What must D&D spellcasters do with their hands?

In my last post, I discussed how expanding options and shrinking rounds turned what Dungeons & Dragons characters had in hand into something that mattered. I showed a mindset that avoids making gear in hand into a distraction at the table, but I dodged the area of the fifth-edition rules that leads to the most questions. What must a spellcaster have in hand to cast spells?

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, no one worried what magic users could do with their hands. That changed when someone captured an enemy mage—or was captured themselves. Now players wondered if their imprisoned magic user could still cast. The 1977 Basic Set gave an official answer: A magic user “can then throw the spell by saying the magic words and making gestures with his hands. This means that a magic-user bound and gagged can not use his magic.”  The set credits Eric Holmes as editor, but the rules came from Gary Gygax and previewed things to come in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

The Compleat Enchanter

The Compleat Enchanter

By requiring wizards to speak and gesture, D&D enabled plots involving captive and helpless wizards, but Gary elected to go further. In The Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt, a character explains, “The normal spell consists of several components, which may be termed the verbal, somatic and material.” Even though material components seldom affected play, Gary added them, probably because he relished inventing witty spell components. For example, the Fireball spell requires bat guano because guano once served as a source of saltpeter, an ingredient in gunpowder. Aside from tickling Gary’s fancy, material components only occasional saw play, and then only as a story device. For example, the second-edition Dark Sun setting turned material components into one of many resources players struggled to find in a resource-poor world.

By fourth-edition, material components only applied to rituals, and then only as a means to cap ritual use by attaching a gold cost.  Of all the new changes that sparked protests, no one seemed to morn the loss of material components. Even the most hidebound players happily continued to ignore material components. Nonetheless, as a nod to tradition, fifth edition included material components. Many casters will opt to substitute a spellcasting focus instead.

Class Spellcasting alternative to material components
Bard Musical instrument (Player’s Handbook p.53)
Cleric Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.
Druid Druidic focus (PH p.151). May be a staff, which doubles as a quarterstaff weapon.
Fighter – Eldritch Knight Arcane focus (PH p.151).
Paladin Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.
Ranger No focus, so Rangers require material components to cast.
Rogue – Arcane Trickster Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Sorcerer Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Warlock Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Wizard Arcane focus (PH p.151)

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ignored the issue of how dual-wielding rangers and multiclassed elves could access material components while fighting with sword and shield. The game used minute-long combat rounds, and a first-level spell only took 6 seconds to cast, leaving plenty of extra time to gather components, repack a bag, and savor a juice box before the start of the next round.  The second-edition Player’s Handbook grants even more wiggle room. “The caster must…have both arms free.” Not hands, arms. It’s all in the wrists.

Players imagine a round as an exchange of blows, making the 1-minute round seem ludicrously long. So in third-edition, the round shrank to a mere six seconds. This seemed more plausible, but suddenly players needed to account for time needed to switch weapons and to being spell components to hand. Mialee, third edition’s iconic elf wizard, wore practical garb covered with pockets for easy access to spell components. (Plus, the midriff-baring outfit can be worn throughout pregnancy.) As a product of the shorter round, drawing or sheathing a weapon became a move action. In practice, few players paid much attention to what their characters held, with no more concern to freeing hands for spell gestures and components than in 1974.

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

6 thoughts on “What must D&D spellcasters do with their hands?

  1. Alphastream

    Like you, I’m not overly concerned with how a spellcaster manages to cast a spell, regardless of what they have in their hands. But, it was an issue with 3E (the ranger that wields a bow or two weapons) and has increased with 5E because we have more classes that combine shield and/or weapon options. The flexibility of multiclassing makes it even more likely. You wield a weapon, a shield… where is that free hand coming from?

    I don’t personally care, but it is strange to see the core rules require that free hand and designers on Twitter back that up. Hmm.

  2. Sr. Rojo

    Well, there’s a lot of possibilities to free your hand to cast a spell even when you worn a weapon. With a bow is really easy because it uses two hands for use but only one to grab, so wielding a bow don’t disturb you when you cast. If you wear a shield, remember that the light shield made possible to use the hand to grab an item but not to fight (more because the weight than for the grab itself) so only heavy shields (an tower, obviously) made unable to cast spells. At last, there’s other possibilities to free your hand, from catch the weapon under your armpit or use a weapon clamp, to throw your weapon up ahead, cast the spell and then catch the weapon again when it fall.

  3. Myopic Beholder

    I have always looked at somantic and material components as balance elements. Keeps casters honest against weapon wielding opponents. We can’t all be Gandalf wielding Glamdring and a staff while blasting away with magic. Separating a caster from his focus or components (pick pockets or disarming) becomes a very viable way to deal with them in combat.
    The new 5E rules seem to have a bit of wiggle room with handling arcane focuses. As mentioned above, Clerics and Paladins can wear the emblem, or have it emblazoned on their shield (which they are already holding). Wizards, sorcerers and warlocks would (I think anyway) typically have one hand free with which to fetch the component or wield the focus, and gesture. The odd man out is the Ranger, but in the PHB, it describes ranger spellcasting as “use the essence of nature to cast spells, much as the druid does.” To me, this means they should be able to use a focus the same way as a druid, and I figure a druid could wear their focus in the same way as a cleric, or have it attached to a weapon. I picture an amulet or fetish worn about the neck or wrist, or attached to a staff (like the gourds on Rafiki’s staff in the lion king), or even a bow. And of course there is the War Caster feat, which allows for gesturing while holding a weapon. Once we have the DMG, I plan on creating a series of minor magic weapons for combat casters that will function much like the druid’s staff above. Staves and daggers for Wizards, Sorcs, and Warlocks (daggers would work for Arcane Tricksters too), longsword and maces for Paladins and Eldrich Knights, maybe scimitars for Rangers. Realistically, any weapon could be imbued with focus properties.

    1. SiriusT

      “I have always looked at somatic and material components as balance elements. Keeps casters honest against weapon wielding opponents.”

      That’s always been my take. I also extend the same attention to switching weapons as discussed last post; not because I’m a pedantic tyrant, but because it adds tactical depth.
      I like my games immersive and heavy on the RP, and to me that is eroded when a wizard is casting with a sword from behind a shield, or a fighter hot-swaps whatever weapon will work best in a given situation.
      For the record, I also encourage players to take advantage of this- if they can storm the phalanx of archers before the archers can draw melee weapons, they deserve to get the drop.

      1. Alphastream

        The problem with “hands” being about game balance is that it doesn’t seem to pan out when you consider classes that cast spells and wield weapons (or a shield and a weapon). The cleric is balanced on its own right. It doesn’t need to have to drop the shield for a whole round to be balanced. A warlock that wields a two-handed weapon doesn’t need to sheathe the weapon to achieve balance. It all works just fine if all of these builds can simply cast spells when they desire to do so, regardless of what they are holding.


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