Dwarf Fortress diary: How seven drunks opened a portal to Hell

Steve Hogarty at

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[This feature originally ran in Issue 228 PC Gamer UK, and the wonderful illustrations are by the Tim Denee.]

In the Dwarven Year 250, the stubby reach of dwarfkind had touched every procedurally generated rock in Ruspsmata, from The Problematic Steppe to The Dune of Hermits, from The Prairie of Pregnancy to the Jungle of Conflagration. Not an inch of stone had not known dwarven steel, yet one dark depth had so far eluded colonisation. “Leave the skies to the birds,” sang the Dwarven King, probably, I’m making this bit up, “the Underworld shall be ours to keep.”

So it was that only the expedition leader Tim Edwards was told of the true reason behind the construction of the fortress of Oakfire. He had chosen the site – it was soft, quiet and dry – and he was the first to strike the earth, to form the encampment and two-bit industry required to fuel a downward dig as rapid as it was perilous In a little over two years Tim Edwards would lie helplessly in a hospital bed as the foulest and most harrowing creatures of the beneath roasted him alive. He would feel every crackling blister as his skin boiled and dripped to the soot-covered floor. He’d regret the swing of the pick.

Tim Edwards was digging a hole to hell.

Digging Below

Well, it’s me digging a hole to hell by proxy. Dwarf Fortress is several different things at once. It’s The Sims and Nethack and Dungeon Keeper and Minecraft. It’s a vast, simulated fantasy world, generated just for you, with races and religions and history and wars and dwarves whose fingernails grow. It’s also infamously difficult to play, featuring only ASCII visuals and labyrinthine menus. Yet Dwarf Fortress’s reluctance to expend even a joule of energy in prettying itself results in astonishing hidden complexity.

Oakfire’s expedition team of seven dwarves are my representatives in the world of Dwarf Fortress, and I’ve named them after the seven damned souls of PC Gamer. Seven auto-generated personalities, each with their name writ tiny in this world’s persistent records. Before we set out, the game has already simulated the 250 years leading up to the day my dwarves arrive at Oakfire. They’re specks, seven of tens of thousands of pawns in Ruspsmata’s everunfolding story. Their objective, and mine, is to reach the unfathomable fathoms of Hades.

Francis sets to work dismantling the wagon and turning the wood into beds. Edwards and Smith begin to scoop out a shallow hole. The others busy themselves by stockpiling the food, furniture and fuel they arrived with. Over days, seven bedrooms are carved out of the rock, indoor stores are created, as are workshops, kitchens and stills. Pearson happily builds doors. Francis constructs tables and chairs for an ornate dining room. His puppy is stung by a bumblebee in an attempt ironically frame just how peril-free life is.

And so the tiny settlement lurches into life. Water from the river is diverted into an underground reservoir – its level carefully maintained by two remotely controlled floodgates – and used to irrigate a healthy crop of plump helmet. Owen Hill harvests the plant, using it to brew fine dwarven wine. Oakfire has fuel. It breathes deep, rancid wine breaths.

The dining room becomes Oakfire’s attractive centrepiece, as the northwest corner has clipped a cluster of green tourmaline, creating a shimmering emerald distraction from the now daily servings of Tony Ellis’s freshly caught perch. It’s all very pleasant.

It’s definitely a shame that Graham Smith is already tunnelling vertically towards oblivion and the realms of unending torture.

Clever Dwarves

As a construction and physics simulator, Dwarf Fortress is perhaps at its least intimidating. You can’t assume exact control over your dwarves, instead you designate areas for them to work on. In these early stages, that’s a case of simply tracing out chunks of the ground to be dug. Dwarves are assigned different jobs, such as mining (which requires a pick – I’ve brought two from the mountain homes), but some labour is shared by every dwarf in the fortress, such as hauling items from one place to another.

Moving stone becomes a constant low priority task. Once you’ve designated an area of land to act as a stone stockpile, dwarves will busy themselves clearing up the fortress if they’ve nothing better to do. Later, in a future Oakfire might never see, nobles and pink-fingered administrators with opulent demands and arbitrary personal mandates will show up. Many of these guys won’t help out around the fortress.

Geologically, Dwarf Fortress is accurate enough. Minerals appear in the right shapes – clusters or seams – at roughly the right depths. That shock of green tourmaline in the dining room is a fluke, but not all that rare. It genuinely pleases the dwarves though, who gain happiness modifiers associated with the worth of the room. Decent furniture also plays a part in a room’s worth, but not in this instance. Tom Francis is a shoddy carpenter. He’ll improve with practice.

Graham Smith’s work takes place a short distance from Oakfire’s entrance hall. A roughly hewn passage leads away from the main fortress before reaching an ever deepening pit, around which a rudimentary stairwell allows access to the rapidly descending dig site. This place is like no other in Oakfire: narrow, with space barely enough for two dwarves to pass, and singular in its function. Rare minerals are struck and ignored, and when the stone below them runs out – when the ceilings of sprawling underground caverns are pierced – materials are brought down from Oakfire to build descending staircases so that the downward dig can continue. The pace is steady, the heading as crooked as their picks aren’t.

Two such caverns are encountered and traversed in this manner; two great and seemingly endless halls of fungus-carpeted rock, pocked by underground lakes, themselves spattered with their own tiny islands upon which even more fungus grows. Clever dwarves would be wary of these dark and unknowable places. Clever dwarves would build walls around their bafflingly unprotected staircases.

Oakfire hosts no clever dwarves.

There’s no one way to quantify the progression of a fortress, and some fortresses will never reach an underground cavern unless their search for raw material takes them there. Those aforementioned nobles are typically the cause of vertical expeditions, as they mandate that certain objects must be made from particular metals, requiring that you tunnel off in search of the stuff. A fortress will also require a healthy metal industry if it hopes to defend itself from the attentions of goblins – the game’s maligned native civilisation – and a truly efficient metal industry needs magma to smelt ore. Magma thrives deep underground. Wood burners will suffice in a shallow fortress, but what sad dwarf would want to depend on trees? Also, elves get pissed if you cut down trees.

Tim Edwards becomes briefly entangled in a cave spider web about 50 levels beneath the surface. Meanwhile, in Oakfire, a meeting hall is built above the reservoir, allowing a convenient well to be constructed using Craig Pearson’s immaculately crafted stone blocks. Idiot migrants arrive, and further bedrooms are chipped out of the siltstone to accommodate their numbers. They’re unaware of the grave mistake they’ve made in coming to Oakfire – one of them even brought a cow.

Unknown to all, a filthy menace is ascending from below. The noise of all the hellbound tunnelling has awoken a bugbat in the first of the two underground caverns, and now, with the entrance to Oakfire left unguarded, the flitting beast makes its way to the entrance hall. Rich McCormick is cleaning himself when the creature latches on to the calf of his right leg, bruising him through his fancy silk trousers. McCormick panics, grabbing at the bugbat and attempting to hurl it at nearby walls, only for it to return and latch on to various bits of his anatomy like some frantic, flapping, beetle-headed boomerang. He flails madly and humiliatingly about the fortress, crashing through the dining room and startling several hungry dwarves before the bugbat’s tiny mandibles finally slice through his right index finger. Dwarf blood spurts enthusiastically from the wound, spattering the walls.

Oh yes: Dwarf Fortress has a very detailed combat system.