Dwarf Fortress Week: Intro

Today is the start of a theme week here at the Renegade Octopus! This week we’ll be visiting the world smulation/management game of Dwarf Fortress and taking a look at the ways it can benefit a tabletop game! Today, we’ll lightly go over the game – lightly, because it’s far too complex to fit a proper description into even a week of blog posts.

Dwarf Fortress is theoretically a combination of an adventure game and a fortress management game; in the former mode you assume the role of a single misfit adventurer and go off to explore the world, create a name for yourself, and carve legends in the history of the world. Oddly, there are no set races to play, usually, and what you can be relies rather heavily on what races have managed to survive the world until this point.

Fortress Mode, on the other hand, is what the game is most known for. You get to customize a group of seven dwarves, select a location to embark, and take them to settle there and construct a settlement. Generally this will be a fortress, as the world will inevitably hurl dangerous foes at your settlement and you’ll need to stand against them. Where it gets interesting, however, is that the world you generate prior to this is a place with a wide range of biomes – freezing cold to scorching heat, arid deserts to bubbling swamps, flat ground to ravines to soaring mountains with volcanoes. Each of these biomes is further influenced by both the savagery and the good/evil axis of the area.

As a result, no two forts will look alike. Settle in an area with an aquifer, and you may have endless flowing water to tap to drive water wheels and for water features to keep your dwarven population happy, but you’ll find it hard to dig past it to reach the depths of the world where the greatest treasures lie. Settle in an evil biome and you’ll have to survive nearly unkillable undead just to dig a hole to keep your starting dwarves safe – and then you won’t dare to have any kind of butchering and leatherworking industry, as the skin, hair, and bones of your slaughtered beasts will reanimate and come after you.

Good biomes aren’t any better; dwarves apparently don’t have any maidens among them, as unicorns will happily attack your fortress, and the elves are the kind who regard trees as sacred and who happily cannibalize the dead. No matter where you settle, you’ll gather exciting tales and interesting fortress designs in your efforts to stay alive.

This is all well and good, of course, but what does it offer to tabletop games? A surprising amount, really. The first is that you’ll learn part of why places are never as tidy as some RPG maps would indicate. What players think of as a secret passage may be a passage that was made to prevent traffic through an early clinic, before a better place for the leecher to operate was finished. Similarly, some of the ways you’ve laid maps out before will reveal themselves as nonsensical when you’re dealing with a fortress full of independent creatures living their lives. Putting the barracks on the opposite side of everything from the dining hall just causes congestion in the corridors. What you thought was a clever aqueduct system turns out to result in part of your fortress becoming a flooded grave for some of your citizens. Optimizing your fortress will inform your map design for games and make it better.

Likewise, the situations that DF presents – sieges by demon-led goblins, attacks by titans, the discovery of a vampire among your population, or the discovery of what happens when you dig too deeply – can all provide ample seeds for sessions and campaigns. The mountain fortress has gone silent; their last message didn’t indicate anything wrong. Now some intrepid heroes need to go see what happened, before any further caravans are sent to trade. Have they simply holed up? Did a siege of goblins break through their defenses? Did a beast from the dawn of time come surging up from the caverns they’d just recently opened, fell and terrible, to destroy them from within? Or did something worse happen? You’ll also find ample seeds in the Legends mode for any world you generate, with the histories of civilizations and famed beings recorded to be mined for ideas and details.

Next, you can mine the game’s population for characters; each and every character comes with likes, dislikes, and a history. Almost of them them, given a little time, will develop friendships and grudges that you can use to make the world feel alive to players when you drop them in. Hilga Stoneoar likes Urist Ironhook, but detests his wife Greta Gemfist, who doesn’t even know who Hilga is, much less that she might be looking for an excuse to bump Greta off to open Urist up to her advances.

Lastly, there’s the language files that come with the game. These alone make it a wonder for any GM looking to name locations and people while suffering from a dearth of creativity on the subject. The game comes with a random name generator for everything from characters to groups and locations; a little fiddling will produce names in any of the languages included with it, allowing for a range of dwarven, elven, and goblin names to use, as well as the ‘human’ translations. After all, the volcanic fortress StesokOsod sounds that much more intimidating when you learn that it’s Dwarven for “Moltenbone” doesn’t it?

Tomorrow I’ll come back with some specifics on how you can use Legends mode to generate seeds for NPCs, locations, and adventures in your games.

Dwarf Fortress Week: Intro

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