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Dwarf Fortress Survival Gear

Ah Dwarf Fortress, full title: Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress, a ludicrously wordy title for a ludicrously (and infamously) complex little game.

I was catching up on the archives of Shamus Young's blog, and I saw him talking about someone else's Let's Play of Dwarf Fortress, which in turn referenced the most famous Let's Play involving this game, the Saga of Boatmurdered, wherein an intrepid group of SA forum goons switched off playing a fortress called Boatmurdered, dealing with bloodthirsty pachyderms and attempting to flood the world with magma. Seeing these posts made me want to play the game myself, something I'd attempted and failed at in the past.

But maybe I get ahead of myself, maybe you don't know anything about Dwarf Fortress. If that's the case, I recommend the Wikipedia article I link above. Basically, though, Dwarf Fortress is an extremely detailed game in an extremely rudimentary (or downright ugly) package. It simulates the trials and tribulations of founding and running a Dwarven colony, from digging tunnels and defenses to building canals full of molten magma and cunning traps to vex invaders.

The game is played from a top-down perspective, and it uses archaic ASCII art, not unlike classic games like Nethack or Rogue. By default, it looks very, very dated. Here's a sample screenshot of the core game in action:

Despite the way it looks, however, this is an incredibly deep game. Each time you play, you can generate an entire procedural world, complete with 200 years of history generated on the fly. Heroes, deities, cults, and civilizations rise and fall as a map is generated, and then you are tasked to choose a place for your team of seven initial dwarves to settle.

And it doesn't stop there, the game models every individual creature down to organs, limbs, and bones. If a dwarf gets stabbed, an organ might be damaged, or a limb, and these things may stay with that dwarf and hinder its ability. You can dig into the earth and construct insanely complex structures, and set up intricate mechanisms, complete with your own triggers from levers or pressure plates.

This is a game where you can divert a river to flood a part of your fortress, then use pumps to create an artificial waterfall or fountain, complete with a realistic fluid pressure simulation. You can find sources of magma underground, and channel it to set traps or power your dwarven forges. The amount of freedom in the game is astounding, and the price you pay is ancient graphics and abysmal accessibility.

The hardest part of Dwarf Fortress is starting to play Dwarf Fortress. The first time you try to play, you will probably not even be able to figure out how to choose a decent place for your dwarves to embark to, let alone how to outfit them so they don't get murdered right away. On top of that, you may be discouraged to discover that failure is part of the point of the game. It reminds you right off the bat: Losing Is Fun!

The point of Dwarf Fortress, apart from trying to make awesome forts and generate hilarious stories, is to see how long your fortress can last before it fails miserably and all your dwarves die an ignominious death. But it's hard to get to this lofty goal of epic failure, when you can't even get past the utterly mundane failure inherent to playing for the first time.

Therefore, I present to you, the tools that I found invaluable in surviving Dwarf Fortress. Surviving it long enough to fail spectacularly, at least.

Mayday DFG

You can get Dwarf Fortress from the creator's website at, but I don't recommend it. Instead, I recommend you get Mike Mayday's graphics addition, a compilation version with a very nice tile set and custom dwarf and creature graphics that make the game look quite nice, all things considered.

Remember that screenshot up above? No? Scroll up and have another look, I'll wait.

Okay, now look at this one, this is how the Mayday version looks, I think you'll agree that it's a whole hell of a lot more pleasing to look at:

Not only are there no more pure ASCII characters, you can actually tell what everything is just by looking at it! Here you can see a dwarf dining room, with a bunch of dwarves inside, and a stockpile of barrels on the right.

You can get Mike Mayday's DFG version of the game at this link, and the download is a nice, all-inclusive package that contains the executable along with all the improved graphics files, as well as some good starting init file settings. It also includes a nice feature where it will auto-configure your group of dwarves for you, if you want, giving them good skills and items for a starting player.

Video Tutorials

In this thread, you can find links to captain_duck's excellent video tutorials on YouTube.

This fantastic human being has gone through the trouble of providing 40 tutorial videos covering every aspect of the game for the complete novice. It starts by explaining how to generate a world and choose a decent starting location, procedes to teach you how to build your team of dwarves (though you needn't do it yourself if you have the Mayday DFG), and then goes on to explain every major aspect of the game, showing you how to succeed... or how to fail amusingly.

You don't have to watch them all, there are over 6 hours of instruction here, but these tutorials are the absolute best place to start learning this game.

Dwarf Fortress Wiki

The Dwarf Fortress Wiki is an excellent and exhaustive source of information about everything in the game, from simple concepts to complicated mechanisms and effective strategies.

It's not the best source for a complete novice, as it can be overwhelming if you've never played before. Use the tutorials above to get started instead, and refer to this site as you play to learn about more advanced concepts.

Dwarf Manager

Dwarf Manager is a standalone program that you can run alongside Dwarf Fortress to help you manage your dwarves' professions.

As your fortress fills up with dwarves, it becomes harder and harder to manage which dwarf should perform what task, and it can be very tedious to manually change multiple dwarves from chopping wood to carving stone, for instance. Dwarf Manager, and similar programs, let you assign special profiles to your dwarves, and then switch a dwarf between profiles easily. While it's not strictly necessary early on, it becomes very handy once you have a significant number of dwarves running about.

Note: Dwarf Manager has not been updated in a while, and newer versions of the game (like the current v21 of Mayday's DFG) will not work with it without letting the program know how the memory layout of Dwarf Fortress has changed. Luckily, I have done the footwork for this on the internets, and you can get the program to work by downloading version 0.7 linked above and replacing the MemoryLayouts.xml in its directory with this one.

If you don't like Dwarf Manager (or can't get it to work by using the file above), there are other similar programs out there that you can use instead, and you can probably find them by looking around the Bay12 forums.

A Visualizer

This last bit of gear is hardly necessary, but for me, it was a big deal.

Several fans have now created programs that will let you see what your fortress looks like using actual, honest-to-goodness graphics. While you don't need this to play, it can help you get a handle for how the game represents 3D space, and in my opinion at least, it can help build an attachment to your creation when you can actually see it without trying to strain your brain.

I want to stress that these are not the same as adding modern graphics to the game, you cannot play the game using these programs, but you can see how your fortress looks while Dwarf Fortress runs in the background.

I have found two different visualizers that I really like. The first, Stonesense, will visualize your fortress using colorful isometric sprite graphics, and it can even update in real time to show you dwarves and other creatures moving around your land, and even modifying the landscape, which can be really cool. To use it, just run it at the same time as Dwarf Fortress. I will switch to it every once in a while when playing, to see how my fortress is looking from another perspective.

Here is an example of how the game looks via Stonesense:

The only down side to Stonesense is that it only shows you your fortress one horizontal slice at a time, meaning if you build some crazy tall structure, you can still only see one floor at a time, like the in the game itself.

If you want to see your entire fortress in full 3D, I recommend Visual Fortress. This program is a little rougher than Stonesense, it won't automatically connect to your game, and it won't update in real time. It also doesn't show a lot of costructed objects like workshops. To use it, you just run it at the same time as the game, and choose Dump From Dwarf Fortress from the File menu. You can click okay on the next screen, and the program will construct a 3D representation of your fortress, frozen in time, which you can then navigate using the mouse and keyboard.

Here is an example of what a fortress looks like in Visual Fortress:

Keep in mind that this is just one of my little fortresses, if you want to see some impressive ones, look at the link to Visual Fortress above, the creator provides some screenshots of his own and others' mega-projects.

Remember: Losing is Fun!

Well, that's it then, with these resources, even a complete novice can start to get a handle on playing Dwarf Fortress: just look at me. A week ago I had no idea how to do anything more complex than dig a tunnel, while my newest fortress, shown in the Visual Fortress screenshot above, is not only largely self-sufficient, but it also has an awesome flooding death chamber at the entrance.

I can pull some levers to snap the doors on either end of that passageway shut, and then pull another to flood the room completely by pumping water from the nearby brook. It even has hatches on the floor to then dump the water into a large chamber where it can seep in and evaporate away!

Of course, I wouldn't recommend the game to everyone, but if you like games that let you build crazy things, or management simulations where you have to keep a society running by providing for its citizens, you really can't go more epic than Dwarf Fortress.

It helps to have a bit of a masochistic streak, too.

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  1. Platypus cancels read blog post: Taken by fey mood.
    Platypus has claimed a desktop PC.
    Platypus has begun a mysterious construction!
    Platypus has created an artifact dwarven fortress, Icyballs the Bane of Warmth!

  2. Hadn’t seen Stonesense before–worth looking into, if only for my own personal enjoyment.

    Anyway, yeah, half the fun is that masochistic streak that makes you burn down your Sim’s house, or jump off of cliffs in shooters. Sometimes, you just want to see the destruction of something beautiful.

  3. Ah yes, no doubt about it.

    I decided to flood the first fortress where I had sort of gotten the hang of the game, because it wasn’t quite up to my standards, and because I wanted to see what happened.


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