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The point I was making applies to games yet to be designed, not to current editions, and the argument is a rather trivial one: The more valuable a thing is, the higher it’s cost should be. We can all get behind that notion, right?
A problem I have with 5th Edition D&D (“5e“), and I think most editions, is that there are a list of go-to spells (or class abilities) that everyone feels they have to take, limiting the diversity of builds at the table. I have no intention of trying to “fix” existing editions to balance material spell component cost and availability with the power of spells. It turns out that for 5e (the subject of that post), that would be a lot of work. Here’s a sample of those spells (and their spell components) that I’ve mathematically proven to be preferred by WotC themselves in creating NPCs, and I suspect players favor as well.
- Feather Fall: a piece of down or small feather.
- Fireball: bit of guano and sulfur.
- Fly: a feather from a bird’s wing.
- Hold Person: a small straight piece of iron.
- Invisibility: an eyelash encased in gum arabic.
- Lightning Bolt: a bit of fur and a rod of amber/crystal/glass.
As you can see, all of these spells have cheap material components that are easily obtained without the DM creating an illogical scarcity. Some popular spells (Counterspell, Dimension Door, and Misty Step) don’t even require material components. So, in 5e, even if you “enforced” components, it wouldn’t change a damn thing. That, to me, is a design flaw, and one I don’t have the desire to fix. However, where there’s a high cost for a spell (e.g., Heroes Feast), I’m going to enforce it.
That said, increasing the cost or scarcity of material components is just one way to increase the cost of spells. In 1st Edition D&D (“1e“), spell cost was assessed using casting times. Combat consisted of 1-minute rounds divided into 6-second segments (i.e., 10 segments per round). Initiative determined the segment in which a character was able to act (with some caveats not relevant here). Because spells had casting times measured in segments, a caster would start casting a spell in one segment, but the casting wouldn’t complete until a later segment. If a caster took a single point of damage during this time, the spell would fail, and the caster would lose the spell slot. Therefore, casters had a choice to make: either cast a weaker spell quickly, assuring it would be of (limited) value, or cast a more powerful spell accepting the risk that it could wind up to be worthless.
In other words, 1e used casting times to increase the cost of spells, and it appears to have done so quite well. Of course, without dividing your rounds into segments, casting times may not be a viable solution.
The moral of this story is that game designers really need to pay better attention to whether their systems lead a majority of players to make the same choices. Sure, some things should be better than others, but like in the real world with food, cars, houses, and everything else, the better things should have a higher cost, regardless of how that cost is assessed. That way, different players will create widely diverse builds, and we’d (or at least I’d) see more dynamic combats.
In 5e, material spell components seem to be the intended way to do that.
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