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8 things you should know before starting Dwarf Fortress

Strike the earth!

A screenshot of a Dwarf Fortress world Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon
Jeffrey Parkin (he/him) has been writing video game guides for Polygon for almost seven years. He has learned to love just about every genre of game that exists.

Dwarf Fortress might just be the hardest and most complicated game out there. It’s got less of a learning curve and more of a learning cliff. You’re in charge of everything and there’s a never-ending stream of things that need your attention.

This Dwarf Fortress beginner’s guide will help you start your way up that cliff.

Learn to love the phrase “losing is fun”

There is no way to win Dwarf Fortress — no end screen, no real goal. There’s the ostensible aim of becoming a mountainhome — a capital — but the game doesn’t really end there. And that means every fortress you build will eventually fail. Maybe it’ll fall to an enemy attack or your own managerial mistakes or maybe you’ll just get bored with it.

There’s a phrase that’s been adopted by the Dwarf Fortress community: “Losing is fun.” The new Steam version includes a tutorial and healthy help menu, but your first several fortresses are still going to fail. Because there are lots of ways to fail.

Dwarf Fortress screenshot showing an alert displaying a list of jobs that failed because they were interrupted by giant wrens. There are pools of blood from the wrens’ victims.
Sometimes you lose because of giant, murderous wrens.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

We’ve described Dwarf Fortress as barely contained chaos. That’s where a lot of that “losing is fun” comes from. In the screenshot above, the fortress failed because, every time I chopped down a tree, a flock of giant wrens would murder whoever did the chopping — along with any pets they could reach. Everyone was dead within minutes.

Discovering (or creating) new and exciting ways to fail is the fun of Dwarf Fortress. Embrace that.

Location, location, location

Once you’ve created a world, you’ll need to pick an embark location. This is where you’ll build your new fortress home. We go into more detail in our guide to building your first fortress, but here are the important things to look for: no aquifers, at least some trees, and at least some soil.

Selecting a Dwarf Fortress embark location. There’s an information panel on the right showing what is present at the location.
Look for an embark location with no aquifer and plenty of resources.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

Aquifers are underground water deposits that will slowly flood your fortress and are a pain to deal with. Trees supply lumber for building furniture and constructing workshops. Soil lets you plant crops for farming.

Don’t dig too much at once

When it’s finally time to start digging your fortress with the Digging Orders menu (m), don’t stretch your miner(s) too thin. It’s easy to get carried away and start drawing your entire base right away. That’s counterproductive, though, since it’s going to take a long time for your miners to work, and they’ll leave chunks unfinished if you give them too many options for where to dig next. Instead, work in small sections at a time with a purpose, and wait for the miner(s) to finish before moving on.

And remember that it’s faster to dig through dirt and loam than it is to dig through rock.

Don’t go overboard on hallways

You can make your rooms any size you want and your hallways can be as wide as you like, but digging takes time, so it’s pointless to make things bigger than they really need to be.

Hallways only need to be one block wide. Your dwarves can pass over or through any structures or furniture, and they don’t run into each other, so you don’t have to worry much about traffic jams.

Assign Nobles and Administrators to work for you

There’s a lot to keep track of while you’re trying to keep your fortress functioning. Luckily, you can assign dwarves to administration positions and make your job easier. You’ll do this in the Nobles and Administrators menu (n).

The Dwarf Fortress Nobels and Administrators menu with three roles assigned.
The Nobels and Administrators menu.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

Here, you can assign jobs like Manager to handle work orders and Bookkeeper to keep track of your resources. Eventually, the Manager and the Bookkeeper will need offices — a room with a door and a chair — but you don’t have to worry about it right away.

Use warnings to decide what to do next

Periodically, alerts and warnings will pop up in the upper left corner. You’ll get news about the weather and births here, but you’ll also get reports about jobs that can’t be finished for whatever reason.

Dwarf Fortress screenshot with an alert window pointing out that the fortress is out of plants to turn into booze.
Warnings will tell you what your fortress needs.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

You’ll get warnings if you don’t have materials. See the screenshot above, for example — the fortress has run out of plants to turn into alcohol. You’ll also get warnings about not having barrels to store alcohol in or warnings about running out of building materials.

Use these warnings to plan your next move. If you’re out of plants, farm or gather some more. If you’re out of materials, expand your mines or chop down more trees. If you need something specific like barrels or blocks, create a new work order for them.

Keep your dwarves (relatively) happy

Generally speaking, your first handful of fortresses probably won’t last long enough for your dwarves’ happiness to become a real issue. That said, there are some pretty simple things that’ll keep them happy longer.

Examining the thoughts of a Dwarf Fortress dwarf.
A dwarf’s most recent thoughts are on the overview panel, or you can dig deeper with the thoughts tab.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

You can check on each dwarf by clicking on them and looking at their Thoughts. Look for negative emotions to see what you help with. (You can also get there from the Citizens menu with u.)

Some common unhappiness causes and their solutions might be:

  • Build some beds at a Carpenter workshop. Place them in a room with four walls and door, and make that room a dormitory or bedroom zone.
  • Place some chairs and tables (built at either a Carpenter or Stoneworker workshop) in a Meeting Area zone so they have somewhere to sit. Also, make sure your Meeting Area is inside or underground — dwarves don’t like getting caught in the rain.
  • Collect and farm different plants — dwarves get bored drinking and eating the same thing every day.

Remember that losing is fun

The point of Dwarf Fortress is often failing in new and creative ways. Don’t think of a collapsed fortress as a failure. Instead, think of it as fun. Every fortress is a chance to learn something new — something you should’ve done earlier, something you shouldn’t have done, or something to prepare better for next time.

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