Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dwarf Fortress and the OSR

I've been a little quiet around the blogosphere lately with reading and commenting.  There are two reasons for this.  The first and most acceptable is that there's only about a month of school left, so it's crunch time.  The second, more problematic reason is that I spent a massive chunk of the last three days playing Dwarf Fortress.  It's been a long time since I played any videogames (since I came back this semester, actually, and I didn't really play any last semester either), and DF hit me pretty hard.  It's a terrifyingly complex and detailed game with ASCII graphics, headache-inducing levels of micromanagement (or maybe that was a side effect of the graphics), no ways to win, and many, many ways to lose.

In short, it's amazing.

And in some sense, it reminds me of older versions of D&D as opposed to modern versions.  When you start playing DF, it generates a world through a simulation of geological processes, then a history of the world with a host of elven, human, dwarven, and goblin civilizations.  These then interact during the course of play.  The worlds of older editions tended to be similarly living, breathing sandboxes in contrast with modern adventure paths.  The ASCII graphics are in some sense analogous to ungridded combat; you're not exactly sure what's going on, and in some sense the details don't matter (though DF does actually simulate hit locations and anatomical injuries to a degree that would not be feasible in any tabletop game).  They may also be comparable to the stylistic choices present in many OSR products; dwarves can't be wizards in OSRIC, no halflings in ACKS, and so forth.  Micromanagement goes hand in hand with the careful resource tracking often present in old school play, as opposed to the handwaving of ammunition, rations, and torches more common these days.

But the losing is really where the parallel strikes me.

There is a tragic element present in Dwarf Fortress; you know that eventually, your fortress will fall.  Your gates will be shattered, your dwarves will die or be driven to barbarism and madness, and your works laid to waste.  And yet...  you play anyways, and you fight like mad to keep things fortified and in working order.  And when the end comes, you watch in horrified fascination as your peasants flood out to the ramparts to watch the  besieging goblins only to be perforated by crossbow bolts, or as your mines cave in, or the undead attack and animate your dead against you and your best carpenter is beaten to death by his wife's headless corpse, or your crossbowdwarves go to battle but die without firing a shot because you made them crossbows and bolts, but no quivers.  And you curse the pathing AI, or bad luck, or your own foolishness, but at the same time you celebrate, because part of the fun is watching everything burn in ways you never expected.  And then you go, "Well alrighty then.  Next time, I'm making quivers."  And you get stronger.  You learn about how the world works by losing.  This, if I understand it correctly, is closest to the OSR mode of PC death.  Sometimes you were dumb, sometimes you were unlucky, but it doesn't matter, because now you're dead.  Learn from this, and enjoy it.  Curse and laugh in the same breath.  And if you chose to die, if you went "Fuck it, the useful half of my population is dead.  Open the gates and let the goblins come!  We fight to the last dwarf!  I always did wonder how well those traps I installed in the great hall would work," and died fighting the good fight, then more power to you.

But, for now, I must swear off Dwarf Fortress.  There is code to be written, and soon!  Perhaps come summer, I will play again; I foresee many, many more hours of joyful failure to be found in DF.


  1. If I finish this phd I have to play DF. Sounds like a blast...

    1. It is, quite! But that is probably a prudent plan.