“Walk without rhythm, and you won’t attract the worm.”
In Dune, on the planet Arrakis, characters employ a technique called sand-walking to avoid the dangerous Shai Hulud, which can sense the vibrations of footsteps in the desert.
In D&D, you’ll also have to be very stealthy to avoid creatures with tremorsense. This unique ability allows some terrifying creatures to see without relying on their actual vision.
What Is Tremorsense in D&D 5e?
Tremorsense is an innate ability of creatures that allows them to sense vibrations within a specified radius. Using this form of vibrolocation, they can pinpoint exactly where the vibrations originated from. This can be used to identify the location of unseen creatures.
Unfortunately, this sense is unique to creatures in D&D, so there aren’t many ways to turn your character into Toph Beifong.
Instead, you should be significantly worried, at really any time, that a burrowing creature will sense the vibrations of you walking and surprise you with a combat encounter.
Still, characters in pop culture that rely on vibrations and their other senses are a great way to visualize how exactly this unique sense works.
Rather than relying on sight, these creatures are incredibly attuned to the earth around them.
This is why many of the creatures that use this sense are burrowing creatures, like Ankhegs and Bore Worms.
They spend most of their lives underground, inhabiting dark cave systems, so they need some way to “see” without actually “seeing.”
One of the only limitations of this sense is its inability to sense flying or incorporeal creatures. Naturally, a flying bird or a ghost isn’t going to cause any vibrations on the ground since they’re not really touching the ground.
5e Senses: What Makes Tremorsense Special?
There are four main senses that creatures and players have access to in 5e D&D. Darkvision, blindsight, truesight, and tremorsense are all different ways to observe your surroundings that are more interesting than just “normal sight.”
Darkvision, the ability to see in darkness, and truesight, the ability to see invisible creatures, illusions, into the ethereal plane, and more, are both methods of seeing your surroundings that rely on actual sight.
Blindsight is probably the closest to tremorsense, as it relies on a sense other than sight to perceive your surroundings. Unlike tremorsense though, blindsight doesn’t allow you to perceive anything that a normal creature with sight can’t.
This does feel like a small error within the rules, since you have creatures, like bats, who are reliant on echolocation as their specific source of blindsight.
For example, a bat (at least in D&D) has poor vision, so it uses its incredible hearing and a sonar screech to locate things. Logically speaking then, a bat should be able to see a creature that is just invisible.
If it’s not intangible, the sound waves will bounce off and come back to the bat, a sort of vibration-based location much more similar to tremorsense.
Instead, 5e’s blindsight doesn’t function any differently than regular sight.
Should bats have a form of air-based tremorsense? Yes. Is that how it works in 5e? No. Am I going to be okay? Maybe, check in on me just to make sure.
What Creatures Have Tremorsense?
There are actually quite a few creatures with this special ability. As of right now, 46 creatures can locate creatures based on vibrations in the ground alone. As we said, most of these are burrowing creatures.
Worms and wurms, but not wyrms, mostly have tremorsense as do many wormlike or insect-like monstrosities.
Ankhegs, bulettes, carrion stalkers, and the terrifying rhemoraz are some example monstrosities that you don’t want to find you, so walk very lightly.
Another group of creatures to anticipate tremorsense from are elementals, earth-based elementals to be specific.
This might be as simple as actual earth elementals, or it might be something like a geonid or a big xorn.
While there are many other various plants, beasts, and other creatures that have this sense, it can basically be summed up as a sense reserved for creatures that live, or at least are often found, underground.
Player Interaction With Tremorsense
Tremorsense is dangerous, but there are some unique ways to deal with it and render yourself invisible to these sightless creatures. Naturally, if you can stay off the ground, you’re going to be in a good place.
There are several spell solutions for such a unique issue. One of the best simple solutions for one character to avoid being sensed is Gaseous Form.
Not only does it turn you into an incorporeal mist, it also makes you move through the use of a flying speed. In a gaseous form, you’re 100% safe from a tremorsense creature as long as the caster maintains concentration.
For that matter, anything that can give you a flight speed is going to make you pretty secure. As long as it doesn’t require you to land at the end of your turn, you’ll be fine.
If you’re just trying to stay in place for a while, something like Wall of Force is an elegant way to keep yourself and others off the ground. If 100 feet is enough to get where you need to go, this is even an option for moving around.
A solution for just about anything, including tremorsense, is opening up a portal or otherwise teleporting far, far away.
If you need to deal with the creature, this isn’t really an option, but just know that you can always bravely run away like brave Sir Robin.
A very niche solution is Waterwalk, a 3rd-level transmutation that gives up to 10 willing creatures the ability to walk on water or a similar liquid surface.
Since tremorsense seems to be more specifically geared toward vibrations in a physical substance, these creatures won’t likely be coming into water to try to attack you. Hopefully they’re the biggest threat around.
Stealth vs. Tremorsense
Does stealth allow you to avoid tremorsense detection? Technically, yes. There is a lot of controversy about this, so we should probably cover both sides.
Stealth Can’t Avoid Tremorsense
The main argument to say that tremorsense surpasses stealth is the line from the PHB that states, “You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly…”
People interpret this to be in favor of tremorsense, since tremorsense are automatically aware of the vibrations of creatures in contact with the ground.
Stealth Can Avoid Tremorsense
A point for stealth against the tremorsense argument is that sensing a creature is different from sight.
We know that character abilities reliant on sight won’t trigger unless they can actually “see” per the rules text. Therefore, you can attempt to hide.
I fall mostly in the second category, but for myself, this all has much more to do with roleplay than it does with rule mechanics.
Going back to my first line of the article, “Walk without rhythm, and you won’t attract the worm,” I think that dune is an excellent example of stealth vs. tremorsense.
If your players are going to be creative and specifically acknowledge that their stealth has to do with how they move and not how they’re seen, then of course they should be able to try hiding!
It’s all about letting your players do cool things at the end of the day.
I like to be a bit more specific and set two DCs for the players to avoid detection.
The first is the creature’s regular passive perception, and I use that if the players make an average attempt at stealth.
The second is the passive perception of the creature minus 5, which is roughly equivalent to the creature having disadvantage on its perception.
I’ll use this if the players take extra measures to be extremely soft with their footsteps and explain themselves well. I mean, if you mention Dune, you’ve got my heart.
The last one is bad for the players, and its the creatures passive perception plus 5, roughly equivalent to advantage.
This is when the player’s description completely disregards any thought to their footsteps, and they walk as normal. If they try a sight-based stealth approach, then they’ve missed the point.
You could always modify the player’s rolls instead of the DC, but I don’t want to punish the players for mediocre rules, which are still possible with advantage.
The main point is to ask your players to describe how they attempt their stealth check.
Bonus: Giving Player Characters Tremorsense
As of right now, there is only one method I’ve found in RAW to give players tremorsense. That is an item called Ironfang, a legendary magical war pick that has a whole slew of abilities, just one of which is 60-foot tremorsense.
That’s great and all, but it’s a legendary item! I don’t want my players to wait until fourth-tier play to get their hands on an ability that feels so centric to a lot of characters people want to play.
If my player wants to play a Toph Beifong inspired monk, then I’m going to let them.
Here’s how I would do it:
- Replace normal sight with tremorsense 30 feet.
- Any instances of darkvision, truesight, or blindsight increase tremorsense by their specified distance instead of adding a new sense.
- Case by case analysis of other sight-based spells and abilities.
- Tremorsense works through one body part, typically feet. If that body part is injured, damaged, or not in contact with the ground, they are blinded.
- Ground-based difficult terrain reduces their “vision” to 15 feet, regardless of added abilities.
These are what I see as simple solutions. You might be surprised to see “case by case analysis,” but I firmly believe that sometimes letting your players do cool things requires working with them.
If I were to put a blanket negation on all sight-based abilities, they would be extremely limited.
My job as a DM is not to limit my players, but rather, to put in the work necessary to let them do cool things.
It’s also to enjoy myself, and seeing a player have fun with a character who uses vibrations to “see” is fun for me.
So here are my hot takes on tremorsense. It’s such a cool ability, and I really hope to see more options for players to gain access to it in 5.5e.
If that doesn’t happen, then it’s on us to keep making fun, exciting, and balanced rulings as DMs and players of a collaborative storytelling RPG.
As always, happy adventuring!