Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Living in a Material World"

Issue #81 (January 1984) of Dragon included an article by Michael Dobson (whom I presume is the same Michael Dobson employed by TSR as an editor and writer between 1984 and 1987) entitled "Living in a Material World." As its subtitle makes clear, this article is intended to provide a system for dealing with the various material components spellcasters were expected to carry in order to work their magic. Likewise, Dobson notes that "material spell components add to the romance and realism of magic use, and somewhat restrict the power of spell casters." By my lights, this makes "Living in a Material World" about as paradigmatic an example of a Silver Age Dragon article as almost any I can imagine.

As to the content of the article itself, I can't deny that it's rather well done. Dobson is to be admired for his intestinal fortitude in providing a comprehensive accounting of all of AD&D's material spell components, including their costs, where they might be obtained, and their rarity. He then uses this information to provide the referee with the likelihood that various locales might have the components for which one is searching. There's a base chance, modified by rarity, the size of the locale in which one is searching, and other factors. It's actually a fairly easy system to use if you have the article handy, but one wonders why anyone would bother -- at least I do (and did).

I want to be clear here: I don't begrudge anyone who finds dealing with such minutiae to be fun in their campaigns. Everyone has a slightly different notion of how much detail is "too much" and how much is "not enough." There's no single path to Verisimilitude. And I think, ultimately, that's my biggest beef with articles like this. They're part of a trend that D&D -- and RPGs generally -- adopted in the mid-80s that equated more detail with "better gaming." I don't deny that I've often indulged in more detail when I happened to like the topic in question, but material components have never been one of those topics.

They still aren't.


  1. The realism of magic use! I can't get enough of sentences like that. We've got to be realistic! We all know that wizards need bat guano to cast fireball, that is just a FACT. Be reasonable!

    I really like magic item components, actually...I've always wanted a system that evokes them, without requiring bean counting. Something like Hong Kong Action Cinema's rule that if you stop to reload, you get a damage boost (reloading guns being otherwise unnecessary)? You know "sorry, I can't sleep tonight, I have to look for...I dunno, a special butterfly or newt eyes or something" being rewarded in game?

  2. While the article may be an example of silver age AD&D, material components were added in the golden age. The question is how to use them in a way consistent with golden age sentiment other than just ignore the rule.

    Ironically I found the mechanic behind 4e rituals to work great for this. Even a referee doesn't like the idea of being able to cast out of the spell book like the full 4e ritual mechanic allows they can still use the idea of tracking components as a gold piece value.

    Every AD&D spell that has a material component associated with just assign it a cost in gp. Then the caster is carrying X gp worth of components. If the referee want to simplify it even further then base the cost of all component spells on the spell level using some formula like level x level x 1gp.

    Tracking components as gold pieces simplifies the system enough so that you get the value of adding it to the campaign in the first place.

  3. @Rob: Yeah, gp costs serve the "limiting" sense of tracking components, but they also completely abstract away the "cool and unique" aspects, which were really the only thing I ever liked from material components.

    For "mundane" components (nails, snails, bat guano, string, wire, etc) I wouldn't bother tracking anything (much like I wouldn't track the fighter's stock of rubbing oil for his armor and blades).

    That said, I do like having special components that enable special spells, like the unique keys for plane travel, or having Dragon scales enable a better 'Armor' spell. Let the mundane be handwaved, but allow the unique to still be cool.

  4. I always went back and forth on material components. When they were really expensive for the highly desirable spell, they worked as great resource-limiters and could even fit into interesting plotlines. But anything common just seemed like a waste of time, unless you were just trying to slow down casting time even more by factoring in the time to explicitly pull out the material.

    @Rob Conley
    Rituals were nicely handled, but they are not meant to be used in the heat of an encounter. And that is where material components always became problematic.

  5. If I ever ran an AD&D campaign again I'd totally use this article. And weapon vs. armor modifiers.

  6. @Sir Yobgod. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Use the GP value system to track the bat wing aspect of components and specific components for the spells that require them.

  7. I have always been a fan of material components. The idea of a wizard having to tote around a bag full of such odd bits and then actually having to use them. Great fun to roleplay out. Especially when the wizard walks into the general store and asks for all of the scrap leather and fur, some powdered iron, several live crickets, and all the bat poop they can part with.

    To me it was always part of the allure. I take the rules in stride.

  8. Aaaaand, it explains my wizards low charisma! You know, because he smells funny...

  9. I've been thinking recently that several of these fiddly systems might work substantially better as carrots rather than sticks. For example, why not allow spell components to give spells a boost or a special side effect, rather than be required to cast the spell at all? Then the player has an incentive to handle all the bookkeeping and interact with the campaign world.

    I'm planning on doing the same thing with weapon vs. AC tables (making them only available to fighters, and only composed of bonuses).

  10. I always ignored material components under normal circumstances. They only became important when the wizard was in dire straits, when the limited availability of these unusual items challenged them to try different spells. Adventures in which this came up included a lengthy voyage spent exploring uncharted isles near the Ebony Coast and a scenario in which the party was captured by cultists and forced to stealthily escape their lair.

  11. I have fond memories of great one-to-one adventures where I was the GM (ad libbing) and the other player had his M-U search for the damnedest material components.... Massive fun!

  12. Though I don't recall the article, I bet we used it. Material components added a fun element of resource management for our players. .

  13. You know, I've found myself thinking back to my basement when I was in Jr. High. It seems I had all the time in the world to pour over the DM Guide, Monster Manual, anything really that had to do with D&D. With so much time on my hands, anything new and interesting, no matter how minuscule, was welcomed. These days, as an adult, with a family, a job, and a million other things to take up my time, I try to squeeze in a session every other week. I marvel at how LITTLE time I have now to actually spend sitting down and reading all of those things now. I'm lucky if I get a few minutes to check out an article online, much less, go through my box of Dragon back issues and thumb though them. Oh, I wish I could, but there just never seems to be enough time. I'm glad all that work payed off as a teenager though, best studying I ever did. I can remember details about things that don't even exist in real life, unlike my algebra skills..... But, as for this article, I think if your a DM or a magic user, it was good stuff. Gave you direction and fleshed things out a little. I like minutiae like this, gives the game a little life. Its what makes it different than say WoW or others where things are just a perpetual, mindless grind.

  14. I kind of liked the articles detail and flavor myself.

    Its one of the better Silver Age articles IMO.

  15. I loved this article. To this day, I have no idea how you incorporate material components in D&D without it and used it extensively in my college games.

    These days, I don't use material components at all when playing D&D, but did like the flavor they created, and I could easily see bringing that sort of thing back, or using something similar in another game.

    But then, shock and surprise, I'm a huge fan of Silver Age D&D.

  16. Sounds like a neat article!

    Re: 4e's Rituals
    The one time I played 4e I decided to play an old, senile wizard "who had lived through every edition of D&D". I noted on my character sheet that he had, say, 2,000 gp's worth of spell components. But when it came time to actually cast a spell, I would describe how he would sprinkle out fine salt in a circle, light a purple candle, burn a pink feather, etc etc. It was a lot of fun.

    He also threw out bat guano whenever he cast Fireball. But since it was no longer needed in 4e, it would just fall on the floor without disappearing, and he would pick it back up. Old habits die hard, y'know.

  17. I've never kept track of material components for spells. I can rarely be bothered to keep track of ammo in games with guns.

    I've always had a weirdly ambivalent attitude toward this kind of thing. The idea of having flavorful material components for spells appeals to me. But in actual play, I'm certain that trying to keep track of it would bore the hell out of me.

    That's sort of my "take" on a lot of this "Silver Age of Gaming" push for realism stuff. The ideas presented are interesting to me purely in the abstract, but seem like they'd be terribly cumbersome at the game table.

    "Why do you need bat guano to cast Fireball"? Maybe because it was used in gun powder" is a fun thought process when I'm reading an article or a blog entry or something. But I don't really want to spend mental energy or (increasingly precious!) table time determining what random junk a spell caster has on him.

    "How much would these coins actually weigh, and how many could you actually fit in a treasure chest?" I can read an article like that and be filled with happy thoughts of the verisimilitude these "facts" would bring to my game. But once I'm actually behind the screen I'm not even all that interested in how much money the PCs specifically have.

    I'm torn between my desire away-from-the-table for rules and practices that lovingly and convincingly model a living world and my at-the-table desire for rules and practices that stay the hell out of the way.

  18. I like components. My biggest gripe with their application in AD&D was the DM wasn't given a comprehensive list on what components were required for what spells.

    Material components do a lot to restrict the overbalancing power of spell casters. Power-components which expand or enhance the capabilities of spells also have a curious influence on players ability to seek and record spell components on their sheets but it's still a huge pain when DMing to have to keep track of components on an MU or in their lair.

  19. The problem with over-analyzing things like this is that it can start to turn magic into a science and then you start getting into the "facts" of magic mentioned above and other ridiculousness. I know that we played around with some of the elements of this article back when it was new but in the heat of play no one cared about components unless they were really unusual or expensive, like the chests for Leomund's Chest or the miniature sword for Mord's Sword and the like. The only time the mundane stuf was tracked was in the "you wake up chained to a wall" scenario or "you're shipwrecked" or something similar.

    So while I think they're a pain for routine spellcasting I do think they have a place in magic item creation - we should have had a whole pile of articles for that with lists of material components for specific items. In that sense they would serve to both limit item creation and to give higher level PC's reasons to go adventuring.

    @Brendan - I just read a game where that's exactly how these things worked. Having a specific component granted a bonus, otherwise things just worked. Now which game was that? Too much holiday reading...

  20. I have a hard time blaming Striker for Megatraveller. ^_^ Much less Dragon magazine articles. This is precisely one of the things Dragon ought to have been providing. That there may have been a trend away from modularity isn’t a problem with these articles.

    I’d say that the loss of modularity has been the exception rather than the rule. There have only been a few games where the subsystems have been intertwined enough to make ignoring some of them difficult. Even if it isn’t explicit.

  21. This has always been one of my favorite Dragon articles. I always thought it gave M-U PCs additional reasons to go adventuring, providing adventure hooks ("Guys, I really need to get some firenewt eggshells..."), and general flavor. I never worried too much about the more mundane material components, but stuff like "pearl of 100gp value" seemed like fodder for an adventure to me.

    And even though I've never actually played in a game where the DM enforced material components, I still always find myself picking out spells for my PC bearing in mind how difficult it would be to obtain certain components...

  22. If I was going to add material spell components to my game, here is what I would do:

    1) I'd add them to the treasure tables so that they can be found on monsters that are spell casters.

    2) I'd add them to the random encounter tables so that, for example, the players could encounter a field of mistletoe (perhaps with a druid tending it, or faeries dancing among it or even snakes slithering through the stems), where mistletoe is one of the spell components.

    3) I'd add them to the shopping list so that the more common ones can be bought.

    4) I'd add the creatures who nests must be raided or whose hides must be collected, to the random encounter lists and scatter a few throughout the landscape that are known about by the sages.

    5) I'd introduce a group into the campaign that catalogs the locations of the less frequent components and will trade in their locations, including buying knowledge from players that find them, to those they can trust.

    6) I'd have a villain actively looking for the last component for one of his most powerful spells. Can he be stopped before he finds it?