Wargame Wednesday: Obsessive Game Design – Dwarf Fortress

Wednesday , 14, November 2018 6 Comments

Bay 12 Games’ Dwarf Fortress is a hybrid build game / RPG with an intriguing world creation process and offers features attractive to even the most detailed oriented gamer. A player can choose a Minecraft type game in which a band of dwarves build a thriving community or an adventure in which a player character explores the wider world.  The ASCII map takes some getting used to and while moving my character around the map I was reminded of the old Ultima games (except I didn’t come across any wandering monsters). As for the player interface and graphics, the old Baldur’s Gate this is not. I don’t have the time to explore Dwarf Fortress in depth and not sure that the game is my cup of tea but I salute the brothers Adams’ creation. 

During the world creation phase, a player can adjust the world size, length of the historical narrative, number of civilizations, number of sites, number of beasts, natural savagery and mineral occurrence.  It is the history variable that has piqued my interest and the one that prompts this post’s title of Obsessive Game Design. 

This video discusses aspects of the world creation process.  Pay close attention when the narrator describes terrain features as the cursor is black and is hidden in the ASCII map.  At the 2:48 mark the narrator discusses the legend building phase.  This is amazing, as the game engine creates the history that informs both the map and location of settlements via the generation of historical figures and the historical events they participated in.  At one snapshot in time in the video there are over 20,000 historical figures, over 6,000 have died and these 20,000 have accounted for over 100,000 historical events! If that wasn’t enough there is another overlay that determines the good and evil influenced areas of the world.  This influence manifests itselft in the type of beasts, events and even the place names to be found in predominately good or evil areas. It is guaranteed that an algorithm is generating the multitude of names for geographic locations and historical figures but think of the work and level of detail to provide the algorithm with phonemes and morphemes; unique to each race, used to build the nouns of multiple languages and the mapping of attributes to each races’ cultural preferences in character development. Again, Baldur’s Gate this is not, but this time, the comparison is favorable in which the excellent world building and non player characters populating the Baldur’s Gate world is static across multiple games. 

 Once the world is created the player can choose which style of game to play (fortress or travel adventure). Not sure if the two types of games can be done simultaneously or saved to the other game (e.g. build a fort then explore, come back and build some more). At the 9:15 minute mark in the video linked above a historical figure is chosen and her background history is explored.  The character had goals (build a great work of art) and “journey paths” and her journey was eventful.  She was captured by goblins at a young age but rose high in Goblin society to became a successful general. Her husband was murdered, she committed murder, and eventually was murdered herself. There is probably thesis level complexity in the design of the algorithm that can produce so many different and most importantly, plausible story lines.  The legend level of detail is not just for characters but also geographic locations throughout the created world.

I downloaded the game and created a world and character and have a couple of screen shots on the next page.

I purposefully created one of the smallest game worlds available and the result was the peninsula below.


As the player scrolls up or down to select a character the blue symbols, representing towns and cities change.  See the map below for the elf settlements.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore what the Lion Tamarin man or Moth man characters. Also note you can select your character to be a Peasant, Hero or Demigod.  Wondering if this translates into easy, intermediate and expert settings or for a longer game play?



Note the elf settlements amidst the forest symbols leaving the mountains to the dwarves.  Aqua color below is for ice, guessing yellow is desert and pink, no idea but maybe some evil area or volcanoes. I also spot a small red “^” symbol near the eastern shore.  May be an area of evil. 

Character generation is almost as complex as world creation with a ton of attributes to choose from, many of which will determine your character’s world outlook and goals. Instead of trying to list them all or even give examples another screen shot will do:


I’m interested in hearing if any CH readers play.  There seems to be a lot on offer and I did not explore far as a player character. When I find the time, I’ll probably dive in again. 

  • SmockMan says:

    I haven’t tried dwarf fortress yet, but I do play Rimworld. I consider Rimworld to be a little more accessible, better graphics, while still offering a lot of details.

  • Mark says:

    I’ve dabbled a bit, but in general I think of Dwarf Fortress as like EVE Online – ie it’s a game I prefer reading the stories about, from enormous EVE Online scams and battles to the legend of “Boatmurdered” or “Headshoots” on lparchive.org for Dwarf Fortress.

  • Nathan says:

    References to Boatmurdered, an infamous let’s play, show up even in science fiction and fantasy.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    Huge fan of this game. Spent many a night wrangling those little dorfs around, begging them to do what needed to be done to keep the fortress alive just one more season.

    Shame the developer’s focus on ‘just one feature’ meant the bugs were never worked put well enough to allow all the features to be used at the same time.

  • Albert says:

    It’s been years since I’ve played. Makes me wonder what’s happened recently, but it’s such a time-sink that I don’t dare find out.

  • Mevlin says:

    DF is less a game, and more like an interactive novel… or a collective art project.

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