Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress

by Peter Tyson

Cover image

Publisher: O'Reilly
Copyright: May 2012
ISBN: 1-4493-1494-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 219

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If you're unfamiliar with Dwarf Fortress, you're in good company. Most people are, even people who play video games regularly. It was heavily inspired by roguelike games: games such as Hack and Rogue and their more recent variations, which have been around since the 1970s and are still frequently played with simple character graphics on 2D maps. Dwarf Fortress even has a roguelike gameplay mode, but the core of the game (and the only part of the game covered in this book) is the fortress mode, where the player controls a band of dwarfs in an attempt to construct and maintain a fortress. All of this is done (by default, at least) in a simulated-text interface filled with a barrage of strange characters and symbols. A Dwarf Fortress game in progress is almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated. (There are graphical tile sets available, but all the illustrations in this book assume the default display mode.)

Dwarf Fortress gains its cult popularity (sufficient to support the primary developer solely through voluntary donations; the game is free) from the incredible depth and richness of the world. Almost everything is modeled in startling detail, down to the individual items of clothing that each dwarf wears, their personalities and history, and a considerable part of the industrial lifecycle of any goods that the fortress needs to produce (such as food and all-important alcohol). That's where this book comes in. The game is so massive and involves so many variables, industries, needs, requirements, and perils that the first-time player is likely to see their first games collapse due to resource problems they have no idea how to address. Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress walks the player through the initial fortress setup, the resource cycles, and the fundamentals of the various parts of the game one has to monitor. The fact that this discussion takes over 200 pages should give you an idea of the depth of the game.

I should stop here and warn that, similar to my RPG sourcebook reviews, I read this book somewhat against its intended purpose. I haven't played Dwarf Fortress and don't currently intend to. It's not quite my game type: I don't like open world construction games in which it's possible to lose (and thereby lose all the things that one has built). But the idea of the game, the way it's developed, and the fact that O'Reilly would publish a book about it is so delightfully strange that I wanted to get a feel for the game without investing the time required to learn it. Thankfully, while the book is designed to be a tutorial, it also does an excellent job at conveying the feel of a game.

Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress is divided into eleven chapters. After a chapter of introduction, it goes over site selection, some of the options for your initial party, and recommended settings for both. It then provides some advice for the initial rooms and initial fortress layout to get started. Subsequent chapters are more topic-oriented, covering food, merchants, resource management (including Strange Moods), digging, and the various chains of industry. The final chapters cover some of the more intricate details of dwarven life, such as justice, vampires, and hospitals, and then provide an introduction to the military and to dwarven engineering. The engineering chapter, in particular, makes it clear that vast complexity and possibility is left unexamined.

One drawback of the printed version of the book (I don't know if this also applies to the ebook) is that all of the screen shots here are black and white. This makes Dwarf Fortress's already-forbidding presentation even more difficult to understand. At times, I had a hard time picking out features that were described in the text. A look at on-line screenshots quickly shows that color is massively helpful in making sense of all the little glyphs. I'm sure color printing would have made the printed version prohibitively expensive, but it is a loss.

The text, though, is excellent. Not only is it clear and helpful (although with the caveat that I've not personally tested it), it captures much of the humor and feel of the game. Dwarf Fortress incorporates computer-generated storytelling that narrates the events of the game (and the backstory of the world), which has sparked a tradition of delightfully wry commentary on games, game mechanics, and events in the game (particularly the ones that cause the cascading destruction of the whole fortress). Tyson captures that tone brilliantly, weaving it throughout his descriptions. This is a tutorial that's genuinely fun to read. (Although the Tim Denee comics ending chapters sadly didn't work for me.)

It's certainly possible to get started with Dwarf Fortress without this book. There are other tutorials on-line, as well as an impressively huge wiki. But this is a great introduction and is entertainment in its own right. If you've thought about playing the game, or if, like me, you want a good feel for what it's like without investing the time in actually playing it, I recommend it.

I should probably note that this book covers Dwarf Fortress up to 0.34.07, and the dead tree version that I have obviously won't be further updated. O'Reilly does note on the back cover that if you purchase the ebook edition, it will receive free updates for the "life of the edition" (however long that is). If you're worried about subsequent changes in the game making the book obsolete (given the ongoing active development, this is something of a worry, although this book mostly covers fundamentals), you may want to grab the electronic version.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-08-15

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21