A few months ago I wrote a lament about DnD Alignments. I’m going to turn this into a mini-series for Socratic Design: lamenting design aspects of games I grew up with that I wish were explored and perfected by indie games. In light of the news about DnD 5e, I think this series is quite relevant. Today, I’m going to talk about Spell Components.
Specifically, I’m referring to material components. The verbal and somatic were just kind of “meh” to me, but material components piqued my interest. As I stated last time, I came late to AD&D2e, and my group used books from OD&D to AD&D1 to AD&D2 and tried to reconcile them all somehow. As I poured over these manuals trying to learn the system, spell components jumped out at me. I saw them as a flavorful (colorful) addition to spell casting and a way to balance out wizards. In Rolemaster (my first RPG), Mages are really powerful once they get to 6th or 8th level. Icebolt was a brutal spell.
When I actually got to play DnD for the first time, spell components were entirely ignored by the group. The wizard never had to buy any, we never had to quest for any, and even when we would be captured and restrained, he could cast his spells. It was disappointing. When I switched colleges my sophomore and junior years, I found other DnD play groups. None of them used spell components either. Once I started going to conventions like Origins and GenCon, I found that most players around the country routinely ignored the spell component requirement. “Why was it in there then?” I wondered. It’s probably a better question than I thought at the time.
Anyway, I believe that material components for spells is a game mechanic full of potential. I’ve written before on how I think Magic could be used in RPGs. I’m going to expand on those ideas a bit here. In that older article I suggested that Magic could be used to accomplish one of three goals. I’m going to delve into Answer 3C: “Magic is used as Color to enhance the description of the Setting.”
I’ve written before that mechanics should work in a way that reinforces what the game is about (i.e. its thematic elements). For me, material spell components can accomplish this very well. Think about the scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Lord Voldemort is restored. The spell requires a ritual and physical components to do something. Each of those components is significant in a thematic and resonate way. It’s more than just pixie dust you bought at the local general store while on your adventure. Those items are meaningful to the characters, the story, and the setting. They enhance the importance of the spell-casting and required work and sacrifice for the characters to attain.
Take also how magic in Middle-earth seems to require physical objects to work. Gandalf turns pinecones into fireballs in the Hobbit. Galadriel can see the future in her water basin in The Lord of the Rings. All this stuff reinforces that the characters have a deep connection to the world and that the mundane can be special.
A roleplaying game that took advantage of spell components (and made them a critical function of actual play) wouldn’t have to worry about balancing powerful spells mechanically. Those spells could just require rare components that must be quested. You can’t just go to Ignacio’s Curio Shop in Freeport and buy what you need. Spell power could also scale up if the mage used rarer, purer, or more personal items as components. It would also enhance the system for creating magical items since that subsystem could share mechanics with the spell casting subsystem.
I never got to play in a game where spell components meant anything to the players on any level: not in theme, not in challenge, not in exploration, not in any way, shape, or form. I think that’s a shame. I feel games that support all three creative agendas could easily incorporate material components into their mechanics and improve both the color and effect of their system. I hope someday somebody does, ‘cause I’d be the first to line up to buy it.