Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress: Learn to play the most complex video game ever made

O'Reilly Media has just released what must be counted as one of the most important books of the decade: Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress

NewImageDwarf Fortress may be the most complex video game ever made, but all that detail makes for fascinating game play, as various elements collide in interesting and challenging ways. The trick is getting started. In this guide, Fortress geek Peter Tyson takes you through the basics of this menacing realm, and helps you overcome the formidable learning curve.

The book’s focus is the game’s simulation mode, in which you’re tasked with building a dwarf city. Once you learn how to establish and maintain your very first fortress, you can consult the more advanced chapters on resource management and training a dwarf military. You’ll soon have stories to share from your interactions with the Dwarf Fortress universe.

• Create your own world, then locate a site for an underground fortress

• Equip your party of dwarves and have them build workshops and rooms

• Produce a healthy food supply so your dwarves won’t starve (or go insane)

• Retain control over a fortress and dozens of dwarves, their children, and their pets

• Expand your fortress with fortifications, stairs, bridges, and subterranean halls

• Construct fantastic traps, machines, and weapons of mass destruction

Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress


  1. Goddamnit, just when I thought I had kicked that addiction…
    *downloads latest version*
    Oh hey, there’s new tools ! *damn*

    1.  Stop right there. I’m still dealing with my Minecraft addiction. Don’t tempt me with the promise of built in df tools.

  2. I have a huge amount of respect for the creativity and obsession with detail that went into making DF, but it has got to be the most tedious game ever invented.

    Playing it, I was constantly wondering if I weren’t the victim of a very elaborate prank. (Kind of like the opposite of “Tap Cow”.)

    1. If you consider modern art as elaborate sorta-pranks with (or without) a point, then I think you’re actually pretty accurate. They did mention that one of the points was creating the game where stuff from stories they write can happen. Sounds very artsy.

      1. Oh, it is very artsy. And I can deeply appreciate the stories that emerge from the marathon sessions (that OTHER people play). Also, I love the dark and wacky sensibility that infuses the game.
        Playing DF feels like looking into cluttered and slightly troubled minds of the creators. That’s kind of cool and, again, I can appreciate it for that reason.

        But the UI is a total mess, for reasons that have nothing to do with the game’s complexity. For example, in one context, you define an area by highlighting a corner, then moving to the other corner and entering that. in other contexts, you define an area with an entirely different set of operations. Why? Probably because that’s how the game developed, and it’s never been refactored in a serious way.

        (Also: why ever would I want to play a game where I equip my dwarf with individual socks? Is it a meaningful abstraction to make each individual sock an object?)

        So while there is an undeniable appeal to the challenge of mastering the game (if such could be done), much of that relates to overcoming the huge limitations in the game’s design, rather than successfully living in its imaginative content.

        As a result, every hour I spent with DF was an hour I felt like I should have spent with my kids.

        1. Area designations (digging, lumbering…) are set individually per square, invalid squares can be ignored, and are selected by corner creation. Variable-sized buildings (farm plots, walls) are placed like regular buildings. by moving around and showing you which squares may be blocking, because a single blocked square will prevent the building construction. See ? it’s simple !

  3. Oh man, I really should pick this up sometime.

    Also, for those who haven’t played in a while, the new update being worked on allows dwarves to pick up more than one item at a time, and carry containers! No more having Urist run across half the map to pick up a single sock!

    1. Now Urist carries a container halfway across the map, puts the sock in it, leaves the container there and goes home. Sibrek then goes halfway across the map, picks up the container and takes it back, assuming she does not Cancel Task: Interrupted By Capybara.

  4. I’ve played tabletop RPGs with excellent players the world over, and I still can count some of the most exciting, evocative, complex situations I’ve ever encountered in a game as having happened during Dwarf Fortress. 

    Teams of people writing “story” for computer RPGs can’t match the excitement of situations that come about naturally, involving things you built yourself. 

  5. Tarn and Zack Adams are a little weird, but their game is a masterpiece. I remember how pleased I was with my first fortress – until the goblins arrived.

    Even with a fully working Stonesense-like GUI, I’m not sure the game will ever go ‘mainstream’, but it’s a huge amount of fun if you have a dwarf fortress kinda mind…(apart from the goblins…”but it was sooo beautiful….”).

  6. So… is it bad that I’ve been working on computers since 1974 and this is the first time I’ve ever heard of Dwarf Fortress…?

    1.  It’s relatively new, despite the ASCII graphics. The developer is working on it fulltime, and by his own estimates won’t finish for another couple of decades (he’s been at it since 2002, and the game is at version 0.34). Think of it as a Nethack of our time;)

    1.  When I was still chasing the DF dragon I’d glance at the clock on a weeknight and it’d be 8PM. I’d look again 5 minutes later and it’d be 5:30AM. Once (or I guess I should say if) you train your brain to integrate with the very, very obtuse UI it really does become like “The Matrix”, you start seeing inherent meaning in all the blinking ASCII symbols. And then you start losing huge gaps of time.

      1. Some of you may remember the game Lemmings.  Imagine if J.R.R. Martin wove a rich tapestry of back stories for all your Lemmings before killing them off in poignant and ironic ways.  That’s Dwarf Fortress.

          1. Actually it’s better than Game of Thrones, because in DF every character is played by Peter Dinklage.

    2. It’s been said that Dwarf Fortress doesn’t have a learning curve, but rather a learning Matterhorn. Part of the problem is that it’s still technically in alpha development, which is why the controls are still such a hodge-podge. Dunno if this book mentions it, but using the fan-created utility Dwarf Therapist makes keeping track of stuff MUCH easier.

  7. It feels wrong to have a “step by step” book telling you how to do stuff. The whole point is to see how long your fort can last before it succumbs to new and interesting forms of !!FUN!!, which includes stupid things you do from ignorance as well as the (un)expected actions of Urist McDerpy.

    Though I fully admit that when you’re brand new to the game it can be really overwhelming. I only started playing back in January and it took me several weeks to really get to grips with enough of the basics to start doing what I wanted to do rather than simply trying to survive the first year of a new embark. 

  8. DF always fascinates and frustrates, which is why I keep picking it up for a while and then putting it back down. It gets closer and closer to a total fantasy world sim with each release, which I love, and I keep hoping that someday we’ll get a multiplayer DF Online. By which time I will likely be retired and will have time to devote to little simulated obsessed psychopath children.

  9. Tarn Adams, the co-creator of Dwarf Fortress, was my best friend in fifth grade. He moved away and we lost touch, but Dwarf Fortress reminds me of his brilliance (even as a fifth grader).

  10. “You’ll soon have stories to share from your interactions with the Dwarf Fortress universe.”

    That may be the saddest sentence ever typed. 

    1. That sounds like a challenge.
      “Before long, you’ll be retconning Silver Age Marvel comics”
      “After reading this, you’ll know how to tell the difference between inflected Doriathrin, and accented regional Sindarin”

    2. Dwarf Fortress is a powerful tool for generating narratives. Even before you first embark, the game generates a completely unique world for you, with many centuries of history. As you play, the ways you choose to interact with local flora & fauna, neighboring cultures and – this being a game about dwarves – with geography will enable you and the game to build up a collaborative story that’s not been written by a game designer, but is fully your own.

      The many, many stories generated and often written down by the more capable players are just a google search away. There’s stories of marauding elephant herds, stories of heroic birdmen, stories of warrior queens, stories of dwarves driven mad by sobriety… there are rare stories of success and many stories of abysmal failure.

      1. Once upon a time a dwarf threw a tantrum.  Also upon this particular time there was a puppy.  The puppy jumped into the lap of the angry dwarf.  The dwarf gibbed the puppy and wasn’t mad anymore.  The end.

        Once upon a time there was a camel.  The camel found it’s way into the dwarves’ tunnels where it became a nuisance.  The user ordered five dwarves to kill the stupid camel.  Those that survived were emotionally scarred ever after.

    3. just read some of the stuff from to get the meaning of that sentence.

      It’s mostly sad because people don’t understand the brilliance of the game.

  11. After the Civ II stuff, I’m eagerly awaiting the ten-year anniversary of my third fort, Skyrelic, just so I can post about the magnificent glass tower (built from blocks crafted in the magma glass furnaces far below the surface) and the various and sundry sieges which have come and gone.  Waiting to tell the tale of how a single, hastily-constructed wooden cage trap managed to snare a rampaging bronze colossus (and how bloody long it took for Urist McOwmyback to carry it to the animal stockpile in the fighting pits).  Yearning for others to know the eventual fate of Olin Egulustuth, my long-suffering militia commander – murderer of so many hapless migrants on the Bridge of Infinite Despair…

    1. For future reference, putting parentheses directly around a url screws up the link in disqus. I took them out in your comment.

  12. I tried to get into it but after spending an hour watching tutorial videos I was left kind of phased by the whole ordeal. It’s like a low-fi mine craft on steroids.

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