In my last post, I discussed how expanding options and shrinking rounds turned what Dungeons & Dragons characters had in hand into something that mattered. I showed a mindset that avoids making gear in hand into a distraction at the table, but I dodged the area of the fifth-edition rules that leads to the most questions. What must a spellcaster have in hand to cast spells?
In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, no one worried what magic users could do with their hands. That changed when someone captured an enemy mage—or was captured themselves. Now players wondered if their imprisoned magic user could still cast. The 1977 Basic Set gave an official answer: A magic user “can then throw the spell by saying the magic words and making gestures with his hands. This means that a magic-user bound and gagged can not use his magic.” The set credits Eric Holmes as editor, but the rules came from Gary Gygax and previewed things to come in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
By requiring wizards to speak and gesture, D&D enabled plots involving captive and helpless wizards, but Gary elected to go further. In The Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt, a character explains, “The normal spell consists of several components, which may be termed the verbal, somatic and material.” Even though material components seldom affected play, Gary added them, probably because he relished inventing witty spell components. For example, the Fireball spell requires bat guano because guano once served as a source of saltpeter, an ingredient in gunpowder. Aside from tickling Gary’s fancy, material components only occasional saw play, and then only as a story device. For example, the second-edition Dark Sun setting turned material components into one of many resources players struggled to find in a resource-poor world.
By fourth-edition, material components only applied to rituals, and then only as a means to cap ritual use by attaching a gold cost. Of all the new changes that sparked protests, no one seemed to morn the loss of material components. Even the most hidebound players happily continued to ignore material components. Nonetheless, as a nod to tradition, fifth edition included material components. Many casters will opt to substitute a spellcasting focus instead.
|Class||Spellcasting alternative to material components|
|Bard||Musical instrument (Player’s Handbook p.53)|
|Cleric||Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.|
|Druid||Druidic focus (PH p.151). May be a staff, which doubles as a quarterstaff weapon.|
|Fighter – Eldritch Knight||Arcane focus (PH p.151).|
|Paladin||Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.|
|Ranger||No focus, so Rangers require material components to cast.|
|Rogue – Arcane Trickster||Arcane focus (PH p.151)|
|Sorcerer||Arcane focus (PH p.151)|
|Warlock||Arcane focus (PH p.151)|
|Wizard||Arcane focus (PH p.151)|
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ignored the issue of how dual-wielding rangers and multiclassed elves could access material components while fighting with sword and shield. The game used minute-long combat rounds, and a first-level spell only took 6 seconds to cast, leaving plenty of extra time to gather components, repack a bag, and savor a juice box before the start of the next round. The second-edition Player’s Handbook grants even more wiggle room. “The caster must…have both arms free.” Not hands, arms. It’s all in the wrists.
Players imagine a round as an exchange of blows, making the 1-minute round seem ludicrously long. So in third-edition, the round shrank to a mere six seconds. This seemed more plausible, but suddenly players needed to account for time needed to switch weapons and to being spell components to hand. Mialee, third edition’s iconic elf wizard, wore practical garb covered with pockets for easy access to spell components. (Plus, the midriff-baring outfit can be worn throughout pregnancy.) As a product of the shorter round, drawing or sheathing a weapon became a move action. In practice, few players paid much attention to what their characters held, with no more concern to freeing hands for spell gestures and components than in 1974.
Next: Lawful DM and Chaotic DM answer questions about spellcasting and free hands