Future Dwarf Fortress 'creative mode' will let you sculpt whole worlds, dream up homemade gods

Zeus by René-Antoine Houasse
(Image credit: René-Antoine Houasse)

There is a subset of Dwarf Fortress players who don't really play Dwarf Fortress. They don't manage a mini civilization, keeping their dwarves fed or doing battle with elves. They don't play the Adventure mode, either, to traverse their generated Dwarf Fortress world in a ground-level roguelike. 

They read. They are archeologists who use Dwarf Fortress's procedural generation systems to create a hundred or thousand or 10,000 years of simulated history and then pore over the stories that come from it. I've read paperback fantasy novels less interesting than the worlds Dwarf Fortress snaps into existence with a few megabytes of code and some CPU grunt behind it.

Yet the history Dwarf Fortress can create now is rudimentary next to what Tarn and Zach Adams have planned. Their next huge undertaking, after some remaining upgrades to the Steam version and a few small but vital features, will be a magic and myth system they've been talking about for five years, and dreaming about since jotting down their first notes for Dwarf Fortress 20 years ago. 

"We have pages and pages of notes, practically since the beginning," Zach says.

"For a fantasy game, we don't have much [fantasy] now," says Tarn. "We have a little bit of interaction with gods, and we have necromancy. But the plan for the game, after we get through this Steam process and a few things, the big plan is to do procedural creation myths and then have those creation myths literally affect everything that comes after."

For example: "If there were two worlds facing each other across a giant void… you'll get that," he says. "The magic systems will relate to what we generated in these creation myths in a way that's more how a novel feels. Everything makes sense and works together, and the maps will be able to change more."

Alongside this fundamental overhaul to how Dwarf Fortress worlds are procedurally generated, Adams plans to develop tools for players to edit maps and myths themselves. Think of it like the difference between Survival and Creative modes in Minecraft. For years Dwarf Fortress has been focused on the survival aspect of simulating a Dwarven civilization, but with the myths & magic update, you'll be able to play god while literally creating and naming the gods your dwarves worship.

Dwarf Fortress is already an exceptional story generator. (Image credit: Bay12 Games)

"The idea is that people can build their own worlds that they can share that are more static, and they can do more artistic work," Tarn says. "If you're making a Greek gods mod, you could put all the specific Greek gods, Zeus etc., and give them personalities that fit. Zeus would have some sliders set pretty far over in one direction or another, right? You can also work in the thunder stuff.

"Then say you have a specific image of Olympus in your mind, you could just literally draw that in an editor. Even though the rest of the world may be generated, it'd have this static part glued on part of it that's part of your Greek gods mod. That'd be cool, right? And then you can travel there in Adventure mode."

This update is likely still years away; the Adams brothers have a history of spending 2-3 years working on Dwarf Fortress's most complex updates. As Zach explains, the procedural generation aspect of the magic system itself isn't what's going to take so long to create; it's really rewriting how Dwarf Fortress's maps work that's the biggest obstacle.

Currently the map is comprised of simple layers. Dig down far enough through the crust of the earth and you'll hit magma. Alongside magic the world's layers will no longer be perfectly stacked and horizontal so that they can do things like have forests that magically disappear under the light of a full moon, or teleport your dwarves to a fantasy pocket universe.

Dwarf Fortress, but a wizard

(Image credit: Bay 12 Games)

"I've always thought of the magic system like a giant debugger," Tarn says. "It has to have, like, an API that hooks into as much stuff as you can in the game. Can you make a love potion that would actually affect thoughts and relationships that already exist? We have so much to work with, which is what's going to make this so much fun to work on. It's like payoff for all the work we've been doing, finally making this an actual fantasy game, rather than just having some fantasy elements. It's going to be so much stuff."

Tarn talked about their plans for the magic system in-depth back in 2017, but now I'm excited about it all over again, with the Steam version reaching hundreds of thousands of new players. Magic isn't the very next feature they're tackling: the Adams' have some outstanding Steam features to finish, and upgrades to the villain and military systems. It'll be a while yet. But if you're marveling at everything Dwarf Fortress can do now, just give it a few years. It's gonna be a whole new world. 

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).