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I am trying to model 3d blocks of terrain by adding topography to the upper face of a block diagram.

3 steps to unwanted results

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You can use the vertex group to achieve what you want. Take a look at the image.

enter image description here

Other option, could be to set the direction to apply the modifier, in this case to the Z axis, but it will replicate the effect on both faces (top and bottom) of the mesh.enter image description here

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Part of the reason is a cube is connected to other vertices in 3D, unlike a 2D plane, and so calculates that way. So a plane would only stay within it's boundaries of y positioning (2D), whereas a 3D object is displaced in 3 dimensions.

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