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Dwarf Fortress diary: The Basement of Curiosity episode five - culture war, dingo war

The dwarves get an awful new mayor

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Last time on the BoC: The fortress doubled in population, and the dwarves embarked on a serious programme of home improvements. A kobold with no tongue dropped by to visit, and expedition leader Lorbam’s blood started appearing in spooky places.

Mid Summer, Y2

Trumpets sound deep in the jungle, flat notes hanging on the hot air like birds of prey. The inhabitants of the Basement hold their breaths in trepidation – the fort has been beset by weird omens of late, and they are ill prepared for any attack.

But then, what should emerge from the treeline but a party of ten affluent-looking dwarves, attended by a flock of strutting peafowl. They are dressed in fine silk robes, and stride through the fort’s gates like they own the place: indeed, these are a higher quality of dwarf than the rough pioneers who founded this place. They are, for lack of a better word, gentrifiers.

Among the newcomers is a miner, Tirist, who smirks as she hefts her pick alongside the Basement’s resident hole-digging couple, Nil and Ineth. She may not have their strength, but she’s got class. Her husband Mistem is a stubborn, pompous academic who’s disappointed by the fort’s lack of a library, and the two of them clearly have designs on replacing the two incumbent miners as the fort’s resident power couple.

But the standout new arrival is Urist Momuzzes, a comedian and armoursmith who’s so confident in her own quality that, even before she gloops her first glug of pomegranate wine, she has declared herself mayor.

Lorbam is speechless. At 63 years old, this interloper is three years younger than her, and seems obnoxiously perfect. As well as her armour- and laugh-making abilities, she’s a talented negotiator, a talented organiser, and a skilled farmer in her spare time. She’s friendly, pleasant, independent, and ambitious, and worships the disconcerting god of wealth known as Shin Puceemerald.

Know your gods: Shin Puceemerald. In this world’s pantheon, Shin’s a weird one. Most of the gods’ descriptions just feature a brief visual description and a list of what the god represents, but in this case, we get a little history lesson. It seems Shin has spent a lot of time turning a place called Munchedstranger (wow) into a sort of hammer horror nightmare, complete with werelizards, werepanthers and vampires. Chillingly, this all happened within 80 years of the game’s present day, meaning these actions are all within (Dwarven) living memory. You’d have to be a bit weird to worship this god.

Urist is also grossly inartistic, with little imagination, and thinks self-reflection is pointless, as is curiosity. Now, Lorbam can handle a lot of things, but the idea of someone with no curiosity usurping her position – in this place, the Basement of Curiosity – really grinds her gears. But what can she do? The dwarves – most of whom weren’t even there when Lorbam raised this place out of the mire with her own blood and sweat – have voted this preening fool into power, and their will must be done. And so Lorbam meekly moves her possessions out of her brand new suite in the fort’s macadamia wood tower, as an oh-so-sweetly-smiling Urist moves in with her husband and one-year-old son.

As a gesture of ‘respect’, Urist allows Lorbam to retain her directorship of the actual basement zoo, but both dwarves know that the new mayor has no intentions of funding its growth, or procuring new animals. Indeed, the first thing she does with her power is mandate the construction of a big shipment of greaves. This could get ugly.

So while the game hasn’t modelled any actual beef between Urist and Lorbam, it seems fairly reasonable to infer that the two would have a bit of a feud. I’m also going to roleplay Lorbam’s deposition, with no major new work to be done on the zoo while Urist is mayor. I’m seeing her as a bit like Dolores Umbridge off of Harry Potter, by the way. And it’s worth noting for the record, her husband has joined the military as one of the Salves of Shade.

Late Summer, Y2

Imush, the Basement’s bin-loving craftsdwarf and a firm supporter of Lorbam’s, is incensed by his comrade’s firing as the fort’s leader, and the new mayor’s arrogant demand for greaves. To register his displeasure – and frankly, to stir up some shit – he decides to create a legendary artefact, as a sort of grand act of satirical protest.

Claiming a workshop for his master project, he proceeds to grab stack after stack of fresh-mined slate, before roaring for someone to bring him leather. The echoes of his demands travel up from the depths to reach the ears of Dodok the creepy butcher, who offers an eerie thumbs up and immediately Tescoes the fort’s entire herd of horses.

Imush knows that Lorbam is a big admirer of horses, so knows that adding horse skin to his work will be a great way to honour her. As Ushat the chef (predictably) starts making bleak traybakes out of horse eyes and pomegranates to serve to the fort’s workers, Imush gets to work…

A couple of days later, he emerges with a howl of triumph, bearing THINNEDKINDNESS THE STRANGER OF APES, a slate amulet, featuring an image of the fort’s seven founders – himself and Lorbam included – in horse leather. This is a daringly political work of art, and so the fort explodes in gossip when it appears one morning in the Basement itself, upon a silver pedestal still warm from the forge.

Trying to work out the ‘meanings’ of DF’s randomly generated artefact names is always a fun part of the storytelling, and the name of this artefact is a gift. I like to think the “Thinned kindness” represents the fort’s old guard’s frosty reception to Urist, while the “Stranger of Apes” is a reference to Urist herself, who Imush sees as a stranger or an outside to Lorbam’s dream of starting an ape zoo. I imagine the amulet has been given such a garbled name because dwarven political satire is really weird, and Imush himself is a hopeless satirist – a kind of dwarven Ben Garrison.

Once again, Dwarf Fortress doesn’t tell stories all by itself – it throws out thousands of weird events, and a large part of gameplay is spotting interesting potential connections between them, and shepherding them into narrative structures via the limited control one has over the dwarves. It’s kind of like scripting a wrestling promotion, where the wrestlers and their gimmicks are entirely generated by an AI, and will sometimes give birth to new wrestlers halfway through matches.

Urist reacts coolly to this anonymous insult, like a substitute teacher finding a worm in her tea. Unfazed, she saunters to the forge hall and bangs out five sets of greaves herself, to be distributed among the military, and with her husband getting the best set. She also uses the fort’s only steel ingots to make a toy boat for her son, so as to leave no doubt as to who is in charge.

Early Autumn, Y2

Summer’s rainstorms give way to the drizzle of autumn, and the forest floor fills with fallen, rain-slick fruit. And through these scattered carombolas and kumquats creeps Fladalasreelgus the Kobold, once again nearly reaching the fort’s gates before Id is alerted to his presence.

Old Flad cavorts out of sight before the world’s most brutal dad can catch him, but the fruitpicker Oddom – who has watched the whole business silently – can’t help but wonder. Is this kobold truly a thief? Or is he trying to warn the dwarves of something? Who removed his tongue, anyway? These thoughts make Oddom nervous. Nevertheless, the majority of the dwarves have no time to wonder about such things – they are too concerned with the growing power struggle between Mayor Urist and Lorbam.

Speaking of Lorbam, she’s currently at the trading depot, with her arms folded, watching the annual dwarven trade caravan unload its goods. As a gesture of clemency from Urist, she’s been allowed to retain her role as the fort’s broker – but her and her old guard see this as a glorified errand-dwarf’s position. Scowling, they look up at the macadamia tower, to see Urist praying piously to Shin, and her son playing with his damnable boat. Then another huge figure emerges in Urist’s study, and Lorbam spits on the leaf litter. Udil, the fort’s gigantic lady manager, is hobnobbing with her new boss, having clearly abandoned her promise to make Lorbam a glass reptile house. How fickle these dwarves are.

Lorbam is just falling into a dark mood when Dodok (not the creepy butcher, but the dwarf who arrived at the head of the Spring’s giant migration) rushes up to her. Dodok says she has taken over Udil’s abandoned glassworks, and has been struck by inspiration. She says she just needs a little cloth to finish a special project, and she can solve Lorbam’s power problem. Of course, Lorbam agrees to this. Raising money by selling her own leopard leather trousers (as Urist would no doubt refuse to release funds for the task), she buys a yard of fresh fabric from the traders, and sends the budding glassmaker on her way.

Two days later, Dodok emerges from the glassworks with the fort’s second artefact: THE LIGHTNING OF CLODS. This spectacular green glass goblet is engraved with the same image of the Basement’s founding to appear on Thinnedkindness, and is thus clearly another piece of pro-Lorbam propaganda. What’s more, the work has turned Dodok into a master of her craft, and so – in a risky power play – Lorbam names her the fort’s official glazier. Emboldened, the former mayor instructs Dodok to make not just the green glass terrarium she has dreamed of for her lizards, but a whole assortment of green glass windows. What could they be for?

In the case of this artefact, I like to think the ‘clods’ are the foolish dwarves who have accepted Urist as mayor, and the ‘Lightning’ is the realisation of the Basement’s true purpose, conducted through the lightning rod of this magnificent goblet.

The increasingly political contents of the Basement of Curiosity.

Mid Autumn, Y2

A deft political strategist, Lorbam has decided that, inspired by Dodok’s work, green glass will be a symbol of her authority. And so, to really wee on Urist’s chips, she has a gang of her oldest mates scale the top of the macadamia tower, and build a smaller, fancier tower for her to live in, right on top of Urist’s, with green glass windows to boot. It’s three storeys tall, with stairs made of the fort’s only gold (nicely one-upping the steel boat), and a rooftop statue garden overlooking even the jungle’s tallest trees. She also commissions a chain to be made with the fort’s last remaining silver, and uses it to replace the rope currently keeping the Basement’s depressed cheetah in place. It’s always worth keeping the cheetah on side, after all.

The various floors of Lorbam’s new tower-on-a-tower – also, notice the tiny green asterisk in the fourth image? That’s a firefly, that just happened to be flying past as I took the screenshot. All joking aside, this is a truly beautiful game.

Mayor Urist splutters in outrage when she returns to her quarters to find a whole new tower built on top of them, but is too flustered for a truly decisive response. Her bluff has been called. All she can do is passive-aggressively mandate Imush to build a bunch of bracelets, which he obeys with sarcastic obsequiousness.

Late Autumn, Y2

The new spire stands well clear of the forest canopy, with its fabulous glasswork shining green for all to see. A new gaggle of migrants arrives, including Dodok the glassmaker’s parents Catten and Ushrir: they have clearly heard of their daughter’s ascent as a sort of revolutionary figure, and have come to share in her glory.

Along with these parents arrives a figure whose footsteps shake the forest as he comes: Athel Throwsabres, a dwarf so enormous that he makes even the large-human-sized Udil look stumpy. A celebrated musician and poet with a merry disposition, this titan has burnt umber skin, white hair, and an abiding fondness for geese. He’s is also the fort’s first entirely homosexual dwarf, and thus a welcome addition to the Basement’s LGBTQ+ community. It is decided that he shall be put in charge of the fort’s long-neglected flock of geese.

I’m not certain how DF models dwarven sexual preference, but it’s almost certainly as weirdly alien as its other generation systems. What I can say from looking at the stats is that just under half of dwarves are bisexual (DF currently works on a binary gender model), while around two percent are exclusively homosexual. Lorbam is bisexual, by the way.

As these migrants pour in, poor Oddom – who is still thinking about Fladasreelgus – begs mayor Urist to work on the fort’s defences. She agrees, and the dwarves throw up new wooden walls all around the valley. Rakust’s squad of lumberjacks have been busy building their spectacular treehouse, but are glad of the chance to mix things up.

I’m almost starting to feel proud for my dwarves, this is looking pretty great. I also love how you can’t take a wide shot of the valley without the picture being photobombed by mangled snake innards.

Early Winter, Y2

As the end of the year looms, Dodok’s star continues to rise. On the first day of Winter, she gives birth to a baby girl – her second child, and (knowing the dwarven mindset), probably her second proudest achievement of the year after the construction of the Lightning of Clods. As if in celebration, her newly-arrived father Ushrir rushes into a carpenter’s workshop and begins a bout of fevered woodwork.

He emerges with WILTWORRIES, the fort’s third artefact, which is a frankly bizarre sort of hand-held organ with a glass keyboard. I can only assume Ushrir is blissed out by the arrival of his new granddaughter, and has decided to spread the love via this engine of music, which he hopes will ‘wilt the worries’ of the troubled fortress. It does have a picture of a little cloud on it, after all. Either way, it’s deposited in the new feasting hall, ready for someone to have a little toot on it.

I was going to try illustrating this, but I really didn’t want to draw two hundred and sixteen separate pipes. If anyone wants to have a go at capturing the majesty of Wiltworries, I’ll put their effort in the next article.

Mid Winter, Y2

Winter brings a very faint flicker of cool to the Jungle of Hides, but does nothing to chill the simmering social tension of the Basement. Indeed, as if in mockery of the unrest within the new wooden walls, the woods begin to echo with the yipping of a pack of dingoes, migrating through the region once again.

Lorbam would have had traps set for the beasts immediately, but Mayor Urist umms and aahs, indecisive. Id the wrestler, however, bored after months on end of monotonously persecuting snakes, has no interest in waiting on her decision. Slurping down his mug of starfruit wine, he charges out into the winter mist and gets stuck in.

What happens next isn’t pretty. The problem is, the dingoes are fast, and by the time Id catches up with one of them, he’s exhausted. He lunges at one for a grapple, and it is momentarily pinned, but then slips from his grasp and absolutely rips him up. The wild dog savages Id’s hands, forearms and thighs, before making an absolute lasagna of his chest. By the time the dwarf gets the beast in a headlock again, he’s streaming with his own blood.

Id grips the dingo by the nose and pummels its body with blow after blow – but he’s weakened, and the punches do little more than bruise the animal. Eventually it slips out of his bloodied grip, and Id keels over – but he is too angry to give up, and leaps to his feet to give chase.

It’s an unwise decision. When Id reaches the creature again, it is in a froth of rage, and chews up his foot like a drunk attacking a carnival hotdog. The dingo virtually flays the poor wrestler with its jagged teeth, and by the end of the mauling, Id’s chest is so carved up that his lungs are bruised. Finally, in a hideous display of strength, and as if possessed by the vengeful spirits of dozens of rattlesnakes, the dingo shakes Id by the torso and hurls him unconscious into the mud.

For a long moment, all is still, and Id lies face-down in the forest muck. Then, shaking and pouring blood, the warrior rolls onto his side. After a series of racking, blood-gurgling coughs, Id staggers to his feet, and begins limping slowly back to the fortress.

And what is he thinking?

“I was near to a door. It’s interesting.”

Dwarf Fortress, everyone.

Next time on the BoC: Id fights for his life on the operating table! Death comes! The king of the jungle shows himself!

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Nate Crowley

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Nate Crowley is the author of The 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), and does game narrative and world design for hire when he isn't writing books. He's on twitter as @frogcroakley.

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