Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stairs Up and Stairs Down - WTF?!

I have always been confused by the standard AD&D dungeon mapping icons for "stairs up" and "stairs down," excerpted here from the Dungeon Master's Guide p. 94 (and presumably carried forward from OD&D's Underworld and Wilderness Adventures p. 4):

For my part, I see absolutely no need for the "stairs up" symbol to exist.  I find it perplexing.  How do I know which direction is up?  Why not simply use the "stairs down" symbol as the symbol for all stairways, and orient it in the proper direction to indicate up and down?  For example, if I want to depict a 30' eastbound hallway leading to a stairwell down which terminates in a door, it would look like this:

Conversely, if I want the same hallway to end in a stairwell leading up to the same door, it looks like this:

So simple!

Moldvay Basic agrees with me on this; the dungeon mapping icon list on p. B58 shows "stairs" looking like this:

I am not sure why Moldvay thinks we need the "U" and "D" symbols there, though I appreciate his thoroughness.

Interestingly, Holmes seems to swing the other direction, utilizing the "stairs up" symbol for a stairwell leading down into the sample dungeon on p. 42 of his rulebook -- his description on p. 41 says that "The stairway from the surface leads twenty five feet straight down [. . .]." To be fair, Holmes' sample dungeon does not provide a map symbol key; obviously Dr. Holmes simply drew what looked like a stairwell to him and then relied upon the dungeon's descriptive prose section to elucidate which type of stairwell it was. A reasonable approach, but perhaps not the most efficient or visually functional.

Does anyone want to defend Gygax's use of the separate "stairs up" symbol or explain to me why we need it? I am genuinely interested in the answer and willing to be persuaded.  But for my own part, I will likely keep using the single "stairs down" symbol to represent all stairwells until someone convinces me there is a reason to do otherwise.


  1. Because stairs used to be between levels.
    Stairs up to the level above.
    Stairs down to the level below.

    If you are using the stairs to depict changes on the same level, then you are right and you can use them the way you state.

    As for why the Basic set uses 'D' & 'U', it was the Basic set meant for people to learn the game, and maybe a more comprehensive symbology might be helpful for those people.

  2. I've always gone with Moldvay on this one. I was 11 when I started with the Moldvay Purple box and Keep on the Borderlands, and even then Gary's method seemed strange to me.
    I haven't seen Holmes's before, but it seems counter-intuitive in that I've always assumed I'm looking down on the dungeon map, and as such descending stairs would recede into the distance.
    Good blog by the way.

  3. Most oft he maps I draw are for houses, warehouses, etc, since I do a lot of urban gaming. As a result, I just use Gygagx's
    stairs up" symbol for all of my stairs because like on a modern day floor plan, people intuit a stairs symbol on a ground floor map indicate stairs going up to the second floor.

    Well, at least they do here in So. Cal where we have no basements and therefore no stairs down on a ground floor!

  4. @Gratuitous: Thanks, that explains it! Nevertheless, couldn't I use my preferred symbol to indicate a between-levels staircase as well?

    @John: Thanks for the compliment!

    @christian: Thanks for sharing; perhaps J. Eric Holmes was a So. Cal. native as well?

  5. I have drawn a lot of dungeons. I started making dungeons when I was 8, a full four years before I had players. I remember seeing that first picture, and immediately saying "Huh?, that's dumb."

    I've always drawn stairs just like the two middle examples. The dot is the bottom, the longest line is the top. It just makes sense.

    When a stairway leads to nothingness I think it's pretty obvious that it is going to a new level. Looking at which side is the dot and which is the long line tells me if it is a level down or up.

    I propose that the OSR rename the "stairs up" symbol as "Gary's grate". It shows a cell under the floor with a row of bars that monsters can reach up through to grab at the feet and ankles of passing adventurers. I propose this because Gary is great, but the "stairs up" symbol is not.

  6. @Quibish: GRATE idea! I concur!

    The other possibility is to have that symbol represent a "variable" stairway, i.e., one that changes direction from time to time -- see grodog's article on variable stairs on p. 7 of KNOCKSPELL #1.

  7. Now that I think about it some more, maybe "stairs up" was a diplomatic solution. I wonder if there were two different schools of thought within Gary's group about how to read the receding stairs. If you are from the perspective of standing at the bottom of a set of stairs then the topmost stair looks smallest, and if you are at the top of the stairs the bottommost looks to be smallest.

    So Gary says both interpretations are plausible and makes a "stairs up" symbol so that there is no confusion when different people are reading his maps.

    That would certainly explain why Moldvay bothers to include the "u" and "d". I think that shows he was aware of the differences in interpretation, and was wanting to settle the debate. I'd say it is settled by now because of the reason John L mentioned, when you are reading the map you are looking down from above so the dot is the bottom stair.

    Anyhow, that is my best guess about why there was a "stairs up" symbol.

    I still say that now is the time to put it to some better use.

  8. @Quibish: Excellent analysis, and agreed. I suppose now we have to get a group dungeon mapping project going that incorporates "Gygax's Grate" in a clever way. . .

  9. You know, I'm pretty sure Holmes was a professor at either UCLA or USC. I can't remember which.

  10. I've never used Gary's symbol, it just seemed self-evident that stairs down would be the opposite direction.

  11. Nice observations.
    Stairs from-above perspective which retain grid width drove me utterly mad a few months back. I can recommend a good therapist. ;)
    I think the hardest stairs to represent are those which are not in a corridor but inset in the floor of a large room or connect to a second layer / landing / gallery - but without walls either side (does this make sense? - freestanding) It's in those situations that U and D help clarify (do the stairs go into the floor or up from the floor. Somewhere along the line I reckon that the receding lines symbol got mixed up with the U/D image (which probably started out looking like your first Stairs "up" graphic). What's more likely is that the U and D are not meant to be used together - just one or the other. I now draw maps and plans which look like Doom maps (or WHQ) - no otherhanging levels. :)
    (apologies if I sound like I've missed the point somewhere, insomnia drives these typing fingers ...) Nice blog btw.

  12. I do it the Moldvay way. It's as if you're looking down at the stairs from above and the lower part which is farther away and deeper in darkness is represented by shorter stair-step lines. The longest line is the top of the stairs, the dot as the shortest line is the bottom of the stairs.

    I like it because you get all the info you need just looking at the map. Although one blogger around here suggested treating stairs as keyed rooms with cool things going on thereabouts.