I'm running 4e but I think this applies everywhere.

I want to use terrain more often in my fights. My best fights are the ones that revolve around interesting terrain. The problem is that I don't grok what makes terrain interesting. My usual method is to throw in as much terrain as I can and hope some novel tactics emerge. That or ignore terrain altogether because it takes me a while to come up with.

Once I have terrain, I don't really know how to make use of it. I mean, putting archers out of reach is about the best I can do. I'd like to make areas that have more goals than 'clobber the other side,' or 'get to the archers, then clobber the other side,' because I think new tactics will emerge from other goals. But unless the plot demands it, I can't come up with anything else.


8 Answers 8


I think two other comments (here and here) do a good job of answering your questions; I am grappling with the same challenge of late. I want dynamic encounters that test characters beyond just run up and hit the baddie.

When tinkering with an encounter I always look at it from the perspective of . . . what other ways can the players use their characters to solve the challenge.

That statue sitting in the middle of the chamber, why not make it somewhat old and easily knocked over so that it will land on the enemy or provide cover or whatever. Athletics feels like the right skill there.

Or perhaps you can insert a point of elevation that no one has seized, but to get there the archer will need to scale a narrow ledge and expose himself to enemy fire. But once there he will have cover and visibility to most of the enemy.

And if the players don't get the idea, then have their foes provide an education. "Out of the corner of your eye you see a goblin making his way up a tree, presumedly to find a perch from which he can rain arrows down on you." What the enemy can do, so can the party. In addition, why not a passive insight or perception?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Great first answer! Welcome! FYI: the posts here are not in a fixed order, so what is "above" will change over time. Click on link under a post to get a direct URL if you need to reference it in your post. \$\endgroup\$
    – yhw42
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 16:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ yhw42 Thanks for both the compliment and the information. I will tinker around and try and insert the link. \$\endgroup\$
    – Galieo
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 21:24
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site, Galieo, and +1 for demonstration. The best way to have the players do things with terrain is to have the monsters do things. Kobolds and goblins are good for this, because they pretty much have to. (IMO the best RPG I ever saw for examples of how to do this was Feng Shui; if you can borrow any Feng Shui adventures from anyone, look through any combat encounter at random for a long list of ways to turn terrain to advantage. The setting is different but the principles are the same.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Tynam
    Commented Apr 7, 2011 at 9:46
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Tynam I agree, I think the first several encounters need be littered with environmental triggers for the enemies to use. Eventually the players will begin to look at terrain as an opportunity and not an impediment. Then the DM or GM can relax a little and merely provide the test mechanism for the opportunities that players are creating themselves. Or at least that is my objective. \$\endgroup\$
    – Galieo
    Commented Apr 7, 2011 at 17:51

First thing to remember is the definition of terrain in a combat/encounter framework:
Terrain is anything that is not a character or monster combatant.

Terrain is not just the ground the PCs are standing on. It is the furniture, atmosphere, weather, walls, ceiling, non-combatant plants and creatures, dead-bodies (real dead, not undead), fire, water, smoke or anything else that could possible affect an encounter.

To help me think about using terrain more effectively I use the following list of different things that can be affected in an encounter setting.

  • Movement - Terrain can affect movement by reducing, limiting or enhancing movement options. Thick smoke, Wall of thorns, oily floor, loose sand, constricting walls, shallow water or anything that affects movement. Sometimes it might affect only one side of the combat.
  • Body Motion - Terrain can affect the body's ability to act, as in swing a sword or cast a spell. This might affect attack or reflex rolls. Hanging vines, deep water, driving rain or snow, narrow places that force squeezing can all place restrictions on using powers.
  • Cover / Visibility - This is the one most of us think of. The ability to hide or be obscured in some way and still fight.
  • Tricks, Traps and Hazards - These are ways of have terrain fight back either for or against the party. The different ways that these can be used are endless and listed through out the game. Don't be worried about reusing something from a module or book. The party won't care if they have seen it before, they are just worried about surviving it.
  • Height Variations - I quit lumping this one under movement and started thinking about it on its own. If the party always thinks 2 dimensionally this one is a rude wake up call. Things that allow your creatures to adjust their height without using an innate movement type like flying or tunneling are a real shocker to players. Kobolds can swing(fly/hover) from branches or move through tiny tunnels in the floor.
  • Loose things - These are things that are laying around and can become something that affects combat. Chairs, tables, sand, rocks, snowballs, books or bookcases, kitchen items, burning coals, the list is endless. A large group of minions throwing burning coals can quickly turn a floor into a hazardous patchwork of fire damage.

Using terrain is not about spur of the moment DM'ing. Give your locations and the inhabitants of them some thought. Try to thinking like a player and look at how you would use what is around to enhance your creatures fighting ability. Pickup on creature powers and give them something that enhances that powers effectiveness.

One last point: do not overuse terrain. This will actually slow down play considerable as the party tries to figure out what you are doing with the empty room this time. Sometimes an empty room is just an empty room.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 excellent answer! You mention Movement - Terrain can affect movement by reducing, limiting or enhancing movement options. Thick smoke, Wall of thorns, oily floor, loose sand, constricting walls, shallow water or anything that affects movement. But you don't mention any terrain that enhances movement. Care to list some? I can't think of any. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 20, 2011 at 8:03
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Sure; moving water, slide/running down hills or stairs, swinging from a rope or light, jumping down a short cliff or wall. The list is only limited to your imagination. Use temporary shift bonuses or speed bonuses (ex. beginning of next turn) just like you would temprorary penalties. This really forces the characters to begin taking terrain way more seriously especially if your monster use it first. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 16:48

I remember coming across this very same things years ago when I started running games, I wanted my players to be inherently more creative than the run up & bash method of combat. What I discovered is that players will become creative when they are comfortable enough to be creative. What this means is that you need to show them it is ok to branch out and show their creative side, and your job is to accept that and run with it. I think Galieo said it best that you need to show the bad guys doing it, this will make your players more comfortable and show them that there are advantages to being creative and not just saying "I swing my sword at the goblin" as so many players do.

In the example above, that statue, you could have a baddie chuck it at a player, or if there is a cauldron of flames in the center of the room, have a baddie tip it over and spill the flames all over the players. They will come to the realization that the baddies can do more than swing their sword, that means they can do it as well!

If forced, you can always vocally be sure to mention a mechanical benefit to the baddie's actions. Saying "Ok, the goblin gets a +4 to hit from his perch on that upper floor window, he is undisturbed by all the clamoring down in the fight and can relax and take his time aiming at your head." or some such thing will make players realize there are benefits to being creative.

Also don't be afraid to make judgements that ignore or are not covered in the rules. Player wants to use that whatchamacallit as a bludgeoning weapon in the heat of the moment, heck make it a d8 damage if the NPC is a throwaway character.

Hope that helps!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site. Good discussion of amplifying creative benefits with mechanical rewards. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 13:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! As GM for probably most of my 30 or so years gaming, I have found that what works best is playing to the players and story equally. If something feels right and would make the game more interesting and fun, then ditch the rules and go with the flow. Too many times to count I can say my best games were where we loosely followed the rules and went all out for the fun and story. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 17:01

Things that immediately come to mind:

Placing difficult terrain between your melee characters and opposing brutes. This will change tactics (example: in 4e shifting for most characters only moves them 1 square which would be impossible in difficult terrain, I don't know how other systems deal with difficult terrain and movement penalties, but mobile characters will surely have to change tactics in most systems).

Placing cover in risky/difficult places. Most ranged characters like cover and don't like getting beat on. See how your party handles needing to get through the thick of battle in order to find a place to hide.

Give the high ground to the weaker side. Want to challenge your players? put them in the middle of a valley with enemies in the hills on both sides. Want your party to take on a larger force? allow them to position themselves with the high ground while the enemies face an upward climb into the teeth of their attack.

Placing areas of terrain that gives a combat bonus (we have played on a map with a teleportation ring of some sort that gave a +2 bonus to defenses, and also one in which no magic could enter) is an interesting way to see how your PCs thing tactically. In the battle where no magic could enter, our wizard was constantly stepping in an out of the circle in order to protect himself.


Terrain Options Try mixing 2 situational principals of physical effect consequences (Item effects/Ground type. & Body Movement changes) and then, later, subvert it with applied traditional canonical spells.

Terrain bonus Reward the players. Build some Useful Personal - Terrain Tables and Large Item uses - supply's (traps, picket lines, lrg. rock moving/levering tools, hiding & covers/blinds) to Enhance standard terrain features for combat. OverLand Travel Supporting Terrain perks means Getting to them.

Encourage Doing or Hiring Scout-ings, by adding favorable features based on Scouting Point(s) rolls. Plan Terrain potentials or hazards by Terrain knowledge, Scout Path planning and choosing safe wagon ditch & reclaim location.

Survival fall-backs if mission is fail AND Terrain Escape Plans, Be-it Arching from a humble tree (rope swing escapes, beware of height to rope to length-to-ground curve) or Getting off that ledge if their party has to fall back. Supple Tree's bent towards short cliff and tied -STAKED- down 'Sproing!, using a small pully-wheel @top, Pitons 1/2 way down and rope upto pulley (optional cutdown tree w/ rope stakes for overhang) then droped down rope to the waiting "cliff floor walled" pirate/Scout. Archery & boulders. Foolish players.

In under ground/Stone Rooms settings, Be Creative - Offer players store made adjustable stick frames and paper/cloth coated rockchips and paint texture Ambush blinds. Offer those stalagmite/stalactite mounds or non visibly obstructing alcove rock indents some rear ambush potential. Foes typically charge in, walls are never even or truly clean cut, corners exist. Never underestimate a pouch full of Rock Dust b4 knockbacks.

Slime & oil flasks, Bear-traps, glue-muck plates!light & massively encumbering!, spike strips rock paint/dirt (or magic) camouflaged, and 'Smirk' Pole-Arm side pushes and stumbling group bumbling's tripping over their own feet and their friends to stop. Figure out Who's in the party is the "Fast Runner" designate.

Reward town-skills, Painting, signal use, lumberjacks wood/stone-working, Taxidermy(preserved, stuffed! animals make clever step-on gas/irritation-powder and triggers- kick-the-can) Sailor (wavy floors) ect, Used or earned through Terrain modification use.


  1. Magnetism & metal Vs Levitation spell effects.
  2. Open battles in principal. Reward Scouting With Terrain Defense Situations and suggest "Goblin Lure" Tricks. Campfire-smoke signals, Drums, Screamer whistle arrows. Terrain uses, Forests: Heavy oaktree limbs under-notched wedge and rope over tree nail-Large Rock on small rock on a slip-knot roped braced Tripod, arrowpannel or rope pull trigger, ect. Instant Cover!! Real Random Encounters in the Open are about bringing the Enemy before you, Not INTO you unaware!
  3. Gravity lift (weight changes or per metal encumb mass) that alternate Str & Dex numbers by floor square or wall/pillar objects (falling down, Will/Int rolls each action) VS Movement By Grapple. Plant's Grappled/released Swinging. Example, Boating yourself forward with a Pole Arm to the next grapple "swing set bar-Rung" by the plants grab.
  4. Waterbed style "Weight lifting Floors" Wave-Rolling settling Stone/Metal/Magic. Partial cover by floor lifts, lighter allies Jump trampolining on the wave-barrier to push down and move Armored heavy's forward. Ledge/outcropping arching being massive hit/miss advantages. Creative combat modifier potentials and leap-frog marching attacks by outnumbering foes. & the favorite 'Throwing the Half-ling Wink

The rotating Statue cone-ial magic attacker has many an interesting effects in reverse. Think magic energy flows + metal covered floor conduction & reversed room magnetism. Resisting Downward swinging and falling "metal weapons items". Anything triggering levitation spells is going to inspire creative options.

Area Push/Pull Logic's Throw/Fling weapons getting a "bounce deflect" upto their STR bonus in momentum before sticking to a wall. For Continued, per turn fun, put a Deflect Missiles spell pillar in the room with a set STR throw deflect at waist high level boomeranging.

Optional gimmicks Levitation stability, magnet angling + metal sled/shield riders/lancers.

Cover/Obstructions 15 to 20 foot high+ rooms and zig zag pathed floor tunnel hallways, using 5" to 6" pillars metal (steel core copper coiled, wood tubed and art etched softmetal plated) Push/Pull + & - magnetic charged, partial cover and side Curving arrows/throw weapons. That Orc with a Mirrored Glave-blade? He C 'U he Bola, boomerang-blade, and poiky metal sharpie handful bit's to you hurt!

Weak foes and advanced tactics Skilled environment humanoid defenders. Wood/stone weapon advantages (by metal deflection disadvantages) strait firing Arrows, oiled/wet floors & hovering by shin/knee Sliding kick-offs, dodge mobility perks. Tunnel drop in entrance ambushes with magnetic knee-guards.

Planning vs Design TRAVEL & Outdoors. Many DM Game managers see item-Carts, Horses/ox's, and hired NPC mercenary's - Guards/Retainers as cumbersome, Game bogging & paperwork or Force Size brakers and Fealty & Leadership nags. But consider the threats & times, Monsters roam the hills, Humanoids ride beasts and Sane Adventures crawling into caves Need a defensible fall-back camp (Cart sized Barrels for, tarpit seal, flame oil traps, Tools, Labor to picket & fortify) And a few rider's to towns or a relay chain for getting help. (out classed and swarmed/hiding)

TAKE Away Their Weapons? NO! When in Doubt for Player Supported mobility Awareness and gaining the players terrain observational Interests, TAKE THEIR BOOTS! 'Nothing slows mindless, healing addicted, Int6-less rush-in players then a set HP dmg limit for foot arch's, with ratio-scaled neg mobility mods.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent first answer! welcome to RPG.SE. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Mar 16, 2012 at 3:48

AcedRunner has a great set of points in his answer. Something I think might be valuable to add is that you may want to create a repeatable process for developing terrain, i.e. some sort of informal classification system. Some possible examples:


  • flat or sloped (self-explanatory)
  • Consistent or variable (is this a consistently flat or sloping terrain (planar) or are there hills/dunes/bowls.
  • Continuous or discoutinuous (is it relatively solid ground or are their cliffs/craters/ledges/etc.)
  • Solidity (hard ground/wood floor, mud, water, jello-filled room)

As you develop a checklist of these types of parameters, you can refer to it when developing new terrain to see if there is anything you haven't considered that might add richness of either tactical importance or or just flavor.

Imagine a grassy hill where high ground could have tactical importance. Define the slope (steep? consistent?). Define the surface (short, wet grass = slippery, tall, dry reeds = fire hazard, is it uneven enough to increase chance to stumble?). Define the atmospheric conditions (which probably are linked to the surface conditions).

Keep track of everything you use and how it impacts gameplay and over time, you can end up with a very useful toolkit for developing new terrain. The tricky part would be finding a classification system that makes sense to you and your group's gaming style which may take some trial and error.

Hope that helps.


If you really want to help yourself (from a design perspective) and your players (from a tactics perspective) to use terrain to their advantage, force it upon them.

  • No Weapons: Have the party's weapons temporarily lost/stolen, or pit them against monsters that cannot be harmed by weapons.
  • Slience: Depending on your system, silence can be a good tool to force your casters to think outside the box, since they can't cast any spells.

This accomplishes two things:

  1. It forces you to design ways to beat the encounter in an atypical fashion. Emphasis on ways (plural) -- you don't want to railroad them into one obvious solution.

  2. It forces the players to think, and they may come up with a method of defeating the enemies that you never would have thought of.

When thinking of alternate combat scenarios, give the PC's movable objects or different ways to link certain events together. A big button that drops rocks from the ceiling isn't interesting the 27th time. Things like:

  • Rotatable statues that release cone-shaped bursts at certain intervals
  • Glass floors over spikes or pits that can be shattered
  • Tanks of water that can be broken (and subsequently electrified/frozen/heated/acidified with a statue burst)
  • Consumable grenade-type objects that push enemies around
  • Mounted siege weapons that cannot be aimed but do big damage (encouraging the use of pushes)
  • \$\begingroup\$ No weapons and silence weren't really what I had in mind. I see those as more like parameters or blanket conditions for the fight rather than terrain. I can see how they'd force the players to be more reliant on terrain though. Maybe I should put the players in situations where they have to think smart to win rather than think smart to win 1 round earlier. \$\endgroup\$
    – valadil
    Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 5:08

People seem to focus on the tactical simulation effects of terrain. I'd like to offer a different perspective based on narrative effects, because you used the keyword: interesting.

A narrative is always based around some sort of conflict, and the hard decisions that come with it. It is the choices the characters make that makes up the story.

Design your terrain with a number of interesting hard choices to make, and see what your players will do with it.

Will they take the exposed but shorter route to quickly deal with a threat, casualties be damned, or will they choose the protected but longer path, risking losing track of the hostages they came to rescue?

A specific path through or location in the terrain has one or more of these:

  • It is safe
  • It is cheap/easy/quick to use
  • It gives better results for whatever you are trying to accomplish

Whatever isn't in the list for a particular path/location hints at the possible consequences of using it.

If a path/location has all three, it's a no brainer. You take it. If it has none, it's a non-choice. Both of these are boring, because there's no challenge in choosing them.

The interesting paths and locations have just some of those three, and there are multiple interesting paths/locations in an interesting map so that the players will have to choose between them.

That choice shows what kind of characters they are, and isn't that what the story is about?


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