Does holding someone hostage give partial cover and is there a chance of hitting the hostage if you miss hitting the intended target that is holding the hostage?

My opinion is that it should trigger a mechanic to see if the player hits or misses the hostage. But I can see people saying that it just misses, and a critical failure would hit the hostage. What do the rules say?

Specific: We'll say the Opponent is holding a NPC hostage against a PC. The Opponent has one arm around the NPC. His other hand has a knife against the NPC's neck. The NPC is between the Opponent and the PC. The PC has a weapon to use against the Opponent and decides to try to attack.

  • \$\begingroup\$ There are lots of different kinds of hostage situations. Can you be more specific? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2016 at 3:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Given that more detailed description, I think this may be at least very similar to this question, if not a duplicate. Is the situation described here different somehow from just a standard grapple? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2016 at 3:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ You simplified your question, and restricted it to PF. That makes my own answer too big for the new question - i don t need now to explaint hat much about PF mechanics. Anyway, the answer to the question is in the point i say "Both are not in the same space, but adjacent spaces; the hostage clearly interferes with some creatures around the holder". I'll keep my long answer because i think it is useful for other people in the same scenario you are proposing. I'd make a new answer for specifically the miss, hit, % of hitting them scenario... \$\endgroup\$
    – cablop
    Jan 28, 2016 at 11:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Here it is. \$\endgroup\$
    – cablop
    Jan 28, 2016 at 14:20

5 Answers 5


If the victim is conscious, there's not really a way to hold them hostage. The villain could grapple and pin the victim, but they have to spend their action each turn maintaining the grapple, which means they're unable to ready an action -- they can't say "I ready an action to cut this hostage's throat if anyone attacks me". In this scenario, the hostage does provide +4 AC of cover to the villain if the hostage is between the villain and the player character -- but the player character could just walk to the other side of the grapple before attacking.

You might argue that the villain could have the victim conscious but restrained (tied up with rope?). This could work, but it causes other problems: it becomes less likely that the villain can actually kill them (drop them to -10hp) with a single attack.

If the victim is not conscious, holding them hostage is pretty easy. The villain can carry them like an object and can ready an action each turn to attack them. RAW, carrying a large object does not give the villain cover; however a DM might reasonably rule that the villain is using the hostage like an improvised tower shield, which does provide +4 AC of cover.

There are no rules in Pathfinder for accidentally striking something you weren't aiming at. It would be reasonable to add a house rule for this, though. One rule might be: "If you attack and miss, compare your attack roll to the hostage's AC (which is very low because they're unconscious) to see if you hit the hostage instead."

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    \$\begingroup\$ You can hold someone hostage. Your character just has to persuade them to not run away. There is even the Intimidate skill for that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nat
    Jan 27, 2016 at 1:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ There's also the possibility of restraining them with rope/manacles/magic (such as "hold person"). \$\endgroup\$
    – Liesmith
    Jan 27, 2016 at 4:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ You are forgetting a couple things. If the hostage is unconscious, the hostage is helpless. If the villain tied the hostage, the hostage is helpless. A helpless creature allows an attacker to perform a coup de grace, hence the villain is more likely to kill the creature with just one attack. \$\endgroup\$
    – cablop
    Jan 27, 2016 at 18:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ I mostly agree with you! -- I mean, coup de grace is a full-round action so you can't do it with a readied action. And a "tied up" creature is not helpless (though a "bound" creature is -- weird!). But yes, you're right that it's possible to make it work with a conscious but restrained hostage. It's just a lot of effort, and it's way easier to have the hostage unconscious. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan B
    Jan 27, 2016 at 18:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dan B, I'm pretty sure that a target that is "bound" by ropes, which grants the pinned condition and makes the target helpless, is created when you "tie up" someone with rope, unless you can point to something in the rules that says otherwise? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28, 2016 at 14:17

It is a combination of complex rules. There are no clear rules about assassin moves, so the hostage situation is complicated.

There are no rules on using another as a shield, but there are for being covered by another creature.

I'm trying to follow the Pathfinder rules to answer you. As an example i use a male who took a female as his hostage. Both are medium or small creatures.

If the hostage is fighting the holder:

  • Both the hostage and the holder gain the grappling condition; they suffer a -4 penalty to AC and -2 penalty to attack, except for keeping or breaking the grapple.
  • If the holder had enough time (rounds) he had the chance to pin the hostage, worsening her condition. She is now pinned, he remains grappled.
  • Both are not in the same space, but adjacent spaces; the hostage clearly interferes with some creatures around the holder. That provides the holder cover from ranged and reach attacks. This is a -4 penalty to attack the holder when the hostage is in between. As a house rule, some GM rule to fail by 4 or less means you hit the creature providing cover, in this case the hostage. I rule failing by 4 or less could hit the hostage, just compare the failed attack roll with her AC; i won't make it an automatic hit because the hostage is also avoiding being hit, isn't her?
  • To put the knife in the hostage throat is not an attack, it's just a threat. To allow it to be a part of the grapple and a demoralize action, according to the intimidate skill, is up to the GM. In that case the hostage and the foes could get the shaken condition in addition to other conditions.
  • The holder can perform many actions. Among his many options the ones that interest us, in this case, are: he can attempt to hurt her (standard action, can be a readied action, breaks the grapple, good if his BAB is better than his CMB); attempt to continue the grapple and automatically deal damage (standard action, can be a readied action, maintains the grapple, he can release her for free anyway, good if his CMB is better than his BAB, or other conditions, like she is pinned and he has sneak attack); release her as a free action and perform a special attack against her, like a full attack or using a feat like Vital Strike or called shots (full round action, can be delayed, good if willing to deal a lot of damage to her, he can performs it before her turn, so she cannot avoid it, still useful to "negotiate").
  • As readied actions the holder can cut the throat or maintain the hold and cut her throat. Anyway, the hostage can attempt to defend herself, so it is not an automatic action, resolve it as normal, counting the grapple penalties if still grappling. The triggers of the readied attack action are the foes or the hostage attempt to do something. We have to accept the fact the holder is at initiative advantage. But the foes can attempt to counter that with delayed actions, or readied actions if the GM allows them against readied actions; clearly the holder can hurt the hostage, but then the other characters will react to that. As the holder ready his action against the hostage, he is releasing the grapple but not breaking the hostage situation, if the hostage attempts to escape the holder uses his ready action. Both remain with the grappled conditions as long as the holder is readying actions and the hostage is delaying actions or deciding to not to act in her turn against the hostage situation.
  • When it comes to full round actions, the holder is bluffing and demanding things. He bets he is powerful enough to kill the hostage no matter what his enemies do to him before, during and after acting: Like a troll guard, trained as a rogue, following his boss orders to use a little girl as a hostage, threatening her with a poisoned short sword of his creature size, against a 3 lvl party of already beaten PCs.

If the hostage is not fighting the holder, in addition of the previous considerations:

  • The hostage is voluntarily leaving herself at her holder's mercy. She gains the helpless condition in addition to existing conditions (shaken, grappled/pinned). The holder gains the grapple condition, not for being in a grapple but as an effect of the hostage situation.
  • The hostage is the one causing the helpless condition, not the holder, so she can decide to stop being helpless, but in her own turn.
  • She is allowing the holder to take deadlier actions now, like a coup de grace. She is allowing that trade off, because her bet is if she is not fighting her holder, she has better chances to make it out alive.

If everyone stops fighting:

  • Then the initiative counts are lost. Everyone needs to roll for initiatives again if they want to start battling again.

Out of battle:

  • The creatures are not engaged in a battle, there are no initiative counts.
  • The bets are now not against the readied/delayed actions, but there are more on the style of: Who is going to roll the higher initiative? Is the hostage helpless or just being held (i have no means to know until i act)? Could we kill that troll before he kills the girl?

Things become difficult for other creature sizes:

  • Tiny or smaller creatures can occupy the space of other creatures. Creatures three or more step sizes larger than the other also allow the situation to happen. As GM, i'd allow them to be in a grapple in the same space as other creatures. It is a similar situation like being held by a dragon's body slam.
  • GM discretion is needed for cover with different sizes. For me, when both holder and hostage are withing zero, one or two size steps of difference they provide cover. If the difference is bigger, then the smaller creature can't provide cover while the other provides total cover from some or all angles, again, this would be a house rule.
  • There are other scenarios that would require GM discretion, like a tiny creature holding a diminutive one as hostage against large foes. For me they're both in the same square, and the large creatures have the cover penalty to hit no matter the direction.

Interesting things to consider:

  • It is not easy to determine if some non directly offensive actions are triggers for the hostage holder's readied actions. A very brave guy would allow many foes to aim at him with bows, while a very nervous one could cut the hostage's throat just for the parrot familiar of the wizard shaking its wings.
  • It is not easy to determine if the PCs are not fulfilling the holder's demands. A very brave guy would be satisfied if they just stop fighting and put the swords down, but a total dastard could hurt the hostage if they don't throw all their items on the floor, including that parrot familiar, a guy would just kill the hostage no matter what.
  • The hostage could not be really a hostage. Maybe she is the favorite sexual slave of the gang boss, she is genuinely leaving herself at his lover's mercy, being genuinely helpless, she is not bluffing, that guy is. Same situation with Stockholm syndrome, fanatic followers, hypnotized people, testing the PCs... etc.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you revise your answer to make it all one answer without an "edit" addendum? We have an edit history feature, and splitting an answer up with edit markers makes it difficult to determine what the answer actually means. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2016 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok, i integrated the edit addendums in the main answer and just left a few things to help the ones that read the answer before to know what changed. \$\endgroup\$
    – cablop
    Jan 27, 2016 at 17:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ The edit history feature takes care of that too by providing a space to explain why the edit was made. I've removed the notes, because they're not part of answering the question. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2016 at 17:49

There are 2 alternative interpretations:

The victim is pinned by the opponent and therefore they are in melee. The victim does not provide cover but you have a -4 penalty to hit (-2 if the opponent is 2 size categories or more bigger than the victim) for firing into melee unless you have the Precise Shot feat or the opponent is so large you can shoot at part of it that is 10 feet or more from the victim. If you miss you hit nobody. http://www.d20pfsrd.com/gamemastering/combat#TOC-Attack

Alternatively, they are not in melee and the hostage provides soft cover. If this is full cover it is a +4 to AC, if half cover +2 but no bonus to saving throws. http://www.d20pfsrd.com/gamemastering/combat#TOC-Cover

It is unclear if both of these can happen at the same time but I would think not.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Can someone explain the downvotes? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2016 at 16:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I also wonder why the downvotes. As @Dale M is not explaining some of the things related to the hostage situation, his interpretation of the rules is right. \$\endgroup\$
    – cablop
    Jan 27, 2016 at 19:19

To my mind holding someone hostage means that you have had to somehow persuade them that they will remain "helpless". For you to be considered to be "grappling" it implies an opponent who is resisting and I would not consider that to be a hostage situation, that is combat.

So a someone holding a hostage is threatening to do a coup de grace, a full round attack of opportunity provoking action.

So that means the PC in this example can choose to target the hostage taker or react to the hostage takers action. Either way they go first.

You could resolve this using some sort of cover mechanic, espcially granting Improved Cover to a skilled hostage taker.

The problem I have with resolving this using the combat rules, especially for cover, and aiming is because these assume a lot of movement and active defense for both the attacker and the defender.

Better to make an opposed dex based role off, playing it out with either party trying to get the advantage by talking or subtly moving position to get some sort of advantage. If the PC's win, the hostage taker either takes a damage and loses "control" of the hostage. if the hostage taker wins, resolve the coup de grace (maybe the hostage taker is bluffing?)

The combat rules are far too limited and will squash the excellent roleplaying options available to a high drama situation such as this. Milk it.


This is my second answer to your question covering specifically this parts: "Does holding someone hostage give partial cover and is there a chance of hitting the hostage if you miss hitting the intended target that is holding the hostage?" and "My opinion is that it should trigger a mechanic to see if the player hits or misses the hostage. [...] What do the rules say?".

I'm going to give names to people in this scenario; Grunt (male) takes Lidia (female) as hostage; Leonidas decides not to negotiate but attack Grunt.

For the first item in your question, cover:

I'm going to assume all are corporeal medium or small creatures. Tiny and smaller creatures, three or more step sizes of difference and incorporeality are going to change the situation a lot.

All of them occupy different spaces, then Lidia provides cover to Grunt for attacks through her space (+4 AC to Grunt) and interferes with other creatures actions (some other creatures cannot move through her space, etc.).

If Leonidas want to attack through Lidia's space he needs a reach or ranged weapon. Otherwise, he cannot hit Grunt. In a narrow corridor this strategy nicely works for Grunt. If Leonidas can move around Lidia, well, Leonidas best course is to move around Lidia then directly attack Grunt. Grunt can only counter it using a readied action to keep the grapple then move Lidia to keep her in between Leonidas and himself.

Also, if Lidia is considered a friendly character for Leonidas, Leonidas takes a -4 penalty to attack with ranged weapons, no matter the angle he attacks, except if having Precise Shot feat. If Leonidas doesn't care for her safety he can ignore that penalty. By RAW, missing because of that penalty doesn't mean he hits her.

For the second item in your question, chance of hitting the hostage, what do the rules say?:

By RAW, it only has more AC. Failing to hit him just means failing to hit him.

House rules, anyway, provide mechanics for the situation. I can only come with two house rules for this scenario. I'm going to assume in this situation Grunt's AC is 12, with Lidia's cover became 16. Lidia's AC is 14.

The simpler rule: Leonidas attack and miss, check if Leonidas's attack roll is 4 or less, if yes, Leonidas automatically hits Lidia. A variant of the rule is, Leonidas attack and miss, check if Leonidas's attack roll is between 12 and 15 (the AC range gained by Lidia's cover), if yes, Leonidas automatically hits Lidia. This first rule is nice for running the game faster.

The second rule: Leonidas attack and miss, check if Leonidas's attack roll is between 12 and 15 (the AC range gained by Lidia's cover), if yes, Leonidas probably hits Lidia, compare the attack with Lidia's AC, meaning if Leonidas attack was 12 and 13, he didn't hit Lidia, but 14 and 15 did. This second rule is nice for running a more realistic fun game.

Other considerations:

Conditions: Determine if the hostage and holder have special conditions, like grappled, as secondary effect of the hostage situation, and if the hostage alone has shaken, pined, helpless conditions too. Adjust accordingly.

Sizes and cover: By RAW, you should consider partial cover and total cover, some of them at GM discretion. E.g., a GM could determine a gnome hostage only provides partial cover to a half-orc holder; conversely, a GM can grant total cover a gnome taking an ogre hostage (yes, possible, the ogre is hypnotized and the gnome i using a monstrous technological item to threaten its life). Larger creatures could have some spots you can attack that are not covered by smaller hostages.

Sizes and space: By RAW, it is not clear what happens in a grapple when two creatures that can occupy the same space are in a grapple. But i'd assume they can be in different spaces or the same space. A dragon holding a gnome as a hostage can place the hostage in an adjacent space between the dragon and the hostage friends. Also it can be in the same space as the dragon, as happens in the rules for the dragon crush attack. The dragon can also have the gnome inside his mouth threatening to swallow her if the party don't accomplish his demands. In those cases, the characters can attack the dragon directly, i'd provide no cover from the hostage to it, in fact the dragon could be providing cover to the gnome so the party can use an area spell.

Incorporealty: OMG. This is a mess. Rule it in a per case basis.


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