Into the deep: it's time to learn how to play Dwarf Fortress

PC Gamer

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Melissa Elliott is an author and security researcher who has been playing Dwarf Fortress for five years. She is pro-dwarf and vehemently anti-elf.

The above image may look like a cat walked all over an MS-DOS word processor. What it actually depicts, however, is unspeakable violence and brutality. A field strewn with spent arrows, severed limbs, and pools of blood leads to the trap-riddled narrow entrance of an underground fortress. Corpses of elves, goblins, trolls, humans, and even dogs rot in the open air, slain in attacks on peaceful trade caravans. The inhabitants of the fortress do not care. They got what they wanted from the wagons. Any outsiders who happened to be captured alive in the cage traps will soon be thrown screaming into the open magma pits several floors below.

This is Dwarf Fortress : an endlessly sprawling simulator of procedurally generated worlds awaiting dwarves brave enough to plunder their precious metals. Simple graphics interact with the imagination to reveal more detail than the most vivid high-polycount game—for anyone willing to learn Dwarf Fortress's notorious complexity. It's actually not as hard as you think, and 2014's Dwarf Fortress update dramatically expands Adventure mode to tell sprawling RPG adventures with the same depth as Fortress mode. It's the perfect time to learn, and we're here to help. You'll be pouring magma on goblins in no time.

We've broken this beginner's guide to Dwarf Fortress into a few digestible parts to make it easier to follow.

What is Dwarf Fortress?

Dwarf Fortress is a donation-funded free game for Windows, OSX, and Linux. It's been in development since 2002. At this point, it's likely the most complex video game ever created, though its designers, Tarn and Zach Adams, still consider it an alpha. Tarn has called the game his life's work .

If you've seen pictures of Dwarf Fortress, you're probably familiar with Fortress mode, where the player acts as the overmind of upwards of hundreds of dwarves, each fulfilling their own AI directives. The latest version brings subtle improvements to this mode, in dwarven emotions and increased connections to the outside world.

There's also Adventure mode, which allows you to take control of a single dwarf—or a human, or an elf, or any species you care to mod in—to go romping about in a massively complex simulated world full of tragedy, gore, and glory. The newly revamped conversation system allows you to collect foolhardy allies and track down wicked necromancers for fame and honor. Imagine a Dungeons & Dragons campaign plopped into an immensely complex simulation engine, and you'll have an inkling of DF's Adventure mode.

Adventure Mode Fortress Mode

  • Control a single character
  • Turn-by-turn play
  • Recruit followers
  • Explore vast, dynamic world
  • Visit fortresses
  • Gruesome combat

  • Control collective of dwarves
  • Real-time play
  • Attract migrants
  • Put your fort almost anywhere
  • Receive uninvited guests
  • Gruesome combat with magma

Dwarf Fortress is two games in one. In the newest release, the two modes interact more than ever before. It is now possible to stop playing a fort without destroying it, allowing you to build a new one in the same world while the old one flourishes under the care of the AI.

You can also switch to Adventure Mode from Fortress mode and explore your handiwork; consider it building your RPG world before playing in it. Whether you adventure in peace or leave the denizens in pieces is up to you. Be warned, though: you may arrive only to discover that a fell and terrible beast has beaten you to the idea.

There's no way around the fact that Dwarf Fortress is not a casual game. Its influence can be felt throughout newer games that are easier to pick up, from Minecraft to Rimworld , but none have yet offered the same depth and complexity of simulation. The one thing that everyone knows about Dwarf Fortress, however, is the text. Screenfulls of it, in sixteen colors, blood-soaked punctuation marks scattered everywhere like a fatal explosion at the typewriter factory. The aesthetic is a close cousin of pixel art, born from similar limitations. If the cascade of colored letters is intimidating, don't panic. After a few minutes of direct exposure, the bafflement wears off and you begin to see the pattern. If you're still not convinced, the community maintains sprite graphics packs which bring more of a 16-bit JRPG look to the game, within some engine limitations. (For example, the male symbol may display as a bag even when it does mean a literal male symbol; apostrophes may look like patches of ground even mid-sentence.)

A pleasant world map without too much purple. Purple is bad. I mean, fun.

There's one big upside to these simple graphics, of course: you don't need a fancy high-end GPU to play. What you do need is a lot of CPU power. Dwarf Fortress puts the hurt in gigahertz. Don't generate large worlds with long histories unless you're looking for an excuse to pick up a new novel.

On page two: the major changes in DF 2014.

What's new in DF2014: the "world activation release"

The new update is called “ the world activation release ” by its programmer, due to a focus on improving the liveliness of the randomly generated worlds. Version 0.40.01 came out on July 7 , and smaller bugfix patches have quickly followed. This is the first major update to Dwarf Fortress in two years. And it is major. Here are just a few of the things it adds:

  • "Birth, death (to the extent it wasn't handled before), marriages, site foundation as well as reclaims, basic succession and appointments/etc., invasions, as well as some more detail beyond world gen, like patrols, banditry and animal population handling."
  • "Fortresses can be retired and unretired.  Losing is still fun but if it doesn't happen when you want, you can put it off for a while.  Retired forts can be conquered (much more easily than they would be if you still controlled them), so don't be surprised if you have to reclaim instead of being able to unretire sometimes."
  • "The mind has been rewritten quite a bit -- people now experience emotions according to different circumstances (lots of awkward monologues there), and they consider actions differently."

Those details (and the rest of the patch notes) may sound impenetrable if you aren't already familiar with Dwarf Fortress. The important takeaway is this: Dwarf Fortress is a simulation engine for amazing emergent storytelling.

In fortress mode, you may receive political reports of the outside world, which is no longer wholly frozen in time while your fortress is running. Strike out as an adventurer and encounter people who are extremely aware of their friends and enemies, their ancestry, their political situation and what's going on out in the wilds. Rumors are spread, invasions are launched, and plots are orchestrated, both during world generation and during play.

In one adventure, Mispy Cavehush was a dwarven woman like any other, newly appointed to the ranks of the guards in the fortress of Wheelmolten. It was a rare time of peace; goblins freely intermingled with dwarves in the trade depot, and the Captain of the Guard was at ease. A peasant came by to request that the guards dispatch a wild yeti. Mispy came across an old dwarven man sitting by himself in a far corner of the fortress, and he had a tale to tell. The new conversation system is replete with options, including context-sensitive ones to inquire about recent events and local goings-on.

Litast followed Mispy out into the bright sunshine. A band of humans had joined the goblins milling around the depot. When they saw the grizzled old dwarf accompanying Mispy, they were distinctly unhappy. The humans and goblins scattered in a panic. Litast suddenly began violently kicking at a hapless human man, knocking out his front teeth. The human retaliated.

Frightened and confused, Mispy wondered if she had been taken in by a madman's delusions. Asking around, she learned from the undwarven visitors that Searglaze was just as ominous as Litast had suggested. When pressed for an explanation about the dwarf's outburst, the humans had only one thing to say: “It was inevitable.”

None of them, incidentally, were willing to take Litast's place in the expedition to Searglaze. Not up for bone-chilling horror, these humans.

On page three: how to build your first fortress.

Your First Fortress

Ready to take a crack at building the next great fortress? First, you'll need to download the game. It's free, and you can download the latest version from the official site . If you're still intimidated by the ANSI "graphics," though, there are some graphic mod alternatives that make the game a bit more approachable.

If you're on Windows and want a graphical version, the easiest way is to download the latest version of Mike Mayday's graphical Dwarf Fortress pack . It contains the full game pre-configured with cute pixel art graphics. There's also the more configurable (but still very easy to use) Starter Pack , which includes several different graphics mods and a UI for making some configuration changes to Dwarf Fortress.

There's also the much more ambitious DFHack project , which includes a mod called Stonesense that actually renders Dwarf Fortress with 3D graphics. As of mid-July 2014, it's being updated to support Dwarf Fortress 0.40.xx.

A human woman starts a new game in Adventure Mode with the Mayday Graphics Pack.

Once you download vanilla Dwarf Fortress or DFG (Mayday's graphical version), running the game is as simple as unzipping a folder and double-clicking the executable. Now it's time to start tinkering and learning.

Controlling Dwarf Fortress

Start with a crash course in controls from the wiki and this more in-depth guide to getting and keeping a fortress running. For adventure mode, the equivalents are this quick start and controls reference .

I found the following mnemonics helpful to recall frequently used keys:

  • [b]uild (to erect furniture and workshops)
  • [d]esignate (to set up mining, tree-cutting, and other activities)
  • [q]uery (to interact with things you've built)
  • loo[k] (to see what's on a square)
  • [v]iew (to check out a living creature).

Never hesitate to look at side-bars and across the bottom of the screen for hints on what keys are available in the current context. If the up and down arrow keys don't work somewhere  you expected them to, try the plus and minus keys. For sizing embark sites, farms, and the like, the [uhkm] keys function much like [wasd] in other games. If nothing seems to be happening, check that you aren't paused (spacebar), or still in a submenu (escape key to back out).

I've been playing for five years and I'm not entirely sure what a few of these keys do. Don't panic, and if you can't find something, check the wiki ! If you feel like there must be a way to do something specific you had in mind, there almost certainly is.

Creating your first world

When you generate your world, I recommend you bump size down to medium, history to short, and minerals up to frequent. When you pick your embark site from the world map, go easy on yourself and look for a place with trees and soil as well as both shallow and deep metals. Do not embark on an aquifer for your first fortress. You'll flood yourself out. It's possible to get a world riddled with aquifers and you may need to generate a new one. Do not embark on purple land - sinister, haunted, or terrifying. I mean it! Clouds of poison gas will consume your dwarves and turn them into malicious revenants! I mean it! I once lost an entire fort to undead puppies!

After choosing an embark site, you will be asked if you want to “play now” or “prepare for the journey carefully.” “Play now” gives you, in my opinion, absolute rubbish equipment and skills, but filling out the “prepare carefully” menu from scratch is quite intimidating for a beginner. A practical alternative is grabbing pre-made embark profiles .

It's up to you now. Dig out a bunch of space, get your stuff inside. You have some time before you have to worry about ambushes or thieves. Don't dig more entrances than you can watch, though, or one day your dwarves will wake up to goblins in their beds. Plant some plump helmets (they're mushrooms? apparently?) and for Armok's sake don't run out of alcohol. Nothing good has ever come of a sober dwarf.

Melissa Elfmurder likes opals, microcline, square rooms, square tilesets, and diagonal entrances for their sharp corners.

If it's your first time playing, you probably don't know how to do any of the above. That's okay--you just need to be okay with fiddling around, slowly figuring out how to run a fortress. Most importantly, you have to be ready and willing to do the one thing you'll do more than anything else in Dwarf Fortress: fail.

On page four: learning to love losing.

Image via bravemule.com

Defeat Is Glorious

If there's one story that should convince you, absolutely, that you should play Dwarf Fortress, it's the saga of Bravemule . Bravemule is a masterpiece of using Dwarf Fortress as a storytelling engine. Using in-game mechanics to assign or forbid individual dwarves from different parts of the fortress, it tells the story of suffering in a highly classist dwarven society, predicated on the resent that most players soon develop for worthless immigrants and the willingness to throw them in harm's way. Heavily illustrated with Stonesense (which renders Dwarf Fortress in 3D), it comes to a stunningly violent conclusion that captures the very core of the dwarven experience: losing is fun.

Losing is such a core aspect of the game that it has its own wiki article , and the article title “Fun” redirects to it. The whole point of being a dwarf is to dig too deep and too greedily; sitting around on the surface is for elves. You don't want to be an elf, do you? Of course not. They're cannibals . Reaching for difficult goals is honorable whether or not you achieve them. If it looks like you're not going to achieve them, fail in the most spectacular way possible. One of the most fun experiences I ever had in Dwarf Fortress was unintentionally tapping into an aquifer and flooding a well-established fortress. Sealing off the damage and restructuring around it was a fun challenge. More recently, I had a fort suffer the dreaded Tantrum Spiral: when negative emotions run high, fights break out, and when fights break out, negative emotions run high. I went from over 250 living dwarves to five. I rebuilt from those miserable ashes, and it was fun.

Dwarf Fortress has a strong sense of community, with friendly players exchanging techniques, mods, and horror stories about pulling the wrong lever (the right lever) and killing everyone. I've made a lot of friends through this game. A classmate introduced me to Dwarf Fortress in 2009 and I ended up marrying him. I can't promise everyone will find true love down in the caverns, but glory, death, and fun are certain. Strike the earth.

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