Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Material Components and Radiocarbon Dating

The Spawn of Endra takes a lunchbreak:

There are lots of rules or subsystems or optional McDealios in D&D that might make the game more realistic or increase verisimilitude. Many of those seem kind of cool to me at first glance and then they seem irritating. Many of the mechanics in 1e AD&D fit that bill, which is why I really am a B/X/LL fan at heart. I've noticed that the ones that really get me nowadays are ones where I have some real life experience with the situations they try to account for. So mechanics like "How much damage does a party take in 100 degree F weather?", "Or with no water?" or foraging rules that only include hunting and not gathering plant foods ... or how long does it take to clear a ruin in a jungle ... fuck it. Doing fieldwork I live that shit, and introducing it to the game world in any detail causes me physical and psychic pain.

Material components for spells also sort of irk me, and part of that may be because in my labwork deailing with radiocarbon dating I also have material component requirements. So why do I need that in my game? You see, we use materials of known age as standards when we process charcoal, bone, shells, whatever, so you can account for the 14C background, and to see how well your processing methods work. There's like a sort of alchemists/wizard's council that runs periodic lab intercomparisons and vets data (the IntCal working group). They control the selection and distribution of some of the materials we all use as standards. Actually there's probably some Druids on the council since several of the wood standards (TIRI-B, FIRI-D, FIRI-F) are shavings of a ~5000 BP Irish oak. The super old wood you need to check the background (called a 'blank', colloquially) is >70ka old and comes from a buried log jam on the Olympic Peninsula in WA. All of these come from finite actual pieces of fossil wood, so getting your tiny little vial of it can be difficult. Folks don't want to share.

For bone it's even worse, since most bones are smaller than trees, so sharing this stuff among 10 or 20 labs is less realistic. So for these I've spent a lot of time trying to find good material of different ages, begging for the buried permafrost whale bone to use as a background, trading it for 2000 BP bison tibia I have, exchanging a bit of AD 1880 cow bone from a privy for a Middle Holocene fur seal femur. We have a cabinet full small bits of this stuff that we have to have to run radiocarbon dates. This, plus a bunch of other less unique stuff like silver wire, copper oxide powder, clear fused quartz tubes, acids, bases, hyper-purified water are all the material components of radiocarbon dating. And getting it all and keeping up the networks with other labs so we always have what we need is a sort of constant underlying concern in my work. So the idea of maintaining a supply of bat guano in-game so I can cast fireball is just a bit too close to my real life to be fun.

On the other hand, when we hear someone is going up into the arctic we put in requests for chunks of old wood and mammoth toes, so I can see the possibility of lots of cool hooks for adventures. Maybe I'll ponder that some more.


  1. I love the concept of spell components but in D&D as written they mostly seem to be limiters on magic casting; if you want to cast this spell, you must first invest X amount of GP in the component cost (or quest to find the components, which seems cool but hardly ever seems to happen).

    In other words, the components don't do anything cool and all they do is suck from the perspective of a caster.

    I have actually spent a lot of time tinkering around with different component based magic systems and I use a lot of this in my 4e game. Components become fun when they have magical properties in and of themselves. I like to use them like a combination of a spell scroll/potion (the component can be consumed, either ingested or consumed by magic in casting, to cause a certain effect) and a spell building block (combining different components to create new effects).

    I usually just detail the primary effect/use of the component and then adjudicate on the fly when players start combining components. It is amazing how much more engaged with their environments players become when they realize that plants and animal organs might very well be magical items...

    Of course, 4e has abandoned Vancian Fire and Forget style magic, so it fits much better with a component based system of magic. But I am sure you could incorporate similar ideas into traditional D&D style casting. The easiest way would probably be to make components an optional part of the spell, but one that increases the potency of the spell if used. If you actually have some red dragon scale or whatever and use it when you are casting Fireball, maybe it does 1 more damage per die. That way components actually do something cool, they don't interfere or limit casting, and you might actually see casters motivated to quest for specific components!

  2. Addendum to my last comment RE finding components:

    I like magic to be "logical", whatever that means :), so a creature that has a magical ability usually either has some kind of organ or gland that relates to that ability and which could be harvested as a material component for a similar magical effect, or the creature feeds on a magical plant or mineral which could be found in the area which also could be used as a component for a magical effect.

    This has the awesome effect of turning random encounters into explorations of how the magical ecosystem of the game works, and often results in all kinds of unexpected plot hooks emerging from play. There are all kinds of marks on my campaign maps notating where various plant or mineral components were first discovered in play (most of them emerging from improvised responses to player investigation into the source of a magical ability used against them by a creature), and many of these areas have become destinations in and of themselves for the party as they return to harvest more of the component.

  3. @Carl yeah, 3.5 is explicit about expensive material components being used as a balancing factor for some of the more unfair spells. In practice this never works out precisely because material components are boring and most players and DMs don't want to bother with the book-keeping. The only spell(s) I've ever seen material components routinely enforced for are rez spells.

    @Spawn It's been a chestnut of mine for some years now that physical scientists are the closest thing we have to wizards in this world (chemists and physicists especially). Therefore your description of the material components needed for your witchwork comforts me. :-)

    1. Indeed, the fact that radiocarbon exists in most living things (that we know of) in some form, plus its abundance, plus the short half-life of ~5700 yr, gives it a sort of mystical quality. Like if you really wanted evidence of a universe whose physics were designed to give humans access to understanding their own origins on an absolute timescale, you'd be hard pressed to find something more opportune. Some go so far as to look at the 6 neutrons, 6 protons and 6 electrons of 12C ... 666 ... as a sign. Of course this favors a Kabalistic demiurge creator point of view. I remain agnostic on the subject since I'm an empiricist.

  4. I dislike material components, too, even though they are "historical". My interpretation of spell casting is that it's a half-round of concentration followed by a short phrase and a simple gesture, no material components needed. I leave that for scrolls and potions.

    I do, however, like the idea of material components as an improvement of existing spells. Such as: red dragon fewmets add a fiery component when used to cast an otherwise non-fire spell. Use it with Fly and you leave a blazing trail behind you; use it with Water Breathing to breathe magma (assuming you are already fire-proof...)

  5. @ Carl and Tal: I like the idea that certain components can augment the effects of a spell, rather than being a sine qua non. The deal with quests for certain things is how is the player or PC going to convince the rest of the party to go on a quest to find particular thing? Skimming over the 1e PHB I see again that a lot of these items are just crap you'd pick up anywhere. And many of them seem to just be the product of Gygax's sense of humor (as it were): for Friends (PHB p.66) the material components are "chalk (or white flour), lampblack (or soot), and vermillion applied to the face before casting". That is, the caster puts on makeup to improve his/her charisma. Ho de ho ho, Save vs Comedy or sides split, 10' radius! For Message you need a finely drawn drawn piece of copper, and so on. I suppose it's a suggestion towards sympathetic magic, but again that's not explicit in 1e as to how the spell universe works.

    1. Well spotted, certain D&D purists used to complain that spell names in Tunnels and Trolls were too goofy, yet I find many of EGG's ideas equally so, spell components being one of them.

    2. especially the old bat guano - a nod to the nitro that would eventually be incorporated in gunpowder, that mystical chemical that defines DnD's "historical period" by being always just out of reach. Like "just look how close you are! But no this is a fantasy game so no cigar for you."

      The powerup idea is charming but it relies on players having knowledge of stuff that they might use but don't have with them - I say this is needless character sheet clutter.
      I kinda think it should either be "OMG I can't cast anything without my box of tricks" or "the will and the word, feel the power course through you" - the mixture doesn't do anything for me. Where I would like to see material components used is in ritual magic for mighty effects... but then you pretty much have to rethink the whole (0/1e) magic system to account for such rituals.