Content of the article: "Somatic Components, Sleight of Hand, and DM Fiat"
TLDR: While the ease of concealing somatic components is ultimately a matter of DM adjudication, the rules as written clearly indicate that it can be done as a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check.
The popular wisdom on r/dndnext is that verbal and somatic components are far too obvious to ever disguise. People hold that using skills to do so is at best a house rule, and at worst a serious infringement on the Sorcerer's niche.
This perspective is not only wrong in the specifics of the rules around sleight of hand and somatic components, it is representative of a fundamental misunderstanding in how the rules work. And that misunderstanding is apparently how I justified writing a 1000-word essay on a trivial rules interpretation.
RAW and Fiat
All skills in 5E require adjudication by the DM. The skills also have rules regarding how they can be used. These are not mutually exclusive. If the rules say that the DM has to make a decision, then RAW is that the DM has to make that decision.
For example, the rules give specific numbers for many feet you can jump by default. The rules also state that you can make a Strength (Athletics) check to "jump an unusually long distance."
It is left to the DM to decide what the DCs are, and how many extra feet of distance you can get. If the DM did not allow you to make such a check, it would be a house rule banning certain skill uses. "It's a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check to jump an additional 5 feet, and a DC 20 check for an additional 10 feet" is within the scope of RAW. The rules don't have exact numbers, but they say the skill can be used in that way and that the DM decides how difficult that is.
So when we say, "the rules say that you can do X" we don't necessarily mean, "there are rules for how to do X."
Can You Hide Somatic Components?
Here's the rules entry for somatic components:
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.
This is all the rules have to say on the subject. There's nothing that describes them as obvious, clearly magical, or impossible to conceal.
For the sake of argument, let's even assume that somatic components have to include both forceful and intricate gestures, and that observers will recognize them without the need for an Arcana check.
A wizard wants to Catapult a bottle at the bartender without being noticed. She steps into an alcove where no one can see her, targets a bottle at an empty table, and launches it in the direction she last saw the bartender.
In this example, the wizard can unambiguously conceal the spellcasting. Catapult only has an S component and no one could see her gestures. She may have to make a Stealth or Deception check after the fact to avoid suspicion, but if the bartender had Counterspell he couldn't have used it.
We have the same situation where the Wizard wants to Catapult a bottle at the bartender, but this time there's no alcove to hide in. They lean partway down (perhaps pretending to drop a fork) and perform the gestures with the hand under the table.
We know that gestures can be performed one-handed, and since they can be done while grappled or restrained they don't require much freedom of movement. Given that, it seems likely that they could be done completely beneath the table (or "behind half cover" if you want to use formal language).
The DM will have to adjudicate the situation since there aren't any specific rules governing it, but it's pretty clearly something that could be attempted based on the rules for somatic components.
With Sleight of Hand?
Our persistent Wizard still wants to Catapult a bottle, but this time there's not even a table to hide her gestures. She'll have to rely on blending into the crowd, waiting for the right moment, and misdirecting attention.
From the previous two examples, we know that it is theoretically possible to hide somatic components. But should Sleight of Hand allow you to do so without the benefit of cover?
Returning again to the rules, here is what it says regarding sleight of hand:
Whenever you attempt an act of legerdemain or manual trickery, such as planting something on someone else or concealing an object on your person, make a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check.
Note that the middle two uses are just example cases – the operative definition is "an act of legerdemain or manual trickery." Trying to hide the gestures you're making with one hand is pretty clearly "manual trickery," but for the sake of completeness let's look up what that ten-dollar word legerdemain. A quick google gave me the top result as, " skillful use of one's hands when performing conjuring tricks "
Sleight of Hand is specifically the skill of using subtlety, timing, and misdirection to keep people from noticing what you're doing with your hands. If you can use it to remove someone's belt without their noticing, you can certainly use it to perform one-actions worth of intricate and forceful gestures while their back is turned or their attention is elsewhere.
5E says that legerdemain and manual trickery are resolved with a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check. To argue that this couldn't be used to hide somatic components, you would have to establish that doing so is neither manual trickery nor legerdemain.
Alright, we've established that the rules support hiding somatic components. But is this something DMs should actually allow? Is it it stripping the ever-outshined sorcerer of one of their few distinct advantages?
I understand that people are frustrated by the sorcerer's power level, but limiting skill use isn't the way to solve it. We're not going to fix the ranger by saying other classes can't use Survival to forage for food.
Subtle Spell has a ton of important advantages over Sleight of Hand. If you're in the sort of campaign where hiding components with Sleight of Hand is good, Subtle Spell is going to be amazing:
- Guaranteed Success: This is the most obvious advantage – you don't need to make a roll. If you're trying to cast Suggestion on the king, the stakes for getting caught are very, very high.
- Look No Hands: Sleight of Hand disguises somatic components, but it doesn't remove them. It won't let you cast a spell when your hands are full, or bound in manacles as you're dragged away from the throne room.
- Any Scenario: Sleight of Hand may work in a crowded tavern with lots of distractions, but it's' going to be pretty hard if you're in a quiet court room with all eyes on you.
- Counterspell: This is really just a subset of the above, but it matters a lot when you attempt to teleport out of the hangman's noose under the watchful eye of the court wizard.
Get in the Comments
I know a lot of people have strong feelings about this, but I’d be really curious to hear specific arguments rather than just knee-jerk reactions. Are you on board with the first two examples but think the third is impossible? Agree with my reading of the rules but think it’s bad for gameplay/balance? Fundamentally object to my philosophy on what rules even are?
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- Ideas for what Somatic Components look like during spellcasting: How To Give Spellcasting as Much Flavour as Martial Combat
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