Monday, September 30, 2013


I can't even remember what it was like when I first started playing Dwarf Fortress, it was so long ago. I've gotten so used to it's Byzantine interface and mind-boggling complexity of it all it almost feels like second nature to play. Where there were once indecipherable symbols and headaches from watching hours and hours of tutorial videos, there are now flowing rivers of magma, hoards of goblin raiders and enormous, sprawling fortresses carved deep in the heart of soaring mountains.

Feeling confident, I decided it was time to put my most ambitious plan into action; to create the greatest fortress possible, more secure and productive than any other I have ever built. It was time to create...


Obviously, we couldn't embark on the first mountain that struck our fancy. We needed to scour the globe for the perfect place to found our new Dwarven culture. Realizing nothing else would do, we decided to settle at the lip of an active volcano. This would give our future metal industry an edge over our neighbors; with an inexhaustible supply of fuel, our magma forges could process a hitherto undreamed of quantity of ore at an incredible rate. Besides that, Beebane would have an enormous farm and irrigation system, larger than any previous fortress (including it's original namesake).

But the magma wasn't just used for smelting and blacksmithing, it was vital to the defense of Beebane itself. Once we gathered the necessary materials, we immediately went to work building the M.A.G.M.A. Cannon, or Magnanimous Anti-Goblin Magma Artillery; a system of heat-resistant screw pumps designed to pull a flow of molten rock up to the surface and drown whatever fool dared attack us, choking the hallway in smoke and carrying the stench of burning flesh out the same way they came.

I've lost count of how many monsters we immolated with the M.A.G.M.A. Cannon. While it as a undoubtedly a shocking number the death toll would probably have been even higher if visiting merchants didn't have to use that same hallway for access to our trade depot. We can't risk foreign diplomats being burnt to death you understand.

The Cannon's effects on flesh where horrifying of course. Because of a quirk of the game's physics, fat would boil off the body the instant it came in contact with the intense heat. With nothing left to keep it all inside, the creature would immediately bleed from every available surface. After they inevitably collapse, the victim is burnt to a cinder, with nothing left but a cloud of smoke. Keep in mind that this would all happen over the course of a single second, so the Cannon could potentially decimate an entire army the instant they came within range.

I say potentially, because we never got the chance to use it on a proper goblin siege. For whatever reason they stopped attacking Beebane very early in our development and weren't seen nor heard from for nearly twenty years. My guess is that they must have heard rumors about our super weapon when it was still in development and decided to call it quits.

But besides that, we had a gladiatorial arena we never got to use (again, not enough goblins). Next to it was the Captain of the Guard's office and dungeon were we kept our single, solitary goblin prisoner from one of the very earliest attacks, back before the Cannon was built. She's the little letter 'g' at the bottom of the screen, wallowing in a pool of her own blood. More on her later.

Besides the fact that we built the fortress like a donut around the volcano, it was a fairly typical design for me. A layer was devoted to housing, built with my typical "pinwheel" design, below that were a few statue gardens and mausoleums, as well as a high quality dining room just for the mayor and their spouse. Even further below that were a series of staircases that probed the depths for hidden caverns.

All in all, Beebane was a normal fortress if you ignore the Cannon. But more importantly, it was safe. Assuming a mechanic couldn't get to the screw pumps in time, they had three sets of cage traps blocking their entrance to the fortress. If they somehow managed to dodge all of those they still had to get past three more rows of saw blade traps. I've already mentioned what saw blades do to people elsewhere on the blog, but I'll say it again: it mulches them, leaving nothing but a smear of blood on the walls.

So basically, we were impervious to attack. Those who dodged the lava flows would be caught in a cage and sent to the dungeon or sacrificed to the volcano. Those who dodged those would have to get past the blades. None ever did. But assuming they had they still had our highly trained and well armored military waiting for them on the other side. What all this means is an entire generation was able to be born and grow up in Beebane without ever seeing a goblin or kobold. In fact, we were well protected against even Daleks.

And because I didn't want to have to deal with extra animals or unskilled laborers, I set the population cap to the absolute minimum, so we didn't even get migrants. Beebane was it's own hermetically sealed city in a bottle, no one gets in, no one cares enough to leave. But just because no one ever migrated, doesn't mean Beebane's population didn't explode. What few Dwarves I had started to marry each other and raise families. Huge ones. Most notable were a couple of engravers, who had over thirty kids by the end.

This created a problem though. Because only a small fraction of the population were working adults, completely outnumbered by the endless sea of their own children, there were very few people to do work around the fortress, but more than enough to eat all the food and drink all the booze without contributing anything of value. Thankfully, dwarves are considered adults at only sixteen years old, so after a few difficult years we had a growing army of farmers and mechanics necessary to the survival of Beebane.

That's how it went for a long time. More children would be born, some would grow up and life went on as we dug deeper and deeper. Craftsdwarves would carve figurines and other trinkets to sell to the passing caravans, trading them for precious booze. Eventually, the outpost liaison came and told us we were being promoted to a barony. It was official: Beebane was on the map. Of course there was the question of who would actually become the baron. At the time it only felt natural to pick one of the engraver's countless children. Because why not, it's not like they were doing anything important.

This would prove to be a terrible mistake later.

The outpost liaison came each year after that, each time promoting Tulon Degëlaval to a higher position in our civilization's nobility. Over the course of three years, he became a baron, then a count then a duke. Each time he was promoted he demanded more and more extravagant furniture in his private palace. The power must have gone to his head, because he didn't waste any time making bizarre demands of the workforce, mandating the construction of an almost never ending stream of backpacks. Tulon just could not get enough backpacks, and kept making demands to create them. By the time we finished one mandate, he had another ready. It got so bad that the leatherworker's shop was almost constantly occupied by some poor hollow-eyed dwarf, no doubt exhausted after countless sleepless nights spent stitching backpacks together for His Majesty.

At a certain point, he imprisoned one of his own countless brothers for a whole year, for the unspeakable crime of not making backpacks fast enough.

Eventually, we (and by that I mean I) had had it with the snooty bourgeois parasite and his demands and arranged for him to be murdered check to see if the Magma Cannon's run off channels had been clogged. The safety grate was removed, a special staircase was built and a wooden screw pump was built in the run off channel. I had to painstakingly disable the pumping labor on everyone in the fortress (all 105 of them) and gave the order to start pumping. After all, it simply would not do to have just any dwarf ensure the safe operation of such a vital component of Beebane's defense. Only the best and brightest could be trusted with this mission.

After making sure Tulon was trapped in inspecting the run off channel, we removed the staircase and put the floor grate back in place. After all, we simply could not allow any smelly peasant wander in and disturb His Highness while he was doing such delicate work.

So, the all clear was given. Confident in their leader's technical skill, the Dwarves decided to test the Magma Cannon. To everyone's relief, a huge tidal wave of boiling hot rock poured out and down the hallway to the surface, with almost half of it spilling into the run off channel and back into the volcano, burning Tulon to death and freeing us all from his tyranny. The duke was never seen nor heard from again. Some say he left Beebane to wander the globe looking for more Dwarves in need of his help. Others say he went on a quest to find the perfect backpack, never to return.

In any case, we decided to engrave a memorial slab in his honor, seeing as how there was no body left to put in his tomb. Carved from gabbro, it read:

"In memory of Tulon Degëlaval / Born 92 / Went missing in the year 121 / Duke of the Anguish of Fragrances, 111 to 121 / Lover of backpacks"

Incidentally, it was his own father who engraved that. Even he had to acknowledge his son's sick backpack fetish.

Nothing of note happened after Tulon's brutal murder Unfortunate Accident, unless you count the sudden outbreak of a mysterious eye melting disease one year. Everything was going fine, then all of a sudden, a dozen dwarves claw their way upstairs, spewing huge torrents of vomit in every direction, their eyes rotting out of their sockets. I never found out why this started happening either, my only clue being a single line in their profiles saying they "choked on dust underground recently". It didn't affect them too adversely after that though, it's just that their eyes were reduced to puddles of slime is all.

But throughout all this drama, our craftsdwarves and blacksmiths were busy harvesting Beebane's greatest treasure, a rare, mystical metal found in our deepest mines: Adamantine.

Adamantine is without a doubt the most valuable metal in the game. It's extremely strong and light. Weapons made from the stuff are absurdly sharp, armor is nigh-unbreakable. It's also extremely rare, a fortress will only encounter a single vein of adamantine, maybe two, in it's lifetime. Not even dalekanium is as outrageously valuable as adamantine. We went to work obsessively digging it out. Every last scrap was mined and smelted. Over the course of nearly twenty years, we crafted the finest weapons and armor the world had ever seen.

Try to imagine the craftsdwarfship, the intricate designs, the exhaustive attention to detail. Perfectly balanced swords, axes honed to such a fine point they could split a hair dropped on their edge, ornately crafted suits of armor, scenes of our greatest triumphs etched into the shining blue metal. We had gone from a few settlers with nothing but their pickaxes and a barrel full of rum to artisans creating the most spectacular artifacts the world would ever see.

We kept digging, kept smelting, kept smithing. More and more. Every last piece of the precious metal was used. Further and further down we dug...

Until at last we struck...nothing. A black pit was all we found at the bottom.

"You have discovered an eerie cavern. The air above the dark stone floor is alive with vortices of purple light and dark, boiling clouds. Seemingly bottomless glowing pits mark the surface."

"Horrifying screams come from the darkness below!"

And in an instant, all our work was destroyed. We had dug too deep and in our greed, released something horrible into this world, something best left forgotten in the murky depths. Indescribable things clawed their way out of the pit and slaughtered our miners. Not creatures, not in any sense of the word as we understand it but abominations from before time began, from the primordial chaos when the world first formed. Screaming whirlpools of mismatched, squirming limbs. What we found was never meant to walk this world, but to gnash it's teeth and squirm in the dark depths under the magma sea. We found something ancient and godless. We found Demons.

We had dug into Hell.

Despite all our best efforts, there was nothing we could do. Against earthly foes, our armor could protect us, but nothing could save us from what came screaming from the depths of the fortress. Everyone was slaughtered, Beebane became a tomb overnight, haunted by the cries of it's unburied dead and the blasphemous chanting of the things they let loose from the mines.

...Well, almost everyone was slaughtered. This is a page from the units list, here you can see all the Stygian horrors we let out. But see the very bottom of the page? The one labelled "chained prisoner"? Yeah, that's the goblin from earlier!

Surprising as it might be, the dungeon was the safest place to be once the clowns were let out of the circus. Stâsost Spugomosp was the only survivor once they made their way up to the main fortress, safely hidden behind the dungeon's doors, alone in her little cell.

See, the Dwarves were still pretty mad about the whole baby snatching thing a few years ago. Goblin thieves had managed to make off with someone's child back when Beebane was first founded, hauling them off in a big sack presumably to become a slave toiling away in their dark fortress. A few years later, one of their last sieges was waged against us, ending with a hasty retreat as the dying and dismembered goblins hobbled off, back to the surface where they knew we wouldn't follow them; forced to leave behind their allies who got caught in the cage traps.

Well, when the opportunity for revenge presented itself, we didn't waste any time. The males were stripped of all their armor and weapons and thrown into the volcano. The sole female was chained up in the dungeon and used as target practice for the military. I would order them to kill her and they would all come running from all corners of the fortress. They would charge through the door and just beat the tar out of her. But then, just before she actually keeled over, I would withdraw the order and the military would wander off like nothing happened, leaving the broken and bloody goblin in a heap on the floor.

Then, I would wait. I would wait for her bones to mend themselves, wait for scars to form where they slashed at her with shining blue swords. And all the while I would watch as she crawled around her tiny cell.

When she was better, I would give the order again. And again they would run charging into the dungeon and beat her within an inch of her life. Over and over I did this, year after year. The fortress was mercifully ignorant of the battered goblin archer trapped in the dungeon, only the guards knew the ugly secret. As time went by and life in Beebane settled into a comfortable rhythm, Stâsost sat in her cell, huddled in the corner, trembling and waiting for the next attack. Her body was covered in scars, her bones had broken and healed so many times we both lost count.

By the time Beebane had fallen, she had lost both arms and, I would like to imagine, was pushed over the brink of insanity from so many years spent in the dark. Seriously, try to imagine what it's like: her friends abandon her to be tortured by little bearded men. She's never given any food or water and probably has to eat whatever roaches she finds crawling around her tiny, filthy cell. Plus, Goblins are immortal in Dwarf Fortress, so entire generations could have lived and died, making a sick sort of tradition passed down from father to son to beat her senseless year after year and there's nothing she could do to escape.

But one day the beatings stop and she hears the most horrible sound coming from outside the door. Screaming. The fortress being torn apart; she certainly has no idea what's going on out there. In fact, she probably doesn't even remember what it looks like outside the dungeon. All she hears are awful, indescribable sounds coming from the other side of the door. And then...silence. The guards never come back. No one comes to smash her face in. All she can do is sit...and listen to the unearthly growling on the other side of the damp wooden door.

After Beebane was decimated, I sent the Dalek adventurer Dale Hatespeech in to investigate and carry off whatever loot he could. For reasons that would take too long to explain here, I had to give up on those plans. But for the brief time he spent there, he actually met Stâsost in the ruins, just as mentally damaged as could be expected. Not only did she manage to escape the dungeon despite having no arms, she somehow snuck her way past the horde of demons that had taken up residence near the surface. How, I will never know. But I am legitimately glad she managed to do that. I'd like to imagine her finally escaping into the jungle and finding civilization, trying to convince the world that she's telling the truth, that the horrors she experienced as a prisoner of the dwarves is beyond mortal comprehension.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

White Rabbit

And when you least expect it...




Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I've Got The Power

Ray guns. Blasters. Death rays. Directed-Energy Weapons...

Call them whatever you like, one thing remains the same: pure destruction. I've devoted plenty of thought to death rays of all shapes and sizes and I think it's high time to paint a clear picture of the different kinds of energy weapons there are and what they're capable of.


As seen in: Basically Everything

Lasers have been a ubiquitous staple of science fiction since the 60's. Before the invention of lasers, fictional death rays were starting to fall out of fashion with the pulp magazines. Most writers saw them as a technical infeasibility that couldn't be built with then-current technology. But once lasers hit the market death rays of all sorts saw a huge surge in popularity as it was made a viable technology again.

Since then, there's been plenty of research done to make lasers a weapon of war. But even so, a lot of misconceptions about lasers persist. For one thing, a laser blast would not cauterize any wound they make. Surprising as it may be, getting shot with an intense laser would result in a shower of gore like something out of Scanners. First, your blood would boil, then explode as it's turned to steam. This would cause the surrounding muscle and organs to rip apart with the force of the blast. A real laser wound would look like someone popped a balloon filled with beef stew.

Ironically, this means that real lasers more dangerous than most fictional lasers.

Another thing is that movies like Star Wars depict laser blasts as a visible bolt of energy traveling to their target at speeds that are clearly below that of actual light, looking more like a tracer round than a light beam. This is not the case of course, lasers only have two speeds: Off and light speed.

The great thing about lasers is the amazing variety of colors they can come in. And not just the visual spectrum either; you can have a laser emit microwaves, infrared or even ultraviolet waves. Maybe someday, we'll be able to build lasers sophisticated enough to emit extremely high frequency waves like X-rays.

Although there's a practical limit to how high-frequency the beam can be. For instance, we'll probably never be able to build a laser that can emit gamma rays because it vibrates at such a high frequency. Gamma rays are so energetic that their wavelengths are actually smaller than hydrogen atoms. Because of this, we can't build a mirror smooth enough to reflect them, the bumpiness of its microscopic surface means it's impossible to focus them with any reliability.

Besides, if it was emitting harsh radiation like gamma rays you'd need to encase the whole thing in lead to have a hope of standing within a few miles of it. And with that in mind, is it really worth it?

And as a final note, lasers and sharks don't mix.

Lightning Guns

As seen in: Return to Castle Wolfenstein

It's a simple enough idea; a big electric coil with a handle, using thousands of volts of electricity to fry someone to death with. We already have big electric coils, so why isn't anyone using Tesla guns in real life?

Well, for a multitude of practical reasons, lightning guns would be basically worthless in real life. In order for an electric current to flow, there needs to be a difference in electric potential between the source and where you want the electricity to go. Basically, you need to have a positive and negative terminal for it to flow between. This is a problem of course, because barring a few unlikely circumstances, your enemy will probably be electrically neutral. Really, a Tesla weapon would only be usable in a very specific (very conductive) environment.

Still...a man can dream.

Plasma Guns

As seen in: Warhammer 40,000, Doom, Halo, Star Wars

As you know, plasma is the so-called fourth state of matter. One step above gas, plasma is gas so hot and energetic that the electron shell gets stripped off it's constitute atoms, resulting in a boiling mass of free electrons and atomic nuclei. Plasma makes up the interior of stars, it's what you get when you set off a nuclear bomb, so it was only a matter of time before someone suggested trying to shoot a glob of the stuff out a gun. And why not? We're talking megajoules of energy here, in the form of a gas so hot it's very atoms break down into a subatomic slurry of death.

But here's the thing to remember, it's still gas. A plasma gun is basically designed to shoot steam. Sure, it's extremely hot and conductive steam, but it's still going to dissipate the instant it leaves the barrel. It's even worse if you're trying to fire this in space where the plasma would try to fill up the surrounding vacuum.

But I know, what if we encased the plasma in a force field? That way we can ensure our little glob of star matter gets to the target without cooling down or dispersing. Alright cool, but if you can do that why not cut out the middle man and use your force field generator to rip the ship apart? If it can safely contain plasma at a distance, I think its safe to assume you can use your force field generator to tear hull plating like tissue paper.

Well, we don't have force fields in real life. And the more we try to justify a hypothetical plasma gun, the more we're forced to confront the fact that plasma, by it's very nature, is unsuitable for a weapon. A real plasma gun would have more in common with a blow torch than an assault rifle. Sure, there's been talk of using magnetic toroids to condense plasma enough to fire, but if you really need a huge room-sized collection of electromagnets to shoot your fancy gas I think it's time to rethink your priorities.

Sonic Weapons

As seen in: Warhammer 40,000

We've seen light, electricity and even hot gas used as a weapon. But what about sound?

This isn't as ridiculous an idea as it may seem. Plenty of experiments have been done to prove the deadly capabilities of potential sonic weapons, especially those that utilize infrasound. An infrasound gun would cause severe discomfort and anxiety at it's lowest setting, at it's highest it would probably cause internal hemorrhaging, or crush bones, sending vast blooms of energy flowing through the air. Imagine the loudest concert you've ever been to. Now imagine that several orders of magnitude louder. Sounds so loud they can kill.

About the only series I've seen that's seriously considered the idea is Warhammer, specifically the Slaaneshi Noise Marines. Using a weapon that looks like a futuristic electric guitar, they blast horrible distorted noise at the enemy, mulching their internal organs and shredding them with intense sound.

Honestly, the whole thing is so goofy it goes back around to being cool. What would be great is if your sonic weapon doubles as a boom box so you can kill people with specific songs, turning your face melters into literal face melters. Imagine what it would be like to listen to Fleetwood Mac at such high volumes that your head explodes.

Particle Beams

As seen in: Ghostbusters, Half-Life

Lasers are great and all, but photons have no mass and therefore no stopping power. What if we need a projectile with a little more oomph? Well, there's always subatomic particles and all the death and despair they can cause. Especially the more massive particles like protons, neutrons or tau leptons, dump them in a particle accelerator, point the exit port at the enemy and Zap: they're reduced to charcoal briquettes.

There are a couple downsides of course. For one, most particles you'll be working with are electrically charged, so the beam will dissipate the further it travels due to magnetic repulsion. The energy requirements are pretty extreme too, but given a few years and I think we'll sort out the problems with micro-accelerators. Really, it's a small price to pay for subatomic death rays.

There is one last little problem though, just a tiny one. You know, the fact that you're exposing yourself to ionizing radiation.

Yes, surprising as it might seem, holding an unshielded radiation source in front of your face isn't a good idea. The backwash from such a weapon could cause all sorts of nasty side effects; radiation sickness, cancer, genetic damage and sterility to name a few. And it's effects are just compounded the more you fire it, thereby exposing yourself to more gonad-searing radiation.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't even consider this problem until Atomic Rocket pointed it out. But besides that, the matter of scaling down a particle accelerator is not as simple as it seems. You can't just spin them around like they're on a carousel. Keep in mind that this doesn't mean it's impossible to make a particle beam weapon, you just can't fire them without irradiating yourself. Maybe a sort of remote-controlled particle artillery cannon would make more sense, though you'd have to have a hazmat team on standby to move the stupid thing.

Heat Rays

As seen in: The War of the Worlds

This is the classic death ray; a continous beam of energy that burns, cracks, melts or vaporizes anything caught in it's path. The earliest example would of course be from The War of the Worlds where it was used to conquer the Earth and destroy it's puny Human natives. In the book, it's described as "a generator of intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light."

While this sounds good on paper it's a little difficult to justify the engineering side of it. For one thing, heat is not light and can't be expected to behave like it, so no bouncing heat off mirrors like a big tanning reflector. In fact, how do you even generate a "beam" of heat? Heat is energy radiated from atoms vibrating. So in the most literal sense, a heat ray would be more like a giant hair dryer blowing hot air on its victims.

It is possible to generate extreme heat at a distance though. To do this, we need a laser. Specifically, we need a laser that emits in the near infrared. The beam would be invisible, but would transfer vast quantities of energy to whatever it hits in the form of heat. Terrible, skin-peeling heat.

The great thing about lasers is their efficiency. A laser beam can carry energy over a huge distance and lose only a very small fraction of it as radiated heat, so you can expect the payload to arrive to the target with almost no loss of power. That all changes when it reaches a solid target of course, when all those photons slam into a solid mass and instantly convert to heat, melting anything in their path.

The Electrolaser

As seen in: Nothing, as far as I can tell.

This is a fairly new idea that hasn't seen any use in fiction. Basically, it's an intense laser beam that ionizes the air around it, turning it into a sheath of plasma around the beam. An enormous electric current is then sent down this plasma channel, using it like a giant lightning rod to blast whatever unfortunate rube is at the end of the beam with thousands of volts of electricity, frying him to a crisp.

An electrolaser is basically a giant overpowered taser. Or better yet, a lightning bolt you can aim.

There's been very little written on the subject of laser induced plasma channels so a lot of the mechanical details elude me. Does the target have to be conductive? What if I want to kill someone made of rubber? One thing's for certain, it needs air in order to create the plasma channel, so an electrolaser would be useless in space, much like a potential sonic weapon.

Still, it gets a ten out of ten for style.