What Do I Know About Gameplay? Material Components and Access Gateways

 

As often happens, Brandes Stoddard brought up some very thought-provoking ideas in one of his posts. Specifically, he was discussing how D&D could do some interesting things with ritual magic with higher-level effects, utilizing high-cost material components. 

That’s a pretty thought-provoking line of conjecture, but it also reminded me of one of my old thought exercises, specifically looking at expensive material components and if the cost of those components is the only access gateway.

Definitions

So, what do I mean by an access gateway? In this case, I just mean what a player character needs to do to get access to a given item. For example, if the cost is the only access gateway to getting an expensive material component, as soon as the character has the gold, they have access to the material component.

As an aside, technically actually having the narrative permission to buy the component is a separate gateway, but in this case, I’m assuming that only requires downtime from an active adventure. In other words, the gold doesn’t turn directly into material components in the middle of a dungeon, but a soon as a PC isn’t in the middle of an adventure, they just cross out the gold and write in the material component.

Baseline Assumptions

This is something that I often want to explore, because I have seen different DMs treat these gateways differently, without communicating the exact gateway to players. In other words, I’ve seen a player assume they could buy a 300 gold piece diamond between adventures as detailed above, but then seen another player specifically ask if they can, and the DM decides that it doesn’t seem like the local settlement would have a 300 gold piece gem lying around.

While it’s not often communicated in this manner, this means that there is a second “gateway” to purchasing an expensive material component.

  • Cost of Item
  • Proper Location
  • Narrative Permission to Purchase

In 3e D&D, that “proper location” gateway was mechanized in the game. There was a cap on how expensive anything could be in a settlement, based on the size of the settlement. While this was primarily of use for the purchase of magic items, it also worked for adjudicating the availability of expensive material components.

Given the more open-ended nature of D&D 5e, I don’t think the best solution is to implement a “hard gate,” such as D&D 3e had, but it does make me curious about what the intended gateway was when it came to design.

For example, if gold piece value, proper location, and narrative permission are all assumed gateways for the spells with expensive material components, that means part of the assumed model of play is that the DM can decide how often players can cast spells with expensive material components.

For my part, I would rather assume gold piece value + downtime is the gateway for acquiring expensive material components, and then backlogging an explanation for where and when player characters actually picked up the item when it makes sense to explain it.

What’s In A Name

However, taking this logic one step further, if the only hard gateway for expensive material components is the gold piece value, does it break the game to assume that a character can just spend the cost of the expensive material component to have [1000 gp] of expensive material components?

In that case, the player character set aside 1000 gold pieces. If they need to cast a spell that needs 100 gp items 10 times, they can. If they need to cast three 300 gold piece spells, they can do that. The material components are just expensive dedicated material components. The point is that the PC has to have narrative permission (usually just downtime) to convert gold to expensive material components, and it also means that if you wanted to include expensive material components on a spellcaster NPC as potential treasure, it doesn’t need to be hyper-detailed to the exact spells they have access to casting.

There is some precedent for this in 3e, in Complete Mage. In that later 3.5 product, there was a material that could be used for any expensive material component, however, it did so at the cost of being more expensive than the components it was replacing. Given that 3.5 balanced character power based on gold piece value of equipment, regularly having this flexible material component would put a caster at a deficit for what they were expected to have available.

What do we lose if we use [Expensive Material Component] instead of the exact expensive items required by the spell? Well, first, it makes casters somewhat more flexible, because if they pick up 300 gold pieces of material components, they can use that for anything with expensive components, instead of planning ahead for what expensive components they may need in the future.

We could also potentially lose some of the “story” of material components. There is some flavorful sympathetic logic in the material components of some spells, as well as some very traditional items that are associated with some types of spells. This, of course, can be mitigated by making [Expensive Material Component] a meta-game rule.

What do I mean by this? Instead of 3.5’s assumption that you get some kind of magical substitution dust for casting all of your spells, your spellcaster still, for story purposes, has a pouch full of various trinkets that are needed to cast spells. Those items just aren’t defined until the caster pulls the item out to cast the spell. Not only could you still use the existing flavor of the spell, but this might also allow a player to get more creative about what their personal material components are for various spells.

If you are going to have someone commit a certain amount of gold aside as material components, I would point out that something like a diamond probably needs to be flavored as “a diamond” and not a 300 gold piece diamond, or else you obviate to actually convert material components from gold pieces, instead of just magically having X amount of gold pieces disappear from their purse when they cast a spell.

In this instance, I would probably recommend that material components converted back into wealth loses about half its value. So if you find 1000 gold pieces in material components in a treasure hoard, it’s worth 1000 gold pieces in material components, or 500 gold pieces if sold outright.

None of this definitively resolves that the intended gateways are gold pieces + proper, specific location + time to purchase, but given that 5e doesn’t have a defined spending threshold defined in the rules, I’m inclined to think that the intention isn’t that DMs are meant to choke off access to more powerful spells by simply fiat starving a material component economy.

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