I'm learning to play / DM, and watching various videos on line and experimenting. One scenario came up on which I'd appreciate clarification:

The situation is a human wizard has descended some stairs into a dark room. They have taken a torch from the wall in the room above, and they're carrying their staff in the other hand. They get down to the lower room, and find a handaxe on the floor. The character says: "I pick up the hand axe". My question is: does that imply that the player is now holding two things in one hand? I can't imagine somehow stowing the staff in my robe... nor can I hold the torch in my teeth -- sure I could probably manage to hold both a torch and an axe, or some other combination of two things at once, but I doubt I'd be very proficient... maybe the character switches the staff to the hand with the torch, and uses their dominant hand to use the axe?

How would you handle this as a DM? Just hand-wave it? Ask where the player is going to put either the torch or the staff? Or call out that they're carrying the torch and the staff in one hand.. make a dexterity check to see if the torch is dropped? Or am I just over-thinking this?

As the action unfolds, the wizard then casts a spell with a somatic component, despite having three things in two hands... they then throw the axe (now just maybe they have two things in one hand) and cast another spell with a somatic component...

Am I just being pedantic here?


5 Answers 5


As many as the DM allows

And remembers to think about. And care about.

I, personally, can carry many things in one hand. Several bags of shopping, hundreds of grains of rice, dozens of cooking skewers, a small quantity of water, even disparate things like a shovel, a pick and a rake simultaneously.

How would I handle this as a DM?

  • Hand-wave it? Sometimes.
  • Ask the player? Sometimes.
  • Force a check? No - I don't punish players because the forgot something that would be glaringly obvious to the character.
  • Over-think it? Sometimes.
  • Not notice the inconsistency? Sometimes.

Hey - I'm the DM, I don't have to be consistent; that's not in the rules.

What is in the rules is that the DM adjudicated the results of the characters' actions. Some tables care about this sort of logistic minutiae and some don't And some care some of the time and not other times. This is not a flaw of the game: it's a feature.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This seems to cover "how many can they hold", but not "how many can they use". For the latter, with the examples in the question, of the Wizard casting a spell with a somatic component despite having full (or overly full) hands or throwing a handaxe (presumably as part of an attack), aren't the rules pretty clear? \$\endgroup\$
    – Upper_Case
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 18:14

According to the rules as written (RAW), it's basically one thing per hand. So, in order to pick up the handaxe, the wizard needs to tuck his staff (or the torch!?) into his belt or some such, and in order to cast the spell, he will need to drop or put away or throw the handaxe (or staff/torch) first.

I actually do enforce this kind of stuff, because the course of play of D&D 5e is all about the action economy, and whether or not you have enough free hands to do a thing is a significant part of that action economy.

Working on ways to manage that, and do all the things, is how the game is played. Weapons, shields, spell components, foci, torches, magic items -- all of those things matter with regard to managing how your character gets things done. There are feats, which are a costly thing, designed to help with that, which shows the importance of the idea in the game.

For an example, I have a character who chose an octopus as his familiar. He has to pop it into its pocket dimension for a few minutes every half an hour. Otherwise it rides on his shoulders. That choice has two major reasons. (1) The octopus is the only creature on the list in Find Familiar that is size Small, not Tiny. So its carrying capacity is not halved, and it's capable of more physical actions; plus, walking around with a 25+ lb octopus on your shoulders is deliciously intimidating. (2) The octopus can manipulate things with its tentacles, and he uses it to help his action economy. So if his hands are full, and he needs to cast a spell, he can simply drop an item and cast, and on the familiar's turn, it can pick up the object and hang on to it, or hand it back to him. Likewise, he can run up to a door with weapon and shield, and have the octopus open the door for him. Stuff like that. It's an opportunity cost to do this, as opposed to an owl or something, but it's remarkably useful with creative play.

As a DM, I may give some leeway if you're just carrying all the things instead of trying to use them. So in your example, I'd be likely to let the wizard pick up the handaxe while holding the staff and the torch, and carry all three; any two in one hand, and the third in the other. But he's not going to actually be fighting without letting go of one of the items, and still needs to have a free hand for casting spells with S and/or M components.

So the wizard in question might be carrying the staff and torch in one arm/hand, and the handaxe in the other. He sees a monster, throws the handaxe at it, thus freeing that hand (and I might have him make a DC10 dex check to not drop the torch in the process). He then can use his free hand to cast his spell, and then transfer the torch so he has one thing in each hand for further activity. If the staff is an arcane focus, that can change the economy for the spellcasting part some.

  • 11
    \$\begingroup\$ It would improve this answer to cite the rules themselves, particularly to support this claim: "According to the rules as written (RAW), it's basically one thing per hand. " \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 5:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ As a related side note, a staff is usually an Arcane Focus, and so would sub in for M components, and also allow casting while it's in hand, since you can use the same hand for M and S components. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 14:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ "According to the rules <...> one thing per hand." — could you back this up with any citation of game text? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 18:34

Specifically in this case: Proficiency doesn't really matter, does it? [And neither does RAW for this answer]

Holding a torch is about as basic as it gets and the wizard will not attempt to DO anything with that axe. Aka it doesn't really matter how weird/awkward he holds these things in his hand, only the torch must remain somewhat upright.

Just try to hold two things of approximately the same size (a big hammer for the axe or a shovel, and a flashlight or so) in your hand at the same time. It's very easy. If you want to challenge the player: have them do it. This "if you can do it IRL your character surely can" is not only logically absolutely plausible (the char is an experienced adventurer after all and even the most DEX-dumping wizard would be more skilled at this than the average of us here), AND it makes for a fun short break.

Obviously this isn't the correct approach for all situations and groups, but whenever I did it it was a fun and memorable excursion.


It depends

If you're just carrying things it's probably okay. If you want to give the player a nudge that you have your eye on him, you could say "your staff and the ax make an awkward bundle, but you manage to carry both as you hold the torch in your other hand", or "You lean the ax and staff against the wall as you cast your spell". If you're in combat, this can become a problem because your action economy is being measured and setting things down, picking them up, and wielding things are all things that have to be kept track of. So when you roll for initiative you can ask "so you've got 3 things in your 2 hands, are you going to keep carrying them in a bundle, or are you going to drop or put away one so that you can use the others?"

As has been indicated, you don't have to be that much of a rules judge if you don't want to, but it's certainly appropriate to do if you want to, or have a reason to.


Holding and using are not the same thing

But neither has strict "count limit". It depends on what items are we talking about.

The rules do not say, how many items character can hold in one hand so the DM is supposed to use common sense here. However, there is game text about how many hands do you need to use something. It is not very consistent, so it varies from case to case. Here're a few examples:

  • you need two hands to attack with a two-handed weapon (PHB p.147)
  • you need one hand to attack with a one-handed weapon (no particular page, but a lot of game text assumes this, e.g. p.195 "Two-weapon fighting")
  • you need one hand to wield a shield (p.144)
  • you need one free hand to load a one-handed weapon (p.146)
  • you need one free hand to perform a somatic component (PHB p. 203); you can hold a material component or focus in this hand, but nothing more
  • you need a free hand to drink a potion, presumably one hand will suffice
  • you need one free hand to evoke a Flame Blade (p.242) or create a pact weapon (p.107), and "free" means you don't carry anything in this hand
  • although you do NOT need free hands in order to make an unarmed strike (p.195)

Talking about your particular situation, the wizard presumably can carry a staff and a torch in one hand and an axe in another hand, but they can't attack with the staff, neither they can cast a spell which requires a somatic component.

As a DM, if you feel the necessity to clarify the situation, don't hesitate to ask "how do you do that":

— I pick up the hand axe.
— Do you shove it into your backpack, or carry it in your hand?
— I'd rather carry it in my hand.
— How do you do that?
— Using my right hand, what's the problem?
— Well, you're carrying a torch in that hand, aren't you?
— Yes I am... Okay, I want to grab my staff and the torch in one hand and have the hand axe in another hand. Can I do that?
— I think you can. But you can't attack with the staff like that.
— Wait, I have a better idea. I want to extinguish the torch and put it to my backpack. Instead, I cast the Light cantrip onto my staff.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .