Take Cover! The Best Mechanic You're Not Using
Cover may be the most underrated and underutilized mechanic in Dungeons & Dragons!
Cover, for those of you who don't know, just means some kind of obstacle between you and something that might harm you. Usually this manifests as a physical barrier between you and a creature targeting you with a ranged attack or spell (or vice-versa). You're probably aware of cover already because it's something that we seek out in real life whenever we find ourselves in a dangerous situation, be it would be combat, inclement weather, a dangerous storm, or natural disaster. It’s something that we seek out to protect us from things that frighten us… There's even an entire genre of video games based around cover: the cover-based-shooter! Games like Gears of War and the Uncharted series fit neatly into this niche where your entire survival strategy is based around finding and properly utilizing cover!
But in Dungeons and Dragons, at least in the games I participate in, cover is often overlooked and underutilized! The mentality that “heroes don't cower behind cover, they have no need to hide” seems to prevail over the tactically sound, advantageous, and even realistic strategy of finding a means to better protect yourself! Cover is probably the most surefire trick to making sure that you and your party come out of an encounter alive, though it's often forgotten about or tossed by the wayside. We need to get a better understanding of this mechanic so we can make it work for us!
First things first: there are three stages of cover in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. There is half cover, three-quarters cover, and full cover. As you might imagine they represent the amount of a creature's body that is protected- that is, invisible to the creature making the attack- thanks to some interposing object. Also like you might expect, the benefits that these stages of cover confer increase with every step.
We'll start with half cover. Now, you probably guessed this means that only half of the creature's body is visible because the other half is protected or blocked by some interposing barrier or object: something along the lines of a piece of furniture, a low wall, a narrow tree trunk, or maybe even another creature who is in the way. When a creature is benefiting from half cover, they get a +2 bonus to their Armor Class (AC). This is because it is marginally more difficult to hit a creature that is presenting a smaller target. The bonus to your armor class is identical to carrying a shield (which is not an accident, by the way). A creature benefiting from half cover also receives that same bonus to their Dexterity savings throws. This is because they could presumably momentarily dive behind that cover to mitigate or avoid any incoming damage. Think of how Captain America dives behind his shield to avoid damage from an incoming explosion, or how cowboys in the old western movies would dive behind an overturned table to avoid a hail of gunfire. Sure, you might still get hit and hurt, but that damage is going to be a little less impactful and a little less likely than it would be for someone who just left themselves exposed.
Next up there is three-quarters cover. This represents about 75% of a creture being hidden from view thanks to something being in the way. Maybe the target is being blocked by a statue, a dresser or wardrobe, or an infamous “chest-high wall.” Usually three-quarters cover represents almost all of your target being hidden from view- maybe just their head poking over some shelf or barrier, around the corner of a wall, or maybe barely visible through an arrow slit or murder hole. Creatures that benefit from three-quarters cover also get a bonus to their Dexterity saving throws and AC, this time to a tune of a +5! That's more than double the bonus granted by half cover, for anyone keeping score at home! We'll come back to just how significant that is, but let's go ahead and cover the final stage…
The most cover a creature can benefit from is full cover: being completely hidden from view from their enemies! Creatures with full cover cannot be targeted by any enemy at all! They're not even an option to target! They're effectively immune to harm from enemy forces (though AoE spells and effects can still include them). This benefit this sort of cover can grant you (or your opponents) cannot be understated! Bonuses to AC and Dexterity saving throws are nice, but they cannot compete with being untargetable AT ALL!
Cover vs. Spells
Cover’s usefulness can be incredibly impactful in the life-or-death heat of a battle, and can maybe even turn the tide of an encounter! As an example, let’s compare the benefits of cover to a different mechanic in Fifth Edition that can grant similar bonuses: Spells!
To mimic the bonus to AC granted by standing behind half cover, you would need to be the beneficiary of the Shield of Faith spell. It also grants a +2 bonus to your AC but it requires a bonus action to cast (so it's taking up part of somebody's turn), it cost a spell slot (a fairly limited resources especially at low levels), and it requires concentration (limiting the kinds of spells that you can have active or be using at the same time and that it can be ended at any time if the guy who cast it gets punched too hard). It’s also a pretty exclusive spell that only clerics and paladins have the opportunity to bring into an encounter, and they might not have brought that spell today! It's not always going to be available for you…
OR… you can go stand behind an armchair and get that +2 bonus to your AC until you choose to move. It doesn’t require any actions, concentration, or class resources… AND you’re also getting that bonus to your Dexterity saving throws as well!
To mimic the bonus granted to you by three-quarters cover, you would need to cast the Shield spell. The Shield spell, also a first-level spell, requires a spell slot to cast, requires you to bring that spell into battle today, costs the caster’s reaction, and it only lasts for one round! The next time that you want to be protected this way, you're going to have to cast it again. And, like the Shield of Faith spell, it's only available to two classes: Sorcerers and Wizards (give or take a few subclasses).
OR… you can go stand behind a tree and receive that bonus until you choose to move, AND get that bonus to your Dexterity saves!
Finally, full cover is roughly equivalent to the Greater Invisibility spell. You could say that it's equivalent to Invisibility, but since you can still attack and cast spells from behind cover, I'm going to go with Greater Invisibility for the sake of argument. Greater Invisibility is a 4th level spell, which means characters below 7th level can't even consider it an option. Even if you have access to it, it takes an action to cast, requires concentration, expends that high-level spell slot, and can be broken at any time if that concentration is broken. But, much like full cover, Greater Invisibility does make a creature untargetable by enemy ranged attacks and spells.
OR… you can duck behind a corner, dive behind a boulder, or close the door to the room to get this same benefit.
Significant Armor Class bonuses aside, there is no equivalent mechanic for the bonus that cover grants you to your Dexterity saving throws! There is no class ability, spell, or magic item that grants you so large a bonus to that save… certainly no other mechanic that is available from the very beginning of the game to every character of every class and race! Everyone can use cover! That is the true beauty of cover: everyone always has access to it! You don't have to train to wear heavy armor, prepare certain spells for the day, use up precious resources, obtain certain magic items, choose a certain class… anyone and everyone is able to enjoy a higher Armor Class and better Dexterity saving throws! And it stacks with everything! That big bonus granted by cover goes on top of your traditional Armor Class granted by your armor, and on top of your Dexterity, on top of your Unarmored Defense (looking at you, Barbarians and Monks), on top of the Mage Armor spell, on top of your shield, the Shield spell, the Shield of Faith spell, and any magic items that you might have! It is just one of many powerful tools at your disposal to keep your characters safe from harm and arguably the most powerful! certainly the most accessible!
Hopefully next time that you roll initiative you will dive behind some obstacle and fight the good fight from behind the safety of some sundry object! How do you use cover in your game? What difference has it made? Is there a compelling reason that you don't use it? Be sure to let us know by reaching out on our socials by clicking HERE!
Rob Franklin (@thedndwannabe) has been a Dungeon Master for many years, and has a deep passion for roleplaying games. He runs the MistyMountainStreaming channel on Twitch, our Misty Mountain Gaming YouTube channel, and is cohost of the Bardic Twinspiration D&D podcast. He also enjoys bourbon, From Software games, and his dog Bigby.