Dwarf Fortress is a two dimensional fortress-building game about dwarves, which often breaks in fascinating ways. Nothing about it should work, but somehow it comes together. I wish everyone could experience Dwarf Fortress, but it’s a punishing game for people who like to be frustrated.

Dwarf Fortress isn’t for everyone. It’s a game about losing. As Dwarf Fortress fans often say, in this game losing is fun. That “fun” might be something as simple as having too many cats in your fortress and watching the game’s framerate slow to the single digits, a goblin siege murdering all your dwarves, or accidentally tunnelling into hell. This is less a game about making systems that work and more a game about the funny stories you’ll eventually tell.

On one fortress, I dug into an aquifer and everyone drowned. On another, I forgot to get my farms up and running in any meaningful way and ran out of food. On another, I used the wrong stairs and had half my dwarves trapped underground. Sometimes you lose because of something you couldn’t have prepared for, like a were-horse attack. Sometimes you lose because you didn’t know the keyboard commands to get your military to the right place at the right time. One of these ways to lose is more fun than the other — try to say were-horse out loud without laughing — but what they have in common is failure, and telling the stories of your failure to others.

The reason I got into Dwarf Fortress was from hearing these stories. When I read Boatmurdered, a very old Let’s Play of the game written by several members of the SomethingAwful forums, I desperately needed to see the kind of mess that could produce a story of dwarves being endlessly attacked by raging elephants until finally the entire map was flooded in magma. My adventures haven’t been as funny, but Dwarf Fortress has made me laugh more than most games. In a way, playing this game has helped me adjust to failure in my own life. The thing you do in Dwarf Fortress when you lose all your dwarves is start a new fortress. You may be embarrassed, but you learned something about how you messed up, and you’ll be prepared for it next time.

Dwarf Fortress isn’t a welcoming or friendly game. It gives you lots of information you don’t need, and you kind of have to find your own hook to keep you from giving up from frustration. But this is a game for people who love frustration, and for people who want to talk about losing. If you’re ready to fail, here are some tips.

Start With A Starter Pack

It will be tempting to just go to the download link on the Dwarf Fortress website, grab the game and dig in. Don’t do this. Instead, download a starter pack. This prepackaged set of utilities and mods is less about laziness and more about streamlining the Dwarf Fortress process. Why make loading up and using the game harder than it has to be?

In particular, the starter packs come with Dwarf Therapist and DFHack. Dwarf Therapist is a nice program that helps you manage your dwarves’ occupations and labors. In Dwarf Fortress, there’s no way to view what every dwarf is good at at a glance. You have to look at each dwarf’s skills individually. When you start out this isn’t that bad, as you’ll have just seven dwarves, but it will become totally unmanageable after a couple of waves of migrants come to your fortress. Save yourself a headache and use Dwarf Therapist instead.

DFHack allows you to enter some more serious cheats into the game. You probably won’t mess with any of those at the start, but loading Dwarf Fortress with DFHack will give you a few quality-of-life fixes that are worth it. In the base game, you can’t tell the dimensions of an area you’re digging out, and DFHack adds that. It will also make it so that jewellers will cut any rough gems lying around. In the base game, you have to manually order jewellers to cut gems. As most of the game is about digging and selling stuff, these two things are a huge help.

Because this is Dwarf Fortress, the easy way to start the game is also a little bit complicated. There’s a variety of packs, all with different utilities and mods, some of which are running on older versions of the game. I play Dwarf Fortress on a Mac, using the lite Lazy Mac Pack, which gives me Dwarf Therapist but not DFHack but allows me to run on the most recent version of the game. You might decide that you want the fuller version, which has DFHack but is usually an update behind the lite version. PC users have PeridexErrent’s DF Starter Pack. The alpha version of the pack for the most recent version of Dwarf Fortress is here. The more stable version, which is a few updates behind, is here.

If you’re not sure whether to go with an older build or a newer build, here’s why I go with the most recent version of the game. The 0.44.02 update not only added taverns, but also new automatically generated poetic forms, songs and books. This is 100% my shit, and 0.43 versions of the game didn’t have it. While there was a bug in 0.44.02 that made visitors come to your taverns en masse, this was fixed in the recent 0.44.03 update. For how I want to play the game, using the most recent version makes the most sense.

And yes, you have read those version numbers correctly. Dwarf Fortress is still in alpha.

Pick A Tile Or Graphics Set

Dwarf Fortress is ASCII art. It looks like this:

Via Bay 12 Games

Via Bay 12 Games

I eventually got used to it, but after a while it started hurting my eyes to squint at all the letters. Luckily, fans have made dozens upon dozens of tile and graphics sets, which make the game easier to parse. Tile sets don’t add any new graphics, but they do change up the colours and tweak the fonts, which makes them easier to read. Graphics sets change the game more drastically by adding pixel art. These can range from no-nonsense fantasy fare to sets made from Final Fantasy sprites. Your starter pack will probably come with graphics and tile sets and ways to install them easily. If you eventually want more options, you can find more tile and graphics sets on the wiki and on this forum post.

Right now I’m using Wanderlust, which came with the Lazy Mac Pack. It doesn’t quite get rid of all the ASCII art — goblins are still denoted by a lowercase letter “g,” for instance. Still, using a tile set gives the game a bit more life and colour, which I really appreciated three hours deep into a Dwarf Fortress session.

The Wiki Is Your Friend

There is no tutorial for Dwarf Fortress. Luckily, players of the game keep their wiki up to date. If you ever have a question about something in the game, you should google “[YOUR PROBLEM] dwarf fortress wiki.” Whenever I’ve had a question about things like how to make soap, what to put in a hospital, how taverns work, or what the hell stone I just dug into, the Dwarf Fortress wiki has had my back. In fact, I highly recommend you keep these three tabs open when you start playing Dwarf Fortress: this guide for “strange moods,” where your dwarves will demand materials to create valuable artifacts, this cheat sheet for which rocks are what, and the quickstart guide for starting your fortress. The quickstart guide is especially valuable, and you should give it a glance before you get started and refer to it often.

What You Want In A World

When you start playing, you’ll be presented options for world generation. This is the ideal set up for beginners.

You’ll be changing History to Short, Natural Savagery to Very Low and Mineral Occurrence to Everywhere. The game will take a minute or two to generate a history for your world, which is why you want to keep it short. Once you accept this world, you’ll be sent back to the main menu. In order to actually start playing in this world, you’ll select “Start Playing” from the main menu and then select the site where you dwarves will embark. From here, you search for a site. Press “f” to search, and then select these options below at the very least.

The quickstart guide covers this in much more detail, but I can’t stress enough how much the site you put your fortress on will impact your gameplay. When you start the game, you’ll need a water source; at least one layer of dirt indoors; plenty of rock, ore and trees; and a temperate biome. You do not want a place that has high “savagery” or “evil,” is too hot or to too cold, has no trees or bushes or useful ore, or has an aquifer. Not having an aquifer is very important for beginning players. Aquifers are underground water sources that continuously generate water, and dwarves can’t swim. If you hit this when you’re mining, it will flood your fortress and kill all your dwarves. It can be fun, but I’m sure you’d rather be taken out by a forbidden beast or something.

If you want to be a little more picky, you can set “Deep Metal” and “Shallow Metal” to “Multiple.” I’m being fussy by setting “River” to “Yes” and “Soil” to “Some,” but having a nearby source of water and fish is helpful, and having a soil layer will make farming easier. Once you’ve selected everything you want, press enter.

Getting your results back will take a little while. When you do, your screen will be covered in red Xes. Those are sites that didn’t meet your parameters. It may turn out that there aren’t any sites that meet your parameters, and you may decide that you want to roll a new world. If you decide to just pick a site anyway, at the very least you want the surroundings to be “calm” or “wilderness.” If they say “haunted” or sinister,” you’re in an evil region, which will be more dangerous. “Serene” and “mirthful” are good regions, which can be interesting to play, but I think it’s worth learning what a neutral region looks like first. This is an example of a good starting site for new players.

It isn’t perfect, but it works.

When you select your site, just go with the default embark for now and select “Play Now.” Once you’ve played a bit you’ll have a better understanding of what you want in your fortress in the beginning, but for now the default is fine.

Learn All The Most Useful Keyboard Shortcuts

You use your mouse sometimes in Dwarf Fortress, but mostly it’s keyboard shortcuts. Some useful ones to know off the bat are “d” and then “d” again to dig, or “t” to chop trees. You go up or down a levels using “”. Once you’ve gotten enough materials to build workshops, you hit “b” to open the build menu, then “w” for workshops. Usually you will scroll menus with “-” and “+”. Sometimes you’ll be able to scroll menus with the arrow keys. There is no real rhyme or reason to that, so just try one and then the other. You scroll the map using the arrow keys, and it will jump around a lot. If you want to scroll around just using the cursor, hit “k” and move the cursor around with the arrow keys. This will also allow you to put your cursor on a specific object and see what it is.

Remember that keyboard shortcuts are case-sensitive. “D” and “d” don’t do the same thing.

Starting Your First Fortress

Read the quickstart guide. Please, do it right now. It will give you everything you need to know and keep you from getting too frustrated. If you’d rather learn by trial and error, here’s what I think is most important to know once you’ve embarked.

Going straight down involves channeling, which is a bit complicated, but digging into a mountain is easy. Look for a cliff face to tunnel into.

Hit “u” to see all a list of units, and then use the arrow keys to tab over to “Animals” to see what animals are nearby. No reason to get taken out by a bear before you even start.

Remember that you can be attacked by other civilizations, animals, or were-animals at pretty much any time. Go down a few levels before you start placing anything important, or creating an area where a lot of dwarves will be at once. This gives you a bit of buffer before everyone starts getting murdered.

Dwarves need alcohol to get through the day. While you won’t start brewing right away and your supplies include alcohol, get your farm plots and stills ready to create a steady stream of booze.

Keep an eye on the cat and dog population before you have dozens of puppies and kittens that will clog your hallways until you realise you have to kill them all.

You will need a military before you hit a population of 80. Trust me.

Fortress design is a matter of personal aesthetics, but I like to tunnel in a little bit, make a 5×5 or larger room to serves as my main staircase, and then start making compact floors around that staircase. So I’ll have one small floor for workshops, another for forges, another for my kitchen and dining room, another for my bedrooms or dormitory, and so on. I find it keeps me more organised, so I know what level to go to if I need a dwarf to do a specific task.

The most important thing is to know that it’s all going to end. When you lose, know that the story you tell is going to be amazing.