I threw a question out on Twitter <checks notes> a few months ago and the amount of responses I received was impressive. It seemed I hit a nerve, and the following article is the result. The question was:
My question was inspired by looking through Bard spells for The Stone and noticing that I had been ignoring the required spell components throughout a Tomb of Annihilation campaign run by the wonderful Dungeon Master (and Professional Nurse Midwife), Jana Flescher. For example, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter requires “a small feather that needs to be waved in the air and tiny tarts that need to be thrown in the target’s direction.” Needless to say, The Stone has (sadly) not been throwing tiny tarts at hags and other targets of Tasha’s Hideous Laughter throughout the campaign.
What a missed opportunity!!
It appears that I am not the only one that ignores spell components; two-out-of-three respondents in my poll indicated that they ignore keeping track of ammunition and spell components as well.
Spell components in 5th Edition have resulted in frustration for some and it would seem ambivalence in most others. Like anything in D&D, if there is something you don’t enjoy – change it or ignore it. It seems that most players simply ignore spell components because they add an artificial barrier to an already-limited ability for a character. It introduces inventory management, which can be insufferable. Even the rules provide a work-around as a character’s spell focus can be considered a substitute for most spell components. So most players ignore it, though maybe that’s a lost opportunity for further world building.
How could spell component add to the enjoyment of the game?
Returning to The Stone, imagine my DM told me, “You need to find a feather before you can cast Tasha’s Hideous Laughter.” Now I have a side mission that is important to me and adds to my character. In addition to having a new spell to cast, I’ll have a new item that defines my character. I could search for a fallen feather in the jungles of Chult, look through the belongings of an abandoned goblin camp in the area, or request a feather from an aarakocra flying overhead.
“I asked for a single feather… she gave me three.”
Regardless of how I get that feather, and how much work the DM wants me to put into that endeavor, the item becomes a part of the story – and could serve as an touchstone for other stories to pivot from in the future.
Spell components are often trinkets like glass beads, which could be found in any number of places during the course of an adventure. Whether or not a character has a glass bead is boring – knowing exactly where the glass bead came from, especially if it’s from a fallen enemy or trusted friend, can be interesting.
Treating spell components with this level of dignity and respect can turn any spell caster into a roaming vagabond of meaningful trinkets and baubles. It conjures up memories of one of my favorite computer games, Star Wars X-Wing: Alliance. You played as a pilot, Ace Azzameen. As the single-player campaign progressed, Ace’s room displayed memorabilia and trinkets that were gathered from specific missions. The room got increasingly cluttered as you neared the end of the game; the items were not a chore to collect. You simply assumed them while playing though the game and each item served as a reminder of a pivotal moment in the life of Ace.
We should foster this type of storytelling in our games, and spell components may be one way to do that.
Give it a try!
A final note on ammunition, which is another gaming mechanic that is typically ignored or hand-waved by the majority of players. I’ve yet to play a game where tracking ammunition added to the enjoyment; running out of ammo in a video game or a roleplaying game never feels good. Games like Resident Evil and The Last of Us attempted to make scarcity interesting, and more recently Breath of the Wild introduced breakable weapons, which felt so annoying to play.
The inventory management for Breath of the Wild is maddeningly clunky on so many levels – Link carries around a truckload of huge weapons and shields that all eventually break (not to mention the cooking ingredients; don’t get me started on that), so part of the game is allocating when and how to use different weapons? And the only way to increase inventory size is through a non-obvious side mission to find small plants in the vast gaming world and then find a roaming tree to trade in those plants for more gear space?
That game was praised as genius?!?
How could tracking ammunition be interesting, not overly complex, and add some tension to gameplay?
The only way I have ever kept track of ammo was by jotting down the number of arrows, bolts, or daggers my character owns as such:
- Arrows (30)
In a game where the DM is wanting us to keep track, I’ll try to remember to update that number whenever I shoot an arrow. So erasing that number and then changing it based on how many arrows were fired:
- Arrows (26)
This is incredibly tedious and a way around it is asking if you find arrows after the battle, stock up in town, or recover arrows from treasure or downed foes. It’s mostly bookkeeping that adds a layer to gameplay that isn’t fun. But what if you didn’t have to write anything down and used a prop to visualize the ammo?
That’s right, toothpicks! Any player with a ranged weapon or something that requires ammo could have a tangible representation at the table. If a player has 30 arrows in a quiver, then they can have 30 toothpicks in front of them in a container. Perhaps two of those arrows are magical; wonderful, get different colored toothpicks or draw on them so they are special. It could be like the Money Ball in 3-Point-Shooting Contests in basketball!
Not only can a player have numerous sets of fancy dice, a lovingly painted miniature to represent the character, a chain-metal dice bag, and a gorgeous dice tray (shout-out to Woodcraft By Us), he or she can also have a tabletop ammo container for their weapon of choice.
It’s a visual reminder for everyone at the table, and the idea of conserving ammo might come into play from time to time rather than ammo being collectively ignored and hand-waved.
At the very least, experiment with this approach if you are running a resource-light campaign setting like Dark Sun.
- Review the spell components a character should have and consider how some of those items might be interested in obtain. How could each component add to the evolving story for the campaign setting and the character?
- Consider externalizing ammo tracking to something tangible at the table. Create a spent ammo box so players can physically toss their spent ammo away, which can then be redistributed as they find new ammo during the course of the adventure.