Dwarf Fortress Week: Map Design

Continuing with Dwarf Fortress Week, today I’ll be looking at how the fortress mode of DF matches up with the messy design of many real-world structures that evolved in use over time, and how it can inform RPG players looking to make maps.

Often RPG maps are designed with logic and simplicity in mind; occasionally a natural feature is incorporated, like a waterfall or semi-random tree placements with a treetop village, but the whole is tidily designed. This is rarely the case in real-world locations with any serious history, and for good reason. Fantasy world, full of much worse threats than history ever had, should be significantly less tidy than this. Dwarf Fortress can help explain and understand the reason via fortress mode.

Take it from an in-world perspective; while you, as the player running the fort or the GM, may very well be aware that you’ve settled close enough to goblins, necromancers, and a hostile nation of elves in a cursed land that promises to have the dead come to life, the settlers likely don’t. They found someplace that looks somewhat promising, and they’re hoping to settle in and build a home.

So they arrive, and the first thing they’re going to want to do is to try to get some basic protection – after all, they’re in a world which is known to be dangerous, even if they don’t think they’re in immediate danger. They dig in, put up a defensive barricade around their supplies, and start to build a place to keep the rain off their heads and vermin out of their supplies.

But, unknown to them, they have settled someplace dangerous, and their first clue is what the woodcutter comes sprinting back to the settlement, screaming about the walking dead – some patch of the forest is tainted with foul forces, and so anything dead in that area rises to shamble about looking for living creatures to kill. So the settlers hastily reinforce their structure and the pair that had been hoping to get to dig for precious metals and gems find themselves frantically carving chunks of rock for sturdier walls and to make a space to move everyone and everything into.

That space isn’t going to be well-designed, what with it being the frantic effort of a few people making a burrow. You’ll have hollows dug out to stuff things into, a hastily-assembled door to bar against the dead if they get inside the initial wall, and everyone cramped and irritable once the initial panic is past. What starts as an emergency burrow needs to be expanded – first a dormitory for everyone to at least have a space to curl up and nap, then a place for workshops like a still for brewing and a bowyer’s shop so that the walking dead can be shot at from a distance. Before long, there’s a messy, cluttered fort of a burrow, and the inhabitants are killing time while the zombies shamble around outside the door by building traps to catch them and chiseling engravings into the walls.

Then a trade caravan comes along, hoping to find a thriving fort, and instead they find a tight-knit group of survivors who happily trade crossbow bolts made of bone that may or may not be animated by dark forces for food, drink, and other goods; some of the merchants spread word about the strange settlement and before you know it, some people who figure they may as well take a chance show up at the door, banging on it and demanding to be let in before the zombies eat them.

The miners dig down and start carving individual bedrooms to make space for the newcomers, and soon there’s a complicated maze of stairs up and down, small storerooms, and corridors winding between areas. More people arrive, the original settlers realize they can’t keep digging blind lest they end up under the cursed forest, and so they dig a new area out, this time carefully planning the corridors and rooms to accommodate twice the number of citizens the place currently holds and setting up space for workers in every job they can think of, then taking their marksmen up to the surface to hold off the undead while the miners breach the surface and the first parts of a new surface wall are built.

They migrate everyone over, seal off the old burrows behind heavy slabs of stone, and abandon it to whatever can manage to break through the old palisade wall – a dungeon next to a thriving fortress once the dead walk inside. They may even take to sending military forces into the old halls every so often to train them against their dark foes. For a time, life settles into a routine.

Then something happens; the miners, digging deep below the fort, break into ancient caverns full of strange materials and exotic beasts, perhaps. The lure of the treasure of the depths is too much, and they begin carving yet another fort – this one in the depths of the world, supported by the surface fort, where foundries churn through the ores the mining expeditions produce. The twin fortresses thrive by selling the products of the depths to surface traders. Being a fantasy world, the deep fortress taps magma to power their forges and furnaces, leaving them independent of a need for anything from the surface – their beds and chests are carved from wood-like fungus from the depths, their food and drink crafted from strange eyeless beasts and exotic-looking growths on the damp rocks.

Then something else happens. Maybe the upper fort falls to a siege of goblins, who get blocked off by strategic rockfalls that seal the lower fort from the surface. Maybe the lower fort is attacked by a dark and terrible beast from the caverns, a forgotten horror from the dawn of time. Maybe the miners simply dig too deep and let loose something that can’t be contained, forcing them to evacuate and collapse the tunnels behind them. Or maybe nothing happens, and they eventually forget about things like the first fort, where a few goblins dig in the dark to hide from the undead that chased them in, gradually turning it into a warren for their kind as they breed.

Left behind? Ruins, carved by people who wanted to get between familiar places quickly, sometimes along routes that don’t make sense unless you know the entire layout. A fortress to one side that’s a tangled mess of stairs and passages that were dug in a hurry to handle desperate needs. Maybe a living fortress connected by narrow paths to something in the world’s heart – maybe forgotten, maybe still alive, maybe a site for adventurers to explore the depths from. All of it built in a chaotic and organic fashion, expanded as materials allowed and time required.

Check back tomorrow for more Dwarf Fortress shenanigans.

Dwarf Fortress Week: Map Design

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