Take Cover!: How to Take Cover in D&D 5e

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Taking cover is an effective way to fortify your characters from enemy endeavors. Experienced players should recognize opportunities to seize advantageous battlefield positions that provide cover from ranged attacks. Cover is special to D&D 5e because it doesn’t use the typical advantage/disadvantage rules. Taking cover is designed to directly bolster armor class and Dexterity saving throws. Full cover can completely protect a character from direct attacks, though some threats may spread around corners. Trees, rocks, pillars, and even creatures can provide cover if positioned between your character and her enemy. 

Rules First

Rules for taking cover can be found in the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook, page 196. Reference is also available at D&D Beyond for rules on cover and other combat concepts:

“Walls, trees, creatures, and other obstacles can provide cover during combat, making a target more difficult to harm. A target can benefit from cover only when an attack or other effect originates on the opposite side of the cover. There are three degrees of cover. If a target is behind multiple sources of cover, only the most protective degree of cover applies; the degrees aren’t added together. For example, if a target is behind a creature that gives half cover and a tree trunk that gives three-quarters cover, the target has three-quarters cover.”

It’s up to you and your DM to determine the degree to which you have taken cover. Let’s review the degrees over cover from the PHB (emphasis added):

  • Half Cover: “A target with half cover has a +2 bonus to AC and Dexterity saving throws. A target has half cover if an obstacle blocks at least half of its body. The obstacle might be a low wall, a large piece of furniture, a narrow tree trunk, or a creature, whether that creature is an enemy or a friend.”
  • Three-Quarters Cover: “A target with three-quarters cover has a +5 bonus to AC and Dexterity saving throws. A target has three-quarters cover if about three-quarters of it is covered by an obstacle. The obstacle might be a portcullis, an arrow slit, or a thick tree trunk.”
  • Total Cover: “A target with total cover can’t be targeted directly by an attack or a spell, although some spells can reach such a target by including it in an area of effect. A target has total cover if it is completely concealed by an obstacle.”

Using Cover and Dropping Prone

Dropping prone isn’t always bad. According to the PHB p.292, “An attack roll against [a prone] creature has advantage if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature. Otherwise, the attack roll has disadvantage.” Did you catch that? Being prone is dangerous when melee combatants are in proximity, but ranged attackers will have difficulty hitting you with disadvantage. For this reason, it’s common for me to have my spellcasting characters drop prone after using a ranged spell attack (I drop prone after the attack so my attack isn’t rolled with disadvantage). New players have occasionally questioned this decision, but their eyes light up after I explain how the prone rules are working in my favor! The prone maneuver is even more effective if I’m on a rooftop because archers from the ground will have disadvantage to hit me in addition to the roof giving me a degree of cover from attacks.

Crafting Cover

If your DM’s crafted encounter doesn’t provide covered position opportunities, you can create your own! Spellcasters can do so quickly (will talk about spells later), but martial classes can create cover too. Any character can pack a shovel or axe to create defensible fortifications. Shovels can be used to dig trenches and pile up dirt. Woodworking tools can be used to create a lean-to or pile of logs to provide cover from the expected enemy position. Obviously this will require foreknowledge that your position will be attacked, but you can also force such a situation by routing enemies whose trajectories you’ve scouted. One method to accomplish this is to create a roadblock that will force an enemy caravan to stop and clear the road. Once stopped, they’ll be sitting ducks as you rain arrows and Fireballs from your hidden fortifications beyond the roadside treeline. If they return fire, you’ll be well protected; smart enemies will improvise cover of their own in the form of wagons and horses.

Trenches provide cover without requiring you to be prone. You can dig a trench using an animal companion that is capable of digging, or you can stop being lazy and dig it yourself with a shovel. If the soil is fairly loose (ambiguous, I know) your DM will allow you to cast the cantrip Mold Earth to instantly create a 5×5 hole. Mold Earth is an excellent cantrip for transforming dirt into effective armor bonuses for your party if you know your cover rules. This cantrip quickly digs trenches and creates dirt walls for a deadly game of paintball.

Cover Taking Hits

In a pinch, characters can use one another and their mounts to provide cover. Taking cover behind another person whose creature size matches your own will provide half cover. Horses can be used as cover, though you risk upsetting animal lovers in your gaming group.

Using characters as cover can get slightly complicated. Fighters can stand in front of spellcasters to provide cover. If an enemy archer is targeting a Wizard that has half cover behind a Fighter, the Wizard’s AC is improved. However, this is where the simple cover rules get complicated. On page 272 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide there is a variant rule for “Hitting Cover” that reads as follows:

“When a ranged attack misses a target that has cover, you can use this optional rule to determine whether the cover was struck by the attack. First, determine whether the attack roll would have hit the protected target without the cover. If the attack roll falls within a range low enough to miss the target but high enough to strike the target if there had been no cover, the object used for cover is struck. If a creature is providing cover for the missed creature and the attack roll exceeds the AC of the covering creature, the covering creature is hit.”

Let’s use a vexing hypothetical to illustrate how we can apply the Hitting Cover rule. How would you resolve this archer’s attack? An enemy archer is attacking the party’s Wizard. The Wizard’s normal AC is 13, boosted to 15 thanks to the Fighter, and the archer’s attack roll totals 14. The Wizard’s uncovered AC would be hit by this, but it misses due to the Fighter cover +2 AC bonus. Well then, what happened to the attack? Did it hit the Fighter, or did it just miss? The DMG variant rule explains that the attack would miss the Wizard, targeting the Fighter instead to determine if  the Fighter’s AC is lower than the same attack roll. If the Fighter’s AC exceeds the attack roll of 14, the attack misses the Fighter too. Since a Fighter’s AC will nearly always be higher than the Wizard’s, the Fighter has nothing to lose by providing cover because the archer’s arrow will only hit him instead of the Wizard if the attack roll is within a very specific range that is likely lower than the Fighter’s AC.

Cover rules can overlap with rules for attacking the unseen. Hiding behind a leafy bush might obscure you from view, but can it provide cover? Arrows and bolts will likely slice through a bush to still strike you if you’ve given away your position, though those same ranged attacks may miss since you’ve successfully hidden within the obscurity. Would your DM rule that you can take cover behind the bush? What about hiding behind an illusory wall provided by the Minor Illusion cantrip? Would you need to still make a Stealth check? What if you’re invisible? This can be puzzling to navigate, so I recommend going with whatever your DM describes. Ask your DM today how they’d mitigate these vexing hypotheticals, especially if your DM enjoys theorizing game rules.

Covering Spells

You may notice spells like Fireball have verbiage in their descriptions to specify that they spread around corners. These spells are effective against enemies that have taken cover since the cover will not prevent these spells from affecting those enemies. If an area-of-effect spell does not specify that it spreads around corners, its area spread will be halted by any form of full cover between the spell’s origin and the intended limit to the area, including structural corners (reference PHB p.204). Additionally, targeted spells require a clear path unobstructed by full cover from the spell’s origin to the target, including area-of-effect spells that require a target to place its origin of its effect. In other words, you must have line of sight unobstructed by full cover to target a creature or location, and areas of effect that do not spread around corners will stop at points of full cover between their origins and the full area they could affect. For this reason, it’s important to review PHB p.204-205 to reference where points of origin are for various spell zones.

Use straight lines to determine if a path is unobstructed. Only full cover will stop those straight lines. Keep in mind that the bonuses to Dexterity saving throws from Cover rules will not help a creature within the area of a Fireball since it spreads around corners, meaning no full cover is protecting the creature between it and the Fireball’s point of origin. Cone of Cold cannot spread around corners, so full cover will stop the spell’s progression forward from its origin. Partial cover will not stop Cone of Cold from progressing forward, and since its saving throw is based on Constitution, partial cover will not benefit creatures in the spell’s area of effect.

Illusions can obscure creatures from view, but won’t provide cover against attacks and area effects. Chris Perkins confirms that illusions can obscure but not cover. Obscurity can’t block a spell or effect that is blocked by cover.

If you want a more robust system for perceiving illusions to see through obscurity, XGtE suggests a ruling system to allow characters to perceive when illusion magic is being cast (and generally identify what spell is being cast in a moment). Physical inspection of an illusion will often result in the illusion becoming transparent to a savvy inspector. The concept similarly applies with effects like the Fog spell that obscures vision; the visible obstruction won’t provide cover (physical), but it does obscure (senses).

Full cover will block a fair amount of effects, including the Radiance of the Dawn option of Light Clerics’ Channel Divinity, or a Paladin’s Divine Sense. An adventuring party should attempt to learn about an enemy’s abilities, spells, etc. This knowledge will allow the party to attempt to choose an advantageous battlefield if violence is expected. As I mentioned earlier, Cover can be created with preparation or even with instantaneous effects. Battlefields with ample cover will be ideal, but a party can take steps to tip the scales in their favor.

Bigby’s Hand (5th-level spell) packs an option Interposing Hand that provides half cover: “The hand interposes itself between you and a creature you choose . . . providing you with half cover against the target.” This can effectively give a spellcaster a bonus +2 to AC and Dexterity saving throws against an oppressive opponent. Beyond cover, Bigby’s Hand also creates a barrier that is incredibly difficult to push through, keeping melee aggressors away. 

Spells that create walls often create some degree of cover or obscurity. Solid walls created by magic can provide full cover. Other walls and barriers may provide some degree of cover without completely blocking a path. One such example is the 6th-level spell Blade Barrier: “You create a vertical wall of whirling, razor-sharp blades made of magical energy . . . The wall provides three-quarters cover to creatures behind it, and its space is difficult terrain.” This can be a hidden benefit of the Blade Barrier spell as it does not completely cut off vision (it does not obscure vision), but it limits movement with difficult terrain, and enhances your defenses with cover. I’ll let you extrapolate the rest, but I’m hinting that this spell can be critical for controlling a battlefield.

There are some spells like Sacred Flame that can ignore cover, while other spells like Witch Bolt will actually end if its target takes cover. When you’re picking spells, consider how they’ll interact with cover rules so you can cast spells efficiently for a given situation. If your DM knows the rules very well and commonly uses exceptional battle tactics, you’ll need to know this stuff to come out on top of your encounters!

Similar Concepts

Lightfoot Halflings have a feature named ‘Naturally Stealthy’ that allows them to hide behind creatures that are of a larger creature size. Though not directly related to cover, this racial ability basically says you can hide behind any creature that is large enough to give you cover. Neat!

Mastermind Rogues learn the unique Misdirection ability at level thirteen, utilizing cover from adjacent characters to change ranged attacks’ targets from the Rogue to the adjacent creature as a reaction. This might be one of the most difficult abilities to use in the game. You must make sure you’re next to someone that you won’t mind using as a meat shield, while keeping that meat shield between you and your potential attackers. Then you must pray that your attackers won’t move to have a clear shot at you. Though difficult to use, it can be a life saver. An enemy who doesn’t know of your wily ways may cast a spell that relies on a ranged spell attack roll, not realizing you can maneuver the enemy to attack her ally instead of you. That means this ability is almost like Counterspell but better because it redirects the spell, but it only works on targeted spells in the circumstances stated before (tough to achieve).

Now I’m wondering what would happen if a character with Sharpshooter or Spell Sniper (feats that allow characters to ignore partial cover) fires a shot at a Mastermind with Misdirection. There are two ways to think about this: (1) these feats allow characters to ‘ignore’ half and three-quarters cover, so the Rogue can’t use Misdirection unless fullly covered, which would mean they’re probably not being attacked anyway. (2) the Rogue still has cover even if the feats allow the cover to be ignored, so Misdirection can still be used. How would you rule this? It’s a toss up to me because I don’t know what it truly means to ‘ignore’ partial cover. If I became convinced that ignoring partial cover means it completely negates cover, then I’d rule in favor of the feats overcoming Misdirection. 


Cover is a useful game mechanic that comes in a myriad of methods. Whether it comes by obstacle, ally, or spell, tactical cover can protect player characters from deadly attacks and devastating spells. Players should learn well the Cover rules, especially if their DM’s understand how to give monsters cover. 

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our Feats Evaluation.

2 thoughts on “<b>Take Cover!</b>: How to Take Cover in D&D 5e”

  1. What happens when your cover is an open door that can get knocked into you, or a movable cart? If the foe hits the cart enough to not just make it move but make it bash you?

    1. Hi Elz,
      The examples you gave would be handled on a case-by-case basis. They might involve skill contests between characters to see who is stronger: the one bracing behind the door or the one pushing. The swinging door might also be used as an improvised weapon for 1d4 damage, or maybe knocking prone the person behind it.
      Your question has interesting timing for me because last night I was playing a Barbarian in a narrow hallway. I carried a 50-lb cauldron and hurled it down the hall at several mercenaries who were looking for a fight. The DM allowed the massive cauldron to harm and knock prone the first mercenary it hit. Then the cauldron acted as a cover mechanism that could also be pushed around if someone chose to use their action for it.
      Cover is super interesting when you get into it, and it can help players pay off their creativity. There’s no silver bullet for how to handle cover all the time, but you can do well enough if you’re familiar with how it works. 🙂

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