Control Dwarf Fortress With Isometric Graphics And Mouse

Dwarf Fortress is not as hard to play as you think it is, but there’s no denying that its ASCII graphics lack modern clarity. Chances are that if you’ve played the game any time in the last two years, you did so not using a vanilla install, but by partnering the complicated fantasy simulation with third-party tools like DwarfTherapist or Stonesense.

As of earlier this week, Stonesense just became a lot more powerful. It previously let you visualise your world with isometric sprite graphics in a separate piece of software, but now that angled art can be integrated directly in the game itself. Best of all, it can be used not just as a visualiser but as an interface to control part of the game.

This is possible in part thanks to the Dwarf Fortress Starter Pack, the latest in a long history of community-made bundles which packages Dwarf Fortress together with tools that make it more comfortable to play.

As of the latest release earlier this week, a brief .ini hack (explained at the link above) will let you turn on both mouse control and the replacement isometric graphics. Normally Dwarf Fortress needs to be controlled entirely via the keyboard (unless you’re giving Dwarven orders via something like Therapist), and the graphics were nothing but top-down ASCII. Eventually you can get used to both – I no longer see the matrix anymore, all I see is dwarf, sad dwarf, crazy dwarf – but anything that lowers the barrier to entry for newcomers, and makes life more convenient for the experience at the same time, is good news.

The first Dwarf Fortress update in two years is due in the next couple of weeks, so now is the perfect time to refresh your memory of what makes the game so compelling to play, and so worth learning.


  1. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    I’m pretty seriously impressed by this. I never really messed with Stonesense just as a visualiser, but now you can control through it…

    • BTAxis says:

      Until the new version of DF comes out in a couple of weeks, then this will likely stop working.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        Temporarily. Even when new DF versions were being released every few weeks, all the popular tools got updated quite quickly.

        • BTAxis says:

          You’re probably right. I’ve been to the stonesense thread though, and I got the impression the author is not the most reliable of chaps, sometimes disappearing for months without a word. We’ll see.

        • Erithtotl says:

          It’s been two years since the last DF release. I think its highly likely that this gets significantly broken for awhile after the new release.

          We’ll see.

        • evileeyore says:

          I have faith that if it doesn’t work with this update it’ll be fixed a few weeks before the next update…

      • noodlecake says:

        That’s okay. I’m sure you can still just play using an older version with the mod.

      • Universal Quitter says:

        It’s not like Dwarf Fortress auto-updates. Each update to the game is more like a standalone expansion than a mod-breaking patch.

        If this isn’t a non-issue, I don’t know what is.

    • rsthfghfsgh says:

      Turns out the mayor was the vampire all along NOW HE CANNOT HIDE FROM ME I WILL FIND HIS COVEN AI DOIN THE SNEAK SNEAK

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    Lexx87 says:

    Did you Crate & Crowbarbarians discuss Dwarf Fortress already Graham? Be interesting to hear you guys talk about it.

    • RedViv says:

      Go send in a Question From Questions™ then!

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      Graham Smith says:

      Yep! Back in April, I tell the story that inspired by ‘Dwarf Fortress Is Easy To Play’ article (linked in the post above): link to

      We also touch on it in this episode where I talk about Ultima Ratio Regum, though I’ve no memory of what we say. (This episode has my favourite title): link to

  3. LuckyLuigi says:

    I no longer see the matrix anymore, all I see is dwarf, sad dwarf, crazy dwarf

    Made my day.

  4. meloncrab says:

    To activate the overlay while playing through the Newb Pack, press Ctrl+Shift+P to activate the DFHack command line and enter “stonesense overlay”.
    I can only recommend to also play with Dwarf Therapist to manage your dwarfs’ jobs easily, and Soundsense to get audible feedback for the things that are happening.

    The last couple of days have seen great breakthroughs in DF modding. Besides a functional overlay, modders were also able to allow unlimited images for items when using texture packs, which will hopefully affect Stonesense, too. This means that every single item could be represented by its own image, so you could differentiate between copper armor leggings and iron breastplates.

    • BTAxis says:

      While that’s great, it’s sad that all this had to be hacked up by modders. The DF devs themselves care squat for accessibility or quality of life.

      • frightlever says:

        Yeah, damn that solitary dev for making an entirely free game exactly how he pleases. Damn him to hell!

        • Asdfreak says:

          On the other hand, it would probably have been way quicker if the dev had just supplied them with a way to hook into the engine without having to hack everything in. Also, you stept right over the line from sarcasm into being a prick.

          • evileeyore says:

            No, that was BTAxis that stepped over the line. Toady One is making the gaem he wants to make and providing it for free for everyone to play.

            Nothing more, nothing less.

          • frightlever says:

            I’m pretty sure I’m 100% prick no matter how I comment. That’s how I roll. What’s your excuse?

          • neofit says:

            He, on the other hand, might not be a prick but may have a reason.
            If Toady provided an interface with a similar feedback and ease of control as for instance Towns or Gnomoria, I’d be all over it and would pay full AAA price. As it is now, whatever he made is totally useless to me, and this Toady dude is no different from anyone else on the Net. I understand where people are coming from on this issue.

          • wengart says:

            The Dwarf Fortress community donates enough money to make working on and releasing a Dwarf Fortress a viable lifestyle. They don’t need to make it more user friendly.

          • Universal Quitter says:

            I think suggesting that the DF “team” is somehow lazy, incompetent or exploitative, ’cause reasons, is far more dickish than a thick layer of sarcasm.

            The snark wasn’t without context.

      • meloncrab says:

        Toady does what he does best: Creating this insane monstrosity of not only a fantasy world generator with its own history, but also allowing us to create outposts or even roam this open world with our own adventurers. A great UI would be awesome, but not only does Toady seem to be lacking the knowledge to do so, he’s also already spending all of his time on working on new breath-taking features. The modding community is already doing a great job, and they will hopefully continue to do so and provide us with more accessibility. IIRC, the masterworks mod has already overhauled some parts of the UI.

        • BlackAlpha says:

          Well, if he doesn’t know how, then maybe he should ask for help.

      • Jorum says:

        I think Toady’s rationale is the more shiny and sophisticated a UI you have, the more difficult and time-consuming it is to modify every time a new set of features is included. As far as he’s concerned DF is nowhere near completed so polishing UI is premature at this point.

        • daemonofdecay says:

          I can understand the rationale he has in terms of being a sole creator, and I’m normally first in line to argue against throwing AAA graphics on everything.

          However, the sheer inaccessible unattractiveness of the base graphics are a huge barrier to interested players like myself. While you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I make no excuses for wanting to have things clearly explained on my computer screen. Not to mention the fact that I would very much enjoy using the mouse attached for my computer for controlling the game.

          I think if the developer were to spend some time on the less exciting UI elements and expanding on ease of control, his game would explode in popularity. He doesn’t need to make it beautiful, but it would help those of us less clever than himself to decipher the DOS puzzle on our screen. I don’t need a perfect UI from an in development game, but anything would be better than what I’ve seen so far.

          As it is now, though, I do seem to get a hint of the “hardcore gamer” in the backlash whenever someone suggests that perhaps DF needs some graphical polish too. The idea that people should not criticize something that is free (I don’t see you making a massive game for free) does seem a bit unfriendly to outsiders. Which is a shame when so many players are devoted to attracting new players and improving what looks like an amazing game.

          • Rindan says:

            You can of course state that you won’t play until it has a decent UI, I think what you are missing is that no one cares that you won’t play. The developer clearly knows that he is missing sales and CLEARLY doesn’t care.

            I can only assume that you are completely unaware of what Toady does. He clearly isn’t making a game for the masses and gives no fucks. Someone who makes a history engine to simulate a few thousand years of history and millennium of erosion to make a new world probably isn’t doing it to bump his sales numbers. He is doing it because, for whatever reason, he wants to.

            So, every a agrees that the UI is shit and that more people would play if it was better. Everyone agrees that this game is being developed wrong if it wants to be a mass market hit. The people who play Dwarf Fortress just recognize that the crazy lone developer doing this for some other reason than purely sales and are content to appreciate the mad art that we get, rather than fruitlessly demand that the lone mad artist monetize his art better despite his obviously giving not a single fuck.

            You are screaming at the hobo painting in the park that he could sell those paintings on the Internet for millions, while everyone else around you has long since realized that he doesn’t care and are just happy that he doesn’t mind having folks appreciate what he has done and appreciate that he doesn’t mind if you take a picture of the art put the photo on your wall. It isn’t that anyone disagrees with you, they just recognize the mad painter doesn’t care, are willing to take it as it comes, and would like you to please stop disturbing their appreciation by loudly pointing out what is banal and obvious and then getting upset when no one supports your stupid and obvious observation.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Graphics are a completely different and separate concern to the complete trainwreck of UI/UX non-design that is Dwarf Fortress, though.

          • Universal Quitter says:

            If nothing else, they push the boundary of what users are willing to out up with, as far as difficult UI, far further than anyone else in the industry.

            Call me a hipster, but when the order of the day is to simplify, strip features, and chase the broadest appeal, I like that someone out there is taking the ball in the opposite direction, and thriving in spite of it.

    • Mungrul says:

      Every object being able to have a unique appearance is huge, even bigger than a Stonesense overlay for me, especially if it clears up the curious inconsistencies that result in certain letters in the UI being replaced by sprites.
      I know there was a previous attempt to fix this by utilising Truetype fonts, but that came with its own interesting bugs, such as more and more text gradua ly d sap eari g o er ti e.

  5. Zanchito says:

    Why did Christmas come so early this year? Man, man, maaaaaaan.

    Anyway, about the update, I’m confident they’ll get the tools working soon enough. The hardest work must have been hooking into the memory for controls, that’s already done, content updates are just business as usual.

    Or that’s what I like telling myself.

    Again, such awesome news!

  6. Bishop149 says:

    Excellent, I might finally try dwarf fortress again now.
    I know it probably makes me a bad person in the eyes of most rabid dwarf fortressers but I just could NOT get to grips with the ASCII . . . I don’t think my brain is wired right to visualize a 3D environment from a series of 2D slices.

    • GentlemanRaptor says:

      Heretic! Heretic! But I do see where you’re coming from. It’s not the most intuitive thing.

  7. jasta85 says:

    I’m one of those people who absolutely loves the idea of dwarf fortress but never got into it because the controls/UI (if it can even be called UI) always killed the experience for me. I’ve been praying that some enterprising person would eventually develop an actual interface for the game and now it looks like my dream is starting to come true. If they’ve done this much some day I can hope for a full dwarf fortress game complete with modern graphics (doesn’t even need to be modern, dungeon keeper graphics would make me happy) while retaining all the ridiculous customization/choices of the original game

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      I agree, it’s never been the ASCII that bothered me, I was even quite annoyed that the latest version of my favourite roguelike (Angband) has a graphical tileset enabled by default, but the controls/UI in DF are mind-blowingly bad, they’re in the vim category of awfulness.

      • basilisk says:

        Very much so. Learning to read the ASCII takes time, but it’s a skill that once acquired never goes away. The endlessly confusing keyboard commands, on the other hand, are a constant pain that you always have to deal with, because muscle memory can only take you so far.

        But at least this makes prettier and more accessible screenshots, which is definitely a boon.

        • Premium User Badge

          Harlander says:

          The only controls I really had trouble with in DF were the military ones, which I really struggled to get my head around.

          The others are just a matter of following the on-screen prompts until you learn them, I found. Perhaps my history of playing roguelikes gave me a leg-up on fiddly keystroke-based UI.

          (I still hate vi, by the way)

          • basilisk says:

            Yes, the military screen was exactly where my will to keep playing broke. But there are many more oddities in the game – my favourite being removing staircases, which is a ridiculously complicated task that, depending on whether the staircase is hewn from stone or built and whether it’s leading up, down or both, requires completely different sequences of keypresses. There’s an internal logic to it, but it’s still about a million times more cumbersome than it has any right to be.

            Not to mention that managing jobs of 20+ dwarves is nigh impossible without Therapist, and not particularly fun even with it.

            Still, it’s Dwarf Fortress, the greatest wonder of the gaming world. Take it or leave it.

          • meloncrab says:

            Military isn’t that bad and actually quite easy to learn using the wiki. I’ve always shied away from doing that part, but after my new fortress got wiped out twice, I’ve tried it out. It was surprisingly easy to give my squad uniforms, weapons and set up a schedule. They were automatically stationing at my entrance and sparring in the barracks taking turns and setting this up only took a couple of minutes. The only major problem is that Marksdwarves refuse to train on archery targets (which is a known issue).

      • mukuste says:

        Speak for yourself, vim is a fantastic editor and very powerful and efficient once you know how to use it.

        The DF interface, on the other hand, *is* bad, unfortunately.

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          You could argue that the 48k Spectrum had an efficient system where every key corresponded to a BASIC command and you started each line by pressing the appropriate key.

          Vim is a powerful text editor, yes, but the environments in which people do significant amounts of text editing are not the same as the ones in which people use vim. The overwhelming majority of use cases for vim and vi these days are people making small adjustments to config files on servers. So the power of vim is wasted. Furthermore, the interface for editing text that vim uses is so different from the one in which people do the majority of their work with text with, that it becomes inefficient.

          • JamesTheNumberless says:

            The best thing about vim is actually this:

            link to

          • Scuzzball says:

            I’m using vim as primary editor at this point, actually. Started because my access to the files I was working on was over SSH, and we couldn’t figure out how to mount it. So I just did all my work with tmux and vim. Now that I’m back to working locally, still using vim. Turns out I like it.

    • Behrditz says:

      You can always try Gnomoria, which is like DF-lite. No adventure mode, but it is fully graphical with a mouse ui

    • Arglebargle says:

      Yeah, the controls and what passes as a UI are just awful. Off putting. I’ve booted games to the curb with much better interfaces than this. Sounds like an interesting game, but it also sounds like a really cool bicycle, but one that has no seat but does feature an opaque windscreen.

      Too hairshirt for me.

  8. TillEulenspiegel says:

    so now is the perfect time to refresh your memory of what makes the game so compelling to play, and so worth learning.

    It really is. Every game designer and journalist should study it in detail, until they truly understand how it works and its significance.

    Dwarf Fortress is a fantastic game on its own, but more importantly from my perspective, it’s proven a point: the awesome power of simulation is well within our reach. There are whole new genres of games waiting to be made, using simulation to truly create worlds. I’ve seen plenty of articles written about the goofy antics of dwarves, but none that acknowledge Dwarf Fortress’s potential role as a signpost towards even greater things.

    • Bobka says:

      One day, hopefully, mainstream devs will start to incorporate simulation aspects into different genres to enhance them. As a dev just starting out in the industry myself, I know that’s my career goal.

    • YeGoblynQueenne says:

      Am I misunderstanding your comment? Didn’t The Sims (one of the most popular games of all time, from a mainstream publisher) and Sim City prove the point about simulation a long time before DF?

  9. Crispy75 says:

    By all reports, this overlay makes only the game harder to control. Selection and orientation are confusing from the isometric viewpoint. Besides, the rest of the UI is still hideous. For readability, you can’t go wrong with the Phoebus tileset, IMO.

    • Underwhelmed says:

      I have a hell of a time with the isometric views in Gnomoria and DF-9 as well. As far as viewpoints go, it looks nice, but it isn’t very functional (at least for me)

    • ender1200 says:

      I agree. I tried the new U.I but moving the camer is very unintuitive. It looks good but it’s only fun when you wish to apreciate your fortress. Playing the game is more compferble in normal mode.

      At least people have found a way to make unlimited tilesets. This would prove much more fun in my opinion.

  10. frightlever says:

    I was getting a lot of crashes with the R59 release but R60 seems to have solved that. I think the 2D with a tile set is a LOT easier to control, but it’s nice to flick over to the Stonesense view but it’s just a bit too “fuzzy” to work with.

  11. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I prefer a tileset view on one monitor, Stonesense on another. It is the best of both worlds, except without the threat of Borg assimilation.

    • RedViv says:


  12. Safilpope says:

    I’ve tried to get into the game a couple of times the past, I’ll have to give this a go; maybe this time I’ll understand what’s going on

    • Spoon Of Doom says:

      The “Complete and utter newby tutorial” was what finally made me understand what’s going on: link to
      It’s a very detailed, step by step guide, and it even comes with a downloadable, pregenerated world so you can follow the tutorial along EXACTLY. It’s obviously not for the newest version, but the basics are the same.

      To this day I don’t know how to effectively manage military or assign tasks like pulling a lever to specific dwarfs though. Or make anyone who’s not a soldier go to where I want them to be.

      • Rizlar says:

        If anyone knows how to effectively manage their military it must be a miracle…

        For the other stuff you mention, what you want is burrows. Burrows = areas you can designate and assign dwarves to individually or as a group. Useful for making a ‘siege’ burrow that covers the inside of your fortress, then restricting everyone to it as soon as you get attacked by a billion goblins.

        • Spoon Of Doom says:

          Thanks, that should be very helpful when I get around to playing DF again. That is, until my militia once again fails to kill a single enemy even though they’ve been training for ages, or until nobody feels the need to actually pull that lever to seal the doors when I order it, or until winter when I realize I don’t have booze or access to water now because everything’s frozen, or…

          Aaah, so much fun in this game :)

        • meloncrab says:

          Simply give your squad two orders a month. Train and Station (the entrance to your fort, e.g.), and don’t forget to lower your minimum dwarves required so they won’t stand around doing nothing waiting for the set amount of dwarves to arrive to start training (or starve while being stationed). Check out the wiki. It has several pages on military management, with all the problems and questions covered.

      • Nice Save says:

        I am writing a guide based on the current version in a similar fashion. It’s not complete, but all the interface navigation and most of the basic functions are there and it starts from the absolute basics:

        link to

  13. Brinx says:

    I actually never liked the look of stonesense. I prefer a nice-looking tileset.
    Also: Scrolling was always horrible in stonesense. If they haven’t fixed this, it will be a pain to use for gameplay.

  14. Zanchito says:

    Hum, plenty of people wanting to play but having bounced off. Would anyone be interested in some form of combined gameplay? Like having a Google Hangout one afternoon and playing together or something, commenting on strategies, sharing questions and stuff.

  15. Rizlar says:

    “I no longer see the matrix anymore, all I see is dwarf, sad dwarf, crazy dwarf”

    Pretty much this. The idea of real-time stonesense is amazing, since the beauty of DF is seeing the world live. I also understand that the ASCII is pretty opaque for newcomers, so any advance in visualisation is great.

    But personally I can’t be arsed using more visual tilesets. The ASCII is a lot clearer than sprite art when you have learned what everything is. Now it sounds like I’m boasting, but that’s not how I mean it… it’s more a testament to how much time I have wasted staring at little dwarves and capybaras and severed echidna man arms that I can recognise the characters. But they are very clear and they work well.

  16. Faxanadu says:

    When will it be on CryEngine 4?

    Just kidding.

    When will it have romance, sex and rape?

    Not kidding. Would be an awesome addition. I don’t really know since I’ve never played it. I’m just guessing.

    • Trif says:

      Romance is planned. Building a family and having kids in Adventurer Mode is a goal, but still a while off. I don’t know to which extent that’ll include sex, it’ll probably be fairly abstracted. My fingers are crossed for procedurally generated erotica.
      (By the way, if you want to know how Bay 12 Games have handled romance in the past, check out Liberal Crime Squad. It’s basically a collection of the worst pickup lines ever.)

      Rape definitely won’t make it in. Playing Dwarf Fortress brings out your inner sadist; there is just no way that letting the player rape people would result in anything good.
      There’s an old DF story about a player who modded some extra body parts on his adventurer and on a goblin child. Well… it got really ugly. Linking to that story gets you banned on the Bay 12 Forums, so I don’t think the devs would want to legitimize that as a feature.

  17. Premium User Badge

    DuncUK says:

    Are the UI and core game engine abstracted at all via an interface of some sort? Or all of these graphical UIs just funnelling everything through a translation layer to keyboard presses and parsing the ASCII interface that comes back?

  18. jonahcutter says:

    This is great to hear. Thanks for the heads up.

    All claims to the contrary, I still found DF needlessly obtuse to get into. Hopefully now with a fully-capable pc interface (that doesn’t pointlessly limit the strengths of mouse/keyboard) hopefully I can enjoy it.

  19. Polifemo says:

    There was already mouse control with the vanilla top-down view in the Starter Pack since a while ago. This is probably an adaptation of that.

    I personally still prefer the vanilla view (with tiles) and controls as I find them more confortable and controlable. Still, its neat for those that for whatever reason cant abide by that control scheme.

  20. daemonofdecay says:

    Graham, as a hypothetical question, what price would you think fair if this weren’t free and was a paid for, early-access game?

  21. Anarkopsykotik says:

    OHMYGOD I waited so long to see that headline !

  22. noodlecake says:

    This is amazing news! I played Dwarf Fortress for a good 10-20 hours using the graphical tilesets but will be way more inclined to give it another go with fully integrated stonesense!

  23. rebb says:

    Holy Silt !

  24. robotslave says:

    Stock DF has had mouse support for designations (the only thing that really benefits from a mouse) since 2006 or so; no mods required. Menus can be moused as well.

    Many people who pick up the game never realize they can mouse things, probably because the game looks like it’s running in a console or terminal (it isn’t– the “ascii text” you’re looking at is a bunch of bitmaps rendered with OpenGL).

    • The Random One says:

      Yeah, I thought that was a weird comment as well – DF UI has lots of problems, but by and large mouse control isn’t one.

  25. unkind says:

    3 hours of learning and you understand 30% of DF, that’s all you really need to get going. People need to stop crying about usability, the game is free, just LEARN IT if you want to play it. LEARNING isn’t the end of the world. In fact, you’d probably spend that time watching TV or playing league of legends anyways, you may as well.

    • robotslave says:

      Three hours is approximately the time it would take an optimistic, determined, tutorial-reading new player to get to their first caravan.

      I’ll wager you don’t remember the suffering you endured when you first encountered the trading UI (it’s easy to forget that moment if it happened 5 years ago. or 10).

      “Just learn it” is great advice if the interfaces for every new mechanic introduced are consistent. The problem with DF is that “Just learn it” (once) is absolutely the wrong advice to give to a new player. What you need to tell someone new to this game is “just get used to having to learn and come to grips with an entirely new interface every three hours or so in your first 72 hours or so of playing-time.”

      Because the interface trauma sure as shit doesn’t end with the first caravan.

      Did you find the current military UI intuitive when it was rolled out? That’s an almost impossible barrier, even for the stalwart newbie who made it past the caravan interface a couple of (real) days ago.

      Is “military management” a really obscure, esoteric system for games like this? How hard was it to learn how to operate your army in Tilted Mill’s Pharaoh, e.g.?

      How are you supposed to “just learn it” in three hours when it’s going to be at least 20 game-hours before you even see a new UI you need to “just learn,” and the new interface is completely inconsistent with everything the game has taught you to expect up to that point?

  26. MellowKrogoth says:

    Don’t care much for tiny unreadable sprites, I’d rather use a somewhat improved symbolic tileset (not necessarily ASCII, but nobody has used different symbols so far). However I would kill for a good interface, so hopefully Stonesense has some support for gold old non-isometric tilesets.

    Oh and BTW this is a surprising turn of events. I remember Tarn Adams being very much against user-made interfaces because people would become dependent on them, refusing to play his game (and give him useful feedback) until the mod updated. Wonder if he changed his stance on that or if Stonesense is gonna be banned from the official forums.