Difficult Terrain 5e

Published on March 3, 2024

Explore how difficult terrain shapes combat and exploration in D&D 5e, making strategic movement and positioning key to success.

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Difficult Terrain in D&D 5E

Difficult terrain adds a layer of strategic complexity to D&D 5e, influencing combat and exploration by altering movement and positioning. This article delves into how difficult terrain affects these aspects of the game, offering insights on how to navigate and utilize these challenges effectively.

Understanding Difficult Terrain in 5E

Difficult terrain in D&D 5E is essentially any part of the environment that hampers movement. It has two different effects, depending if you’re encountering difficult terrain in combat or in an exploration scenario:

Difficult Terrain in Combat

In a combat encounter where space and movement matter on a smaller scale, difficult terrain can create opportunities and threats by significantly slowing down any creatures stuck in it.

Every foot of movement in difficult terrain costs 1 extra foot. This rule is true even if multiple things in a space count as difficult terrain.

Low furniture, rubble, undergrowth, steep stairs, snow, and shallow bogs are examples of difficult terrain. The space of another creature, whether hostile or not, also counts as difficult terrain.

Chapter 9: Combat – Basic Rules

It’s important to note that difficult terrain stacks with other effects that hamper movement. For example, climbing usually takes 2 feet for every 1 foot climbed. Therefore, climbing in difficult terrain would cost 3 feet for every 1 foot moved instead.

Difficult Terrain in Exploration

When embarking on an expedition that will take hours, days, and weeks, encountering an environment that slows travel can have a costly impact on your travel time.

Adventurers often face dense forests, deep swamps, rubble-filled ruins, steep mountains, and ice-covered ground–all considered difficult terrain.

You move at half speed in difficult terrain–moving 1 foot in difficult terrain costs 2 feet of speed–so you can cover only half the normal distance in a minute, an hour, or a day.

Chapter 8: Adventuring – Basic Rules

Using Difficult Terrain to Shake Up Your Encounters

If you’re looking to create a more dynamic battle where movement and strategy matter more than who can dish out the most damage, difficult terrain is a perfect feature to add to your encounter. Adding difficult terrain can cause a traditional party to have to break from the typical “tanks in the front, casters in the back” battle plan. This is doubly so if the party is facing off against enemies that can use difficult terrain to their advantage.

Let’s explore some common arenas that contain difficult terrain and how to use it to shake up combat:

Dense Forest

A clutter of undergrowth and trees can disrupt count for difficult terrain and double as cover that can heavily obscure enemies. Creatures who call the forest home will almost certainly adopt guerrilla tactics or use the terrain for ambushes, moving unseen to strike with advantage. This will force the party to guard their flank and rear, not just the front.

They could also use tempting areas of non-difficult terrain to lay traps to catch combatants that try to get out of the underbrush.


Patches of mud and shallow water that create difficult terrain can result in an interesting battlefield. This tricky footing could make it difficult for melee fighters to close in on enemies or protect casters if they get separated. Foes accustomed to swamp fighting, like bullywogs, lizardfolk, and maybe even black dragons, would exploit their knowledge of solid ground versus treacherous muck to outmaneuver the party.

This, coupled by the fact the they could use their swim speed to navigate terrain that would be difficult to the party more effectively can certainly turn a supposedly easy battle on its head.

Rubble and Ruins

Navigating through debris and collapsed structures offers numerous hazards. Enemies could use higher ground to their advantage, and scaling the rubble to meet them head-on would take melee combatants extra time because of the difficult terrain. These types of battlegrounds would be a favorite for trap-setting enemies that plan ahead, like goblins and kobolds.

Snow and Ice

Deep snow is certainly an obstacle to create difficult terrain and it pairs wonderfully with slick, icy surfaces. Party members could take the safe route of wading through snow at half speed, or they could risk running across the ice, which requires a successful DC 10 Athletics check to avoid falling prone.


Arachnaphobids beware! A spider’s lair would certainly be difficult terrain from all the webs strewn about, and most spider enemies have the Web Walker trait, which allows them to ignore movement restrictions caused by their webbing. Pair this with their Web Sense, which allows them to know the location of any creature in contact with their webbing, and Spider Climb, and these 8-legged monsters will definitely be able to get the “drop” on the party.

Difficult Terrain Effects in D&D 5E

Difficult terrain can either be a significant obstacle or a strategic advantage in D&D 5e, depending on how adventurers and their adversaries utilize the environment. Difficult terrain in a bottleneck or where combatants are forced to take an extra turn in an AoE ability can change the entire course of an encounter. It can also split forces, leaving backline casters exposed without tanks to back them up.

Whether you’re using difficult terrain offensively or defensively, here are some common ways it’s manipulated in D&D 5e:

Effects That Mitigate Difficult Terrain

Several abilities and spells allow characters to navigate through difficult terrain without the usual penalties. These effects can be crucial for maintaining mobility in combat or ensuring that a party can quickly traverse hazardous areas.

  • Freedom of Movement: This spell is the gold standard for ignoring difficult terrain, granting unfettered movement through nonmagical terrain that would otherwise slow the character down.
  • Ranger’s Natural Explorer: At 2nd level, rangers choose a type of favored terrain. While traveling for an hour or more in their favored terrain, difficult terrain doesn’t slow the group’s travel.
  • Druid and Ranger’s Land’s Stride: Starting at 6th level, druids and rangers gains the ability to move through nonmagical difficult terrain at no extra movement cost. Additionally, plants that might impede movement (thorns, vines, etc.) don’t cause them harm or slow them down.
  • Mobile Feat: When you take this feat, you can ignore difficult terrain when you take the Dash action.
  • Flight, Levitation, or Teleportation: Any ability that allows creatures to teleport or get off the ground can be crucial for avoiding difficult terrain. If your chosen race has flight, or if you have access to misty step, fly, levitate, or even telekinesis, you’ll be able to zip to firmer footing.

Ways to Create Difficult Terrain

Creating difficult terrain can be a powerful tactic, slowing down enemies or controlling the flow of battle. The following spells are specifically designed for this purpose:

Spell Level School Blurb
Entangle 1 Conjuration Turns a 20-foot square area into difficult terrain and can restrain creatures.
Grease 1 Conjuration Covers the ground in a 10-foot square with slippery grease, making it difficult terrain.
Spike Growth 2 Transmutation Transforms a 20-foot radius ground into difficult terrain, dealing 2d4 piercing damage for every 5 feet traveled.
Web 2 Conjuration Fills a 20-foot cube with webbing, turning it into difficult terrain and possibly restraining creatures.
Plant Growth 3 Transmutation Creates dense vegetation over a 100-foot radius, turning it into super difficult terrain that costs 4 feet for everyone 1 foot moved .
Erupting Earth 3 Transmutation Churns up earth and stone in a cube, becoming difficult terrain until cleared.
Sleet Storm 3 Conjuration Creates a storm of freezing rain and sleet, making the ground icy and treacherous.
Speak with Plants 3 Divination While primarily for communication, can persuade plants to move, potentially altering terrain difficulty.
Hunger of Hadar 3 Conjuration Creates an area of blackness and bitter cold that can slow movement.
Evard’s Black Tentacles 4 Conjuration Summons tentacles that cover the ground in a 20-foot square, restraining and damaging foes while creating difficult terrain.
Ice Storm 4 Evocation Hails down ice and sleet, making the ground slippery and difficult to move through.
Insect Plague 5 Conjuration Summons a swarm of biting insects that not only harms but can hinder movement through an area.
Blade Barrier 6 Evocation Creates a wall of whirling blades that not only deals damage but can make an area difficult to pass through safely.
Mirage Arcane 7 Illusion Illusion that alters the appearance of terrain, which can include making flat land seem difficult to traverse.
Earthquake 8 Evocation Creates severe tremors that turn the ground into difficult terrain, potentially causing structures to collapse.

Tough it Out

The proper usage of difficult terrain is an extraordinarily useful tool in the workshop of any Dungeon Master. It not only challenges players to think creatively about their movement and strategy but also integrates the environment into your scenario, which makes it feel more alive.

Mike Bernier

Mike Bernier is the lead content writer and founder of Arcane Eye. He is a Adamantine best-selling author of Strixhaven: A Syllabus of Sorcery on DMs Guild and is a contributing author at D&D Beyond. Follow Mike on Twitter.

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