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Let's just pick on identify as a concrete example, but this applies to any spell with a material component with a cost. So identify requires a pearl worth 100gp. What makes a pearl worth 100gp?

Is it the price paid to acquire it, or the price it would go for if sold? If the former, if my PC was ripped off a got a cheap pearl (that most people would only sell for, say, 20gp) but paid 100gp for it, would that work (under the reasoning that the only way to value something is on how much someone is willing to pay for it)?

What if they got an actual 100gp pearl, but then dropped it and it got chipped slightly, no doubt reducing its price to potential buyers but is still a whole and mostly undamaged pearl for the purposes of spellcasting, would it still count as a pearl worth 100gp to cast identify with?

I suppose I'm just trying to understand the relationship between the arbitrary object needed for certain spells and their price requirement. What exactly makes any gem, or any object at all, worth a certain amount for the purposes of satisfying the material component requirements? How would the spell "know" how much it costs?

The reason I ask is because I'm wondering if there's any way to make an object worthless in terms of commerce (so that no-one would want to buy, say, this specific pearl) but at the same time have it still be valid for identify. This is so that an item, once acquired, isn't something that can just be flogged, but something that only has the singular use of being for that exact spell.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Presumably in a world with common spell casting, a component of the demand creating the market value for items like pearls is their usefulness for casting spells! If that's a large part of the demand, then you couldn't destroy the market value of the item while it remained useful as a spell component. Even non-wizard merchants would expect to be able to sell the damaged pearl to another wizard, and therefore would be willing to pay something for it. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Jul 7 '18 at 2:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Obligatory OOTS reference: giantitp.com/comics/oots0677.html \$\endgroup\$ – vsz Jul 7 '18 at 14:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Flood the market with a river of pearls and all pearls previously worth 100 gp are now worth 99 gp only. All spellcasters are now failing their next identify. \$\endgroup\$ – Cœur Jul 8 '18 at 16:30
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No, buying a cheap pearl for 100 gp doesn't work

The rules say "worth at least 100 gp", not "bought for at least 100 gp". If you buy a cheap pearl from another character for 100 gp, it doesn't become 100 gp worth. And vice versa, if you steal a 100-gp pearl for free, it is still 100 gp worth. This is true for any items, not only for material spell components. The item's cost is determined by a few factors, including the item's quality. So, the item's cost is a (very) rough equivalent of the item's quality. So, why the PH specifies the cost, instead of describing the quality?

Specifying a cost is much easier than describing a quality

Aside from the seller's insights, nothing specific makes an item worth X gp.

"Worth at least X gp" is a short, convenient indication of the item's quality. 5e PH does not describe any specific criteria of "worthing X gp" (hence, being suited for the spell) - it only says the item's guiding price, one number instead of a bunch of words. It's the DM who should decide and say "unfortunately, this pearl is too cheap and small to be used for this spell".

Let's elaborate the pearl example. Instead of "worth at least 100 gp" the PH might describe its minimum weight, radius, material, shape, surface quality, etc. PH had to describe such criteria for every single material component in this way, which contradicts the 5e paradigm. Instead, the PH just says "worth at least 100 gp" - so both DM and players get an idea, what kind of pearl it should be.

Your DM might go the easy way

It really depends on the playstyle, but a DM might decide that market conditions is not a thing in their world. Instead, he/she might take all the prices from the PH and use them as absolute prices, instead of guiding ones. Using static prices model solves many buying/selling questions, but in the end leads to hilarious absurdities as a downside, which might not be welcomed by players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ After agonizing over which one to accept, I think overall I most like this answer's focus on this aspect: "Instead of "worth at least 100 gp" the PH might describe its minimum weight, radius, material, shape, surface quality, etc. PH had to describe such criteria for every single material component in this way, which contradicts the 5e paradigm. Instead, the PH just says "worth at least 100 gp" - so both DM and players get an idea, what kind of pearl it should be." \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jul 6 '18 at 14:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ "[absolute prices] makes the world more static and dull" - that depends on the players - it can definitely be a way to introduce more complexity into the world, but players may or may not like or want to deal with that type of thing (and there are already more than enough ways in which you can make a world non-static and interesting for this to not at all be needed). I, for one, find bargaining exhausting, frustrating, depressing and boring compared to other things I can be doing. \$\endgroup\$ – NotThatGuy Jul 7 '18 at 11:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NotThatGuy It depends on the game genre, I guess \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jul 7 '18 at 11:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS Actually, it's not just 5e that does this. It's been the norm since at least 3.5e. Even back then, it was considered excessive to not just rely on an accurate appraisal. \$\endgroup\$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 7 '18 at 14:47
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Value is absolute

The rules of D&D seem to assume that value is absolute, not relative. That is to say, things have the value that they have (especially precious items like gems and jewels, artwork, precious metals, etc.) and that's unrelated to how much you might be able to actually buy and sell them for in your present circumstances. A 100gp pearl is a 100gp pearl - whether you found it in an oyster yourself, got given it as a gift, bought it for 50gp in a display of stunning haggling or got ripped off and thought you were getting something worth 200gp.

I would judge that it remains a 100gp pearl even if you go to the Elemental Plane of Pearls and come back with a bag of holding filled to the brim with incredibly valuable pearls and start giving them out on the streets like candy - which, in any sensible economy, would quite rapidly devalue pearls (not that D&D has rules for that kind of thing, but the DM can wing it). But even though you might be in a place where pearls are now bought, sold, or traded for even a hundredth of their "intrinsic" value - they retain that value as far as the game's rules are concerned.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 The game-as-written has no economy or inflation. The market can be saturated only if the DM wants so. I doubt there are even 5e rules for that. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Jul 6 '18 at 11:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've always assumed that if, hypothetically, the pearl market took a dive and all pearls halved in value, the component cost would update accordingly, so Identify would now require a pearl worth 50gp instead of 100gp. Spells don't suddenly require different components, but those same components are now worth a different amount. The material cost is already somewhat abstracted from the game fiction, telling us what a pearl of sufficient quality would be worth in the current market. Essentially, the cost listed is descriptive, not prescriptive, is what I'm getting at. \$\endgroup\$ – Taxi4Dave Jul 6 '18 at 13:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @taxy4dave rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/125786/… \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Jul 6 '18 at 13:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ So you're saying that when the Mad Emperor seized every diamond his soldiers could find and then offered a 25,000-gold bounty for any diamond (even microscope dust particles of diamonds), his huge store of diamond dust didn't suddenly become an endless supply of components for True Resurrection? \$\endgroup\$ – Nat Jul 7 '18 at 0:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nat yes. The fact that the relative value of diamonds has changed in light of the Mad Emperor's policies doesn't change the absolute value of diamonds or their properties as material components. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Jul 7 '18 at 7:23
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Stuff has intrinsic value so that the game's playable

Questions have long been raised about, for example, buying from another PC for 100 gp a pearl that has an inherent value of 5 gp and using that 100-gp 5-gp pearl to fuel an identify spell. This issue isn't unique to : This kind of fuzzy economics has existed since the game's inception. For example, even the version of the spell identify required—without commentary—a pearl "of at least 100 g. p. value" (Player's Handbook (1978) 66), and the -inspired Order of the Stick Web comic has this brilliant first-panel takedown of the whole process.

I've never known a DM to say that using an item that possesses less than the necessary inherent worth but that the individual has paid through the nose for nonetheless satisfies the item's status as material component possessing the appropriate inherent worth. That is, in the question's example, in this DM's campaigns—and, I suspect, most DM's campaigns—a PC that pays 100 gp for a 20-gp pearl still wouldn't be able to use that pearl as identify fuel.

In short, having things worth a certain amount is a simplification for playability rather than, like, a stealth commentary on contemporary economics. It can be argued that a carefully thought-through full-blown economic model just isn't necessary—even if it would be convenient to have—in a heroic fantasy game about killing monsters and taking their stuff. (By the way, this reader is now interested in a role-playing game wherein the PCs are renegade adventuring stock traders—that sounds like an awesome read.)

If a player needs to know why the 5-gp pearl that he just bought from his buddy for 100 gp is now not technically worth 100 gp—because things are worth what folks will pay for them, after all—, try to explain that even though that player's PC made a bad purchase, that doesn't change how much something is worth generally. After all, one dude overpaying for a rusty clunker doesn't change the prices of all the cars on the lot nor does it change how much cash he'll get as the seller of that rusty clunker from even the average buyer. His folly isn't everyone's folly.

With that in mind, the question asks…

[Is] there's any way to make an object worthless in terms of commerce (so that no-one would want to buy, say, this specific pearl) but at the same time have it still be valid for identify[?] This is so that an item, once acquired, isn't something that can just be flogged [i.e. sold], but something that only has the singular use of being for that exact spell.

Short of something specifically being done to change an item's value, nothing change an item's value. Presumably, if the DM's campaign includes a strong economic model (and most don't), supply and demand may see the DM may lower or raise the sale prices of items possessing intrinsic values, but that doesn't change such items' intrinsic values. The DM's just added market forces to the campaign. And, were those market forces to exist, it would be up to the PC to determine through play how to manipulate those market forces.

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A feasible pearl is worth 100gp

A pearl of the quality (size, shape, purity, color, etc) necessary to cast the spell is typically worth at least 100gp. Whether you can find one for exactly that price is another thing entirely.

Value comes from demand. Demand exists because something is useful or pretty

As for whether a pearl could loose value but still be functional, ask yourself this: How much would another spellcaster be willing to pay for a slightly damaged pearl that can still substitute for a 100gp pearl? Your GM may decide that the 100gp pearl itself is already a chipped version just barely meeting the requirements. Perhaps a really nice-looking one would cost you 200gp because any self-respecting Wizard uses a pretty pearl.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fortunately, fantasy world economies never seem to suffer from inflation. \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Jul 6 '18 at 10:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PJRZ Another way to say that is If you want to play an economics emulator, try another game system and I think it might fit into this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 6 '18 at 12:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PJRZ While most games don't have a dynamic economy, some players may enjoy it when a DM can offer an explanation of the status quo, if challenged by a question like OP's. I guess this almost crosses over into the woldbuilding stackexchange though. \$\endgroup\$ – Nico Jul 6 '18 at 12:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast: I wasn't intending to be sarcastic (if that's how you read it). Just that, as you say, the D&D rules are abstract. \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Jul 6 '18 at 13:21
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You have to remember that D&D is an abstraction of "reality". Just like HP are a basic abstraction metric used to track ... damage, fatigue, loss of morale from near-misses, etc, etc... GP used to track spell-component value is also a basic abstraction.

A 100GP pearl is just saying that the pearl meets "time and quality" expectations for the spell. In the game's reality, maybe these pearls that can be used for an identify spell were washed in the tears of a dragon and soaked in the rays of a full moon for a year. Who knows. All we know is that they're 100GP, which means there's something pretty special about them.

Also, while we can try to apply real-world concepts like economic supply and demand (pearls in one town may be 90GP while in another town they're 110GP, or low-quality vs. high-quality has a range of +/- 50GP or something...) ... again, you can BS by saying that maybe someone in one town found a way to prep pearls for the spell a certain way, but a person in another town found another way to prep them ... and while both methods may be different.. they both end up creating 100GP pearls that let the spell work.

If you think about it, spells are a lot like math in that they have been researched by magicians and they found different ways to get the same result. Just like 1+2 = 3 and 1+1+1 = 3, some magician may have found prepping pearls a certain way worked for the Identify spell.. but you have to then use them a very specific way. Meanwhile a different magician also studying pearls found another way to prepare them and use in a different fashion .. but, again, the end-result was the Identify spell working.

This is why you shouldn't dissect the abstraction of D&D too much, b/c once you start questioning it or trying to shoe-horn real-world concepts into it to analyze it in more detail, you can start to poke holes in it if you want. But, since the rules are an abstraction, you can then come up with reasons why it SHOULD be the way it is.

EG: people have argued over the concept of HP for a long time.. is it physical damage, is it fatigue, and if it's real damage it should take a long time to heal, but if it's fatigue it should heal fast.. etc, etc. The bottomline is.. don't over-analyze it. It's just a game mechanic used to regulate play.

Same with 100GP pearls needed for Identify spell. It's just an abstract game concept used to keep munchkin players from going "well, I'm gonna start a pearl farm, and it's real cheap to raise them, I calculate about 5GP/pearl.. and I'll sell them for 100GP, so that's a 95GP profit/pearl!" Um.. no. We have no idea what goes into prepping the pearls to make them useable in the Identify spell. (Some spells will say how the reagents are used, eg: oil is rubbed on something to do such-n-such). But, as I said earlier, we have no clue if a spell reagent had to go through certain periods of consecration, ritual blessing, etc, etc. All of this is abstraction. The GM can fill in the gaps to add flair via story-telling, but all of it is just abstraction to justify pearls costing 100GP being the ones useable for the spell.

I've played in some games where the GM takes this concept and goes a step further by letting players buy up skill in "reagent preparation". Because, let's face it, stockpiling an MU's reagents can get expensive. So, characters that had enough skill in this could start to find and prep reagents themselves as they found them while exploring.. saving the cost of having to go to "bob's discount reagents emporium". Because, after all, SOMEONE had to figure out how to prep the reagents in the first place, so it makes sense that it's a skill that perhaps magic-users can acquire and develop. But, all this did was work as part of the abstraction. An MU that found some pearls in water that would normally go for 50GP each knows the exact method of preparation to use them for Identify spell... what that method is.. who knows. All we know is that the time and effort they spend in prepping them adds another 50GP value to the pearls and makes them "100GP pearls that can be used in the Idenitfy spell". And, with that, the MU could then sell them as reagents for magic instead of just normal pearls.

Beacuse you have to figure in the world of D&D.. there's probably shady back-alley reagent dealers trying to hock shoddy reagents onto MU's. How do you know the pearls you're buying can be used for the Identify spell? You don't unless a) you have skill in identifying properly prepared reagents, b) you use the reagent and .. oops, it fizzles.

To solve all this, I've played in some groups where they just ignore reagents save for really high-level spells. The fact that MU's are limited to using certain number of spells per day is often restriction enough. If an MU wants to toss fireballs, then they can up to their max spell cap for that level. But, having to waste time seeing if they're pack-ratting all the reagents to cast it.. that just adds overhead to game play.. it slows things down. And you end up with players having to write out huge inventory lists to manage all that junk. It's boring. Those games also ignored food and water, because they wanted to focus on heroism, not "did we pack enough rations to last the entire dungeon? No... ugh.. we have to hike back to town." That's great in a CRPG, but it slows table-top down.

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