I’ve neglected or outright forgotten about cover in D&D multiple times. It’s one thing to shoot over broken walls, but what happens when the ranger threads an arrow through two party members to strike the charging orc? And of course there’s the differences between cover and concealment. There’s quite a bit to remember in the heat of battle on both sides of the DM screen! That’s why this week I’m going to *ahem* cover the cover system in D&D.
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What is cover?
Simply put, cover in D&D allows creatures to use hard surfaces to protect themselves from danger. That danger quite often involves arrows, javelins, and even dragon fire. Finding stuff to hide behind can include objects like walls, tree stumps or rocky stalagmites.
In D&D, there are three types of cover as discussed on page 196 of the Player’s Handbook:
Cover granted when an obstacle blocks at least half of a target’s body. Grants a +2 bonus to Armor class (AC) and Dexterity saving throws. This includes obstacles like broken walls or fallen trees.
Cover granted when an obstacle blocks at least three-fourths of a target’s body. It grants a +5 bonus to AC and Dexterity saving throws. Arrow slits count toward this bonus.
Cover granted when line of sight cannot be drawn due to an object completely covering a target. Hiding behind pillars or cave walls is a great way to get this bonus.
Any target utilizing cover gets the aforementioned AC and saving throw boost, which can be a lifesaver for vulnerable characters. The book even provides several examples of what constitutes cover. I must admit I missed one of the examples given for half cover: it can be a creature–either an enemy or a friend. Often during combat our rogue fired crossbow bolts around or even in between her teammates without any penalty. However, I developed a homebrew rule to add some risk to those kinds of ranged attacks based off a similar rule in Through the Breach:
Assign a number to each creature in between an attacker and their target if a natural 1 is rolled during a ranged attack. This includes any targets within 5 feet of the intended mark. Roll a die to determine which creature is struck by the missile instead. That creature then takes damage, reduced by half. This damage does not benefit from the rogue’s sneak attack ability.
It’s basically like getting shot in the butt by accident! This rule doesn’t occur often, but injects a little more uncertainty towards ranged combat. The group paladin got hit once mid-battle, the next time it worked in the party’s favor by striking a kobold next to the original target. It adds some realism as well as laughs into the game.
Designing Encounters with Cover in Mind
As a Dungeon Master planning an encounter, adding cover can act as both a burden and boon to your players and enemies. Cover isn’t a too-major consideration on an open battlefield, but a warehouse filled with crates will add some complexity. By adding cover to an encounter, a normally laughable fight for most parties transforms into a truly dangerous situation:
- A goblin tribe might utilize arrow slits and poisoned arrows.
- Underdark drow warriors might levitate between hanging stalactites for defense.
Alternatively, adding some area-appropriate obstacles for your players can aid in an encounter that would most certainly spell doom. Broken boulders can temporarily resist the flame breath of a dragon or flipping a tavern table on its side might deflect bandit arrows. I find adding environmental trappings resonate with my players, and they tend to remember these fights long after they’re done. Just make sure to highlight any cover on a map (or notate it during “theater of the mind” sessions)– otherwise players may not realize that it is cover.
Unusual Cover Rules
Now that we’ve established the rules of cover, let’s go over the ways we can break the rules! There are multiple methods to either deny an opponent’s cover or grant you and your party bonuses.
Spells, of course!
Many spells in the Player’s Handbook rely on line of sight to take effect but ignore cover when used. Low level spells like Magic Missile is great for nailing that orc you can barely see and still hit with full force. But what about spells that don’t require line of sight? Surprisingly, there are few that don’t require sight without being an “area of effect” spell, such as Fireball or Cloudkill.
Spells to Ignore Cover
Here are a few low-level spells with “creative” methods of getting around targets in cover:
Dissonant Whispers: This 1st level bard spell requires no line of sight since the spell worms its way to the target’s ear. As long as your character knows their enemy is hiding, they can completely cancel any AC bonuses.
Heat Metal: Clever bards and druids can use this 2nd level spell to heat manufactured metal cover used by opponents. While this spell does require line of sight, it denies cover from being used over time.
Moonbeam: This 2nd level spell for druids and paladins causes a beam of moonlight to shine down in a 40-ft cylinder. Any targets caught in the beam must make a Constitution saving throw or suffer damage. Since cover grants a bonus to Dexterity saves, Moonbeam negates that by requiring targets to make a different save.
Spells to Aid with Cover
On the flip side, what about spells that aid with cover for you and your party? There’s obvious spells like Wall of Stone, but let’s explore some of the more interesting ways to protect yourself.
Stone Shape: This 4th level spell for bards, druids, and wizards is a little unique for our purposes. Its normal use is to alter medium-sized or smaller sections of stone into new shapes. With a bit of creative thinking, you could mold the stone to add a canopy to protect against foes at a higher elevation or create a passageway between rooms during a siege.
Wind Wall: A 3rd level spell for clerics, druids, and rangers that can aid with small missile deflection in a pinch. While this spell doesn’t exactly give cover, it can provide temporary shelter from ranged attacks and other gaseous effects.
Catapult: Last up is this 1st level spell for sorcerers and wizards from the Xanathar’s Handbook. The spell flings a 1 to 5 lb object up to 90 feet in a direction you choose. Casting the spell at higher levels increases the weight the spell can move, allowing inventive/ desperate casters to pull cover closer. The mage hand cantrip has similar functionality, though it can only move 30 feet away and lift maximum 10 lbs.
If your game allows feats, there are two exceptionally handy choices for ranged characters and spellcasters alike when dealing with cover: Sharpshooter & Spell sniper.
Spell sniper: This feat requires the ability to cast at least one spell but also allows the wielder to cast spells that ignore half and three-quarters cover. In addition to ignoring cover, this feat also doubles the range of spells that require attack rolls, so you can cast Firebolt a whopping 240 feet away!
Sharpshooter: This feat has three bonuses when unlocked, one of which is the ability to ignore half and three-quarters cover. A worthwhile pick for characters who primarily attack at a distance.
Concealment – The Fog of War
Concealment in D&D is a different beast than cover. While it doesn’t grant an AC or Dex bonus, concealment can aid in preventing other characters from seeing you. A light fog, for example, causes areas to be Lightly obscured, requiring any Wisdom (Perception) checks to roll at disadvantage. Dense fog, darkness, and other sight-blocking effects cause a target to be Heavily obscured, blocking line of sight entirely. Take note that while you may not have line of sight to a target (and as such can’t cast certain spells), any attacks that require rolls are made at disadvantage while the target is heavily obscured. I’m a fan of misty encounters as a tool to increase tension. I can’t express enough that adding environmental effects like these is a surefire way to intensify a session.
I could continue to go on about the different ways to use cover in D&D, but I hope I’ve shed some light on the topic. Next time, when your adventurers stumble across a Druid’s glade, enter a Goliath Longhouse, or find a burning monastery, you’ll have some great ideas on how to incorporate cover so your NPCs won’t stand around in the open, waiting to be attacked.
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