Category Archives: Rules

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.

Revisiting three corners of the new D&D rules

In two posts, I answered some common rules questions about fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons from dungeon masters and players. I added some extra comments on the answers because that’s what I do here.

Reaching 0 hit points, as shown in my DM screen

Rules for reaching 0 hit points, as shown on my DM screen

Since posting my answers, more game play has sparked some new observations.

What spells can I cast? As I introduced players to the game, the what-spells-can-I-cast question was asked a lot. I struggled to find a concise explanation until I arrived at this metaphor: The spells you prepare become the menu of spells that you can order from through the day. Your spell slots tell how many items you can order from the menu. If you really like Magic Missile, and you have it on your menu of prepared spells, order as many as you like until you reach your limit of slots.

How do opportunity attacks work? You only provoke opportunity attacks when you move out of an enemy’s melee reach. This change seems minor, but it alters tactics.  Your front line becomes less sticky than in earlier editions. Concentrating attacks becomes easier as characters in a party’s middle ranks grow more vulnerable. An attacker can circle your tank and potentially attack the wizard in the next row without provoking any opportunity attacks.

Can I delay? No. Back in my year-old post of D&D next questions and answers, I commented on the lack of a delay action in the rules. I even asked Mike Mearls about the absence and he thought the lack might even be an oversight—the product of playtest rules in flux. I predicted that the delay action would return to the final rules. I was wrong; delay is gone. For a while, I puzzled over the omission, but then a player at my table got paralyzed by a Hold Person spell, and the designers’ motives became obvious.

Delay may seem trivial, but the ability to delay forces the game to add rules for how delay interacts with effects that end during a player’s turn. On several occasions, I’ve seen fourth-edition players try to salvage their turn by asking if they can delay until, say, a stunned condition lifts. Fourth prohibited such shenanigans by including rules for how delay interacts with conditions that continue to end of turn.

Fifth edition potentially added another layer of complexity by adding concentration. For example, Hold Person requires concentration. This means that someone held can potentially delay, saving their turn and hoping that their allies can break the caster’s concentration. By removing delay, 5E prevents such tricks and eliminates some complicated rules.

Two D&D questions I could have answered if I had known where to look

In “Five ways to create more usable game books,” I piled a heap of criticism on the usability of Wizards of the Coast game books. I singled out the index in the fourth-edition Player’s Handbook for particular scorn.

Lost Mine of Phandelver

Lost Mine of Phandelver

The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook’s index takes 4 pages, 1.6% of the book’s total page count, way more than the 0.3% the last edition devoted to an index. Plus, the index crams a lot of entries into 5-columns of microscopic type. The index qualifies as best to ever appear in a Player’s Handbook. By a real-world measure, it rates as decent.

I have used the new index and have found most of the information I sought, but not everything.

This brings me to two questions that I could have answered if I had known where to look in the rules.

  • A character can make a DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check to stabilize a dying ally. While the Medicine skill (p.178) lists this possible action, the actual DC appears in the combat action for stabilizing a creature (p.197). If you spend a measly 5 gp on a Healer’s Kit, you can stabilize 10 creatures without needing to make a Wisdom (Medicine) check, which makes the guy who chose proficiency in Medicine feel like a chump.
  • Drinking or administering a potion requires an action. This appears in the equipment listing for the healing potion (p.153) rather than in any of the descriptions of actions in combat.

Thanks to Tom and Rodney for telling me (politely) to RTFM, because the answers really were in there. (Kids, RTFM stands for read the friendly manual.)

9 more fifth-edition D&D rules questions answered by the designers

Just like at last year’s Gen Con, two Dungeons & Dragons designers came to the dungeon masters’ meeting and spent a few minutes answering rules questions from the gathered DMs. Later in the convention, I intercepted designer Rodney Thompson and got answers more questions.

Dungeons & Dragons at Gen Con 2014This list collects the designers’ answers.

  • The fighter’s dueling style, which grants a +2 to damage, works with a shield in the off hand.
  • A divine focus can be emblazoned on a cleric’s shield, enabling the cleric to wield a weapon in the other hand and still cast spells. A wizard can hold an arcane focus in one hand and a weapon in another and still cast spells. A druid must hold mistletoe as an arcane focus, so druids must either stash their shield or their weapon to cast.
  • Moving through the space of an ally, even a prone ally, counts as difficult terrain.

    As a simulation, making an ally’s space count as difficult terrain makes sense, but this rule did not exist in earlier editions. The fifth-edition designers aimed to make the game streamlined, so why introduce this new complication? The designers made allies count as difficult terrain to deal with the side effects of allowing characters to move, attack, and then use their remaining movement. The rule limits the implausible situation where characters move to the front of a line of allies to make an attack, and then move to the back of the line, all in the same turn.

    We all understand that turns serve as an abstraction to make the game playable, and in the game world, most of the action in a round all occurs simultaneously. Allowing each member of the party to squeeze up, make an attack, then retreat to the back, leaving the tank in front to face the enemy’s attack, exposes a certain absurdity in the abstraction.

    Apparently, an enemy’s single opportunity attack fails to do enough to discourage the batter-up attack queue.

  • You cannot hide from a creature that can see you. Aside from that limitation, the DM must rule on when a creature can hide and sneak based on what makes sense in the game world. See “D&D next re-empowers DMs; players stay empowered.” The designers tried to write broad rules for stealth, but found that the number of possibilities made the rules too cumbersome for the elegant game they aimed to create.
  • Initiative rolls count as a Dexterity check, so anything that boosts Dexterity checks improves initiative.
  • Multi-classed characters only gain ability score increases when they reach the benefit levels in one of their classes. Although classes gain an ability score increase at fourth level, a character multi-classed to level 2 in two classes does not gain an ability score increase.
  • The missiles in a Magic Missile strike simultaneously. This means the strikes count as a single source of damage for things like resistance and that 3 magic missiles striking a character at 0 HP does not count as 3 failed death saves. Your wizard must decide which missiles will hit which targets before you start tallying damage.
  • If an opportunity attack or other reaction drops you prone as you move, you can still use your remaining movement to crawl or stand. The usual movement costs apply.
  • Spells that include an attack roll can score a critical hit.

    At one of my Gen Con tables, a cultist scored a critical hit with an Inflict Wounds spell, dealing 6d10 damage on an unlucky first-level character. The target dropped dead. Although my reading of the rules led me to think that spells can score criticals, I failed to find any clear confirmation. After the session, I asked another judge if spells with attack rolls can crit, and he told me that they could not. I felt awful that my misreading of the rules might have led to a character’s death, so I sought out a designer and managed to corner Rodney Thompson. His answer: spells with attack rolls can crit. What a relief. As I wrote in “Rolling in a box,” I want any character deaths to come from foolish characters and crit-rolling dice, not from my failure to apply the rules.

    The moral: Do not get close to spellcasting cultists. Even without a critical hit, the 3d10 damage from Inflict Wounds puts the spell in line with the damage potential of other first-level spells, although the concentration of damage on a single target makes it particularly deadly.

Top 3 rules questions from Dungeons & Dragons fifth-edition dungeon masters

Just under a year ago, I posted the Top 3 rules questions from Dungeons & Dragons Next dungeon masters based on questions dungeon masters at Gen Con asked a panel of designers about the Dungeon & Dragons Next rules. With Next now available as the official fifth-edition rules, some of the answers change. This post re-answers the top 3 questions DMs asked.

escape from the demon

1. What happens when a character is reduced to 0 hit points?

“When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.”

Notice that this rule avoids any talk of negative numbers. In fifth edition, negative hit points no longer exist.

Once you reach 0 hit points, you fall unconscious and must spend your turns making death saving throws. Unlike in the playtest, this is not a Constitution check, but a flat d20 roll. If you roll 10 or higher, you succeed. Otherwise you fail.

  • If you fail three saves, you die.
  • If you succeed at three saves, you stabilize at 0 hit points and stop making saves.
  • The saves do not offset each other, so if you have two successes and two failures, you lie poised between life and death.
  • Anything that damages you while you have 0 hit points counts as a failed death save and, if you were stable, destabilizes you, restarting once-a-turn death saves from 0 successes and the 1 new failure. If the damage comes from a critical hit, you suffer two failures. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you die.
  • A natural 20 on a save lifts you to 1 hit point.
  • A natural 1 on a save counts as two failed saves.

Fifth edition skips rules for a coupe de grace. If you want to finish an unconscious creature, you gain advantage and attacks from within 5 feet count as criticals when they hit, all as part of the Unconscious condition.

This system dispenses with the complexity of running totals of negative hit points and lets characters heal from 0, as in fourth edition. Short of massive damage, this makes characters hard to kill.

2. Can players delay?

No. Unlike earlier editions, the initiative order remains constant through a battle. If you want to hold your action, you must ready it.

3. How does readying an action work?

You can still set aside an action to trigger in response to an event, but many details work differently.

  • You take your readied action after the trigger occurs.
  • You remain at the same place in the initiative order.
  • The readied action replaces the one reaction you can use per turn. After you ready an action, you can still choose to use your reaction to do something like take an opportunity attack instead, but you may no longer take your readied action. Also, once you use your readied action, you no longer have a reaction available for things like opportunity attacks.
  • When you hold a spell ready, you must cast the spell and then concentrate on holding its effects.

Holding a spell leads to some additional complications:

  • When you choose to ready a spell, you cast it, so you spend the spell slot whether you wind up finishing the spell or letting its energy dissipate.
  • Because you can only concentrate on one spell at a time, you cannot ready a spell and maintain another.
  • While you hold a spell as a readied action, anything that can break concentration can foil your readied spell. For example, if you take damage, you must make a Constitution saving throw to keep the spell ready. The DC equals 10 or half the damage suffered, whichever is higher.
  • Presumably, you could cast a spell and hold it ready across multiple rounds, for as long as you take no other actions and can maintain concentration

The fifth edition lacks rules for disrupting spell casters, so don’t bother readying an attack to interrupt a casting.

Update: A spellcaster can hold a ready spell across multiple turns. If my ruling alone seems insufficient, look to designer Jeremy Crawford.holding a spell as a ready actio