clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tales from Dwarf Fortress: an armed penguin and his polar bear friend walk into a bar

We took the colony simulation’s often overlooked Adventure mode out for a spin, and things got weird

An ASCII representation of the world of Dwarf Fortress shows a series of smiley faces in close proximity to a male sex symbol and an asterisk.
A penguin man and polar bear woman walk into a tavern in Dwarf Fortress.
Image: Bay 12 Games via Polygon
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Queca Frostyskies arrived at the tavern just after dawn. Inside, fully half the population of the dwarven colony at the Hill of Persuaders were passed out on the floor. Quickly and quietly the half-man, half-penguin hefted a satchel full of delicious cave mushrooms that was leaning next to the open door and quietly made his way back out into snow. The dwarves would never miss them, and Queca was already quite hungry from three days of overland travel.

Not far away his traveling companion, a sentient bear-woman named Fidale Frillbrides, was thawing out their canteens. Soon their bellies were full. By supper that evening both of them would be dead, killed by a murderous pair of goblins below the spires of Hatredsteals.

Such is the life of an adventurer in Dwarf Fortress, a game that continues to be simultaneously one of the greatest storytelling engines I’ve ever encountered and an absolutely inscrutable mess.

This latest update makes me love it and hate it all the more.

Dwarf Fortress mining Image: Tarn Adams/Bay 12 Games

Dwarf Fortress is best known as a colony simulation, a game where players lead a small group of fantastical creatures in carving out a life for themselves in the wilderness. On paper, the game’s Fortress mode is a bit like what would happen if The Oregon Trail were to be set somewhere inside Middle-earth. But Dwarf Fortress also features another style of play, a grand roguelike experience called Adventure mode. Adventure mode just got a great big update, so I decided to give it a try. That’s how I ended up getting two endangered species murdered by some rampaging goblins.

The big selling point of this new version of Adventure mode is that it allows you to create a party of adventurers for the first time. Previously you could only play Adventure mode as a single character. The new update helps the game feel a bit more like a party-based role-playing game, something along the lines of the Dragon Age series or a turn-based Japanese-style RPG. Appropriately, character generation is a blast.

Every time you spool up a new world in Dwarf Fortress the game engine not only simulates eons of complex geologic time, but generations of historical figures and events as well. The end result is a world with both a unique structure and a rich history. Each one also includes its own unique set of races. There are dwarves and humans and elves, of course, but my world had many more options. I could have played the game as an eagle-man, a grasshopper-man, or even as a hamster-man. Instead, I went for two characters inspired by the wintry weather conditions here in northern Illinois — a penguin-man and a polar bear-woman.

From there I chose a starting location. I picked a place far to the north called the Forest of Locks. There, inside a clearing in the woods, we began our journey within a tiny fishing village filled with other sentient polar bears selling their wares. Each one had quests for us, which included tales of fell beasts and great treasures lost to time, all of which were drawn from the game’s procedural world generation. Unfortunately, not a single one of these polar bears knew where any of the beasts or treasures were located. So, we broke camp and headed south.

A list showing options to create an albatross man, an anaconda man, a bark scorpion man, a brown recluse spider man, and a gray squirrel man among others.
A sub-menu in the new character creation system in Dwarf Fortress allows you to make a character based on any of the intelligent creatures in its procedurally generated worlds.
Image: Bay 12 Games via Polygon

The next day my little party stumbled upon a troupe of elves embarked on their own journey through the frozen Forest of Locks. Chatting with Evala Cecathitathi, I was able to narrow down the location of a troublesome band of goblins known as the Twinkling Spiders. At her direction I headed due west toward the dark fortress known as Hatredsteals.

According to the Dwarf Fortress wiki, goblins live on top of tall spires surrounded by a series of trenches. Stairs leading up to those spires are difficult to find, so when I made it to Hatredsteals I dropped out of the overland map and started exploring the terrain in detail. That’s where the game’s quirky interface became a problem.

Dwarf Fortress is a strictly two-dimensional experience, the video game equivalent of looking at a CT scan. At any moment, the screen is only showing you a single slice of the landscape. Hills may rise before you, but you can’t see the top of them on your computer screen until your character is able to set foot there. That makes finding vertical structures — like giant spires populated by goblins — tremendously difficult.

Also complicating things is the fact that the game doesn’t actually include graphics. Everything in Dwarf Fortress is represented by colorful ASCII characters. There are several fan-made modifications that add a little more color and logic to the game’s symbology. There’s also a full-fledged graphical version headed to Steam in the not-too-distant future. But, for my playthrough, I opted for the vanilla experience, and it made for slow going.

A snowy field of tilde signs with triangles representing slopes and circles for trees.
A chance meeting in the woods. Each lower-case “e” here is an elf, while the at signs are my characters. The capital “J” is our pet war jaguar. Naturally. The triangles represent rises in the landscape going uphill.
Image: Bay 12 Games via Polygon

Even more challenging is the game’s inventory system.

Dwarf Fortress is not compatible with a mouse, so every input is mapped to a specific key on the keyboard. More complicated still is the fact that the keyboard commands don’t seem to share any continuity at all from screen to screen. The effect is to turn every single layer of the game’s menu system into its own exercise in memorization.

It’s there in the menu system where my first evening back with Dwarf Fortress truly began to bog down. The temperature in the Forest of Locks is below zero, so every time I needed to take a drink from the canteen I had to stop and build a fire to unthaw it. All of that took about a half-dozen button presses and a few moments of waiting around. Eating was simple enough since all I had to do was punch a few keys to pop a stolen mushroom into my mouth. But drinking was an arduous process. Making matters worse, all the rivers there are frozen.

When I finally stumbled upon the entrance to the spire, Queca the penguin-man was suffering from dehydration. That’s when our party was set upon by a fast-moving pair of goblins. Queca got a few good blows in before losing his hand, then his leg, followed quickly by his head. Fidale the polar bear-woman fought valiantly, sinking several cherry wood arrows deep into the goblin’s flesh. But, before long, both were overcome.

The text at the bottom of the ASCII representation of the action reads “The round-chin goblin axeman slashes you in the head with his iron halberd and the severed part sails off in an arc! You have been struck down.
The end of the line for penguin man, Queca.
Image: Bay 12 Games via Polygon

Despite the frustration, I always want to spend more time with Dwarf Fortress. I think this new version of Adventure mode is my way back into a game that I’ve not spent much time with in years. But there’s some work that I need to do to make the experience tolerable.

Step one will be downloading and installing a graphical mod of some sort, one that gives the world a bit more color. Step two will be finding a warmer place to start my journey, one that doesn’t require me to stop and boil water twice a day to stay hydrated. Then, I’ll probably spend a few nights just walking the magical land that the game has created for me to explore, meeting its characters, and getting a feel for the region that I start in. My energy will be spent on getting used to the interface, getting more familiarity with the movement and inventory systems. Maybe then I’ll try my hand at taking on a goblin stronghold once more.

As novel as the idea of playing a sentient penguin or a polar bear is, maybe next time I’ll stick to characters with opposable thumbs.

Dwarf Fortress is available for free at the Bay 12 Games website. The studio gets by on donations, which you can make there until the end of February. After that you’ll need to head over to the developer’s Patreon site. No release date for the Steam version has been announced, but you can add it to your wish list.

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.