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

Steve Hogarty at

The early months of Dwarven Year 253 are difficult ones. On the surface and in the tunnel to hell, the long-forgotten beasts of Ruspsmata respond ferociously to the bold incursions into their caverns. And these are no tiny crundles, nor clownish bugbats. A creeping eye drags its bloated form upwards, to be met with the thrashing axes and spears of Oakfire’s militia in the fortress’s entrance hall. Uthmiklor forces the enemy back into the tunnel before piercing the grotesque creature, spilling its vitreous ichor across the tunnel floor. A giant toad bounds giddily towards the commotion, the fiercest enemy Oakfire has yet faced. Tim Edwards, seeking respite from the dig, is unfortunate enough to find himself in the toad’s path – he’s hurled through the dank fortress air, colliding forcefully with the wall of the entrance hall. His lower body is shattered, his right thigh broken, his left leg bruised and bleeding. He is dragged to the newly formed hospital – simply a collection of beds hurriedly pushed into a crudely excavated room beneath the workshops – and laid alongside two unconscious militia members. Kosothinod and Shorastdthl fared as badly in the giant toad attack. The toad itself now lies injured in the entrance hall, croaking meek croaks and gently spilling toad blood on Oakfire’s glorious entrance steps. The militia is retired so that they may tend to the wounded. The toad is left to bleed to death.

Meanwhile, an oblivious Tony Ellis is startled by a goose while fishing. He drops a perch.

The simplest use of migrants, who’ll turn up to your fortress in greater and greater numbers as they hear of its prosperity, is to draft them into the militia. Multiple squads can be formed, and patrols scheduled so that when one squad comes off-duty, another takes over. They can be told explicitly which enemies to attack, can be assigned a uniform (though Oakfire has no armour) as well as weapons, or simply told to pick up whatever sharp thing is to hand.

Barracks are where off-duty squads train. Previous versions featured some overzealous regimes, whereby a dwarf with a decent sword could easily, even fatally, injure his training partner. Injuries when training are still common, but are mostly limited to bruising or, less frequently, broken bones. Crossbow training requires the construction of a range with targets, unless you want your dwarves to practise firing across the barracks itself. Decent barracks should feature ditches beneath archery targets, so that dwarves aren’t placed in mortal danger as they attempt to retrieve spent bolts and arrows. That’s moot anyway, as Oakfire doesn’t have a single crossbow.Yeah, this probably isn’t going to end well.

Stairway to Hell

On this day, in the autumn of the Dwarven Year 253, Graham Smith breached the portal to hell. It was not a simple process. At 158 levels beneath Oakfire, he first reached warm stone. Beneath him boiled a heaving ocean of magma, 20 levels deep, enough to consume all of Oakfire several times over. Somewhere beneath that, he supposed, was the underworld. It was traversing this troublesome sea of molten rock that raised the problem. The solution? That was found in the grand pillars of raw adamantine that sounded the depth of the magma sea, from top to bottom, a bit like those sticks that hold gourmet burgers together. Get inside one of those, and you can mine a shaft the whole way through the troublesome magma. Safe as you like.

On the 6th of Sandstone, Graham Smith discovers an adamantine seam.

He steadies his pick, lifts, and strikes the precious mineral once. It collapses inwards. The seam was hollow, an adamantine straw poking up through the fiery ocean from the lower depths of Ruspsmata. Smith hears horrifying screams coming from the hole. He peers into the darkness before him, considers what he sees, turns, and runs fast for Oakfire.

Something is coming up.

Remember, losing is fun.

There are 29 dwarves in the narrow tunnel. Oakfire had become accustomed to the presence of at least one of the caverns below, and many clothiers would travel there to collect cobwebs, which they would then fashion into silk threads for their socks. The dwarves liked making socks. Other dwarves were there to construct the muchneeded wall between the cavern and those hastily built stairs, which should hopefully stave off further crundle attacks. Twenty dwarves are destroyed by the evil rising from the underworld. Not simply destroyed, but torn limb from limb. Their limbs are then messily reduced to their constituent parts. They’re grabbed and thrown with such force that they effectively explode in a grisly shower of dwarf blood, dwarf bone, dwarf sinew and dwarf giblets. Quickly, too. A score are massacred in seconds. Owen Hill, who’d been looking for plants in the caverns, is now strewn about everywhere, over everything. All things between Graham Smith and the entrance to Oakfire are devastated as the dark and cruel force races towards the surface of the world.

Anguished Howls

It’s important to understand how excruciatingly detailed dwarven pain is. Dwarves have individually assessed limbs, each with breakable bone, fat, muscle and skin. A bone can be broken without breaking the skin. Fat can be bruised without breaking a bone. “We’ve had body-part damage in our fantasy games for almost as long as we’ve been writing them,” explains a blood-thirsty Tarn. “Having creatures with bodies led to things like the current butchery system, with all of the various organs, and the further products that come out of having lots of materials available, and it also made the wrestling system possible – as silly as it currently is.

“I guess the executioner with the broken arms who bit off criminals’ limbs and carried them around in his mouth for years still stands as the strangest damage system tale I’m aware of,” he continues. “But there are probably weirder ones floating around out there by now.”

The anguished howls of fallen dwarves are heard in Oakfire and the bauxite seal is replaced. The tunnel to hell is locked shut, with confused, panicking dwarves still trapped inside. On the wrong side of the door, Likot Naniroddom clutches her baby son. Her husband, Zon Fererush, is in the meeting hall, oblivious to her imminent, gruesome death. In the vanishing moments before the tide of violence reaches her and her child she engraves an image of Rich McCormick holding aloft a bugbat bone armour stand. Oakfire’s only symbol of triumph over the creatures of the underground. No solace against what’s to come.

The militia stand firm in the entrance hall facing the bauxite seal. The muffled shrieking of doomed dwarves goes unheeded. They wait. A roar. A crack. A thud, and a sound like a coconut falling into a bath full of mince. Then silence.

The seal is blasted open from inside in an explosion of flame and stone. A surprised dog is fried alive. The entrance hall fills with dust, smoke and steam, and when it clears Oakfire at last sets eyes on the denizens of the underworld. So many denizens of the underworld.

There is a Salt Demon: an enormous grouse composed of salt. A Jay Devil: a huge jay with lidless eyes. Beware its deadly dust. An enormous eyeless pterosaur. A White Brute composed of snow. A great one-eyed dove. It has three short tails and it squirms and fidgets. A towering hairy snail, a towering thornbill composed of ash, a Demon of Flame, a Steam Demon, a Haunt of Brine and a Serpent Fiend with external ribs.

Stukos Adilinen is torn in two by the dove before he can react to the sight of this conglomerate of festering, avian weirdness. Militia commander Catton Isonerush lunges at the jay with his bronze axe. His upper body is torn open by the hellbird, gushing blood. Lifting him by a shattered hand, the jay devil slashes at his legs with its sabre-like talons. His right leg is severed at the knee and begins to pump dwarf blood on to the entrance hall floor. Isonerush is dead before the bird drops him.

Uthmiklor and Ustansign are utterly kicked to death by the grey brute. The demons rage through the fortress, burning and steaming the population of Oakfire as they go. Francis and Edwards are killed in their beds. Ellis is eviscerated mid-meal. Hill lies dead behind the remains of the seal. Pearson falls in his workshop. McCormick is cooked in the hospital. Smith is a bloody smear by the adamantine seam.

I’ve lost the fortress. Even a highly trained army of dwarves would fall before a handful of demons. And these demons are numbered on the status screen as ‘uncountable’, a dizzying quantity otherwise reserved for ants and other vermin.I’ve probably doomed all of Ruspsmata.

When the demons reach sunlight, their rampage continues unabated. An inferno erupts from the mouth of Oakfire, a wall of flame spreading outward, scorching the land and leaving in its wake an expanse of charred rubble.

Oakfire is finished.

In the deeper of the two caverns beneath Oakfire, Sigun Kivishemuth paddles in an underground lake, searching for something edible. His long sideburns are braided and his hair is mahogany. Miserable and trapped miles beneath a dead and blackened fortress teeming with uncountable demons, Sigun, Oakfire’s orphan, gently loses his mind. He’s heard the commotion coming from above. He thinks he’d prefer to stay inside.