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I've been creating a Paladin who uses the Defense fighting style while wielding two weapons (instead of the more common Dueling style with weapon and shield). However, I was worried that spell components would make this too difficult because the character wouldn't be able to use a shield emblazoned with a holy symbol as their spellcasting focus. I reread the section on holy symbols and it says the following:

A cleric or paladin can use a holy symbol as a spellcasting focus, as described in chapter 10. To use the symbol in this way, the caster must hold it in hand, wear it visibly, or bear it on a shield. [PHB pg. 151, emphasis added]

By my reading of this, even absent a shield, the caster does NOT need a free hand for their focus. Simply wearing it on a chain outside their armor or clothing (or even affixing it to the outside of their armor) would be sufficient.

This surprised me, so I double-checked the material components section:

Casting some spells requires particular objects, specified in parentheses in the component entry. A character can use a component pouch or a spellcasting focus (found in chapter 5) in place of the components specified for a spell... A spellcaster must have a hand free to access these components, but it can be the same hand that he or she uses to perform somatic components. [PHB pg. 203]

At first glance, its seems that the statements "A character can use... a spellcasting focus... in place of the components specified for a spell" and "A spellcaster must have a hand free to access these components" would logically mean that a spellcaster must have a hand free to use a spellcasting focus.

However, is this a case of "specific beats general"? Using an arcane focus requires a free hand because it follows the general rule from pg. 203, but a holy symbol doesn't as long as it's visibly worn as written in the more specific rule on pg. 151?

(Related: Do these spellcasting foci from Xanathar's Guide to Everything have to be held in a hand?)

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You do not need a free hand to use a holy symbol that you are wearing visibly.

You're correct that "specific beats general" is in effect here. Most spellcasting focuses have to be handled, but a holy symbol specifically notes that it can also be worn visibly or emblazoned on a shield. As such, if you are wearing your holy symbol visibly, you do not need a free hand for the material components of your paladin spells.

You do still need free use of a hand to perform somatic components, unless you were to pick up the War Caster feat. However, I don't foresee this being an issue for you: if you're casting a spell, you're unable to use two-weapon fighting that turn anyway, so there's no meaningful downside to stowing one of your weapons, casting your spell, and drawing the weapon again when you need it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What's very important to note is that V+M is not applicable to paladin due to a lack of spells that have that composition of components. \$\endgroup\$ – lukethecat Aug 16 '20 at 23:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt -- The point of the answer is that, unlike an arcane focus, the caster doesn't need to "take hold of" the holy symbol. Simply wearing it (visibly) is enough to account for the M, and then sheathing a weapon makes that hand available for S. Dropping a weapon is unnecessary. \$\endgroup\$ – gto Aug 24 '20 at 17:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @gto After a more careful reading, I agree that wearing the symbol visibly is good for the M, it does not have to be held. However, I am not convinced that the weapon may be sheathed. That seems to be allowing two actions: cast a spell & use an object, since the sheathing of the sword is not a free use as PART OF casting a spell. AFAICT, rulings are that you can pull out something you need as a free use for an action, but not put away something you don't need - otherwise you would be able to sheathe one weapon before drawing another as part of the attack action? \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Aug 24 '20 at 19:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps the best analogy would be whether you are permitted to sheathe a weapon before you attack unarmed. I am still looking for support either way and would welcome a citation. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Aug 24 '20 at 19:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt -- The primary text on pg. 190 of the Player's Handbook makes it sound like drawing a weapon is part of an attack action using that weapon: "For example, ... you could draw your weapon as part of the same action you use to attack." However, see the clarifying "Interacting with Objects Around You" inset. It lists many things you can do regardless of the specific action, including "draw or sheathe a sword." \$\endgroup\$ – gto Aug 25 '20 at 15:10
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RAW, you can't use a holy symbol on your chest in lieu of somatic components

Per the official Sage Advice rulings column on the rules of spellcasting:

If a spell has a somatic component, you can use the hand that performs the somatic component to also handle the material component. For example, a wizard who uses an orb as a spellcasting focus could hold a quarterstaff in one hand and the orb in the other, and he could cast lightning bolt by using the orb as the spell’s material component and the orb hand to perform the spell’s somatic component.

Another example: a cleric’s holy symbol is emblazoned on her shield. She likes to wade into melee combat with a mace in one hand and a shield in the other. She uses the holy symbol as her spellcasting focus, so she needs to have the shield in hand when she casts a cleric spell that has a material component. If the spell, such as aid, also has a somatic component, she can perform that component with the shield hand and keep holding the mace in the other.

If the same cleric casts cure wounds, she needs to put the mace or the shield away, because that spell doesn’t have a material component but does have a somatic component. She’s going to need a free hand to make the spell’s gestures. If she had the War Caster feat, she could ignore this restriction.

Consider the fact that in the case of the shield, some contact with a hand is made with the holy symbol. The shield hand is making the somatic gestures necessary during this, as clearly stated in the Sage Advice column. The person with the holy symbol affixed to their neck therefore is not counted as using somatic components, as they are not using a free hand or an emblazoned shield to make the somatic components happen. This means that if you are using a holy symbol that is "clearly displayed on the body", but no somatic gestures are being used, somatic gestures would not count as being used, there-in making the spell fail due to the lack of all necessary requirements for the spell to activate.

If a spell has a material component, you need to handle that component when you cast the spell (see page 203 in the Player’s Handbook). The same rule applies if you’re using a spellcasting focus as the material component.

If a spell has a somatic component, you can use the hand that performs the somatic component to also handle the material component.

The reason why the shield with the holy symbol works is because it counts as the cleric touching the material component, which allows the cleric to use somatic components with it, due to the fact that the shield would be currently counted as the material component, and the hand that's holding the material component can be used as the S as well. This is different from the holy symbol on a chain due to the fact that no hand is being used, therefore no somatic components are produced.

In short, if you have both hands full of things that can't be used as foci, you cannot cast any spells that require somatic components (unless you take the War Caster feat, but that's something specific that beats the general rule). The only use of it at that point would be to be able to use it without having to hold it (if some sort of thing that touching it with your hand is active) and using it with spells that only have V and M components, which from a quick search of a paladin's spells, are none.

Basically, it's a bad idea to do this, as it doesn't fulfill the S component unless you hold it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What would be the point, then, of saying the holy symbol can be also be used simply by "wear[ing] it visibly" as opposed to just "hold[ing] it in hand"? It seems odd to write a caveat that would only apply to spells that have M but not S, as there are only 3 of these on the Cleric list -- Light, Word of Radiance, and Tongues -- and, as you note, 0 for Paladin. Something seems to still be missing in this analysis... \$\endgroup\$ – gto Aug 15 '20 at 15:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @gto the point may be that one may not have to hold it in order to gain the benefit of it. there are scenario's imaginable where one could not hold their holy symbol but can have it around their neck and use S with free hands. It just doesn't make sense for the cleric/paladin to be able to use S without using their hands, S doesn't work like that. It needs gestures. of which one cannot make through the use of only a voice and holy symbol. It may be dumb, but nothing else makes sense. \$\endgroup\$ – lukethecat Aug 15 '20 at 16:45
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Yes, you 100% need a free hand.

A spellcaster must have a hand free to access a spell's material components -- or to hold a spellcasting focus -- but it can be the same hand that he or she uses to perform somatic components. [https://www.dndbeyond.com/sources/basic-rules/spellcasting#MaterialM]

  • You need a free hand to cast somatic spells.
  • You need to hold a focus to cast component spells.
  • Wielding a focus, count as a free hand for somatic spells

A cleric or paladin can use a holy symbol as a spellcasting focus, as described in chapter 10. To use the symbol in this way, the caster must hold it in hand, wear it visibly, or bear it on a shield. [PHB pg. 151]

What I gather from here is that same rule apply for paladin as well. The only difference is that you can hold the symbol in your hand, but you don't have to, where for other classes it's a requirement.

There is no where mentioned that a paladin relic is a magical 3rd hand or something. If the focus is not in your hand, you need War Casting feat for what you want.

on another note

  • technically you could have your symbol on the weapon
  • however, some people argue that a symbol on a shield doesn't make it a focus, therefore no free hand. A symbol on a weapon should be more implausible
  • two handed weapon require two hands to swing, therefore you could hold it with one hand while you cast spells (debatable, but you could go that route)

Considering we have the war casting feat, a paladin with a shield shouldn't be able cast spells without the feat, let alone one with dual wielding.

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