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It’s high time I wrote about Dwarf Fortress. What is Dwarf Fortress? It is gigantic, confusing, insane, and legendary. It has been the work of Bay 12 Games, consisting of two brothers — Tarn Adams, who does all the coding, and Zach Adams, who provides input into the design — for the past ten years. And they have every intention of working on it for another twenty. During this time they have lived entirely off of donations from players, with Dwarf Fortress itself being offered, in its still-incomplete state, for free. The business model is a modern equivalent of Renaissance patronage, with a loyal community happy to support the project and Bay 12 Games, in return, keeping healthy communication with these fans about future plans for the game. Many mistakenly believe that Dwarf Fortress is a roguelike, possibly due to its top-down ASCII graphics (OK, technically Code Page 437 if you want to get picky), and its Adventure game mode does indeed qualify as such, but Dwarf Fortress is far more (and far more interesting) than that. It is one of the most fascinating games ever made.
I tried to play Dwarf Fortress many years ago and didn’t get very far. So I tried again with the latest release, colloquially known as DF2012, this time determined to see my fortress to the bitter end. I failed to do that, but decided to write about the game anyway.
How to describe Dwarf Fortress? Perhaps it’s best to simply start at the beginning. Dwarf Fortress begins by generating a world. An algorithm creates a realistic elevation map for terrain, upon which precipitation and temperature are modeled. Areas are divided into biomes based on their temperature, rainfall, potential for vegatation, and other factors. The land is further divided into areas based on their relative savagery and level of “evil”. Subterranean sections form according to realistic geology, with veins of various minerals forming much as they would on Earth. Mountains are eroded by rivers, which flow from high elevation to low. Plant life appears, followed by animal life, and, finally, sentient life, in the form of human, elf, dwarf and kobold civilizations (and other less civilized races too).
At this point, the historical model begins. The various civilizations explore and expand, building towns and cities. Trade routes are established, roads are built, and the various people prosper or fall into ruin. Great beasts rise to power, becoming legends, and some are felled by equally legendary heroes. The player is free to watch all of this happen, a whirlwind of screens and windows and status text explaining what’s going on. In fact, the player can tune many aspects of the world creation to create a world to their liking, changing the prevalence of minerals, number of civilizations, general hostility of the world, and how long to run the historical simulation, among other things. Then, when the historical simulation stops, the player is invited to begin playing the game proper.
In this case, the “game proper” is Fortress Mode, which places the player in charge of a band of seven dwarves from one of the dwarven civilizations, who are sent to found a new dwarven fortress. This entails choosing the dwarves’ skills, equipping the group for the journey, and picking a site, and is far more complex and important than it sounds. The choice of site, especially, will have a huge effect on the game. If there are no trees, for example, it will be very hard for the dwarves to get wood, which they need to build beds. If there is no river, they will be hard-pressed to find fresh drinking water and will have to subsist solely on booze — not necessarily a bad thing for dwarves, who prefer booze anyway, but bad news for any who might get injured, for they will require water to survive. An area rich in soil will make farming easy, but delay the dwarves’ access to stone, which they will want to use in order to build everything from workshops to furniture to doors to mechanisms and machinery.
Once a site is chosen, a detailed map of the site is generated and the player is finally given control of their band of dwarves. While viewed from a top-down, 2-D perspective, the map is actually three-dimensional, made up of a great many “z-levels” that can be easily switched between. This allows for rolling hills, valleys, ravines with riverbeds, and a whole lot of underground space for the dwarves to dig. And dig they will, building underground housing, farms, dining areas, workshops, and everything else you might need to create a thriving fortress. And by “everything else”, I really mean everything. Thrones, cabinets, a variety of weapons, hospitals, jails, forges, living quarters, and much, much more can be built. Animals can be raised, milked, and butchered. Some can become adopted as pets, others can be used as guard animals. Exotic animals can be kept in cages to entertain the dwarven residents. Rooms can be decorated with engravings or expensive pieces of art, which often depict famous events from the history of the world. Miners will stumble across rich veins of various ores, which can be smelted into different metals, and all of the different types of stone, metal, wood, or other materials can be used to construct furniture, pots, storage bins, or pretty much anything else you could think of. And I haven’t even gotten into the really complex stuff, like using mechanisms and levers to create anything from massive pump stacks to flood-chamber traps.
The game operates in real-time, but the player can pause at any moment to give orders. The player can tell the dwarves where to dig, what to build, what to grow, and many other things, but does not directly control any of them. They all operate on their own schedules, eating, sleeping and working at different times based on their various personality traits and how pleased they are with their current situation — often, the player will do little but watch as the dwarves go about their business. Examine an individual dwarf and a shockingly exhaustive description appears, detailing not only the dwarf’s physical appearance but his or her personality, mannerisms, favorite things, relations with the other dwarves, and current mood. The dwarf’s mood can be affected by all sorts of things: eating a favorite dish, being disturbed by noise while sleeping, admiring a fine dining hall, spending time with a pet cat. All of these things are part of Dwarf Fortress’ huge, astounding simulation.
Some have compared the complexity of Dwarf Fortress’ simulation to that of modern computer models for engineering aerospace technology. But what’s fascinating about Dawrf Fortress is the purpose of the simulation, which is not to engineer airplanes or predict physical phenomena. It is to generate stories. Dwarf Fortress is possibly the greatest engine for creating emergent stories ever made. Many people are first introduced to the game through an account of the rise and fall of a particularly epic fortress, such as Boatmurdered, Bronzemurder or Matul Remrit (which I particularly like as it gives the dwarves appropriately alien voices). These tales are what Bay 12 Games are striving for with Dwarf Fortress, and each new release adds more detail to the simulation, enabling even more intricate stories. Since my first attempt at playing the game, the biggest updates were to the military system, allowing players to form and train militia squads with daunting detail, and to the Adventure Mode, which gives players control of a single adventurer and lets them loose in the world of one of their abandoned fortresses. I’ve never tried Adventure Mode myself, but it apparently operates much like an open-world roguelike, letting the player take direct part in Dwarf Fortress’ incredibly detailed combat systems. That’s actually pretty cool, but for me the draw has always been the fortresses, so I set out to build one.
Actually playing Dwarf Fortress is, as you might expect, very difficult at first. The game comes with almost no documentation, but its loyal community has constructed a detailed wiki site that explains nearly everything in the game, and includes an excellent tutorial for new players that I referred to constantly while playing. Much fuss is made over the game’s visuals, with new players balking at screenshots and videos, and claiming that it just looks like The Matrix to them. I think these complaints are overblown; the use of color and motion mean the graphical symbols are surprisingly representative of the things they are meant to depict, and before long players will see dwarves, trees, and tunnels where before they saw only strange markings (just as the characters in The Matrix could). Besides, many players simply forgo the default graphics in favor of one of many fan-made tilesets anyway. These tilesets replace the symbols with small pictorial tiles that give a much more immediate sense of what is happening on the screen. No, a much more deserving complaint is the difficulty of the game’s user interface.
Dwarf Fortress’ user interface is the worst I have ever seen. It’s absolutely awful. There is no mouse support (except for the mouse wheel which is used to zoom), which is not a problem in and of itself, but the various keys used to interact with the game are horribly inconsistent. Designating areas to dig is done by drawing rectangles; move the cursor around the screen with the arrow keys and select the two corners of the rectangle to be dug. This type of control is used for many things, but others are inexplicably different; placing a workshop, or designating an area as a dining room, involves re-sizing and placing rectangular box using a completely different set of keys. Many things in the game are accomplished through stockpiles, which are simply places where dwarves will store certain things, but placing and editing these is a downright arduous process, often involving manually selecting or deselecting certain types of items in a series of sub-menus. There are different interfaces for almost everything, from the stocks screen to the trading interface to the military menu, each of which has its own set of keys for navigating around. All these interfaces will inevitably lead to lists, whether they be of items, tasks for dwarves to perform, workshops to build, or countless other things, and these lists aren’t even alphabetized. Let me repeat that: the lists aren’t even alphabetized. A simple task like checking how many spare axes my fortress had lying around became a nightmare of scrolling through massive lists of items on the stocks screen, in random order. There is no reason that this stuff should be so hard to do.
Tarn Adams has said that an interface overhaul is planned, but not for some time; he wants to have more gameplay systems in place before spending a lot of time on a new interface. I can understand his reasoning, but with literally decades of work planned before Dwarf Fortress could be considered complete, Bay 12 Games are really alienating a lot of potential players with the interface. I’m not alone in my belief that a better interface, now, would grant the game a much wider audience and let current players enjoy it that much more, as they look forward to the upcoming updates. In the end, I put up with the interface, because there’s nothing else like Dwarf Fortress. And it’s worth it. Just expect to spend a lot of time scouring the wiki, with the game paused.
Of course, I spent more time reading the wiki than some players might, because I like to know everything about a game’s systems before I play it. This is not the ideal way to play Dwarf Fortress. Dwarf Fortress is a game about trying things out, and laughing at the consequences when they don’t work. It’s a game where your fortress can fail because one dwarf, distraught over his dead pet, throws an object in anger, hitting another dwarf, and starting a massive fistfight that ends with most dwarves dead and the rest wounded and unable to move. It’s a game where a forager can accidentally anger an elephant and lead a whole herd stampeding through the fortress. It’s a game where a minor design flaw in a large apparatus can flood the fortress with magma. These things are meant to happen. Players are meant to have their fortresses fail horribly and hilariously, and then try again, armed with new knowledge. I tried to make myself play it in this way, but each time I checked the wiki it turned into an extended visit, reading through page after page of the subtleties of farming or the layout of living quarters. It would start with a simple question, like how to start a militia. Something I genuinely did not have any idea how to do. But then I’d be stuck, reading more and more, leaving the game paused and waiting until I had a foolproof plan before proceeding.
This worked, in that I had no trouble getting a fortress up and running. I pored over the strategies for picking an ideal site, and finally chose one on the border between two biomes, a forested plateau in the north and a grassy valley with a river in the south. I set up all the right stockpiles, dug out several floors, and built all the requisite workshops to get my economy going. But my progress felt very slow, because I wasn’t willing to simply wing it, and I think I may have had more fun if I had. Still, it was fascinating, as I learned about many intricacies of the game, and was consistently awed by how much stuff is in it. I also quickly adopted an important playing aid, Dwarf Therapist. This is a third-party program that communicates with the game and provides a better interface for managing your dwarves’ jobs. As more waves of immigrants arrived and my population ballooned, it was hard enough to manage this even with Dwarf Therapist, so I can only imagine how difficult it would be without.
Since I was meticulously following the guide for new players, the story of my fortress was not particularly interesting. I took too long to get my farms in place because I didn’t fully understand the irrigation requirements, but I got them going eventually. My workshops started producing furniture and simple goods. I built a dining hall and kitchen, and some simple quarters for my dwarves. But every time I felt I was getting on top of things, more immigrants would arrive. I’d have to expand the living quarters again, enlarge the dining hall, and get the newcomers to work. My miners struck hematite early, so I built furnaces and a forge to start making some iron weapons and armor. Some of the immigrants who arrived were veterans, so I started a militia with them, anticipating an eventual attack as my fortress’ wealth grew. I started a massive strip-mining operation to try and find coal or the flux stone necessary to make steel, but I never did. I found plenty of gems, however, and put my gemcutter to work.
One of my dwarves was taken by a fey mood and occupied my craftsdwarf’s workshop. He demanded several materials, including leather, which I did not have. Fortunately, an elven trade caravan had just arrived, and they had some leather for sale. Getting it was a horrible chore, because my broker refused to stop whatever other stuff she was doing to go trade with the caravan. Eventually I had to search through my dwarves for any with the right personality traits for trading, and make a new broker, then juggle with the dwarf’s assigned jobs until he finally went up to talk to the traders. I gave them some cut gems in exchange for the leather, and my possessed dwarf grabbed the leather and started working furiously in the shop. When he was finished, he’d made an artifact: a granite trumpet, decorated with iron and leather, depicting the famous killing of the dwarf Domas Linedshot by the roc Ethba Dawsculpts the Barbarian of Mists in 78 (yes, that is an event from Dwarf Fortress’ historical simulation during world creation). This artifact is an extremely valuable work of art, but cannot be traded as it is a cultural symbol for my fortress. The other reward, however, was that the dwarf who made it was now a legendary stonecrafter. I put him to work making simple stonecrafts. These are typically very low-value trading items, but his legendary skill meant that each one was actually quite valuable, and I had plenty of stone lying around from my mining operations to use as materials. These stonecrafts became my main export, especially after another dwarf was possessed, built a second artifact, and became another legendary stonecrafter.
With my stonecrafts for trade, I was able to barter for pretty much anything I needed, which were often seeds and animals, and eventually wood after my dwarves managed to chop down a disturbing portion of the forest above. I had a few farms going but didn’t really feel I knew what I was doing, despite the wiki; I soon learned that some crops are used for making cloth and clothing instead of food, and I’d been wasting them with no clothiers at work. I butchered some animals when food supplies got a little low, but my fishing industry soon picked up and helped keep everyone fed. I was thinking about setting up a hatchery to make eggs, and to start milking my cows to get milk and cheese, but then more immigrants arrived and I had to deal with getting them settled in. Oh, and once I had enough dwarves, they elected a mayor. Turns out it was my old broker, the one who had refused to actually do any broking. After I switched to the new broker, I’d forgotten to give her any other jobs, so she just hung around the dining hall and chatted with everyone. Since she had good social skills (the reason she’d been assigned as the broker in the first place), she quickly became the most popular dwarf in the fortress, and was apparently the runaway candidate for mayor.
As mayor, she became extremely annoying. She demanded nicer living quarters, with more furniture, and her own private dining hall. I set about making these things, which took a long time, and during the wait she mandated that the fortress build three ballista bolts. I was not equipped to do that at all, lacking even the most basic workshops needed for the task, and I was already annoyed with her, so I ignored the request. If she was unhappy about it, it didn’t manifest, and she apparently went back to idling around in her swanky new pad. I realized that as my population grew, I would be getting more nobles like this, and they’d probably have even bigger demands. It as going to completely disrupt the design of the sleeping quarters, which provided each dwarf equal lodging, and was only just barely keeping up with the demand. Some dwarven couples were having babies too, and they didn’t have bedrooms assigned, instead crawling all over the fortress. Looking at the wiki, I realized with dismay that I would soon need to make a hospital, which would probably require a well, a serious undertaking that I had not at all prepared for. I was barely keeping up with my growing population as it was, and making a well inside the fortress, one that provided clean water and wouldn’t let any horrible aquatic beasts inside, would require digging a tunnel all the way to the river and installing a set of pumps. That sounded like a lengthy endeavor, possibly taking an in-game year or more.
I hadn’t been aiming for anything too ambitious with my fortress. Not like some of the stories I’d read, of fortresses with grand halls and treasure rooms and other huge, epic constructions. I’d only aimed for prosperity and industry, keeping dwarves working and productive. But I was already feeling overwhelmed just keeping things going. Any bigger plans, like digging the well, felt impossible when I was barely carving enough bedrooms and planting enough seeds. What finally got me, however, was a simple kobold thief. I’d seen a few kobold thieves already, usually spotting them as they were running away and it was too late to try and catch them. And I was only very slowly getting my militia together, as I learned the process of forging weapons and armor and then getting my dwarves to actually use them. I’d also gotten a pair of guard dogs to spot thieves, but it wasn’t working, probably because the thieves tended to strike when a caravan was parked for trade, which necessarily happened outside my front door where the dogs were posted.
But eventually I had a ragtag band of militia dwarves, all male to ensure they wouldn’t carry their babies into battle, mostly kitted out and ready to go. So when I saw a thief fleeing from the caravan, I decided to chase him down. I went to my military screen, realized I didn’t know how to order them to attack something, and then checked the wiki. There were detailed instructions for ordering the attack, which I followed diligently, but my screen did not match the description. Options I was supposed to choose were not there. I started navigating around semi-randomly, looking for the option to attack, but only succeeded in accidentally changing a bunch of things I didn’t want to. I got those sorted out, but never did find the attack command. And it was this, not knowing how to tell my dwarves to attack after I’d painstakingly assembled, equipped and trained them, that was the final straw. I never did figure out what was wrong. Perhaps I hadn’t assigned the correct administrators to enable an attack order? Or maybe my captain was trying to go with the soldiers, which prevented him from being able to order them to go in the first place, somehow? I don’t know, but it was the last of several mounting frustrations. I stopped playing at that point.
I’ll be back though. Dwarf Fortress is too intriguing to stay away from forever. I know that I’ll feel the urge to dive into it’s deep, confounding simulation again. Maybe I’ll even learn to relax and bit and not worry about controlling every single thing in the fortress. Maybe I’ll learn to show a little more imagination and foresight in my planning, and build a grand fortress that brings glory to the dwarven nation. And I’ve got years and years of updates to look forward to as well, promising new systems and toys to play with and fail to understand. I hope I’ll see the day that Bay 12 Games calls Dwarf Fortress finished. Or maybe not; maybe I hope they’ll keep working on it forever. Either way, I’m glad it’s available to play as it is, and I’m glad I tried it. If you want to give it a try yourself, you can get it for free right here. Just make sure you keep that wiki handy too.