Dwarf Fortress introduction with pixel dwarf face

Crafting a Masterwork: An Introduction to Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress Introduction

When you first see a Dwarf Fortress screenshot, you may be puzzled or intrigued. It’s colorful and extremely ornate. As you look closer, it looks like a forgotten, secret language or a pixel art ant farm. Soon, you discern the corridors and rooms of an underground fortress; like the inside cover of a D&D module.

Dwarf Fortress is one of the deepest and most inscrutable games created. Also, the game most likely to turn a “wait, what just happened” moment into laughter, and another story to tell. Articles say it’s a deep and crazy game. The most complex game ever made.

…A challenge, ah? That’s when the proud and adventurous dwarf within you, fond of drink and industry, pounds–with one loud, echoing bang–the knob of an axe on stone. Let the downloading begin.

Like dwarfs, do you too dream of crafting a masterwork someday?

In this article, I provide a short and stout, Dwarf Fortress introduction for people that are curious about the game. I’ll share why Dwarf Fortress is so awesome and what it’s like to play. Finally, there’s a list of resources I recommend for beginners just starting out. Learning something about the game and being prepared will ensure your dwarf’s bellies don’t grumble from hunger and you don’t build your fortress near a necromancer tower.

What is Dwarf Fortress?

Dwarf Fortress is designed and developed by Tarn and Zach Adams at Bay 12 Games. They have been working on the game since 2002.

The game has three modes:

  • Fortress Mode – A colony-management-sim. Prepare your dwarven colony and select a place to settle. Build an underground fortress, as intricate and efficient as you can manage, and survive in a dangerous world.
  • Adventurer Mode – Roguelike. Create and control a character (or adventure party, with the 0.47.01 update) in one of your generated worlds (from Fortress Mode).
  • Legends Mode – Read about the history of your generated worlds.

Dwarf Fortress is a game of herding dwarfs. Seriously! Well, only in part. You give the dwarfs commands (tasks) and they move around in real-time carrying out those commands. However, the dwarfs act according to their moods and goals; meaning, they deviate from your fortress-building plans. You can pause the game anytime to figure out what is going on and determine the next task designations.

Simulation

Everything in the world is simulated: body parts, psychology, and poetry; mineral deposits, magma, and water flow; plants, animals, and mythic megabeasts. Because everything is simulated, emergent gameplay just naturally happens. As an example, consider the following bugfix tweet from Dwarf Fortress Patch Notes (@dfpatchnotesbot, 3/31/19):

Stopped cats from dying of alcohol poisoning after walking over damp tavern floors and cleaning themselves (reduced effect)

Cracks me up.

(PC Gamer compiled a list of ridiculous patch notes of you’d like to read more.)

Simple graphics are necessary due to the sheer complexity of the simulated world. By default, ASCII characters depict the world and all living things. Alternatively, you can install and load a graphical tileset for an intuitive experience. I like the Phoebus 16x graphical tileset, though I might play with the ASCII Lonesome Tileset for my next fortress.

Dwarf Fortress with ASCII characters
Dwarf Fortress with ASCII Characters
Dwarf Fortress with a graphical tileset
Dwarf Fortress with a Graphical Tileset

Stories

As alluded to above, all that simulation makes for strange and hilarious stories. The Boatmurdered story on Let’s Play Archive is considered a classic. Suffice to say, it’s epic and I won’t spoil it here.

Also, the Kruggsmash YouTube channel produces fantastic stories, illustrations, and music.

What’s it Like to Play?

When you start a new game, you find a location in a rugged, procedurally generated world for your small dwarven colony to embark. Next, you try to help them survive, both mentally and physically, as they brew beer and build a mountain fortress. Finally, after elephant attacks, strange moods, and even stranger engravings, the colony ends in a bloody mess. As the game’s unofficial slogan states, “Losing is fun!”

The Joy of Dwarf Fortress

All that talk of strange moods, elephant attacks, and losing may make the game sound hard and frustrating. It really isn't though. As reddit user Fleeting_Frames explained to me:

the sandbox nature of the game means it's so much more relaxing! Oh, early players may suffer from disaster, but soon they'll discover the elephants are quite peaceful when left alone....

It's true. Many animals are friendly and soon become part of your colony.

Coupled with some hot cocoa and wool socks, the game is a relaxing break from the rest of the world. An unhurried evening of playing with an ant farm of peculiar miners with dreams of making magnificent art.

The joy of playing Dwarf Fortress derives from directing the dwarfs to build a fortress of your own design and the continuous wonder of watching what happens in your dwarven colony.

Dwarf Fortress has all the elements of a city builder game. You get to plan the fortress, which includes the size and shape of each room and hallway, and each stockpile and garden. Resources are managed and built up over time so that new structures can form and contribute to the colony.

Dwarfs get bored, drink plum wine, and write poems; defend the fortress from a giant gila monster, build sculptures depicting fortress lore, and become moody and go crazy. You watch them, follow their movements, and laugh out loud when you realize what they’ve done due to the pinball-bouncing of game entities.

Starting a New Game

Let’s walk through the steps of starting a game in detail. This wouldn’t be a Dwarf Fortress introduction without describing the sheer scope of procedural generation that occurs when you start a new game.

1. Create World

First, you create a whole new world (!). Time passes through The Age of Myth and the interaction of various world entities is simulated.

Dwarf Fortress world creation screen
Xestsuzuza, “The Enchanted Domain”

Mountains rise, lakes and rivers form, vegetation grows and wildlife are…”Importing”?

Dwarf Fortress world creation details
Dwarf Fortress World Creation Details

See the number of historical figures (“Hist Figs”) and events in the image above? In a separate mode of the game, called “Legend’s Mode,” you can read the history of the world you created. At the start, major historical figures are mythical creatures: a roc (a huge bird), dragon, colossus, hydra. Later, you’ll find humans, elves, goblins, and dwarfs, which may be related to members of your starting colony. You can scroll through and read the histories, events, and descriptions.

2. Pick Fortress Location

Decide where you want your colony of dwarfs to settle down.

Dwarf Fortress fortress location selection screen
Fortress Location – The Fragrant Forests

For this game, I chose The Fragrant Forests because of the temperate, conifer forest, thick vegetation, shallow and deep metals. Also, the surroundings are calm, which give the dwarfs time to build fort defenses.

Dwarf Fortress fortress location details.
The Fragrant Forests Detail

3. Prepare Dwarfs and Supplies

Next, you select the skills for each dwarf and the starting supplies or pick from a list of pre-generated embark profiles.

This is your chance to read about the physical description, likes, dislikes, goals, etc. for each dwarf. This character information gives each dwarf a backstory and personality.

4. Embark!

Once prepared, you embark on the new world. The wagon, loaded with a menagerie of animals and barrels of seeds and ale, reaches the location you selected previously. There, the colonists cut down trees, collect herbs and berries, and dig their underground fortress.

Dwarf Fortress embark location with descriptive white arrows.
Dwarf Fortress Embark Location

5. Build

You’ll command the dwarfs to undertake many different activities: digging tunnels, cutting down trees, building workshops and furniture; planting crops (e.g., plump helmets, a type of mushroom), forming a military, trading, and creating artwork.

For me, thinking about where to put the mushroom gardens, library, tavern, and living quarters are my favorite part. A large and well-designed fortress might look like the following by Grateful42 on Imgur.

Massive dormitory expansion in Dwarf Fortress by Grateful42 on imgur
Source: Massive Dormitory Expansion by Grateful42 on imgur

Interested in Playing Dwarf Fortress?

Dwarf Fortress is a deep game and it can seem impenetrable at first. It’s okay though, don’t be put off by the blinking barrels and encroaching spider monkeys. There are a LOT of helpful resources for new players.

Wiki

The Dwarf Fortress Wiki is a great place to start. The Wiki has a Quickstart Guide and information about the three game modes. The site also contains information about various types of mods.

Software

Download Dwarf Fortress for free from Bay 12 Games.

Be sure to download the Lazy Noob Pack (also called, “PeridexisErrant’s DF Starter Pack”), which contains helpful utility applications and assists with applying game settings.

Book

The Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress book by Peter Tyson can be a huge help. This book is truly a good Dwarf Fortress introduction. I’ve worked my way from chapter to chapter a few times now, re-learning the keystrokes and general order-of-operations for building a successful (or not so successful) fortress.

Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress book cover.
Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress by Peter Tyson

Videos

I recommend a few Youtube tutorials:

  • Kruggsmash’s Your First Fortress: A Dwarf Fortress Crash Course, a brief 35-minute video.
  • DasTactic’s Dwarf Fortress for New Players series. A total of 76 videos!
  • Nookrium recently posted a Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress tutorial that doesn’t include mods. Just download and play.

Wishlist the Steam Version

If you find you enjoy playing Dwarf Fortress, consider adding the upcoming Steam version to your wishlist. The game will be released on Steam and itch.io with the help of Kitfox Games. This new version will feature a lovely new, pixel art tileset, intuitive interface, and mouse support.

Support Dwarf Fortress Developers

If you enjoy playing Dwarf Fortress, consider donating to the Bay 12 Games Patreon. Continued development for Dwarf Fortress is player supported.

I hope this Dwarf Fortress introduction gave you some insight into what’s special about the game and why fans are entranced, despite primitive graphics and steep learning curve. The Dwarf Fortress game is an awe-inspiring masterwork and a joy to play. The upcoming Steam version will surely make the game easier to play and will grow the player base significantly. Exciting times!

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Ernest Scribner
Ernest Scribner

Practitioner of games. Caster of words. Shares game wisdom, stories, and shenanigans with fellow adventurers.

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