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Monday, January 26, 2015

Imagining Magic: Gestures

Can a Magic-User cast a spell while holding a torch?

This question popped up in a debate on a forum. The implicit question is: Does spell casting require what AD&D refers to as "somatic components", and if so, how much? AD&D has an answer, or at least a partial one. OD&D doesn't, because that's left up to the GM or group, as are all the derivative questions.

If a spell caster can't hold a torch, but must have both hands free for magical gesticulations, does that imply that spell casters can be prevented from casting spells by chopping off a hand?

If a spell caster only needs one free hand, do cautious villains and/or barons need to chop off both hands to prevent magical reprisals?

Does losing a hand through accident make a PC spell caster useless?

If spell casters don't need their hands free at all, but do it entirely with magical words, why can't they carry shields or use swords?

These questions have no right answer, but must be answered at some point. Players are going to alter the way they play based on how they think magic works. GMs are going to change the way they build the world based on how magic is supposed to work.

My own answer is that the the words and gestures are mnemonic triggers for a prepared spell. They aren't actually part of the spell itself, but part of a memory system the spell caster has developed and practiced. Cutting off a hand disrupts the ability to cast currently prepared spells, and for a time also prevents preparing any new spells, but the caster can come up with a new set of mnemonic triggers tailored for any new body configurations, using the spell research rules.


  1. Dweomers are a kind of vorpal- creatures of energy, largely unknown in this realm. For reasons unknown to us, they can be coaxed to live in a wizard's neural pathways, as a worm shall dwell within an apple, for a time. The words spoken are the particular vorpal's True Name, and the gestures made are ones to which this Dweomer is sympathetic. The release of the vorpal back to its own realm causes the "spell" effect to happen.

    Therefore, each wizard's spells are unique to him and his particular dweomers. Making broad rules about how a particular wizard shall call upon and then release his dweomers is difficult at best.

    For gamist reasons, the wizard must speak loudly and clearly and have one hand free with which to gesture. However, using Mage Hand (a Dweomer of the class Cantrip by taxonomy, which every wizard knows by heart) could stand in for the manual gesturing in a pinch.

    1. If every wizard knows Mage Hand and it allows bypassing the gesture part, why use gestures? I suppose it depends on your cantrip system. Can they cast can trips at will, or do they take up slots? Do they require cantrip books? How long does it take to memorize a cantrip?

  2. "Can a Magic-User cast a spell while holding a torch?"

    Classically? Usually, as the somatic component is defined. (Similarly, one can hold a torch and activate a wand.)

    I disagree with Mr. Anderson's conclusion that a Mage Hand could perform the gesturing: it takes concentration on the Mage Hand to maintain it, it's not how you learned the gestures for the spell, etc. I suppose if one is a Natural Sorceror (as opposed to a Researching Mage), that could work if Mage Hand is a fundamental part of the character concept.

    Your reasoning regarding an amputee having to relearn the spell is sound.

    My table? I insist on V,S,M, and you need both hands free. Have your hireling or fellow party members hold the torch while you cast.