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By default, you must have a completely free hand to cast a spell that has somatic components but does not have material components. That free hand may not even be holding a spellcasting focus.

A common way to avoid this problem is to take the War Caster feat (PHB, p. 170). The second bullet of the feat reads (emphasis mine):

  • You can perform the somatic components of spells even when you have weapons or a shield in one or both hands.

This will allow you to, say, cast shield (which requires only somatic components) while wielding a longsword in one hand and a shield in the other.

Using the War Caster feat, could a Hexblade warlock still cast shield if they were holding a +1 rod of the pact keeper in one hand and a wand of lightning bolts in the other? Does the answer change if you use the rod as an improvised weapon? Can a forest gnome wizard with War Caster and a wand in one hand really cast more spells by holding the barbarian's greataxe in the other hand rather than another wand?

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Probably Not; but it depends on a finicky interpretation of the plain English of the feat

Let's look at the wording of the War Caster feat:

  • You can perform the somatic components of spells even when you have weapons or a shield in one or both hands.

War Caster, Player's Handbook, pg. 170

I've highlighted the phrase "even when" because there are, by my interpretation, two valid ways to interpret this sentence in English, and which one you take seriously depends on how rigorously you interpret those two words.

In the former case, where those two words are superfluous, then no, you would be unable to cast Shield. In the latter case, where those two words are deliberate and important, then yes, you would be able to cast Shield.

"Weapons and Shields are now part of the subset of items that may be wielded when performing Somatic Components"

This is the interpretation that I suspect (but cannot prove) is intended by this feat, assuming the words "even when" are superfluous. The War Caster feat, expecting that spellcasters who take it will be in wartime situations, is afforded to allow spellcasters to be spellcasters while also being ready to pick up a weapon and defend themselves. So they specifically learn how to perform the intricate gestures associated with their spells while still holding their weapon/shield.

As a result, under this interpretation, you would not be able to perform the Shield spell while holding these items. Spellcasters must have a free hand to cast a spell that has no Material Components, even if the items in their hands would normally be valid as Material Components (like a wand serving as a focus). The War Caster feat would extend this to allow a Weapon or Shield to be valid items to be held while performing these gestures, but this would not be extended to anything else.

"You may now always perform the Somatic Components; Weapons and Shields are enumerated because they are notable"

If the phrase "even when" is semiotically important, it's because Weapons and Shields are de-facto presumed to negate a spellcaster's ability to perform their Spellcasting components—hence features like Improved Pact Blade for Warlocks, allowing their Pact Blade to function as a Spellcasting Focus. Therefore, when the text calls out Weapons and Shields, it's not to explicitly add them to a list, but to make it clear to a reader that they are intended to be included in the list even though a reader might implicitly assume they might not.

If this is the intended interpretation, then a better-worded version of this feature might have looked like this:

  • You may now always perform the somatic components of spells; even when you are wielding a Sword or Shield in one or both hands

As a result, under this interpretation, you would be able to cast Shield regardless of what was in your hands.

The Former case is much more likely

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that the latter case was intended.

For starters, 5e has a very explicit "Specific beats General" rule, meant to be applied to any scenario where a specific feature might contradict the normal rules.

This book contains rules, especially in parts 2 and 3, that govern how the game plays. That said, many racial traits, class features, spells, magic items, monster abilities, and other game elements break the general rules in some way, creating an exception to how the rest of the game works. Remember this: If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins.

Exceptions to the rules are often minor. For instance, many adventurers don't have proficiency with longbows, but every wood elf does because of a racial trait. That trait creates a minor exception in the game. Other examples of rule-breaking are more conspicuous. For instance, an adventurer can't normally pass through walls, but some spells make that possible. Magic accounts for most of the major exceptions to the rules.

Specific Beats General, Player's Handbook, pg. 7

If the War Caster feat were intended to allow a spellcaster to perform the Somatic Components of their spells with any item, regardless of what it was, then it wouldn't be necessary to call out Weapons and Shields specifically: the following wording would have sufficed:

  • You can always perform the somatic components of spells.

Secondly, the lack of punctuation in that original text implies a lack of emphasis on the predicate of the sentence as a distinct concept. The flow of the sentence is "You may perform the Somatic Components of a spell even when", not "You may perform the Somatic Components of a spell, even when".

"But Anything can be a weapon, right?"

Sure, pretty much any object can be treated as a 1d4+STR Improvised weapon. That doesn't necessarily mean the object in question is a Weapon, semiotically. Weapons are specifically defined as a category of item in the Player's Handbook, and the statblocks for individual items specifies whether it counts as a Weapon or not:

Martial Weapon, Melee Weapon

Longsword, Player's Handbook, pg. 149

Whereas wands, excepting rare, specific scenarios, are not described as Weapons:

Spellcasting Focus

Wand, Player's Handbook, pg. 151


Wand, Major, Rare (Requires Attunement)

Wand of Fear, Dungeon Master's Guide, pg. 210

A non-weapon object used as an Improvised Weapon only counts as a Weapon while the attack is being made, and afterwards, mechanically, it is no longer a Weapon. So when a spell is being cast, it would not count as a Weapon.

Conclusion

So to conclude: Wands (and other objects that don't have Statblocks as weapons) don't qualify to be considered Weapons, even if you attempt to use them as Improvised Weapons.

So what this boils down to is the plain English interpretation of the sentence in War Caster; and by my reasoning, I don't believe the more permissive, more powerful interpretation is intended or correct.

So under the conditions of

  • being a spellcaster
  • with the War Caster feat
  • that is holding two objects
    • one in each hand
    • neither of which is a Weapon or Shield

You would not be able to cast the spell Shield, which itself lacks Material components—hence why the Wand doesn't satisfy the "Somatic Components may be performed while holding a focus if the spell has Material components).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree that the first interpretation is mroe likely, but that doesn't preven the casting of Shield. "You can perform the somatic components of spells even when you have weapons or a shield in one or both hands.(rather than the default of being empty-handed") "You can hold a spellcasting focus, if that's a valid material component" and "you can hold a weapon, if you have the right feat" are different exceptions to that rule. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Apr 5 at 20:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden Shield does not have a Material Component though. That's why Shield cannot be cast even with the War Caster feat. In the OP's scenario, they are holding objects in both hands, and even though one (or both!) qualify as Focuses, they both block Somatic Components for Material-free spells. \$\endgroup\$ – Xirema Apr 5 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ no, that's the point. War Caster says nothing about Material components. If the rules about spell focii and material components were not in the game at all, it would be obvious that War Caster meant "you can use a weapon instead of an empty hand". Adding the rules about Material components doesn't necessarily change the behavior of War Caster, given that they're distinct exceptions that don't reference each other. If War caster had instead said "as a spell focus", that would be different, but it did not. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Apr 5 at 21:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden You'll have to submit your own answer or ping me in chat; I'm afraid I don't understand your interpretation of the rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Xirema Apr 5 at 21:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree with the former case as being more likely. In such a case, the rules would read, "You can cast WHEN you have a weapon or shield in your hands". \$\endgroup\$ – Miles Bedinger Apr 7 at 4:10
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Yes for two reasons. Common sense and improvised weapons.

When DMing, there's a thing called the law of common sense. If the rules are not clear on how a spell works, ask yourself if it makes sense in context. No interpretation of the rules should outweigh common sense when you're dealing with nonmagical effects.

There's no flavor text in descriptions. A war caster has practiced "casting spells in the midst of combat". They are not enchanted to be able to cast spells while wielding weapons. It is training and techniques, and thus should obey the law of common sense. Common sense states that one has more freedom of movement with a stick than a maul.

And even if you want to play rules jockey and abandon common sense, you're absolutely right, anything can be considered an improvised weapon, even if it's not like any weapon in the game.

An improvised weapon includes any object you can wield in one or two hands.

Thus, the wands are considered improvised weapons, which means you "have weapons or a shield in one or both hands" and can cast somatic-only spells.

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    \$\begingroup\$ An improvised weapon is only a weapon at the instant where it is used as a weapon. I made that mistake too. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Apr 8 at 15:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden It looks like Crawford agrees, though I wish there was a more RAW way to figure that out. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Starnes Apr 8 at 17:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisStarnes Fair - we're only going off of Word of Crawford here, but it at least has nonzero weight. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Apr 8 at 18:54
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It depends on which interpretation of the rules you use.

As laid out in this answer, focuses on the last part of the rule for foci:

An arcane focus is a special item — an orb, a crystal, a rod, a specially constructed staff, a wand-like length of wood, or some similar item — designed to channel the power of arcane spells.

The first argument is that the rod, though physically shaped like a weapon, is not a weapon because it is not designed to be. It is designed to act as a focus and you could not say it's a focus that you are wielding as an improvised weapon either because Warlocks can't use improvised weapons as pact weapons.


The other argument is "Call it what you want (a rod, a pole, or a club), a length of wood/metal is a length of wood/metal" and Jeremy Crawford has said on Twitter (which is not an official ruling), that:

Dave Ciskowski: Can a wizard use a magic wand (e.g. wand of Magic Missile) as her arcane focus?

Jeremy Crawford: Yes


In either event,

Yes, as the rules are laid out, the caster must have a shield or a weapon in one hand (and Warcaster) to be allowed full access to both VS and VSM spells. Without one or the other, only VS spells would be castable.

So if the DM decides that a focus rod does not count as a weapon, the caster would then need to put the shield away to cast VSM spells (interpretation 1).

If the DM decides that the focus rod does count as a weapon (interpretation 2), then the caster has access to his/her full spell arsenal.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to be clear, are you saying that warlocks can never use improvised weapons? In this case, the warlock may or may not be Pact of the Blade, but either way, they wouldn't be trying to use the rod as a pact weapon. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Starnes Apr 5 at 20:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @chris I've edited the answer to hopefully clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Apr 5 at 20:53

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