... now with 35% more arrogance!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Procedural Settings: Dwarf Fortress

Brendan on his Untimately blog has been contemplating different games that included procedural generation of cultures, geography or history. One of the games he mentions, but isn't familiar with, is Dwarf Fortress. He wasn't exactly certain how useful the procedurally generated worlds would be. I haven't used it for this, but I thought I would export a tiny world from legends mode to show what kind of output it generates.

This is the in-game world map for Ramul Tadin, the Planes of Enchanting. It's a small world; the smallest world possible, actually, because I like to keep worlds small on my rather old PC. For adventure mode, I do tiny worlds with reasonably long histories; for fortress mode, I do larger worlds with shorter histories.

Ramul Tardin is actually pretty detailed for a tiny region with a 250-year history. Each civilization has had anywhere from four to twenty kings, queens, or lawgivers. There are 1919 Dwarves, 995 Humans, 862 Elves, 10439 Goblins, miscellaneous beast men, monsters (such as 260 blind cave ogres and 772 hungry heads,) and various unique creatures, strewn across multiple unique sites.

The game uses ASCII graphics for everything, including the maps. However, legends mode allows you to export bitmaps. This one is the basic biome and site map in a square aspect ratio. There are also elevation maps, water maps, vegetation maps, temperature and rainfall maps, and others. The game procedurally generates the maps based on geological layers, erosion, and volcanic activity.

Because the game knows in detail the distribution of animals, plants, stone, and ores, it can also procedurally generate a given civilization's material preferences, domesticated animals, and trade needs. It builds a full history, including wars and heroic actions. I haven't seen a way to export this yet (perhaps it's in the XML export,) but it is readable in legends mode. What you can export is civilization details: procedurally generated gods and monarch succession lists. You will see things like this:

The Bronze Doors, Dwarves
Worship List
  1. Etur the Shell of Cradles, deity: fortresses, minerals, jewels
  2. Urdim, deity: mountains, volcanos, fire, metals
  3. Kovest, deity: wealth
  4. Ator, deity: courage
  5. Bisek the Stable Throne, deity: order, duty, mist
  6. Ozsit the Wave of Vegetation, deity: trade, the seasons
  7. Legon, deity: thunder
  8. Esrel, deity: art, beauty
  9. Thebil Neolove, deity: pregnancy
  10. Shegum, deity: deformity
And selected kings:
Stukos Keyburied (b.??? d. 68, Reign Began: 5), *** New Line, Never Married
      1 Child -- Ages at death: 63
      Worshipped Legon (87%)
Momuz Bellspulley (b.??? d. 250, Reign Began: 6), *** New Line, Never Married
      2 Children (out-lived 2 of them) -- Ages at death: (d. 47) (d. 166)
      Worshipped Ator (80%)

And selected sites:
14: Engdulcango, "Trickglaze", tower
Owner: The Violet Fangs, humans
18 animated humans
39 animated elves
20 animated goblins
15: Iklistmafol, "Whisperchamber", mountain halls
Owner: The Severe Turquoise, dwarves
Parent Civ: The Bronze Doors, dwarves
610 dwarves
68 cats
3 horses
76 pigs
2 yaks
25 guineafowls
81 dogs
45 cavies
48 chickens

Now, the names are randomly generated and tend to make a little less sense, but it can certainly be fun trying to figure out how The Violet Fangs got their name, or why the dwarves have a god of deformity. But the point is, Dwarf Fortress can generate a lot more information than you can probably use.


  1. If you create a picture out of randomly colored pixels, by chance you may see a few interesting and meaningful images at the very tightest focus, here and there. Yet the big picture resolves to a drab, crawly gray color. This is exactly the way I feel about the worlds DF creates.

    1. There's a certain truth to that, since a purely mechanistic approach might be able to create a lot of details, but no meaning or vibrancy. That's why I tried to be fairly neutral about what Dwarf Fortress can do, rather than advocating it as a GM necessity. *I* haven't used DF in a tabletop context, so how could I tell others they ought to?

      But other, more story-oriented, methods frequently give me the same impression of drabness. Even many lovingly hand-crafted, not one drop of randomness, settings seem rather dull to me. That's because meaning and intensity can only really be added by the observer, at the GM and player level. No tool and no author can *force* you to feel strongly about a setting.