It’s possible for a mage to cast a spell with only their mind and will, but most don’t. Instead they add extra ingredients to a spells formula, and these are referred to as components.
In theory just about anything that can be replicated by the mage can be a component, but the most common ones are physical or verbal. Physical components are body movements, especially hand and finger gestures. Verbal components are usually words, recited when the mage casts the spell.
So a fire bolt spell might have three parts to its formula: the mental concentration, the verbal component ‘Ignis’, and the physical component of making a gathering and flinging motion with the right hand. The mage concentrates and speaks the word ‘Ignis!’, and fire gathers in his hand and flies to strike as he throws.
But They Said The Magic Words
Components usually confuse the hell out of non-mages. People see a mage chant an invocation to cast a spell and they naturally assume that the magic comes from the words. The truth is that the words are just a prop. The mage needs the words to cast the spell, but it’s not because they’re magic words, it’s because that’s how the mage learnt the spell. The words don’t have to mean anything, and in fact they can be total gibberish. What matters is that the words are associated in the mage’s mind with a particular magical effect.
The association is done by the mage, and it’s almost completely arbitrary. A fireball spell can be associated with the Latin word for ‘fire’, but the mage could just as easily pick ‘water’, ‘destruction’, ‘towel’, ‘ice cream’, ‘my little pony’, or no words at all.
So if components are meaningless, why do mages use them?
Links and Patterns
If a mage learns a spell as a purely mental formula, then every time they think through that formula the spell will go off, which can be quite inconvenient if you start thinking about a fireball spell while you’re waiting for a bus. In this way components act as a sort of magical safety catch.
Most mages also find that components make spells easier. Humans are active, social creatures: most of what we do in a day involves doing things with our hands or talking to people. Linking a spell to a specific physical or verbal action makes it more natural.
Using components for a spell also makes them easier to record and remember. Physical components can be remembered via muscle memory, and verbal components can be written down and stored. This is the origin of the iconic wizard’s spellbook, and there’s a lot of truth to the legend – many mages do have books and scrolls filled with invocations. To anyone who doesn’t understand the spells that they’re linked to, though, they’re just ink on paper. Only a mage has the power and knowledge to actually turn them into magic.
Surpassing the Focus
Despite this, components have disadvantages. A spell with components is slower than a spell without them, and just as a physical or verbal component is easier for the mage to remember and recognise, it’s easier for other mages to remember and recognise. A mage who always uses components gives away a lot more information than one who doesn’t.
A mage who relies on spells with a particular type of component can also be crippled if circumstances stop him from using it: it’s hard to make physical gestures if you’re in a cramped space or if someone’s grabbing onto you, and verbal components can be disrupted by a hand over the mouth or just a really bad sore throat.
It’s a point of pride amongst master mages to use components as sparingly as possible, and they tend to think less of mages who over-rely on them. Some say this is because being able to bypass components is a mark of skill. Others just think it’s an excuse to look down on everyone else.