The Cost of Magic

Class Symbol: Cleric | Dungeons and dragons classes, Dragon icon ...

So far, my longest contiguous play of 5e has been with my Cleric of Life, who has gone from 1 to 11. He’s a ton of fun, and I may ramble about him sometime, but he’s ben my window into something curious in 5e – spell components.

Now, to be clear, spell components are not a new idea (to me, or to D&D). The thing that I was offered insight into what the specific implementation of components in 5e. That said, let’s start from zero.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, casting a spell in D&D generally requires some combination of saying magic words (aka the “Verbal component”) making mystical looking hand gestures (the “Somatic component”) and waving around handfuls of weird stuff like toad eyeballs and such. These last are referred to as “material components”, and they’re what I’m talking about today.

In most cases, material components are mundane (if odd) items. For example, the sleep spell requires a bit of sand. This may sound like a bookkeeping nightmare, but for most spells, this is just all rolled under the idea of having a components pouch, which is assumed to have all your low cost components (which is most of them).

For a small percentage of spells, the requirements for material components are a bit more onerous. First, some spells requires components which are specific or costly. Specific components are usually tied to the spell – if you want to make a simulacrum of someone, you need a collection of hair, nail clippings and such from the target. Costly components are just what the sound like – for example Heroes’ Feast requires a jewel encrusted bowl that costs 1000gp to cast.

The other consideration is that for some spells, components can be re-used. For others, they are consumed when the spell is cast. This is not really a concern for mundane components, but for specific and costly components, it can have a big impact on how often you cast the spell.

In the game, they serve a couple of purposes:

  1. They’re thematic. The pinch of sand, for example, is tied to the idea of the sandman, sleep, dream and all that.
  2. They’re a practical limiter. If you take away a spellcaster’s component pouch, it greatly limits the number of spells they can case.
  3. They’re a potential gateway. If a spell requires a specific or costly component, then the act of getting that component is a potential driver to play. That drive may be as simple as “When we get to the big city” for something costly or may drive it’s own adventure if you find yourself in need of an archmage’s fingernails.
  4. They’re a throttle. Most spells can be cast every day without any kind of problem, but there are certain kinds of spells which get dull and fun destroying if they’re cast every day. These tend to be spells that provide information, give long-term buffs, or which create or recruit allies. Giving these spells a costly, consumable component should mean that they are only cast when it really matters.

These are really good design goals, and pretty well implemented. 1 and 2 very seamlessly enhance the play experience without any extra hassle. 3 introduces a little bit of extra bookkeeping, but it’s still less onerous than counting arrows.

But #4…well…that’s trickier.

The problem is not the intent – I’m all in for that – but the execution. Specifically, tying this mechanical throttle to money (in the form of costly, consumable components) introduces an array of problems.

For purposes of specific illustration, I’m going to use Heroes’ Feast, though almost any spell would work. HF gives the whole party a pretty nice all-day buff – it clears status effects, gives extra hit points, and gives a bonus on some saves. It’s a GREAT spell for the “we are going into terrible battle tomorrow, so tonight, we FEAST” moment in the story. But if unconstrained, well, just assume that any adventuring party would cast it every morning when they wake up, and it would quickly become very dull.1.

To balance this out, HF requires a jeweled bowl worth 1000gp which is consumed when the spell is cast. And that definitely is a limiter on casual casting. 1000gp is not a trivial amount of money, and locking it into the form of the bowl (which requires actually getting the bowl, not just money) also means there’s a specific opportunity cost to the choice to prepare for this spell.

There’s a logic to this, but it invites some tough questions. Specifically:

  • What is the right frequency that this spell can be cast at?
  • As an 11th level Cleric, how much money should I have in my pockets for things like this?

I’m gonna be honest, I don’t have answers for either of these. I might be able to vaguely handwave the second based on average treasure per encounter at that level, but that gets murky VERY fast.

But more critically, I’m pretty sure there is not and should not be an answer to #2. Money is a strong thematic element, and its presence or absence is something that’s going to vary greatly from game to game. One D&D game may be incredibly mercenary, with all money getting counted, banked and invested. Another may take a more Conan-like approach, with fortunes earned and squandered in rapid succession. Another may be as mercenary as the first, but have less financial success due to any number of reasons.

All these groups are playing the game correctly, but the second and third groups are going to have trouble with things like spell components, and I posit that either their GM will need to handwave a bit, or they’re just going to have access to less of the game (which equates to less fun by my measure).

This is because this is an untethered economy. See, D&D has a TON of economies – you only have so many actions, spell slots, attunements slots, time in the day and so on. When you make a choice, there is an implicit trade off in the choices you didn’t make, and that maintains a sort of equilibrium in play because the number of options does not dramatically change from moment to moment. These things are tied together.

Money is not. If one GM puts 100gp in a treasure chest and another puts a million, this doesn’t actually change the game much in any direct way. It can make a substantial difference story wise, yes. It can make a logistical difference, because gold is heavy. And, depending on the game, it will probably affect the flow of magic items.

But, critically, there was no cost to the DM’s decision (for good or ill). Contrast this with, say, the DM deciding which attack an enemy should use – it’s a constrained set of options, all clearly delineated, and the GM can use her judgement and the guidance of the situation to make the decision. There’s an economy to it. In contrast, the amount of gold in a box has no such constraints.2

Bottom line: There is probably some optimal balance of income which works with costly, consumed components, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it in play. Instead, these spells just become things I’m less likely to use (which is especially a pain for clerics, since a lot of their cool stuff falls into this category).

So, that kind of sucks.

Thankfully, it’s not an insolvable problem. We just return to the core purposes of material components – we need a throttle. Nothing says that throttle has to be shaped by money.

One option is to just rewrite all those component costs into something different, but that’s a lot of work and not terribly portable. We still want a generalizable solution, and ideally one which requires the least actual hacking to the system.

So, with that in mind, we look at the other implicit question: How much of a throttle is this supposed to be? How often would it be reasonable to expect to be able to cast one of these spells?

We could really get wrapped around the axle on this, so I’m making a leap here and saying “Every week or so”. It’s a bit of a gut call, but not entirely arbitrary. Since I’m starting from the cleric, I’m taking guidance from a few spells and abilities that have longer timers, like Divine Intervention, where you need to wait 7 days between uses. With that guidance in mind, I propose three options:

1. Simple House Rule

Special Ability: Divine Proxy

By increasing the casting time of a spell by 20 minutes, a cleric may cast a spell without consuming the material components, even if the spell usually does not say so. This ability only effects components which are monetarily valuable, not those which are unique to the spell. After a cleric uses this ability, they cannot use it again until seven days have passed.

Comments: This is probably the easiest solution, with the least bookkeeping. Note that it still requires that you have the components, which could still be a problem if the game is one with very little money. In that case, the ability could be changed to ignore the material component cost entirely, but in that case I would actually recommend that the components become rewards and objectives, since the default in this mode is that these spells are cast when the ability is available, but can – if desperate – burn the component.

Option #2: More Complicates House Rule

Special Ability: Devotion

Clerics have a reserve of points called devotion which can be spent in lieu of the gold piece value of material components. This reserve has a maximum value of the Cleric’s level x 20 and starts at zero.

Once per day, as part of a long rest, the cleric may pray to their deity and add a number of points to their devotion equal to level x 5. Any excess points are lost.

While this ability removes the need for costly components, these spells still require mundane equivalent material components, and as such will still need a components pouch.

For example: Zaldan is a level 11 cleric. His maximum devotion pool is 2200, and during a long rest, he gains 55 devotion. If he has 800 points in his pool and he casts Heroes’ Feast (which costs 1000gp), it still requires destroying a bowl worth 200gp to cast and reduces his devotion to zero. If he had 1200 in his pool, he could cast the spell using only mundane components, and be reduced to 200 points.

Comments: When I first considered this, I had the refill rate as 10x level. At that rate, a level 10 cleric could cast a 1000gp spell once every 10 days, and that seems like a very satisfying rate. Heck, it might still be right. However, the fact that this entirely obviates the need for material components makes this perhaps a little bit too easy to game. I slowed it down to 5, but it’s an easy knob to turn back.

Option #3: Object of Devotion

Add the following magic item to this mix

Focus Object

(Wondrous Item, Uncommon)

These items come in a wide variety of forms. Usually, they take the form of the material components they replace, but sometimes they may take other forms and sizes – it is not unknown for these to be built into architecture or statuary of sacred sites.

Each focus object acts as material components for a specific spell whose components cost more than 10gp and which are consumed in casting. When the object is used to cast its assigned spell, it acts as the appropriate material component, but is not consumed in casting.

Once a focus object is used, it cannot be used again for a week.

Note: If in a setting where there are prices on magic items, any price should be in addition to the cost of the components this item replaces.

Comments: This approach has a couple benefits. Items are MUCH easier to append to D&D’s current rule set without feeling hacky. Easier to homebrew into D&D Beyond too, if I decide to take a swing at that. This also has been explicitly written so that these could be used by other classes for other spells.

Personally, I’d probably recommend option #1. Option #2 feels like satisfying crunch, but it’s probably more work than needed. Plus, with #1, I still need to HAVE the material, which is reasonable requirement. However, if I ever get around to writing something up in DM’s Guild or D&D beyond, I’d use #3, just for enhanced portability.

  1. While I say this, I admit, I now kind of want to run a Hal fling game of EPIC BREAKFASTS.
    More seriously, this is also one of those 3e legacy items. In 3e D&D, there were a set of all day buffs for stats, and it started becoming a common practice to just cast them every morning. Formed the foundations of a lot of anti-fun.
  2. It also has vastly less guidance. There are charts and tables, yes, but they’re best guesses, and they have no space to adjust for context. The cash economy is a complicated thing, and the GM needs to balance both supply and demand usefully, and the right decisions for each game may go in radically different directions.

9 thoughts on “The Cost of Magic

  1. Simon Brunning

    Is there also an encumbrance cost to these components? I mean, how many jeweled bowls can you carry about with you anyway, without breaking them? Does that change things at all?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Depends on the form factor. Assuming it’s the same as regular components, then it uses that encumbrance (which implicitly means none, since they’re folded into the kit, I believe). But I definite envision 2000 pound statue versions too that are designed to stay in the chapel.

  2. Random_Phobosis

    What bugs me about spell components is that they are written as if they were some kind of rare items, and players are almost expected to quest for them.
    But from the wordbuilding point of view, if these components are integral part of spells, especially powerful ones, a whole economies would probably emerge around producing and handling these components.

    For example:
    – Army logistics would include supplying adamantine to regularly cast Invulnerability on shock troops and elite squads.
    – Great bat farms would be created in caves, with the sole purpose of providing guano for fireballs
    – Warlords would lug carts full of diamonds to cast Mighty Fortress anywhere
    – Each ruler would probably have a whole warehouse stocked up with gem-encrusted bowls to partake in Heroes’ Feast every day (and also feed their closest councilors and ministers). Not only this makes them immune to poisons (which are a staple of court intrigue), but also grants advantage on WIS saving throws, which gives them at least some defence against mind controlling effects. Spending 1000 gp daily isn’t as costly as risking king or his councilor being Charmed.

    What complicates this further is that the demand for gem-encrusted bowls rises, because all the noble families also want to have such spell for them. Jewelers prosper, but they need to come up with a way to meet such high demands… One way or another, somebody finds a way to automate production of gem-encrusted bowls, and can sell mass-produced bowls as cheap as 50 gps apiece. Which crashes the market of jewels, which influences all the other spells that need diamonds, ruby dust or whatever, which shifts the focus from old good generic fantasy to weird economy anomalies everywhere.

    Whenever I try to link laws of magic with real-world economy, I end up with spellpunk, where magic is enslaved by economy sensibilities, and “special” artifacts are mass-produced and used as mere batteries. This drains sense of wonder from mysterious things like bowls and chalices and relics, it can fit some settings (Eberron for example), but not many of them.

  3. Blue

    My basic though on material components has less finesse than yours. They (a) serve the same place as armor/weapons for the 1-2 times a campaign when characters need to act without them (captured, etc.), and (b) expensive material components act as a throttle. (I stole your term because it says everything I wanted to but more compactly. Thank you.)

  4. Blue

    We had problems with the in the published D&D 5e adventure Balder’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. Frankly, the economy in Hell did not run on gold, and what little coin we had there was no opportunity to convert into specific forms for components, be it a jeweled bowl or converting gold into diamonds for a number of spells that explicitly require them. (We also had a problem getting humanoid-type bodies for the necromantic druid, but that’s a different story.)

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It gets worse when your group has a moral objection to soul coins and releases them all. 🙂

  5. Pôl Jackson

    No House Rule Needed Option: if you’re running a low-gold game for whatever reason, award scrolls to your spellcasting players. Casting a spell from a scroll requires no material components.

  6. Blue

    Have an interesting twist on this coming up. Running a game where the characters are highly placed agents of the Imperium, each picked by a magical mask that has powers that grow with them. They can requisition basically any mundane equipment, and I use milestone XP. Oh, and a lot is in a new frontier, with very little dungeon-crawl type activities providing coin or items.

    It is the least murderhobo D&D group I’ve ever ran or played with in 40 years of play. The stay on target, avoid sidequests that look like just delays that could get them coin, etc. Really focused on results for the Imperium.

    But they are at a level where expensive material components are a big thing. Questions about availability and can they just requisition 1000 gp bowl (or bowls!) or a couple of thousand worth of diamonds “just in case” suddenly become a thing.

    Settings-wise, the Imperium is fading and cash strapped, so I’ll put a limit on the amount of coin-equivilent (gems, etc.) that they can requisition – they do still get funds during normal play, just hasn’t been their priority. Also setting-wise Diamonds are particularly special (“Tears of the Gods”).

    So I’ve reduced the cost of expensive components to 25% to start to match the very low money they have, but also allowed substitution of diamonds for other forms of expensive components so that they don’t need to tie up all their available coin in a menagerie of different types of expensive components.


    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Honestly, I LOVE substitution as an approach, in part because it allows a lot of really fun play. This sounds pretty cool.


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