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Getting Started With Dwarf Fortress

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If you’re anything like me, then you’ll have had repeated fantasies about leading a troop of seven dwarfs to the side of a remote, inhospitable mountain to carve out a living – armed with nothing but ale and a couple of pickaxes. The greatest tragedy of the modern age is that no one has ever implemented this common and (usually) unrealised fantasy in stunning 3D. They still haven’t, but that hardly detracts from Dwarf Fortress, the most detailed dwarf-based fortress-building simulation ever to have been rendered using the full ASCII character set.

Profession select screen

If you’re reading this blog then you’ve probably heard tell of this mysterious and addictively complex game – burdened with a learning curve steeper than the mountain face into which your little dwarven miners will strike. Perhaps you’ve never had the time or could never be bothered, but there’s scarcely a better time to be bothered than NOW – mainly because I need something to write about on my blog. Nevertheless, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more detailed, thought out game – especially with this staggering level of longevity (oh really?)
Dwarf Fortress is a worthy distraction, and you don’t need to learn how to smelt Adamantium-and-Elephant-bone Crossbows (or whatever else it is that those freaks on the forums do) to be able to enjoy yourself. Even just farming your first mushroom crop to get through the winter is a surprisingly rewarding and enjoyable experience. This guide isn’t going to explain everything but rather point you to the best places to find out for yourself.

Cyclops battle

First things first: get the game. Go to Bay 12’s website and the download links for Windows and OS X are there in giant blue font. Dwarf Fortress works very well with Wine in Linux, as far as I can tell. Sorry to anyone using Windows 95, but if you’re that far behind the times then you’d never catch up with those forward-thinking dwarves anyway. Now, Dwarf Fortress uses some incredibly intricate algorithm for generating a unique, random world for everyone who plays it – which is cool, I guess. Except that it takes an 10 minutes to start playing the game and it doesn’t matter if the world you’re using is the same as the one I’m using because it’s big enough for hundreds of different fortresses. If you’re like me and are so busy reading Digg that you don’t have 10 minutes to spare, you should download one of the pre-generated worlds. Your CPU will thank you. The worlds are about $20 (used) on, or about 5MiB of bandwidth from Bay 12’s official site.

So now you have your game up and running. But you wouldn’t lead a fortress-building expedition in real life without reading the associated Wiki pages and forum threads, right? The best place to go to get started is the Dwarf Fortress wiki where they have a fantastic tutorial easy enough to follow for everyone except Windows 95 users – who will need it translated into their native Ancient Greek. This tutorial explains how to pick the right equipment and starting skills for the seven dwarves (if you don’t rename them Bashful, Dopey, Gimli etc. then you are probably in the minority) and how to survive your first winter. It points you on the way to more advanced topics when you’re exhausted this material – such as trading and smelting and brewing.

Armour Shop

Check out the huge illustrated tutorial with its millions of screenshots too. If you’re the more impatient (and perhaps suicidal) type then you should have a quick glance at their Quick Launch FAQ or the Quickstart guide. “How do I get my Dwarves to do stuff?” seems like a trivial question now, but you just wait until you’re screaming at Smagmor the carpenter because the elephants are nearly at the gates and he’s gone for a casual drink at the river. It’s not as hard as I make it out to be – though even if your dwarves make it past the first winter they’ll probably be pretty fucked up with mental issues stemming from a lack of alcohol (quite seriously.) It takes a while to get the hang of it.

On the Something Awful Forums there was an epic “Let’s Play” thread where about twenty people took control of a (completely dangerous, resource-depleted and elephant ridden) fortress named Boatmurdered for a year each. I think some forum goon cycled through myriad fortresses until he found one with such a ridiculous name. It’s hilarious in parts, and it’s both interesting and helpful to see twenty different playing styles – it’s probably aimed a lot more at elephant defenses than you’ll be needing for a while, but some of the people playing are very hardcore and show off the amazing potential of the game mechanics. There are more of these “Let’s Play” threads at the official forums.

Overall Status

Make sure at some point you read the “Important Advice” section of the wiki because there are lots of little things that you might not think about – the roof caving in or your farms flooding. Dwarf Fortress has such a huge variety of possible outcomes that it’s hard to keep them in mind all the time while juggling your other tasks – but that’s part of the fun. The unexpectedness of one of your tradesmen going crazy and locking himself in his workshop, abstaining from food and water in the name of creating his turtle-shell magnum opus, is one of the things that really sets the game apart from just about any other – it’s refreshing.

I’ll probably upset any DF fan who’s still reading (and why would they: after all, they probably edited the wiki’s tutorial themselves), but I’d love it so much if a company came along and spent millions developing this into a title with a graphical interface that was easy on the eyes and the hands (the mouse barely factors into the interface, sadly.) I think the main reason I stop playing each time is that it’s so hard to keep your fortress in order when everything is represented with an ASCII character – especially now with the added Z-dimension (you never used to be able to build upwards or downwards.) It’s really a credit to the game that it can still hook you in while having a well-designed but understandably limited interface.


Good luck to anyone who’s trying Dwarf Fortress, don’t get frustrated with the initial learning curve because it really is a game that rewards planning, experimentation and clever solutions. The DF community likes to say that “losing is fun”, and it’s one of the only games where I’ve found this. It’s still early days for Dwarf Fortress and, with their sizable and dedicated fanbase, hopefully they’ll keep going for a long time. And maybe they’ll eventually sign a publishing deal for Dwarf Fortress: 3D. You never know, if Apple can make a two button mouse…


Written by atroche

May 6, 2008 at 8:52 pm

Posted in games

Tagged with , , ,

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