How To Get Into Dwarf Fortress

Inspired by the recent write-up of Dwarf Fortress and its creator in the NY Times, I thought I’d knock this little piece up. Dwarf Fortress is a game you may have heard of. It is a game you’ve possibly seen. And it’s something that looks like it stepped right out of the matrix. Certainly not the most approachable of games. But it is a brilliant game, well worth a play, and I’m going to see about helping you do that. Though before we start I will say this isn’t a tutorial (I’m far from an experienced Dwarf Fortress player) just something to get you in the mood and to get you started.

Firstly, what is Dwarf Fortress? Dwarf Fortress is a ASCII-based dwarfish colony simulator. It’s The Sims but with less sad clowns and more alcohol. It also has elements of Minecraft (or more accurately, Minecraft has elements of Dwarf Fortress) with its open-ended nature. You control an expedition party of dwarfs in creating and expanding the titular dwarf fortress while avoiding goblins, demons, elephants and madness. The goal of the game is to lose. Because Losing is Fun. Of course how you lose is up to you and how much Fun you want to have. It’s a game that won’t make things easy for you, but persevere and you shall be rewarded in spades with a game that is a marvel to experience.

So who would play Dwarf Fortress? If you’re somebody who can still sit down and play games lacking the third dimension then you’re in a good position already. If you value looks and simplicity in a game then Dwarf Fortress is not for you. Minecraft is also a great starting point, and many recent players have come on from Minecraft looking for a deeper gaming experience. I will say that like Minecraft its looks are deceptive. This is a simulator and that means that while its looks may not be up to much, it does like to push your CPU. So don’t expect to be playing this on a netbook anytime soon.

One of my earliest exposures to Dwarf Fortress was the work of Tim Denee, creator of Bronzemurder and Oil Furnace stories. These comics tell the tale of beasts hidden in the depths, zombie elephants and courageous dwarfs. It’s these tales that first inspired me to look into Dwarf Fortress, and they may do the same for you. Another good tale is the infamous Boatmurdered, the diary of a succession game (I’ll explain later) on an early version of Dwarf Fortress. RockPaperShotgun also had a crack at chronicling their playthrough last year with “Onionbog“. Dwarf Fortress is a great storytelling game, comparable to EVE. It’s a game with so many variables, interactions and possibilities that almost anything can happen. Nothing is scripted. And this is why I like it. No playthrough will be the same. So you played your average game and you got the good ending? So did half the people who played. In Dwarf Fortress, your cook held off a goblin hoard using a silver axe adorned with shells depicting the founding of your fort while he’s missing half his arm? Yeah that’s probably only going to happen for you. It’s a game that lets your imagination run wild. Something that may have gotten rusty lately with all these newfangled “photo-realistic” games.

Mayday tileset on the left, Stonesense on the right.

So if these tales and comics get you in the mood to play, you may pop over to the Bay12 site, download the game and start playing. However, once you’ve loaded up the game, if you manage to figure out how to embark, you’ll soon be in a world of letters and symbols that mean nothing to the common man. And poof; you’re immediately put off the game. But never fear: there are ways around this land of letters and jargon. While Toady, the lone developer of Dwarf Fortress, may be more focused on the mechanics of the game over the aesthetics, there are thankfully people in the Dwarf Fortress community who realise the ASCII art style is putting off an awful lot of potential players like yourself. The purists may shun you (they don’t; it’s quite a nice and embracing community) but with new tilesets, like mayday, you should be able to make more sense of the game as it starts to resemble more understandable shapes. It’s still pretty basic, but add-ons like Stonsesense can make it even more prettier and even more understandable. The dwarfs look like dwarfs, the cows look like cows, the snozberries look like snozberries.

And what could be better than these fine tools? Why a pack of these and more made for all you lazy newbs; The Lazy Newb Pack. Along with a variety of tilesets and Stonesense, The Lazy Newb pack also bundles a bunch of other handy add-on tools and tweaks to make Dwarf Fortress easier to get into. One great “hack” I use with Lazy Newb Pack is to remove the aquifer from the world generator. The aquifer is a few layers of infinite water between you and the rich seams of rock below. And it’s a bit of a bugger to work around, so to make it much easier and remove one thing from the learning process, disable the aquifer.

So once you’ve got this great little pack, where do you begin with learning this pretty complex game? I started out with a mix of two sources. There is a great tutorial here, which also comes with a pre-made map too so you can follow along exactly (though on an older version of Dwarf Fortress), or there are a couple on the DF Wiki. The wiki is something you will need open at all times, even as a veteran. Unsure on what something is, why something is happening, what to do? Hit up the wiki. One thing to understand with the wiki, and Dwarf Fortress itself, is it’s very keyboard-oriented. Quite often the wiki will tell you to “q-a-b”(build a bedroom) or similar. Yep, Dwarf Fortress is a game where your mouse gets a bit of a rest. It takes some learning early on, but like all keyboard shortcuts you’ll soon have most of the common tasks memorized. When using the wiki you’ll be wanting to stick to pages labelled “DF2010.” This is the most recent build of Dwarf Fortress and relevant to you if you’re using Lazy Newb Pack.

For myself, I went from not having a clue on how to embark to being pretty comfortable with the game in under a week. You need to play longer, much longer, to be a veteran, but in under a week you’d be pretty comfortable with most the concepts of the game. You should be able to make a fort that’s pretty self-sufficient, not starving, and able to trade for goods and fend for itself. Once there you may start getting adventurous. This would be where I leave you to your own devices, as even I am not at the “let’s make a computer” or “let’s make a lava moat” stage. Dig about on the wiki, follow random links to see what you can find that will inspire your next project. While your dwarfs can get along okay with mushrooms and copious amounts of alcohol, maybe you want to experiment with farming animals? Maybe you want to challenge the depths of hell (the fastest way to fun). While Dwarf Fortress has no proper multi-player mode, one way around this is people will participate in succession games. Each person taking a turn to play through a year of the fortress, chronicling their time in charge, then passing on the save file. Participating in a succession game with some friends can be a major boost in getting into the game. It can of course be daunting to know you’re the guy who messed it all up, but as long as everyone knows how to have Fun it shouldn’t be a problem. You might be encouraged to hone your writing and/or drawing skills in order to chronicle your experiences and amuse the web with your path to Fun.

The world is your oyster with Dwarf Fortress, there are so few limits on what you can do, and I truly recommend giving it a shot.

Dwarf Fortress @ Bay12 Games

The Lazy Newb Pack

Dwarf Fortress Wiki

Dwarf Fortress @ X-Talk

Dwarf Fortress Sub-Reddit

NY Times Dwarf Fortress article

By Dean Bowes

Founder of the site. Based in Britian I'm primarily a PC gamer, looking to spread my wings to the best the games industry has to offer.


  1. Man, I wish this game had an iPod adaption or something. This sounds interesting, but I have already wasted precious hours into minecraft, no thanks to the Internet…

    That said, I think the mobile version of PXOD rocks

  2. Man, I wish this game had an iPod adaption or something. This sounds interesting, but I have already wasted precious hours into minecraft, no thanks to the Internet…

    That said, I think the mobile version of PXOD rocks

  3. Your ipod wouldn’t even load this game. It takes some serious CPU power to run it at any reasonable framerate.

  4. There is only one thing I would like to add to the praise of this game: this is the game where combat is simulated on the level that if you hit someone with your axe it calculates whether the enemy can dodge, then parry (probably), if the swing connects it is determined where I hit (or maybe before) and how much kinetic energy is absorbed by armor, if I penetrate armor I probably hit skin, penetrate it to flesh, then perhaps bone and if I’m lucky enough I might chop the hand off (or get the axe caught in chest).

    The game does most of those little things on background and it’s amazing to realize that your engraver has just engraved a picture of the guy he hates praying, surrounded by things his enemy hates.

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