Line of sight and line of effect in 4th Edition

Line of sight and line of effect are two concepts that can confuse new players and dungeon masters for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.  I know that I have personally struggled with these, and it feels like there’s always something new to learn.  Below are some basic pointers to help you understand line of sight and line of effect and what they mean for you and your game.

What is line of sight?

Line of sight means exactly what it says: You’re able to see a thing from where you’re standing.  What blocks line of sight?

  • Solid, opaque objects (walls, doors)
  • Complete darkness
  • Blindness
  • Invisibility
  • Certain magical effects that specifically say they block line of sight (such as a wizard’s Stinking Cloud)

An interesting case of an object that does NOT block line of sight is a solid, transparent object such as a pane of glass or a transparent crystal.  If you can see through it, it doesn’t block line of sight.  Also, dim light and fog and similar things might grant some concealment, but they don’t block line of sight.  You can still see through them, even if only dimly.

Creatures also don’t block line of sight.  It’s assumed that the creature is moving around enough in its square that you can still make out what’s on the far side of it (even though the creature in the way might grant cover if it’s your enemy).

What is line of effect?

Line of effect means that something going from point A to point B won’t get stopped by anything.  What stops line of effect?

  • Solid objects, whether opaque or not (doors, walls, even glass or crystal)
  • Certain magical effects that specifically say they block line of effect (such as spells that generate solid walls)

Things like darkness and blindness and invisibility don’t matter one bit for line of effect – an object would not be impeded at all if it were going through a cloud of magical fog or darkness, so line of effect still exists through them.  Creatures also don’t stop line of effect (again, they’re assumed to be moving around in their squares), though they may grant cover.

The canonical example of something that blocks line of sight but not line of effect is darkness.  The canonical example of something that blocks line of effect but not line of sight is a pane of clear glass.  Keep those examples in mind, and you should be able to figure out what’s what.

Melee attacks

In order to make a melee attack against something that’s in range of your melee attack, you must have line of effect to the target but you don’t have to have line of sight.  As long as your axe can get there, it doesn’t matter if you can see the target or not – you have line of effect and are allowed to attack.  If you can’t see it (you’re blinded, it’s totally dark, etc.) then the target has total concealment from you, which means your attack has a -5 penalty to hit.  But you can still make the attack.

Ranged attacks

As with a melee attack, you only need line of effect to the target with a ranged attack, not line of sight.  If you’re shooting an arrow through a cloud of magical darkness at a creature on the far side, the darkness does nothing to stop your arrow.  Again, if you can’t see the target it has total concealment – a -5 penalty to the attack roll.

The hooded archer can shoot the goblin through the black cloud of magical darkness with a -5 total concealment penalty; he can't shoot the rat on the far side of the glass wall

Close attacks

With a close attack, you only need line of effect to the target.  Your Thunderwave doesn’t care if you can see something or not – it just has to be able to get to it.  In addition, concealment doesn’t matter for close attacks, so even if the target is invisible in a completely dark room, your close attack has no penalty to hit it.

Area attacks

Somewhat surprisingly to me, area attacks work pretty much as close attacks do.  With an area attack, there are two different things to consider – the line from the caster to the origin square of the burst, and then the lines from the origin square of the burst to the targets that will be hit by it.

In order to put an area burst’s origin in a particular square, the caster only needs line of effect to that square, not line of sight.  If the wizard closes her eyes and points, she can still have the magical burst originate exactly where she wants it to.  If she’s shooting through an arrow slit , that’s good enough – the magical energy can get through the gap and erupt right where she wants it.  She can’t place the magical effect on the opposite side of a pane of glass, though – she does need line of effect to that origin square.

Even if the green wizard is blind and the cloud of gas blocks line of sight, she can still have her Area Burst 2 attack originate in square 1 and hit the fungus creature

As for the burst itself, it works just like a close attack.  As long as there is line of effect from the origin square of the burst to the target, the target will get hit.  This lets the wizard “shoot around a corner” as well – she can place the burst at the intersection of two hallways, and the burst will shoot down the side passage to hit any creatures within range.

Wrapping up

The basics of line of sight and line of effect for attacks are that you always need line of effect and you never need line of sight.  However, if you don’t have line of sight, then your melee and ranged attacks will suffer a -5 penalty from total concealment (but your close and area attacks are unaffected).

In a future post I’ll talk about a concept that has some connection to line of sight – being hidden.

16 thoughts on “Line of sight and line of effect in 4th Edition

  1. I do have one question, though. Let’s say in the above example, does the wizard casting the burst spell through the green fog get the penalty to attack rolls from total concealment? Or is the only thing that matters is having line of effect? In other words, when does cover/concealment affect a burst [x] in [y] squares spell?

    • @Dane: Concealment never affects close or area attacks. Cover affects them if there’s cover between the origin square of the burst/blast (square 1 in my example) and the target (the fungus creature).

      So, with the green wizard, it makes no difference that she’s shooting through the obscuring cloud. If she had placed the origin square a square down from square 1, the fungus creature would have some cover from the burst (-2 penalty to the attack roll). But with the burst originating in square 1, the fungus creature has no cover from the burst and there’s therefore no penalty to the attack roll.

  2. Truly strange! I guess I had always imagined that if the origin square of the spell were harder to see for the wizard, it’d be harder to accurately aim it. And since monsters don’t block line of effect, if there were another fungus creature one or two squares down from square one, the wizard could still aim at square one and take no attack penalties, right?

    Thanks much!

    • I had thought the same thing before, honestly – if the wizard either couldn’t see the origin square or had a hard time getting to it (such as through an arrow slit) there would be some kind of penalty. But no – magic in 4e is unerring like that. The wizard points at the origin square she wants for the area attack, and the attack explodes right there.

      The only penalties would be if there were some cover between the target and the origin square of the burst. Line of sight / concealment makes no difference at all for an area attack, just line of effect.

      • If it’s a melee attack, even if it’s a burst/blast, then the -5 Total Concealment penalty for lacking line of sight DOES apply. It’s not an attack that fills an entire square the way a fireball does – it’s a whirling dervish of sword-swinging, which needs to actually connect with the bad guy in the square in order to damage it. Hence, the concealment penalty.

        Also, I should mention that in your earlier question about having a second fungus creature behind the first one, the guy in front WILL provide some cover (-2 penalty) to the guy behind him, so the burst/blast does have a harder time hitting the one in the back (assuming it has a big enough radius to hit that one at all).

      • The part about melee attacks makes sense at least.

        If in this sequence (see below), with brackets representing squares, a and b representing enemies, and f representing the origin square of a close burst/ranged burst x in y squares/close blast spell


        a DOES have cover from f because his buddy b is front of him? And if so, this cover works the same for a close burst, close blast, or a ranged burst x in y squares?

        And really, thanks. I feel bad asking so many questions, but it’s been a recurring dilemma in our games for some time now.

      • Edit: I originally replied that A would have cover from F thanks to his ally B being in the way; I have since learned that creatures only provide cover to ranged attacks, not area, close or melee attacks. My mistake!

      • That makes a LOT of sense, actually. Wow, I’m gonna have a lot to go over on Saturday! And absolutely, going to read that post right now 😀

  3. I am 95% sure that what you’ve said already answers this question as yes, but just to be sure, does a wizard could also target a drow standing in the middle of a cloud of darkness with no problem, since that line of effect works?

    I’ll dedicate my Avenger’s first crit this weekend to your name ; )!

    • Yep, an area attack (or a close attack) can also get through a drow’s darkness with no problem and no penalty.

      Ah, the avenger! My favorite character that I’ve played so far in 4e was an avenger, good old Kern. Good luck, and many crits!

  4. I have recently heard creatures do not benefit from cover (I was referred to pg. 280 of PHB1) provided by allies in melee/burst/blast spells! Thought you might be interested!

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