Looking at the D&D 5th edition Compendium online, I see:

A paralyzed creature is incapacitated (see the condition) and can’t move or speak.

And for incapacitation:

An incapacitated creature can’t take actions or reactions.

Compare this to the 3.5 version, which specifically mentions physical actions:

This special attack renders the victim immobile. Paralyzed creatures cannot move, speak, or take any physical actions. The creature is rooted to the spot, frozen and helpless. Not even friends can move his limbs. He may take purely mental actions, such as casting a spell with no components.

Does this mean that, counterintuitively, by rules as written in 5th Edition a paralyzed creature cannot take actions that don’t require movement (e.g. casting a spell with no components)? It seems a silly interpretation, but that’s what the rules seem to be saying (assuming this resource accurately reproduces the rules).

  • \$\begingroup\$ The Standard Caveat: D&D 5th edition empowers the DM in ways that 3rd, 3.5, and 4th did not. While rule zero has always applied, 5th edition chooses not to explicitly codify many things (you can see the 5e description is much shorter than the 3.5 ones). If your DM says you can, you can. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Jan 28 '18 at 9:59

Yes, a paralyzed creature cannot take actions, including the “Cast a Spell” action.

Note that bonus actions are also actions. As are legendary and lair actions.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Also, there are no official spells with no components at all (verbal, somatic, or material). If they can't speak, verbal's out of the question, and if they can't move, somatic and material components are unusable as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jan 27 '18 at 8:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Sorcerers can use metamagic to cast spells without somatic and verbal components. \$\endgroup\$
    – Axoren
    Jan 27 '18 at 9:14
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ True, I was thinking about that. I suppose the fact that paralysis inflicts the "incapacitated" condition prevents them from casting a spell that has no material components even if they use Subtle Spell. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jan 27 '18 at 9:18

Paralysis prevents the casting of spells

The incapacitated condition removes all the action options for spellcasting

The PHB says:

Most spells require a single action to cast, but some spells require a bonus action, a reaction, or much more time to cast.

So, spells can be cast with either an action, reaction, or bonus action.

The incapacitated condition prevents any action or reactions from being taken:

An incapacitated creature can’t take actions or reactions.

Which means the only other option left to cast a spell would be a bonus action. Unfortunately, the rules for the bonus action state:

[A]nything that deprives you of your ability to take actions also prevents you from taking a bonus action.

Which means that the incapacitated condition also prevents you from casting a bonus action spell.

There are no spell with no components

Even if you were able to get around having to use an action to cast the spell, there would still be the issue of components.

There are currently no spells that have no components, so you would have to move or speak to meet the component requirements for the spell you would want to cast.

Even were you able to get around the component requirements using a sorcerer's metamagic for example, the action economy discussed above will prevent a spell from being cast.

  • \$\begingroup\$ But can a paralyzed creature maintain concentration on a spell? \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Mar 9 '18 at 21:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @John: You cannot. Incapacitation breaks concentration. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rubiksmoose
    Mar 9 '18 at 21:57

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