Dwarf Fortress is a game.
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Dwarf Fortress is a dwarven life simulation written by Toady One of Bay 12 Games.
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Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress is a horrendously bug-laden, incredibly inaccessible, and incomprehensible game that's still only in Alpha after many years of development, and with no end in sight to development. At the same time, it's also possibly the single most fun game ever written, and purportedly the inspiration for Minecraft. It's certainly given me plenty of enjoyment.
Like many others, I stumbled on Dwarf Fortress via Something Awful and their Let's Play Forums. One of the most well-regarded Let's Play threads around, Boatmurdered, is often the first introduction anyone has to the game. Boatmurdered was a succession game thread which involved a community of players passing their save game to one another after one year of in-game time, with the intent of building the dwarfiest (or dorfiest) fortress around. Imagine The Sims set in the wilderness, with killer elephants, crazy dwarves, bottomless pits, and magma. Then forget about The Sims. And add more magma. That's Boatmurdered.
Boatmurdered definitely has its place in Dwarf Fortress lore, because it showcased both the strengths and the insanities that the game possessed. It was based on quite an early version of the game, to the extent that (as happened for me) new players expecting a Boatmurdered-style experience will be suitably disoriented. Later - and just as classic - Let's Play threads have certainly made use of newer versions, and showcased even further another strength of Dwarf Fortress - that it encourages players to build a story around their forts, supported by an incredibly rich in-game background and amazingly detailed descriptions - all procedurally generated - that the game throws up all over the place. Great examples are Headsshoots, Syrupleaf, and Gemclod ("let's all get killed and eaten") - all of which could be said to be inspired by Boatmurdered in the first place, but to take on lives and stories of their own. Syrupleaf is perhaps my favourite, a sequel of sorts to Headsshoots that demonstrates both the modding aspects of the game and the player-driven stories that can arise.
To understand Dwarf Fortress takes time and effort. Here's a (somewhat cropped) screenshot of the native version:
As you can see, it's essentially an ASCII-based game. Don't let that fool you, it's very much a modern game, but it arguably doesn't need graphics to provide an amazingly deep and interactive experience. Along the way, however, it's been made somewhat more accessible by community efforts. Here's the same map area with a community tileset applied:
You may find this to still be difficult to understand, but I assure you that it's much easier for a new player to understand. Indeed, it's by far my preferred way to play. I like having to think as much about the game as it demands, but I don't want to have to maintain a mental (or physical) list of what every ASCII character means. If you look closely, you’ll see little dwarves and animals, rocks, grass, trees, and so forth.
This easily showcases what is probably the single thing that makes the game what it is - the community. The developer, Tarn Adams (AKA Toady One), is a one-man band by choice. He's enlisted the help of his brother, and he works with one other developer to allow for cross-platform capabilities (Dwarf Fortress runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux) - but otherwise, that's it. In the process, he's developed an incredibly deep and detailed game. Left to its own devices, though, I suspect that most people would be completely unable or unwilling to play. This is where the community comes in, with an incredible wiki, active forums, and amazing mod community that really give life to Dwarf Fortress.
The same community also helps to directly influence the development of Dwarf Fortress. It's a freeware game, but Toady One lives off income from the game - which is raised solely through community donation. Not a bad gig if you can get it! Along with direct donations, there's also been a sponsorship drive for new animals to be added to the game. From bees and lice to dingos and pandas, platypus and penguin to grasshopper and mosquito, the game's diversity and depth has been directly increased by these sponsorships.
The game is founded upon the generation of one or more worlds. The entire world must be generated, from the highest mountain, through the layers of clay, soil, and rock, to caverns ... well, let's not spoil the Hidden Fun Stuff here. You can directly influence world generation through basic or advanced parameters - for example, increasing the number of volcanoes, reducing aquifers, increasing minerals, and upping the number of megabeasts (and other fun surprises). You can also set the length of world history, which will cause the game to run through that history during generation. Once generated, you can engage in two modes of play, or review legends mode. Legends mode is amazing to read through - it shows just how incredibly detailed the worlds are, with each notable historical figure having their own triumphs and tribulations to read about, each civilization having its rise, wars, and possibly downfalls .. and sometimes, the extinction of entire races.
Dwarf Fortress mode and Adventurer mode are the two modes of play to choose from. Adventurer mode is a roguelike-type game, in the style of classics like Nethack, but based around exploration of the entire world that you've generated. You can encounter civilisations, go on quests, fight monsters, and even visit fortresses that you've founded and abandoned (current versions disable this temporarily). Adventurer mode has recently had some substantial updates to make it more fun .. but frankly, for me, the meat is still in Dwarf Fortress mode.
Dwarf Fortress mode lets you pick an embark site anywhere in the world - except, by default, already-settled or abandoned sites (you can reclaim your own fortresses if they've been abandoned, and there's community mods to let you embark anywhere). From there, you pick 7 dwarves and their starting equipment (or let the game do it for you), and send them on their way.
You start in one of the embark sites within the map area that you've chosen. As the intro screen tells you, you need to prepare suitable lodgings ere the [insert local predator name] get hungry. Strike the earth! And you generally will, unless you somehow managed not to bring a pick, or you decide to try to build an above ground fort (not recommended for new players).
Your miner dwarves - one of many tasks that can be enabled for each individual dwarf - can dig down, or into the side of a hill or mountain. You can carve out walls and passageways - but don't take too long. You need to start developing industries. Typically high on your list: farming, carpentry, masonry, brewing, cooking, and craftsdwarfs.
A typical game goes like this: you only have so much food and booze with you. For dwarves, booze is the top priority, but both have importance. You need to at least collect more raw food - by plant gathering, farming, and hunting/trapping - to satisfy the food needs. Cooking is arguably optional, but your dwarves get happy thoughts from well prepared cooked meals. You also need to start brewing booze, because without it, your dwarves get unhappy thoughts, and will ultimately throw tantrums. Brewing uses certain plants, which are also often used in food preparation - so you need to be careful, because cooking will use up the seeds of the plants as well, making it hard to grow more, and also reducing the amount of booze that you can distill. Be equally careful with the booze itself - it, too, can be used in cooking.
Still with me? Okay, so brewing is all well and good, but you need something to store it in. And you only brought so many barrels with you, most of them still full of food or booze. So you need to chop down trees and have your carpenter make more. You could get more complicated and start a pottery or glassmaking industry for your food containers, but this requires both fuel and either clay or sand, and you need your carpentry industry for beds anyway. Most other things can be made with rock by your masons or craftsdwarfs, but beds are wood-only. Helpfully, your carpenter can also make bins to store your crafts in, which is useful come trade caravan time.
Yes, trade caravans. You need to trade to help your new fortress get off the ground. You can sell a lot of your fortresses stocks - even the food and booze, or the wood you've chopped - but to really afford the trade caravan's goods, you'd best start a craftsdwarf industry. They can make rock items that are, for the most part, useless, but which have value for trade, and they can churn them out at a reasonably high rate. If you play it safe, by the time the first caravan arrives, you'll be able to buy most of the useful goods. And as a bonus, a healthy craftsdwarf industry will tend to attract more migrants. As will artifacts, generated by dwarves that enter “strange moods” – you can’t sell them, but they can be useful, and they increase your fortress value … so long as you meet the dwarf’s demands!
Migrants are the single best way to grow the population of your fortress - which you need to do to sustain the demands of your growing fort. Someone needs to do the fishing, hunting, farming, plant gathering, plant extraction, milling, mechanism building, mining, masonry, engraving, and so on. Oh, and you'll probably need a militia. Soon, before the vile forces of darkness arrive.
Invasions are part of the game, and you'll almost inevitably experience them fairly fast. The most common source of invasions are nearby goblin civilisations, who hate dwarves and everything they stand for. A frequent early warning sign is gobin snatchers, who steal dwarf children and take them back to their dark tower to be enslaved. Generally easy to thwart with some well placed traps, but when they start appearing, be ready for ambush parties and invasion soon after.
Ambush parties are small squads of goblins who'll sometimes appear and kill dwarves that stumble across them. They, too, are frequent precursors of a full invasion. You'll know the difference when you see it, because the typical goblin invasion force is pretty damn big, and often includes trolls.
Hopefully you've trained your militia up and got some good defences in place, and maybe even trained some war animals. The invasion force will path straight toward your fortress entryways- a drawbridge and moat is often a damn good strategy. You can certainly go after them with your militia and defend with ballistae - but early on, battening down the hatches might just be the way to go. The besieging force will hang around, kill any animals and residents of yours that they can find - and maybe incoming caravans and migrants - but eventually they will hopefully get bored and go home. Or, in the case of a predominantly goblin archer-based force, run out of arrows and get slaughtered by your militia once you realise.
Having survived your first invasion, you can collect any goblin gear left on bodies (and arrows or bolts that are lying around). Sometimes you can get some great gear from this, especially in the early game when you need it. The community calls this "goblinite", a renewable resource. Because the goblins will most certainly be back.
If you've lost dwarves with friends or family to the invasion, you may well encounter your first tantrum, or worse still, a tantrum spiral. This is a dwarf, or dwarves, who are upset by their loss - they won't work, they'll pick fights, and they may destroy things. They might even go insane, drop into a deep melancholy, or go beserk (literally - they'll start killing dwarves). It's all part of the fun!
Meanwhile, you need to rebuild as necessary, and keep expanding. Resources are a challenging part of the game - you need water, plants, animals, wood, rock and metal ores, clay, sand, and more. These are incentives to expand your fortress. Rock and metal ores are a big driving force in digging deeper - if you want to make copper, bronze, iron, or even steel weapons, you need metal ores, and for steel you need flux. You also need fuel to power the furnaces and workshops. If you're lucky to find magma - either underground, or in a handy volcano - you can use this to replace some fuel - but you still need fuel for some reactions! Thankfully, wood can also be burnt to create coal, but this is a costly use for a limited resource.
The deeper you dig, the higher your risk. There are caverns below - with interesting plants, water, and beasts - along with more valuable rock and metal ores. There's good reason to find them, but beware - hostile creatures can find their way to your fortress from below as well. You'll find out all about the fun that this alone can create when the first Forgotten Beast appears.
Then there are titans and megabeasts. When your fortress reaches certain milestones, the game will happily start to throw them at you. These are generally enemies, created during world generation, that happen to be in the area. You might get a roc or a dragon, a bronze colossus or a titan .. much like Forgotten Beasts, these can signal the end for a poorly prepared fortress. But defeating them is also incredibly satisfying!
That's just a small snapshot of the game. We won't talk about what happens if you dig too deep, or any of the other fun surprises that can happen. Suffice to say that the official motto of the game is "Losing is Fun" - don't expect to win. Expect to lose, sooner or later, in interesting and surprising ways. And then start a new fortress, or reclaim. This is what Dwarf Fortress is all about.
There is plenty of fun in this game- both by design and as a result of the procedural generation. There's unintentional hilarity. The latest version includes necromancers and evil biomes that raise dead bodies - or body parts - from the dead. New and old players alike are encountering zombie skin from animals that they slaughtered. Which keep rising. Again and again.
For myself, one of my favourite memories is a Forgotten Beast racing up stairs from a cavern to attack one of my farmers - who promptly sidestepped, and the Forgotten Beast dropped off a cliff, landing where it had started (but in a lot more pieces). Another frequently cited example is that of mermaid bones - in a past version, they had as much value as dragon bones, and the community promptly started to figure out ingenious and inventive ways to "farm" and slaughter mermaid offspring in order for their fortresses to profit. Toady One was apparently appalled by this one, and patched it in the very next version.
As mentioned, Minecraft - a game I actually can't get into - was purportedly inspired by Dwarf Fortress. Equally, there are references to Dwarf Fortress in all kinds of games - even World of Warcraft. Skyrim might have its Minecraft reference, but it could just as easily serve as a Dwarf Fortress tribute.
It's fun. It's engaging. It's challenging. And it's free. As I said at the outset, it's bug laden, inaccessible, and incomprehensible. The game’s performance can deteriorate incredibly as your fortress grows, and it uses only a single core on a multicore system – Toady hasn’t implemented multithreading. Equally, as a 32 bit-only process, it’s subject to a 2Gb RAM limit, and crashes if it hits it. That really only encourages the community to come up with solutions and workarounds, though. If you perservere, you'll find that it really is addictive, and arguably deserves the praise that it engenders. Given Toady One's own estimates, I don't know that it'll ever actually move out of alpha and reach a version 1.0 release - but so long as he keeps releasing new versions, adding more and more to the game, it's almost certain to have an audience and a devoted community.
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