Everything I need to know I learned from Dwarf Fortress
Sometimes in the evening when there’s nothing else to do, I’ll fire up one of the indie games that I downloaded before coming here. Most of these games are light and forgettable, which is to say, most of them are not Dwarf Fortress. When I saw that version 0.34 had been released after about a year, I bought a little data so I could download the 25MB file, lost a weekend creating my little fortress, and I haven’t touched it since.
For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s something else. It’s under constant development, but even it’s not-halfway-finished state, it’s a complex and compelling simulation of a group of dwarfs just trying to carve out a home for themselves. When I say complex, I mean it. Everything’s there. From dwarf doctors splinting the broken limbs of injured dwarfs to dwarf farmers making fat into lye into soap, everything meticulously modeled and seamlessly integrated into the game. In the fort that I mentioned above, for instance, I was trying to build up (or down, rather) a place for the dwarfs to live but I couldn’t dig through the aquifer. It looked like they were going to be at mercy of the elements until I realized I could dig through the shale deposits at the river mouth.
What I want to write about today is some life lessons from the game. I play Tarn Adams’ earlier project Liberal Crime Squad more often because the process or organizing a revolution against a backwoods yet corporate nightmare reminds me somehow of doing community work here in South Africa, but I don’t know what I’m learning from that game.
5. Keep your place tidy.
A big part of Dwarf Fortress is keeping the dwarfs happy– bad things happen when they’re not happy. But sometimes bad things happen anyway. If a dwarf gets caught in the rain or has to eat without a chair, these things impact their mood negatively. So it’s a good thing that dwarfs have good taste when it comes to architecture and craftsmanship. It’s not uncommon to see a dwarf with modifiers on their mood such as “He has suffered the loss of a friend lately. He has witnessed death. He admired a fine table lately.” This dwarf knows that you can’t always prevent loss, but you can always take pride in what you have.
4. Have a back-up plan.
So let’s say you’re diverting a river so you can have easy access to water via a well in your dining room. You dig a reservoir below your dining room and prepare the well. As soon as you breach the river to let it flow into the reservoir, the water backs up through the well to flood your dining room! You obviously didn’t understand fluid mechanics very well when you were planning this, but fortunately you’re prepared for events like this, because you’ve installed doors on all your rooms so you can seal them off whenever you need to. A flooded dining room sealed off from the rest of the fortress may not be what you wanted, but it might be what you needed.
3. Let people do what they want.
Each dwarf has their own set of skills and preferences, but just the same, each dwarf can be assigned to any sort of job. The happiest dwarf is one who’s given a job that matches what he likes, for instance, a dog trainer who loves dogs. When you have dwarfs who are doing something against their nature, that’s when you have a problem. Someone who helps people only begrudgingly is not going to be a good nurse. They’ll do it if they don’t have a choice, sure, but they’ll grumble the whole time while bringing food and water to their patients, and it’s such a waste when you could give the job to someone who actually likes it.
2. Idleness isn’t bad.
The Dwarf Fortress interface has a number in the corner showing how many idlers your fortress has, dwarfs who are just sitting around because there are no open tasks they can do. It’s easy to see a high number of idlers as an accusation that your fortress is inefficient, and a low number as affirmation that your fortress is busy and thriving. But who said that being busy is necessarily a good thing? In my first fortress, when I saw that I had a high number of idlers, I would assign my dwarfs to haul stones around to where they might some day be needed. It kept them busy, yes, but not at all productive, because there is always stone everywhere. The truth is that if you can stand to let your dwarfs stand still for a moment, they’ll use that dreaded idleness to congregate in meeting places and enhance their social skills. This is useful further down the line for diplomacy and crisis management. Being busy is not always good, and having a moment to breathe is not always your enemy.
1. Losing is fun.
This is the motto of the DF community, and it’s hard to buy into it until you try it. The game is hard and there’s no winning condition, so the best you can hope for in the end is to lose spectacularly. That seems like such a weird thing. Why even bother? It’s like building a sand castle just so you can watch it get destroyed by the tide.
If the game were easy and free of threats, with no goblins or megabeasts, and if dwarfs could breathe underwater and swim in magma, it would just be about the building. That has all the excitement and appeal of a set of legos. Imagine building a house out of legos. That might be fun is you’re five years old. Now imagine having to defend that house from a siege of angry elves. Moments of crisis like this are what make life interesting. If you win, congratulations, you’re pretty good at constructing lego traps. And if you lose, well, legos were made to be taken apart.