Man cancels life: went insane, part 5

I tried to learn Dwarf Fortress the hard way. (Check out where we left off, or read the whole thing from the beginning. It’s been a while; it’ll be like a brand new series!)


A siege.

It had to happen sooner or later. This was later, but I was still woefully unprepared to deal with the horde of goblins that had descended on me. Due to the constant, if slight, attrition in my fighting force and my reluctance to deal with the game’s pain-in-the-ass military mechanics, I still had only one squad of ten dwarfs at my command. They were outnumbered roughly seven to one, so engaging the goblins was out of the question. There was really only one thing to do. I ordered everybody in, locked the doors and hoped that would keep the goblins at bay. Remarkably, it appeared to work.

My people were safe, for now, but I didn’t have any means to break the siege. I’d have to wait it out. I decided this would be a great time to make sure my farming efforts actually sufficed to keep everybody fed. It would have also been a good time to expand my military, but I didn’t. I didn’t really have any candidates with appropriate skills and I wasn’t sure untrained and poorly armoured militia would be much help. Even my existing force was largely resisting putting on helmets, though they were otherwise kitted out.

I honestly couldn’t figure that one out. I had helmets; they were not forbidden and they were part of the uniform. Yet only one or two heroes had consented to don one, the rest having nothing covering their heads but extremely tattered cloth caps. I suspected this contributed to the rate of attrition but I didn’t know how to fix it. My vain hope was that when there were no more caps to be found they’d turn to helmets in desperation; accordingly I wasn’t producing any more.

Actually, my modest garment industry wasn’t producing a whole lot of clothes of any kind, and with the siege cutting off my access to trade caravans I was looking at a severe clothing shortage. My people were largely dressed in rags in the best of times and now it looked like we’d become a nudist camp before the siege was over.

Before I could see to expanding my textile operations, a much more immediate and serious threat monopolised my attention.

A Titan arrived.

Titans are ancient and terrible creatures that have existed since the dawn of time (a little over two centuries in this case) feasting on men. And dwarfs and elves. This particular Brush Titan specimen had a kill list too long to fit on one screen. I was appropriately apprehensive.

Yet the Titan represented not only a threat, but also an opportunity: I was still besieged by the goblins, after all, and the enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy. If the Titan engaged the filthy little buggers outside the hill rather than the ones inside, it would be to my advantage. The best case scenario would see the Titan drive off the besiegers but not before being so badly wounded my militia could finish it off without casualties. My excitement mounted as the Titan made a beeline for the besiegers.

For much of the early game I had missed the fights. I didn’t recognise the notifications and I only realised my hunters were getting into scuffles with the wildlife when I spotted some wandering around injured. A little later I managed to locate where the game hid the fight logs. This fight, however, I was not going to miss. I would play it turn by turn and follow the log all the way.

The Titan reached the first group of goblins. At this point in the fight, I was rooting for the Titan. This was the first time in my Dwarf Fortress career I got to see a Titan in action, and it wasn’t my people at the receiving end of the carnage. My heart beating just a little bit faster, I advanced the game another turn and the battle was joined. The Titan struck a goblin, wounding it and knocking it back. Deprived of a target, the Titan turned on another goblin, wounding it also.

And then it died.

I was, to tell the truth, disappointed. I did know that the Titans and Forgotten Beasts are randomly generated and run the gamut from unkillable death machines that spread deadly plagues to comically fragile things that fall apart in a stiff breeze. I should have realised that the Titan’s kill list, considering its age, indicated less a being that wiped out entire villages and more a thing that ambushed a rambler every couple of years, but I was still disappointed at this poor display, and my fort was still under siege.

Since there was nothing I could do about the siege, I concentrated on tweaking my fortress. Among these tweaks, in addition to the usual maintenance operations like slaughtering excess cats, was the widening of the entry corridor and installing more traps; I wasn’t terribly confident that the front door would keep everything away, though it had clearly thwarted the goblins.

This fairly low-key phase was interrupted very brutally by the greatest tragedy to hit Ustuthodom so far. A migrant wave arrived with the fortress in lockdown and the goblins still there. I did try to avert it: I opened the front door and ordered my military to guard it, hoping some migrants might make it to safety. Unfortunately, rather than make a break for the doors, the migrants to a dwarf elected to run around the countryside until struck down. Every single man, woman, child and pet died. At least it distracted the goblins enough that I got my militia back inside and the gates closed again. They might have even managed to kill a goblin or two when their formations got broken as they chased after the migrants; it was a little too chaotic to be sure. The population of the fortress was luckily unaffected by the disaster since they didn’t witness it and hadn’t had an opportunity to make friends with the victims.

Well, until the victims’ ghosts started to haunt them, at any rate.

Eventually the goblins got sick of standing around doing nothing and left. I cautiously opened the doors and let my dwarfs roam once more. There was a lot to do. I wanted to get as many of the dead migrants buried as possible, having already had to put a number of ghosts to rest. There were also many valuable items left lying around, even after kobolds and monkeys had made off with some. I also appreciated the opportunity to replenish my supplies of lumber. Soon a steady stream of dwarfs was racing through the newly expanded entry corridor carrying bones, body parts and odd bits of clothing.

My dwarfs were still engaged in this activity when another goblin army arrived. Well, by this time I knew the drill. I ordered everyone indoors and locked the doors. I turned my attention to making sure all the loot and dwarf remains were properly disposed of, until I was interrupted by death notifications. Quite a few of them. I paused the game to investigate.

I learned that this time the goblins had come with cave dragons. Apparently, cave dragons can destroy doors. I found one in the middle of my dorms, busy murdering civilians.

Luckily, it was the only cave dragon that had made it through the trapped corridor. This group of goblins was also smaller than the previous one; clearly they had hoped the cave dragons would make up the difference, not counting on my cage traps. The surprise of the traps and the valour of my military won the day: I actually managed to break the siege. It was not without cost, however. A good portion of my militia was dead or injured, and I lost a half a dozen or so civilians. I still had some hundred and twenty dwarfs left, though: plenty enough for a viable fortress. It wasn’t the combat losses that brought down Ustuthodom. It was the aftermath.

Veteran Dwarf Fortress players will recognize the initial symptoms of Dwarf Colony Collapse Disorder,.

Veteran Dwarf Fortress players will recognize the initial symptoms of Dwarf Colony Collapse Disorder.

You see, when dwarfs face adversity in life they get upset. When they get upset enough, they flip out. Some do so quietly, stop eating and drinking and waste away. Some throw tantrums, taking their frustrations out on pieces of furniture or their fellow dwarfs. See all the red arrows in the screenshot? Those are angry dwarfs.

The dwarfs killed by the cave dragon had friends, who got upset about their loss; some of them released their rage by assaulting others, sometimes lethally; this upset more dwarfs, who threw tantrums of their own. This is the dreaded tantrum spiral, and it kills off more fortresses than magma. All dwarf colonies are rigged to blow thanks to bonds of friendships the dwarfs form. All it takes is a small push. Military won’t help you here; on the contrary: militiadwarfs tend to form friendships with people they share barracks with, and when a unit takes too many losses you have armed and armoured killers throwing tantrums.

Only way to help the situation that I know of is improving the dwarfs’ quality of life through luxurious surroundings to offset the small tragedies they face, but that is a preventative measure; it was too late to do anything now. I could only watch as my fortress tore itself apart. The work in the colony ground to a halt as my dwarfs turned on each other. Scores died, and were left rotting on the floor. Yet there was also an act of creation in the midst of all the destruction: out of the chaos came the most valuable artefact Ustuthodom would ever produce.


Eventually the homicidal lunatics run out of victims and the cycle of violence came to an end, the survivors having purged all the hurt and rage from their systems. Over a hundred had died at the hands of their fellows; I had less than thirty battered and blood-covered dwarfs left. Wearily, they set out to restore some semblance of order to the fort. There was much to do and not enough people to do it. Dead needed to be buried, doors fixed, traps reset, and there was lots of clutter to be cleaned up. I throttled the activities of the fort to a minimum, hoping to direct the pitiful workforce towards the most critical tasks, but there’s only so much you can do with the idiots you are given. I didn’t have enough skilled and healthy dwarfs for all the tasks needed. The fortress was teetering on an edge, and its fate hung on one question: which would arrive first, the next wave of migrants or the next besieging goblin army?

It was the goblins. Ustuthodom had fallen.

NEXT: Lessons learned.