OSR: A Material Component Magic System

Material components are annoying. They're fun in theory but a pain in practice.

Most groups operate on the time-hallowed system of tracking only components with a substantial cost (e.g. the 100gp pearl for identify) or simply deducting their cost from a character's cash. Some GMs keep track of rare components, like vampire dust or basilisk eyelashes, but most don't.

Single-player resource management minigames aren't fun. You can write material gathering encounter tables and eccentric shopkeepers, but it's difficult to make material components interesting for an entire group, unless the entire group is into it. Helping the wizard gather mushrooms and bat fur usually feels like a distraction from the game at best or a monopolization of spotlight time at worst.

But what if material components weren't an addition to a spellcasting system? What if they were the core?
Filipe Pagliuso

Canon Components

In AD&D, the main wellspring of the concept, material components fall into two categories:

1. Sympathetic Magic:
  • Protection from Normal Missiles: piece of tortoise or turtle shell.
  • Summon Shadow: smoky quartz
  • Grease: bit of pork rind or butter
  • Detect Undead: pinch of earth from a grave
  • Wall of Stone: small block of granite
  • Wall of Fire: phosphorous*
2. Gygax's Little Jokes:
  • Wall of Fog: pinch of split, dried peas. => pea soup fog
  • Message: short piece of copper wire, drawn fine => telephone wire
  • Ventriloquism: parchment rolled into a cone. => megaphone
  • Confusion: three nut shells => shell game
  • Passwall: pinch of sesame seeds => open sesame
And of course the ridiculous items and actions required to cast Tasha’s Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter.
*Incidentally, in the real world, phosphorous was discovered in 1669, which is a bit odd for a medieval-ish D&D setting, but so it goes.
Glendower: I can call the spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come, when you do call for them?
- Henry IV, part 1. Act 3, Scene 1

The Blackmoor Magic System

The system used in Arneson's Blackmoor campaign remains shrouded in mystery. There are a few hints in The First Fantasy Campaign, and but not enough to completely reconstruct the system. It was very material-heavy.
In Blackmoor, magic followed the "Formula" pattern for most magic. The reasoning behind limiting the number of spells that a Magic User could take down into the Dungeon was simply that many of the ingredients had to be prepared ahead of time, and of course, once used were then powerless. Special adventures could then be organized by the parties to gain some special ingredients that could only be found in some dangerous place.

Progression reflected the increasing ability of the Magic user to mix spells of greater and greater complexity.
-The First Fantasy Campaign
It's possible that the system defies systematization. If it was a collection of ad-hoc rulings for every effect, writing it down for publication would be impossible.
Sam Carr

Towards An Alternative Casting System

What if, instead of being being a requirement to cast a pre-written spell, material components are the spell? The caster holds two items, fixes their mind on a belief, and convinces the universe to "make the world like this."

Say a Magic-User wants to cast a spell to clean their house. They might grab bristles from a broom and a flake of soap and say "make this house like this." Or they might grab a tin whistle (for "as clean as a whistle") and a square of paper (for "squared away").

If you want to charm a monster, put a bit of sugar on a coin.

The spell has to convince the universe and the GM. The player has to be confident that the items will produce the effect. That's the point of being a wizard.

This is a different approach from otherfreeform magic systems like Whitehack or Maze Rats. There's no table of suggested effects or spells. Instead, the Magic-User's player goes through their imaginary pockets and cobbles together an effect based on poetic logic. It's similar to Nick S. Whelan's magic word system, but with objects instead of abstract concepts.

Material Spellcasting

'Witches just aren't like that,' said Magrat. 'We live in harmony with the great cycles of Nature, and do no harm to anyone, and it's wicked of them to say we don't. We ought to fill their bones with hot lead.'
Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett 
This system should drop into old-school games without too much trouble. There's noo need to rewrite the entire game.

Whenever a Magic User would gain a spell slot, they instead gain 1 Magic Point. To cast a spell, the Magic User selects 2 material components and spends 1 Magic Point. The materials are consumed. The caster must hold the materials and speak a few magic words. Magic points are restored each day, just like spell slots.

The player describes the intended effect to the GM, and why the chosen materials will produce the effect.

"I want to set all of them on fire. I'm going to use some of the skin of that fire toad we fought last session and some flour."

"I want to transform into a bear. I'm going to use some bear fur and some clay."
GM is free to dispute or refine the effect.
"I want to set all of them on fire. I'm going to use a candle and a bit of string."
    "How exactly will that work? A candle burns pretty steadily. And what does the string do?"

          "I want to lock that door. I'm going to use some sealskin to seal it and some mortar."
             "That feels like it would fuse the door to the frame, not lock it."
           "Fine by me!"

"I want to drive that monster into a frenzied rage. I'm going to use wax and a thorn."
    "Ok... explain?"
"To wax wroth, and to be nettled."
    "Damn it, that's awful but it works."
After casting a spell, the player notes the materials and effect and materials a spellbook, then rolls 1d6. On a 3+, all future casts of the spell cost +1 Magic Point. This is cumulative. (This chance may need to be adjusted after additional testing.)

A Magic-User cannot create an identical effect with different items. Once a Magic-User does something one way, that's how it's done. That's their house-cleaning spell or the fill-bones-with-hot-lead spell.

A Magic-User can share their method and items with another spellcaster. The base chance that the other caster will be able to use the spell is [caster level]+50%. The first time the caster uses a learned spell, it costs 1 MP as normal.

A Magic-User can keep up to 20 materials (different or duplicate) ready for instant use. They can store more materials in a pack or pouch.
(This may need to be adjusted after additional testing, but twenty items seems like a good number without being overwhelming.)

A Magic-User cannot level up until they've cast a total number of unique spells equal to current level's spell slots. This shouldn't be a problem.

Most of the time, a Magic-User cannot invent new spells during downtime or non-adventure situations. Spellcasting requires a heightened emotional state. Use the rules for spell research for downtime testing, especially if the player has a desired effect in mind. The point is to avoid, "I have 3 days of downtime and 5 Magic Points, so I will invent 15 new spells." Instead, gather material components during downtime.

Like this, but fancier.

Spell Effect Guidelines

This system assumes the GM has a reasonable grasp of spell effects and mechanics. It's an advanced and personalized system.

Creatures still get Saves.

Use [caster level] to adjust the power of spells.
  • Fireball. 1d6 per [caster level] in a 20' sphere. 
  • Fly. Fly for 1 hour + [caster level]x10 minutes.
  • Charm Monster. Charm up to [caster level] x 2 HP of monsters for 1 day.
  • Transform for [caster level]+1 rounds.
Material components must be plausible medieval-ish items that the caster can obtain or gather without too much trouble. Good luck keeping ice chips cold in your pocket.

Rare items produce a stronger effect. The heart of a unicorn and a diamond the size of an apple will probably bring someone back to life, but players are unlikely to have a renweable supply of unicorn hearts. 
A candle stub and a bit of flint will produce a mediocre light spell, closer to a cantrip than a proper spell.
You could make the spell cost HP as well as Magic Points, but only in systems with fast healing.


Magical Thinking

This system relies on associations, allusions, fuzzy logic, magical thinking, and puns. Dictionaries of idioms and quotes might help. Real-world books on the magic properties of herbs and crystals don't; since their magical effects have to be indistinguishable from chance. This list of alchemical reagents is a good starting list of items.

Here are a few examples of material component associations. It's not a complete list, just food for thought.

Organization. Summoned by a bell, saved by the bell.
Announcement. Wedding bells, alarm bells.
Clarity and purity. As clear as a bell.
Doom. For whom the bell tolls.
Memory. Rings a bell.
Fanciness. Bells and whistles. With bells on it.

Mortality, time, aging.
Depth, possibly hidden. Soaked to the bone, feel it in my bones.

A funeral shroud.
A blindfold.
A napkin, as in a magic trick.
Muffling. Cloth ears.

Blinding, sneezing, impairing.
Worthlessness. To shake the dust from your feet.
Death. To bite to dust, dust to dust.
Hidden things. Dusting for fingerprints.

Graveyard earth, hallowed ground.
Native soil.
Distance. Four corners of the earth.
Sensibility. Groundedness, to come back to earth.
Materiality. To move heaven and earth. Older than dirt.
Secrets. To have dirt on someone, to dirty one's hands.

Enclosing, hatching, possibilities, new life.
Transformation, growth.
Zero. A goose egg.
Wealth. The golden egg.

Aspects of a creature.

Honeyed words.
Attracting animals and insects.


Toughness. Health and resilience. As tough as old leather.
Hardness, hardened skin.

Sticky, but mild.
To wax wroth, to wax lyrical, to wax and wane.
Trustworthy. Wax seals.
Secrecy. Sealed letters, none of your beeswax.



This system lets a Magic-User potentially solve X problems per day.

If they encounter more than X problems, the Magic-User can cast the classic spells "mundane missile", "cower", and "bluff."

Fighters solve one class of problem, Clerics solve a narrow class of problems and help fix failure to solve other problems, Thieves go around the problem or give everyone time to plan, and Magic-Users frequently trade one problem for a different problem.

This system enables extremely flexible casting, at the expense of reliability and power. In this system, creating an effect as powerful and as persistent as the 9th-level spell bigby's crushing hand would require more than an eggshell and some snakeskin.

It also encourages players to interact with the world, to hoard wizardly items, and to think outisde the box. Save up your weird wizard treasures for powerful one-off spells. 

The spellbook also serves as a campaign record. "Remember when I put all those goblins to sleep using sand and lettuce? Good times." "Yes, but the bugbear still broke my arm." "Good times..."

The total number of Magic Points is pretty sensible. A player might try to maximise their Magic Points by only casting unique spells, but most of the time, effects they've already produced are too tempting not to use again. The table below is from AD&D.  

A player might invent fireball or finger of death at level 1, but each cast potentially increases the cost. They might not even be able to cast it a second time until level 2.

Spell Level

Level 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Spells
1 1                 1
2 2                 2
3 2 1               3
4 3 2

5 4 2 1

6 4 2 2

7 4 3 2 1           10
8 4 3 3 2           12
9 4 3 3 2 1         13
10 4 4 3 2 2

11 4 4 4 3 3

12 4 4 4 4 4 1

13 5 5 5 4 4 2       25
14 5 5 5 4 4 2 1     26
15 5 5 5 5 5 2 1     28
16 5 5 5 5 5 3 2 1   31
17 5 5 5 5 5 3 2 2   32
18 5 5 5 5 5 3 3 2 1 34
19 5 5 5 5 5 3 3 3 1 35
20 5 5 5 5 5 3 3 3 2 36

Sidebar: Divine Casters

Clerics don't use this system. They get their spells normally. They don't need to convince the universe, they just need to manifest the will of their god.

Alternatively, for each spell slot, the Cleric rolls on a random holy verse table (using the book or books of your choice, but using all the verses, including the boring ones.). The spell's effect depends on the verse or line. Each day, the Cleric may replace any number of lines/spells or keep previously generated lines/spells.


OSR: 1d20 Dungeon Merchants

Another excerpt from the Treasure Overhaul, but formatted for a blog post. Arnold K's dungeon merchants are, as usual, well worth reading.

In the depths of a dungeon, in the desolate wilderness, adventurers may be lucky enough to encounter a Dungeon Merchant. They carry a limited selection of mostly mundane items, but occasionally have magic items and potions for sale.

If your players still have an “I stab the king” mentality, dungeon merchants probably will not work for your group. There are forces you meddle with, and forces you do not meddle with, and Dungeon Merchants are firmly in the latter category.

Marko Laine

1. Springald Jackback

Appearance: a human-sized cockroach wearing a thick wool coat, scarf, and jaunty hat. Wears its inventory like a one-man band kit. Rattles and creaks.
Voice: Piping, cheerful, mangled vocabulary. “Hoy hoy, adventursomes. It is I, Springald Jacback, forbearing treasures and oddifacts of trite reasonablity.”
Covets: horrible and unique smells.
Shrewdness: interested in coins and gems. Disinterested in other items or long-winded tales. Functionally immortal. Scuttles through the world.

Springald Jackback opens trading from a safe distance or while hanging from the ceiling. It carries miscellaneous adventuring gear and pickled rations, but rarely any magic items.

2. Sister Charity & Sister Avarice

Appearance: two nuns in black-and-white habits. Sister Charity is apple-cheeked, freckled, and smiling. Sister Avarice is battle-scarred, has a milky eye, and scowls like a cursed-blasted oak.
Voice: Sister Charity is syrupy-sweet, soft, and unflappably cheerful. Sister Avarice grunts and points.
Covets: donations.
Shrewdness: highly moral, but with the instincts of career extortionists. Probably supernatural.

The Sisters put out a trestle table covered in baked goods, gently used sweaters, sporting equipment, knick-knacks, and occasionally rare magic items. They accept donations. Remember, it’s all for charity.

3. Harry J. Hesterhausen (& This Mule)

Appearance: a high-sided canvas-topped two-wheeled cart pulled by a scruffy grey mule. Harry is broad, bearded, unwashed, and wears muddy tweed.
Voice: strong oaths as punctuation.
Covets: money, directions.
Shrewdness: impatient, harried. Trades rapidly; hates  bargaining and frivolity.  

An otherwise mundane traveling trader who gets stuck in the most implausible situations. On a path behind a waterfall, in a locked vault, at the bottom of a pit trap. Blames “f’ing wizards and this f’ing mule.”

4. Ogmar’s Third-Hand Goods

Appearance: an incongruous wooden door below a faded painted sign. Smell of mildew and dust. Inside, rickety shelves stuffed with obscure goods. Faded yellow tags. Drifts of dust and shoals of cobwebs.   
Voice: silent. Jangling shop bell. Dusty hand-lettered sign on the counter reads “Out to lunch. Leave money on the counter. Exact change only. -Ogmar.”
Covets: quick and efficient transactions.
Shrewdness: damaging or removing an item without paying inflicts 3 rounds of mind-shattering agony and drops the miscreant to 0 HP. The store then violently ejects all customers and vanishes.

Shelf after shelf of wood dowels, bales of cotton, sacks of glass orbs, and chalk. Items in the store are have moldered for decades. Rope crumbles, leather creaks, but steel is still sharp and gold still glitters.

5. Writhing Protorootball

Appearance: an unnatural amalgamation of roots, fungal veins, lichen, wilting leaves, and fused fruits, pushing from a wall or bursting through a floor.
Voice: soothing telepathy. A lullaby whisper. Simple sentences, clear intent.
Covets: rich and nutritious food.
Shrewdness: grasping. Cannot pursue thieves quickly, but will seek slow and terrible revenge. Terrifying legend to dryads and myconids.

A complex semi-magical colonial life form. Might be vast and extra-dimensional. Trades by extruding items and absorbing coins. Magic items are clutched in the partially digested skeletal hands of unlucky warriors. 

6. The Price is Not Negotiable Show

Appearance: a smiling slightly waxy host named Eli Boyle, a wooden podium, brightly coloured set.   
Voice: booming game show cadence. “Welcome to The Price is Not Negotiable. I’m your host, Eli Boyle…” Laugh track from an unseen audience.
Covets: fair play.
Shrewdness: rigid magically enforced rules. Blatantly inhuman. Hideous and menacing friendliness.

When the game begins, the host will produce three items. These could be mundane or magical, useful or actively inconvenient. A volunteer / contestant must guess the price of each item. If they guess over, they get the item but must pay the price they guessed. If unable to pay, they don’t get the item. If they guess exactly the price, they get the item for free. If they guess under, they do not get the item. The host explains the rules. After the three guesses, the host, set, and unclaimed items vanish.

7. Goblin Pop-Up Market

Appearance: skittering goblins, crude stalls, smell of rotten meat, assorted fruit, strange chemicals. Glowing eyes in the darkness. Fleas, muck. Set up quickly; vanishes even more quickly.  
Voice: shrieks, hoots, garbled speech, laughter.
Covets: shiny-shiny to hold, yes, and others.
Shrewdness: all trades are perilous. The market dissolves into violent omnidirectional chaos at the slightest provocation.

Stolen and lost things, but mostly junk. Goblin-made items are comically shoddy. Do not eat the fruits.  

8. Jarscorx Hoxliate

Appearance: a blue-green humanoid with mirror-bright eyes and teeth. Shimmering, ambiguous. Has a crinkling silver bag.
Voice: cheerful but unconvincing. Buzzes whenever it says a proper noun, as if a different voice took over.
Covets: gold and platinum, probably.
Shrewdness: thinks lies and forgeries are amusing jokes, but refuse to accept them.

Jarscorx Hoxliate is a huge and eerie fan of anyone it meets. It has an almost omniscient knowledge of a past encounters, and will combine unconvincing flattery with inflexible prices. Items produced from its bag are blisteringly cold. 

9. The Spiral Pilgrim

Appearance: grey robes, grey beard, bulbous nose, sad watery eyes.  
Voice: sighing, tragic, depressing, deeply unhelpful.  
Covets: current coins, novelty.
Shrewdness: can suck the life out of any long conversation.  

The Spiral Pilgrim was cursed to wander the worlds for being unbearably morose and pessimistic. They trade trinkets and items picked up along their journey.

10. Repetitious Broseph Thundercloud

Appearance: steel-clad paladin with an implausibly muscular frame. Closed helm, enormous sword.
Voice: echoing shouts. Quotes holy texts no one else has ever read. Homicidal black-and-white joy.   
Covets: helpful items or portable wealth.
Shrewdness: brought too many items on a convoluted quest, and acquired too much loot along the way.

Offers mild discounts for feats of strength. Loves arm wrestling because Repetitious always wins.Repetitious does not understand charity. Repetitious’ quest is vital. Your quest is incomprehensible.


11. Braden’s Bulk Bin

Appearance: a rusty iron cube. Speaking grill and item  exchange chute. Flickering neon sign.
Voice: echoing, garbled, but youthful and bored. Sounds underpaid and fed up. Follows a script.
Covets: rare magic items.
Shrewdness: not paid enough to handle weird arguments. Do you want your torches or not?

Mundane items sold by Braden’s Bulk Bin are twice as heavy and occupy twice as many Inventory Slots as normal. They are usually badly painted custard yellow.

12. Parlour Toad

Appearance: a cat-sized green toad. Eyes pulse with multicoloured lights. Faint sound of music and conversation inside.  
Voice: polite accented inquiry when opened.   
Covets: gems, cultural trinkets.
Shrewdness: expert assessment. Provides receipts. Refuses to open if captured, held, threatened, enchanted, or otherwise bothered.

Parlour Toads contain portals to a mysterious extraplanar city. Only items that fit through the toad’s stretchy mouth can be traded. They wiggle, hop, and squeeze their way out of confinement.

13. Horace Moonstalker

Appearance: terribly unlucky adventurer. Scruffy, hunched, pale. Afflicted with vampirism, lycanthropy, mummy rot, roving petrification, thirty-five different curses, ooze-marrow disease, scurvy, and syphilis.  
Voice: coughing, sneezing, muttering.   
Covets: portable wealth, healing.
Shrewdness: seasoned, immune to threats.  

Horace is very difficult to kill. Do not spend more time around Horace than absolutely necessary. Horace endures; the rest of his parties never do.

14. Crypt Vulture

Appearance: an embalmed and fossilized horse-sized vulture. Stone wrappings, clay flesh, painted eyes. Flies through stone. Vomits or swallows items.
Voice: formal, croaking, archaic.
Covets: weapons to aid their master in the afterlife.
Shrewdness: skeptical of all claims. 

The Crypt Vulture trades honey, wine, clay jars, torches, and other grave goods for weapons or other items that might influence a cosmic battle.

15. Arianda Eladrohiane, Chronocurator

Appearance: a beautiful elf in a gossamer gown. Lit by unseen suns and splintering tachyons.
Voice: monumentally, cosmically bored. Faded echoes of arrogance. Polite, but in a dismissive way.
Covets: beautiful things. Gems, but not crude coins. Nothing humans create is worth examining.
Shrewdness: judgmental. Will respond to rudeness by  skipping forward or back in time to spread rumours. 

Collector from the end of time. Willing to trade ingots, elven items with imperceptible flaws, and paleo-synthesized goods for perfect, rare, or unique things. 

16. Unionized Familiars

Appearance: a swarm of cats, bats, rats, toads, snakes, baby-faced homunculi, and stoats.
Voice: babble of conflicting voices, jibes, counteroffers, innuendo, and hissing.
Covets: drugs, secrets, spells.
Shrewdness: collective cynical wisdom.

When wizards sleep, witches cavort, and alchemists recover from mercury fumes, their familiars sneak out to play cards, trade gossip, and smoke cigars. At least that’s what you assume is going on. 

17. Tempters In Training

Appearance: one well-dressed devil with a clipboard, and a swarm of minor imps in unflattering uniforms.
Voice: stuttering, awkward mispronunciations, formal contracts, unconvincing side-deals.
Covets: commerce.
Shrewdness: the imps are credulous and confused, but the devil will step in if things get out of hand. 

Before they can lure mortals into temptation, imps have to learn the basics of contracts, exchange, and trade. The items they sell aren’t cursed in any way. They’re just practicing interacting with people.

18. King Onion

Appearance: an ogre-sized yellow onion with a gold crown, pantaloons, and a cheerful face. Followed by a train of thinner purple onions carrying sacks. Not actually a king, just an arrogant merchant.
Voice: royal proclamations, trumpeting.
Covets: glittering treasure, deference.
Shrewdness: expert knowledge of local prices and customs. Haggles with glee; offers additional onions.

For every mundane item purchased, get a free onion. Magical items come with a sack of onions. Anyone eating, disparaging, or discarding onions within sight of the King of Onions is cursed to smell like rotting onions. Washing only makes it worse. 

19. The Fire-Blackened Mirror

Appearance: a scorched full-length oval mirror in a wood frame. Walks on four paper-thin brass legs. Reflections imperfectly match reality. Dead eyes, flickering expressions, mismatched items.
Voice: distorted viewer’s voice, as if they were sounding out words backwards but playing them forwards. Profoundly unsettling.
Covets: items of any sort.
Shrewdness: eerie insight.

Only non-living matter can pass through the mirror. Does it show a false world, a parallel dimension, or a bound demon? Who knows. Who dares to inquire? 

20. Peter Pock, Theoretical Cryromancer

Appearance: a portly frost-coated wizard in heavily enchanted robes. Wooden trunk floats nearby.
Voice: confident, but slightly bewildered. Teleported their way into this situation and they’ll teleport their way out.
Covets: rare magic items, powerful spells.
Shrewdness: haughty, unhelpful.

Peter Pock is perfecting a new ice-based method of teleportation. It keeps sending him to strange locations. He has a variety of powerful defensive charms and will teleport away if threatened, but, in the meantime, is willing to trade.