5th Edition Spells – Burning Hands

Burning Hands

Sorcerer, Wizard - 1 Level Spell

School: Evocation
Casting Time: 1 Action
Range: 15 ft
Components: Verbal and Somatic
Duration: Instantaneous
Attack/Save: DEX
Reference: PH 216

As you hold your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread, a thin sheet of flames shoots forth from your outstretched fingertips. Each creature in a 15-foot cone must make a Dexterity saving throw. A creature takes 3d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

The fire ignites any flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the damage increases by 1d6 for each slot level above 1st.

My Comments: This is another classic D&D spell, and a simple one at that.

And yet, somehow I never noticed before how problematically it’s worded. First, it’s a cone, and a type of area of effect described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide this way: “A cone extends in a direction you choose from its point of origin. A cone’s width at a given point along its length is equal to that point’s distance from the point of origin. A cone’s area of effect specifies its maximum length.”

Interestingly, the description of Burning Hands refers to the shape as “a thin sheet of flames”, which would normally be called a fan. Of course, there are only 4 area of effect shapes, and fan isn’t one of them, so cone it is. To me, a cone would be shaped like an ice cream cone, or a traffic cone. It might seem like pedantic semantics, but I’m sure it would come up in a game somehow.

Dwarf Mage Casting Burning Hands

Artist attribution not found.

Further, it specifically describes holding your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread. We all know that specific trumps general rules, and this spell seems to specifically indicate that at least two hands are needed. Or, at least two thumbs.

I’m suddenly imagining a wizard who lost a hand in a battle keeping the severed thumb so that they can cast this spell…

So, can you cast it with one hand? I’ve seen and heard from a lot of people that say yes because flavor text aren’t rules. I disagree and would submit that the text in this case isn’t flavor, it’s description of how the spell works, as in, what you have to do to make the spell work.

However, exceptions could easily be made for one-handed wizards or situations where the player was being particularly clever, i.e., Rule of Cool applies.

A couple of notes, mostly about the shape:

  • A cone’s point of origin is not included in the cube’s area of effect, unless you decide otherwise. You are generally safe from burning your own robes when casting this spell.
  • A cone is as wide as the distance from the point of origin, so if your spell only makes it 5 feet for some reason, then the effect is also only 5 feet wide.
  • This is fire. Don’t use it in a fireworks factory. People often gloss over damage types and forget that flames catch things on fire.

What do you think?

Can you cast it with one hand?

Are there ways to exploit the shape being a fan instead of a real cone?

Let me know!


[pssst… want to draw a card from The Deck of Many Things?]

[Pssst#2… did you see the Wacky Dungeon game in the footer?]

Dave Goff

Writing and creating in my spare time to avoid going crazy in this mad, mad, world. Check out some of my materials on DMsGuild and let me know what you think! subscribe to keep up with new posts and leave comments to keep the conversation going.

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