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getting ready for my next session and one of my players brought up an interesting question....

Looking at the precise shot feat it states "You can shoot or throw ranged weapons at an opponent engaged in melee without taking the standard –4 penalty on your attack roll PHB 98.

On page 140 of the PHB it states "If you shoot or throw a ranged weapon at a target engaged in melee with a friendly character, you take a –4 penalty on your attack roll because you have to aim carefully to avoid hitting your friend."

Ok so so far all makes sense, if engaged in melee you can ignore the normal -4 with the precise shot feat.

Here is where things get tricky.

On page 151 PHB it states "Soft Cover: Creatures, even your enemies, can provide you with cover against ranged attacks, giving you a +4 bonus to AC. However, such soft cover provides no bonus on Reflex saves, nor does soft cover allow you to make a Hide check."

Herein lies the question. Let us take an example from the image attached. If We are using Lidda firing at the gnoll from her current position, does the gnoll have soft cover in addition to being engaged in melee? Meaning a +8 to it's AC if Lidda does not have precise shot and a +4 if she does? Or does the precise shot feat ignore this soft cover provided to the gnoll by Redgar as they are "engaged in melee"?

If soft cover is provided by Redgar then my understanding would be that if Lidda stood on the blue X and did not have precise shot the gnoll would have +4 while if she had precise shot the gnoll would get no bonus to AC.

enter image description here

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Precise Shot has no effect on soft cover

An attacker that makes a ranged attack against a foe engaged in melee normally suffers a −4 penalty on its attack roll. A defender that has soft cover receives a +4 bonus to AC. These are two different things.

Like the diagram explains ("The gnoll receives cover from regdar [+4 bonus to AC] and Lidda is shooting into melee [she receives a −4 penalty on her attack roll]"), were Lidda to make a ranged attack against the gnoll from where she is in the diagram, she'd suffer a −4 penalty on her attack roll because the gnoll's engaged in melee with Regdar and the gnoll would receive a +4 bonus to AC against Lidda's ranged attack from the soft cover Regdar's o-so-helpfully providing it. Were Lidda to possess the feat Precise Shot (Player's Handbook 98), she'd not suffer the penalty on her attack roll, but the gnoll would still benefit from Regdar's soft cover. (The feat Improved Precise Shot (PH 96), for example, allows such such soft cover to be ignored.)

Were Lidda to move to the diagram's blue X, Regdar would no longer grant the gnoll soft cover from Lidda's ranged attacks, yet Lidda would still suffer the −4 penalty on her ranged attack roll against the gnoll due to the gnoll being in melee with Regdar. Were Lidda to have the feat Precise Shot, Lidda would make her ranged attack from the blue X normally.

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Soft cover is a completely different rule that what Precise Shot affects, and still applies.

Precise shot specifically allows you to '...shoot or throw ranged weapons at an opponent engaged in melee without taking the standard –4 penalty on your attack roll'.

It represents the skill necessary to aim well enough not to risk hitting your ally instead... but it doesn't make it easier to hit an enemy who is largely on the other side of said ally.

Soft Cover is that difficulty. It's an increase to the target's AC, representing them having less surface area for you to aim at.

For visualization, consider the action Fantasy archer shooting into the swordfighters while they do flips and turns and whirlwinds and parries... Precise Shot allows them to (quickly) aim at just the baddie, without it they don't have the precision to choose one target or the other, but soft cover represents the chance that they missed the shot because they didn't time it perfectly, when their ally was out of the line of fire.

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