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I have recently started playing Nethack (ie. an hour ago) and I know just about nothing more than Elbereth and commands. I have looked everywhere for the command to go down stairs to the next level but all I find is > and when I press that I am told

There is a staircase down here.

This is not much help. It's not that I can't find the stairways, (I know about secret passages), I just can't get down them!

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Have you tried pressing SHIFT + >? Not a Nethack player, so not sure if that'll help, but that's ADOM's "Go down stairs" button. –  Frank Apr 5 '13 at 14:41
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What happens if you type shift + > in terminal? Maybe your keyboard layout is off. As the result you describe is caused by look on :. –  Baarn Apr 5 '13 at 14:58
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"There is a staircase down here" is the message you get when getting a description of the square you're on with the '.' key. down stairs is '>'. What happens when you hit, for example, shift+w? if you get a wield weapon prompt, your shift key is not working properly. If you get a wear armour prompt, then something else is the problem. –  Sconibulus Apr 5 '13 at 15:01
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You're right! How do I change my keyboard layout? –  Josh Lewis Apr 5 '13 at 15:53
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Steps to change the keyboard layout will vary based on the operating system you're using. As a temporary workaround while you work on figuring that out, repairing, or replacing your keyboard; you can copy from another file and paste in most implementations of Nethack. The only one I know of that this doesn't work on is the Windows Tile port. (Warning: copy and pasting of commands can sometimes lead to YASD, be careful) –  Sconibulus Apr 5 '13 at 16:38
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1 Answer

The right command to go down stairs is >, normally accessed as Shift+..

However, in your case the keyboard layout Nethack is using does not currently correspond to what you actually see on your keyboard. You will need to adjust the layout using the options stored in defaults.nh or specifically on the command line.

My version of defaults.nh has a number of keyboard handling options:

# Keyboard handling
# Different keyboard handlers can be loaded.
# Default is nhdefkey.dll but you can override that.
# Ray Chason's keyboard handler
# OPTIONS=altkeyhandler:nhraykey.dll
#
# NetHack 3.4.0 keyboard handling
# OPTIONS=altkeyhandler:nh340key.dll

# number_pad option can have an optional value of 0 (off), 1 (on), 
# or 2(on,legacy-mode) which causes 5='g', alt-5='G', alt-0='I'
OPTIONS=number_pad:1

# Note: the rest_on_space in the next line may not be
#       appropriate for a beginning NetHack player, since
#       it could result in use of a turn unintentionally.
#       If you're new to NetHack, leave it commented it out.
#OPTIONS=rest_on_space

# Finnish keyboards might need these modifications uncommented. 
# For  \, @, $, [, |
#OPTIONS=subkeyvalue:171/92
#OPTIONS=subkeyvalue:178/64
#OPTIONS=subkeyvalue:180/36
#OPTIONS=subkeyvalue:184/91
#OPTIONS=subkeyvalue:188/124
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