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So, the vast majority of combat happens on flat environments, but most real-world environments are topographically variable. They have hills, and trenches, and slopes, and stuff.

I have no trouble representing dramatic changes in height, things like cliffs and buildings are easily done with separate maps showing the different layers. However, rolling, hilly, sloped environments are very hard to represent in a tactically meaningful way. Slicing it into multiple maps is confusing, because you wind up having like 20 maps for one area, and have people on different maps attacking each other, and area effects which cross topographical layer "slices".

The best I've seen is Cragmaw Cave from LMoP, the main hall slowly slopes upward to a height of ~10ft, then crosses over the main hallway via a bridge. When you're playing it, you don't even realize it's happening... but even there the topography is confusing. It's hard to tell how high up certain areas are, compared to others. It doesn't really matter there, because the different height levels are kept mostly separate, but what of outdoors?

I tried incorporating topographical contour intervals on my maps, but it gets cluttered and confusing with the grid and all my other lines. It also doesn't communicate things like "you can't see him over the edge of this hill" very well.

I use graph paper, pens, and pencils. My maps are austere, white with color coded lines and text, to save time and money. Most are drawn a few hours before a game, (sometimes during if they start a fight somewhere I was not anticipating) and are usually thrown out either immediately after the fight, or at the end if the night. I have no interest spending months of time and money building physical terrain that will only be used for one encounter.

Using a grid-based map, how can I represent sloping terrain clearly in a tactically relevant way?

I only included the 5e tag because that's what I'm playing right now. However, I am asking this in a more general map-making sense.

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Use markers and a reusable map like this one

You've stated that you use graph paper and that things become cluttered when you try to draw a topographical map. This is due in part to all of your lines being the same thickness most likely. Since using a colored height map is unreasonable, a topographical map is one of the best ways to display height in 2 dimensions.

Our group has used this many times in the past. The lines are pretty thin, which allows for wet erase marker to stick out more visibly, while still allowing us to see the grid easily. Plus, you can wash the mat week to week, or leave it on and save it for later. The mat I linked can be a tad unwieldy due to its size, but you might be able to find smaller versions.

As a caveat, you don't need to use grids. It's not a requirement for 5e. In fact, grids are actually considered an optional rule. In situations like these, it can be more hassle than it's worth. Don't be afraid to forgoe the grid altogether; the game wont suddenly fall out of balance if you eyeball the distance incorrectly. This would allow you to draw the map without fear of interference from the grid lines.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of using different line weights. You're right, I hadn't considered that. \$\endgroup\$ – JAMalcolmson Sep 5 '16 at 21:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I must point out that the mat linked is not dry-erase, but wet-erase. Using whiteboard markers on that will ruin it permanently. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Sep 5 '16 at 22:01
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On paper or whiteboard

In the past I have used small numbers that are positive or negative and circled to show height.

Another option is to simply count slightly sloped terrain as rough terrain and steeply sloped terrain as very rough and use a gradient of light crosshatching and/or pointillism to indicate which is which.

Different line thickness and/or colors can also convey the effect.

Transparent overlay is an old, but still valid, trick to use to accomplish this, especially if you are using a setup that can project the map enlarged on a wall or something.

Electronic options

Scan it in, or use a camera / projector setup to get your map to pass through a computer. Then use a video overlay effect, or just layers in a graphics program for non-live static effects, to overlay the height map.

Use an actual height map and project your image onto the result. Why fake it when you can have actual 3D?

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Use a rubber grid mat, but use round edged wooden cutouts and place them under the mat. This will cause the mat to become displaced in the area where the wooden cutout is and allow you to topographically represent the map itself.

If you don't have any wooden quarter-spheres, you can just turn a bowl upside down to create a similar effect.

If you have miniatures that are having issues sitting properly on the area where the wooden cutouts are sitting under, use a bit of putty on the bottom of the miniature. That will hold it in place.

The only real problem with this method is it will sometimes cause ridges in the mat that you may have to smooth out with a weight to hold them down properly.

If you're trying to represent a sloping incline on one half of the map, use a wooden wedge under that half of the map.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How much custom work per-battle does this involve, or is there a way to make the cutouts flexible enough to be reusable? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 5 '16 at 23:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Its a wooden semicircle that is cut at specific points to account for height. If you take a wooden sphere, and you bisect it at 50%, 25%, or 10%, you'll get varying degrees of incline. If you're modeling another battle, you just slip the wooden cutout from under the mat and continue on. Like so: mainewoodconcepts.com/image_upload/Beads_Balls/… \$\endgroup\$ – Sandwich Sep 5 '16 at 23:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, so to get a particular hill shape, you just use a selection of cutouts in the desired arrangement? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 5 '16 at 23:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have. I own the largest chessex mat myself. It turned out alright. The sticky putty holds the minis to the rubber mat even on the rounded parts. The only real problem with this method is it will sometimes cause ridges in the mat that you may have to smooth out with a weight. \$\endgroup\$ – Sandwich Sep 6 '16 at 0:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please edit the post to move any useful clarifications from the comments into the answer (especially direct experience of the pros and cons of the method). Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 6 '16 at 0:31
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Unless it has a mechanical effect, don't show it on the map.

D&D 5e is not a simulationist war game and it handles terrain very abstractly: it's either difficult or it's not. Uphill and downhill have no mechanical effects in the rules so why bother showing them on a tactical map?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "In a tactically relevant way" \$\endgroup\$ – JAMalcolmson Sep 5 '16 at 21:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Uphill and downhill don't have mechanical effects in most games, but they would have been hugely significant in reality. When fighting over a slightly hilly plain, troops could be completely hidden by the contours of the land if they lay down, giving them the element of surprise. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Sep 5 '16 at 22:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ladifas do you really mean "most games" or "most role playing games - representation of uphill and downhill is ubiquitous in most tactical war games. D&D 3 had a mechanical advantage for being on higher ground but the OP is about 5e and it doesn't have this. Unless the OP has a house rule they haven't told us about. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Sep 5 '16 at 22:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ OP does explicitly say "you can't see him over the edge of this hill", which impacts spellcasting's line of sight rules directly, as well as cover rules. As such, hilly terrain can have mechanical effects and thus should be shown on the map. \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Sep 6 '16 at 0:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I meant "most DMs' 5e games", although I now realise that I was unclear. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Sep 6 '16 at 10:54

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