This is The Basement Of Curiosity, a weekly Dwarf Fortress diary chronicling Nate Crowley’s attempts to build an illegal, underground zoo in everyone’s favourite text based dwarf management game.
Last time on the BoC: Expedition leader Lorbam shepherded her dwarves to the Jungle of Hides, where they spent the spring digging out a home in a lush valley. Rakust the lumberjack got his leg bruted by a tree, and Imush the craftsdwarf got extremely excited about bins.
Author’s disclaimer: Once again, things get pretty weird here. Accordingly, I should remind you that I’m not truly the writer of this column: the game Dwarf Fortress is. And I have limited control over said game. Essentially, my role is to report on its decisions, and attempt to recognise patterns amidst the electric madness.
As the onset of summer buries the forest in anvil-dense heat, Lorbam makes a vow. She has come to this foetid jungle to build a zoo – the Basement of Curiosity itself – and it’s time her band of settlers got cracking.
Her first command is the construction of a stout wooden tower, to loom over the rainforest canopy and attract curious travellers to the Basement. She decides that the timber used will be macadamia wood: after Rakust’s leg got binned by a falling log of the stuff, the dwarves have developed an awed respect for it.
Speaking of Rakust, he’s still lying in the filth of the forest floor, panting through gritted teeth as his untended wound throbs. His thoughts are fevered, consumed by cascading flashbacks of tumbling logs, and the tower of macadamia rising over his prone form is probably really not helping with the trauma.
“Gotta use a wood that you respect. One you know could mash your legs, if it wanted.”
– Old dwarven saying
The brewer Oddom occasionally brings him a bucket of water and a handful of warm eagle guts to eat, but the other dwarves just step over his body on their way to work. It’s probably no surprise that the only coherent thought in Rakust’s head is “be careful of your so-called friends”.
Lorbam, however, doesn’t have time for pity. The tower is hungry for timber, and it won’t chop itself. So she grips the axe she seized from Rakust’s hands, and lays into the rubber trees growing over the fort’s feasting hall, with the gusto of Phil Mitchell laying into a wheelbarrow full of curry.
Days later, Lorbam is screaming on the feasting hall’s floor, her right leg obliterated by falling wood. A rubber log appears to have hit her like a railgun blast, busting her shin into a wide fan of slippery ribbons, and punching her straight through the fort’s roof into the space below. It’s an ominous injury: at this point, only five dwarves remain unbeasted by logs. As such, it’s not just the heat making them sweat as they gather for lunch beside their leader’s writhing body.
The forest is growing more oppressive by the hour, its brutal trunks crowding in on the sodden township like management consultants around a travelodge breakfast buffet, and the dwarves are freaking out about who the trees will come for next.
Understandably, the relief is palpable when the echo of a dwarven working song reaches the valley from the north: immigrants have arrived! The tower must have worked! A mob of animals is driven before the settlers – a reindeer, a goat, a horse, a yak and a water buffalo, who are swiftly herded into the pasture housing the fort’s vile-tempered geese.
Behind the beasts walk a young married couple: Avuz and her husband, Id. While united by a calm demeanour and a belief in harmonious living, they couldn’t be more different: Avuz is a serious-minded farmer with no time for jokes (although she does love her pet goat), while Id is a vain and lustful dancer, with a wild sense of humour and a taste for elephant seal meat.
Next into the fortress are Ingiz, Minkot and Sakzul, three extremely large, ancient fishery workers, all well into their second century. While there are no waterways to be fished in the Jungle of Hides, these three have become sturdy and multi-talented in their long years of toil, and will be vital in keeping the fortress running.
Last through the gate, ducking under the lintel as she comes, is Udil. Although the youngest dwarf in the fortress at only 20 years old, she is truly a giant, fully twice the size of the petite miner Nil and considerably larger than the average human. Formerly a member of a mysterious organisation called ‘The Moth of Prestige’ (Is it a prog band? a cult? a sports team?), she’s an abrasive, stubborn bonecarver who absolutely loves to party.
Since this rambunctious titan is riven with conflict between her deep love for chaos and her respect for harmony and order, she is clearly leadership material. And so, while Lorbam remains the fort’s political leader, Udil is hailed as the Basement’s manager before she even sets down her pack, and is ushered to a makeshift office carved out among the roots of a pomegranate tree.
But Udil is not the only new arrival to enjoy promotion. As they share rum and bird viscera with their new comrades, the dwarves of the Basement discover that Sakzul – one of the three wizened fishmongers – once sutured a wound shut. Whooping in ecstasy, the dwarves push a set of rusted tools into his wrinkled palm, and proclaim him Chief Medical Dwarf.
A dismal hole beside the “well” (a toad-haunted pit of swamp water) is magically declared to be a “hospital”, and poor old Rakust is finally dragged there from the forest, and plopped into a bed beside Lorbam. Alas, his ordeal is not yet over, as Doctor Sakzul ignores him entirely to work on the expedition leader (ironically using a rubber wood splint and crutch to get her back on her feet). Once the work is done, the doc saunters off to the rum store with his newly healed patient, to celebrate by getting endgame pissed together.
A week later, Rakust is still in bed, unconscious, in an actual pool of his own pus. He’s like some ghastly parody of eggs benedict. At this point, his fragile mind seems utterly cracked: In his brief moments of fevered wakefulness, all he feels is guilt: guilt that he is being allowed to rest. Surely, whatever physical torment is inflicted on Rakust, it can never match the pain he inflicts on himself.
But salvation is at hand. Eventually, Sakzul staggers back into the “hospital” reeking of booze, and batters Rakust’s leg into something like a straight line. Rakust will likely never fully recover, but he will at least be able to get around using a crutch.
Alas, life is still not kind to him – seconds after he rounds the corner into the fort’s main corridor, he is accosted by the hate-filled chef Ushat. The instant she sees him, she launches into a full-on Gordon Ramsay monstering – the full hairdryer treatment – for seemingly no reason. From what can be deciphered from her puce-faced bellowing, she’s absolutely sick of slurping dwarven rum from her own cupped hands, and presumably blames Rakust because he made the barrels.
“I’m sick of guzzling rum from my own filthy hands, you irredeemable bastard.”
– Ushat, fortress chef
Listening nearby are Oddom the brewer and Imush the stonecrafter, who are the nearest thing Rakust has to friends. It was Oddom who kept Rakust from dying of thirst during his four month ordeal in the forest, and Imush who… well, Imush spent a long time shouting at him about how good bins are, and that’s a kind of friendship I guess? In any case, the two dwarves feel bad for their mate, and decide to sort out the booze situation in order to stop Ushat’s bullying.
The miners Nil and Ineth have been carving out a cavern in the layer of gabbro beneath the current fortress, so Imush starts to hew some crude mugs from the rock they’re hoying up from below. Meanwhile, Oddom starts brewing a selection of exotic wallop from the passion fruits, papayas, bitter melon and taro leaves he has been plucking from the forest floor. Now the dwarves are able to hroop down a wider variety of blackout juice – and from actual mugs! – they are considerably cheerier.
It’s not only the drinks situation that’s improving. Lorbam is busy hammering wooden planks over the holes left where felled trees have pulled plugs of soil from the fortress ceiling, while the large fisherdwarf Ingiz is sent down into the deep mines to set up a charcoal burner and a forge. Her first job is to construct a row of iron nesting boxes for the geese, raising the possibility that while eagle guts may be the mainstay of the dwarves’ diet for months to come, they may at least come to enjoy eagle gut omelettes.
But the dwarves are not here just to eat omelettes. As Lorbam reminds them via a stern address from atop the feasting hall table, banging a crutch on the planks for emphasis, they’re here to make a godsdamned zoo!
And so the oval cavern dug by Nil and Ineth is designated as the site for the Basement of Curiosity itself, while Udil orders the stockpiles filled with cages and mechanisms. The forest is strewn with snares, and the dwarves rub their hands with glee at the thought of the strange beasts they will capture.
But after days of watching the mist for a twig to snap and a cage to fall, the dwarves have caught nothing. Once more, they begin to worry. Only a single weasel and a depressed-looking rattlesnake have been sighted in the whole valley since they arrived – is the Jungle of Hides not the savage paradise they had been expecting?
The anxiety is alleviated as a trade caravan arrives from the mountainhomes, drawn by huffing yaks and laden with fine dwarven produce. Upon unloading, the caravan’s leader asks what goods the dwarves want bringing in future, and Lorbam fishes her carefully compiled list from her overalls with relief.
If she can buy some livestock from the dwarves to install in the Basement, she can save face and buy time for some more exotic creatures to appear in the jungle. But as she opens her mouth to begin reading, Ushat the chef – who has barged in out of nowhere – interrupts.
“Eagle guts,” she snarls through a grimace. “All the eagle guts you can carry”. Lorbam remains speechless as her cook continues to barter away the fort’s entire wealth for raptor offal: barrels of giant barn owl liver, giant buzzard kidneys, and of course casks and casks of good old eagle intestines. Seeing her leader’s dismay, Ushat decides to compromise by also buying a few barrels of worm blood. You know, as a treat.
Crestfallen, Lorbam meekly tries to buy a herd of yaks, but the trader only laughs: Ushat has already traded away all of the stone trinkets Imush ever managed to carve (in between bouts of hollering about how good bins are), and the fortress is broke. Swallowing her pride, Lorbam sells off half the fortress’ meagre supply of weird rainforest wines, in order to afford the cheapest animal in the caravan’s wagons: an emaciated dog in a cage made of lead.
“She is incredibly skinny. Her hair is goldenrod. Her ears are saffron. Her tail is mahogany. Her head is auburn. Her front paws are charcoal. Her rear paws are copper. Her skin is pale brown. Her eyes are ash grey.”
– The main attraction in the Basement of Curiosity, as described by Dwarf Fortress
It will have to do. As the dwarven caravan disappears back into the steaming jungle, Lorbam looks morosely at her new star exhibit, and drags its cage down into the darkness of the fort. With a gloomy thud, the cage is installed on the dusty gabbro floor, and the Basement of Curiosity has its first exhibit.
Next time on the BoC: a fated child arrives, a situation involving a weasel spirals into complete fiasco, and truly monstrous violence is enacted on the face of a leopard.