I'm planning on running an encounter as part of my 5E Out of the Abyss campaign. It is essentially going to involve the party scaling down a sinkhole. There's a waterfall (with plunge pool), plus several rocky ledges the characters can jump to, scale down, or swing from via ropes. All this will happen while the party are attacked by Driders.

We play in person and typically draw out our battle maps on a mat with dry-erase pens. We have one player who connects over webcam.

What techniques exist, or would you recommend for drawing this battlemap? I've considered drawing the vertical plane flat on our existing mat, but would appreciate any other easy techniques.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Possible duplicate: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/87539/15469 \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 13:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think the answers in that thread are quite what I'm looking for, unfortunately. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 13:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ What are the differences then? Can you edit your question to make it clear how it differs from the one @Miniman linked to? \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 13:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ The differences is that my question relates to largely vertical terrain versus slightly sloping. Many of the answers on the related question amount to just using a wipe board, which my question states we already use. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 13:39

3 Answers 3


We just ran an adventure almost exactly like what you describe. The party was climbing a stairway that ran back and forth across an underground cliff face (many hundreds of feet tall), while menaced by flying opponents and threats at various levels. Three players were in person, and two on Skype.

Instead of using a dry erase board, our DM built a cardboard stairway that we used to represent whatever section of the stairway we were on. He painted his to look like stone, but it's not necessary. For the flyers, he used lengths of heavy wire, the ends secured to weights and the free ends hooked to the miniatures. The wire is bendable enough to move the flyers to the approximate position.

He had (broken) elevator platforms he could hook on at various points. The concept could be adapted for your plunge pool and wide ledges.

It was a fairly simple model, but it made the combat very memorable. Here's a photo of the model in action:

Model of staircase

  • \$\begingroup\$ I have seen 3d dungeon sets before, but I wonder how he figured out the scale/ accuracy of the model - or was that simply to be done as a visual representation. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 3:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm pretty sure he just eyeballed it with the intent of making it fun to play on. Scale is kind of irrelevant, since he wasn't trying to duplicate an existing real world object. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 3:36

There are some stands which are using for flying miniatures that would be appropriate:

enter image description here

Another method is to put a flag or a counter on the miniatures base to indicate how high up they are from the ground, stacking counters like poker-chips can be used for this, but it isn't much help if there is more than one miniature on the same square.

When this has happened for us before we've typically moved the other minature to the side and put a flag/counter on the same square to indicate there is someone else on the same square, you can then look to the side to see who this is, again poker chips are helpful for this. Yellow counters can indicate multiples of 10' above the terrain and paired colours for other poker chips can indicate chacters when there is more than one character on the same square - this can get a bit messy if there is more than one character on the same square however!

You could use an online tool as well, like roll20, but that's going to be a lot of learning curve for a single encounter.

One last method is to use multiple copies of the same map, each indicating certain elevations; this only really works well for places with fixed elevations (like castles with battlements) however.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is useful for when you're at ground... but what if you're trying to go down? The top level would be the ground and each subsequent level would be lower? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 16:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Exactly. And if you were using stacked counters you would have one colour counter for up, another colour for down. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 7:04

I do a bit of mapping, and have done extensive research on how to represent elevation on a map, because I also use such features extensively.

One of the best ways to do so is through contours, explained in this wiki which is a handy read if you want a broad overview on the subject. Contours can be effectively used on a battle map as a way to represent elevation, as they're the official cartography tools for this very purpose. Despite the fact that contours are generally used to show slopes and depressions on a map, this very selfsame tool can be used for the purpose of showing cliffs and sinkholes if you know what you're doing and label the lines as far as elevation appropriately. This is appropriate for battle maps because using contour lines you can use the battle map itself as a tool to show elevation. As a rule of thumb, the closer the lines are together, the steeper the slope. In order to show contours which describe the features you're asking to showcase, another website here reads as follows

Cliffs are the easiest to identify on a topological map. When looking for a cliff on a map, look for multiple contour lines merging into one line. The last contour line with ticks on it facing towards the ground is a cliff.

An Example of such a feature can be found here:

Cliffs of dover Another website addresses sinkholes specifically here

Sinkholes and other depressions are marked by closed contour lines with hatch marks. Not always perfectly round, some sinkholes may be elongated such as the one in the upper right corner. Other sinkholes may swallow streams or be filled with water such as the one to the right of "Hollow". "Hollow."

Piggybacking on this general contouring information, in order to use this idea on a pre-gridded battle map, in a game use the contour markings to represent sinkholes and cliffs, all you need to do is simply "expand" a section that you wish to show as a section that the PCs and monsters are traveling through. You may need to tell the players that the grid's scale has changed in order to show the appropriate amount of detail. Depending on the size of the battlemap and the scale you're using, you may need to reorient the matt, erase the markings, draw the next section to continue the chase.

Using the grid and the markings, you should be able to place the minis to show how far up or down the players and monsters are, simply add the minis next to one or more die, with each dice being whatever scale you decide. d10s works perfectly, as you have a one foot granular control in lots of 10. Maybe even color code them for the various minis to make it simpler to tell which is which. Or color code the dice for the elevation itself. For instance: red 10 feet, orange 20 feet, yellow 30 feet, green 40 feet, blue 50 feet, purple 60 feet, white 70 feet, brown 80 feet, grey 90 feet, black 100 feet, and combining the colors to get the exact number of feet needed.

Further expanding on this idea, you could pipe cleaners (preferably something colorful so that it shows up well against the map) to depict where the vines are, bent so they stand up by themselves. The spacing of the vines will also determine if the players can get from one to another.

I've also seen minis that have a base that has numbers on them that can be "dialed" to show HP. If these are used, instead of tracking HP, they could be used to show elevation in 10s of feet. Combine with a single d10 for the granularity you need.


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