RPS chum Robin “Roburky” Burkinshaw is fast becoming something of a celebrity PC gaming diarist, with his recent Sims 3 diary blog attracting enormous attention from across the gaming sphere, and even from mainstream media. We, however, asked him to write something that definitely won’t get into Entertainment Weekly: the journal of a Dwarf Fortress campaign. What he came back with gives you some idea of just how insanely detailed the Dwarf Fortress world really is, and how much an incomplete simulation is likely to land hapless dwarves in trouble. Tales of fish dissectors, rivers of vomit, and doomed architectural improvisation follow.
Dwarf Fortress is a management game from another world. So detailed is its simulation of harsh and bloody dwarven existence that reading the creator’s development log is like reading updates from a deity as it puts together a new planet.
22nd May 2008: Handled talking to babies.
9th November 2008: Remembered to make ribs internal.
3rd January 2009: Wrote up organ strikes, but it keeps crashing when I hit the spleen.
You’ve likely already come to a conclusion whether you’re a person capable of delving beyond the alien interface to meet this amazing game for yourself, but before you make any further judgments, allow me to tell you a story of a band of dwarves who left their dwarven city, and established a new settlement that they called ‘SquashedBrains’.
I started this game shortly after Dwarf Fortress’ introduction of the third dimension, back in 2007. It was an exciting time for those who had played the previous versions, with lots of new features to experiment with. One of these was the ability to build constructions. Previously, you could only mine out the rock and create rooms out of what you left behind. Now you could build walls, and potentially make buildings of your own on the surface.
I felt it was clear that I should start a Tower of Babel project as soon as possible. How high could we go? Was there an upper limit to this world? What would happen if I reached it?
We began the construction next to our main fortress entrance. It was five tiles wide, and five tiles long, with a staircase in the corner. It was fiddly work, as constructed walls and floors had to be designated one tile at a time, but things were nevertheless progressing well. I had a team of very highly skilled masons working on it full-time. On the third floor, however, all of my masons got themselves stuck. They had chosen to build the walls before the floors, and had walked along the top of the walls of the level below, built a new wall on top of it, and left themselves no route back to the staircase.
I assigned some peasants to be emergency masons to try and finish the floor to let them out, but their unskilled hands were not working fast enough. My stranded dwarves were starving to death. Drastic measures were called for. I designated the wall they were standing on for demolition.
The result? Massive structural collapse. The screen is entirely obscured by clouds of dust and smoke. But it’s a kind of success. The masons were now lying on the grass outside the tower, unconscious but unhurt. The only casualty was my fish dissector, who died in the middle of the collapse, according to the message log. I presume he got hit in the head while passing by underneath, but I couldn’t really tell what happened with all the smoke.
It wasn’t until a whole game year later that I noticed what the single teal coloured stripy square was on every level of my fortress. Using the ‘look at’ command that gives you detailed information on the contents of a tile, I discovered that symbol meant ‘open space’. It seems that much of the tower had collapsed onto a single square, and punched a hole through my entire goddamned fortress. There is a gap in the floor of my tomb, my prison, my mighty statue party room, the mayor’s bedroom, and several stairways. Seven levels below the ground, beneath all of the holes, there is an almighty pile of stone and a pool of blood. That, I suspect, was the resting place of the fish dissector.
My dwarves are a practical people. We used the hole for an elegant solution to our stone clutter problem. Whenever you expand your mountain home, there is always the question of what to do with all of the stone that gets mined out. Once upon a time, we would create an enormous stockpile outside and carry them out one by one and stack them in orderly rows. Then I changed to ordering my masons to build stone blocks out of it all, which took up much less storage space, and could be used to construct higher quality buildings. Over the years, however, it still took up too much space.
But thanks to my failed career as a skyscraper architect, we now had a handy garbage chute on every level of the fortress. Some quick setting up of rubbish zones over the gap, and then designating some rock for dumping, and all the useless clutter in our home gets chucked down the hole to join the fish dissector’s bodily fluids at the bottom. A new age of efficiency for the fortress began.
Then the hydra came. Which was rather inconvenient. With all the ambitious construction projects going ahead, I hadn’t actually got around to developing a military to deal with the monsters that Dwarf Fortress throws at you.
I called all of my dwarves inside, forbade them from leaving, and prepared to press them all into emergency military service. The hydra sprinted across the map, directly towards my fortress entrance next to the collapsed tower. It forced its way through the front door, and was caught by my single cage trap as it charged across the entrance hall.
I was honestly surprised to see that work on a giant monster. My fortress was saved, but I now had the problem of an enormous multi-headed mythical creature in a little wooden cage. It was sitting in my animal stockpile alongside the cows and camels. I dug out a room a little way down the cliff from my fortress entrance, and put the hydra in there, surrounded with engraved pillars. It would be a shrine to the fortune of SquashedBrains.
As soon as this was done, however, a titan arrived. It entered the map behind a visiting dwarven trade caravan. Their armed guard immediately sprang into action, and the most unbelievably epic battle that I have ever observed – through the medium of textual wound and status readouts – took place.
The dwarves piled on to the approaching titan, but it rapidly killed the majority, and sent the remainder fleeing for their lives. This left a single caravan guard to fight the colossal text entity on his own. This axe-dwarf was described as ‘unbelievably agile’, and was fighting the giant creature bare-handed, his weapon having been irretrievably lodged in the titan’s shoulder early on in the struggle. This duel went on for days, possibly months of in-game time. They were both tired and over-exerted, and would occasionally slip into unconsciousness. The titan was dripping in dwarf blood from head to toe. There were steel axes sticking out of his arms and hands, and he was trying to beat down the dwarf using a steel helmet stolen from a dwarf corpse. Eventually, finally, brilliantly, the dwarf was victorious, and the titan fell.
My one actual, trained soldier slept through the entire event. All he got to see of the titan was its bones being made into crossbow bolts as the saviour of SquashedBrains and his caravan went riding off into the sunset. Having only narrowly avoided destruction by two different giant monsters by sheer chance, I decided that I needed a military. I drafted almost half of my population into the army and set them training. They didn’t manage to get much training done before another calamity struck: a goblin horde arrived, and was going to besiege the fortress. Could my luck possibly hold?
Back in 2007, there was a bug with Dwarf Fortress that meant that goblin sieges often didn’t actually attack your fortress. If they didn’t see a dwarf, they would mill around on the edges of the map, and eventually go home.
These goblins did see a dwarf, however, because most of my untrained army decided to launch an attack on the legions of mounted goblins and their superhumanly tough human swordsmen leaders. Needless to say, the eager dwarf combatants were cut to pieces without landing a single blow. Attempting to mitigate the destruction, I marked their bodies and equipment as forbidden, which would prevent the civilian dwarves from coming out to retrieve them. By the time the goblin army left, there was was a field of rotten dwarf corpses spread out in front of the fortress. I decided, with the enemy gone, that it was probably safe to let the other dwarves bury the poor bastards.
But Dwarf Fortress is designed for even this eventuality. It turns out that dwarves react to walking out into a battlefield covered in putrified blood and rotting corpses by vomiting in horror. There’s far more spew out by the river now than there was blood in the first place.
Not all was bodily fluids and horror, however. One of my soldiers had been looking after a baby, which survived the siege. Her soldier friend then adopted the child, and then later had a baby herself. So she was soon carrying two babies with her everywhere. Needless to say, she really wasn’t getting a lot of soldiering done. I decided I would turn her back into a civilian until the kids grew up a bit.
In fact a lot of the dwarfs that died had friends. Friends who had to pick up rotting chunks of their former buddies off the ground, and have consequently been incredibly miserable. They’ve also been periodically getting angry at the world and smashing random stuff in the fortress. One dwarf lost one too many friends in the battle for him to recover. He went mad and threw himself 13 levels down the garbage chute. He’s now lying unconscious at the bottom with his legs smashed to pieces. Nobody wants to help rescue him.
The aftermath of war is horrible. And in the game.
With so many dead, incompetent, war heroes, I needed a proper place to bury them. I had recently found an underground bottomless chasm, and I decided a mass tomb overlooking the edge would be a fitting and impressive location. Between each coffin was a pillar lovingly engraved with images of cackling goblins and dying dwarves.
When it was finished, I started digging channels on the layer above, to divert water from a nearby river closer to the main fortress so I could make a well. But I accidentally cut the channel into the tomb. The river is now flowing through the tomb, creating a waterfall into the chasm.
One dwarf was caught inside when it happened, burying her friend, and she has been swimming against the flow for a season, now. She’s going to die, but at least she’s improving her swimming skill, and has been “comforted by a lovely waterfall”.
War was bad. But fantasy fauna would be worse.
A dragon arrived.
I suppose I survived the first two giant monster attacks through luck, and situations outside my control. SquashedBrains was out of luck, it seems, and no random occurrence was going to make this dragon attack easier on the fortress.
I had, of course, made some preparations for monster attacks. I had removed what was a very easily accessible stairway direct to every floor on my fortress, and instead put the western entrance to my fortress inside my lead tower of towering doom. On the first floor down I had set up a barracks and an archery range, so my remaining marksdwarves-in-training would never be far away from an attacking beast. They were still entirely untrained, but it was the best we can do that this stage.
Ramul Kortilrane the dragon swooped down straight towards the base of my tower. I called the dwarves back inside, and locked the doors. He arrived and stood there between the decorative statues by the gate.
I wasn’t going to be bullied off my own land. I sent the marksdwarves out to the ground floor of the tower. I had cut some fortifications into the walls on this level so that my crossbow-armed dwarves could shoot out at nearby targets. They marched up the stairs, … then cowered in the back corner away from the dragon. The dragon got very excited by this. He knocked over a statue, and began breathing fire all over the tower. Then he leapt straight up to the windows and melted the dwarf standing furthest forward.
I unlocked the door and instructed cowardly marksdwarves to get back outside. There was no point risking lives if they weren’t going to use the fortifications properly. I don’t really know what happened next, as everything was obscured by smoke. But it must have been a truly heroic battle, because, when it cleared, both the dragon and all of my marksdwarves were dead.
Of course, there were quite a few things on fire, too. And that fire was spreading. A fire spreading in ASCII. I lost an additional nine dwarves before I even realised what was happening. Developer Tarn Adams has created some amazingly detailed systems for temperature and fire in this game, but teaching dwarves how to react to those conditions is still on his to-do list. For all the intricacy and cleverness of the dwarf simulations, they had no way of dealing with a burning fortress. Soon another goblin army arrived to siege the fortress. Their work would not be difficult. The entire thing was ablaze, and my sixteen remaining dwarves were all bedridden, incapacitated with severe burns.
And that is how the tale of the fortress of SquashedBrains came to an end.