RPS Chat: Why Proc Gen Poetry Matters In Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress is a titan of PC games, famous for among other things its complexity, its decades-long development plan and its procedural world generation. In light of some coming additions – procedural, culture-specific forms of poetry and dance – Adam and Graham decided to discuss why such seemingly minor detail is exciting and important.

Adam:I want to talk about Dwarf Fortress, which isn’t particularly novel. I spend a lot of time either wanting to talk about Dwarf Fortress or actually talking about Dwarf Fortress. Often in a pub. People don’t understand what I’m saying but I say it anyway.

But right now, I have specific things on my mind and this all goes back to a post of yours about the procedural poetry generation that is being programmed into the game. The most recent posts – and I’ll quote from them in a minute – go into detail about the kind of things that the new systems will do.

The thing that stood out to me is a teaching system. A poet can start a movement and then students will gather, form a group, learn the new style of poetry, and go out into the world. Then they might start their own group, with their own students, and the style propagates through the world, with individuals picking it up and altering it – it can cross from one species to another and there will be specific poets and poems who integrate their personal and cultural experiences into their work.

I don’t think I’d be human if that didn’t make me excited and I definitely wouldn’t be me if I didn’t start thinking about where I’d seen something like this before. And then I realised – it was NOWHERE. I can’t think of any game that’s doing anything quite like this. And that’s Dwarf Fortress in a (very large obv) nutshell. It’s doing so many things and so many of them aren’t being done anywhere else.

So that’s what I wanted to talk about.

Graham: Dwarf Fortress’ world generation is probably my favourite thing in all of videogames. Sure, its landscape generation is impressive, but there are a thousand games doing that now. Dwarf Fortress remains only of a handful generating history for that world, and yes, like you say, the only one that seems to be mimicking the change and spread of actual culture.

That said, my main interaction with that generation is through the menu interface it gives you to browse through its simulated wars, civilizations, cities, famous figures. When I actually get down to the business of playing in the traditional sense, my attention is more focused on ‘oh no I need food’ and ‘oh dear they’re all killing each other’.

So I suppose the obvious question – which I’m happy to ignore because I love it, but others are less so inclined – is whether all this generation work is worth it? Does it bother you at all that Dwarf Fortress has unique forms of dwarven poems but not a functionally usable interface, for example?

Adam: This is where I let you in on my big Dwarf Fortress secret. I’ve been playing it for years and it’s one of the few games I still spend time reading about on a weekend when I’ve switched off my work-brain – BUT I’m absolutely terrible at Fortress mode. I mean, just abysmally, horrifically, catastrophically bad.

I’ve been playing for long enough that I can put a functional fort together and things will tick along quite nicely for a while but that’s about it. When it comes to the grand narratives I experience them by proxy. So a lot of my interest is focused on Adventure mode – playing as if it were a more traditional roguelike.

And I think in that sense, this stuff is important to me. It’s the difference between finding a dungeon with rooms that are slightly different shapes, and have skeletons in different places, or finding a group of people who can – in their crude copy-paste fashion – talk about their family and their foes. Anything that adds to that and makes the world, and the exploration of the world, feel worthwhile is important.

Never forget the importance of silliness either. How great is it to play a game and be the one person in the world who ever hears that one poem about the one-legged elephant that drank a sea of lava and then burst into flames. And is now revered as a god for reasons unknown.

Ideally, the interface would be the priority but in Adventure mode it’s fine anyhow – and Fortress mode has…mods? I guess? I’m so behind on the scene.

Graham: There are third-party applications that make it usable to varying degrees. I’m much like you, though – terrible at Fortress mode, more recently focused on Adventure, and more than happy to let Tarn Adams work on whatever he wants in whatever order he wants.

The silliness is a salve for this also, because everything is more tolerable when it’s funny. Dwarf Fortress is well-known for its production of funny anecdotes through play, but it’s at least as well known for the silliness inherent in its development. Its mere existence is absurd. Its development blog is a kind of wondrous joke, and entertaining in ways entirely independent of the game being made. You can’t be cross about the project’s development priorities. Do you have quotes from the recent poetry update you’d like to share?

Adam: Yes. Some of them are about dancing. First of all, there’s a small update that goes some way toward answering your initial question. Would this impact on a player’s Fort? Not that you said that, but it was kinda in there.

“I’ve finished up the teacher-student links and decided to augment that with the formation of performance troupes that can gallivant about. You’ll also see them in your forts when we get to that part. A group of goblin poets had the honor of making the very first one, and they decided to call themselves the Fungi of Hell. After fourty years, five of the original eight founding members had met violent ends (including one that ended up in an elf belly), and another had left to become a baron at a dwarf fort, but they were still going strong with new members, including some bards and dancers and poets-turned-bard and so on.”

So troupes will visit Forts, which could lead to all kinds of different possibilities – entertainment to break that master craftsman out of the funk that’s consuming him; a huge war between dwarfs and entertainers because why not; or maybe you’d be able to trap them all inside a single room and send people to watch them dancing and reciting whenever they needed to be cheered up. See if you could make them devise entirely new poetic forms based around their imprisonment.

Perfect for the evil character who needs a new kind of monument to his wicked ways.

And then there’s a whole story about a new form of poetry, which begins like this:

“While toying around with the art book code and poem/etc. composition, I thought I’d see what happens to an entire form created by an artist mid-world-generation when the only way the form can be passed around is between teachers, students and troupe members. Most of these non-civ forms tend to stay within a single troupe, but sometimes they break out. For instance, in a 200 year small world, we had a human from a hamlet named Usmen decide to run away from home and study goblin poetry.”

I instantly want to know more about that. What could it mean? I actually care about what it means!

This update probably excites me so much because it’s a big change from fluid simulation and mapping tree growth and forest expansion. There was a changelog a while ago about simulating individual leaves that fall from trees. That’s great and all but the movement and shaping of ideas is on another level – it’s far more interesting. I guess part of this – as is often the case with exciting things – is that I’d love to see similar things elsewhere.

Ultima Ratio Regum is perhaps the other great hope?

Graham: Indeed. URR is the only other game that seems to be approaching this stuff. It’s a 4X roguelike that generates worlds, civilizations, cities, history and so on, but is doing similar things in terms of drilling down on certain details. So, for example, civilizations have procedurally generated flags; there are procedural ziggurats to explore, which contain procedural environment puzzles and procedural riddles to offer hints to players trying to solve them; and its use of ANSI-not-ASCII graphics means that its crops, its keys, the vines which grow on the sides of its stone, are all procedural too.

I find URR generally less silly in its approach or style though, despite similar ambitions. There seems to be more method to each part. Still, the effect is the same, or will be: a world which seems inhabited by and shaped by people, rather than the cold feeling of white noise you sometimes get when exploring a world built by a random number generator.

Here’s an example from a recent URR development post, which also neatly summarises the goal of its procedural generation and where perhaps it and Dwarf Fortress differ from other games:

In keeping with my mission to push procedural generation away from the “classics” – monsters, dungeons, levels – and towards more “qualitative” concepts that have never been generated before in games (nations, cultures, societies…), URR (as regular readers know) contains a range of procedurally generated religions. These are not just a name and a belief, but are designed to be complex, interwoven and often competing systems that procedurally generate a deity or pantheon of deities; their beliefs and forms of worship; what, if anything, is banned in their religion; what festivals (if any) they perform; what agendas the clergy of this religion have; what other religions they might consider to be infidels; where in the world the religion is found; the religious symbol; their cosmogenic and eschatological beliefs; what heretical sects within that religion exist; and – the focus of this blog entry – their altars.

If videogame design is broadly about building systems for serving and manipulating all other forms of media, then this kind of procedural generation feels in some ways like the next step: building systems for serving and manipulating all the muck of humanity and our society. Is that why they’re so exciting? I used to jokingly say that Dwarf Fortress would eventually contain all other games; will DF and URR also eventually replicate all human culture, like a million procedural monkeys working at a million procedural writing devices unique to their monkey cities?

The conversation continues on page two.

32 Comments

  1. Eight Rooks says:

    Dwarf Fortress basically goes a long way towards validating my opinion that lots of people don’t want “videogames” in any traditional sense: what they actually want is a simulation of a world, perfect and completely “realistic” in every conceivable detail, where they can do absolutely anything they want. And where once they’ve tired of the world in its current state they can just rip it up and start again from scratch.

    Also, please do correct me if I’m completely missing something wildly obvious, but it’s just when you seemed to be talking about “Why don’t more people play this” – that first screenshot, is that basically what you see of the poetry? You never see the actual poems themselves? Because I don’t find that interesting. Not to experience myself, at least. I can see why people get excited over this kind of thing and I can understand what a feat of programming it is but until a computer can generate poetry, epics etc. indistinguishable from something a skilled human author would turn out I don’t really care. I’m only interested in the end result – procedural generation for its own sake (and I think that is in large part what this is, even if I am missing something) doesn’t feel especially emotive, warm, human, anything like that. It’s rolling a random number and then seeing what happens to that number when it gets processed by a succession of increasingly arcane rules. That’s cool, don’t get me wrong, but it’s never going to interest me, to move me, as much as a carefully tailored, authored piece of fiction – at least not until computers can literally do everything for us and no mere human will ever create anything again. O_o

    • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

      “Dwarf Fortress basically goes a long way towards validating my opinion that lots of people don’t want “videogames” in any traditional sense: what they actually want is a simulation of a world, perfect and completely “realistic” in every conceivable detail, where they can do absolutely anything they want. And where once they’ve tired of the world in its current state they can just rip it up and start again from scratch.”

      Yup, this describes my preferences to a tee. That’s why I love Deus Ex and Crusader Kings so much, and why I have bounced off Dark Souls and the Metroidvania games about twenty times: mechanics for their own sake just don’t interest me in the slightest.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        I should probably have added that I like both. I just greatly prefer tailored narratives, for the most part, because of all the games that inspire people to tell stories I haven’t seen anyone telling a single story I thought was better than something by a… controlling author? (And if I did find such a story I’d probably want it presented by itself so I could experience it in exactly the same way.) I like Matul Remrit very much, for example, and I admire its creator, but I wouldn’t pay money for it as it is. It’s a cool art project for me, rather than a brilliant story I want to read again and again. I mean, I never finished the thing in the first place, to be honest. <_<

    • unimural says:

      That’s really interesting. For me, the tradition of computer games is very closely related to simulation. This of course tells a lot more about me than games. Still, Rogue was released in 1980, and while a lot of the early simulation oriented games were crude, the idea of a sandbox has been with us right from the start. I tend to think, that the simulational aspects are not the important demarcation line, but whether the gameplay is more game or play.

      I also think that the concept of a perfect and completely realistic simulation in and off itself is rarely a goal for games, and Dwarf Fortress’ and URR’s scope of ambition is fairly unique. Usually the goal is only to model things that meaningfully impact what is perceived as important. Of course everything affects everything else, and that’s I guess what Graham meant with his ‘Dwarf Fortress will contain all other games’ point. However, usually when you’re making or playing game with a specific subject, for example Balance of Power (about cold war political influence), or a business sim like Railroad Tycoon, you don’t want to be occupied with things too far removed from the theme and the core mechanics.

      Yes, you’re correct that the game does not generate the poems, merely the descriptions. I think the point of procedural generation of this sort exists so that the people playing the game have fodder for their imagination. A lot of times it is nonsense and unrelated. But when it does support what’s happening in the gameworld, the narrative just writes itself. And when you have poetry styles, and poets moving around the world, you get a human running away to study goblin poetry, later creating a new form of poetry to teach moral lessons. At least I can’t help but to create the narrative.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        Oh, I wasn’t saying that games should not be this way or people shouldn’t want such things. Admittedly I get uncomfortable with the idea sometimes, but that’s a whole other argument. (Again, I like roguelikes and immersive sims – I played quite a lot of Angband, back on the first PC I ever gamed on, a friend’s parents’ old 486 – I’m just not as enthusiastic about them as some.) It’s merely a realisation I came to a while back, and again when I got angry at someone on the forums who couldn’t see the current flood of survival games were just an extension of this/ an attempt to take it a bit more mainstream.

    • Yglorba says:

      I’m not totally sure. People (right now, at least) play Dwarf Fortress mostly for the Fortess mode, not Adventurer mode; a pure simulation isn’t enough, you also have to think about how people will approach it and what they’ll get out of it.

    • April March says:

      For what it’s worth, I’d hate it if the game generated the actual poems. I’d be like, “what, in this fantasy dwarfworld people speak English?”

    • P.Funk says:

      With respect to the poems, the point of the poems is not to create poetry, at least how I see it. The point is to view the way events in the game world influence the people living in it, see how they interpret events, what they’re inspired to put into poem, how that spreads and influences others. The poetry therefore is just an extension of the history of the generated world, except that before the poetry the history was merely a rather bland retelling of events factually.

      “In the year 12 of the Age of Legends So and so the whatever fought so and so at place of funny name.”

      Thats the essence of what gets described in the Legends of the land. Thats certainly fodder for the players but when you see how the characters in the world create their own stories based on those events that when things become more human, when the world adds a layer to itself that goes beyond whats typical. You now enter a world where actions and events can influence far beyond the immediate action itself, not needing to adjacent to events or involved in them but far far away from them. THAT is history, that is culture, and that is a far more plausible and exciting world than one like even Crusader Kings 2 which is merely a tally of Pluses and Minuses but where things happen truly randomly but in a pattern that defies the true nature of history and culture.

      DF with poetry, its just another expansion of its unbelievable simulation of an adventurer realm. Poems about places and people and battles. Styles of poetry inspired by a singular event that spreads across the land. Its not the poem, its the effect and significance it has on the game’s people. Its purpose is to tie the events together in a way that is more real than any game I know of, at least one that does it procedurally.

      Procedural culture. Thats what it is.

      [/Ramble Mode]

  2. Lacero says:

    Have you tried to write a poem that conforms to the rng styles it generates? Could be fun.

    I wish more games were like DF.

    • Llewyn says:

      RPS commenter iucounu gave us an interpretation of one of the sets of rules in the original article announcing this: link to rockpapershotgun.com

      Personally I’d like to see him make fruitful use of more of his lunchbreaks in this way!

      • iucounu says:

        Very kind of you to say. Though I did misread the rules, for which I’m still kicking myself!

  3. pilouuuu says:

    I think Dwarf Fortress is an amazing laboratory for creating much needed innovation in games, but sadly its interface is so off-putting and while its ideas are amazing it’s something that seems so great to talk about and so complicated to play. Even games like Minecraft are totally off-putting with its graphics.

    It may seem like a sacrilege to say something like this, but I’d love for Dwarf Fortress to have graphics and a UI like in The Sims, but with all its complexity intact.

    • pilouuuu says:

      I really think procedural generation is the future, especially for creating stories which are not based on set-pieces and QTE, but Dwarf Fortress seems like baby steps in making it something like a fun game, even if it is a baby with the mind of a genius.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        You have to remember that Dwarf Fortress is the work of one self-described mediocre programmer. This is what one person is capable of if they have genuine ambition, and it’s still miles ahead of any competitor.

        I wish some medium-sized game developers would take inspiration from this not to clone Dwarf Fortress, but to make their own wildly ambitious simulation-driven game. There’s so much potential there.

    • MrWCat says:

      I think it’s not so much sacrilege but rather a contradiction. Having any kind of graphics (2D or 3D, Sims-like or not) would actually detract from the complexity and the detail, as (say) watching preset animations play when a dwarf is hammering a goblin away would certainly not be the same as reading “the hammerdwarf hits the speargoblin in the shin, tearing apart the muscle and tearing the bone”. Forgotten beasts would be another example, as a graphical representation would heavily limit their variations – look no further than Starbound creatures; varied as they are, I can’t help but feel I’ve seen most of them already as so many repeat heads or torsos or what-have-you, and I’m nowhere near the endgame yet.
      That said, in a hypothetical scenario where we could just put an infinite amount of resources and have an extremely large amount of graphical and animation variations, sure, a DF-like with Sims-styled graphics would be perfect.
      And the UI could certainly be better.

    • Arglebargle says:

      There is no game so good that a bad interface can’t derail it.

      Dwarf Fortress is, pretty much, Exhibit A.

      • Hedgeclipper says:

        Depends on your point of view, for me DF is Exhibit A that a really good game trumps graphics, interface and just bout everything else – not that I wouldn’t love to see those aspects improved.

    • P.Funk says:

      Interface is a fair debate, but when it comes to graphics honestly… I feel like thats the adult in you having lost that sense of make believe that we as children had that allowed us to turn boring brown boxes into forts or bank machines and lego blocks (not that designer shit thats got the decals for the $70 spaceship, but buckets of loose stuff) into unique little things.

      I mean… Dungeons and Dragons has no graphics at all but we all acknowledge it as a fair way to play. Most board games have tokens that at their best are still just abstractions of much more exciting events. You get to see more action in DF than you do in a pen and paper or board game.

      I think graphics is like sugar, it spoils the taste buds. I’m not trying to get on you like someone might, but I feel like if you can’t love a deeply complex game because of its graphics, then you’ve lost something every child has when he sits there being read a bedtime story. Interface… thats another thing as I said.

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      corinoco says:

      I would pay decent money for a kick starter campaign to buy Dwarf Fortress and Elite Dangerous a hotel room for a night. The goal of course would be to make a baby game, called Elite Dwarf Dangerous Fortress.

      You fly starships around a procedurally generated galaxy, trading procedurally generated poetry, dance troupes, tinned monster (and elephant) meat and occasionally bumping into a god in the void.

      Oh my giddy aunt I would THROW money at that.

      • Premium User Badge

        corinoco says:

        Not to mention landing on the occasional planet and meddling with the primitive society you just found.

      • LogicalDash says:

        Not that far off from No Man’s Sky, I guess?

  4. Scurra says:

    <a href="link to worldspinner.com;)Worldspinner, which had a fairly successful KS last year, is attempting some sort of middle ground here, by procedurally generating the worlds in the form of maps, cultures and histories, but mainly as seeds for pen-and-paper RPGs rather than video games. It will be interesting to see where they take it once it’s “done” in its initial form.

  5. klops says:

    “Does it bother you at all that Dwarf Fortress has unique forms of dwarven poems but not a functionally usable interface, for example?”

    YES!

    It’s a nice detail that elven spear puncutuates both shoe and sock and make the dwarf’s fourth toe bleed but I’d prefer a functional UI and decent battle/overall control over that. A remarkable game but nowadays I’m drifting to working/not-so-deep games than clumsy/admirable games.

  6. NMorgan says:

    From the article:
    “Adam: This is where I let you in on my big Dwarf Fortress secret. I’ve been playing it for years and it’s one of the few games I still spend time reading about on a weekend when I’ve switched off my work-brain – BUT I’m absolutely terrible at Fortress mode. I mean, just abysmally, horrifically, catastrophically bad.”

    I’m guessing Adam overassigns jobs. Million trees to be cut. Half the map to be farmed. Entire mountain to be dug. This is a common problem with AMERICAN gamers, and also a pet peeve of mine. I see this constantly in letsplays on YouTube, and I vent about it in the comments, often in vain, naturally. Of course I myself am not an American (just a no-name gamer from a no-name European country). It’s like the Americans just want to see the game win itself. It’s like they want to watch the game play out like anyone would watch TV. I try not to put blame on anyone (because I watch American letsplays on a daily basis). I just want to point out the evils of overassignment / overdesignation. I’m claiming that overdesignation is the leading cause of colony collapse among American strategy/building gamers. What you need with grand games like DF is focus, moderation, calculation and a broad crystal-clear view of the situation. You have to be afraid and have concerns in order to survive. Stop being happy and relaxed when you play! Are my own DF kingdoms a thousand-year-old success stories? No. But I feel I can build a tough nut to crack for any scumbag elven army of any size.

    Of course I might be out of line to assume anything about Adam’s game style. There are a thousand ways to fail in DF and I’ve personally experienced every last one of them. But there’s always a reason for failure, and it’s important to think back what that reason was. Otherwise you’ll never evolve. You have to be able to think “What am I missing? What’s the biggest threat to my fort? I am not safe.” It’s fear and paranoia that help you be prepared. DF is not to be played after a long day at work unless one fancies to witness dwarven misery. DF is not a relaxant. Longterm survival in DF requires persistent focus and alertness. Being able to tell yourself “I’m bad at this” is a good thing no matter how experienced you are.

  7. rexx.sabotage says:

    Everyone is terrible at fortress mode. No one ever wins because;

    Losing is !!FUN!!

  8. blind_boy_grunt says:

    the difference between DF and URR sounds interesting, bottom up vs. top down (but i have only passing knowledge of both so i’m going for what i got out of this article). URRs sounds more like it’s a set of systems that havea “meaning” and simulates what comes out of the systems, whereas DF is a collection of individuals with rules and the simulation comes out of their interactions (Or Sim City 2000 vs nu Sim City).
    The idea of the DF poetry sounds almost like genetics. Would be interesting if religion worked something like that, it spreads, changes, at a certain point maybe the two are so different that a war can start, or a war starts and suddenly two very similar religions are suddenly completely at odds with each other(unrealistic i know).