I’ve written before about how I ran my previous long-term campaign that had nine players. However, this current campaign has only five players at its maximum capacity. This coupled with the fact that myself and my players are all much more experienced at playing RPGs has allowed us to add and utilize more of D&D 5e’s mechanics in our sessions. One such mechanic that we’ve used in this campaign were the cover rules.
My excuse for not using them before boiled down to not wanting to keep track of the entire battlefield’s position with relation to cover. Having to remember random bonuses even with things like Roll20’s buffs/debuffs adds a lot of time to the game with that many enemies and players in a single encounter.
Now that we’ve played with the cover rules, I cannot picture us not using them again. It adds another layer of strategy and by extension, creativity to each battle. No two battles are alike when you can make clever use of the terrain to gain an upper-hand in the battle. Plus, the cover rules in 5th edition are actually very easy to remember after you’ve used them a couple of times.
How Cover Works
Cover, as the name implies, is an obstacle that helps the target avoid being hit. When taking coverage you gain a mechanical bonus to both AC and DEX saving throws. The only two things you have to remember about the cover rules is what type of cover the target of an attack has, and if they are able to benefit from it.
There are three types of cover: half cover, three-quarters cover, and total cover. We’ll get into the specifics of each in the next section, but all of you have to remember right now is that each of these grants a different numerical bonus to AC and DEX saving throws. The target of an attack can only benefit from a single type of cover at a time.
The attack upon the target must also originate from a direction where they’d benefit from cover. If you are being attacked while hiding behind an obstacle, the attack has to come from in front of the obstacle. If the attack originates in a direction where you are not covered, you do not get the benefit of the cover you are hiding behind.
All you have to remember is that cover is only applied so long as there is an obstacle between the attack and the intended target.
Attacks Affected by Cover
Your first thought on which attacks will be affected by cover would probably be ranged attacks. You would be correct. Both ranged spell attacks and ranged weapon attacks have to consider the cover rules. Any attack where there is room for coverage between the attacker and the target
This also includes melee weapon attacks made by a weapon with the reach property such as a glaive or a polearm.
Types of Cover
Half, three-quarters, and total cover are all determined based on how you go about using the environment. Going prone would increase the amount of coverage you gain in a certain scenario. Running behind an ally rather than standing in the open may also grant you a type of cover. Again, remember that you may only benefit from single type of cover at a time.
From my experience, medium creatures will see half cover and total cover more often than three-quarters cover. They are just simpler to represent in most scenarios that contain an open battlefield. However, due to the simplicity of the rules, it’s very easy to remember what three-quarters cover does as they all have the same benefits, just different magnitudes of it.
The smallest amount of cover is half cover. There are many ways in which a target can gain the benefit of half cover. The rule of thumb is that so long as at least half of the target’s body is behind the cover they will have half cover.
You’ll gain a +2 bonus to your AC and DEX saving throws should you have the benefit of half cover. All things considered this is a very solid bonus, especially for casters and classes that do not have high AC.
Example – A Low Wall
A 3′ handmade stone wall along a pathway could be considered half coverage for most medium races. It provides partial protection incoming attacks.
Example – Another Person
Having a PC or a creature that is at least half a large as the target stand in between the target and the attack will provide the target with half cover. In general, this creature or PC providing cover should be directly next to the target of the attack. However, this scenario is very much up to the discretion of the DM should the potential coverage be further than 1 square from the target of the attack.
Three-quarters cover is the mechanical middle of the three types of cover. When you have the benefit of three-quarters cover, you’ll gain +5 to your AC and DEX saving throws. Most of the target’s body must be behind the cover to have three-quarters cover. This can be fairly tricky for medium and larger creatures to gain compared to both half cover and total cover.
Small and tiny creatures, though, may benefit from three-quarters cover in many scenarios where a larger creature would only gain half. That low stone wall example may be just high enough to obscure most of the gnome’s body while it only covers up to the waist of the half-orc!
Example – A Large Rock
The tiefling ranger ducks behind a nearby boulder after she makes her shot at the enemy. One of her legs is still visible though, so it does not count as total cover.
If the target can’t be targeted, they benefit from total cover. If the attacker cannot see the target, they typically cannot shoot them with a ranged weapon or spell attack. However, this does not exclude AoE spells and abilities such as fireball from being able to damage the target that has total cover.
Naturally, this is the strongest of the three types of cover. Completely avoiding damage is generally a very valuable opportunity in D&D 5e.
Example – Breaking Line of Sight
Running and hiding behind an even bigger rock than the previous example. If you run out of the enemy’s vision and hiding behind a building. Even simply closing the door! These are all examples of breaking line of sight. If the enemy cannot see you they cannot target you.
An important thing to keep track of as the DM is the size of each PC and creature. What might constitute as half cover for a medium creature could very well be three-quarters cover for a small creature. Conversely, if a large creature is standing between a ranged attack and its target it may constitute for more than half cover. A huge creature may provide total cover for medium or smaller creatures or PCs.
The DM and the players can benefit from this kind of strategic thinking. Combat formations made by both sides of the table are completely changed when using cover. Having an ogre shield a group of small minions is a much more interesting combat encounter than a plain ogre and 5 goblins. The Sorcerer can use Enlarge/Reduce to their advantage to change their Barbarian into a large wall of cover. The possibilities are endless!
I’ve found the cover rules to be pretty integral in balancing reach weapons and ranged attacks. Without using these rules reach weapons have a fairly significant advantage granting the character basically 5 extra feet of movement and attack of opportunity range. Ranged attacks always have the advantage of being safe attacks. Not having to endanger yourself by entering melee range is an enormous bonus.
Giving the target of these types of attacks additional AC presents an inherent risk in using these play styles. Having these types of mechanical checks and balances are essential for D&D to work as a whole.
If you aren’t using the cover rules already, I encourage you to try them out. If you are, try to incorporate them in more creative ways. Encourage your players’ creativity for coming up with new and interesting ways to gain the types of cover.
Look no further than page 196 in the Player’s Handbook for the official D&D 5e cover rules!