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I am a GM looking for a narrative explanation for the wand creation costs (and by extension other simple magic items: Potions, Scrolls, etc).

I know the RAW formula (375 gp × the level of the spell × the level of the caster) and it makes sense from a game balance / mechanics POV. However, I'm really getting hung up on why this makes sense on a "realistic" level.

I am a 5th level Wizard. I have just learned the Fireball spell. I am very excited by this and I want to make a wand so I can burn all the things. I gather the materials: a rough wooden baton to be carved into an appropriately awesome shape, 50 balls of bat guano and sulfur, and my new knowledge of the arcane art of exploding fire. This will cost me (375 x 3 x 5) or 5,625gp (that's some expensive guano, but nevermind for now) and 11+ days of crafting. I now have a wand of fireball that will do 5d6 damage at a range of 600ft. Let's set the world on fire.

I am a wizened, crotchety 10th level Wizard. I've known the Fireball spell for years. I have perfected it - I cast it with barely a thought these days. My last wand ran out, so I begrudgingly sit down to make a new one. I gather the (presumably) same materials and my superior understanding of the arcane arts and it costs me (375 x 3 x 10) or 11,250gp and 22.5 days of crafting. I am more knowledgeable, I am using the same materials but it costs me twice as much and takes me twice as long as it did when I was 5th level. The spell does twice as much damage, but this is a result of my long hours of study. It has cost me years of carefully collected arcane secrets, but this is a sunk cost and surely I should reap the fruits of this labor. [Ok, I can decrease the crafting time by rushing +5 DC, which is easily offset by my awesome spellcraft skill, but still...]

I get that it would unbalance the game and remove almost all incentive for spell casters to go adventuring versus just setting up a wand shop and watching the gold roll in. However, if anyone can give me another way to explain it to my players other than, "that's just the way it is", I would greatly appreciate it.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Purple Monkey, Miniman, user17995, Thomas Jacobs, Oblivious Sage Sep 28 '16 at 13:02

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A wand is not a stick that dispenses bat poop. It's an item that channels stored magic with a simple trigger. A high level wand contains much more stored energy in the same package. The money and time is in storing 50 fireballs worth of magical energy in a wooden stick so that any acolyte swinging it can launch the fireballs, without accidentally detonating 50 fireballs worth of magical energy when the stick is damaged or waved in the wrong way. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Sep 28 '16 at 10:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik ok. I like the direction this is going... so to throw out some fantasy-babble, we're talking some rare material acting as an arcane core that is painstakingly engraved with tiny and detailed runes - the more energy, the more costly the core material (perhaps higher costs even representing initial failed efforts) and more painstaking the runes? \$\endgroup\$ – Kris Sep 28 '16 at 10:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ By 10th level, your spellcraft should be high enough to allow crafting the 5th level wand in half the time. That's experience! \$\endgroup\$ – ShadowKras Sep 28 '16 at 11:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @"Primarily opinion-based voters" - Roleplaying is more than rolling dice and rules-as-written. Narrative techniques and narrative interpretations of rules are important to immerse players in the game - more important than the rules themselves! What makes good narrative is always open to opinion, but it is the core of RPGs, so it seems like such questions should have a place here. Especially when they are addressing a very specific topic. \$\endgroup\$ – Kris Sep 29 '16 at 17:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I always assumed that you had to buy some of the materials in bulk so that you could filter through to find the high-quality bits. The end result only uses one stick, but you have to start carving dozens to find one that doesn't have defects that would cause the crafting to fail, and those dozens are just a few of the bushel that you had to purchase. At higher levels you need several bushels because you have a more discerning eye and need a rarer, higher quality stick. This also explains why it takes more time. \$\endgroup\$ – aherocalledFrog Sep 30 '16 at 14:00
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Compare it to computers and other modern mechanical devices, and it might make more sense.

The actual cost of the hardware that makes up a phone or a laptop is only the tiniest fraction of the cost of making one. That's because the real money is in the effort it takes to make all the connections just right, to design all the components to fit in the mold, and to make sure it all works properly. Even with a working schematic and all the machinery, the cost is in all the steps it takes to assemble the pieces, and then assemble the pieces into a final device.

It's the same with magic items. The piece of wood you use as a base for your wand is only a tiny part of the real cost that lies in channeling all that magic energy into the device, setting up more spells to allow others (even those who don't know or can't cast the spell) to trigger and then ensuring that all that concentrated magic doesn't go off at inopportune moments.

Beneath the smooth, wooden cover of your wand there lies countless layers of magic energy and spells, just like beneath the smooth, aluminum cover of your phone or laptop there are countless layers of chips and electrical connections. The real cost for a wizard is in setting all of that up correctly.

It also explains why the more powerful fireball Wand is more expensive: the packaging is the same size, but now you need to fit in much more energy, which means even more complex patterns within the device to make it all fit. It's the same with laptops; faster laptops are more expensive because they need even more delicate, more precisely printed chips to fit all the extra pathways to allow more calculations to be performed.

It's not visible to the end user, who just sees a wooden stick that spits fire (or a phone that shows pictures of cats), but there is a huge network beneath the surface that took experts a huge amount of time to perfect to make it all work so easily.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This explains why the wand has value beyond its components, but doesn't address why it costs the creator gold beyond the value of its components. What happens to that gold? \$\endgroup\$ – Carl Kevinson Sep 29 '16 at 18:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's reasonable to say that there is some sort magical reagent or combination of reagents required for the process that are being used up to bind the magic together, like solder that's used to connect different electrical components. \$\endgroup\$ – Mr Tumnus Sep 29 '16 at 22:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, I like the idea that other unnamed spells need to be cast during the process to contain and control the magic. Those spells (learned as part of the Item Creation Feat) would also need components. \$\endgroup\$ – Kris Sep 30 '16 at 14:03

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