Stairing into the Abyss

One of the more overlooked features of any dungeon are the stairs. Most of the time these are little more than purely utilitarian vehicles for getting characters from one level of the dungeon to another. I think this is a bit of a shame, myself, and thought I might offer the following ideas to jazz up the usual dungeon staircase. Some are more mundane than others, naturally.

  1. Drawers under the stairs. Some steps on the staircase conceal drawers. These might be locked, or trapped, or both, and make an ideal hiding place for small treasures, keys (to the door at the top of the stairs?), a wand of lightning to be grabbed by the wizard as he flees an enemy coming after him up the stairs, etc.
  2. The Grand Staircase. In real life, many buildings have a central staircase that wraps around a central empty core. In a dungeon setting, this could be used to give direct access to lower levels of the dungeon (which could in and of itself be a Very Bad Thing). Flying monsters could also avail themselves of the central shaft, presenting a threat to adventurers.
  3. Landings. Many DM’s seem to forget that a staircase doesn’t have to be a straight shaft boring down at a precise angle to the level below. You can have your stairs make right-angle turns (or, heck, any angle you want). Make a staircase that branches at a landing; one flight goes to one level, another to a sub-level (and don’t forget they can go back the way the adventurers are likely to come).
  4. Musical Stairs. The staircase is made up of white and black stairs. As each one is walked on, a note sounds, like a giant piano (think of that scene from “Big” with Tom Hanks and the giant piano). By stepping on the stairs in various orders to play a tune, the staircase will go to different locations via a magical teleportation effect, depending on the tune played (some sort of clue to this effect should be findable by the players, perhaps in riddle form). Playing no tune (i.e., just trudging up the stairs) will lead to the least exciting place in the dungeon. Playing the right tune could lead players to the locale of Heward’s Mystical Organ.
  5. The Rainbow Steps. The stairs in this staircase each have a seemingly-random color. If the players use the stairs without regard to which color they step on, they enter an ordinary area. If they are careful to only step on a single color, they are taken to a more special part of the dungeon (red leads to a fire-themed sub-level, green leads to a plant-based one, blue for water, etc.). If they are careful to ascend in perfect rainbow order (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet), they are taken to a really special place (a demi-plane or perhaps one of the Outer Planes; Asgard seems mighty appropriate). Whatever you do, don’t step on the plaid step!
  6. Random Escalator. The staircase is moving; that will either double the speed of the players as they go in the same direction, or cut it in half if they are going against it. Naturally, it should be put in a place where time is of the essence; say, when they will likely be pursued by some Big Nasty Thing, or need to escape poison gas, or something. The stair could also randomly stop or start, or reverse direction, just to add to the fun.
  7. Slide. It’s a cliché, but I can’t remember the last time I actually had a staircase that turned into a slide, dumping the players onto a new level as a one-way trip. Wheee!!
  8. Traps. Dig through your old copies of Grimtooth’s Traps. Plenty of nastiness there to give your players a second thought when they encounter a seemingly-ordinary staircase. Blades, spikes, poison gas; the fun never ends. Best used sparingly, though; if every staircase is a trap, the tension loses its effect. You don’t trap every door and chest, do you?
  9. Up the Down Staircase. Player: “We head down the staircase.” DM: “Okay, you get to the top of the stairs and you see a hallway in front of you.” Player: “I thought you said the stairs went down?” DM: “Yeah, they did. Weird, huh?” The players can never quite figure out when walking down the stairs turns into walking up the stairs; its part of the magic.
  10. Mimic stairs. Imagine if a killer mimic turned itself into a staircase, seemingly leading up to a blank piece of ceiling in a room. Or parked itself at the top of a staircase, imitating more stairs heading up. The best part is, the players might think there really was something at the top of the mimic-stairs, and spend time and resources investigating.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

8 thoughts on “Stairing into the Abyss

  1. Very, very nice! I’m stealing the drawers, the musical stairs, the up the down staircase, and the mimic stairs outright. I’ve already have plans for a grand staircase that leads down two levels -bypassing the one inbetween – and is guarded by a gaggle of gargoyles. I figure that should buy me some time to detail the lower levels should the party try to jump ahead in the dungeon.

    Between my doors and your stairs, the parties are going to be in for a lot of interesting times!

    Well done.

  2. The musical stairs are great. They’re *all* great, actually.

    I’m partial to the slide, tried and true though it is. I might just have jermlaines dump pots of grease down a normal stairwell before attacking with darts from murder holes in the ceiling. More waiting with their nets at the top and bottom…

    Another favorite is the trick stairway in the classic Dragon module “The Twofold Talisman:” The stairs themselves lead down only a flight or two and end in a blank wall, but a permanent illusion makes them seem to go on and on for as long as the party is willing to waste. If memory serves the temperature seems to get hotter as well. That and/or some interesting audible glamer would be a good way of making it seem like they were getting somewhere. Even crueller, in a mega-dungeon: the same illusion on a fake stairway going *up.*

  3. Your doors were indeed an inspiration, Mike. 🙂

    Some more minor thoughts as I re-read the post; I will probably end up having the Musical Stairs in my own dungeon sound like a harpsichord. Just ’cause.

    For the Rainbow Steps, I might have the green steps lead to the Garden of the Plantmaster (published by Pied Piper Publishing).

    And for the drawers, imagine a drawer full of marbles or ball bearings that someone could toss behind them to foul up pursuers…

  4. Great minds think alike Joe 😀 I’ve got an article for Knockspell #1 that will cover my ideas on some funky stairs 😀


  5. I’ve done the grand staircase – a whole network of stairs and landings rising up in a great central room in an ancient dwarven citadel. My initial inspiration was the Carceri engravings by Carceri (some of the oldest school dungeon art I know of!)

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