Lawful DM and Chaotic DM answer questions about spellcasting and free hands

When I saw the fifth-edition basic Dungeons & Dragons rules, I concluded that the designers wanted to make the rules match the way players obviously want to play—with little concern for time spent swapping weapons and spell components. For example, the rules allow clerics and paladins to cast with a holy symbol worn or emblazoned on a shield. The text never connects the dots and says that a cleric or paladin can cast with a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, but we should know they can because clerics and paladins always have.

But the Player’s Handbook made me doubt the designers had given much thought to the matter. The full rules prompted more questions on hands and spellcasting than any other topic. Then the  designers’ answers made the game convoluted. For exhibit A, see this September 5 tweet from Jeremy Crawford.

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

To follow Jeremy’s suggestion, players of clerics and paladins must sheath their weapon, cast the spell, and then wait until next turn to draw their weapon, but only for spells that just require somatic components. For the first time, players must account for components during ordinary play.

The rules seem just as awkward for dual-wielding rangers, shield-bearing druids in the College of Valor, and eldritch knights. These characters must sheath their weapon, cast the spell, and then wait until next turn to draw their weapon.  In the past, similar character types never forced players to endure such friction. Even players careful enough to spend actions to switch gear would rather not play that game.

An ideal D&D game would allow characters that combine martial prowess with spellcasting to operate as they always have—without a worrying about stowing weapons to free a hand to cast.

Some dungeon masters will simply adapt and interpret the rules to suit a vision like mine, but those of us running games at conventions and stores lack that option. We must stick to the official rules. When players sit at my table, I want their dual-wielding ranger to play the way their intuition and past experience suggests.

Drizzt Do'Urden statueThe War Caster (p.170) feat could have let that dual-wielding ranger operate more freely, but it just adds complexity.  The feat lets someone cast without a hand free for somatic components, but not material components.  So dual-wielding rangers, shield-bearing druids, and eldritch knights now need to keep track of which spells require material components, and to swap gear to cast these spells. Good grief.

How should the game work? For answers, I scoured the rules and the advice of sages, but I failed to find any definitive answers that I can pass on. So I turned to my two imaginary fiends, Lawful DM and Chaotic DM, for answers. I will support their answers with responses tweeted by the designers. You can reference the tweets among many others on thesageadvice.wordpress.com. Although the tweets come from the designers, they represent unofficial, off-the-cuff guidance.

Question Lawful DM Chaotic DM
Can you cast a spell that uses somatic components if you wield a two-handed weapon? No. (Mike Mearls, August 2) Allowing this  favors martial-spellcasters with a two-handed weapon over those with a shield. The game should not encourage more greatsword-wielding, spellcasting, chaotic Elric wannabes. Yes. A two-handed weapon needs two hands to be used, but not  two to be carried. (Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford, September 28)
Can the arcane or druidic focus staff double as a quarterstaff? Yes. (Mike Mearls September 9)
Can a cleric or paladin cast a spell while wielding a weapon and brandishing a holy symbol worn or emblazoned on their shield? Yes. Thankfully Jeremy Crawford’s answer does not represent an official ruling that players must follow. Instead, defer to 40 years of tradition. Yes. (Mike Mearls September 9 and the entire history of the game from 1974 on.)
Can a Druid,  Ranger, Eldritch Knight, or a Bard with shield proficiency cast spells while bearing a shield and wielding a weapon. No. The character must take the War Caster feat (p.170) to gain some of this ability. Druids and Eldritch Knights may opt to use a staff that doubles as a weapon and focus, but Knights wielding staffs risk having Barbarians make fun of them. Yes. Just stow that weapon in the shield hand for a moment. (Mike Mearls, August 28)
Can a character cast spells while wielding two weapons? No. The character must take the War Caster feat (p.170) to gain some of this ability. Wizards have never dual-wielded daggers, and they should not start now. Yes, because Rangers have cast spells while wielding two weapons since second edition in 1989. (But not since Drizzt first appeared in The Crystal Shard in 1988, because Drizzt doesn’t cast. He has a DM who respects the rules. – Lawful DM)
What if my dual-dagger-wielding wizard carries a lot of daggers and drops them when he needs a free hand to cast? Okay, but your parents did not spend all that money on wizarding school so you could walk around with bandoliers of daggers like a common thief.

While Lawful DM and Chaotic DM may not help much, in my next post, I have some recommendations for your game.

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One Response to Lawful DM and Chaotic DM answer questions about spellcasting and free hands

  1. Randy Hammill says:

    An interesting thread, although I didn’t really pay attention to the current rules because I haven’t really seen any change over the years. However, having DM’d since the ’70s my interpretations (and what my players have always been happy with) are quite different than yours.

    I’ve had to go back and look at the books because quite frankly, I don’t recall what the actual worded rules were. As far as we’ve always been concerned, somatic components specifically meant your hands needed to be free, and that’s the way we’ve always played it. Clerics could have their holy symbol on their shield, but since in AD&D cleric spells only had verbal and somatic components, the idea of a spell focus to eliminate the material component was irrelevant. I recall seeing Mike Mearls recent response about spell casting in the 5th ed with a weapon and a shield by indicating the caster can hold the weapon in his shield hand for the time required. Having said that, very few players in my campaigns have opted for shields. Most opt for medium armor at most, and that was a pretty rare occurrence too.

    Since spellcasters had significant penalties while casting within combat in earlier versions, most of them tended to stay out of direct combat when casting spells, with touch spells being the exception. And it’s probably just my players, but perhaps we had a discussion at some point, but the idea of an opportunity attack without a weapon drawn didn’t make sense.

    I don’t recall the wording that ‘your arms’ needed to be free. But since we continued our campaign from 1st through to the 4th editions continuously we probably skimmed over the stuff we already knew how to do. If we did, we probably commented on the stupid wording and decided that it’s ludicrous to cast a spell with your elbows and stuck with the hands needing to be free. The reality is that we always perceived it as involving both hands and arms, because otherwise binding somebody’s wrists wouldn’t prevent spellcasting.

    So dual weapon wielding and spellcasting? Well, yes, if you drop or sheath one of the weapons. Sure, it means you don’t get an opportunity attack, but that just makes sense in the flow of combat. You’ve chosen other options.

    Characters wielding a bow have either dropped it when they entered melee, kept it in their offhand while wielding their weapon in their primary hand, or they stashed it on their back and lost a round of combat. We tended to like the little things that made you think through and affected your tactics as an individual and group. As the rules became more complex (Combat and Tactics, 3rd Ed, etc), we continued to add the complexity with relish. Many of the rules (or similar ones) we had already incorporated from articles in Dragon anyway, with quite a bit of tweaking for consistency.

    I certainly think it’s a reasonable debate that DMs without history in earlier editions might have some difficulty adjudicating if the only books they’ve ever owned is the 5th Ed. But I don’t think that would be any more pronounced than those that started with OD&D, AD&D, or the 2nd Ed. The 3rd Ed started to take the approach that they could codify most rules more completely, which was true to a point. But it did become more complex.

    For me (and my players) I’ve always approached the rules from an angle that they should support what we see in life/movies, etc. And most of the examples to narrow down what’s allowable and what’s not are the situations that hamper a character’s abilities.

    For example, in both “…Phandelver” and “Horde of the Dragon Queen” there are scenes in which an NPC is gravely injured, gives the PCs some information, and then it’s clear that under no circumstances will they be able to join the party for assistance because their wounds are too severe. What happens if the party decides to spend their healing magic on them? Oops. What about the poisoned or diseased NPC that is weak and dying for weeks if not months, with no hope of survival including magic? Got that covered too.

    My current campaign started with the escape of the PCs from slavers. Several of them were spellcasters. Now it’s not a big deal at 1st level, but in a world where magic is real, how do all of these nefarious types capture and contain spellcasters of any level? My daughter’s playing a druid. If she’s ever captured, she just needs to turn into a squirrel and climb out the window.

    So first, they bind them up. Some spells don’t require somatic components, but this addressed the majority of them. Then they deprive them of sleep. No sleep, no recovery. Or at least it’s very hard. Much of is is the fact that they are outnumbered, and also have allies that are captured and may suffer because of their escape. So they bide their time until the time is right.

    But it starts with the fact that a spellcaster who doesn’t have the use of their hands and arms has a difficult time casting spells.

    I have no problem with other people’s interpretation or style of play. And I get the need for more consistency in tournaments and public games. That’s an arena where I’ve never been heavily involved so it hasn’t been of much concern to me. But for us, your hands and arms need to be reasonably free. Looking at the AD&D DMG it was this sentence that set our direction and interpretation:

    “The somatic portions of a spell must be begun and completed without interruption in a clean smooth motion. The spell as a whole must be continuous and uninterrupted from beginning to end.”

    Ilbranteloth

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