Over the past weekend, one discussion led to another, and soon I was knees deep in the problem of making a mute wizard character in D&D. It was a long ride that involved reading about the inherent ableism that survives in games like D&D, writing scripts for light data analysis (not the point and not detailed in this article), figuring small semantic loopholes in the rules-as-written that every spellcaster loves to (ab)use so much and seeing if they can work in our favor.
Those Strong of Voice
To start this discussion off, it’s important to know that magic spells in D&D have some components that are required for successful casting. These include verbal, somatic and material components, although certain expansions into the source and lore of D&D introduce new ones from time to time (I’m thinking of the royalty component used in the Acquisitions Inc. book as an example). These components are, from my experience, there to be used either as storytelling fluff (to give players a recipe for what their mage could do in-game) or situational problems to be solved (some spells require the equivalent of hefty sums of gold to cast, for example). The verbal component of spells is valuable in both ways, as it adds an element of forbidden or gated knowledge in-game, but also an often disregarded-until-present gate if the character is disabled in that particular way. This case has been detailed in the very description of the component, and as such is mechanically bound, imagined probably as a major inconvenience to otherwise-able characters.
Most commonly-known magic, from Abracadabra through Fus-Ro-Dah to Expecto Patronum, include a verbal component. Just like in D&D, you might remember Hermione lecturing Ron on the exact pronounciation of spells: it’s not just the words but the sounds as well! The rules-as-written of D&D explain why, stating the following about the verbal component of spells (emphasis mine):
Most Spells require the chanting of mystic words. The words themselves aren’t the source of the spell’s power; rather, the particular combination of sounds, with specific pitch and resonance, sets the threads of magic in motion. Thus, a character who is gagged or in an area of Silence, such as one created by the Silence spell, can’t Cast a Spell with a verbal component. — D&D 5e Basic Rules
It’s interesting to notice the change from 3rd edition, where the verbal component is defined like this (emphasis mine):
A verbal component is a spoken incantation. To provide a verbal component, you must be able to speak in a strong voice. A silence spell or a gag spoils the incantation (and thus the spell). […] — D&D 3.5 Basic Rules
With verbal components being so important, two questions come into the foreground: can a mute (a wide variety of reasons might cover this!) person become a pure wizard (no multiclass)? And, what happens if a wizard becomes mute as a result of some event, later in their career? Does muteness stop a wizard’s career in this fantastic world? The question was raised by my friend Kyle Dewey, wizard extraordinaire, after he’d read the description of the Tongues spell. The question was about the inherent ableism that comes with the description (emphasis mine):
This spell grants the creature you touch the ability to understand any spoken language it hears. Moreover, when the target speaks, any creature that knows at least one language and can hear the target understands what it says.
What do we do for languages that do not involve spoken language, for whatever purpose? It seems that — somehow, almost as if because of the shared basis that spoken language and magic have in D&D — sign language is in a category of its own and requires mind-reading magic to understand. Would the following be too big of a change to the spell?
This spell grants the creature you touch the ability to understand any language in its vicinity. Moreover, when the target tries communicating, any creature in its vicinity that knows at least one language and can sense the target, can understand it.
It’s possible to imagine whole races for whom spoken language just never developed naturally. Different needs tend to push living beings into different paths, all of which should be regarded equally. This updated version of Tongues is certainly going to see play in my current campaign, as it might give more versatility to the players, outside of what the GM imagined.
A Spellful Analysis
Should we, however, be fixing a spell (are there more?) and not the system itself? In this case, I was pretty sure the answer was positive, but it intrigued me to dig further. First off, how many spells does the phrase “Most Spells” in the definition of verbal components entail. Secondly, what can one (wizard) do if they become mute, and at what price? Let’s unpack this one by one. First, I downloaded this JSON collection of D&D spells and did some light analysis by writing a script to isolate the spell names and components into a comma-separated values file, then did some Excel (non-verbal) magic on that data to find out how many spells require at least and at most the verbal, somatic and material components. The resulting diagram is quite daunting:
Having the possibility of using verbal components allows for a grand total of 384 spells to be cast, compared to the measly 15 (16 in total, 15 for wizards) that can be cast if the wizard is mute. And what are those spells?
In review, a lot of cantrips and first-level spells, a couple of 2nd and 3rd, and then 5th and 8th. The list seems weirdly elementally-oriented, what with Mold Earth, Shape Water, Thunderclap, Ice Knife, Control Fire and Absorb Elements, with some tactical illusion spells to boast. It almost seems like someone had a mute wildling elemental wizard idea of some sort while deciding the needed spell components… A wizard using these could indeed be interesting, but also quite limited.
It would be quite a blast to have more spells that could be just as effortlessly cast by characters who don’t or can’t speak, but in the meantime, what can we do to make it work? It seemed like houseruling some change to spell components themselves was tricky (more on that below) , as it might hit some other similar unforeseen snag and would require more research to do properly. Instead, what could we do with what we have at hand?
Intermezzo: while you’re thinking about this, here’s some resources that I’ve read on breaks and between sessions that talk about disabilities and D&D. Addressing Ableism: Game Mechanics that Treat Disability as a Limitation is an excellent read on the ludonarrative dissonance that exists within the rules of D&D, that forms the basis of the problem with spells like Tongues mentioned above. It goes above and beyond what I’ve written here. Another piece I’ve spent some time on is Blinded by the Roll: The Critical Fail of Disability in D&D, and am still mulling it around in my mind. I give these things time, as thoughts come unseen, mine are also slow, and will stick only when given fertile ground.
We can notice that one of the 16 spells we still can cast is Minor Illusion. It’s a non-verbal cantrip that requires one action to cast, and has the following effect (emphasis mine):
You create a sound or an image of an object within range that lasts for the duration. The illusion also ends if you dismiss it as an action or cast this spell again. If you create a sound, its volume can range from a whisper to a scream. It can be your voice, someone else’s voice, a lion’s roar, a beating of drums, or any other sound you choose. The sound continues unabated throughout the duration, or you can make discrete sounds at different times before the spell ends. […]
Even by the previous interpretation of spell components, this allows us to have a strong voice. Nowhere is it stated that the voice has to come from the character, so we check all those boxes. With the duration of Minor Illusion being one minute, all it takes to have all the spells you would wish to cast is some forethought: cast Minor Illusion at the beginning of combat and you have one minute (approximately 10 turns) in which you can “[…] make discrete sounds at different times before the spell ends“. Rushing into combat without preparation is to be avoided at all costs knowing this, but rushing in is a bad idea independent of this discussion. Furthermore, as the voice doesn’t have to be your own, this way of casting could be used to confuse or deceive the enemies as well.
Now for that houseruling that might make or break the game: the problem with verbal components could be more generally solved in the form of a house rule, something along the lines of:
You have enough knowledge of the arcane that you can exchange spell components for other spell components of equal value. Exchanging only one component for another comes at no price. Changing two or more components in a spell has a fixed 15% chance to inflict a level of exhaustion once the effect of the spell ends. Material spell components of substantial monetary value or of very specific shape or form are hard to approximate this way and can’t be replaced. When exchanged, material spell components are always consumed after use.”
If you’re worried about material components being too overpowered (by replacing all components with a giant material pouch), introduce a material resource die: start it at a d20, and every time the character spends material components, let them roll that die again. If it lands on a 1, reduce the die to the next lower die (d20 to d12, d12 to d10, etc.), having the spell still succeed but noting that the pouch seems more empty now. If 1 is rolled when the die is d4, the character doesn’t have the needed resources to cast the spell. Replenishing the material pouch is then a process of gathering or buying components, and thus a direct exchange value can be sketched (turning gold pieces into a die of appropriate cost, which you can control via the tables in the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide).
It’s an interesting happenstance that the formulation of the wizard feat/house rule above, as-written, would allow us to exchange multiple components for more of one, which can now go to the other extreme from mute characters: characters with multiple voices (be it like Tibetan throat singers or three-headed dragonborns) using them to cast spells without any somatic or material component cost at all! I’ve never seen a mute wizard, nor a multi-voiced wizard, but I hope I’ll see both one day! The more, the merrier!
It’s an interesting question of whether any component should be so important that its lack makes the whole class worthless. I don’t think it should be like this, and would even be okay with making spell components more into spell stabilizers than anything else. Add a small chance for the spell to have a random secondary effect if the components aren’t present. This would ensure that players know it’s wise to say the words in a strong voice and position themselves properly, and have the needed materials, but that all of this isn’t limiting them to cast the spell. It’s only limiting the chaos that will follow. I’d push for something like this:
Any spell component that is not presented during the casting of a spell adds a 10% chance of Chaos Magic appearing as a side-effect of the spell. The spell succeeds independent of the Chaos Magic roll.
This Chaos Magic is just a slightly-changed Wild Magic Surge table, as we’re not designing this for (only) sorcerers. The table is given below:
Yes, this would make any spellcaster a potential Wild Magic user, depending on how careful they are, and I think this is wonderful. Magic should never be completely understood, under control, or mundane. It is in this sense that having a house-rule like this fixes two problems at the same time, both enabling wizards to cast spells without depending on the properties of their bodies too much, and enabling them to take a gamble with forces that they can use but do not completely control when they want to.