Game Mastery

Toning down casters without changing the game

by on Sep.16, 2009, under dnd

Holy crap, I’ve had this blog for more than a year. Weirder still is that I still enjoy posting in it.

Anyway, today I wanted to discuss an idea I’ve had for a while but never actually played with. I’m very fond of this idea because it does something that a lot of 3rd ed D&D players request, but it hardly touches the game rules. Spellcasters, especially wizards, are criticized for being too powerful. Some fixes alter or remove spells. Others change the levels or numbers of spells casters recieve. I propose using a mechanic already present, but often ignored – spell components.

With a few exceptions, any time you cast a spell in D&D you are required to spend a material component.  Unless the component is expensive, this is usually handwaved away.  Who cares if you have three grains of sand and an oak leaf?  If your GM actually cares, just buy a bag of sand at the beginning of game and be done with it.

It shouldn’t be that easy.  Bag of sand, okay, fine, whatever.   Sulfur on the other hand, is used in casting fireballs.  If the tavern’s bouncer is making your archer check his bow at the door why wouldn’t he also take away the mage’s sulfur?   Certain material components should be contraband.  Players won’t want to be caught with them.

Societal restrictions aside, you still have to maintain your reagents.  How long will ‘eye of newt’ stay ripe without the formaldehyde?  Pretty long if it’s still in a newt, but then you find yourself carrying around a bag of small amphibians.  Other components will be even harder to come by.

Of course if your players really want something they will find a way to get it.  And that’s fine.  Let them.  But let them get it in small doses.  Your wizard should be able to cast Time Stop if he really needs to, but only when it’s absolutely necessary.  Give him material components to cast it twice.  He won’t abuse it during random encounters since he’ll be saving it for boss fights.   But knowing that he only gets it twice over the course of the game, he’s going to make damn sure that Time Stop is only cast when it is really and truly needed.  This method lets you limit any spells which are being cast too frequently.  But (if done properly) it doesn’t hamstring your players.  They still have their big spells, they’re just hidden behind “break in case of emergency” glass.

Now, the reason most GMs hand wave this stuff away is because it’s an accounting nightmare.  Wizards already track spell books hundreds of pages long.  It’s not fair to ask them to handle specific reagents too.   So I suggest taking on some of that burden yourself.  The way I’d deal with tracking each and every spell component would be to print up cards and give these to your players.  If you’re feeling nice you can even write up lists of spells castable with these components.  I would recommend merging a number of components though, as too many are unique.  A few dozen general purpose reagents should be plenty.  Some spells, like resurrection, should still have unique components.  But it doesn’t matter if lightning bolt and haste use the same reagents.

Where I’d really like to see this implemented would be in an all casters group.  Component cards would become their own currency within the game.  You’d just have to make sure to ban Eschew Materials.

So has anybody run a game this way?  How has it worked out?

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5 comments for this entry:
  1. Jokasti

    This is a great idea! I’ll have to incorporate it into my campaigns.

  2. sagotsky

    Jokasti, please let us know how it works out if you try it. I’ve had this idea for a while, but it’s going to be a long time before I get to run 3.5 again.

  3. Jokasti

    I was thinking about this a little more in-depth and my thinking went a little like this:
    -If you control the components, control how they get them.
    -If you control how they get them, control where they get them.
    -If you control where to get them, control how much of them they get.
    Or: have there be an NPC who is the only one that can get them, either because they’re rare, or because there is literally no other way to get them. An example would be a gladiator tournament. The person holding it would take away all weapons (and components) and place them on a map, where the people fight for them, etc. So there is only so much sulfur in the bag, or two eyes of newts in the jar, or a bow with a quiver holding only twenty arrows on an alter in the field of battle. Unused weapons/components may be used for the next battle. This is probably how I’ll be testing it. And my campaign will probably start in a month or two, so I’ll let you know.

  4. Tyndmyr

    Minor and Major creation makes this essentially irrelevant, no? As long as they have any amount of it, they can have essentially as much as they want.

    Not to mention, a great number of spells require no material component at all, and those that do usually require easily available, non spoiling components in very small quantities.

    I don’t see this balancing anything.

  5. sagotsky

    Creation spells make a lot of things irrelevant. Like Eschew Materials these are one of the things that would have to be removed or changed.

    I admit I haven’t crunched the numbers to see how many spells have trivial component costs. Obviously this is something that would have to be dealt with before running a game like this.

    What I’d expect to do if I ever do run this way would be to change the components for quite a few spells. I don’t think this is as tedious as it sounds. The SRD is available in sql format. Drop that into a database and set up some queries to find unique components, null components, and popular components. Merge the less popular options and split the really common ones. Add some unique components to spells that need limiting. Oh and make sure to publish your adjusted DB somewhere that the players can see.

    I’m not actually sure that this would balance things. I think it would be interesting to watch what happened though.

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