The D&D 5E spell Burning Hands has verbal and somatic components, and is described like this:

As you hold your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread, a thin sheet of flames shoots forth from your outstretched fingertips. [...]

The rule for somatic components, however, is that If a spell require a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.

So, what happens if a character has one hand free but the other is restricted so it can't be reached? What if one hand is occupied and fingers can't be spread like this? To a greater extreme, is this spell unavailable to a character who has only one arm?

Or, from a technical angle: is the description here a specific rule for this spell which overrides the general rule for somatic components, or is it just flavor text intended to give a visual for one possible way to cast the spell?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Historical Note: All three of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition, and Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd Edition mandated similar gestures; it was changed for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 (a change I hadn't noticed until just now). Apparently, D&D 5E's bringing it back. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 18:55

6 Answers 6


Spell descriptions are rules, so this is a case of the specific overriding the general, yes. The spell says you touch thumbs to make the spell happen, so to make the spell happen you touch thumbs.

The alternative—selectively designating some parts of the spell as "real" rules and other parts as not—is entirely doable as a DM's house rule, but as it requires a personal interpretation it has no foundation in the rules as written beyond the permission they give to the DM to create house rules.

Addressing the objections

One common motivation for assuming that there must be a distinction between "ignorable fluff" and the "real rules" is familiarity with game designs that deliberately create such a distinction. That is an idea that isn't part of most editions of D&D, including what we've seen of 5e's core. Such a separation is a prominent feature of 4e, and that might lead one to believe that it naturally exists in all D&Ds or even all RPGs, but separation of game text into "fluff" and "crunch" isn't the default in RPG design, and is particular to the RPGs that feature it.

It's plain that no such distinction exists overtly in 5e spell descriptions: they have no separate "flavour text" or any other distinguishable separation between required and optional parts that can be pointed to and agreed upon, without making an arbitrary decision. All of the descriptions are in terms of what happens, freely mixing mechanical and the fictional effects with no demarcation to say that this is a rule but that can be disregarded. Expecting such a separation, taking it as a given, will motivate one to look for one, but expecting something to be true doesn't make it so.

It has been suggested that the first sentence is the fluff and the rest of the spell crunch. This argument could be discarded swiftly by pointing out that there is nothing in 5e that ever suggests this, and it's invalid to try to interpret 5e based on the conventions and structures of some other game; but this dismissal has more support than that. Looking at three spells chosen randomly, it becomes evident that this proposed division doesn't exist: astral projection has rules for targets and duration in its first sentence; resistance specifies a hard condition for its target ("willing") similarly; ice storm's first sentence is the only place its area of effect is given. Indeed, the first sentence of burning hands is the only place where its area of effect is described as a two-dimensional cone rather than a three-dimensional one, a small but substantial rule that could mean the difference between life and death for friend or foe alike. This proposed line between the first sentence and the rest of the spell description as being the fluff/crunch divide has no merits to raise it above any other arbitrary dividing line, and actually has severe drawbacks for being able to use many spells.

An argument could be marshalled that D&D's recent editions establishes a weight of historical precedent for a fluff/crunch divide that 5e is natural heir to. But if that was a reasonable analysis of 5e's text, it would be present unambiguously in the text. That it is difficult to read such a division into the text despite that prominent heritage is a very strong argument that it doesn't exist in 5e. Further, there is actually a much longer history of the indivisible fusion of fiction and mechanics in D&D. This is the heritage that the designers of 5e have been explicit about drawing from in its design, which makes the argument that a division doesn't exist stronger by establishing the likelihood that it's a deliberate design choice. It's hardly something they could have intended to include, but forgot.

Again, all this can be overridden by house rulings of course, but such a separation is not in the rules or even implied, and in many places strongly contraindicated. We may see such guidance in the DMG as an option, but from a structural analysis of the rules, it is not the base state of affairs—the rules resist attempts to locate a dividing line, as questions like this attest.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Does this imply that creatures or PCs without thumbs cannot cast this spell? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 14:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Personally, as a DM, I absolutely do not require the hand gesture -- you can use one hand instead of two to direct your cone of flame, or shoot it out of the end of your staff, or decide that your version is some Breath of Fire business. But I'm big on letting the players have their fun over enforcing specific rules, especially for something as description-flexible as a spell. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 17:39

Each D&D 5e spell has a stat block.

1st-level evocation

Casting Time: 1 action

Range: Self (15-foot cone)

Components: V, S

Duration: Instantaneous

This is the first resource to consult in determining the requirement and limitations of the spell. The description explains further specifics.

Page 4 of the Basic D&D 5e states states that Specific beats general. In the description of Burning Hands we have.

As you hold your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread, a thin sheet of flames shoots forth from your outstretched fingertips

Seem like a straight forward rule right? Except that there is no reference to any other type of mechanic. The remaining parts of the description clearly give specifics for general concepts like area of effect, required saves, and damage.

For example the next spell on page 85 is chain lightning.

You create a bolt of lightning that arcs toward a target of your choice that you can see within range.

What it means that it arcs? Does the fact it is lightning causes other factors to come into play like a premature grounding of the arc?

Both are oriented to being flavor rather than specific rules. Which means they are open to interpretation as to their precise effects.

For example I own a staff that I used for medieval reenactment. With two minute practice I found that I can hold the staff with my finger outstretched and thumbs touching by squeezing the staff with the bottom of thumb against the side of my hand. I had my son tug on it and whack at it. Definitely not as good as gripping it but it didn't just fly out of my hand at the slightest blow either.

Now some would consider this unrealistic and say no you can't be wielding anything. Some would go OK I buy that it fine.

This why this rule is of importance on page 3 of the Basic player's guide

Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign and its setting, even if the setting is a published world.

Because there is no defined terms in

As you hold your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread, a thin sheet of flames shoots forth from your outstretched fingertips

You are going to have to define the specifics by your authority as the Dungeon Master of the Campaign.

The answer to your question. This means what YOU as the Dungeon Master thinks it means.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Flavor" isn't a thing on 5e. Everything as written is a rule. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 13:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TSar - Page 5, The rules don't account for every possible situations that might arise during a typical D&D session. If are going with the idea that every bit of text is a rule then there nothing to prohibit holding another object if it is the right shape. \$\endgroup\$
    – RS Conley
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 2:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ And there isn't. D&D 5e is different from 4e in the sense that there isn't a difference between flavor and written rules. While on 4e you could argue that something was just for color, 5e cries back to Old School D&D where the DM had a lot more power of decision over the game. By the rules of 5e, you wouldn't be able to cast Burning Hands if you lost a thumb. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 9:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Then write your own answer citing the parts of D&D 5e that supports your assertion. In my own rely I used the example of chain lightning and the fact is mentions that it arcs as an example of flavor text. Also note that the authores are not going into the details about what is the somatic component of each any every spell. In addition when a mechanic invokes a specific exception to a general rule is spelled clearly and doesn't leave you guessing the way burning hands. In my opinion it was flavor text not specific mechanics. But it is within your authority to rule otherwise per the 5e rules. \$\endgroup\$
    – RS Conley
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 14:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I need not to - we already covered this! \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 14:34

This spell is just super awkwardly worded

No matter how you interpret the spell, you're going to run into problems.

If it's flavor text, there's nothing that sets it apart as such. And in other spells (Call Lightning, for example) the "flavor text" and what is clearly rules text intertwine within the same sentence.

On the other hand, if it's not flavor text, it's worded as part of the spell's effect, rather than a requirement. We have examples of requirements elsewhere, and they're pretty explicit: "The spell fails if..." in Call Lightning, for example.

Or in Speak with Dead: "The corpse must have a mouth, and can't be undead."

So, you can cast Burning Hands with just one hand free. One free hand satisfies the Somatic component, and there isn't a restriction in the spell text.

And that's a problem, because the effects of a spell happen, even if physics suggests otherwise.

So, when a one-handed man casts this spell, a few things happen:

  • A conical sheet of fire springs into existence.

  • His thumbs touch.

  • His fingers are spread.

What does that look like? Does a spectral limb materialize? Does their severed hand fly back to them from the grave? Do they just hold their stump in roughly the right location?

You really have a few options here, and barring a developer stating which was intended or an "official" ruling from organized play, one's as good as another. This is a case where unclear writing moves things into the DM's court.

  1. It's clearly a requirement of casting the spell

    ...Don't read too much into how it's worded.

  2. It's clearly flavor text

    ...Those don't read like the rules, therefore they aren't.

  3. It's clearly rules text, but with a lot of wacky edge cases

    ...Like having one hand bound, or not having a hand, or not having catalytic agents to create a fire (maybe not that last one).

  4. The spell fails when it attempts to do the impossible

    ...If any part of the spell's effect fails, the entire spell fails.

  5. The spell does what it can, and the rest doesn't happen

    ...You don't touch your fingers, because you can't. But you still get fire because you can(?).

Occam's Razor

Occam's Razor was brought up in the comments, and this is indeed the tool you need to apply to this situation. The problem is that there are several "simplest" solutions to this situation.

For the sake of avoiding humorous situations, let's consider a situation likely to occur in an actual game: A humanoid caster wielding a one-handed sword in his hand.

Outcome: The caster cannot cast the spell.
Because: The caster is unable to touch both thumbs together and spread his fingers.
Assumption: If part of a spell fails, the entire spell fails.

Outcome: The caster touches two thumbs together and spreads fingers, around the grip of his sword.
Because: It is physically possible for the caster to hold a weapon while making the prescribed gesture.
Assumption: The spell is completed in the most plausible way that agrees with the rules.

Outcome: The caster holds out one hand with fingers spread, while holding his sword in the other. Flames shoot from the outstretched hand.
Because: The caster performs as much of the spell as possible.
Assumption: Spells complete to the greatest extent possible.

This gives us three assumptions, all unsupported by the rules. Which is the greater assumption?

  • If part of a spell fails, the entire spell fails.

  • The spell is completed in the most plausible way that agrees with the rules.

  • Spells complete to the greatest extent possible.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Beware of importing a particular mechanical concept of "effect" as an interlocking procedural part of a spell: 5e spells don't have that kind of "effect" game object or the procedural methods that it comes with, nor the overall interlocking design it needs. The body of the spell, its description, is just the overall description of the spell. It's not an effect that happens in some kind of tight procedural execution stack, it's just a human-readable description of what it does. There are no rules, procedures, or guidelines in the Spellcasting section that prescribe such a procedure/execution. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 22:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @sevensideddie I'm having difficulty parsing what you're saying here. The rules say that spreading your fingers, touching your thumbs, etc. are part of the effects of the spell. No distinction is made between that and the fiery bits, either in the rules or the spell. \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 22:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's why I say beware of importing a concept that is more specific than the one 5e is actually using. 5e isn't an effects-based game like 4e. The description is just that: a description of how the spell works. The whole principle of "natural language" means that you can't read hand-necromancy effects or the ability to burst manacles made from unobtainium into burning hands. A more natural reading is that if the effect is impossible to take effect, it doesn't take effect, just like when you try to target someone who isn't willing with a spell that requires it. Occam's Razor and all that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 23:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I've added a couple branches for that. The problem here is that there's no authority on what happens when part of a spell is impossible. Does the spell do as much as it can? Or fail entirely? Setting aside the issue that creating freaking fire from nothing is as impossible as a one-handed man touching his thumbs together. \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 23:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm The issue is that the thing in the description isn't worded as a requirement (which we have several examples of), it's worded as a thing that happens. But I certainly agree that if the DM feels it's a requirement they should be up front about it! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 13:01

Normally, one would be required to have their thumbs touching to cast this spell. The artwork even provides a nice illustration of it. Burning hands has a very precise Somatic gesture, and it should be followed.

However, there are ways to get around this requirement.

  • War Caster. By being a warcaster you can use your weapon as a focus for both the martieral and somatic components of the spell.
  • A wand or other scroll. Generally when using an item which casts a spell, you no longer need the material components or somatic gestures to complete the spell.
  • Any other means you have to remove the somatic gestures requirement when casting the spell. (Such as Subtle Spell metamagic from the Sorcerer)

Notice how the rules state that Somatic gestures require at least one hand hand in general. To me, the extra words "at least", tell me that it's not a blanket rule that only one hand is ever required, else there would be no reason for those extra words.

The rule currently reads:

If a spell require a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.

The rules could have more easily written:

If a spell require a somatic component, the caster must have free use of one hand to perform these gestures.

The words "at least" don't add anything except to make you aware of exceptions. As in, "The caster must have free use of at least one hand, but perhaps she'll need free use of two hands. Another way to say that you only ever need one free hand would be to say that you need "at most one free hand".

This is a specific rule that for burning hands you require two. You don't need special rules for two handed spell casting, because these things are already covered by the rules of what can be done with your free hand.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm reading the somatic section and it says "the caster must have free use of at least one hand." That's a, "don't dual wield or sword and board" not "some spells may require two hands" \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 11:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @waxeagle I read it as "some spells may require two hands," but in the form of a statement like "this spell requires two free hands to use," rather than flavor text. \$\endgroup\$
    – Travis
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 18:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ The other way to look at it is, they want to stop rules-lawyers saying "You can't cast spells, you have two free hands not one!" :P \$\endgroup\$
    – Adeptus
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 1:10

Fanning the hands is an effect of Burning Hands

This is not a question if the first sentence of a spell is flavor text or not. SSD's answer provides an in-depth, convincing argument that it can not be flavor text. The problem is what to do if you accept that it is not flavor text.

The rules for Casting a Spell (p. 202 PHB) say:

Each spell description in chapter 11 begins with a block of information, including the spell’s name, level, school of magic, casting time, range, components, and duration. The rest of a spell entry describes the spell’s effect. [Emphasis added]

So, according to the rules the body of text in a spell description is not just the overall description of the entire spell, it is the effect of the spell, once successfully cast. There is a clear separation between other parameters like range, casting time, duration on the one hand, and effect on the other hand.

Spells like burning hands that describes how you fan your hands touching to shoot out flames, or message that describes how you point at a creature to send a message to it, seem to describe the casting, not just the effect of the spell. But technically, these gestures are not part of the somatic component of casting the spell. The component are listed in the components line of the spell. That would be the right place to include specific somatic movements. Other than for material components, which provide details (in parentheses) for the specifics required, there are no examples for this kind of details for Somatic Components. The only rules we get for Somatic Components are (p. 203, PHB):

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.

As per the rules, as long as you have one hand free to perform gestures, you can cast the spell.

As discussed by AceCalhoon, the core rules do not specifiy in any detail what happens if only part of a spell's effect fails or is not possible. Does the spell magically make the impossible happen? Does that part of the spell (touching thumbs) fail, but the rest works? Does the whole spell fail?

While the core rules do not provide much guidance on this, Xanathar's Guide to Everything provides an optional rule for resolving invalid spell targets. It states (p. 85-86):

If you cast a spell on someone or something that can’t be affected by the spell, nothing happens to that target, but if you used a spell slot to cast the spell, the slot is still expended. [emphasis added]

Burning Hands has a range of Self (15-foot cone). What counts as a target for a spell is not sharply defined, but with self as range, and with their hands being part of the effect of the spell, it seems reasonable to consider the caster a target. If you use the optional rule, when a target is illegal nothing happens to that target: if the caster has only one hand, the effect of fanning the hands fails for them; if they have two hands but one hand is occupied, the spell would make them fan the hands, possibly dropping their staff in the process (as some other answers discuss, it might be possible to fan your hands and still hold on to the staff in doing so).

If the effect on other targets, caused by spewing forth a fan of fire and needing to save for fire damage, would still happen is not clear to me as the fan is said to spew forth from the outstretched fingertips; if there are no fingertips to spew forth from, that effect may not happen either.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If the caster has more than two hands, does the spell cause all of the thumbs to touch and all of the fingers to spread? \$\endgroup\$
    – Sam Azon
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 13:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SamAzon I guess so. Probalbly really getting into DM ruling territory there, that seems like it is not one of the cases the authors thought about when they wrote the spell... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 14:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin Now I wonder what happens if the caster "owns" a farm hand and a ranch hand. Would the spell cause the caster to hold those people and cause all their thumbs to meet? \$\endgroup\$
    – Sam Azon
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 14:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SamAzon Or Witchlight Hands, for that matter... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 18:31

It's flavor text. Were it not, there would need to be a rule for "two-handed spells", and such an idea simply doesn't exist.

I suspect the DMG will include explicit rules allowing for minor spell variation, incluidng the ability to substitute somatic or material components.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you explain further why would there need to be such a general rule? This sounds plausible (or else I wouldn't have asked the question!), but I'm looking for justification. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 19:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hmm... a general rule per se probably isnt necessary, but a specific statement of "you cannot cast this spell without two free hands" would be. And it would have been clumsy not to mention the possibility of such in the general magic chapter. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bleep
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 19:13

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