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I'm new to D&D. I was wondering about a character's ability to dodge attacks that target them.

Is AC the only way for a character to avoid being hit, or is there something else that I've missed? I expected attempting to block, dodge, or parry an attack to be part of normal combat, but I haven't find anything matching that intuition.

Example: I'm a Rogue with an AC of 19. Does that mean if another creature, like a goblin, attacks me, that the only thing it would have to do is beat my AC of 19?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: Why don't weapons grant some sort of defense? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 23 '14 at 2:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Context for D&D experts who may not be other-RPG experts: many people have had this "huh?" moment when learning D&D no matter how many D&D editions have explained/justified it, and, historically, lots of them reacted by creating their own RPGs that did things differently. This history of "where's the parrying? I'm going to fix that" goes all the way back to shortly after 1974, so it's not a weird question to ask. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 23 '14 at 5:16
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Armor Class has historically represented your ability to avoid taking the brunt of a hit, not your ability to avoid the hit.

When your characters are in melee, don't assume they're all standing still staring at each other. They're constantly in a state of brawl, swinging blades, trading jabs, parrying, shifting around, etc. This is why there are penalties for Ranged Attacks vs. characters in melee.

What attack actions represent are the notable combat actions that constitute dealing meaningful blow to your opponents. Like two samurai fighting when one breaks away and manages to get a heavy strike in. I'll be using a Samurai Duel as an example throughout this answer.

Let's look at the formula for Armor Class in a past edition. D&D 5e has changed a lot of things, but it still had its beginnings here.

Total AC in D&D 3.5e = 10 + armor bonus + shield bonus + Dexterity modifier + size modifier + deflection bonus + natural armor + dodge bonuses + enhancement bonuses*

Dexterity and Dodge Bonuses

These bonuses contribute how likely you are to dodge an attack outright. In this situation, a Samurai will go in for a strike and the other Samurai will sidestep it.

Size Bonus

The size bonus/penalty represents the how your size contributes to a sort-of passive dodge. You're harder to hit when you're small because just your general movements would make you harder to hit. A goblin samurai is shifting back and forth against a human samurai. Since the goblin is small, the human samurai needs to hit a smaller target which is generally harder to do. The goblin isn't trying to dodge, it's just moving around.

Deflection Bonuses

Deflection bonuses represent parts of armor or your body that will take a hit and divert most of its force away from you. The shape of the armor-clad samurai's helmet diverts a head strike from an annoyed Ronin.

Armor and Shield Bonuses

Your Armor and Shield Bonuses contribute to how likely an enemy is to hit your armor or shield instead of your actual body.

Natural Armor Bonuses

For when your armor doesn't help, but your rock-hard skin does. Natural armor is the part of your body you don't mind getting hit in. If you've got wood for skin and someone's swinging a katana at you, it could very well get caught in that thick, woody membrane. The Shogun learned this lesson the hard way when when a treefolk swordsman challenged him to duel.

In D&D 5e, a lot of this is unspoken or hidden away

Now, your "Armor Bonus" is masked by being your new "Base Armor". Most modifications to your Armor Class will follow similar logic in terms of what's actually happening when you get attacked. For example, in D&D 5e, Mage Armor changes your Base AC to 13. What this really amounts to is instead of being naked with a Base AC of 10, you've got a +3 chance for an attack to hit your Magic Armor, instead of hitting you. It's still generally the same concept.

Now, back to your goblin example

You said you have 19 AC. Let's say for the sake of a meaningful example, your AC breaks down in the following way:

Magical Leather Armor Rogue: 11 + 4 Dex + 4 from a Magic Item or something.

That base 11 is really 10 from general brawling movement and +1 from actually wearing armor at all. We don't really care what that last +4 is from. Let's say something magic.

Next, let's assume that the Goblin doesn't have any bonus to it's Attack rolls. It rolls a 1d20 and uses that roll only to see if it hits you.

Roll -> What Happens
  1  -> They were bad, so they missed.
  2  -> You were moving, so they missed.
  3  -> You were moving, so they missed.
  4  -> You were moving, so they missed.
  5  -> You were moving, so they missed.
  6  -> You were moving, so they missed.
  7  -> You were moving, so they missed.
  8  -> You were moving, so they missed.
  9  -> You were moving, so they missed.
 10  -> They would have hit you, but you passively dodged.
 11  -> They would have hit you, but you passively dodged.
 12  -> They would have hit you, but you passively dodged.
 13  -> They would have hit you, but you passively dodged.
 14  -> This cloud of magic catches the blade before it reaches you.
 15  -> This cloud of magic catches the blade before it reaches you.
 16  -> This cloud of magic catches the blade before it reaches you.
 17  -> This cloud of magic catches the blade before it reaches you.
 18  -> Blades hit you, but you were wearing enough armor so it didn't reach your body.
 19  -> The Goblin cuts you, because it matched your Armor Class.
 20  -> The Goblin cuts you, because it beat your Armor Class.

Closing Notes

When Armor Class and Attack Rolls get REALLY high, you don't always get to break it down like this. Eventually, enemies won't miss you because you were moving. They still hit you when you're dodging. When an enemy is well out of your league, sometimes the only reason you didn't get hit is the skin of your teeth giving you that 1/20 chance to avoid a fatal blow. But at the very least, your enemy wasn't just swinging at the air when they rolled lower than your AC.

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Once someone takes a swing at you the only way to not get hit is to have a higher AC than the attack roll. However before that happens there are things you can do.

  1. Ready movement to move out of range if someone moves towards you, preventing the attack (assuming you can get out of range.)
  2. Use the dodge action to impose disadvantage on any attacker, making it less likely that the attack will hit.
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If we are talking physically only, anything that would break the line of effect would prevent you from taking damage irregardless of AC. Hiding/dodging behind a rock before a creature can get in range prevents an attack entirely. Breaking line of sight for an archer is also much more effective than just standing there letting them attempt to hit your AC. Tactics and planning are often much more effective than simply relying on AC alone.

But don't forget, you do have saves as well. Not all attacks are trying to break past that tough shell of armor.

Magic in particular usually doesn't care how armored you are though. Fireball only cares about if you can get out of the way fast enough to not take the brunt of it. After all, almost everything burns....you just need the right application of heat ^_^

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  • \$\begingroup\$ A broader answer is that, yes, in order to cause any harm, a creature must meet or beat your defensive stats. Your main defensive stats are AC and Saves. \$\endgroup\$ – TechImp Oct 21 '14 at 14:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't really like this answer, because I don't think it's really answering what the question is asking. Once someone is ATTACKING you, yes, the only defense you have is your AC; You don't get to say "No, wait, I dodge behind the the rock." at that point. If someone is ABLE to attack you, your only defense is your AC (plus whatever bonuses you get for cover and so forth.). Yes, there are tactics that prevent people from being able to attack you in the first place, and that's always better, but I don't feel like that is what the question was asking. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Oct 21 '14 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Whether you think it or not, the question is Is AC the only way for a character to avoid being attacked, or is there something else that I've missed that mentions it? And the answer is no, preparation/tactics and saves also are defenses used in combat to reduce/avoid damage, not just AC. Attacking isnt limited to physical melee or ranged, it includes magic as well. \$\endgroup\$ – TechImp Oct 21 '14 at 15:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not the question of saves vs AC; That's a fine clarification. The problem arises with your suggestions about breaking line of sight and such, which are not applicable once you are actually being attacked, and I feel it gives people the wrong idea that they have the option to say something "I duck behind the table!" when someone declares an attack on them. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Oct 22 '14 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Airk I'd have to agree, but I think the onus is on the question to be clearer. \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Oct 22 '14 at 17:04
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There are several different ways to be "Attacked" in 5e. The first and most common is attacks against AC. These are anything that refers to an "attack roll" so in that sense, the answer to your question is "Yes, attacks only target your AC."

However, if by "Attack" you mean "things that can potentially damage your character," then there are three different things that you need to be concerned about.

  1. Armor Class (AC), this is the thing that most attacks will target, you can boost this by buying better armor (or finding magic armor), and in the case of light armor, by pouring stat increases into Dex.

  2. Saving Throws. Each stat on your character sheet determines a modifier to a saving throw. Your abilities determine how good you are at dodging or otherwise avoiding things like spell attacks, or other environmental affects (like a boulder rolling towards you).

  3. Your Current HP. This one is a bit of a weird one, but it determines your resistance to spells like Sleep, Power word Stun/Kill and a handful of other spells.

So while it's accurate to say that AC is your only defense against attacks, a broader definition of the term "attack" leads to several other things being quite important.

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AC protects against taking damage. It does not tell whether you were hit or not, merely whether you were hit effectively.

Now, we can assume that the difference between the rest of your AC and your DEX bonus is largely due to avoiding the blow. This creates a buffer zone in which you can determine the entire blow was avoided; eg if the monster missed Bob-the-Fighter by 1, and Bob has a +1 AC bonus from his DEX, then we can safely narrate that Bob avoided the blow.

But what about the base AC of 10? Human flesh is hardly known for its durability to trauma (see "armor" for more information :P), therefore most of this can also be assumed to be avoidance. So let's look at Bob again.

Bob has 12 DEX, giving him a +1 to AC. He's also wearing Scale Mail, giving him an AC of 14 (the first 10 of that being the AC of a human). His total AC is 15. That means gives us:


Bob's Narrative AC Chart

If the monster rolls...

  • 20: Dice (or gods) hate Bob.
  • 16-19: Hits and does damage (or has the chance to do damage anyway).
  • 15: Would have hit, but Bob deftly moved out of the way.
  • 11-14: Hits, but doesn't damage Bob due to Bob's Scale Mail armor.
  • 2-10: Bob avoids the attack due to mundane means which most anyone could have done (vs 15, where it's just avoided because he's quick).
  • 1: Dice hate monsters sometimes too.

Special note, you might narrate that on a 10, Bob's muscles and bone are just tough enough that, while hit, he took no appreciable damage.


Now the original question was: Is AC the only way for a character to avoid being hit, or is there something else that I've missed? Well, there's also a Dodge action which causes attack rolls against you to have Disadvantage. And some saving throws are assumed to be avoiding being hit by the special attack/spell/etc.

This all brings us full circle: AC doesn't necessarily avoid being hit, yes there are other ways to avoid being hit be they the Dodge action (which still involves AC) or saving throws (not an active player choice to apply).

RAW tend to simplify this with statements like "If attack roll beats AC, the attack hits," probably because to specify everything out would require DMs to not only make a narrative AC chart for each PC like I did for Bob, but for monsters to each have their own narrative AC chart. It's much, much simpler to just say "miss" and let the players realize that, no, when someone dons Plate armor they don't suddenly become more nimble than when they're wearing a loincloth.

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Yes, if the attack is using an attack roll. Some "attacks" may require an ability roll from the defender to at least partially mitigate the attack effect (like a spell effect or something). The dodge action forces an attacker to roll its attack with disadvantage, representing an increased difficulty to hit the defender. There are also plenty of feats and class abilities that can affect a characters ability to be hit, or at least take damage, from various attacks.

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