As you get more comfortable as a DM you tend to experiment a lot more. Your combat encounters are no longer just flat 20×20 squares with exactly enough creatures for a medium-difficulty encounter. You’ll add environmental hazards, homebrew new creatures to use, and so much more.
But one small, but noticeable thing that you can do to make encounters more engaging and potentially more difficult is to add elements of cover to the battlefield. Give your creatures and/or the party some obstacles to maneuver around. Doing this will allow both sides to break line of sight with their assailants.
Having line of sight is a huge deal in D&D 5e combat for certain creatures and player characters (PCs). Let’s take a deeper look at line of sight and how a better understanding of the mechanic can help us build better encounters as well as improve our play. Line of sight is a concept for both sides of the game.
What is Line of Sight
Line of sight is simply being able to see your target. Think of it as an imaginary line between your eyes and your target. If the line connects with the target, they’re in your line of sight.
Now, there are ways that your target can “break” your line of sight on them. The simplest of ways to break line of sight with a creature is by hiding behind a solid object. In fact, you don’t even have to hide to break line of sight, simply positioning yourself behind a wall is enough to break line of sight with a creature.
Total Cover is the mechanical condition in D&D 5e that describes what happens when you break line of sight with your enemy. Essentially, if you are considered to be in Total Cover you cannot be targeted by attacks that require the attacker to see you.
For example, a cleric can’t cast Sacred Flame on a goblin that is in Total Cover. They cannot see the goblin so the goblin is untargetable by that and other spells or attacks that require you to see your enemy.
Who Cares About Line of Sight?
Everyone cares about line of sight to a degree. Knowing the location of every enemy in a combat encounter is an enormous benefit. Hidden enemies can inflict some devastating damage and they’re essentially an unknown variable until they reveal themselves.
The more information you have, the better decisions you can make. The better decisions you make, the more likely you are at beating the encounter.
However, some characters and creatures care about line of sight a lot more than others. For example, any ranged attacker like an arcane archer cares about being able to see their target. Spellcasters are also going to be dealing with line of sight a lot as well, depending on the spells that they use.
Line of Sight and Encounter Design
As I mentioned previously in this article, adding ways for your creatures and the party to use the battlefield to their advantage doesn’t take a whole lot of effort on your part when you’re designing an encounter. It’s as much work as just adding a couple of boulders to a grassy field.
But in doing so, you create more dynamic encounters. The players can duck and hide behind the boulder. In turn, your creatures have to now reposition to sling spells at them effectively. The encounter just got a lot more interesting, and you didn’t have to do much prep to make this happen.
Cover is a fantastic element to add to the battlefield. A simple stone wall that grants you Half-Cover is a noticeable boon to have in combat. It’s advantageous for you to rush to the wall to give yourself a bit more survivability against the enemy’s ranged attackers.
But, this article isn’t just about cover. It’s about line of sight. With that in mind, let’s talk about Total Cover which is the only type of cover that allows you to break line of sight with your potential attackers.
Total Cover can be narratively described as you dashing around a corner or crouching down behind an enormous tree. If the enemy can’t see you, they cannot shoot you.
Being untargetable by having Total Cover from an attacker does two things. First, it grants you a ton of survivability. The enemy’s damage options are limited if they cannot target you from their current position. Second, it will force the enemy to reposition. In doing so, they may break their formation or open up an opportunity for either yourself or one of your allies to punish them for repositioning.
You should also be sure to add lots of opportunities for creatures to get Total Cover if your party is stuffed with magic users or other long-range combatants. It ensures that not every encounter becomes a long-range slugfest from hundreds of feet away.
Total Cover changes the pace and the feel of an encounter more than any other type of cover. It actively forces the opposing side to react to their target gaining Total Cover.
Give Your Creatures (or the party) an Option to Retreat
All of your encounters don’t have to finish with one side being killed or incapacitated. Forcing your enemy to retreat, or being forced to retreat yourselves is a perfectly valid win condition. Honestly, it’s a win condition that isn’t frequently used in D&D 5e.
Add ways for your party and the enemy to retreat from combat. You can do this by putting a secret passageway in your big bad’s lair, or you could just add a hallway that allows the retreating party to break line of sight with their enemy.
None of this has to be complicated. The simpler option is sometimes the best when you’re having the enemy run from the party.
A retreat can also segue into a chase encounter. So by allowing one side to retreat, you’ve created both an interesting narrative hook, but also a brand new encounter. Of course, this becomes more challenging to pull off when your players get access to teleportation spells.
A Fight for the High Ground
The elevation that the attacking character is at is another factor that you’ll have to take into consideration when you’re determining cover and line of sight.
A creature attacking from a higher elevation than their target may be able to see over the boxes that they’re hiding behind, therefore negating cover. They also have a better vantage point on the battlefield so they may be able to gain line of sight on additional enemies.
Throwing in an area of higher elevation into your battlemaps creates a new goal for both sides of the encounter to chase after. A vantage point could turn the tide for either side’s ranged attackers and the combat now becomes a King of the Hill style game rather than a standard deathmatch.
As far as official rules are concerned, having high ground doesn’t do anything specific outside of reducing cover, but even that is up to the DM to rule. Determining how cover works vs. an elevated attacker is entirely up to the DM deciding if it makes sense.
In some games, having the high ground will increase the maximum distance of your ranged attacks. I could see this being a fun variant rule for D&D 5e, but it also adds a bit of extra crunch to every encounter.
A quick and easy way to give a mechanical benefit to high ground is to give a creature with high ground advantage on ranged attacks.
In my opinion, I’d just use the cover mechanics for a creature making a ranged attack at a creature with the high ground. I think Half-Cover makes both logical and mechanical sense as far as a benefit is concerned and it feels better to bolster the target’s AC rather than give a player disadvantage on an attack.
Line of sight isn’t a difficult concept to grasp. It’s simply a fancy way of saying “you can see your target”. However, it’s a very important facet of combat in D&D 5e or any sort of wargame or RPG with a focus on combat.
You make an encounter dynamic by simply throwing in elements in the battlefield that can disrupt line of sight. Total Cover comes in many different forms so you can add it to any encounter and not have to sacrifice narrative cohesion for a mechanical element of the game.
High ground is a concept that doesn’t have a whole lot of mechanical definition in D&D 5e. Honestly, I think that’s intentional though. Having specific high-ground rules could make the game extremely crunchy. However, that’s not to say that there’s no tactical benefit to fighting for high ground. Having the high ground as an archer or a spellcaster is beneficial.