The Modes of Dwarf Fortress

Editor’s Note: See Bordenave’s first article “An uncommon video game: Dwarf Fortress” published in Volumn 43 issue 10, or online here for a history of the video game with an interview from its lead designer, Tarn Adams as well as information on how to download the game.

To help readers that haven’t read the previous article. Dwarf Fortress is a city-building game set in a fantasy simulation of a world that players randomly generate every time. To add to the fun, the game can be played with “mods” or modifications.

One common and highly recommended mod or rather “Mod Pack” (which is a bunch of mods pulled together) is called LazyNewbPack, or LNP. It helps new and old players alike with a slew of third-party materials deemed useful or even essential for setting the game up with popular mods, graphic packs (mods that change how the game looks), and other utilities.

Once the game is downloaded (for tips on downloading, see The Dwarf Fortress Wiki), players have three game modes to choose from when they start the game and create a world: Dwarf Fortress, Adventurer, and Legends Mode. All three modes are played in the same world but not at the same time. We’ll explain the most obscure mode, Legends, then Adventurer mode, and finally Dwarf Fortress mode.

Legends isn’t a mode for playing the game so much, rather Legends lets you see the history of the world and the games you may have previously played in that world. Legends, has maps which change with the time from year 0 to the present; significant persons and how they lived or what they did, and histories of a particular era or “age” of time. Similar to how we have the Bronze, Iron, and Dark Ages of our world. These ages of history are named after a chief distinction of the world a player has chosen to look at. The most common age being the ages of Myth or Legends.

This is the screen players will see when they start up legends mode.

Legends mode let’s a player see the stories that have come through the world over time, and Adventurer mode let’s a player build a story with a historical entity the player generates themselves in Adventurer mode. Third party applications from LNP can be very interesting as they give players a bit more insight about the world they’ve have taken part in.

This map is one of the historical maps that shows the range of civilizations in the year 100.

Adventurer mode lets a player do something quite memorable. If you’re part of the older crowd who remembers the game Rouge or similar Rouge-like games that came after; Adventurer amode allows a player to make and use only one character generated from a list of civilizations. In the world I’ve created I can choose from dwarves, elves, humans, goblins, or some intelligent humanoid animal if I wanted to make an adventurer.


The Adventurer mode lets players choose from many options and sometimes only one option.


In adventurer mode the player is free to do whatever they’d like, with the consequences that come with it. They want to kill people in the tavern? They’re free to do so, but must be mindful if the rest of the tavern takes their revenge. Want to steal? A player might get banished from a site and killed if the guards find and catch them.

However, a player can become a baron of their own estate, create a home, and become a legend in the world. One thing I’ve personally done in the game is scout out for potential fortress sites before being mauled by tigers.

An adventurer can do anything they want, but the game can help along with a starting bit of information. In this case, it hasn’t given much help.

Adventurer mode really is a way for a player to affect the world on a personal level. A player’s own adventurers can sometimes come to their fortress! If an adventurer dies a player can see the legend they left behind within Legends mode.

Finally, we come to Dwarf Fortress mode, or simply Fortress mode.

As stated, Dwarf Fortress is a city-building game, however,  a player doesn’t put-down buildings like in the video game SimCity. Instead, the player physically constructs the rooms and buildings that are deemed appropriate for the fortress. The only restrictions that come with fortress building are based on choices made upon embarking, as well as limitations related to what the environment gives a player, the materials a player has, makes, or buys; and whatever goals the player may have in mind.

This is an animation showing three layers of a fortress that has been built into the side of a small mountain peak.

For instance, is the goal simply to survive? A bit boring, but that’s a good goal. Maybe a player’s dwarven civilization is dying from goblins that have raided the civilizations Mountain-Homes (cities) and killed their royalty. So a goal could be to kill as many goblins as possible for revenge, or, maybe it’s to make a fortress as safe as possible and with as many dwarves as possible. Maybe a player want to make the grandest statute to a god, or raid the surrounding country-side for rare artifacts.

How a player plays Dwarf Fortress is up to them but, a particular play style that is a community-driven type of playstyle is called “Blood-line” or “Succession” play. It is one of the most popular ways to play the game with others.

In this game style, other players take control of the fortress for one year, or some other set amount of time. During this time, whoever is the “Fortress Overseer” controls the dwarves however they like to play. They might task the dwarves with big mining projects, buffing up the defenses, whatever they deem needed (grand or small).

A succession game is usually done on forums, and the overseer of the year is expected to post their adventures within the fortress. For instance, if a dwarf dies, the overseer could mention that, maybe the death caused a dwarf to tantrum.  A player could give their overseer a particular ‘voice’ like a snobbish noble, a sissy elf-lover, or a gruff military dwarf that doesn’t give a damn.

Later in that same year the overseer might start a project and give a picture for the others to look at along with a journal-entry of sorts that describes what it is that they’re building. A succession game is not about just the one overseer, it’s about the group of overseers who manage the fortress, passing the fortress from year to year, documenting all that happens before the fortress somehow, someway, like all the others, bites the dust.

Fortress can be drowned out, burned out an even starved out in some games. In this instance the fortress shown has been drowned out but is still playable if a player in determined enough.

A succession game requires a few things; mainly that players are comfortable taking a year of responsibility for the fortress, and they’re able to run the game. When running a succession, most players keep a back-up of their save file just in case the fortress falls too soon, or if an overseer can’t complete their turn for some reason.

Personally, I’ve been playing a succession game with a twist, by myself. Largely posting how my fortress has been doing to a forum I frequent often. I name dwarves after people in the forum or from pop culture, for instance we might have a Metal-smith named Henry Ford, or a noble-dwarf named Donald Drumpf or some presidential power.

This is similar to how some people play the game on video-sites like YouTube or Twitch which is largely done in a “Let’s Play” format and can be rather dry. However succession games can be played with friends or others as a personal project or just for the sheer fun of it if all hands are willing to give it a shot.

Losing is Fun!
The official motto of the community at large for dwarf fortress is, Losing is Fun

Succession games aren’t easy to write and log. You could miss something, forget a detail, or things might simply not work how you thought they would; or maybe a flaming slug burns down your entire year’s work. But hey, that’s Dwarf Fortress, where the motto of the game and from the community at large is “Losing is FUN!”

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