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The D&D 5E spell Burning Hands has verbal and somatic components, and is described like this:

As you hold your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread, a thin sheet of flames shoots forth from your outstretched fingertips. [...]

The rule for somatic components, however, is that If a spell require a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.

So, what happens if a character has one hand free but the other is restricted so it can't be reached? What if one hand is occupied and fingers can't be spread like this? To a greater extreme, is this spell unavailable to a character who has only one arm?

Or, from a technical angle: is the description here a specific rule for this spell which overrides the general rule for somatic components, or is it just flavor text intended to give a visual for one possible way to cast the spell?

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Historical Note: All three of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition, and Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd Edition mandated similar gestures; it was changed for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 (a change I hadn't noticed until just now). Apparently, D&D 5E's bringing it back. – Hey I Can Chan Aug 23 '14 at 18:55
up vote 36 down vote accepted

Spell descriptions are rules, so this is a case of the specific overriding the general, yes. The spell says you touch thumbs to make the spell happen, so to make the spell happen you touch thumbs.

The alternative—selectively designating some parts of the spell as "real" rules and other parts as not—is entirely doable as a DM's house rule, but as it requires a personal interpretation it has no foundation in the rules as written beyond the permission they give to the DM to create house rules.

Addressing the objections

One common motivation for assuming that there must be a distinction between "ignorable fluff" and the "real rules" is familiarity with game designs that deliberately create such a distinction. That is an idea that isn't part of most editions of D&D, including what we've seen of 5e's core. Such a separation is a prominent feature of 4e, and that might lead one to believe that it naturally exists in all D&Ds or even all RPGs, but separation of game text into "fluff" and "crunch" isn't the default in RPG design, and is particular to the RPGs that feature it.

It's plain that no such distinction exists overtly in 5e spell descriptions: they have no separate "flavour text" or any other distinguishable separation between required and optional parts that can be pointed to and agreed upon, without making an arbitrary decision. All of the descriptions are in terms of what happens, freely mixing mechanical and the fictional effects with no demarcation to say that this is a rule but that can be disregarded. Expecting such a separation, taking it as a given, will motivate one to look for one, but expecting something to be true doesn't make it so.

It has been suggested that the first sentence is the fluff and the rest of the spell crunch. This argument could be discarded swiftly by pointing out that there is nothing in 5e that ever suggests this, and it's invalid to try to interpret 5e based on the conventions and structures of some other game; but this dismissal has more support than that. Looking at three spells chosen randomly, it becomes evident that this proposed division doesn't exist: astral projection has rules for targets and duration in its first sentence; resistance specifies a hard condition for its target ("willing") similarly; ice storm's first sentence is the only place its area of effect is given. Indeed, the first sentence of burning hands is the only place where its area of effect is described as a two-dimensional cone rather than a three-dimensional one, a small but substantial rule that could mean the difference between life and death for friend or foe alike. This proposed line between the first sentence and the rest of the spell description as being the fluff/crunch divide has no merits to raise it above any other arbitrary dividing line, and actually has severe drawbacks for being able to use many spells.

An argument could be marshalled that D&D's recent editions establishes a weight of historical precedent for a fluff/crunch divide that 5e is natural heir to. But if that was a reasonable analysis of 5e's text, it would be present unambiguously in the text. That it is difficult to read such a division into the text despite that prominent heritage is a very strong argument that it doesn't exist in 5e. Further, there is actually a much longer history of the indivisible fusion of fiction and mechanics in D&D. This is the heritage that the designers of 5e have been explicit about drawing from in its design, which makes the argument that a division doesn't exist stronger by establishing the likelihood that it's a deliberate design choice. It's hardly something they could have intended to include, but forgot.

Again, all this can be overridden by house rulings of course, but such a separation is not in the rules or even implied, and in many places strongly contraindicated. We may see such guidance in the DMG as an option, but from a structural analysis of the rules, it is not the base state of affairs—the rules resist attempts to locate a dividing line, as questions like this attest.

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Each D&D 5e spell has a stat block.

1st-level evocation

Casting Time: 1 action

Range: Self (15-foot cone)

Components: V, S

Duration: Instantaneous

This is the first resource to consult in determining the requirement and limitations of the spell. The description explains further specifics.

Page 4 of the Basic D&D 5e states states that Specific beats general. In the description of Burning Hands we have.

As you hold your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread, a thin sheet of flames shoots forth from your outstretched fingertips

Seem like a straight forward rule right? Except that there is no reference to any other type of mechanic. The remaining parts of the description clearly give specifics for general concepts like area of effect, required saves, and damage.

For example the next spell on page 85 is chain lightning.

You create a bolt of lightning that arcs toward a target of your choice that you can see within range.

What it means that it arcs? Does the fact it is lightning causes other factors to come into play like a premature grounding of the arc?

Both are oriented to being flavor rather than specific rules. Which means they are open to interpretation as to their precise effects.

For example I own a staff that I used for medieval reenactment. With two minute practice I found that I can hold the staff with my finger outstretched and thumbs touching by squeezing the staff with the bottom of thumb against the side of my hand. I had my son tug on it and whack at it. Definitely not as good as gripping it but it didn't just fly out of my hand at the slightest blow either.

Now some would consider this unrealistic and say no you can't be wielding anything. Some would go OK I buy that it fine.

This why this rule is of importance on page 3 of the Basic player's guide

Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign and its setting, even if the setting is a published world.

Because there is no defined terms in

As you hold your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread, a thin sheet of flames shoots forth from your outstretched fingertips

You are going to have to define the specifics by your authority as the Dungeon Master of the Campaign.

The answer to your question. This means what YOU as the Dungeon Master thinks it means.

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Normally, one would be required to have their thumbs touching to cast this spell. The artwork even provides a nice illustration of it. Burning hands has a very precise Somatic gesture, and it should be followed.

However, there are ways to get around this requirement.

  • War Caster. By being a warcaster you can use your weapon as a focus for both the martieral and somatic components of the spell.
  • A wand or other scroll. Generally when using an item which casts a spell, you no longer need the material components or somatic gestures to complete the spell.
  • Any other means you have to remove the somatic gestures requirement when casting the spell. (Such as Subtle Spell metamagic from the Sorcerer)

Notice how the rules state that Somatic gestures require at least one hand hand in general. To me, the extra words "at least", tell me that it's not a blanket rule that only one hand is ever required, else there would be no reason for those extra words.

The rule currently reads:

If a spell require a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.

The rules could have more easily written:

If a spell require a somatic component, the caster must have free use of one hand to perform these gestures.

The words "at least" don't add anything except to make you aware of exceptions. As in, "The caster must have free use of at least one hand, but perhaps she'll need free use of two hands. Another way to say that you only ever need one free hand would be to say that you need "at most one free hand".

This is a specific rule that for burning hands you require two. You don't need special rules for two handed spell casting, because these things are already covered by the rules of what can be done with your free hand.

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I'm reading the somatic section and it says "the caster must have free use of at least one hand." That's a, "don't dual wield or sword and board" not "some spells may require two hands" – wax eagle Aug 24 '14 at 11:25
@waxeagle I read it as "some spells may require two hands," but in the form of a statement like "this spell requires two free hands to use," rather than flavor text. – Travis Sep 3 '14 at 18:46
The other way to look at it is, they want to stop rules-lawyers saying "You can't cast spells, you have two free hands not one!" :P – Adeptus Jun 25 '15 at 1:10

This spell is just super awkwardly worded

No matter how you interpret the spell, you're going to run into problems.

If it's flavor text, there's nothing that sets it apart as such. And in other spells (Call Lightning, for example) the "flavor text" and what is clearly rules text intertwine within the same sentence.

On the other hand, if it's not flavor text, it's worded as part of the spell's effect, rather than a requirement. We have examples of requirements elsewhere, and they're pretty explicit: "The spell fails if..." in Call Lightning, for example.

Or in Speak with Dead: "The corpse must have a mouth, and can't be undead."

So, you can cast Burning Hands with just one hand free. One free hand satisfies the Somatic component, and there isn't a restriction in the spell text.

And that's a problem, because the effects of a spell happen, even if physics suggests otherwise.

So, when a one-handed man casts this spell, a few things happen:

  • A conical sheet of fire springs into existence.

  • His thumbs touch.

  • His fingers are spread.

What does that look like? Does a spectral limb materialize? Does their severed hand fly back to them from the grave? Do they just hold their stump in roughly the right location?

You really have a few options here, and barring a developer stating which was intended or an "official" ruling from organized play, one's as good as another. This is a case where unclear writing moves things into the DM's court.

  1. It's clearly a requirement of casting the spell

    ...Don't read too much into how it's worded.

  2. It's clearly flavor text

    ...Those don't read like the rules, therefore they aren't.

  3. It's clearly rules text, but with a lot of wacky edge cases

    ...Like having one hand bound, or not having a hand, or not having catalytic agents to create a fire (maybe not that last one).

  4. The spell fails when it attempts to do the impossible

    ...If any part of the spell's effect fails, the entire spell fails.

  5. The spell does what it can, and the rest doesn't happen

    ...You don't touch your fingers, because you can't. But you still get fire because you can(?).

Occam's Razor

Occam's Razor was brought up in the comments, and this is indeed the tool you need to apply to this situation. The problem is that there are several "simplest" solutions to this situation.

For the sake of avoiding humorous situations, let's consider a situation likely to occur in an actual game: A humanoid caster wielding a one-handed sword in his hand.

Outcome: The caster cannot cast the spell.
Because: The caster is unable to touch both thumbs together and spread his fingers.
Assumption: If part of a spell fails, the entire spell fails.

Outcome: The caster touches two thumbs together and spreads fingers, around the grip of his sword.
Because: It is physically possible for the caster to hold a weapon while making the proscribed gesture.
Assumption: The spell is completed in the most plausible way that agrees with the rules.

Outcome: The caster holds out one hand with fingers spread, while holding his sword in the other. Flames shoot from the outstretched hand.
Because: The caster performs as much of the spell as possible.
Assumption: Spells complete to the greatest extent possible.

This gives us three assumptions, all unsupported by the rules. Which is the greater assumption?

  • If part of a spell fails, the entire spell fails.

  • The spell is completed in the most plausible way that agrees with the rules.

  • Spells complete to the greatest extent possible.

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Beware of importing a particular mechanical concept of "effect" as an interlocking procedural part of a spell: 5e spells don't have that kind of "effect" game object or the procedural methods that it comes with, nor the overall interlocking design it needs. The body of the spell, its description, is just the overall description of the spell. It's not an effect that happens in some kind of tight procedural execution stack, it's just a human-readable description of what it does. There are no rules, procedures, or guidelines in the Spellcasting section that prescribe such a procedure/execution. – SevenSidedDie Sep 3 '14 at 22:29
That's why I say beware of importing a concept that is more specific than the one 5e is actually using. 5e isn't an effects-based game like 4e. The description is just that: a description of how the spell works. The whole principle of "natural language" means that you can't read hand-necromancy effects or the ability to burst manacles made from unobtainium into burning hands. A more natural reading is that if the effect is impossible to take effect, it doesn't take effect, just like when you try to target someone who isn't willing with a spell that requires it. Occam's Razor and all that. – SevenSidedDie Sep 3 '14 at 23:04
@SevenSidedDie I've added a couple branches for that. The problem here is that there's no authority on what happens when part of a spell is impossible. Does the spell do as much as it can? Or fail entirely? Setting aside the issue that creating freaking fire from nothing is as impossible as a one-handed man touching his thumbs together. – AceCalhoon Sep 3 '14 at 23:46
I think you have your "assumption" wrong in the first case. The assumption isn't "If part of a spell fails, the entire spell fails". It's that "In order to cast the spell at all, you need to do the thing in the description." Nothing has failed — you just haven't done it, because the thing isn't possible. – mattdm Sep 4 '14 at 3:10
@mattdm The issue is that the thing in the description isn't worded as a requirement (which we have several examples of), it's worded as a thing that happens. But I certainly agree that if the DM feels it's a requirement they should be up front about it! :) – AceCalhoon Sep 4 '14 at 13:01

It's flavor text. Were it not, there would need to be a rule for "two-handed spells", and such an idea simply doesn't exist.

I suspect the DMG will include explicit rules allowing for minor spell variation, incluidng the ability to substitute somatic or material components.

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Can you explain further why would there need to be such a general rule? This sounds plausible (or else I wouldn't have asked the question!), but I'm looking for justification. – mattdm Aug 23 '14 at 19:07
Hmm... a general rule per se probably isnt necessary, but a specific statement of "you cannot cast this spell without two free hands" would be. And it would have been clumsy not to mention the possibility of such in the general magic chapter. – Bleep Aug 23 '14 at 19:13

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