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If one creature is providing cover for another, is it possible that it ends up taking the hit? If so, what are the mechanics for it?

I see it like this: 2 goblins (AC 15) are standing in a row. An archer takes a shot at the one further back, but because the target is behind another enemy creature his AC against the attack is 17 (15 + 2 from half cover). Seems simple enough, but what happens if the archer's attack roll is a 16? That's high enough to hit a goblin, but not high enough to hit the goblin who is strategically behind his friend. It sounds to me like it hits the goblin in front. Does it?

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In the DMG on 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. First, determine whether the attack roll would have hit the protected target without 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.

Note that this is an optional rule, probably because it adds extra calculations to the game. However, if you are concerned about players and NPCs covering eachother excessively, you can use this rule to determine if the covering creature is hit.

So, to answer your question, yes, it hits the goblin in front, assuming that you are using the new optional rule.

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No, not by the 5e rules as written. If you miss due to cover (half cover/-2 is standard for an intervening creature) or any other factor, you miss and there's no other consequences.

However, this is a pretty common rule and/or house rule across the various editions of D&D. Second edition, in fact, just said that if you're firing into a melee then your target is determined randomly, proportional to the size of the targets at hand, regardless of who you're targeting! Frequently people who want more granularity look at how much a blow missed by and allocate that if only for narration purposes to plain missing, the opponent dodging, it bouncing off the opponents' armor, etc.

In most of my historical games in 1e-2e, when this situation came up we'd assume that if someone or something was providing an e.g. +2 cover bonus, that if the roll missed by 1 or 2 that the attacker would roll again to see if they "hit" the cover in a damaging sense (just because you strike a covering creature doesn't mean you get a clean hit or get through its armor). In 3e+ there was usually too much else to keep track of to bother with that granularity. But you can do what makes sense for you and your group!

It has a lot to do with how granular you want to be and how much you want to make firing into melee a problem - rules implementations vary from from "no risk at all" (5e) to "well just take a -4 penalty" (3e) to "you're jeopardizing others on a miss" (what you're proposing here) to "heck you might just hit anyone around" (2e). Naturally moving the risk level of missile fire around will affect its desirability in the game. But I have to say I prefer the mild-risk aspect myself; in 3e days I often gave PCs without Precise Shot the choice "take the -4 to hit penalty - or shoot at no penalty, but you'll hit your ally if you miss by less than 4." People frequently took me up on it. Fratricide always makes things more interesting.

Also note that every group has to decide where they are on the freewheeling GM rulings-vs-rules continuum. In Basic/1e/2e days it was very common for DMs to just make up ad hoc risks/bennies of this sort on the fly based on the specific situation. "He's deliberately holding Little Timmy up as a shield, that's a +4 cover bonus for him and if you miss then for sure you're gonna gank Timmy..." In 3e and 4e days many groups were much less comfortable with this and wanted a Single Always Applicable Rule of Truth (tm). There's nothing wrong with either and I very much prefer the former, but you'll want to all be on the same page especially if anyone in your group is coming in with expectation formed by any previous edition.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please update: The DMG does have an optional rule for this. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Dec 7 '14 at 11:34
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You have to consider what the archer is actually aiming at. He isn't aiming at the entire body of the hiding goblin, he is aiming at the EXPOSED part of it (hence the increased AC), so a near miss doesn't necessarily mean that he would hit the covering goblin (especially if that goblin is only providing cover, so presumably he is watching out for arrows and is moving him and the hiding goblin accordingly). So RAW (by virtue of NOT saying anything about it) says the covering goblin would not be hit.

This is where the attacker has to push his luck. Clearly the safest plan is to shoot the covering goblin first, then shoot the second goblin. But taking a risk and going for the second goblin adds tension, if he has a normal chance to hit the first goblin anyway then he isn't really pushing his luck.

But DM fiat can allow for all sorts of things. Maybe a 20 on the attack roll hits BOTH goblin (over penetration) instead of just a crit on the hiding goblin, the near miss wings the covering goblin for some damage, or drives him away for a clear follow-up shot on the now exposed second goblin, etc.

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