Focus on Spell Foci

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March 9, 2016 by M Grant

The D&D 5E Player’s Handbook spares just a sentence to describing the “arcane focus,” an item which arcane spellcasters use to assist them in working magical energies (instead of carrying around pouches of material components for spells).

The book states that an arcane focus is “an orb, a crystal, a rod, a specially constructed staff, a wand-like length of wood, or a similar item.”

This is an unreasonably drab description of the tools by which magic is wrought.  Which is doubly unfortunate, because unless you want to live with the knowledge that there is a pouch of bat guano, wadded cotton balls, feathers and tiny statues tied to your belt, you need to have one of these foci.

If you feel like rolling up a wizard, sorcerer, bard, or warlock who isn’t hauling around a dirty old stick or a hunk of rock (what are we, druids?), consider these additional options for foci:


Astrolabe Essentially an elaborately diagrammed inclinometer, this handheld astronomical tool is useful for reading the positions of stars and planets.  It can be difficult to use in a hurry, but a skilled magician can manipulate it so quickly that her fingers become a blur.  It is especially useful for Divinations & Conjurations, both of which depend heavily on astronomical and cosmological values.

Bracer A thin metal bracer of copper or bronze is a bold fashion statement and declares a military bent.  When used as a spell focus, these are inlaid and inked with flowing runic patterns that serve as references for arcane formulae and ease their calculation.  A step up from writing on one’s arm, these foci are the natural progression for less-than-ethical magicians who cheated on their written exams, though they also find use with magicians leading an active lifestyle who appreciate the forearm protection… and with those who find themselves constantly misplacing things.  An arm bracer is always handy and is especially good for Abjurations & Evocations, particularly those that channel lightning.

Cane A cane is a popular arcane focus amongst elderly magicians because it can also be a fashionable mobility aid or, in dire circumstances, double as an expensive club.  Generally they are inscribed up and down with runes for channeling magical energies, and they often feature a fancifully sculpted head (unicorns, dragons and other creatures of magical puissance are common themes).  Some feature a detachable rubber foot at the end which reveals a pointed adamantine tip, used for scratching formulae or large glyphs into stone and dirt, as well as jabbing at slow-witted, insolent apprentices.  Canes tend to be best for Abjurations & Evocations.

Dodecagram This sigil of a 12-pointed star holds special alchemical significance, marking the interactions of the elements along with formulae describing their relationships.  Often it is worked into a pendant of lead, iron, silver, gold or platinum, but some magicians might use a larger desk-bound version for ritual work, experimentation, or crafting magic items.  Especially useful for Transmutations & Evocations, particularly those associated with acid or metal.

Earrings  Earrings designed to work as arcane foci are attuned to magical vibrations and produce a near-inaudible hum in time with them.  The most common means of achieving this effect is to use oblong lengths of crystal– a clearish quartz works best– but concentric hoops of precious metals can sometimes find comparable success.  Earring foci work best for Enchantments and Necromancy, whose vibrations have an eerie, almost musical quality.

Handmirror Hand mirrors are a classic arcane focus.  The highest-quality mirrors use actual quicksilver trapped behind glass as their reflective material, giving everything reflected a flowing and distorted look.  Others feature an etched surface that looks whole, but has a visible spiderweb or grid pattern when looked at from the correct angles.  Mirrors are especially good for Illusions and Enchantments.

Holey Stone A holey stone is a small rock with a naturally-occuring hole bored through the center of it, sometimes hung from a leather string and worn about the neck or wrist.  Magicians of a more naturalist or fey bent tend to prize these, as they are mysteriously good at channeling arcane energies despite lacking any adornments or symbols of spellcraft.  They are especially useful for Illusions & Divinations, and work best when outdoors in a natural setting.

Monocle Stylish and just a bit posh, monocle foci have the side benefit of magnifying small text and interesting specimens of insect or mineral when not being used for spell work. Sometimes a magician’s monocle is multifocal, being inset with a delicate arrangement of different lenses, so as to view subjects with varying levels of clarity, focus, and distortion.  They channel energies best when set in a mithril frame and chain, which gives them a delightfully ethereal weight and lets them double as a pendulum.  They’re best used for Divinations and Enchantments.

Musical Instrument – Usually the mainstay of bards, all musical instruments are okay at turning intent into effect.  Serious spellcasters who want to use them as a focus, however, will often go to great lengths to trick them out:  strings may be replaced with unicorn hair, reeds with dryad fingernails, and more than one lunatic has attempted to get their lute struck by lightning.  Even those who can’t carry a tune in a bucket may use crystal bells or engraved cymbals or gongs for a focus.  The type of magic each instrument is best suited for is beyond the scope of this description.

Paper Fan Popular especially in hot climates, a collapsing paper fan with a wooden cover is as fine a focus for channeling energy as a wand.  The paper folds of the fan are decorated with a cleverly modular mnemonic glyph which expands or collapses with the fan to reveal new configurations.  The reverse side often features illustrations of fanciful beasts, distant landscapes, or pale-faced figures performing somatic gestures with perfect execution.  The paper is usually treated against damp and flame, but is still rather delicate.  The fans are magically versatile, but are in fashion with subtler wizards who lean heavily on Illusions, Conjurations and Transmutations.  Some magicians with a martial bent use bladed metal covers for the fan, but these require some practice to use as an effective weapon.

Ring Rings come in all shapes and sizes, though they are most potent as foci when the band is set with gemstones.  Some mages stud multiple gems of similar size into a small matrix of flexible magical properties; others use a single very large gemstone as a focus point.  The band is generally covered in miniscule runework, and in the case of larger gemstones runes may be etched into its facets as well.  Rings are especially good for Abjuration spells, spells with a personal range, and spells with a radius centered on the caster.

Skull Arcane magic lives mostly in the mind, and skulls without minds left in them can still safely contain dangerous magical energies while they are being shaped.  Not just any skull will do as a spell focus– the skull of a mage or magical creature is best, the more powerful the better.  Some magicians will decorate their focal skulls with gems, candles, or various carvings, usually as reminders of their accomplishments or the laws of magical rather than to improve the skull’s ability to retain spells still under formation.  Mages dabbling in hazardous Necromancy or Transmutations favor these, as well as those so egotistical as to want a conversational partner who never interrupts them.

Tooth Necklace Adventurers collect the teeth of as many exotic creatures as they can find because they know that wizards will pay a handsome sum to string them together on a mithril chain or length of leather strap.  Teeth have memories of the tongues that voice spells.  Rotten teeth are no good– they’ll rot your spell work– but some cavities can be filled with small gemstones.  Common wisdom says that the more teeth you can use as a spell focus, the better, but at a certain point their weight and the decidedly unstealthy rattling become a practical consideration.  A tooth necklace is an especially good focus for Necromancy and Conjurations, especially those with complex vocal components.

What do those runes actually say…?

-A statement of power– usually the magician’s names and titles as well as their reasons for performing magic, or their specific magical intentions.

-The formula for the mage’s favorite spell.

-A dedication to a hero, teacher, loved one, or other person important to the wizard.

-A message from the person who bought or made the wizard the focus.

-A proverb, quote or guiding principle of magic which inspires the wizard.

-An invocation of an element or power that the mage often draws on for their spells.

-A little joke in rhyming couplets for anyone who bothers to decode them.

-”For best effect, point this end away from self.”

House Rules for Spell Foci:

Now that spell focuses are more interesting, it’s kind of silly that there aren’t more mechanical reasons to bring them up.  Here’s some ideas for house rules you might want to consider:

-A magician who dies in combat having cast at least one spell leaves a vestige of her power in her arcane focus, which can be harnessed by other magicians: These foci contain a single spell slot of the highest level the mage was able to cast.  Once spent, the focus loses this vestige.

-A magician who acquires another magician’s spell focus (current or former) may destroy it while casting a spell that targets her.  Any attack rolls made against the magician as part of the spell automatically hit and the magician automatically fails any saving throws against the spell.

-Particularly prized or expensive arcane focuses (a Very Rare magic item that requires attunement) can let the mage maintain concentration on two spells at once.


Ultimately, it’s understandable that 5E, in an attempt to cater to all of the worlds it is played in, should more or less ignore spell foci.  But that leads us to forget about them as players, too.  But thinking about them helps build a more interesting world with magic that’s more than some damage dice, and can be the difference between a mechanical ribbon and a strong characterization.

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