Last Updated on February 21, 2023
Whether it’s the Fellowship of the Ring wading through chest-deep snowdrifts as they try to make their way over the Pass of Caradhras, Wesley and Buttercup clawing their way free of the Fire Swamp’s quicksand, or Geralt of Rivia wading through yet another accursed swamp to get yet another bagful of drowner entrails for yet another bloody elixir… the roads walked by our fantasy heroes and heroines are rarely smooth and well paved.
Most of the time, they aren’t roads at all.
Things are much the same in a game of Dungeons & Dragons 5e, where adventurers often have to contend with crumbling ruins, festering marshland, treacherous ice tunnels, or whatever other flavor of fresh hell the DM feels like throwing at them today. In these situations, whether you’re trying to cut your way through a corridor of giant spider webs to rescue your halfling companion or traveling for days through thick jungle, the rules for Difficult Terrain come into play.
But what counts as Difficult Terrain? How does Difficult Terrain affect movement in D&D 5e? And how can adventurers avoid difficult terrain or maybe even turn it to their advantage?
What Is Difficult Terrain?
Difficult Terrain in D&D 5e is any area where movement is hindered by vegetation, debris, other creatures, a slippery surface, or any other factor.
Examples of Difficult Terrain include:
- Thick forest
- Shifting sands
- Deep snow
- Rubble and loose shale
- A tightly packed crowd of humanoids
- A cluttered shop
- Low furniture
- Waist-deep bog water
- Thick mud
- Icy ground
- A fast-flowing knee-deep stream
In some cases (if explicitly stated by a written adventure or the rules of a spell, for example), whether or not an area is difficult terrain is obvious; in others, it might be up to the DM to make a ruling in the moment.
For example, if the players are fighting a gang of smugglers in a warehouse and the Fighter knocks over a barrel of pickled fish, the GM might rule that a 15-foot cone extending out from the barrel counts as difficult terrain. Enemies and PCs can still try to move through the terrain at full speed or jump over it, but it would probably require a Strength (Athletics) check to avoid being knocked prone.
How Does Difficult Terrain Work in DnD 5e?
When moving through Difficult Terrain, each foot of movement costs 2 feet. This applies both to moving through Difficult Terrain in combat and when traveling for long distances overland through the wilderness.
This rule means that, in combat, a creature with a speed of 30 feet (6 squares on a grid) could only move 15 feet (3 squares) in a single turn.
It’s important to note, however, that being in difficult terrain doesn’t halve your movement; it simply makes movement cost more. This distinction is important when dealing with actions that are similar or adjacent to movement but aren’t actually movement — like the Satyr’s Mirthful Leap feature, or standing up from prone, both of which cost movement, but because they’re not technically movement in of themselves, they don’t cost twice as much in difficult terrain.
When traveling overland, the same “2 feet of movement for 1 foot traveled” rule applies, but it’s scaled up to an entire adventuring day.
- 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
Whichever pace your party is traveling, simply halve the distance covered (or speed traveled) for journeys undertaken through Difficult Terrain. Of course, if only part of the day’s journey takes place in Difficult Terrain, make sure to keep track of how many miles were traveled in particular conditions. Oh, and be careful not to run out of movement in the middle of Difficult Terrain; no one wants to spend the night in a swamp.
Spells That Create Difficult Terrain
Aside from tipping over barrels of lamp oil, redirecting rivers, and throwing broken furniture around, there are a number of magical ways to create Difficult Terrain, mostly as a way of hindering enemies’ movement in combat or a chase.
- Mold Earth (Cantrip)
- Earth Tremor (1st)
- Entangle (1st)
- Grease (1st)
- Spike Growth (2nd)
- Warding Wind (2nd)
- Web (2nd)
- Erupting Earth (3rd)
- Sleet Storm (3rd)
- Wall of Water (3rd)
- (Evard’s) Black Tentacles (4th)
- Ice Storm (4th)
- Storm Sphere (4th)
- Arcane (Bigby’s) Hand (5th)
- Insect Plague (5th)
- Maelstrom (5th)
- Blade Barrier (6th)
- Bones of the Earth (6th)
- Investiture of Ice (6th)
- Mirage Arcane (7th)
- Earthquake (8th)
- Storm of Vengeance (9th)
How Do I Avoid Difficult Terrain?
The easiest way to avoid difficult terrain is obviously to go around it, although this can sometimes take more movement than just going straight through. Other options for circumventing Difficult Terrain include…
- Freedom of Movement (4th) prevents you from being affected by difficult terrain, among other things.
- Expeditious Retreat (1st) lets you take the Dash action as a bonus action each turn for 10 minutes (concentration), effectively doubling your speed.
- Jump (1st), Levitate (2nd), and Fly (3rd) all let you potentially move without having to deal with Difficult Terrain.
- A flying mount accomplishes the same thing, as do magical items like the Broom of Flying and the Magic Carpet.
- Various forms of teleportation, including Misty Step and Teleport may even eliminate the need to travel through an area of Difficult Terrain altogether.
- Cantrips like Mold Earth and Shape Water let you reshape the elements around you in a limited way. They could easily be used to clear a path through swamp water, harden muddy ground, or melt a sheet of ice.
How Do I Use Difficult Terrain to My Advantage?
There are a number of different ways that you can use Difficult Terrain to help control the battlefield and more in D&D 5e.
In combat, whether you’re casting Mold Earth or just throwing handfuls of fish guts around, Difficult Terrain can double the time it takes for an enemy to get to you. If you have good ranged attacks and they don’t, that’s a potential 100% increase in damage before they even have a chance to hit you. You can use Difficult Terrain to stop an enemy from chasing you or control the direction from which your foes approach a defensive position.
Outside of combat, Difficult Terrain can play a pivotal role if your party is involved in larger-scale conflicts; there’s a litany of famous battles in the real world that were won or lost due to muddy ground, frozen lakes (and the ice-skating Dutch), or impassable jungle.
If your party has a mobility advantage (access to teleportation, flying mounts, secret paths through the mountains, etc.), then making your enemy move through difficult terrain (destroying a local dam to turn the surrounding countryside into an impassable marsh, for example) could buy you crucial time to prepare the rest of your defenses.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.