Mechanic Overview: Spellcasting Focus in 5e

Published on December 4, 2021, Last modified on December 9th, 2021

Casting spells in any edition of Dungeons and Dragons has been somewhat obtuse and handwaved by most DMs to order to streamline their games. Spellcasting Focuses were re-introduced with 5th Edition as a way to handle spellcasting for single-class characters, as well as to simplify the process from 3.5 edition.

Spellcasting foci and D&D

Spellcasting in D&D is not always super clear. 5e has done a great job of simplifying it, but there are still some confusing bits. One of the most interesting changes is that spells have only three possible required components, as opposed to the possible six there were in 3.5 (and they had gotten rid of them entirely in 4e). They also re-introduced spellcasting focus as an alternative to using material components to cast spells.

In this article, we’re going to go over what exactly a spellcasting focus is, as well as how this mechanic affects gameplay.

What is a spellcasting focus 5e?

A spellcasting focus is an item that is held by some spellcasters to direct their magical energy through. These can be represented by different objects, based on the character’s class. Not all classes that can cast spells are able to use a spellcasting focus, however. Generally, the “Spellcasting” section of each class will end on a note of what that class’ spellcasting focus is if they have one.

How do spellcasting focuses work in 5e?

Most spells in Dungeons and Dragons have a material component, whether it’s something like a handful of bark, a tiny bell, or similar object. Certain classes are able to omit these non-costly materials by utilizing a spellcasting focus instead.

These spellcasters channel their magical energy through these focuses to literally “focus” their magic through the object. This object has to be held in a free hand for it to be used, but it can be the same hand that is used for the somatic component as well (aka the hand gestures for spellcasting).

If the material component has a cost associated with it (like the 100gp pearl associated with the identify spell), the spellcaster must still have the component in their hand before they can use the spell. There are also some cases where the spell consumes the costly component (such as the 300 gp diamond in the revivify) spell, which is not affected by the spellcasting focus.

How does each Class utilize its Focus?

Each class that can use a spellcasting focus has its own unique items they can use for it.

  • Bards can use any musical instrument to cast their Bard spells.
  • Clerics and Paladins can use a holy symbol that represents their deity or purpose, as a focus. Unlike other classes who have to hold their focus in their hand, these can be worn or placed atop a shield as well.
  • Druids use a druidic focus, generally something made from trees or a living object. Subsequently, Rangers can also use a druidic focus if you’re using Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything rules.
  • Wizards, Warlocks, and Sorcerers use an arcane focus, something like a rod, wand, or staff that was created for the sole purpose of directing magic.
  • Artificers are quite unique in how they use a spellcasting focus. They can use either thieves’ tools or artisan’s tools as their spellcasting focus, making them the only class that can use a tool as a spellcasting focus. Artificer’s can also use an infused item as their focus once they gain “Infuse Items” at 2nd level. It’s worth noting that Artificers are also the only class that must use a spellcasting focus for spells that have a material component, they cannot use a component pouch. Because of the stipulation that Artificers must have their focus in hand and that the focus does not replace the need for materials with a cost associated with them, they require two hands to cast spells with costly materials.

Spellcasting Focus vs. Component Pouch

A component pouch is a small, watertight leather belt pouch that has compartments to hold all the material components and other special items you need to cast your spells, except for those components that have a specific cost (as indicated in a spell’s description).

— Player’s Handbook

One of the items described in the Player’s Handbook is the component pouch. This is an item that can also replace the material costs of some spells. The difference between these two things is almost nonexistent.

How does a component pouch work?

A character can use a component pouch or a spellcasting focus (found in “Equipment”) in place of the components specified for a spell. But if a cost is indicated for a component, a character must have that specific component before he or she can cast the spell.

— Player’s Handbook

Both spellcasting focuses and component pouches do not replace any material cost that has a price associated with it, such as the 300 gp diamond needed for resurrection. Specific items that have a value assigned to them must be held when the spell is cast.

Spellcasting Focuses are partially a flavorful mechanic to add to spellcasters for additional flair, but it doesn’t make sense that all classes who can use magic would be able to channel that same power through a focus. An Eldritch Knight may know how to cast spells but doesn’t know how to channel them through his blade. Instead, they’d need to use a component pouch for more complex spells.

How are they different?

Cost

The biggest difference between a spellcasting focus and component pouch is the cost associated with the item, which becomes irrelevant very quickly in a typical game. Spellcasting Focuses usually run 5-20gp while component pouches cost 25gp. 

Component Pouches are better for multiclassing

Component pouches are also better for adventurers that are multiclassing, as spellcasting focuses only work to cast spells of the class that grants them use of that item. A multiclass Wizard can’t use their arcane focus to cast Druid spells, but they can use a component pouch to replace the need for either focus.

When component pouches don’t work

As mentioned when we discussed how specific classes use spellcasting focus, the only class that cannot use a component pouch to replace their material components is the Artificer. 

Mechanics that affect spellcasting focus rules

Because spellcasting is so complicated, there are some additional rules that come along with it. Especially when it comes to how spellcasting focuses work in the game, for a variety of scenarios.

Multiclassing

If a character were to multiclass, at the consent of their DM, it’s important to note that their spellcasting focus only works for that specific class’ spells. If a Paladin multiclasses into Warlock, they would need both a holy symbol and an arcane focus. They cannot cast Warlock spells using a holy focus, and cannot cast Paladin spells with an arcane focus.

Artificer Initiate (Feat)

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything brought a slew of new feats, including this one. One of the benefits of this feat allows you to use artisan’s tools as a spellcasting focus for any spell that uses Intelligence for its spellcasting ability.

War Caster (Feat)

The interaction between War Caster and spell components is quite a confusing one. 

Under the “Casting a Spell” section of the PHB, the part about somatic components reads as follows: “Spellcasting gestures might include a forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures. If a spell requires a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.” 

The war caster feat specifies “You can perform the somatic components of spells even when you have weapons or a shield in one or both hands.”

The way war caster interacts with spellcasting is as follows:

  • If you have a hand free, are holding a spellcasting focus, or wielding a two-handed weapon: You’re fine, nothing else needs to be taken into consideration to cast spells.
  • If you’re wielding a sword and a shield (or two one-handed weapons): You can cast spells that only require verbal and somatic components. If the spell requires verbal, somatic, and material components, you need to stow either your weapon or shield to cast the spell.
  • If you’re wielding a sword and a shield (or two one-handed weapons) AND you’re a cleric or paladin: As long as you have your spellcasting focus emblazoned on your shield or displayed on your clothing, you can cast spells that require verbal, somatic, and non-costly material components without any trouble. If the material components have a cost, you must free up a hand to cast the spell.

 Spellcasting Focus FAQs

Can a Headband be used as a Spellcasting Focus?

Technically, no. Classes that can use arcane or druidic focuses need to have the appropriate item in their hands to use it. The exception here is for Paladins and Clerics, who only need to wear their holy symbol in a visible place to be able to use it.

Can a Spellcasting Focus Be Whatever You Want?

Sort of? It’s up to your DM’s discretion, really. Each type of focus (arcane, druidic, holy symbol, or musical instrument) has clearly laid out definitions of what it resembles, but that doesn’t limit player imagination. As long as the item fits thematically with the character, I would struggle to find a Dungeon Master who wouldn’t approve it.

Can Rangers use a Spellcasting Focus?

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything featured a reworking of the Ranger class. Included with it are spellcasting rules that allow Rangers to cast spells with a druidic focus. If your Dungeon Master approves, rangers are free to use that class feature.

Can your Holy Symbol be a Spellcasting Focus?

As per the Player’s Handbook, holy symbols are intended to be used as a spellcasting focus. They can be either held in your hand, adorned atop a shield, or worn visibly on your clothes.

Do You Have to Use a Spellcasting Focus?

Spellcasting focuses are intended to make spellcasting easier, but they aren’t essential. You can choose to replace them with a component pouch, which can also store components for spells that can’t be replaced by a focus.

Alternatively, talk to your DM! It’s very possible they don’t care for the trivial upkeep of material components for spells that don’t have a cost associated with them and may just choose to let spellcasters ignore material components.

Do Spellcasting Focuses Replace Material Components?

Yes, and no. A spellcasting focus can replace material components for any spell, as long as that component doesn’t have a gp value. This means that spells such as raise dead and arcane lock still need the appropriate item to be cast.

How Much Interaction Is Needed With a Spellcasting Focus?

As long as a spell has a material component, it has to be held in the hand of the caster when they perform the spell. However, this doesn’t mean that hand can only be used for that one purpose. You are able to perform somatic components as well with the same hand that is handling the material or holding a spellcasting focus.

The only exception to this rule is holy symbols, which don’t need to be held in a hand. Instead, they can be adorned atop a shield or visibly worn on a piece of clothing.

Closing The Book

Casting spells in any edition of Dungeons and Dragons has been somewhat obtuse and handwaved by most DMs to order to streamline their games. Spellcasting Focuses were re-introduced with 5th Edition as a way to handle spellcasting for single-class characters, as well as to simplify the process from 3.5 edition.

While they have their use cases, spellcasting focuses are sort of an “auto-include” with most players, and I would find it hard-pressed to find a Dungeon Master who really cares about whether or not their party’s druid is holding his Yew Staff or not.

How do you feel about Spellcasting focuses? Or spellcasting as a whole? Let us know in the comments, or check out some of our other mechanics guides. Thanks for reading, and make sure you wash your hands after casting any evocation spells!

Mike Bernier

Mike Bernier is the lead content writer and founder of Arcane Eye. Outside of writing for Arcane Eye, Mike spends most of his time playing games, hiking with his girlfriend, and tending the veritable jungle of houseplants that have invaded his house. He is the author of Escape from Mt. Balefor and The Heroes of Karatheon. Mike specializes in character creation guides for players, homebrewed mechanics and tips for DMs, and one-shots with unique settings and scenarios. Follow Mike on Twitter.

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