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I have recently come up against the problem that players want to fire ranged attackes through multiple enemies, or place AoE spells behind multiple enemies. The idea that one could fire an arrow past three or more other creatures (and yes, I understand that the creature does not occupy the whole 5ft square) seemed completely unrealistic to me. I consulted the rules, and found that (as I understand it), no matter how many creatures are between you and the target, they only get +2AC, and there is no restriction on AoE placement.

To solve this problem, I have come up with the following houserules (also includes some ruling clarifications for players, and rules from back section of DMG):

You can make a ranged attack against an enemy on the other side of an ally or enemy creature. However the following rules apply (based on how many creatures are between you and it):

  • One creature: Half-cover (+2 AC)

  • Two creatures: 3/4-cover (+5 AC)

  • Three creatures or more: Full cover (can't target)

If you do not hit the AC of the creature you were trying to hit, but do hit the AC of one or more of the intervening creatures, then you hit the nearest one you hit the AC for instead. This includes allies.

For spells that specify targeting a location or creature ‘that you can see’, you can cast past one or two creatures, but not past three or more.

The above house-rules have not been playtested yet.

Does anyone have a better solution? Do the rules-as-written actually deal with the problem? Will these house-rules work?

I'm primarily looking for other people who have had a similar problem, and have play-tested house-rules (similar or different to these) to solve it.

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D&D is not a combat simulator

All games make compromises between playability and simulation. Chess, for example, falls on the side of playability while the simulators the Air Force uses to train their pilots fall on the side of simulation. As war games go, D&D is simulation light, playability heavy - tending more towards Chess than an F-16 simulator.

I appreciate that you understand that a creature does not occupy a whole 5-foot square, however, it goes further than this: combat does not actually happen in a series of discrete turns. Its funny to contemplate the fighter, just as the orc raises his scimitar for a killing blow, holding up his hand and saying "Wait, its the wizard's turn". Further, even though a creature is placed inside a 5-foot box for playability reasons its perfectly feasible that over the course of a round they are darting about all over the place in and around that box in order to get the clear shot they need.

As another complication, many spells do not indicate that something physical travels from the caster to the target - are these to be treated differently in your system? Notwithstanding, for those that do, there is no reason to suppose that a magical effect needs to follow physical laws - I can easily imagine the green ray from Disintegrate passing through the bodies of several creatures without harming them on its way to the target. Alternatively, who says that these effects go in a straight line? Maybe they zig-zag around the intervening creatures because of, say, magic?

Physical weapons do not go in straight lines either: they follow a balistic trajectory. Arrows "arch" which is why we have the word archery - historically missile troops shot over the heads of their melee companions to drop death from above on the enemy - much like modern artillery and air strikes do today.

I judge that this means see clearly, i.e. for long enough to cast the spell.

I disagree, seen is seen but even if I did accept your judgement casting most spells takes 1 action. How long is that, exactly? As long as it takes to swing a sword? Clearly not, because a high-level fighter can swing his sword multiple times in the same time period and move in between. The rules are clear that a round is about 6 seconds, however, there is no RAW for how long a turn or an action is.

However, if you have considered all of the above and still find that it grates on you then you might consider a house rule. These are only worthwhile when they add more to the game than they cost.

Personally, I don't feel the rule adds anything much but that is a judgement call and your judgement is not mine. Here are what I see the costs are:

  • It will rarely come into play. The best combats in D&D 5e pit approximately equal numbers against one another: 4 on 4 or 5 on 5 given a typical party. With so few combatants on the grid there is almost always going to be a spot within movement that a ranged attacker can get to so that they have a clear path to the target.
  • It will slow down combat. Each ranged character, on both sides, will spend a little bit longer each turn positioning themselves just so to avoid these penalties. Now, I play Advanced Squad Leader and I can happily spend hours working out the exactly right hex to place my anti-tank gun in or minutes considering if I move this squad across that road just here will his MG nest be able to see them (and more to the point, kill them) but that is the game experience I want from ASL - I don't want it from D&D.
  • Its verbose. I realize that this is a draft of the rule but it runs to 6 paragraphs and has a largish number of sub-cases and wherefores that the players have to keep track of - all while remembering which spells are affected and which aren't.

This is what I do:

  • I use the RAW but I "eyeball" it - if the creature concerned can easily get somewhere (5-10 feet away) where they have a clear path I just assume they do that and don't get the modifier. I just take it as a given that the creature takes their shot at the most advantageous time.
  • If the players decide to engage in combat in e.g. a crowded marketplace full of civilians then I just say "No ranged attacks or large AoE, there are too many innocents about". Of course, their enemies might not be so squeamish but that's part of the fun of being a DM.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have room in your solution for use of Advantage and Disadvantage? (Like the answer). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 5 '16 at 14:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast like what answer? \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jun 5 '16 at 23:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ileftoutthepersonalpronoun. (I like the answer). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 6 '16 at 0:50
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Use Disadvantage and Skill Checks

There's no need to house-rule this. DnD 5e is already set up to deal with these types of circumstances. The DMG suggests that you impose disadvantage when you feel it is appropriate and to make skill checks when there's a chance for failure. So, just like a player would need a skill check to do a backflip mid-combat, you can make your players make a skill check with their magic casting ability to pin point a particularly challenging fireball.

Disadvantage on attack rolls

5e is balanced primarily upon Advantage and Disadvantage. It's effectively a +/- 4 on your rolls statistically, but with all the excitement of rolling two dice. It also does not stack and Disadvantage and Advantage cancel eachother out. This means that no shot is too difficult for the player. At worst, they're rolling at disadvantage and at best, they're rolling normally (provided they acquire advantage). Rather than modifying AC, where such circumstances can make a shot nearly impossible (such as a +4 to AC at disadvantage), you only impose disadvantage. It's simple, it's quick, it's not too difficult. The drawback of this system is, as you've probably noted, it's a binary system of imposing difficulty. You either have disadvantage on this attack, or you don't. So you're losing out of the variability of your 4-point cover system (zero, half, 3/4 full). However, I think the simplicity and ease of use of disadvantage is worth it. It's precisely what the system was designed for.

Skill Checks

If there's no attack roll, use a skill check if it's particularly difficult. The rule of thumb for skill checks is that they should only be used if there's a chance for failure, especially if that failure is interesting. For instance, you don't need a skill check to break down a door if you've got 8 hours to do it. There's just no need to keep rolling, it's assumed that eventually you'll get it down. Similarly, you don't normally do a magic skill check for fireball and the like because you're already really good at doing it and it's second nature to you. Placing the fireball is easy-peasy under normal circumstances.

But when you have a lot of obstacles to thread the needle through, it might behoove you to require a skill check, because

  • Combat is stressful
  • Failure is interesting
  • It's not easy.

I've seen this used plenty of times and it makes sense. Have your player make a "spell" skill check. Just have them take their spellcasting modifier and add proficiency, like if they actually had proficiency in a skill called "spells". But they don't, so we're making it up. This is more or less a house-rule because it's making up a skill, but beyond that it's perfectly vanilla. The DC they want to hit is entirely up to you. It shouldn't be terribly difficult, but the option for failure should be present.

What to do on a failure? If you want to get really in depth, this would make a great question by itself. But, here are a few ways I've seen it done:

  • You can "scatter" the impact zone using a d8 if the spell picks a point in space
  • You can pick another target the spell hit instead using the same scatter rules if you're targeting a creature
  • Just get creative with it if it goes poorly. This is what you're there for!

You can also use this perceived randomness to help or hinder the party if combat is going too well or too poorly for your liking.

Worst case scenario, you can argue that a target cannot be seen and therefore a spell cannot be cast on it that requires line of sight.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Can do! I appreciate it, but I prefer text to bullets :) \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jun 5 '16 at 18:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I thought that it was more readable in bullet form. It's your answer though, so it's up to you. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jun 5 '16 at 18:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PremierBromanov OK. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 5 '16 at 19:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ladifas I'm just not a fan of bullet points most of the time. They feel too separated for what I intended. My intention was to list several connected points that lead into eachother. While lists are generally organized in a way where the points ARE connected, when I read them I read them as separate points only connected by a technicality (that technicality being what they're about). And what I usually go for is to separate sections by headers and write a (sometimes) concise string of sentences to explain myself. Rethinking it, however, I think a few spots could be improved with the bullets \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jun 5 '16 at 19:50

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