Dungeons & Dragons: How To Use Terrain To Improve Combat

Learn the many uses of terrain and how to improve combat in D&D!

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Use Terrain To Improve Combat

Dungeons & Dragons is fueled by imagination. It depicts a world of heroes, villains, and monsters with supernatural powers and abilities. With so much exciting stuff, it can be hard for a dungeon master (DM) to remember the terrain. Where your players are fighting should be an important factor in their battles.

Battles in D&D benefit from tactical options. Each player wants a chance for their character to shine by cleverly beating the odds with their unique abilities. Terrain can help to give your players these opportunities. Whether it's through acrobatics, cover, concealment, or other tactical choice, including some terrain options spices up combat.

The Functions Of Terrain In D&D

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Use Terrain To Improve Combat

Maps, descriptions, and 3D-printed terrain pieces help set the tone of our fantasy action game, but as immersive as these objects can be, they also have gameplay functions. The Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) explains cover mechanics and difficult terrain rules, and you can use these to create battle spaces that inspire creativity.

Terrain's primary combat functions are elevation advantage, reduced movement speed, cover, and concealment. If you know a combat encounter will occur in a specific spot, spend a little extra time thinking about function.

Each piece of terrain on the battle map has a combat function; pillars, trees, walls, corners, and doorways providecover from ranged attacks. Difficult terrain (with its movement penalty) forms an area most characters want to avoid, while impassable terrain represents an area no creature or character can traverse.

The objects and terrain you use should generally make sense in the game's fiction, but thinking about them in functional gameplay terms helps you create interesting battle arenas.

D&D Fifth Edition doesn't automatically give any advantage to those attacking from high ground, but DM's are free to make a ruling that works for the situation. Some DMs like to use a rule from D&D 3.5 Edition that gives ranged attacks from the high ground +1 to hit.

Checklist For Combat Terrain In D&D

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Use Terrain To Improve Combat

Ask these questions when preparing an area for combat:

  • What are the premium tactical positions in the space? Why?
  • Does the layout encourage using a variety of abilities?
  • Which direction is the party likely to approach from? How does this affect the encounter?
  • Are there high or otherwise protectedspots for ranged party members and casters?
  • Are there choke points where melee characters can cut off groups of enemies?
  • Are there areas of difficult terrain inviting acrobatic characters to traverse them using abilities?

Not every battle needs to feature every element. Varying up the terrain can keep things interesting and allow the party to use their full range of abilities.

Include Difficult Terrain In D&D Combat

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Use Terrain To Improve Combat

It's tactical fun for players and DM to choose the right action while considering the terrain, so finding a thematically appropriate reason to include some difficult terrain in the combat area makes things more interesting. Difficult terrain halves the movement speed of creatures passing through it. Impassable terrain can't be traversed by regular means, flying, or magic.

Fighting in the desert? Quicksand. Fighting in the forest? Clinging vines. Fighting in a castle keep? Throw some rubble on the floor, and steep slopes are typically considered difficult terrain, too.

Your difficult terrain doesn't have to make real-world sense; D&D is a game, so don't be afraid to gamify elements for maximum fun. Restricting options in combat can speed up resolution and increase tension, and using difficult terrain to discourage or penalize movement in certain directions is within your remit as DM.

Challenge Specific Party Members With Terrain In D&D

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Use Terrain To Improve Combat

D&D is most fun when there's lots of cooperation and interdependence between player characters, and the DM can facilitate player cooperation by including terrain that challenges specific players. For example, the party's muscle will relish pushing down a crumbling wall to give the ranger a better shot, or the druid might get a chance to shine by banishing some clinging vines.

Different terrain types pose different types of challenges; D&D players are famously creative in their search for solutions to setbacks, and including plenty of interactive terrain maximizes the potential for players to get creative. Including a chandelier almost guarantees that someone will try to swing from it, and telling the players the enemy orcs are standing on a poorly supported platform often means someone will try to topple it.

Destructible, Reactive Environments In D&D

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Use Terrain To Improve Combat

People get excited about destructible environments in video games like the Just Cause series. Still, they can be just as satisfying in D&D, and describing how objects, furniture, and scenery dissolve, explode, or go up in flame can be fun and functional.

Destructible, reactive environments can encourage players to cast fireballs at barrels of mystery liquid, freeze puddles of water to knock enemies prone, and attack weak-looking platforms, and as DM, it's your job to telegraph this potential for interaction to the players. For example, an enemy could glance nervously at the nearby barrels after seeing flames in the sorcerer's hand.

Encourage players to consider how their spells and abilities affect the environment.

Video games like Baldur's Gate 3 and Divinity Original Sin 2 are great reference points. Both games reward careful consideration of the environment, elemental interaction, and battlefield position.

Terrain Elements To Include In D&D

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Use Terrain To Improve Combat


Function and examples


Pillars are a staple feature of temples, castles, and palaces. They make an ideal cover against ranged attacks. Most DMs consider a standard-sized pillar to be half cover, as described on page 250 of the Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG).


Like pillars inside, trees are a staple of D&D combat outside. An average tree is typically considered half cover. Other kinds of shrubs, bushes, and foliage can stand in for trees to fit the game environment.


Depending on its steepness, a slope can be considered difficult terrain. This halves the movement speed of creatures moving through it, potentially doubling the number of ranged attacks you can get off. If a character is high enough above an enemy, they need only step backward for full cover.


Rubble creates an area of difficult terrain, halving the speed of creatures moving through it. Rubble makes sense in most buildings and in urban areas. In a more rural setting, consider boulders, pebbles, and loose soil as alternatives.


In D&D, fights often break out in taverns, inns, and long halls. Furniture is rough terrain that slows characters and creatures' movement.

Flipping a table over is also a decent way to generate cover for the party's vulnerable members. Depending on the character's size (and the furniture's size), a table can fully cover a character.

Standing Water

Shallow bogs, deep puddles, or other marshy, swampy water areas are difficult terrain that slows creatures to half speed. Water as rough terrain makes sense in a wide variety of combat locations.


Most outdoor areas can feasibly support undergrowth as difficult terrain. Small, dense trees like holly and dogwood are real-world examples of undergrowth for visual inspiration.


A snow drift constitutes difficult terrain if it's deep enough to slow those passing through it. Smaller creatures may struggle where larger ones do not.


Rows of corn, barley, and wheat are difficult terrain when the crops are tall enough to impede the characters walking through them. Many war gaming miniature enthusiasts will have rows of crops already.

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