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Dwarf Fortress: The Detailed Roguelike That's Easy To Play

Dwarf Fortress is famous for producing anecdotes by the minute. The two-man, twelve-year, donation-funded indie project weaves together procedurally generated geography, civilizations and histories to create a rich fantasy world. It simulates its characters – standard fare like dwarves, elves, goblins, etc. – down to the most minute detail, and when all its systems combine, the results are often hilarious, occasionally tragic, and always surprising.

It’s also blissfully easy to play. The game is free to download and easy to install, the UI comes with a detailed and handy help system, and there’s a community wiki full of guides – not that you’ll need them. I started from scratch last night and was having fun immediately. Let me tell you about my experience.

First of all, you need to download and install it. Visit this thread for PeridexisErrant’s Dwarf Fortress Starter Pack and hit one of the download links at the top. It’s a zip file, so just extract the whole set wherever you want it and you’re ready to go.

When you boot the game up, you’ll get a straightforward GUI setup menu asking you what graphical tileset you want to use. Stick with the clean and clear defaults and press launch. Now you’re in game – simple.

No matter how many games you play of Dwarf Fortress, no matter how many times you die and restart, every adventure you embark upon can take place within a single world. If you leave a particularly noticeable mark on that world in one life, you can go find the remnants of it in the next. Your next step will be to generate that world.

Hit ‘Create New World’, and select whatever you want from the various options. I kept everything at the default “Medium”, but set the pre-generated history from 5 years to 550 years. This means that the process takes longer and my saved games are bigger, but the world is more rich with myths, legends and the ruins of forgotten civilizations. It’s fascinating to watch the game put the world together – mountains leap from the earth, rivers dribble across the landscape, and then some part of the process will reject that world, toss it away and start again. It’ll do this five or six times until some unknown criteria is met, and eventually civilizations will start to appear and the population and deceased counters will tick up into the tens and then hundreds of thousands. By this point, I’m already having fun.

When you’re done, select to start a new game from the main menu, and pick Legends mode. This is basically a browser for the lore the game has just generated. You can pore over maps, review familial histories, and see every dwarf who has lived and died in this world. It’s fascinating. I can spend hours just looking over it; all you’ve done is press a few quick buttons, and fifteen minutes later you have an encyclopedia for a fictional world that’s all yours. Here’s my map (click to make it bigger):

Every symbol is a considerable chunk of land, containing villages, towns, castles, caves, volcanoes, life.

If you can tear yourself away, it’s time to go for an adventure. Quit out of Legends mode and this time select Adventure mode. You’ll begin with character creation, and it’s much like any other fantasy adventure game you’ve ever played. Set your name, your gender, stuff a bunch of points in combat and physical skills and you’ll be ready to go in a couple of minutes. Don’t sweat what you pick too much; just make sure you’re ready for fights.

I created a female swordsman named Akan Seasonveiled. I’m a Hero – stronger than a Peasant, weaker than a Demigod – and I’m out to make a name for myself. I’ve begun on the islands in the north-west of the map above, which is large enough that it would take days to walk from one end to the other.

When you get in game, a message will tell you about the help system. Just press ? (i.e. Shift+/) at any point to bring up a menu with helpful starter advice (about 400 words long) and a page of key bindings. You don’t really need to look at any of it, as these are the only buttons you’ll need:

Arrow keys – move/attack
l – look at a thing
k – talk to a person/creature
g – pick something up
i – check your inventory
Q – check your quest log
T – fast travel

That’s it. Pretty much it’s just like Skyrim. There’s even a compass in the top left of the screen that tells you what is nearby. There were buildings to my north, so I headed in that direction till I came across a round building with a single room. I went inside and there was a small cluster of farmers, some craftsman, and a spearman in some armour. I started a conversation (k) with the spearman.

Hello bud! I was on the look out for a quest and selected the “Services” option in the menu (navigated with the + and – keys). What can I do for you, Kafek Lusterwash? I’m immediately charmed by his laconic response:

I decide to quiz him about the surrounding area and, on a whim, ask if he wants to come with me on my adventure.

Kafek, droll kook! I’ve been playing for less than two minutes and I now have a sidekick. He’s got some armour, a spear, and the text description that appears when I look (l) at him tells me his ears are funny lookin’. Maybe this is why he craves death so badly. Maybe people make fun of his ears a lot. Sorry Kafek, I won’t tease you about them.

I talk to some of the other people in the building, to see if they might have a quest for me. A farmer thinks I’m foolish for attempting to have an adventure, but he does have a job if I want it.

Laka Wordsblotted, your days are numbered. Our weapons are silver, but my shield is copper and I’m betting anything pointy will do the job well enough. It’s still early in the day, so Kafek and I continue north for a while, exploring what turns out to be a fairly large city full of buildings and people. Everyone else is a tradesman or a farmer, and none of them want to join Kafek and I on our adventure. I wonder idly if it’s because of Kafek’s ears, but don’t say anything. I decide instead that it’s time to track down Laka, the nightcrawler.

I press Q to bring up my quest log, and hit a button to zoom the map to the location of our target. They’re not far, to the southwest of the same region we’re in. Whenever you’re in friendly territory, you can press T to fast travel, and that’s what I do to arrive at the entrance of a small cave in the wilds. This is “The Ignorant Holes”, and Kafek is by my side as we descend.

As soon as we’re down a short slope, Laka appears and announces himself. “Prepare to die!” he yells, but my new friend Kafek proves himself vicious in a fight. He lunges forward and in two turns strikes Laka down before I’m able to land even a single blow. I’m not complaining. Kafek’s weird ears probably distracted Laka and we’ll both get the credit when we head back to town.

While on the fast travel map, bounding across hills and forests with Kafek at my side, an icon appears dead ahead of us. “You have discovered a camp,” a message reads. A camp! All of my experiences with the people in this region have been positive so far, and I imagine a travelling band of friendly tradesmen who might offer us new jobs or sell us tools. Also, every conversation has an “Accuse of being a night crawler” button, and I’m dying to try it out. Doing so in the wilds with a small group of people seems a better idea than pointing fingers in a heavily populated city.

As it turns out, conversation isn’t an option. The group of campers attack us on sight. First comes The Hammerman, who hits both Kafek and I with a series of bruising wollops. Dwarf Fortress describes combat scenarios in tremendous detail at the bottom of the screen, each turn painting a new picture in scrolling text. This means you infer your success or failure in a fight not via sets of falling numbers, but by evocative descriptions of grotesque injuries. As simple as your control over combat is, these bruises, lacerations and broken bones make every attacking step thrilling.

The Hammerman is joined by a Lasher, but Kafek and I eventually dispatch both enemies. We’re roughed up by the experience – Kafek especailly, who took the worst of the attacks – but it looks like we’ll be oka–

“Overlord” in red writing immediately makes me picture some terrible demon hell beast, but actually it’s just another human. A lady, this time, wearing a considerable amount of armour. Rafeb Greatesttargets, Overlord, is clearly the toughest of the group, but I figure Kafek and I have what it takes to win the fight.

The Overlord hits Kafek once, causing so much pain and injury that he immediately throws up. Her next blow grinds his skull into his brain. “Kafek Icgiltega, Spearman has been struck down.” Shit. When Kafek agreed to follow me, he did so on the condition that I bring him glory and death. Death is taken care of, but now I need to bring him glory.

I turn and run.

It doesn’t work. The Overlord charges, closes the distance between us in an instant, and knocks me on my butt. She then lands a series of blows while I’m stunned, which cause me to “give in to pain” and fall unconscious. While I’m asleep on the grass, she whips my skull to pieces, and I join Kafek in procedurally generated heaven.

Below is a picture of the final scene. The lower most body is one of our enemies. The one a little above and to the right of that is Kafek. Then, above and to the right of that, is me with the Overlord alongside. If you look to the top of the image, near the left, you’ll see there are two more people coming to investigate. Even if I had managed to flee from the Overlord, it seems unlikely I’d have been able to avoid everyone else who made up this camp.

This whole experience has taken around twenty minutes, and while it’s a shame Akan Seasonveiled didn’t get to see more of her homeland, the experience encapsulated much of what I love about Dwarf Fortress. I discovered a town, talked to people and formed a posse. I went on a dynamically generated fantasy adventure and slayed a grim beast. I discovered a camp of travellers out in the wilds, had a tense and hard-fought combat encounter, and finally met my own grisly end. It was exciting! It was just a tiny taste of this world, but I’m itching to go explore more.

Will I ever get back to that camp and find my revenge, or even stumble across my corpse? Shall I create my next character on the other side of the world? Earlier, in Legends mode, I output a heatmap showing locations of “evil”. There’s a particularly strong spot in the south that I’m dying to learn more about.

Dwarf Fortress has been in development for twelve years, available to download for over eight, and has maybe twenty years of development left if the current roadmap remains accurate. It’s an amazing and important game. It ought to be played by more people, and you can get a little taste of why while having fun from the very first click. It’s easy. Go play. I haven’t even mentioned the ‘object testing’ Arena mode where you can pit dragons against elephants in who-would-win scientific battle royales*.

*dragons always win and the burning elephant corpses produce smoke that blinds all future combatants.

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