it can’t just be any old thing. A wizard can’t unscrew the head of a broom and call the handle his magic staff. The construction of a focus is an exacting and complex task. Only the best materials, harvested in just the right manner and brought together by a master of his craft, will result in an object that is capable of being used as a magical focus.

A focus is created with a specific caster in mind. You remember the scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where the eponymous wizard goes to buy his wand? He’s told that the wand chooses the wizard. This is feeling I am trying to invoke with foci. Your D&D wizard isn’t using any old staff, he’s using his staff. And that makes it special.

The focus replaces much of the role played by material components in the second and third editions of D&D. The spellcaster doesn’t need to rummage around in a belt pouch for a scrap of shredded rhubarb, he simply uses his focus instead. Unless the spell description specifically says that additional materials are required to cast a spell, then all that is required is the focus. This immediately begs the question: what happens if a spellcaster loses his focus?

We could say that a spellcaster without his focus cannot cast spells at all. That’s pretty harsh, but is not without its precedent. None of the wizards in the Harry Potter novels can cast magic without their wands. In the films of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gandalf can’t summon magical power without his staff. This option is definitely on the table. It’s also the easiest option to implement in game: no focus = no spells. Alternatively, and slightly less harshly, we could say this:

  1. A spellcaster without a focus loses access to the highest level spells he can cast. A second level wizard with the Wizardry I talent would lose access to first level spells and only be able to cast cantrips. A thirtieth level wizard with the Wizardry IX talent would lose access to fifteenth level spells. So he’d still be able to knock out ninth-level spells, he just would be able to augment them with metamagic to such a ridiculous degree.
  2. Without a focus the spellcaster’s effective level for casting spells is halved (round down, but with a minimum caster level of 1). That thirtieth level wizard would cast spells as if he was 15th level instead of 30th. Each spell’s level dependent variables – such as damage, range or area of effect – would be based on a 15th level caster, not a 30th.

These rules would make foci extremely important to all casters. Divesting a spellcaster of his focus would be a valid tactic in combat. However, a wizard who loses his wand (or a cleric who loses his holy symbol) wouldn’t be completely shafted. He would still be able to cast magic, even if the casting was a little less potent.

Remember that the focus is only there to facilitate the casting of a spell. With a focus the spell works just as described in the rules. Without a focus, the spellcaster is greatly diminished. The focus grants no exciting bonuses to attack rolls, skills or defences. It grants no special powers. All foci come in one flavour, and that flavour is vanilla.

At least to begin with.

This is HD&D, after all. Foci can be augmented in a variety of ways. Foci can be enchanted as magic items. They wouldn’t necessarily grant a bonus to attack or damage rolls (but remember that magic weapons don’t necessarily do that either in HD&D). The focus might allow a certain spell to repeated on a target, or turn a recharge power into an at-will ability. They might improve your character’s defences, or augment the casting of particular spells. Orbs are closely connected with divination magicks, for example.

Additionally, characters can choose talents to augment their skill in using their focus. Each focus should have at least one talent associated with it, that allows the character to augment his spells when using his focus. Perhaps the talent called Wand Mastery grants a bonus to hit (or a re-roll chance) on all Ranged attacks.

One thing is certain: any magical powers displayed by the focus, or any effects granted by a talent, would only apply to a caster’s personal focus. If, for example, a cleric loses his personal holy symbol he can use any other holy symbol of his god to focus the energy of spells. But it blatantly doesn’t work as well for him as his own holy symbol did. Obviously mechanics will exist to allow casters to attune themselves to new foci should they ever lose their old one.

With this established we can have a look at the foci available to some of the established spell-casting classes:

Wizards: These characters get to select from orbs, staffs or wands. Wands tends to be used mainly for attack, staffs for defence and orbs for manipulation. Talents and magical enhancements to these foci will augment these characteristics. A wizard’s familiar is generally not a focus. Familiars serve the role of servants or companions.

Sorcerers: Sorcerers do not need or use foci. They cast their spells without using any material components. However, they can still acquire foci later in their career (by selecting a talent) and gaining similar benefits than those enjoyed by wizards, although few of the disadvantages. Sorcerers who have foci seldom have something as prosaic as an orb, staff or wand. The focus can be anything, including a living creature. The sorcerer’s familiar may not be a familiar at all.

Bards: A bard uses music to charm the Weave into giving up its spells. A bard’s focus is therefore sound, and the implements he uses to create sound. Musical instruments of all types can be the focus of a bard; he needs to strum away on his mandolin to cast spells effectively. Players can choose any musical instrument to be their focus, but they should consider it’s portability. A bard that uses the grand piano as his focus may wow the crowds during recitals at the local opera house, but he’ll be less useful negotiating the seventh sub-level of the Tomb of Horrors. Canny players will realise that the bard can use his voice as his implement. These bards don’t require  a physical focus at all, they just need to be able to sing. Voices can be enchanted too, as the Gift of Ysberyl in the old Game of Souls campaign should attest.

Clerics: A cleric’s focus is his holy symbol, but the type of holy symbol and what it is capable of differs wildly from class to class. Clerics of war gods often find that their holy symbol is a weapon of some kind. In this case it can be used as a weapon in addition to its role as a focus. Magical enchantments or mastery talents would exist to make the focus an effective mêlée or ranged weapon. If a Paladin can cast spells, he will use the same focus as the clerics of his religion.

Druid: The druid has always had a role as a ‘ nature priest’ in D&D, and like  a cleric he needs a symbol to focus the energy of living creatures and manipulate the Weave. A druidic holy symbol will be something connected to the druidic religion. It might be a silver sickle, it might be a magically preserved sprig of mistletoe. It might be a complicated fetish studded with claws, feathers, scales and talons. Druids are taught to find their own way when accessing and manipulating magic, therefore no two druids will have the same focus. Rangers who are also spell casters follow the same path.

Mystics: Mystics are divine casters who, like sorcerers, have an instrinctive understanding of the weave. They are clerics of a religion of one, who appeal to a god or to a variety of gods to cast their spells. Like sorcerers, mystics do not require foci to wield magic. To a very real extent, they are their own focus. Talents exist that allow mystics to heighten their connection to the god or gods they draw power from. These talents are similar in scope and utility as focus mastery talents, but have a decidedly different flavour.

Psions: These are spellcasters who use the power of their mind to manipulate the weave. Psionics doesn’t require foci in the same way as arcane, divine or primal magic does. However, psions have learned the advantage of using a focus. They can syphon off a portion of themselves to create a construct called a psicrystal. Part focus and part familiar, the psicrystal is unique to each psion. Each psicrystal is driven by one dominant personality trait, and can act independently of the psion in certain situations. A psicrystal is gained by selecting the appropriate talent, so psions don’t automatically start with a focus in the same way that wizards do. However, once they select a psicrystal they become as dependent upon it as any wizard or cleric.

Wilders: Wilders are to psions as sorcerers are to wizards. They are instinctive practitioners of the psionic arts, untrained and generally rather dangerous. The average wilder’s lack of discipline or control over his powers precludes anything as formal as a focus. They don’t need them to cast spells, and they can’t acquire them without judicious multiclassing.

If, through multiclassing, a character has access to spellcasting from more than one tradition (i.e. character is a mulitclass wizard/cleric) then they will require a focus for each tradition. Of course, feats would probably exist to allow such characters to combine their foci into one object.

Material Components

For most spells, you don’t have to worry about material components at all. As long as the caster has his focus to hand he can lob fireballs, raise walls of force and generally perform his spellcasterly duties with impunity. However, there are some spells that require additional materials. These materials might be consumed in the casting of the spells, or they might survive the process and be used again and again. So what types of spell still requires material components?

Spells where the material is central to the spell: There are some spells when you can’t imagine the spell working at all without an additional material component. Spells such as scrying use magic to transform a large mirror into a window onto faraway place. If you don’t have a mirror, how can you cast the spell? The various raise dead spells require you to have a portion of the body of the character you want to return to life. If you don’t have the body then how can the spell work?

Ritual magic: Spells that are cast over a period of hours or days, instead of instantaneously, probably require additional components. They might need special herbs or incense or dribbley candles. You can imagine that a Binding spell requires complicated arcane patterns to be traced on the floor. Special materials personal to the creature that is to be summoned and bound should be used as part of the casting.

By and large I will keep material components to a minimum. What I want to avoid is using components as a means to constrain the casting of specific spells. While teleport can be a pain in the bottom for GMs, I think the changes I will make to the spell text (as well as the way recharge magic works) will be enough of a constraint on the spell without saying that the caster needs to shell out a 5000 gp every time he blips from one place to another. I don’t want material components to seem arbitrary. They need to be an organic extension of how the spell works.

But normally, material components aren’t compulsory. They are optional additions to a spell that casters can make use of if they have the time, the resources or the will. Have a look at the rules for Metamagic Components from the third edition game. Go on. I’ll wait.

Metamagic Components at The Hypertext d20 SRD

As you can see, a list of evocative and eldritch components that can be used to heighten the power of existing spells. I’ll definitely bring something very similar to this over to HD&D. All spells will have a selection of material components that can be used to enchance them in some manner. Not all enhancements will be based on the metamagic system. It could be something more subtle.

For example: in the third edition game, fireball requires a blob of bat guano and sulphur to cast. In HD&D you don’t need those components, you just need your focus. But what if you did use those components as well as your focus. What effect would that have?

Maybe in the case of fireball you cast the spell at +1 caster level. Or maybe you do an additional +1 damage per die of the spell. Or maybe you have +1 to hit your opponent. Or perhaps the components only has a percentage chance of doing something useful – such as a 20% chance of knocking opponents prone that fail their saving throw. That’s the way it works in the Book of Vile Darkness. I’m just whistling in the wind here. I haven’t decided yet, but I hope you see the principle.

What I like about this, is that it retains the material component system that has existed in D&D since 1st edition. But it makes that system optional. If players can be bothered to use the spell component system, then it’s there for them. If they don’t, then it really doesn’t matter very much in the context of the game. Player’s Option: Spells & Magic (a wonderful second edition rulebook) lists prices for the components of all spells in the second edition game. I know that it costs 5 sp (for the sulphur) and 5 cp (for the guano) every time you cast fireball. If players want to bean-count to that extent then they are welcome. But if they’re not prepared to bean-count, then they shouldn’t expect to make use of the optional spell component system.


These rules excise the spectre of material components that has sat over my D&D games for the last 17 years. No longer do I need to worry about the fiddlesome nature of material components. The use of the focus opens up new possibilities for spellcasters that are both fun and evocative.

Any comments or reservations about the above? I am going to run with these rules unless anyone comes up with a compelling reason why not. I’m not necessarily convinced that it’s necessary to find material components for every single spell that had them in third edition. It might be more appropriate (and less work) to come up with materials that effect all spells with a certain descriptor as opposed to a certain spell. Or we could have a mixture of the two approaches.



4 thoughts on “HD&D: Spell Components Redux

  1. Neil says:

    Just read your magic component bit, interesting. All I would say is that remember that just because an idea is cool in film or in a book doesn’t mean it will play well or even at all. I think reducing the magic user’s ability to cast spells is the best option, though I question the extent. Also, those classes that don’t need a focus seem to have a massive advantage, are the rules going to rectify this somehow?

    Why have you limited the type of focus for wizards? Considering your belief that any character should have access to any array of talents and feats etc. it seems odd that you are so draconic here. Personally I would say the player can use anything they want as a focus as long as it has the ability to be as easily wrested away/destroyed as a staff/wand/orb. Why couldn’t a wizard use a sword for example? Or a gauntlet? Or a ring? How about a lamp?

  2. I think that those with a focus have the advantage of enchanting it (or choosing talents) that make their focus better. And therefore make their spellcasting better. Obviously, those who don’t need a focus have the advantage of not needing a focus.

    I’m not so much limiting the foci for wizards as I am concentrating on the most common archetypes first. Sure, a wizard might use an amulet or a ring (or a sword) as his focus. However, I think wands, staffs and orbs are just more common. There more wizardy, don’t you think?

    I’m happy to indulge other options down the road, but I was trying to keep things simple to begin with!

  3. I like these rules a lot. I’m very glad you took them on. Metamagic components are great. THe Unearthed Arcana variant in particular.

    I agree with Neil regarding toning down the penalties if the focus isn’t available. Taking away the ability to cast spells is too harsh. Taking away the top level of spells seems about right. It’s severe but not crippling. And it’s not like Harry Potter, which is a good thing.

    I also agree with Neil that wizards should have more variety in their foci. A vile necromancer with a wicked sacrificial dagger or a battle wizard with a longsword are good fantasy images; they’re better than orbs. I’d go for a dagger over an orb if you want to keep it simple.

  4. So you do thing removing a wizard’s access to his highest level of spells is enough, or should we remove access to his highest level of spells *and* reduce his caster level?

    Maybe the former, if we don’t want to be too mean.

    I quite like orbs to be honest. However, I do see the need for a wider selection of foci. Daggers, swords, rods, amulets, circlets…. yes, definitely see the potential here. I just want to avoid giving complete freedom, and having a wizard who claims his focus is a battered tin kettle, or old pair of shoes.

    As HD&D is reliant on the talent system for upgrading foci, the more different foci we have the more talents we need. I don’t want have create universal talents that apply to all foci – I’d rather have something more personalised and evocative: e.g. your focus is a circlet, circlets augment mental powers so you here’s a talent that adds +2 to your attack roll when using any spell with the Mind-Affecting descriptor.

    I guess we could take the reverse position. Have the player come up with what focus he wanted his wizard to have, and then retrospectively create talents for it. But the focus itself would still have to be special in some way.

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