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The Dulcimer is listed in official sources as a tool available for use and purchase [SRD p.70]. However, I cannot seem to find official clarification on whether this refers to a hammered dulcimer or a strummed dulcimer.

Here are relevant observations I've gathered from official sources:

  • The Dulcimer weighs 10 lb.—the heaviest instrument on the Tools list by far, suggesting either a large size or construction with dense materials befitting a sturdy many-stringed percussive instrument.
  • The Dulcimer costs 25 gp—a price on par with, even noticeably slightly less than, the Lute (35 gp) and Lyre (30 gp), suggesting that crafting a Dulcimer is not substantially more taxing than other stringed instruments. This may be odd, considering that hammered dulcimers have many many strings—sets of which would need to be skillfully tuned to be approximately in unison. The strummed Appalachian dulcimer, on the other hand, only possesses three or four strings and could be cheaper to manufacture.
  • A hammered dulcimer requires multiple objects to play: the instrument itself, and mallets. This is peculiar given that every other instrument on the Tools list is self-sufficient (assuming, somewhat reasonably, that the Drum can be played by hand). The strummed dulcimer requires no other objects to play.

Here are relevant observations I've gathered from external sources:

My question boils down to:
If RAW provides no direct answer, are there related official materials or historical context from D&D that suggests, by developer intention, whether the officially listed 5e Dulcimer is of the hammered or strummed variety?


This question is arguably not trivial because:

  • The action economy of utilizing these two styles may be different.
    • The strummed variety only requires one object interaction—equipping the dulcimer—before it can be used.
    • The hammered variety requires three object interactions—equipping the dulcimer and equipping the two mallets—before it can be used (or just two interactions with the Dual Wielder feat).
  • Proficiency in utilizing these two styles may be different.
    • In the real world, the finger dexterity and hand-eye coordination for strummed versus percussive instruments varies. Although skills can transfer, proficiency may not; they are different types of instruments in earnest.
    • "Each type of musical instrument requires a separate proficiency." [PH p.154]
    • The fact that one instrument entity listed in the rules may encompass two actual instruments presents a possible RAW kerfuffle where one proficiency can be applied to what should be two types of instruments.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 7 at 1:56
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It is whatever type your DM and you agree it is

Nowhere in the rules does it define or even describe the dulcimer listed in the equipment table. It could even refer to both types of the instrument. Since it is not defined in the rules, it is up to the table to define. Talk with your DM and agree on what you think is best.

Settings and flavor-wise this is also very flexible. Each table decides for themselves the setting they want to play in and all kinds of varieties of flourishes that are never included in the lore or anything. Choose something that you think will be most fun and fitting for the game your table is playing.

The type will almost certainly not matter mechanically

You mention action economy as a concern, however there are really no cases where the bard is going to be playing an instrument in battle such that the action economy would matter.

No bardic abilities require playing a musical instrument at any time. And, importantly, a bard does not have to play the instrument to use it as a spellcasting focus you only need to hold it.

The rules don't even define the action economy of playing an instrument. Generally during battle, the bard will be using their actions to cast spells or other helpful combat activities.

I played a bard for almost 3 years in a campaign and never once had to worry about action economy of playing in battle because she never did it.

If this is something you do intend to do during battle then choose whichever version of the instrument you think would be best/most fun in that circumstance and work with your DM to make sure they agree to it.

Houseruling focus to require playing is a bad idea

You say in a comment:

potentially given a house-rule that playing is required for use as a focus

Don't do this. If you aren't the DM, beg them not to implement this because it a huge nerf for bards. If, as you imply, playing an instrument is some kind of action, then playing an instrument would actively prevent a bard from casting a spell using that action type (or delay it until the next turn). This kills a bard's action economy and creates a more strenuous requirement for casting a spell than any other class by far.

This sounds like the DM may be trying to force flavor into the rules. This is not a good idea. Especially not with the spellcasting rules because they are already finicky enough.

If a DM tried to make this a rule at a table I was playing at, I would seriously just choose a new class.

The way I would recommend doing this if the DM really wants the musical flavor is to allow the bard to play the instrument as part of the action used to cast the spell. That gives the flavor without mechanical issues.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to be clear, your dire warning is about requiring the bard to play the instrument as a separate action to use it as a focus, right? Because if it's treated as part of the action of casting the spell, I'm not seeing how that's much of a nerf. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Feb 7 at 0:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells correct \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 7 at 12:17
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It doesn't matter

The 5th edition Action Economy isn't as finicky as you seem to be assuming it is based on your question's premise. These are, as far as I'm aware, the only scenarios where a musical instrument (Dulcimer or otherwise) would be used:

  • You are playing it outside of combat, attempting to make a Performance Check
  • You are a Bard, in combat, using it as your spellcasting focus. (ostensibly the scenario you are concerned with)
  • You are playing it in combat, attempting to make a Performance Check

I'll cover the other two scenarios for completeness.

Out of Combat Performance

Out of combat, the Action Economy is abstracted away entirely. If a player says "I want to use my Dulcimer to woo the kindly gentleman", the DM would not request the player go through the proper step-by-step sequence of getting ready to play the instrument or actually playing the instrument.

Things a DM should NOT do

Player: "Okay, first I use my Action to doff my shield, then I use my Free Object Interaction to equip the Dulcimer."
DM:"Okay, they nod at you in anticipation."
Player: "Okay, for my next turn, I use my Free Object Interaction to equip one of the hammers, and use my Action to equip the other."
DM: "He appears enticed by your proper use of the instrument."
Player: "Okay, now for my next turn, I want to play the instrument."
DM: "Okay, to do that, use your action to strike the instrument with the hammer. Make a Charisma Check using your Performance Skill..."


Things a DM SHOULD do

Player: "Okay, I want to play my Dulcimer to impress the handsome stranger."
DM: "Okay, make a Charisma Check using your Performance skill."

In-Combat Bard

In 5th edition D&D, a Bard is not logistically required to physically play their instrument while using it as a spellcasting focus. They're only required to hold it. That can be done with a single hand, and equipping a Dulcimer, however complicated it is, only requires a Free Object Interaction. Same for putting it away (although not both at the same time!)

The Player's Handbook also states that a hand holding the Material Components of a spell may also be used to perform the Somatic components of a spell (which most spells have). What does that mean? Some DMs choose to rule that casting a Bard spell involves playing the instrument. That's a valid interpretation of the rules-as-narrative; but understand that that doesn't reflect the literal requirements of spellcasting as specified in the Player's Handbook.

If you or a DM are insistent that using a Musical Instrument as a Spellcasting focus requires that the instrument be played, it's entirely valid to presume that the magic being conjured into existence by the spellcaster causes the instrument to animate & play itself (provided you don't then go on to presume mechanical implications from that narration). The important part is that the bard:

  • Hold the instrument in at least one hand to function as the Material Component (if required)
  • Use that hand (or their other hand, if free) to then perform the gestures required of the Somatic Component (if required)

None of those requirements stipulate that the Bard must be literally performing the instrument at maximum capability.

Performance in Combat

What is required from the Action Economy for a Bard to play their instrument in combat?

The Player's Handbook doesn't say. The description for the Dulcimer (or any musical instrument, for that matter) does not provide details about being "two-handed" or "heavy" or any other attributes commonly associated with objects that have Action Economy particulars. The only interaction required to play an instrument is specified in the Actions in Combat section of the Combat chapter:

Use an Object

You normally interact with an object while doing something else, such as when you draw a sword as part of an attack. When an object requires your action for its use, you take the Use an Object action. This action is also useful when you want to interact with more than one object on your turn.
—PHB, pg. 193

That's it. Without qualifiers on the Dulcimer object itself about what is required to use it, or qualifiers on the Skills section of the Using Ability Scores chapter, or qualifiers on the Use an Object Action specified in the Combat chapter, the only sequence of Actions that we can postulate are required to play a Dulcimer are

Player: "I pull my Dulcimer out and use my Action to play it."

The reason why, for example, Two-weapon fighting has such stingy rules about Action Economy with respect to drawing weapons is that drawing two weapons means drawing two distinct objects. To avoid potential "Free Object Interaction Exploits", 5th Edition D&D limits Free Object Interaction to only drawing one object. Two Shortswords are two distinct objects. Conversely, a Dulcimer is one object, including the hammers. Maybe they're tied on with string, maybe they're enchanted to hover just above the instrument until used, but either way, a Dulcimer (and its attachments) only constitute one item in this game.

5th Edition D&D does not specify what kind of Dulcimer it features

The description for Dulcimer only contains the description of its proficiency interactions and generic rules about how instrument proficiencies are subdivided. And no officially released D&D sourcebook has made an attempt to qualify the precise construction of the musical instruments in the game.

So for your purposes, it could be either. Whichever seems more interesting for your character, or whichever your DM decides is appropriate. The game doesn't specify which type of Dulcimer it uses, and as I demonstrated, the choice doesn't matter at least as far as the game mechanics are concerned. So between you and your DM/players, decide what makes most sense for the sake of theming and fun, and stick with it.

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