The Rules of Spellcasting

Sage Advice

By Jeremy Crawford, Game Design Architect – D&D TRPG Studio

March 23rd, 2015

The worlds of Dungeons & Dragons are filled with magic, and many characters and monsters wield that magic in the form of spells. This month’s installment of Sage Advice focuses on rules that govern the casting of those spells.

The following questions deal with rules from the Player’s Handbook, especially in chapters 9 and 10. You might want to have the book handy as you read!

Can a spell with an attack roll be used as the attack in the Attack action or as part of the Extra Attack feature?

The short answer is no.

As explained in the Player’s Handbook, you can take one action on your turn in combat, in addition to moving. You choose your action from the options available to everyone—options such as Attack, Cast a Spell, and Dash—or you choose from among the special actions you’ve gained from a class, a feat, or another source.

If you want to cast a spell on your turn, you take the Cast a Spell action. Doing so means you’re not taking the Attack action or any other action. It is true that a number of spells, such as fire bolt and ray of frost, involve making an attack, but you can’t make such an attack without first casting the spell that delivers it. In other words, just because something involves an attack doesn’t mean the Attack action is being used.

By extension, the Extra Attack feature (given by several classes, including the fighter and paladin) doesn’t let you cast extra attack spells. That feature specifically relies on the Attack action, not the Cast a Spell action or any other action.

In summary, to make a spell attack, you have to first cast a spell or use a feature that creates the spell’s effect. A game feature, such as Extra Attack, that lets you make an attack doesn't let you cast a spell unless it says it does.

Can you use a melee spell attack to make an opportunity attack?

You can’t if the spell attack is created by casting a spell. When a creature triggers an opportunity attack from you, you can use your reaction to make a melee attack against it. The opportunity attack doesn’t suddenly give you the ability to cast a spell, such as shocking grasp.

Each spell has a casting time. A game feature, such as an opportunity attack, doesn’t let you bypass that casting time, unless the feature says otherwise. The War Caster feat is an example of a feature that does let you bypass a 1-action casting time to cast a spell in place of an opportunity attack.

A few monsters can make opportunity attacks with melee spell attacks. Here’s how: certain monsters—including the banshee, lich, and specter—have a melee spell attack that isn’t delivered by a spell. For example, the banshee’s Corrupting Touch action is a melee spell attack but no spell is cast to make it. The banshee can, therefore, make opportunity attacks with Corrupting Touch.

What level is a spell if you cast it without a spell slot?

Such a spell is cast at its lowest possible level, which is the level that appears near the top of its description. Unless you have a special ability that says otherwise, the only way to increase the level of a spell is to expend a higher-level spell slot when you cast it.

Here are some examples:

  • The warlock’s Chains of Carceri feature lets a warlock cast hold monster without a spell slot. That casting of hold monster is, therefore, 5th level, which is the lowest possible level for that spell.
  • The warlock’s Thief of Five Fates feature lets a warlock cast bane with a spell slot, which means the spell is 1st level or higher, depending on the slot that the warlock expends to cast it.
  • The monk’s Disciple of the Elements feature lets the monk spend ki points, rather than a spell slot, to increase the level of a spell.

This rule is true for player characters and monsters alike, which is why the innate spellcasters in the Monster Manual must cast an innate spell at its lowest possible level.

Does a spell consume its material components?

A spell doesn’t consume its material components unless its description says it does. For example, the pearl required by the identify spell isn’t consumed, whereas the diamond required by raise dead is used up when you cast the spell.

If a spell's material components are consumed, can a spellcasting focus still be used in place of the consumed component?

Nope. A spellcasting focus can be used in place of a material component only if that component has no cost noted in the spell’s description and if that component isn’t consumed.

What’s the amount of interaction needed to use a spellcasting focus? Does it have to be included in the somatic component?

If a spell has a material component, you need to handle that component when you cast the spell (see page 203 in the Player’s Handbook). The same rule applies if you’re using a spellcasting focus as the material component.

If a spell has a somatic component, you can use the hand that performs the somatic component to also handle the material component. For example, a wizard who uses an orb as a spellcasting focus could hold a quarterstaff in one hand and the orb in the other, and he could cast lightning bolt by using the orb as the spell’s material component and the orb hand to perform the spell’s somatic component.

Another example: a cleric’s holy symbol is emblazoned on her shield. She likes to wade into melee combat with a mace in one hand and a shield in the other. She uses the holy symbol as her spellcasting focus, so she needs to have the shield in hand when she casts a cleric spell that has a material component. If the spell, such as aid, also has a somatic component, she can perform that component with the shield hand and keep holding the mace in the other.

If the same cleric casts cure wounds, she needs to put the mace or the shield away, because that spell doesn’t have a material component but does have a somatic component. She’s going to need a free hand to make the spell’s gestures. If she had the War Caster feat, she could ignore this restriction.

If you’re concentrating on a spell, do you need to maintain line of sight with the spell’s target?

You don’t need to be within line of sight or within range to maintain concentration on a spell, unless a spell’s description or other game feature says otherwise.

Can a spellcaster dismiss a spell after casting it?

You can’t normally dismiss a spell that you cast unless (a) its description says you can or (b) it requires concentration and you decide to end your concentration on it. Otherwise, a spell’s magic is unleashed on the environment, and if you want to end it, you need to cast dispel magic on it.

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