Dwarf Fortress

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Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress
Df logo.png
Developer(s) Tarn Adams
Publisher(s) Bay 12 Games
Designer(s) Tarn Adams
Zach Adams
Platform(s) Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux
Release date(s) 8 August 2006[1][2]
Genre(s) City-building game, Roguelike
Mode(s) Single player
Distribution Download

Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress, usually shortened to Dwarf Fortress, is a part roguelike, part city-building video game set in a high fantasy universe in which the player takes control of a group of dwarves and attempts to construct a successful and wealthy subterranean fortress in a mountain. Along the way the player must face off with the dangers of their environment, invaders and sieges, vampires and other night creatures, and the occasional rampant megabeast, all while keeping their dwarves happy and their fortress alive. A second game mode, adventurer mode, places the player in the shoes of an adventurer as they wander the world and do battle with various creatures.

Dwarf Fortress is modeled on a complex physics engine and is presented in text-only Code page 437 graphics, in various colors. Every world is procedurally generated completely from scratch, and historical events and figures are documented and recorded as game lore, including any and all sentient characters. The game is programmed solely by Tarn Adams, with input from his brother Zach Adams. Work began in 2002, the first alpha was released in August 2006, and development is ongoing. In July 2011 Tarn Adams declared the game his life's work and said he expects another 20 years before it will be complete.[3] Dwarf Fortress is donationware; the game is available for free, with development supported solely through donations, and contributors receive either short stories or crayon drawings as thank-yous from the developers.

The game has accumulated much praise for its rich content and gameplay that is deep, and difficult to master. It has a small and devoted fanbase. As there is no way to expressly win the game, every fortress, no matter how successful, is bound to be destroyed somehow; this has prompted the trademark phrase of the community: "Losing is Fun."[4]


World generation[edit]

Every game in Dwarf Fortress starts with the generation of a new world; only one game at a time can be ongoing per world. The exact qualities of a world are randomly generated, but can be influenced quite heavily with input from the player, who determines the map size, natural savagery, mineral occurrence, et cetera. The world generator first uses a fractal algorithm to create a randomized elevation map. This is then further elaborated upon by a temperature map, rainfall projection map, drainage value, vegetation value, and salinity. Each tract of land is then differentiated into a biome based upon a combination of these values. Tracts of land are then sorted into evil, neutral, or good regions, as well as benign, wild, or savage ones. Mountains are then worn away with temporary rivers, followed by permanent ones flowing from high points to low ones. Local animal and plant populations are established, followed by sentient populations.[4]

At this point world creation ends and the historical ticker begins, whereby sentient creatures form settlements, live and prosper, reproduce, do battle, and spread across the land, building roads, and generally making the world increasingly hospitable as they rise and fall. The ticker stops at a designated value, at which point the map can be saved for use in a game. Should the player choose to retire the game or when the fortress inevitably falls, this world will persist on and will become available for further games.[5]

Fortress mode[edit]

Dwarves inside their fortress, built into a mountainside.
A game of Fortress Mode paused

The primary game mode in Dwarf Fortress is the titular fortress mode, in which the player finds a site on the map, takes control of a group of seven dwarves, chooses their basic skills and supplies, and starts building a fortress. Typical supplies include seeds and mushroom spores for farming, axes for woodcutting, picks for mining, utilities like bags and basic medical supplies, barrels of food and alcoholic drink, and an anvil. The local environment of an embark site has an important effect on its success: Fortresses in evil regions will have to deal with especially strong, extremely aggressive undead creatures harassing them from the very beginning, while maps with aquifiers will force players to contest with difficulties acquiring stone and space until they can either outmaneuver the aquifers or overpower them. Natural resources including wood, ore, and stone are important to fortress life, as are geographic features such as cliffs, gorges, waterfalls, ponds, lakes, beaches, oceans, and, most significantly, rivers. Since the game world can always be regenerated and easier environments created, embarking in more difficult environments is typically done for the challenge, as creating a thriving fortress on an evil glacier is vastly more difficult than on an idyllic brookside woodland.[6]

The most important buildings in Dwarf Fortress are workshops, each of which are purposed to certain tasks. For instance, fisheries prepare captured fish, carpenters' workshops make wood furniture, and jewelers' workshops turn mined-out roughs into valuable cut gems. Dwarves are assigned jobs based on what labors they have enabled, and the higher their skill in a job, the more quickly they will perform their tasks and/or the higher quality the product will be. Thus, purposing dwarves to tasks according to their base skill level is an important consideration. The dwarves themselves have their own personalities, physical and mental attributes, character traits, and likes and dislikes, all of which affect their productivity and course of action. In addition, dwarves can occasionally enter strange moods, seizing workshops and demanding certain resources. When supplied these resources, they will produce an object of impeccable craftsmanship and value—a "legendary artifact"—and will often instantly maximize the requisite skill to a "legendary" status. If the player fails to provide the necessary materials and workshop, the dwarf will go insane, sometimes falling into a berserk state in which they will either commit suicide, run around the fortress naked and babbling, or actively attack the other dwarves.[6]

Trading caravans are a major feature in the game. One caravan from each of the major sentient races that the player is at peace with (typically dwarves, humans, and elves) arrive once a year in designated seasons with wagons loaded full of goods. The player may trade goods (usually created in their fortress or acquired from defeated foes) in return for the supplies and goods carried by the caravans, a frequently critical maneuver as they often carry goods to which the fortress has no or little access. Because enemy attacks often arrive alongside these caravans, their appearance requires military alertness; if too many caravans are lost to enemy attacks, their civilization will declare war against the player and send their own attackers, sometimes at the same time as an ongoing siege.[6]

Once the basic stockpiles, farms, bedrooms, and dining halls of the fortress are dug out, mineral resources and ores become important as the player digs deeper into the earth and uncovers the local geology. For instance, kaolinite can be used as the basis of a high-value pottery industry, gold can be forged into extremely valuable gold crafts and trinkets, and magnetite can be smelted into iron or further processed with a carbon source into steel and used to forge weapons. Individual workshops and dwarves can bind together with infrastructure and local resources to produce necessary and vital goods as parts of industries. As the number of dwarves expands with migrant waves and the birth of children, players must accommodate their increasing number of residents by digging out bedrooms, designating jails, expanding food production, dining, and food preparation facilities, and put them all to work at various tasks, such as making clothes, forging weapons or crafts, tending the farms, or building a vibrant meat industry.[6]

As the game develops, two major concerns emerge: keeping the dwarves alive, and keeping them happy. Goblins can besiege fortresses with a minimum population of 80, and arriving unprepared to the benchmark could spell doom. In addition to sieges, players can be victimized in stealthy ambushes or the appearance of massive "megabeasts," both from above and below. The appearance or absence of foes is based on the amount of wealth generated by the fortress: The more net worth the fortress has produced, the more attractive it is to attack (and, on the flip side, the more attractive it is to more immigrants). This threat can be met with a dwarven military, traps of varying complexity, or a combination of both. Keeping dwarves happy can be achieved by keeping them out of harm's way and by providing amenities such as pets, good living conditions and public facilities, high-quality prepared meals and drinks, and replacement clothing.[6]

Eventually the player may dig all the way to the bottom of the map and encounter magma, as well as adamantine, an incredibly strong, light, and sharp-edged material used to create the best weapons and armor in the game. But digging adamantine has dangers as well: It's generally encountered as hollow tubes which, combined with digging too deep, can cause the player to breach "Hell," unleashing a likely game-ending swarm of demons into the fortress. As the game has no predefined ending or final challenge, breaking into Hell and defeating the demon swarm is seen as the greatest challenge of all.

Still, every fortress will eventually meet its demise. Newer fortresses are frequently lost to poor resource management, which leads to dwarves dying of thirst or starvation. They are also frequently lost to enemy attacks and mining accidents that lead to deadly cave-ins or flooding. Older and more highly developed fortresses are less vulnerable to these problems, but the loss of even a few dwarves can still lead to a so-called "tantrum spiral," in which dwarves become critically unhappy due to the loss of friends, family, or generally poor conditions and throw tantrums, injuring or even killing other dwarves and leading to more unhappiness and tantrums—ultimately the fortress can descend into uncontrolled riots and fall apart from the inside.[6]

Adventure mode[edit]

Adventure mode is a comparatively standard mode of gameplay, taking the form of an open-ended roguelike. In adventure mode the player takes control of an adventurer, choosing a race and civilization, giving them attributes and skills, and then setting off with some weapons and armor to adventure in the wider world. Adventurers quickly have the opportunity to meet and befriend other sentient creatures, some of whom may be willing to go adventuring with you and join your party. Talking to locals can help give a summary of the local and regional situation, and asking for service from civilians will have them give the adventurer quests, to do battle with various beasts and bandits.[6]

As the adventurer progresses, they will gain access to better arms and armor, be it by looting the corpses of defeated enemies or by buying them in shops, and gain fame from their adventures. Famed adventurers will attract more and better companions to join them on their quests, and will receive greater and more dangerous tasks. There is no set ending, but at any time the player can choose to retire their adventurer, settling them down where they are and freeing up the world for further gameplay. Retired adventurers can also be discovered again by future adventurers and recruited as companions. Old adventurer dwarves can even migrate to players' fortresses after their retirement.[6]

Legends mode[edit]

Legends mode is a third and relatively unusual piece of the game, and less a mode of gameplay and more a historical archive. It allows the player to browse the history created in the world during world generation, listing creatures, births and deaths, actions and events sorted into ages, with the name of each age being determined by the relative demographics of the world at that point in time. An additional feature is the world map, which gives a view of civilization lands and settlements as time progresses.[1][7]


Origins and release[edit]

Tarn Adams' father worked at a treatment plant, writing software that analyzed data and helped maintain the plant; in an interview with The New York Times, he explained that "My earliest real memory is when my dad taught me how to use a 'FOR loop' in BASIC when I was 6, to make something go across the screen."[3] In an interview with Gamasutra, Adams explained that he had grown up "surrounded by that sort of thing. So along with generic sci-fi, generic fantasy is part of our heritage."[4] Tarn developed a close working relationship with his older brother Zach, and the two collaborated on most of their projects, a partnership that lasts to this day.[3]

One of Adams' early works was a BASIC text-based hack and slash game called dragslay, a Dungeons and Dragons adaptation in which the player had to fight through a number of enemies before fighting a dragon, and then repeat the process for as long as possible. In high school Adams taught himself C and expanded upon the game, adding an overworld and goblin tribes that the player was free to "depopulate." dragslay would later prove an important influence on Dwarf Fortress.[4]

The summer before entering graduate school on a mathematics track Adams began working on a project he dubbed Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, named after a deity in dragslay, himself named for a variable named "arm_ok" that counted the number of limbs the player still had attached. Slaves to Armok: God of Blood was a two-dimensional isometric (later fully three-dimensional) dungeon crawler in which the player encountered and fought goblins "in loincloths" while exploring a cave. In 2000, the Adams brothers created Bay 12 Games and made their games available online, and the final version of Armok was released in 2004.[4][8]

At the same time, Tarn took some time off once in a while to program small side projects, one of which was called Mutant Miner. The premise of the turn-based MS-DOS game was that the player would dig holes underneath a number of buildings, searching for ores, fighting monsters, and carrying radioactive "goo" back to the surface for "application" in growing extra limbs and gaining other abilities.[4] Adams was dissatisfied with only having a single miner, and wanted to incorporate additional characters into the game, but the changes required caused the game to lag too heavily. In his interview with Gamasutra, Adams explained how the idea evolved:[4]

...instead of rewriting the game, I thought, well maybe it should be dwarves instead. And it should be real-time, to combat the SSI problem. Now, you'd be digging out minerals in a mountain, combating threats inside, and making little workshops. Then I thought, well, how should the high score list work? We really like to keep records of plays. Not just high score lists, but expansive logs. So we'll often try to think of ways to play with the idea. This time, the idea was to let your adventurer come into the fortress after you lose and find the goblets you've made, and journals it generates. If your adventurer successfully brought these back to town (after facing threats in the now-abandoned fortress), the player would get to see the fortress' stats. For instance, if they found a journal that said 'This month, we produced 3 silver goblets' they get the entire set of stats on silver goblet production in the score list.

Adams began working on Dwarf Fortress in October 2002, gauging that the project would take two months, but suspended development soon after, in order to finish the original Armok first. Development on Dwarf Fortress did not begin in earnest until 2004, by which time Adams had understood the magnitude of the task. All through his personal projects Adams continued pursuing academics, earning his doctorate in mathematics from Stanford University in 2005, and receiving a postdoctoral position at Texas A&M University. However, Adams had grown sick of the workload and competitiveness of professional mathematics even in his time at Stanford; within a year of arriving at A&M Adams quit, "breaking into tears" before the department head. He planned to spend his time and his $15,000 savings coding Dwarf Fortress, a sum later supplemented by a $50,000 stipend from the university.[3][9]

The Adams brothers consolidated their work amongst a fanbase of about 300 people. As Armok's spiritual sequel the game borrowed many of the game's ideas and material definitions,[3] and was dubbed Slaves to Armok, God of Blood II: Dwarf Fortress; Adams explained that the project's cumbersome name was mostly "for kicks".[4] The game was to use ASCII graphics in the roguelike tradition, as he had become frustrated with the time-consuming process of three-dimensional graphics.[3] Development continued through August 2006, when the first alpha, version, was released.[2] The game's basic features, including most of its workshops and labors, a wide variety of animal life and environments, geological and physical simulations, and a complex combat system were all in place at release, as well as adventure mode, a surprise feature that Adams kept secret during development.[4][6]

On-screen displays use slightly modified code page 437 characters in 16 different colors implemented as bitmaps, rendered with OpenGL. This makes the game capable of switching to full screen on Windows Vista and Windows 7, unlike pure text-mode programs. As released, the game initially supported 2D landscapes only, with X and Y axes corresponding to the four cardinal directions.[4][9]

Further development[edit]

Dwarf Fortress is in a constant state of development. Tarn Adams considers the game his life's work, and has stated that he does not expect version 1.0 to be released for at least another twenty years.[3] Adams maintains a flexible list of "core" development goals to be implemented into the game; some are already finished, but the bulk of them still need work.[10] As such, the game is currently in alpha; the most recent version, released 4 June 2012, is 0.34.11.[11] Each version of the game is identified by a three-point version numbering system, with each component separated by a dot. The first number signifies that fewer than 100 core components have been completed, the second number means that 34 core components have been completed, and the last number signifies the minor release version, generally pertaining to bug fixes.[6]

Adams has stated that the development of Dwarf Fortress will proceed across several feature "arcs". Each arc is a series of goals and priorities all grouped together under a similar subject, named accordingly.[12] The current development arcs are the Caravan and Army Arcs, which focus on game features related to economics and warfare respectively.[11] The arcs help provide guidance in development, but are not a strict project plan; Adams has been known to delay certain features, or add in popular user requested features even though they might not fall under the current arc.[13][14]

The game has seen major developments in the six years since its release, and is still regularly updated by the Adams brothers.[10] One major change was the introduction of a third dimension; instead of being forced to dig into the side of a mountain, players now dig their fortresses downwards, exploring deeper stone layers and mineral veins in a more realistic manner. Another was the addition of world history and Legends mode, which added history to entities that had previously been manufactured out of thin air, and tied the players' fortresses to their civilization and its history. An economy was introduced into the game to partially replace the player's archaic control, based on coins that the player could mint from mined copper, silver, or gold, but this was disabled soon after, pending improvements to the "broken" feature. Other changes are less noticeable, but also carry important consequences for the game: the introduction of reformed equipment, army, and hauling systems, expansion of gameplay features, and continual bug fixes have given the game greater depth and complexity with each update.[11][15]


Dwarf Fortress has received wide press coverage for an independent two-man project of its type, and Tarn Adams has given a large number of interviews related to the game, appearing in interviews with Gamasutra, The Escapist, and HASTAC,[16] as well as garnering mention on the Eurogamer website.[17] Dwarf Fortress was featured in the December 2006 and July 2011 issues of PC Gamer as well as in an article in the New York Times, and has been featured in issues of Games for Windows, PC Gamer UK, and PC PowerPlay. It has received the Roguelike of the Year award from ASCII Dreams and the Indy PC game of the year from the Gamers With Jobs community.[16]

Reviews of Dwarf Fortress have focused on its deep content and rich gameplay; Gamasutra explained that the scope of the game "defies belief", while PC Gamer commented that it produces "some of the most amazing stories in gaming".[4][18] Cracked.com has summarized the game as "[the micromanagement of] a collection of absent-minded, depressed, alcoholic midgets with beards into building an underground house in the middle of a hostile wilderness."[19] However, reviewers have also been quick to comment on the game's quirky interface, buggy state, and most of all, its primitive ASCII graphics, although some see it as just part of the package.[20][21] Several reviewers describe the initial difficulty to start playing the game as a steep learning curve, with the meaning of a difficult learning process.[22][23] One reviewer argued that the text-based display actually adds to the game by forcing the player to mentally visualize game events, thus making the game more immersive.[21]

In March 2013 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City began exhibiting Dwarf Fortress.[24][25] It is one of around 40 games selected from the history of video gaming as "outstanding examples of interaction design".[24]


Dwarf Fortress has attracted a significant cult following. The game's steep learning curve, two-dimensional graphics, numerous developmental bugs, and great depth have lent it a reputation as brutal to learn and impossible to master,[19] a conclusion acknowledged by Adams on multiple occasions.[3] A better in-game help system and better graphics are both long-term goals, but are nowhere near the current development schedule;[10] as such, the game in its current state is enjoyed mostly by a small group of gamers who are able to tolerate or enjoy the game's idiosyncrasies. Its members have compiled a dedicated wiki for the game, the most comprehensive reference the game has and a tome that Adams admits to referencing himself on occasion.[4] An illustrated guide to the game, called Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress, has also been released by O'Reilly Media.[26]

Prior to releasing the game in 2006, Tarn Adams expected he would have to get a job in order to support himself; his primary source of funding, besides his saving, was a PayPal donation link on his website, which brought in only enough to cover the site's $20 hosting cost. However, the release of the game brought forth an enormous increase in donation volume, and the Adams brothers were able to support development, albeit only just barely at first.[18][27] Donations generally hover at a few thousand every month, and the highest numbers coincide with new major version releases; for instance, a major release in February 2012 saw $12,586.51 donated by the end of the month.[28] Supporters receive either a short story written by Zach, or a crayon drawing signed by both brothers.[8] This gives Dwarf Fortress the distinction of being one of the few games supported solely by voluntary donation.

In 2006, a saga called "Boatmurdered" where fans passed around a single fortress and each played the game and saved it before sending it to another, was portrayed in detail from its start to destructive end. This spread around gaming sites and boosted the game's popularity. Tarn Adams has admitted that the intrepidness and occasional masochism of the community surprised even him.[9] In an interview with HASTAC Adams stated that the most impressive thing he had ever seen done with the game was when a player managed to create an entire Turing-complete calculator powered by dwarves.[4]

Because of the game's level of complexity, it is a staple of Let's Play type walkthroughs and tutorials.

The game's code base is proprietary, and Adams has stated firmly that he has no plans to release it into the open source domain, citing his particular vision for the game and stating that it will remain a closed operation so long as Bay 12 Games remains financially healthy. Nonetheless, he acknowledges the role of the community in making the game more understandable and supporting its development.[9] A number of external utilities exist that add graphical tilesets, three-dimensional visualizers, graphical user interfaces, and management tools to the game, all community-developed.[6][29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Bay 12 Games: Dwarf Fortress". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 20 July 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Older Versions". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 13 July 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Johah Weiner (21 July 2011). "The Brilliance of Dwarf Fortress". New York Times. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Josh Harris (27 February 2008). "Interview: The Making Of Dwarf Fortress". Gamasutra. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  5. ^ "Features". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Peter Tyson (May 2012). Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress: Learn to play the most complex video game ever made. O'Reilly Media. ISBN 1-4493-1494-5. Retrieved 14 July 2012. 
  7. ^ "Bay 12 Games: Dwarf Fortress". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 20 July 2012. 
  8. ^ a b Tarn Adams. "The Bay 12 Games Report, July 1st, 2012". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  9. ^ a b c d Elijah Meeks (22 December 2010). "An Interview with Tarn Adams". HASTAC. Stanford University. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  10. ^ a b c "Dwarf Fortress Development". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 10 July 2012. 
  11. ^ a b c "Current Development". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 10 July 2012. 
  12. ^ "Dwarf Fortress Consolidated Development". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 10 July 2012. 
  13. ^ "Dwarf Fortress Talk #9". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 10 July 2012. 
  14. ^ "Future of the Fortress". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  15. ^ "Dwarf Fortress - Change Log". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  16. ^ Kieron Gillen (13 September 2006). "The State of Independence #5". Eurogamer. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  17. ^ a b Jaz McDougall (2 August 2010). "Community heroes: Tarn Adams, for Dwarf Fortress". PC Gamer. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  18. ^ a b "Dwarf Fortress". Cracked.com. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  19. ^ Greg Costikyan (12 December 2007). "Play This Thing! Review". Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  20. ^ a b "PC PowerPlay #148". PC Powerplay (Next Media Pty Ltd) (148). 2008. ISSN 1326-5644. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  21. ^ "Dwarf Fortress: ten hours with the most inscrutable game of all time". Wired (magazine). 
  22. ^ "Top 7 Best City Building Games: Boss Builders". gameranx.com. 
  23. ^ a b Antonelli, Paola (November 29, 2012). "Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters". Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  24. ^ "The Collection: Tarn Adams and Zach Adams. Dwarf Fortress. 2006.". Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  25. ^ Tom Hatfield (June 26, 2012). "Dwarf Fortress gets 238 page illustrated Getting Started guide". PC Gamer. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  26. ^ Chris LaVigne (4 March 2008). "Critical Success, Commercial Flop: For the Love of the Game". The Escapist. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  27. ^ Tarn Adams. "The Bay 12 Games Report, March 1st, 2012". Bay 12 Games. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  28. ^ Alec Meer (5 November 2009). "Dwarf Phwoartress: Stonesense Visualiser". Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Retrieved 13 July 2012. 

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