Terry stepped carefully on the narrow path. A few rocks skittered over the edge into the darkness below. They were lucky to find the path, he wasn’t sure if it was natural or if someone or something created it. Kate was sure it led to the lost city of Dzuvia. They had to be over a hundred yards underground now. The claustrophobic caverns they had squeezed through to get here had opened up considerably. Terry could feel a cool breeze and the faint sound of a waterfall somewhere far ahead of him.
“I think we’ve found it,” Kate said in a reverent whisper.
“How can you tell I can’t see anything past this lantern.”
“The sounds. This cavern’s huge, just like the one Dzuvia is supposed to be in.” Kate had taken off her pack and was rummaging around in it.
“We taking a break?” Terry asked massaging his aching calf as he watched her.
“Maybe,” Kate replied and produced a flare from her pack and proceeded to light it.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Terry asked. Kate seemed to always attract trouble.
“No, but only one way to find out.” Kate hurled the flare as far as she could over the cliff’s edge. Both Terry and Kate watched the streak or orange light intently as it seemed to float through the air and towards the cavern’s floor.
The light slowly revealed what Kate had dreamed about for so long Dzuvia.
Terry stared. The buildings and temples below were clearly Vertruvian in design. They must have dated back to the…
A few pieces of rock landed on Terry’s shoulder. It interrupted his thoughts as he looked at them and brushed them off. Slowly he raised lantern high and stared at the wall behind him. A wall that seemed to be moving…. And chittering.
Terry pushed Kate forward.
“Stop it,” She complained. He prodded her forward again.
“Stop it, I might fall.”
“run.” Terry all but whispered.
“What?” Kate asked as she tore her eyes from Dzuvia and looked at Terry. That is when the wall seemed to lurch forward.
Back when I was DMing D&D with larger groups and higher level players I discovered that the key to a great encounter isn’t usually the monsters but instead the location that can really make the encounter memorable. I have used the long stair encounter quite a few times, the most memorable being when the party was trying to escape an infernal city in a large subterranean cavern.
The players are climbing or descending a long path (with or without stairs) on a cliff face when they are ambushed by foes, or face some kind of calamity. This isn’t an original scene, it plays out in many adventure movies and a lot of fantasy fiction, and is usable in many genres.
How the scene starts really can dictate the mood of the scene. You could describe the wondrous sights the players could see from this vantage point if the threats are going to ambush them. Get your players engrossed in the sights and sounds and beauty before you hit them so you can start with a mood of exploration and journey. Or maybe it’s really windy or cold or hot and the mood is more of bleakness, dread, or inevitability, a darker tone. This works well if the environmental effects are to play a part in the encounter.(or be the encounter) The mood could also be frantic fleeing. The long stair makes a great encounter when your players are running from a larger group of foes.
The biggest most obvious threat is Falling. That should always weigh heavily on your players’ minds. What can cause the players to fall really depends on you. Weather can be a good threat. (nod to Caradhras ) Wind, rain, driving snow that kind of thing. Unless it is a Caradhras situation, though, a smart party would just stop and ride out the storm, not risking it. So be careful for that.
Flying creatures are my favorite type of threat in this scene. Ones that just attack or others that try to pull their prey off the cliff so they can eat the tenderized flesh as it lays still on the canyon floor. Trying to attack foes with better maneuverability and freedom of movement while trying not to fall is a fun juggling act.
Creatures that can climb up the cliff face is also a fun one. A swarm of spiders or giant ants something that attacks in great numbers forcing your party to be a little reckless in their retreat.
A simple army of goblins or orc or evil doers chasing the players works as if this is a chase scene.
You have a wall at your back and a drop just ahead. Maneuverability should be a big issue in an encounter like this. The situation alone should give a setback die or increase the difficulty of actions. Balance, Dexterity, Agility all should be skill checks needed at some time or another. Falling should be a real threat. But make it at least a 2 check process. One fail means you are falling; the second test is to see if you can catch yourself. If that fails maybe let a nearby party member see if they can catch them. You can let the players fall more readily if the players have a safety line in place or you have a way to stop them from dying (landing in a spider’s web or something)
Make sure the threat makes sense. Sure a bandit ambush on the mountain side could be cool. But why would bandits be all the way up here lying in wait for the very infrequent passersby?
Have an NPC Fall (allow the players the chance to catch them). I’m an evil bastard when it comes to NPCs but the redshirt formula works. Having NPCs on hand allows you to show the players the danger without having someone roll a new character every night. This encounter is a great way to get rid of one or two spare NPCs.
Combine and vary your threats. Rain(Mud)(Slippery Ground) + Giant Ants = Memorable Encounter.
Allow time for character moments. One character saving another from falling is dramatic. If one player is falling, stop, describe the scene in great detail, let the players describe how they respond. After the dice are rolled let the players describe how it’s resolved. Interparty dialogue may occur organically. Let them be the ones to turn and get back to the hectic threat.
Don’t drag out the scene. Sure the journey is supposed to be 10,000 steps. We don’t have to be there for all of them. Even if the characters are being chased, allow them the opportunity to pull ahead enough that the scene ends.
Don’t pull a Caradhras. In the story, the pass being unpassable because of evil forces works. In a game, the players will feel you are railroading them. Sure you can make it tough, but make it doable.