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The 11 biggest changes in Dwarf Fortress’ Steam release

It’s a big adjustment from vanilla Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress screenshot of a wagon just after arriving at a new embark location. There are two cats and a dwarf in a tree nearby. 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.

With Dwarf Fortress’ Steam release, a few big things are different. For experienced players, it might take some time to adjust. Below, we’ll give you the 11 biggest changes we noticed after putting a quarantined-with-COVID amount of hours into the original version and about 40 hours into the Steam release.

There’s a tutorial and the help is more helpful

The addition of a tutorial to Dwarf Fortress is a big deal. There has never been a tutorial before. For nearly 20 years now, players were dumped into the game with no explanation and left to sort through the game’s legendary complexity on their own (or with a lot of help from the official wiki). This is why Dwarf Fortress’ learning curve is called a learning cliff.

The new tutorial walks you through the first few steps of your first fortress and helps you learn the mechanics. You can even go back to it later.

Dwarf Fortress’ new tutorial and help menus.
There’s a tutorial now!
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

Even if you close it, you can reactivate and interact with the tutorial at any time from the help menu. Beyond that, the help menu has been reorganized into something much more accessible and helpful.

Graphics, obviously

Aside from the addition of a tutorial, the biggest change to Dwarf Fortress is visual — in that there are visuals now. Sure, some of the appeal of Dwarf Fortress has been the… let’s call it quirky nature of the ASCII graphics. But the new graphics — new tilesets provided by Mayday and Ironhand — are a welcome addition.

This graphical redesign extends to the menus as well. Instead of just changing, text-based lists, there are cascading menus with helpful icons. Let’s talk about the menus, actually.

Menus make more sense

Most of Dwarf Fortress’ menus have been rearranged in logical ways. Frustratingly, this somehow makes it more confusing if you’re used to the old version.

Let’s start with what used to be Designations (d). The subcategories have been broken out into their own menus with their own icons. Now, there’s a separate menu for Digging (m), Tree Chopping (l), Plant Gathering (g), Smoothing and engraving (v), and Removing Orders (x). Designating items for Dumping and Smelting (i) is in it’s own menu as well.

Dwarf Fortress screenshot with several nested menus related to building workshops and farms.
The redesigned Build menu.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

Building things with b is a lot more organized now, in that it’s organized at all. Military constructions like Armor Stands and Archery Targets get their own sub-menu now. Doors and Hatches have their own as well.

Workshops have also been rearranged. Looms and Leather Workshops are filed under their own sub-heading of, logically, Clothing and Leather (even though the Tanner is under Farming). The sub-heading Farming covers everything else food-related like Stills, Kitchens, and Querns. (Interestingly, Millstones are not included in Farming Workshops, and are now located under the Machines/Fluids menu along with Wells and Levers.)

Over in the bottom left of the screen, you’ll have icons for Creatures, Tasks, Places, Labor, Work Orders, Nobles, Objects, and Justice — all menus you could access before, but now they’re all in one easy-to-click place.

Some Workshops have changed

One other simple change under the Workshops menu is that Mason has been renamed to Stoneworker. This doesn’t really change anything — it’ll just take you a second to find it if you’re looking for the wrong name.

A bigger change here is the addition of the Vermin Catcher’s Shop. This new workshop handles the Capture Live Land Animal job that used to be found in Kennels and Butchers.

Speaking of Kennels, those don’t exist anymore.

Many of the keyboard shortcuts have changed

Not every keyboard shortcut in different in the Steam versus of Dwarf Fortress, but enough of them are that it’s going to take a bit to relearn if you’re used to the vanilla version.

The first example you’ll bump into is that mining is no longer d>d — instead, it’s m>m. Or, since Tree Chopping gets it’s own menu now, you designate an area just by hitting l instead of d > l like before.

Many of the Workshops in the build menu (which is o instead of w) have different shortcuts, too — Carpenter is p, for example, and a Kitchen is one menu deeper under Farming (f) and has the shortcut k.

If you’re a Dwarf Fortress veteran, take your time to learn the new shortcuts — there are helpful tooltips that pop up when you hover the mouse over any given icon — instead of trying to forge ahead with the commands you (think you) know.

Un-designating mining is a different command now

We mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating because it’s an odd sticking point for us: you can’t go straight from designating a mining area to removing that designation. In the Steam version, you have to close the mining menu — by right-clicking or hitting esc — and then open the remove designation menu with x to start erasing those designated blocks.

One reason this is frustrating is that the keyboard-controlled cursor no longer remembers its location between menus, so you’ll have to reposition it every time.

Stairs are simpler

Speaking of mining, stairs have changed a little. Instead of different stairs for up, down, and up/down, there is now only one kind of stair. You start and stop them on different levels, and the appropriate stairs fill in automatically. You do still have the option to build stairs as well with Build (b) > Constructions (n) > Stairs (t). The layout works the same as digging stairs.

Controlling Labor and skills is much different

Dwarf Fortress’, frankly, inscrutable Labor and Skills menu(s) have been pretty dramatically redesigned. Instead of managing each dwarf directly — or even indirectly by using add-ons like DFHack or Dwarf Therapist — there’s a simple menu now.

The Dwarf Fortress Labor menu.
Controlling Labor and Skills is a lot more simplified now.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

Labors are grouped in broad categories like Miners, Woodcutters, and Haulers. For each category, you’ve got the option to let anyone pick up a job (Everybody does this), select the dwarves that do it (Only selected do this), and forbid any dwarf from doing it (Nobody does this).

If you want to dig down deeper to control more specific tasks like who does Tanning, Gem Cutting, or Cleaning, you’ll have to Add a new work detail and handle it that way.

Announcements and reports have moved

Dwarf Fortress screenshot with an announcement that a yak bull is fighting.
“Fighting” includes when you accidentally drop a tree on a yak.
Image: Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games via Polygon

Announcements and Reports now pop up as alerts with icons in the upper left of your screen. They’re even grouped by category. This makes them work a lot more like any other RTS.

Using a mouse is not optional

While everything in vanilla Dwarf Fortress was handled via the keyboard, there are some commands and mechanics that just don’t have the option for keyboard input any more.

Some constructions — like Stockpiles — require you to click on the menu icon to create them. Similarly, you can’t place Stockpiles with the cursor and arrow keys. Creating Zones is the same — you’ll need to use the mouse to decide what kind of zone you’re making and to place it.

It’s not clear if this is a bug, not implemented yet, or a purposeful decision. On that note …

There are still some bugs to work out

To be clear, we haven’t encountered any game-breaking bugs and the game actually runs better than ever, but some things just don’t quite work right. If you’re placing a floor or a bridge, for example, there’s no indication of where the floor is as you drag out the shape. It’s easy enough to work around it, but it’s a little awkward since you can’t actually see what you’re doing.

Have a little patience as the game continues to develop. It took us 20 years to get here, after all.