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I understand the necessity of consumable or costly material components, but what is the point—in terms of making the game more interesting—of inexpensive material components, like a leaf of sumac or a tiny ball of bat guano?

I've never seen anybody even bother with these kinds of particular items in any D&D 5e streams. Every caster uses either an arcane focus or a spell component pouch (or a musical instrument if a bard).

This question assumes such material components in 3e are a legacy feature from when most components were consumable, but for 5e is there any particular reason why many spells still require specific inexpensive material components instead of alone, general focus item?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related questions at 1, 2, 3, 4 regarding spell components. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 22 '16 at 18:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for discussion. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Nov 28 '16 at 14:05
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There are two aspects to this question:

  1. Why have material components that are free or inexpensive?

  2. Why make them all different?

Why have Inexpensive material components

Most of the time, the presence of a free material component will just mean the caster needs to interact with an arcane focus or component pouch. They will need a hand free to do this.

There are spells that require no material component. These may be especially useful, for example, for a ranger with the War Casting feat, wielding a sword and shield or dual-wielding — he has no need to unwield a weapon or shield and then handle his component pouch (note, rangers do not get arcane foci) to cast such a spell.

Spells that lack one component or another can be handy when some game condition or other deprives them of the ability to use the component (that being silenced, bound, or deprived of a component pouch/arcane focus.)

Why have material components be unique, individual items?

While a few somatic or verbal components are specified in spell descriptions (notably, Burning Hands mentions touching one’s thumbs together) material components are specified in each spell’s stat block. Why?

Eye of newt, and toe of frog

One reason why this D&D tradition has survived (or been revived) is the same reason material components appear in Shakespeare: they do a good job setting a mood.

On the other hand, I think we could agree that calling out every syllable of every verbal component or gesture of every somatic one would simply be tedious.

Scrounging for components

If a caster doesn’t have access to a component pouch or arcane focus (generally because it was stolen or confiscated, but there might be other reasons) then individual components can play a role in game play. Some will be trivial to acquire, others difficult.

As such, they’re a little like encumbrance rules: some groups will never use them, many gloss over them most of the time — but they are there in case the situation calls for them. For example, Umbranus shares this memorable escapade:

In one game with an earlier edition my char could once save the party after we were caught and tied up because I remembered how easy it is to get the components for unseen servant. Back then it had no somatic components but material component was similar to today: Piece of wood and string. So I worked my clothes to pull a string out and scratched the wood pole I was tied to until a piece came loose.

Without those components this situation would not have been as noteworthy. And I wouldn't still remember it.

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There are two reasons I'm aware of.

The first is for the rare situation of when a Spellcaster is deprived of focus and component pouch. Having specific components for each spell allows some of them to be gathered from the environment.

As an example, at the beginning of the published adventure Out of the Abyss, the characters start the adventure imprisoned and deprived of their equipment. A warlock could probably acquire a cup of water to be able to cast Armor of Agathys, but acquiring an eye of a newt for Hex will be more difficult. As the adventure recommends informing the players of this start condition, the player can make informed decisions about which spells to choose based on the specific material components.

The second is that most of the specific components are tongue in cheek humor. Illusion spells call for fleece. Lightning spells for a bit of fur and a rod. Message requires a spool of copper wire. Humor is built into the mechanics of the game and it's awesome.

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As others have said, many components have a pun or joke (Illusions require fleece - you're pulling the wool over your targets' eyes!) for one, flavor and worldbuilding is another, and general spell availability is a third. Let's focus on that last point.

Every class has some item they're almost useless without. A warrior has a sword. A ranger has a bow. What does a caster have? Their components.

Another point, again which has been explored, is that a troubled caster can still improvise and find a more limited selection of materials freely in nature, just as a warrior can find a stick or a ranger can find some rocks.

In other words, cheap components serve three uses:

  • Flavor.
  • Humour.
  • And giving a caster something that can be lost via captors or commotion.
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As others have noted above, it can give flavor to the spells. And while few do it, thanks to the "component pouch" now, back in the earlier systems that this is a holdover for, there was no component pouch that conveniently held all these things.

So, while the warrior might go get his armor repaired, my mage was restocking his component pouch. Again, most folks probably didn't, but I tracked my individual component counts for my spells and where I kept them. It made the resource management a layer deeper.

For players not in a "standard civilized" setting, the different difficulties of the components has an effect. The bit of string and wood is easy in most situations, as long as you have clothes. The glass rod required some effort by the players to set up a simple glassworks in the colony they were founding when their wizard hit 5th level and decided Lightning Bolt was a good way to go.

Components in a system are only as useful as the players and game master make them. If you ignore them, they're little bits of flavor text. If you use them, they can add depth to the campaign.

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