At its surface, movement in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is fairly straightforward. However, certain rulesets complicate things. One such ruleset is how difficult terrain works.
What does difficult terrain mean? What counts as difficult terrain? How useful is difficult terrain for adding tension to your game?
This guide to difficult terrain in 5e for both players and Game Masters helps you better understand this ruleset to improve your game.
Let’s start with outlining the rules for difficult terrain as stated in the Basic Rules and Player’s Handbook
Rules for Difficult Terrain in 5e
D&D 5e’s rules for difficult terrain cover both small-scale and large-scale areas for combat areas and overland travel, respectively. However, the rules are essentially the same; every foot of movement counts as 2, effectively meaning a creature can only cover half the distance they ordinarily would while moving across or through difficult terrain.
That’s honestly the easiest way to understand how difficult terrain works; if the terrain is hard to move through, it takes 2 feet of movement speed for every foot traversed.
The 2 situations you’ll most likely encounter difficult terrain are during combat and travel from location-to-location. The former is easy enough to understand, but the latter involves understanding Travel Pace and figuring out distances between locales.
So, let’s get a bit deeper into each of these rulesets starting with difficult terrain in combat.
Difficult Terrain in Combat
The rules for navigating difficult terrain in 5e during combat effectively halves how far a creature may move. For every 1 foot moved, it takes 2 feet of movement speed. But, this doesn’t mean a creature’s movement speed is actually halved.
You’ll most likely encounter difficult terrain in combat encounters simply due to the fact that most effects which generate it are designed with combat in mind. So, understanding the default rules here gives you the best primer for using and navigating difficult terrain in your game.
The examples provided in the Basic Rules and Player’s Handbook aren’t exhaustive. There are loads of other instances and terrain which qualify as difficult terrain.
That said, the rules for all the different kinds of difficult terrain remain the same; each 1 foot of movement counts as 2 feet of movement speed.
For example, a creature with 30 feet of movement speed can move 15 feet at most if difficult terrain covers the entire distance they travel through.
Bear in mind; this difficult terrain doesn’t mean a creature’s movement speed is halved. Difficult terrain doesn’t actually do anything to movement speed, it just means it takes more movement to get through.
This is a small distinction, but it’s important to understand for certain specific circumstances like standing up from prone or the Harengon’s Rabbit Hop trait.
Now, while difficult terrain most often comes into play during combat, it also applies while traveling from place to place on a larger scale.
Difficult Terrain During Travel
Traveling from location-to-location outside of combat is also subject to difficult terrain rules. While out adventuring, if a creature must traverse a region of difficult terrain, every foot of movement counts as 2. So, a creature can only travel half the total distance.
Essentially, the rules of traveling through difficult terrain stay the same at a large scale; for every foot traversed takes 2 feet of movement. This effectively doubles the travel time from place-to-place on a macro scale.
Now, this means also understanding the basic Travel Pace rules as well.
Essentially, there are 3 speeds for Travel Pace in 5e:
- Fast Pace: 400 feet per minute, 4 miles per hour, 30 miles per day
- Normal Pace: 300 feet per minute, 3 miles per hour, 24 miles per day
- Slow Pace: 200 feet per minute, 2 miles per hour, 18 miles per day
Of course, these are the default rules. Traveling via ship or flight alters how far you can travel. But, for the rules of difficult terrain, we’ll just look at Travel Pace as its most basic level.
Anyway, Travel Pace assumes fairly easy travel with little to no obstacles or difficult terrain. Moving through difficult terrain effectively halves how far a creature may travel which means each of the example Travel Paces gets halved.
For example, moving through difficult terrain at a normal pace means a creature can only move 150 feet per minute, 1 1/2 miles per hour, and / or 12 miles per day.
That said, this assumes a creature spends their entire day traveling through difficult terrain like a huge bog, a snow-covered mountain range, or boulder-strewn badlands. The calculations can get a bit finnicky depending on if a creature travels through difficult terrain for only part of an adventuring day. At that point, it’s up to the Game Master for determining how that affects Travel Pace and how far that creature makes it.
What Counts as Difficult Terrain in D&D?
Essentially, any terrain which makes movement harder counts as difficult terrain. This includes deep snow, steep or treacherous stairs, shifting sands, and waist deep water among many others.
Basically, the test for whether something counts as difficult terrain is
Here are some examples of difficult terrain in 5e:
- Loose sand
- Steep stairs
- Deep snow
- Waist-high water
- Loose boulders
- Bog water
- Thick foliage
- Broken furniture pieces
- Another creature’s space
- Thick webs
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. There are many more and more specific examples of difficult terrain you could come across or introduce in your game.
Difficult Terrain Spells in 5e
Players and Game Masters have a number of spells at their disposal for creating difficult terrain in 5e. Most of these options are for short periods of time to hinder creatures during a combat encounter.
Here is a list of spells which create difficult terrain in D&D 5e:
- Mold Earth – Cantrip
- Earth Tremor – 1st-level
- Entangle – 1st-level
- Grease – 1st-level
- Spike Growth – 2nd-level
- Warding Wind – 2nd-level
- Web – 2nd-level
- Erupting Earth – 3rd-level
- Sleet Storm – 3rd-level
- Wall of Water – 3rd-level
- (Evard’s) Black Tentacles – 4th-level
- Ice Storm – 4th-level
- Storm Sphere – 4th-level
- Arcane (Bigby’s) Hand – 5th-level
- Insect Plague – 5th-level
- Maelstrom – 5th-level
- Blade Barrier – 6th-level
- Bones of the Earth – 6th-level
- Investiture of Ice – 6th-level
- Mirage Arcane – 7th-level
- Earthquake – 8th-level
- Storm of Vengence – 9th-level
How Useful is Difficult Terrain in 5e?
Difficult terrain is a useful tool for Game Masters. It helps create more interesting combat encounters by somewhat controlling where creatures and player characters can move easily and may make overland travel feel more impactful if your players are on a time limit.
Introducing difficult terrain to a battlefield is an easy way to make more interesting combat encounters. It helps in adding a non-damaging obstacle player characters need to deal with while maneuvering the battlefield.
Also, having a creature create areas of difficult terrain forces players to pay attention to their characters’ surroundings. Spells like web or spike growth are great for encouraging players to think on their feet to ensure their characters don’t get bogged down in difficult terrain.
Outside of combat; including wider areas of difficult terrain separating locations the player characters need to go to means they need to plan out their travels more than simply deciding they go to the next place. Game Masters can encourage their players to consider the dangers of these regions, whether traveling through the difficult terrain is actually faster than taking a longer route around it, and how long they have to finish their travels. If the players have a time limit, difficult terrain may be the most direct route, but could result in unforeseen hazards and obstacles.
Overall, difficult terrain is an easy tool GMs have at their disposal to challenge their players without causing direct harm.
How to Use Difficult Terrain Effectively
Using difficult terrain effectively means challenging your players to strategize in-combat or consider how long they have if they must travel to another locale.
It’s pretty easy to use difficult terrain in your 5e game and to use it effectively.
First off, consider your battlemaps. What could trip up a creature or be difficult to maneuver around or over? Are there any knee- or waist-high obstacles in the environment?
As a Game Master, you can include these sorts of obstacles to pretty much any battlemap to encourage specific movement patterns in both creatures and player characters. This may force the martial player characters to analyze their surroundings and consider their tactics.
Second, include spellcasting enemies or creatures which create difficult terrain to encourage improvised strategies.
Starting with difficult terrain on a battlemap is great for getting an idea for how combatants will move. But, adding difficult terrain mid-fight introduces potential obstacles for the player characters’ plans.
For example, maybe one of the characters is down, making death saving throws and the other characters are going to move to their aid. But, the enemy spellcaster casts web in the area surrounding the downed character. Now the area is more difficult to navigate and places more urgency on reaching the downed character.
Finally, use difficult terrain outside of combat to introduce non-damaging obstacles.
Bogs, fresh snow, running water; all of these are great, non-magical, non-trap obstacles for player characters to navigate. Of course, each of these aren’t necessarily threatening on their own. You should use difficult terrain while adventuring in tandem with another obstacle or hazard.
For example, maybe a toxic cloud of undeath creeps across the bog and the player characters are trying to escape before the fog envelopes them. Or, an avalanche starts and the characters are struggling with deep snow. Or, a raging wildfire encroaches on the player characters while they navigate the thick underbrush impeding their movement.
Difficult terrain is a great tool for adding more drama and stakes to other encounters both in- and out-of-combat.
Frequently Asked Questions on Difficult Terrain in 5e
Does Difficult Terrain Stack?
No. Difficult terrain does not stack in 5e. If an area is considered difficult terrain due to one source, an additional source won’t double the movement hindrance.
The rules for difficult terrain actually specifically call this out; "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."
For example, an ice-covered floor of a ransacked home with broken furniture pieces scattered around wouldn’t double the difficult terrain movement hindrances.
So, difficult terrain in 5e doesn’t stack even if the environment consists of multiple types.
Is Difficult Terrain a Condition?
No. Difficult terrain is not a condition in 5e. It is it’s own separate ruleset.
Conditions are instances of specific hindrances on a single creature like restrained or stunned. Difficult terrain isn’t a specific effect on a singular creature. Additionally, the Player’s Handbook doesn’t include difficult terrain in its list of conditions, so it doesn’t count as one.
Can You Disengage in Difficult Terrain?
Yes, a creature may still take the Disengage action while in difficult terrain.
Nothing in the rules for either the actions or difficult terrain restricts a creature’s ability to take the Disengage action.
Are Large Creatures Affected by Difficult Terrain?
Yes, large creatures are still affected by difficult terrain. Neither the rules for difficult terrain nor creature sizes state special circumstances for large or bigger creatures.
A creature’s size doesn’t play into difficult terrain rules as written. So, large, huge, and hargantuan creatures still suffer the movement speed hindrances posed by difficult terrain.
Now, as a Game Master, you could always rule otherwise. For example, if you feel a Purple Worm shouldn’t get slowed down by waist-high, fresh-fallen snow, that is perfectly fine and logically makes sense.
Just understand a ruling like that isn’t outlined in 5e’s rules for difficult terrain.
Can You Move in Difficult Terrain with 5 Feet of Movement?
Yes, a creature may move in difficult terrain with only 5 feet of movement unless your game uses a grid for combat encounters. The rules for playing on a grid specify that creatures move in 5-foot increments, indirectly putting a restriction on navigating difficult terrain in-combat.
There’s some nuance to this question.
The base rules for difficult terrain simply state that 1 foot counts for 2 feet of movement. So, a creature with 5 feet of movement would ordinarily only be able to move 2 1/2 feet in difficult terrain.
However, 5e has the Variant: Playing on a Grid ruleset.
Technically, using a grid in combat is a variant rule in 5e, not the standard. But, many tables use a grid, so it’s probably more normal to use it than not. The point is, the ruleset includes an important caveat concerning movement.
I bolded the section which concerns this discussion. The fact that the rules for playing on a grid specifically states you use your movement speed in 5-foot segments, this means you can’t move in difficult terrain if you have only 5 feet of movement as you can’t move in increments less than 5 feet.
Of course, many Game Masters would most likely allow a creature to still move. But, this requires a bit more calculating and complicates maneuvering during combat.
So, a creature can still move in difficult terrain with only 5 feet of movement but the Playing on a Grid rules technically don’t allow it.
How Does Standing Up From Prone Work in Difficult Terrain?
Standing up from prone while in difficult terrain follows the default rules of the former. That is; standing up from prone uses half of a creature’s movement speed regardless if they’re in difficult terrain or not.
The rules for standing up from prone state a creature uses half, rounded down, of its movement speed to get up. So, a creature with 30 feet of movement speed uses 15 feet to stand up.
But, traversing through difficult terrain costs 2 feet of movement for every 1 foot moved.
Does this mean standing up from prone means if takes all of a creature’s movement speed; half to stand up doubled for difficult terrain?
No. See, the thing is, when a creature stands up from prone in 5e, they’re not actually moving, so the rules for difficult terrain don’t apply. Movement, as it applies to difficult terrain, involves actually traversing a distance and getting up doesn’t quite meet the requirements.
This is the same reasoning as to why getting up from prone doesn’t trigger opportunity attacks. A creature isn’t "moving" in the strictest, most technical definition of the word in D&D.
Summary of How Difficult Terrain Works in D&D
That about covers everything you need to know about difficult terrain in 5e.
At its most basic, difficult terrain makes moving harder by requiring 2 feet of movement for every 1 foot moved. But, this doesn’t halve a creature’s movement speed. Many different types of environments count as difficult terrain including loose sand, moving water, deep snow, and cluttered debris. Finally, including difficult terrain both in- and out-of-combat is a great way for Game Masters to add increased tension and challenges to their games.
Do you include difficult terrain often in your combat encounters? Have you had your players traverse wide swaths of difficult terrain to make travel more challenging? Leave a comment below with your own tips and stories to help other players and Game Masters out!
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