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I've read a lot about "shooting the other enemy" and how enemies don't occupy the entire 5ft square; however what I can't find is the following scenario:

two orcs one arrow

I intentionally position my character to have a straight line with two enemies. I'm aiming for the first one but in case it misses I want my arrow to continue and possibly hit the next enemy. My understanding is that I can miss for 2 reasons.

  1. I shoot slightly wrong direction
  2. I shoot correctly but the enemy dodges.

It is the situation (2) that I want to take advantage of and basically roll again for the second enemy, perhaps even with advantage since it didn't expect to be shot. Would you allow this? What would you ask to roll?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    May 4, 2020 at 19:25

7 Answers 7

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This is not something the rules allow for

This should not be allowed because it is imbalancing

If this were allowed, ranged attacks (likely including spells) would become a great deal stronger while melee attacks would remain the same (except perhaps for Reach weapons). This change is a bad idea because there is no reason not to use it. If you can have twice the number of chances to injure your enemies, you would always take it.

Even if you tried to make this fair by having it always apply, even when the person behind the enemy is an ally, one could simply move five feet to the left or right and completely avoid their ally.

This should not be allowed because it makes similar features worse

There are somewhat similar abilities in the game such as the Arcane Archer's Piercing Arrow Arcane Shot which lets you target multiple enemies in a line.

The Arcane Archer's Curving Shot which lets you redirect a miss to hit another creature within 60 feet.

The catapult spell where if a creature dodges out of its line of fire the object hurled can still hit somebody else in that same line.

These are rather unique benefits specific to this subclass and the catapult spell and letting this apply to all sorts of ranged attacks and spells would be unfair/imbalancing to these.

The closest thing that exists is an optional rule of the DMG

The "Hitting Cover" section of the DMG states (page 272):

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.

[...] 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.

This is a similar situation but would involve targeting the creature in the back which gives you a chance to hit the creature in the front. This is a rule I have avoided using in my own games for the reasons listed earlier but to reiterate: It benefits ranged attacks (including spells) far more than melee ones and the "downside" of hitting your ally is almost always removable.

Note that what a hit/miss is narratively is GM-dependent

When you miss somebody it could theoretically mean a lot of things. Did you fumble so badly you never even launched an arrow? Did you wildly miss your target (and happen to hit nobody else)? Did your target dodge out of the way? Did you hit your target but did so harmlessly?

How a hit or miss gets narrated and the ramifications of that narration are left to the GM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As if ranged attacks needed to be any help being better than melee attacks already. \$\endgroup\$ May 4, 2020 at 17:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for explaining this. I don't see this as overpowered since it's quite rare to align targets in this way. Perhaps since this is my first time playing dnd I have a different experience with my longbow. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mikhail
    May 4, 2020 at 20:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mikhail It just becomes easier to line people up as there are more people. After all any two points form a line. You can definitely work around that by spacing and adjusting the terrain, but it still steps of the toes of some class features and spells to me \$\endgroup\$ May 4, 2020 at 20:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mikhail It's relatively easy to just move into a suitable position. The DM would have to think well ahead of time to try to make it difficult for you to have such a shot available, which in particular would largely exclude all actual dungeons and other constrained areas. And over long distances your idea wouldn't work anyway: you're arcing the shot, not firing straight. It's also making the DM have less fun and more work, and can strain credibility if a bunch of critters with no regimented combat training somehow always seems to arrange themselves to prevent you from forming a line. \$\endgroup\$ May 5, 2020 at 5:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Tommi Every attempt I've made to utilize the hitting cover rule, which is similar to the OP's suggestion, has resulted in one-sidedly benefitting ranged attacks in an easy to accomplish/execute way. However I primarily avoid it because it steps on the toes of the features I mentioned \$\endgroup\$ May 6, 2020 at 15:08
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While the other answers correctly identify this as being imbalanced, I also need to bring up the third, and missing, option.

Option 3: You actually hit the target but in a way that did not do damage.

When people think "miss", they picture that the target somehow got out of the way. But that is not always the case. "Miss" just means you did not overcome the target's defenses. Those defenses include:

  • Base AC
  • Dexterity
  • Armor worn
  • Shield
  • Magic
  • Cover

So just because you didn't hit your intended target doesn't mean the projectile will keep moving in a straight line. It could be deflected, stuck in the object giving cover, stuck in a shield, or any number of things.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Heck, a hit doesn't automatically do "damage" anyway. Hit Points represent resolve and endurance as well as actual physical trauma. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    May 4, 2020 at 18:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @T.J.L., I wasn't even going to go into the whole "what is damage" aspect. There is also damage immunity to deal with and a bunch of other factors. I just wanted to point out that "not hitting" doesn't mean that a projectile will keep traveling in the same direction. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    May 4, 2020 at 19:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ "just because you didn't hit your intended target doesn't mean the projectile will keep moving in a straight line" -- while I agree with the extensive notes in the other answer, IMHO this is really the crux of the matter. The hit/miss mechanic in D&D doesn't tell you exactly why you didn't do damage, but rather just that you didn't. There are lots of reasons you might fail to do damage where the arrow doesn't continue in a straight line. Indeed, the whole concept of AC pretty much assumes that you are in fact getting hit, but just not well enough to get hurt. \$\endgroup\$ May 5, 2020 at 1:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterDuniho, I do know some groups "count backwards" to figure out why there was a miss. So if the character's AC is 16 (leather armor, 14 dex, shield). If the roll against them is 15-16, they hit the shield, 13-14 they dodged, 10-12 they hit the armor, and under 10 it was just a bad attack. It's really just too much work. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    May 5, 2020 at 1:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ "It's really just too much work" -- yes, I agree completely with that sentiment. :) \$\endgroup\$ May 5, 2020 at 2:17
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You hit what you aim at - nothing else.

Just to add some real life experience, I've been doing archery (bowhunting) for over 20 years now.

While your idea isn't invalid, it's just too much up to chance.

When you're aiming at a target, there is so much that goes into it. With experience, some of these things can be second nature, but the one thing that never changes is focus on the target. You might be able to shoot two arrows at two separate targets in the space of 6 seconds (which admittedly I never have - my best is 10 seconds), but the only way you'd be able to miss one target and hit the other is if you were planning to from the get go, or just by complete chance.

And that's not even touching on the physics of it all, which I'm not going to get into.

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This is the domain of a subclass feature

Having a missed shot try to hit a different try to hit a second target is covered by Arcane Archer's Curving Shot (Xanathar's Guide to Everything p. 28). Allowing a special (sub)class feature for a character without that (sub)class is dangerous, as it undermines that (sub)class (and any character taking that character option).

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    \$\begingroup\$ May also be helpful help remind them that a miss isn't necessarily it didn't hit, just that whatever happend (and however DM wants to narrate), no damage was dealt from a successful hit. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    May 4, 2020 at 17:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Similar to but not the same as a sub class feature of Gloom Stalker at level 11: if you miss a shot you get to take another one. \$\endgroup\$ May 4, 2020 at 17:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ That there is a detrimental effect on a single feature of a subclass (or two) is a weak argument; they can be easily adjusted, if necessary. In your experience, do people playing arcane archers complain when this kind of house rule is in use? \$\endgroup\$
    – Tommi
    May 6, 2020 at 10:16
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This is not a thing an archer can realistically do. You can't plan to hit the second target "if you miss the first target" because you're not planning to miss the first target. You have no control (unless you're some kind of wizard) over anything the arrow does after you release it.

What you could do, plausibly, is shoot into a crowded formation of enemies and probably hit someone.

A house rule I use for this situation

I've playtested this with a couple groups, and they've found that the results "seem fair" and it doesn't slow down the game much.

  • When making a ranged attack, everyone within melee range of your target or otherwise in a position to get hit is a bystander.
  • If there are bystanders, roll two attack rolls (as if you had advantage or disadvantage).
  • If both rolls hit your target's AC, then resolve the attack as a hit.
  • If both rolls miss, you hit nothing.
  • If only one roll hits your target's AC, randomly pick a target from among your intended target and all the bystanders (with an equal chance of each). Resolve the successful attack roll against that target instead.

For N = 1 bystander, this doesn't change the chance to hit your intended target; it just means that the "miss" outcomes include hitting the other target.

For a very large number of bystanders, this amounts to disadvantage against your intended target.

But if your goal is to hit either the wizard or the guy next to the wizard, you effectively have advantage. If you actually don't care which of them gets hit, you can just roll with advantage and then randomly pick a target.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch It's not an option; it always applies. If the paladin is fighting the ogre, and the rogue wants to shoot the ogre, then the paladin counts as a bystander. This "favors" the ranged guy in the sense that he's not the one getting shot, but assuming the players are trying not to shoot each other, it makes his job more complicated. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    May 5, 2020 at 19:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ When you say "resolve the successful attack roll", do you mean comparing the result to the AC of the new target? Or is it an automatic hit? \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    May 6, 2020 at 9:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik If it doesn't beat the new target's AC, then it misses. (This is mostly a perceived-fairness issue: it makes sense that your armor / cover should protect against stray arrows as well as direct attacks.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    May 6, 2020 at 15:01
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Other replies cover Game Balance, which is the best reason, but it's not very satisfying. After all, the second target is directly in the path of the arrow. How can it not hit? You've gotten one "physical" reason -- that a miss might be from bouncing off armour. Some others like that:

  • "for real" everyone is moving at the same time. Depending on initiative, they're probably never actually lined up like that. Even if they were, it would only be for a fraction of a second, and not when you actually shoot. For area attacks we have to use the current grid positions. But for arrows shooting past, it makes more sense to say "it's only a simulation".

  • Say both are standing still. You mention that the first target probably won't be in the center of the space. That gives a cone of where the arrow could fly past, even if your aim was perfect and you missed since they dodged.

  • Once you get into heroic archery, with a huge attack bonus, hitting accounts for aiming at weak spots. You wouldn't have that for the second target (which is somewhat part of Ben's answer mentioning concentration on the target).

All-in-all, the arrow is going somewhere behind the target, with too low a chance of damaging anything else to be worth checking.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say here. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    May 5, 2020 at 16:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ The OP is thinking of the arrow sailing into the space with target #1, stopping to check for a hit, then sailing into the space with target #2. Thinking of it that way, it seems weird that it can't roll for #2. Sure, game-balance says it can't, but that's not very satisfying. They might also like more "reality"-based explanations of why hitting target#2 is unlikely enough not to be worth checking \$\endgroup\$ May 6, 2020 at 0:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think it'd help to explain that reasoning in your answer as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    May 6, 2020 at 15:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OwenReynolds Friendly fire is probably the reason. If this was a thing, then ranged attackers would have to roll for hitting their own melee fighters. In practice that means they'd be sitting on their hands every fight. So they take the MMORPG escape, and just say hitting an unintended target is impossible. \$\endgroup\$ May 6, 2020 at 15:20
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By the rules

No, the idea does not work. There is a related optional in rule in the Dungeon master's guide, page 272. I have not tried it, so I will not comment it further.

House ruling

I used a house rule in this spirit with Pathfinder 1. It worked fine. I also have experience with D&D 5, and given the similarity of the games, the same rule could work there, too.

Since my present D&D 5e game is not generally focused on figure chess, and when it is, not all the players are experienced, I do not currently use this house rule with D&D 5.

First get a mastery of the core rules

As always, it is an excellent idea to first get fluent with the core rules, and only then start experimenting with optional rules that add fiddliness, like grids, feats and house rules. Otherwise they will slow down play and make it more confusing.

Our house rule

I give the broad lines of the house rule, which should be sufficient for a game group with a sufficent mastery of the rules to develop the details. For all the gory details, see the house rule document here.

When attacking at a range, if you miss due to cover, you might hit something providing cover. If you miss your target's touch armour class (AC without armour-type bonuses, essentially), then you have a chance of hitting something behind them.

If you miss due to cover, you check whether you hit something providing cover. Check every source of cover, starting from the one first in the line of fire.

If the shot misses the target's touch armour class, as well as all sources of cover (if any), the proceed to check whatever is behind the target. Again, go through the potential targets in the same order as in which the projectile flies.

To check whether you actually hit, make attack rolls with a bonus that only takes into account strength modifier (if applicable) and enchantment bonus from magic weapon and maybe some situational modifiers; in essence, your skill (base attack bonus, corresponds to proficiency in D&D 5) and dexterity do not count, because you were not really aiming there. With many ranged weapons the attacks would thus be rolled at +0. If you hit something, the damage is affected likewise; strength matters, but sneak attack and similar precision damage does not.

A simplified version would be to roll the extra attacks with +0 to hit and base weapon damage only. A slightly more complicated version would be to allow strength bonus on both, if normally used in the attack. I recommend starting with the simple house rule and adding complications to taste after one is familiar with it.

Reasoning

Making the additional attacks without most of bonuses is a good idea from a point of view of realism, as your accuracy and skill should not matter too much, when considering whether a stray arrow hits or not.

It is also a good idea from a game balance point of view, as it limits the effectiveness of the incidental shots: they happen every now and then, and are fun, sometimes drop a weak enemy, but do not allow an archer character to significantly increase their damage per round.

What are the effects

This makes the figure chess aspect of the game more interesting and challenging. Being clumped together makes one more vulnerable to ranged attacks, but armoured characters are generally not affected; in fact, rarely does a stray attack hit someone behind an armoured character. Ranged characters need to be more careful to not risk hitting friends and to maximize the possibility of a stray hit on an enemy, but, again, mostly weak enemies would be affected.

We did not notice any significant effect on balance. The play was low level, and Pathfinder characters are imbalanced anyway due to class power differences, various amounts of optimization among players, and differing character levels (sandbox game, new characters at first level, fairly deadly).

We did get some tense situations with thrown grenade-like weapons and some nice hits and maybe some friendly fire with bows.

In particular, it was often an interesting problem to find a good place to shoot without having allies in the line, without being in front-line, and maybe getting several enemies as possible targets of stray shots. For us it turned out not to be trivial at all and forced interesting choices in terms of where to move and how big risks to take (risks: being attacked by enemy melee groups and friendly fire).

Effects on various niche abilities

If a general rule improves the game but has a weakening effect on a couple of specific abilities, this is not a problem. People can choose to not use a spell or ability if they deem it too weak. If an ability integral to a class is absolutely crippled, and someone really likes playing a member of that class, adjust the single ability. But otherwise wait to see if there is an actual problem in actual play.

Is this good for your game?

  • If almost the entire group or the entire group is not yet fluent with rules you do use, do not add more before getting fluent.

  • This rule only makes a difference if you have a fair share of figure chess play and find tactical movement and concerns interesting. Otherwise do not bother.

  • If your group is into hardcore character optimization and cares about maintaining the current balance, you should be careful about the ramifications. However, at least with the rules we used, the balance effects were very minor. I believe a strong reason for this was the the stray hits were rolled with low attack bonus and without lots of special sources of damage that often are what make ranged characters deadly.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's up to you, but should that link ever rot, then we'd lose the information contained. But the discrepancy in game systems is an issue, so I'm not really sure if it's better to just have your summary or the actual mechanics. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    May 6, 2020 at 14:51

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