Saturday, April 13, 2013

Losing is Fun: A minimal tutorial for maximum Fun

Dwarf Fortress is an incredible game, but the menu system presents a significant hurdle for newbies. I recently got started and had to rely on the wealth of information available at the Dwarf Fortress Wiki, but in the end I think I regret using it too much.

The motto of Dwarf Fortress is "Losing is Fun." You cannot "win" this game. Your fortress will fall eventually. Seeing how your fortress falls is all part of the Fun of Dwarf Fortress. This way, you learn from your mistakes, so hopefully each fortress will be less disastrous more spectacular than the last. If you read too much about game mechanics before you start playing, you miss a lot of this Fun. This tutorial is meant to give you a minimal boost, to get you over the initial non-Fun of learning how to navigate the arcane set of menus, without giving away any Fun ruining spoilers.

Just to give you a taste of some of the problems with the menu system, scrolling through menu options is very inconsistent and haphazard. Sometimes you use arrow keys. Sometimes you use the number pad. Sometimes you use (+) and (-). Sometimes you use (u, h, k, m). You will have to pay attention to the on screen instructions for using each menu.


The first step in Dwarf Fortress is creating the world your dwarves are going to inhabit. Select the Create New World! option. The world generation menu is pretty straight forward. To begin with, use the default settings. World generation takes a few minutes to complete, so go look at cat pictures or something while your computer does its thing.

World generation is a one time thing. When your first fortress falls, don't generate a new world. Just set up a new fortress somewhere else in the same world. One of the coolest aspects of Dwarf Fortress is that the world is persistent, and incredibly detailed. That means that you can go back later to reclaim the ruins of an old fortress.


Embarking just means choosing where to stake your claim. Select the Start Playing menu, and the Dwarf Fortress option. These menus are pretty straight forward, too. Use the commands across the bottom of your screen to select a location.

There are a couple keys to finding a good site. You want a site rich in raw materials, like wood, rock, metals and animals. Aquifers are bad. Flux is good. Once you've found a place that looks good you can Embark (e). Learning where to embark is Fun.

Once you have embarked, you will see a screen full of incomprehensible characters. You can get information about what each symbol means by using the Look (k) command. When you place the cursor over a square of the map, you will see information about what is occupying that square on the right hand side of your screen. Take some time to get a basic idea of what your surroundings look like.

If you ever get lost somewhere in the menu system, just keep hitting Esc repeatedly until you get back to the main screen. If you hit Esc too many times, it will just toggle between the main screen and the options menu.

To avoid ambiguity, all menu options will be given as a series of keystrokes as if you were navigating there from the main screen.

Strike the Earth!

One of the most important activities is mining. To start mining, open the Designation menu and select Mine (d, d). Use the arrow keys to mark sections of the map you would like to excavate. Parts of the map that you can mine are going to be solid black. If you don't see any solid black areas of the map, skip ahead to the section on Z-Levels, then come back here.

If you accidentally mark an area for excavation that you didn't mean to, you can use the Remove Designation (d, x) option to unmark these areas. When you unpause the game (space bar), your dwarves will get to work carrying out your wishes.

You should notice that while marking places for excavation, you never issued an order to a dwarf. In Dwarf Fortress, you only have indirect control over your dwarves. All you can do is issue a general order that this or that should be done. If a dwarf with that particular skill is available, then he or she will do the job. If no dwarf has the skill you need, then the job doesn't get done. This puts Dwarf Fortress about half way between a game like SimCity and The Sims. SimCity does not simulate the actions of individual people. The Sims does, but you have to micromanage every action that your Sims take. The game play of Dwarf Fortress presents some interesting challenges, because your dwarves will sometimes act in Fun and unpredictable ways.


One of the more confusing things about Dwarf Fortress is what does and does not count as a "building". Things like tables and chairs count as "buildings", and are in the same menu as wells and bridges. Even more confusing is the error message you get when you try to build some of these "buildings". If you open up the Building menu and try to "build" a table (b, t), you will get the error message "Needs table". WTF does that mean?

For an object like a table, "building" the table really means placing a fully constructed table somewhere for use. Before you can place a table somewhere for use, you must "construct" the table in the first place.

Some of the most important buildings in the game are Workshops (b, w). Workshops are where your dwarves turn raw materials into useful objects. You will need workshops, but figuring out which workshops you need, and for what can lead to a lot of Fun.

Most buildings don't do anything on their own. In order for them to be useful, you have to designate tasks to be carried out by your dwarves at the buildings. You can interact with a building using the Set Building Tasks/Prefs command (q). In this mode, when you move your cursor near a building, you will get a menu of what you can do with that building. This will be very important with your workshops early in the game.


The world of Dwarf Fortress is a three dimensional one. The map that the game presents to you is really just a horizontal cross section of this three dimensional world. One single cross section is called a Z-level. That's because typically a flat plane is represented with two coordinates, X and Y. Three dimensions are represented by X, Y and Z, where Z denotes the vertical dimension. I like to think of Z-levels as the pictures that an MRI or CT scan produces. Horizontal cross sections that you have to visualize stacked on top of each other.

To navigate down to lower Z-levels use the (>) key. To navigate to higher Z-levels use the (<) key. In order to dig between Z-levels, you will need to construct stairs or ramps. The various flavors of stairs and ramps can be found in the Designations menu along side the Mine command. These will need to be placed correctly in order for your dwarves to gain access to other Z-levels. You should experiment and have some Fun with this.

Miscellaneous Tips and Hints

Here are a couple more menus you should familiarize yourself with early on. Zones (i) and Stockpiles (p) are important. Play around with them to see what they do. Create a stockpile and see how your dwarves react to it. If it didn't seem to do anything, try creating a different type of stockpile. Do the same with zones.

The View Units (v) menu is also very important. In this mode, when you move your cursor near a creature, you will see some of the creatures stats and characteristics. Of particular importance is the Labor menu (v, p, l). It lets you designate which types of tasks a particular dwarf will perform.

My last advice is to not get too frustrated. Remember, "Losing is Fun." If your fortress falls, just start a new one. In my own process of learning the game, I try to focus on learning one thing at a time. For example, focus on how to acquire a particular raw material. Once you've acquired the raw material, see if you can figure out what that raw material is useful for. Nearly everything in this game has a use of some type.

On to the Fun

That should be enough information to at least get you started. I've deliberately left out a lot of key information that will hopefully result in a lot of Fun in your early fortresses. Once you've learned where to embark and familiarized yourself with the menus in this tutorial, you should be able to put together a fairly successful fortress. The key is to learn from your mistakes so you have a completely new and unexpected type of Fun in your next fortress.

To recap, these are the key menus you need to be familiar with to get your first fortress off (in?) the ground.

  • Look (k) - See what stuff is on a particular tile.
  • Designations (d) - Important commands like Mine can be found here
  • Building (b) - Used to erect buildings and place furniture around your fortress
  • Set Building Tasks/Prefs (q) - Interact with finished buildings
  • Zones (i) - Designate areas for certain uses
  • Stockpiles (p) - Designate areas for certain other uses
  • View (v) - View and set your dwarves' characteristics
And finally, access the third dimension by navigating Z-levels using (<) and (>).

Have Fun. :-)

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