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According to the rules on cover, when a creature provides cover to an ally or an enemy, it cannot be hit by an attacker and the covered target obtains +2 AC bonus (my group does not use the optional rule about hitting cover described in the DMG). By RAW, it seems a character has to fear nothing if he places himself between an enemy archer and an ally with the purpose of shielding the ally with his own body.

Do the rules work as intended in this circumstance?

I mean, is it legit to provide a +2 AC bonus to an ally with a simple move action, without risks nor chances of failing?

If not, how should the rules be modified?

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This isn't nearly as powerful as you think. Let's assume that we have a squishy character like William the Wizard, his much tougher friend Bob the Barbarian, and they are fighting the evil goblin, Arthur the Archer.

Yes, Bob can move between William and Arthur. However, if Bob moves on his turn, Arthur can:

  • Move on his turn before he shoots so that he has a clear path to William. This invalidates Bob's move at exactly the same price as Bob paid - one move. Obviously, this won't work if the only possible path is the one through Bob. (If Bob is standing in a doorway, for instance.)

  • Arthur can just shoot Bob instead. This is probably what Bob wanted, because he'd rather take the damage than have William take it. However, the +2 to AC still isn't a consideration.

  • Arthur can try to shoot William anyway. Here, he finally has to contend with the +2 to AC. Bob has made it 10% less likely that Arthur will hit Bob. It's hardly unbalanced, though; Arthur had other options that he ignored out of blind stubbornness, and 10% really isn't that much.

Now, if Bob really wants to give +2 AC to William rather than just taking the attack himself, he would probably Ready an action to jump in front of William just as Arthur begins to pull back his bow. (Or some similar trigger.)

  • The first problem with this is that it's probably not possible. A generous DM might let you take a reaction in the middle of an attack, but most would probably say that Arthur still has time to change who he is targeting or even move before he takes the attack.

  • The second problem is that assuming this works, Bob has used up both his action (to Ready) and his reaction for the round, and all he's gotten out of it was +2 AC against one attack for one ally. That's laughably inefficient, if not downright stupid. There might be an extremely specific situation where it was useful, but most of the time, it's just wasting Bob's action economy.

  • Finally, it's worth considering that there is a much more powerful option for the character who wants to protect his allies in this way: the Protection Fighting Style. This allows you to impose disadvantage on an enemy attack (much stronger than +2 AC) using your reaction.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't say that the disadvantage on an enemy attack is MUCH stronger than +2AC. Disadvantage is matemathically close to -3 on a roll, so it's a difference of another 5% less chance of succeeding. Well, to be fair it's 50% more protection, so maybe that counts as 'much' ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Gerino Apr 1 '15 at 10:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Gerino It's actually closer to -4 and it also biases the numbers downwards - there's a 9.75% chance to roll a 1, and 0.25% chance to roll a 20. But I believe Miniman is also taking into account that Protection Fighting Style doesn't cost you your action. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Mar 30 '17 at 19:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ The penalty for disadvantage varies depending on what the to hit roll is. The higher the roll needed to hit, the greater a penalty disadvantage is. It sits near to -5 around the middle of the range (roll of 11 to hit) \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Dec 4 '17 at 16:11
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The risk of being cover:

1) Because you're increasing the ally's AC, the enemy will target you instead.

2) You're right there next to one of your allies, making the both of you great targets for area effect.

3) Neither of you are very mobile, unless you sync your initiatives.

4) You're cunning strategy is defeated by the enemy shooting your ally from another angle.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How do you "sync your initiatives"? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 3 '17 at 2:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ You delay the turn of the person higher in the initiative order to be just before that of the person in the lower. This allows the two characters to act nigh-simultaneously. Note, there is nothing stopping opponents from interrupting this with their own readied or delayed actions, which is a wonky artifact of how turn based initiative works \$\endgroup\$ – The Amused Muse Dec 12 '17 at 21:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ What do you mean by "delay the turn"? Are you talking about the Ready action? (That you mention "readied or delayed actions" later makes me think not.) Keep in mind that Ready was constructed in 5e explicitly as a rolling back of the "delay" mechanic from earlier versions, as I understand it. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 12 '17 at 23:31
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The risk you take is that the attacker now gets to pick between a well protected target and shooting you instead. Expect to be turned into a pincushion if you're standing in front of your friends, because most enemies will just shoot whoever is in front.

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I think part of your confusion lies in your statement that "when a creature provides cover to an ally or an enemy, it cannot be hit by an attacker". This is not a true statement. If it was, then providing cover to an ally would indeed be too powerful, but there is nothing that says if you jump into the path of an attack, they can't hit you instead.

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