What is Heavily Obscured in DnD 5e?

A lot goes into running combat in Dungeons & Dragons 5e. And, it’s easy to overlook or forget about certain elements.

But, I see a bit of confusion on how heavily obscured works.

So, I’m going to clear things up with this complete guide on heavily obscured in DnD 5e.

  1. What is Heavily Obscured?
  2. FAQ

Let’s get started with what the book says about it.

What Does Heavily Obscured Mean in 5e?

Photo Sketch of Wolves in a Foggy Valley
Dense fog can make an area heavily obscured in DnD 5e

Heavily obscured means an area is entirely blocked visually.

Page 183 of the Player’s Handbook (here on DnD Beyond) in Chapter 8: Adventuring under Vision and Light defines it as:

"A heavily obscured area–such as darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage–blocks vision entirely. A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something in that area."

So, in short, creatures are effectively blinded while in and interacting with a heavily obscured area. Which means they fail ability checks that require sight, they have disadvantage on attack rolls, and attack rolls against them have advantage.

Now, here’s where the confusion begins.

Here’s what happens fairly often in DnD: you enter combat and your party’s Control character decides to cast fog cloud or darkness. The area of effect becomes heavily obscured engulfing all combatants in range. The rules state that your attacks are at disadvantage. But, attacks against blinded creatures are at advantage. So…what’s the deal?

Personally, I call spells and effects that do this "equalizers."

That’s because everyone suddenly loses any advantage or disadvantage. When you have advantage AND disadvantage on a roll, you just roll normally. So, heavily obscured puts everyone (allies and enemies alike) on more equal footing.

5e’s advantage and disadvantage system is…a whole other thing. Just know for now that if you have both advantage and disadvantage you have neither and roll normally. Which, in some circumstances, is a really good thing.

FAQs

Photo Sketch of a Dark and Foggy Forest
Using environments that are heavily obscured are great for encouraging more tactical combats

So, now that you kinda know how 5e’s heavily obscured rules work, let’s take a look at a couple common questions relating to it.

How Do Ranged Attacks Work with Heavily Obscured Areas?

When attacking into a heavily obscured area in 5e, you’re essentially firing blind. So, it works the same way as when you’re in the affected area.

You can’t see into a heavily obscured area (unaided, at least). So, even though you character might not be in the affected zone, you’re still effectively blinded when attacking something inside it.

You still get advantage on your attack against creatures in the area. But, you have disadvantage on the attack since you can’t actually see them. So, you cancel them out and roll normally.

But remember; spells and abilities that explicitly call out you need to see your target means you can’t cast or use it on things in heavily obscured areas.

Does Being Heavily Obscured Grant Cover?

Not exactly.

Here’s where things get a bit muddy, too.

Rules as written, being heavily obscured doesn’t give your character total cover.

Page 196 of the PHB says this about total cover:

"A target has total cover if it is completely concealed by an obstacle."

But, wouldn’t being heavily obscured mean a target becomes completely concealed?

This is another instance where semantics come into play. Personally, an obstacle means something solid between you and your target like a wall or a large rock. But, heavily obscured refers to things like total darkness, thick fog, or murky water. You can still move within the space, it’s just hard to see.

So, I’d rule that heavily obscured does not grant any kind of cover.

 

That about covers everything concerning heavily obscured in 5e.

It effectively places the blinded condition on everyone who interacts with the obscured area. So, all combatants operate on more or less equal footing since advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out.

Just remember: while it might seem counterintuitive to basically blind your entire party, you can stop enemies from gaining advantage on their rolls by fighting in a heavily obscured area. It can be a great tactical move if your party is in a bind.

What do you think of spells or effects that heavily obscure an area? Do you think they’re useful or not worth it? Leave a comment and we can discuss it.

16 thoughts on “What is Heavily Obscured in DnD 5e?”

  1. A heavily obscured area blocks vision entirely PHB 183. Don’t overlook “blocks vision entirely”. That includes those inside the heavily obscured area and those looking into it. Natural darkness can be an exception to that rule, such as when in a dungeon in complete darkness and an adventurer starts in your direction holding a torch: you can see the adventure, but the adventurer can’t see you. Fog and dense foliage don’t work like this, however. There’s a lot of corner scenarios that the developers didn’t account for, relying on people to make common sense evaluations of the situation. Fog Cloud is a specific example of how this works, both sides, inside the cloud, are both effectively blinded. This effect levels the playing field, causing advantage and disadvantage to cancel out. I use Fog Cloud with my Tempest Cleric regularly to negate advantage of creatures attacking our group. To play that Fog Cloud gives advantage to those inside of it versus those outside of it would be a much higher level spell than 1st level. To get further in the weeds, you can play that the one inside the cloud is effectively blinded and the one outside of the cloud is attacking an invisible target. The effect is the same: advantage and disadvantage cancel out, balancing the playing field. The Darkness spell works similarly in that you can not see into our out of it. When using a heavily obscured area to hide, Jeremy Crawford has a pod cast that details how you can hide in a fog cloud for example and briefly pop out of it to attack and stay unseen.

    1. This was pretty much my interpretation of it as well. Your point about if fog cloud granted advantage on attacks by those made within the area against targets outside of it would make it a much higher level is another really good point to include.

    2. What you are saying about fog cloud is not RAW. it is true only for Darkness spell because in the description, it specifically tells you that light can NOT penetrate the the effected area, making seeing from inside impossible. That does not apply to fog cloud because fog cloud does not have any such extra restriction. It simply tells you it creates a heavily obscured area. Sure you can rule otherwise if you do not agree. I have been in many fog clouds and I actually see it perfectly normal to see out of it, but not into it.
      https://youtu.be/icyNGxr1iSI

      1. I think it actually aligns with RAW for fog cloud fairly well.

        Let’s look at fog cloud’s spell description:

        "You create a 20-foot-radius sphere of fog centered on a point within range. The sphere spreads around corners, and its area is heavily obscured. It lasts for the duration or until a wind of moderate or greater speed (at least 10 miles per hour) disperses it."

        Section bolded by me for emphasis.

        Now, let’s look at the errata about heavily obscured:

        "A heavily obscured area doesn’t blind you, but you are effectively blinded when you try to see something obscured by it."
        PH Errata

        So, there’s a 20-foot-radius sphere of heavily obscured area. According to the errata, a creature is effectively blinded to see something obscured by a heavily obscured area. This would mean anything on the other side of an area affected by the fog cloud spell (through, in, or in-outward) would be heavily obscured.

        Being inside means any amount of space between a creature and a target outside of the area doesn’t matter; that target is still considered heavily obscured. Objectively speaking and according to the explicit word of the spell, every bit of space within fog cloud’s area-of-effect is heavily obscured. Every foot, inch, centimeter, or whatever unit of measurement you use counts as heavily obscured.

        Even looking at the PHB without the errata supports this.

        "A heavily obscured area—such as Darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage—blocks vision entirely. A creature effectively suffers from the Blinded condition (see Conditions) when trying to see something in that area."
        Player’s Handbook, page 183

        Now, the last part is most likely the cause for varying interpretations. "…when trying to see something in that area" could either mean trying to see a target within the area or trying to see something while within the area. A subtle distinction, and the source for this debate.

        That said, we cannot ignore "blocks vision entirely". Fog cloud creates a heavily obscured area. This means that that 20-foot-radius sphere blocks vision entirely. Rules as Written, a creature within the area-of-effect of fog cloud cannot see out of it because of this.

        1. Brodie, I would suggest that “when trying to see something in that area” means when you’re located in the area AND when you’re trying to see something located in that area since these areas block vision entirely. That’s why these areas are considered equalizers.

      2. Right, a heavily obscured area, such as Fog Cloud, blocks vision entirely. This includes being located inside of it. 5E rules aren’t an exact simulation of real life. The rules as written, supersede whatever simulation you may be using. I’ve been in natural fog clouds that I can see out of and into as well. This kind of area is lightly obscured, as described in the PHB on PG 183. These areas are good places for creatures with the Skulker Feat or Mask of the Wild to attempt to hide because they can’t be seen. I used to play that if you’re located in a heavily obscured area you can see out of it, but after doing a lot of research on the subject, found that I was wrong. Playing in this manner creates unbalanced combat.

  2. Mario Santino Marin

    There is some things not clear here. A person INSIDE a heavily obscured area is NOT effectively blind. Darkness, as per raw, is heavily obscured. If you are in darkness, you are heavily obscured. However, those not in darkness, those outside the darkness are able to be seen by those INSIDE the darkness. Heavily obscured does not block vision outside the area of obscurity. Inside a fog cloud spell? You can attack at advantage those outside the cloud. Darkness? Same. This is an important understanding. Being Invisible effectively grants you heavy obscurity “An invisible creature is impossible to see without the aid of magic or a Special sense. For the Purpose of Hiding, the creature is heavily obscured.” That does not mean the person invisible is also blinded by his own invisibility.
    “A heavily obscured area—such as Darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage—blocks vision entirely. A creature effectively suffers from the Blinded condition (see Conditions ) when trying to see something in that area.”
    Notice it doesn’t say OUT of that area. The blinded person is the one trying to look inside it. If you enter the fog area to attack something inside it, you are now both effectively blind TO each OTHER because you are both inside the cloud. You both can still see those outside the cloud.

    1. All very fair points.

      Darkness is a funky example as magical effects don’t have a strict, real-world equivalent. So, I concede that you could interpret a creature inside the area-of-effect of the darkness spell can still see a well-lit creature outside of the area. I’ve always interpreted darkness as creating an orb of pure darkness that only a few creature can see through. But, that might just be me.

      That said, fog cloud is much easier to understand. Step inside a thick fog bank in the real world and you can’t see outside of it. Realistically, it makes zero sense to not suffer effects similar to the Blinded condition even while targeting something outside or on the other side of a fog cloud.

      Also, the errata kind of clears it up a bit more:

      "A heavily obscured area doesn’t blind you, but you are effectively blinded when you try to see something obscured by it."

      "…to see something obscured by it" implies that a creature doesn’t need to be explicitly within the area of effect of the fog cloud spell. It the fog cloud’s area-of-effect separates two creatures, I’d argue that they’d both be heavily obscured from the other. And, while a creature doesn’t suffer the explicit Blinded condition, they’re still effectively blinded. Meaning, they suffer the negative effects of the corresponding condition.

      Again, darkness is funky and up to GM interpretation. So, I think you have a very good point concerning how darkness and heavily obscured play.

  3. Great little article. You didn’t mention though that, in some cases creatures within the area are not effectively blinded. Depending on the source of the effective blindness there are counter “conditions”. For instance a creature with “truesight” or an equivalent like “devil’s sight” can see normally in even magical darkness and will not count as being blinded. Such a creature cannot be effectively blinded by even magical darkness. So whenever you’re fighting fiends you probably shouldn’t use that tactic ;D. Having cover means being concealed by something impenetrable; it means physical concealment and not just a visual one. Any such cover would have to be removed; physically damaged and destroyed to get rid of the concealment effect. A crossbow shooter behind an embrasure has 3/4 cover and thus +5 to AC and DEX saves. You don’t have disadvantage against a creature that has only some form of cover but to remove their benefits from the cover you’d have to destroy the wall that embrasure belongs to for instance. There’s also counters to darkness and fog. A gust of wind removes the fog, and magical darkness can be countered by magical light cast AT LEAST one level higher than the darkness spell. Darkness always wins draws. 😉 Treating concealment as cover is just a mistake; simple as that. Said Crossbow Shooter could also stand in total darkness and benefit from full concealment on top of his 3/4 cover. To hit this guy with an attack roll you’d then have to check against his +5AC at disadvantage if you cannot counter the concealment part like if you have dark vision and it’s just normal darkness or if you can gain another advantage from another condition/feat/etc. Concealment and Cover are two different game mechanics; you can either have both at the same time from different sets of conditions or one or none. There is no one condition that I know of that grants you both and objectively speaking that would be overpowered because there is also no condition that I know of that is able to counter both at the same time. What most people also overlook is that a creature, whether they are friend or foe, grant half cover to another creature next to them whether they want it or not, so long as they are large enough to cover at least half of their body. So basically of same size or larger. Referring to the DMG p.251 “[…]trace imaginary lines from that corner to every corner of any one square the target occupies. If one or two of those lines are blocked by an obstacle (including another creature), the target has half cover.” So even a gargantuan creature gives you half cover even though it’s probably mostly a plain field below such a creature if it’s at least bipedal :D. Making a ranged attack from the other side of that cover granting creature means the target benefits from half cover.

    1. I didn’t want to go into every possible way of getting around heavily obscured areas because that would involve almost an entire post on its own (blindsight, true sight, dispelling darkness, using wind to remove fog bloud, etc). And I agree that obscured doesn’t mean the same thing as cover (which is why I mentioned it in the article) since cover is explicitly an obstacle between an attacker and their target. But, I think there is some confusion and some DMs might grant cover based on obscurity.

  4. Nicely done! When I first started reading, I thought “I hope this isn’t another commentary on how Fog Cloud or Darkness can be used to retreat or hide. Both are true, but completely miss the most beneficial feature of these spells – creating a heavily obscured area; equalizing combat.
    To help me better understand heavily obscured, I inserted the capitalized text in my PHB: “A heavily obscured area–such as darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage–blocks vision entirely. A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something WHILE BEING LOCATED in that area.”
    Example I like to use is an invisible stalker attacks. Cast Fog Cloud and now everyone is on equal footing because advantage and disadvantage cancel out. If the invisible stalker can still be heard (not hidden) its location is known. PG 194 of the PHB states that you can target a creature you can hear, but not see.
    The one area I would differ on semantics is when a creature is outside of the heavily obscured area, firing into the heavily obscured area, that creature is not effectively blinded, but firing at an invisible creature. The status effects are the same: advantage and disadvantage cancel out, I’m just splitting hairs.
    Thanks for your well written and thought out post!

    1. Thanks!

      And, that’s a really fair point on targeting into a heavily obscured area from outside of it. Part of my brain tried justifying it as being effectively blinded. But, it never felt quite right. Comparing it to targeting an invisible creature is way better.

      1. I also meant to add that many of the most destructive spells in the game require the caster to be able to see the target. Heavily obscured areas protect one from those spells.
        One reason I enjoy playing a Tempest Cleric is Fog Cloud at 1st level. I personally think it’s one of the best utility spells in the game, and it’s a first level spell!

        1. Oh, yeah. Negating a whole mess of spells that require line of sight makes Fog Cloud an amazing early game spell.

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