I really like material components… At least in theory. Requiring a wizard to use a grasshopper’s leg as part of a jump spell (as an example) adds a lot of flavor to the game. But in practice material components are very problematic.
Tracking Material Components
The primary complaint is in tracking components. Even at low levels, there are a number of components that a wizard will need to keep on hand. By 10th level a wizard may need to carry around scores of different items and each must be separated and at the ready so the wizard need not waste time digging around in a backpack.
A common approach is to offer Material Component Pouches™. These pouches, readily available in all towns, contain all the common material components needed to cast a set number of spells. Instead of tracking each component individually, the wizard need only keep track of how many spells she has cast and buy a new pouch when she has reached the prescribed limit. In essence, it is very like crossing off a week’s rations every seven days. Rare and expensive components are still tracked individually.
Apparently, a great many people use this method. It seems a bit silly to me but it definitely has its supporters.
A similar approach is to replace common material components with Magic Dust™. A tiny bit is required to cast any spell. Some have gone further to say that it requires one pinch per level of the spell. Again, rare and expensive components are still tracked separately.
What I like about components is the flavor that they add to the game. This method effectively gets rid of that (at least for me) so I like this approach even less.
Getting Rid of Material Components
This is, by far, the most popular solution. Locating, storing, and tracking (let alone running out of) components is a real pain. The benefit is questionable at best. So just get rid of em. That is certainly an option.
However, material components aren’t solely for adding flair. Those rare and expensive components I keep mentioning actually serve a purpose. In order to balance the power of certain spells, an expensive material component may be required (a 5000gp gem, for instance, that is consumed by the spell). Alternately, a rare component may be needed (perhaps a poison sac taken from a freshly killed and hard to find creature). Blindly dumping the requirement for all material components will have a serious impact on those spells.
The answer, of course, is to dump all the common components but retain the requirement for the rest. In fact, this is what our group has always done. It works well and effectively has zero impact on the game. Unfortunately, I have a problem with this method as well.
Keeping It All Straight
Using the above method, most spells will no longer require any material components but some do. Which ones? No one is going to open the book and check on every spell. But with my memory I’d never keep em all straight. One solution would be to make a notation on the spell list indicating which spells had requirements and then look up the exact component when needed. This would certainly work. But, to me, it feels like a patch instead of a fix.
Spell Casting Time
Bear with me a moment while I bring in a seemly unrelated topic. Increasing the spell casting time is another method for balancing spells. Although an effective method, it is somewhat impractical because casting time is often ignored.
Material components and spell casting time have always bothered me a bit because people don’t like dealing with what many view as nit picking little details. They get in the way of the issue at hand (fighting, exploring, healing, whatever) and tend to get thrown aside in one way or another.
I’ve always liked the idea of rituals, but I’ve never known how to implement them. 4e actually got me headed in the right direction here (just because I don’t play it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some good ideas).
Currently, most spells don’t require any material components. But some do. Most spells are cast in a single round. But some require longer. I like consistency and I’ve always disliked these sorts of anomalies. What I have now is a way to bring it all together, so that these inconsistencies feel like they are following more of a pattern. Common components are thrown out and any spell that requires rare or expensive components, or that has a lengthy casting time, becomes a ritual.
Under my new system, regular spells never require material components and always take a single round to cast (with the single exception of Feather Fall). Rituals always require material components and always take longer than a single round to cast (sometimes considerably more).
It’s not an earth-shattering change. In fact, it’s primarily semantics. But the distinctions feel substantial. I can simply put an “(R)” next to the rituals in the spell lists and that clearly defines what are standard spells and what are rituals. There is no longer any question as to why some spells require components and some don’t, or why some spells take longer to cast than others. Spells are all the same now and rituals have definition as to why they are different.
I said at the beginning that I liked the flavor that material components brought to the game. Stripping them out of standard spells loses that. But I think that the additional focus that rituals give them, more than makes up for it.