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Some D&D Mistakes by the Sages (and how to fix them)

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D&D 5e is an amazing game, and I sincerely love it and everything that its designers have done. (I've been following Mearls avidly since his days writing the Iron Heroes system, which got me into homebrew.) With anything so complex, tho, there will occasionally be mistakes in printed books. I can forgive this; I've sent plenty of emails that I proofread, only to immediately see an error I missed once it's too late.

But after printing, people often ask Mearls and Crawford (the Sages) about those ambiguities and mistakes, and they rule on them. Mostly these are quite good! But every once in a while they make what I feel is a big mistake, often by sticking with a textual literalism that results in something being overcomplicated for no good reason. Here's a few of those I've found, along with my preferred solutions:

Casting Spells with both Normal and Bonus Actions

In the core rules, there's a paragraph stating:

A spell cast with a bonus action is especially swift. You must use a bonus action on your turn to cast the spell, provided that you haven’t already taken a bonus action this turn. You can’t cast another spell during the same turn, except for a cantrip with a casting time of 1 action.

That is to say, if you cast a level 1-9 spell with your normal action, you can't cast one with your bonus action, and vice versa; you can cast a cantrip with the other action (or with both).

This is reasonably straightforward, and has some good justifications which I'll get into in a bit. But it gets complicated and bad when you mix in things that give the player an additional action, like the Fighter's Action Surge. What sorts of spells, precisely, can you cast with two normal actions and one bonus action?

Per the Sage Advice compendium, the answer is... it's complicated:

If you cast a spell, such as healing word, with a bonus action, you can cast another spell with your action, but that other spell must be a cantrip. Keep in mind that this particular limit is specific to spells that use a bonus action. For instance, if you cast a second spell using Action Surge, you aren’t limited to casting a cantrip with it.

This means you can use your normal action to cast a Fireball, and then Action Surge and cast another Fireball. But if you use a metamagic point to cast a Quickened Fireball with your bonus action, you cannot cast a normal Fireball, with either your normal action or the extra one from Action Surge.

(This even applies to spells cast as reactions between your turns - you can cast Counterspell or Hellish Rebuke as a reaction if you did the "fireball, action surge, fireball" thing, but if you cast a single quickened fireball and nothing else, you can't!?!)

This is obviously nonsensical! It means that taking more time to cast a spell gives you more time to cast an additional spell; that slowing down is sometimes the better answer. That's ridiculous, and means you have to metagame your actions sometimes to get a decent result. Further, this is just confusing; it doesn't correspond with our intuition for why this rule exists, so we'll either get it wrong in play or have to pay special attention to remember to apply it.

So let's look at the justification for the original rule, which is well-intentioned. There are two basic reasons for it:

  1. This heads off any unintentional combos that would be allowed by casting two spells in one turn, particularly as expansions add more spells and more combo potential. Cantrips aren't problematic to double up on; they're really simple and most of them closely resemble each other (just simple damage).
  2. More importantly, this is an anti-nova measure - it prevents players from burning thru more than one spell slot per turn, keeping their damage output more consistent with other players and slowing down the rate that they run out of steam. This was a major problem with casters in 3e, and the 5e devs addressed the issue with many complementary approaches such as this.

Maintaining these intents while removing the ambiguity, and keeping the rule as a whole as simple as possible, is really easy:

A character can only cast one non-cantrip spell during their turn, no matter what actions they have available to them. They can combine that spell with any number of cantrips that they have the actions for. This does not restrict spells cast not during your turn, such as a Hellish Rebuke cast as a reaction.

Boom, done. This is even a simpler way to state just the original rule, making it clearer that there aren't any ordering restrictions, and implying the intent behind the rule.

(Possible complication: this shuts down the possibility of a special ability that explicitly allows casting two spells in one turn. Such abilities, if they exist, can call themselves out as a special exception; or the rule can explicitly say "unless otherwise specified".)

This does shut down the "fireball, action surge, fireball" turn that was previously allowed by the rules/sage. If that is desired, then there's a somewhat more complex way of phrasing things that still allows it:

Within a single turn, a character can cast a non-cantrip spell with their normal action, or cast a non-cantrip spell with their bonus action, but not both. If they obtain additional actions by any means, such as the Fighter's Action Surge, there are no restrictions on using that action for casting.

This allows ", fireball, action surge, fireball" and "quickened fireball, , action surge, fireball", which matches player's intentions better than the current rules/sage interpretation.

Spell Components and Hands and Such

Spells can require Verbal (speaking magic words), Somatic (wiggling your hands), and/or Material (using a magic wand) components. Per Sage advice, a single free hand can handle both Somatic and Material components for a given spell (in other words, you can wiggle your wand around to satisfy both). This is fine so far.

Complications come with divine casters, which get to use a holy symbol for the Material component. This just has to be "presented" in some way - it can be on a necklace, or painted onto your shield, etc. Per explicit Sage Advice, this means that a Paladin or Cleric can hold a weapon in one hand, a shield with a holy symbol painted on it in the other, and still cast a spell with both Material and Somatic components.

The trouble is, this isn't possible for any other type of Material component! You can't combine a wand, instrument, etc with a functional shield or weapon, at least not in general. This gives divine casters an advantage over other casters, for no particular reason.

(Further, this "you can do somatic components with a shield in hand" is explicitly one of the benefits of the War Caster feat, which states "You can perform the somatic components of spells even when you have weapons or a shield in one or both hands.". So this gives divine casters a piece of a feat, that other casters don't get. Confusing!)

I think the correct way to solve this is to make the actual rules-significance of components slightly more abstract, something like:

When a spell has a Material component, it means you require a magical object on your person to act as a "focus" when casting the spell. This "focus" must be visibly presented when casting, tho it does not necessarily have to be held in a hand, and it is obvious to anyone watching you that you are casting a spell of some kind using that particular object.You are not required to hold the focus in a hand.

When a spell has a Somatic component, it means that casting the spell requires certain magical gestures. You can only perform these gestures when not restrained, and it is obvious to anyone watching you that you are casting a spell of some kind.

When a spell has a Verbal component, it means that casting the spell requires uttering certain magical incantations. You can only make these utterances when you not silenced or otherwise prevented from speaking, the incantations must be spoken at a normal speaking level, and it is obvious to anyone capable of hearing you that you are casting a spell of some kind.

This normalizes all of the component rules across casting classes, and makes it clearer what each one means, and when you might not be able to cast a particular spell due to inability to provide the components. For example, it's clear that you can prevent a caster from using Somatic spells by tying them up.

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