Man cancels life: went insane, part 4

I’m trying to learn Dwarf Fortress the hard way. (Check out parts one , two and three.)


Things were good for a while in Ustuthodom. More migrants joined the fortress. More ore was mined and copper goods were produced. I began to get the hang of farming and basic production flows. I finally managed to trade successfully with the caravans. I carved out and furnished individual apartments for my dwarfs and expanded my warehouses. I also expanded my militia and began building traps in the entry corridor; I was expecting unwelcome company sooner or later.

Overseeing my growing fortress also brought to foreground the most glaring problem with the user interface. It’s not the lack of mouse support; keyboard short cuts are in principle faster, and I’d probably do much of the designating with keyboard anyway as it allows finer control. I can get by with only keyboard. No, it’s the almost total lack of tools that would allow you to manage your fortress as a whole.

Want to know what the overall happiness level in the fortress is? Sorry. You can find out the mood of any individual dwarf and all the factors that influence it, but there is no aggregate information available. Random sampling is the best you can do.

Want to manage the job permissions so that only a reasonable number of dwarfs with reasonable skills do certain jobs? You guessed it, go through every single fucking dwarf on the list that won’t remember who you last inspected or which page you were on. I gather Dwarf Therapist provides a slightly saner way to do manage your workforce, which would make it an indispensable utility.

Want to know the state of the stocks your bookkeeper spend so much time counting? Well, the information is available, but not without pain. Mercifully, you get an aggregate for the amount of food and drink, but for any other category you must dig it out of a poorly organised and uncoöperative stocks screen.

Want to manage your industry on a settlement-wide level? Play Goblin Camp. Dwarf Fortress will let you choose the material an individual item is made of and determine which dwarfs are allowed to work in the workshop the item is ordered to be made in, but it only makes a couple of half-hearted concessions to macromanagement: repeated jobs and work orders. You can set a production to be repeated, but you’ll need to remember to disable it at some point, or set it again as needed, as jobs get cancelled rather than put on hold if there aren’t enough ingredients available. You can also issue work orders to get things manufactured in bulk, up to 30 units at a time, but the process is unnecessarily laborious and you will get repeatedly spammed with notifications of cancelled production whenever raw materials run out.

Most of your time playing Dwarf Fortress is unfortunately not spent doing something interesting. Getting anything done requires soul-murdering amount of boring repetitive micromanagement of routine tasks. If I could get Toady to implement one UI improvement it wouldn’t be mouse support. It would be Stockmanager.

Stocks screen filterable by name and category that lets you set production targets? Heaven.

But not all was mind-numbing boredom. As the wealth of my fortress grew it attracted more than just migrants and traders. I was routinely dealing with thieves and kidnappers, but worse was to come. My woodcutter was out felling more trees to support my metal and soap industries when he ran into a goblin ambush. A dozen goblins had stealthily approached my fortress and, having been discovered, now launched their attack.

Now here was a pretty pickle. I felt fairly confident my partially-equipped militia could handle the goblins once the patchily-trapped corridor had thinned out their numbers, but I had civilians scattered all over the countryside. There were fisherdwarfs by the stream and hunters ranging all over. There were dwarves visiting the pools and puddles to clean themselves. There were haulers retrieving various items left laying about by dead thieves and careless dwarfs. There were random dwarfs running to and fro on strange errands I didn’t always understand. Somehow I had to communicate it to these fools that it was dangerous outside and that they should run inside right now.

I had eyed the “burrows” item in the list of short cuts a few times, and I was fairly certain it was used to designate allowed and forbidden areas for the dwarfs. I hadn’t bothered with it so far, but now I had to. I painted the various floors of my fortress, adding them to a created burrow.

Amusingly, burrow designation is the one activity in the game that lets you use the mouse, proving that Dwarf Fortress could have mouse support if only Toady consented to implement it. You can’t use the mouse to click and drag rectangles, however, only to paint cells with a brush. And since the burrow highlight flashes on and off in a vertigo-inducing manner you are doing it half-blind, missing spots so you need to paint over them again. I found keyboard superior for this task, but only because of the remarkably stupid way the mouse is used.

I had noticed earlier that the alerts tab in the military screen allowed me to move the “Civ” tag around with “Civilian alerts” option, but I still couldn’t make head or tails of the stupid screen with its stupid incomprehensible contractions and stupid unexplained entries. So instead I told everybody in the fortress they now belonged to the newly created burrow, hoping it would convince them to get indoors and stay there so I could order the doors locked. It did.

With civilians out of the way, the militia assembled to deal with the goblins that made it through the traps. Not many did, and the survivors didn’t seem inclined to press their advance. I ordered the militia to charge and the goblins were routed. Victory was mine!

This encounter was the template for several ambushes to follow. A squad or two of goblins would show up and my civilians would mostly run to safety. The goblins would then run into the traps and either lose heart and retreat, or be finished off by my increasingly experienced militia.

Well, once I had the burrow use sorted out. After that first ambush I found that my dwarfs would not go outside their designated burrow no matter what, whether there was an alert or not, and in the end I deleted the burrow to get them moving. A little experimentation showed me that explicitly assigning a dwarf to a burrow would place him there exclusively, while restricting them to a burrow with a civilian alert would temporarily confine them for the duration of the alert. Which, frankly, is how I though it ought to work, but it took me a while to wrap my mind around this bit of the confusing military screen to successfully use the functionality. But hey, the purpose of this exercise was to learn to play Dwarf Fortress. I didn’t expect great things from this first outing, and I had already been more successful than I had thought I’d be.

The goblin ambushes weren’t the only thing menacing my fortress. Every once in a while an ominous pop up would announce the arrival of some terrifying beast. The first of these was the strangest: I was warned of the coming of a being prone to great ambition. To the eye, and look command, it seemed like an ordinary human, but the grandiose announcement made me wary. With trepidation I ordered the militia to kill it, which they did with no trouble whatsoever. From what I’ve learned since, I suspect it was a werebeast that chanced to arrive in its human form. His successors were tougher, though by no means insurmountably so.

Though I was broadly successful in my battles, they weren’t entirely without casualties. I realised I had to try to master yet another of Dwarf Fortress‘s mysteries: how to run a hospital. I dug out a space for it and installed beds for patients, tables for surgery and coffers and cabinets for storing dressings and sutures and whatnots. (I didn’t realise then that only coffers would be used.) Unlike many other specialized rooms, a hospital is not a room but an activity zone. Nevertheless, once established and provisioned, my hospitable seemed to run quite nicely without intervention. Injured dwarfs would be carried in, medical dwarfs would diagnose and eventually treat them, and soon dwarfs equipped with dressings and crutches would be hobbling around the corridors with strange status icons on them.

Since dwarfs in the hospital are not allowed alcohol, I realised I needed to take steps to secure a source of water; I could not count on the stream always being accessible. To this end I launched my greatest endeavour yet: the building of a great cistern fed by a tunnel from the stream, and a well to enable drawing water from it. I ordered my miners to start on the reservoir and the tunnel while I pondered how to prevent accidental flooding and potential water monster incursions. After looking through my build options I ordered grates, floodgates, levers and mechanisms to be built, and also some copper chains as I wanted to make a nice well.

I hadn’t dug out any rooms two levels deep before, and my designations for the cistern weren’t the most efficient ever. I had to improvise some and build a staircase to provide access for the miners. Just as well, really, as the stairs would also provide emergency exit to any idiot who managed to fall down the well, which I considered to be in the realm of plausible Dwarf Fortress happenings. I capped the staircase with a hatch to prevent unauthorised access.

The underground canal for water was dug almost, but not quite, to the stream, and I set about installing grates to hopefully prevent ingress alongside floodgates to control the flow of water. Linking the floodgates to the levers with mechanisms took a long time, the reason no doubt being the arcane ritual that powers the mechanism and enables transmission of signals through sympathetic vibration, and one poor idiot who maybe didn’t have the best appreciation of which side of a floodgate to stand on while installing it got pretty hungry waiting. Finally I punched a hole in the roof of the cistern and built a well on top of it.

Once I had tested the operation of the floodgates I was ready for the most risky part of the operation: breaching the stream. I wasn’t sure what would be the best way to go about it. I didn’t know how fast the water would flow, so I wasn’t sure if a miner would be injured or even drowned. The latency of lever pulling operations was variable, so I didn’t want to trust a miner’s life to the floodgates. In the end I decided to err on the side of caution, and ordered the last bit of earth between the stream and the canal to be channelled out from the outside. This was accomplished without an accident.

I opened the floodgates and the water streamed in, raising clouds of dust and spray when it reached the floor of the cistern. It was working! I watched the water levels like a hawk, and once it reached the halfway mark of the upper level of the reservoir I ordered the floodgates closed. Then I staked out the well until I saw a dwarf drawing water from it. It worked!

I realise I have devoted quite a lot of space to describing this operation, but it is with reason. The successful construction of the well and the reservoir was by far the greatest architectural achievement of my developing fortress, as well as my incipient Dwarf Fortressing career. Everything I had done until then was essentially looking through the menus and picking reasonable things to build and do. Here I combined such elements to take advantage of the game’s physics to achieve an end that seemed feasible based on my vague knowledge of Dwarf Fortress. Success felt pretty rewarding. My reservoir worked!

I felt like I had a fairly self-sufficient fortress now: I was forging metal weapons and armour, even if the best metal available to me was copper; I was growing at least part of my food with room to expand my operations; and I had a mostly secure source of water.


Next: A vile force of darkness.