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This thread points out that although DMs can (and probably should) interpret rules to cover certain cases themselves, nothing within spellcasting rules or spells written at the time clearly states which parts are "flavor" that can be "ignored".

The thread apparently predates the DMG, though, so has any book written since then given an explanation on how, for example, the Flameskull straight from 2014's Monster Manual has a spell which very clearly emits a bright streak from the caster's pointer finger (written not in the "components" section that the Flameskull can specifically ignore most of, but instead in the "effect" section), in spite of "fingers" not being a part of the creature at the time of casting?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @CGCampbell: If you have a new question, you should ask it separately. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Apr 27, 2021 at 17:51

4 Answers 4

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Treating the finger-pointing as the somatic component is the only coherent reading of the rules for this specific case

The thread you linked does a good job of explaining the weird nuances and inconsistencies of spells which describe the caster's actions in casting them as part of their effect.

In adjudicating this case, we need to use good faith and our knowledge of obvious design intent

  • Good faith: the designers want these rules to make sense. There must be a reading of them that makes sense.
  • Obvious design intent: The Flameskull is able to cast Fireball. It does not have a spell on its spell list that it cannot cast.

We're forced to find the only reading of the rules which makes sense under these constraints: The Flameskull can cast fireball, despite fingerless-ness. It treats the finger-pointing in the spell's description as a somatic component, which it ignores.

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MM Monster Description: flameskull ignores somatic components

The MM mentions this not once but twice. In the MM description of the flameskull, it says:

[...] its undead transformation grants it full access to the magic it wielded in life, letting it cast spells while ignoring the material and somatic components it can no longer employ.

Further that point, under its Spellcasting feature in the flameskull's stat block, it says (emphasis added):

The flameskull is a 5th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Intelligence (spell save DC 13, +5 to hit with spell attacks). It requires no somatic or material components to cast its spells.

No spell listed in the stat block requires a somatic component for the flameskull to cast it.

What is a somatic component? (PHB, CH 10, Spellcasting)

Somatic components consist of a gesture, or a set of gestures:

Spellcasting gestures might include a forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures. If a spell requires a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.

Since the flameskull, in a case of Specific Beats General (Basic Rules, p. 5), ignores somatic components for all of its spell casting, no gesture is ever needed for the flameskull to cast the spell, no free hand is ever required to cast any of its spells, and from those two it follows that no hand (at all) is necessary to cast any of its spells. Your question gets hung up on

the caster's pointer finger

The flameskull doesn't need a finger, nor a hand with fingers on it, to cast the fireball spell nor any of its other spells.

As the newest flameskull on the block might say:
"Look, Ma, no hands! I cast fireball!"
Lo and behold, a fireball goes off...

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A pointing finger is a somatic component, which the Flameskull ignores.

I think you're drawing a distinction that doesn't exist between "Components: S" and "your pointing finger".

There are many spells in the book that list general components in the "Components" list but then give further information about those components in the text of the spell, such as describing what the verbal component is or what sort of pose is involved in the somatic component. These descriptions may not be the full and complete component -- that is, stating that you point your finger doesn't mean you aren't doing a lot of other gestures prior to pointing -- but the specifically described gesture isn't an extra and distinct requirement apart from the component that consists of "make some gestures".

Now, sometimes those specifically-described words or gestures impose additional limits on the spell, beyond what is required simply by the Component line of the spell description. In the case of burning hands, for example, while you normally only need one free hand to perform a somatic component (and also manipulate material components or a focus, for spells that need them), the specific description of the pose requires you to use two hands. That's still a somatic component, though, and so certain class or monster abilities can bypass that specifically described gesture by replacing it (war caster) or entirely removing it (subtle spell).

And in some cases, it doesn't make sense to remove a component, regardless of any special abilities you have. For example, the suggestion spell has a verbal component, which is the suggestion you speak to the target. Even if you could normally ignore the verbal component of a spell (such as a sorcerer using the Subtle Spell metamagic), in this case you can't, because the target hearing and understanding your suggestion is a specific requirement of the spell.

But in the end, when the spell says you point your finger, it's describing a specific part of the somatic component, so a flameskull's ability to ignore somatic components also removes the need to point fingers.

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Any way the DM wants

Spells all have text that says what sort of verbal, gestural, or material elements are required to cast them. As you point out, some spells elaborate on how cast spells are manifested from a narrative standpoint based on the components.

To wit, Fireball:

A bright streak flashes from your pointing finger

Or Poison Spray (not that Flameskulls have it):

You extend your hand toward a creature you can see

These descriptions assume that the spell is being cast in the usual way. That is to say, by a creature which possesses the necessary appendages to perform the somatic components and hold the material components (and, for that matter, a mouth to perform the verbal components).

In fact, we might as well ask how a tongueless, lipless skull can form all the necessary sounds that are no doubt required to cast any of the spells in its stat block.

But we don't need to because the spells are not being cast in the usual manner. This is a case of a specific set of rules for a monster overriding the general rules/description for a spell.

The rules for D&D 5e don't proscribe every last narrative detail for the content that the publisher puts out. The explanation for how a handless Flameskull can cast a spell that requires the caster to point with a hand is found in the introduction to the Players Handbook (commonly referred to as Rule Zero):

The DM narrates the results

My Flameskulls launch fireballs strictly from their left nasal cavity in the manner of a snot rocket. Yours might use their mage hands to point at the target and shoot the fireballs. Neither of us is wrong.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The Flameskull 'requires no somatic or material components to cast its spells'. OP is asking how it can fulfil the description of the spell, which technically (arguably?) exists independent of the spell's components \$\endgroup\$
    – Lovell
    Apr 27, 2021 at 8:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @lovell Flameskull don't need to point per the description. Pointing is not a spell component, it explains how the fireball (typically) manifests. This is not a typical casting so it would manifest differently for a Flameskull. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rykara
    Apr 27, 2021 at 8:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why do you say pointing isn't a component? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 27, 2021 at 14:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym because it's not explicitly listed as one. Check the question OP links to \$\endgroup\$
    – Lovell
    Apr 27, 2021 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ The linked question supports that burning hands has a somatic component that requires more hands than a standard somatic component requires. It does not support that touching thumbs is somehow not a somatic component. In fact, several of the answers specifically call out that if you can change or remove the somatic gestures (with subtle spell or war caster, for example), you don't have to touch thumbs because that's describing the somatic component. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 27, 2021 at 19:31

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