Contest and interview: Win a copy of Peter Tyson’s Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress

GZ: Can you tease some of the book’s contents? What parts did you like writing the most?

PT: The first half of the book can be said to focus on taking a new player's hand and getting him up and running with his first fortress. The later chapters round out the player's knowledge of more complex Dwarf Fortress topics (the military and engineering, for example) in a way that allows the player to go back and improve his working fortress.

It has been a lot of fun to write, and perhaps the most fun has been slipping in little anecdotes from my own playthroughs of the game. Everyone has a Dwarf Fortress story (or three!) they can't resist sharing at length with anyone who shows even the mildest interest.

GZ: Readers who buy the DRM-free e-book version through O’Reilly will receive free access to your “Real Time” updates for the book. What made you decide to take it one step further and continuously support the book in this way, with no-cost updates?

PT: This is a new feature of O'Reilly books, and I think it's a really great idea. O'Reilly provides a simple pipeline for us authors to update our books, and then it’s just a matter of existing owners picking up a new copy once a new release comes out. The idea is that with a little work to maintain a book's relevance, the pay-off will be in ongoing relevance and therefore sales of Real Time books beyond what they might otherwise enjoy.

I think if O'Reilly hadn't proposed that Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress be a Real Time book, I wouldn't have wanted to write it. Tarn updates Dwarf Fortress in fairly significant ways at least every year, and putting in all the work required to write the book to have its usefulness expire a few months later would have been depressing. Oh, I should note that people who have bought the e-book through other vendors can receive the updates if they wish. They simply need to go to O', register, and pay $5 to update their copy to a Real Time copy.

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GZ: What’s the craziest moment you’ve had playing Dwarf Fortress?

PT: One moment, which happened to me when I was writing the book, really stuck in my memory: I had created a long causeway to my fortress entrance over a deep, spike-lined pit. The causeway was interlaced with bridges so that when I had a dwarf pull a lever, the bridges would go up, leaving a winding path behind it that lead to slow, trap-filled progress for any invading army. Above this causeway, an aqueduct filled with magma from a nearby volcano acted as an emergency defense system should any enemies not fall into my pit or find themselves cut in two by giant trap blades.

But during an invasion, after their first waves were wiped out, a dozen invaders stood at the foot of my causeway, refusing to go through my trap maze. I tried dropping magma on them, but other than burning down all the trees and turning the ground to an ash-covered wasteland, most of it didn't fall in the right place to get the invaders (it did fill the pit, however). The only answer to clearing out these cowardly goblins was to send in the military.

I sent in my elite force, and as they neared the end of the causeway they started taking crossbow fire. My elite military were superb dodgers, and so two dodged goblin arrows and fell into the magma almost immediately; two more died to arrows that met their mark, while the remainder reached their target. Except for one dwarf. Let's call him Urist. Urist dodged off the causeway and into the magma — but very close to the edge. He got out of the magma without dying, but his wounds page indicated he was burned all over with the fat melting off his body. He then ran about trailing fire, and I couldn't work out why. Looking at his inventory, I noted that his leather flask of alcohol (dwarves need booze to make it through the day) had caught fire and was finishing the job the magma had started.

He collapsed in a messy heap in the middle of the fight, leaving his brothers to finish the melee. That's the kind of detail that Dwarf Fortress offers!

GZ: Has gaming been a lifelong passion for you? How did you get into it, and what have been some of your favorite titles — aside from Dwarf Fortress, of course?

PT: Oh, yes, I love my games. Right now I'm working through Mass Effect 2 (yes, I'm late, I know), but previously I've loved Eve Online, League of Legends, strategy games of various kinds, and shooters. Oh, and of course, the “DayZ” mod for Armed Assault 2 by fellow [New Zealander] Dean "Rocket" Hall!

Follow @wita on Twitter for tales of superheroes, plumbers in overalls, and literary adventures.

GZ: The book focuses mainly on the game’s simulation mode. What other modes are available? Would you considering writing other books on them as well, or is one good enough?

PT: The two other modes are Legends and Adventurer. Legends mode is basically a long history book describing all major historical figures, gods, creatures, events, locations, artifacts, and so on. There are actually some people making tools to make Legends more accessible — providing a tool to view the history text, maps to see where places and events are located, that sort of thing.

Although I'm sure many people don’t ever bother with Legends, it can be amusing to look back at your dwarf civilization and discover who the current ruler is and his history. Often it turns out you're being led by a vampire, although sometimes it can even be a demon in disguise.

The final mode is Adventurer mode, which is like a more traditional roguelike in the mode of Nethack or Angband. It essentially allows you to explore the worlds you've created as an individual out for adventure and loot. Right now it has its followers, but it is much less of a "game" experience than Fortress mode or other roguelikes. That's not to say that Tarn isn't working on that. He's currently developing systems whereby groups of bandits will pursue goals, menace towns, threaten the player, and perhaps surrender or run away if confronted with deadly force. This is a great example of the way Tarn develops. He won't create arbitrary quest "content”; rather, he just layers on more depth, more simulation, and lets the game and stories emerge from within.

If I were ever to do a book on another Dwarf Fortress mode, it would probably be Adventurer, but I've got no plans for that right now. A kids book, on the other hand, does tickle my fancy …

Credit: Tim Denee

GZ: Tell me about Tim Denee’s role in the making of the book. How did you two meet, how did he become involved, and what made you decide to include visual representations of other players’ stories from the forums? Who came up with that idea?

PT: I mailed Tim a few years ago, when his famous “Oilfurnace” and “Bronzemurder” comics were published, to say how much I liked them. Turns out we both live in the same city (Wellington, New Zealand), and so it seemed natural to approach him about the book. I had this big idea early on that I would love to see some illustrations in the book, and where else to get the stories behind the illustrations than from Dwarf Fortress players? To this end I started a thread on the forum and simply invited players to submit their stories from playing the game. A number of these were turned into full-page illustrations by Tim for the book. They have been really warmly received, which makes it worth the effort to get them in.

GZ: Tarn Adams is the developer and co-designer on the game, and your book contains a foreword by him. How did you get him on board? Has he had a chance to flip through the book himself?

PT: He was in contact with my editor early on in the piece, when Shawn first had the idea for the book. He followed it throughout the writing phase, provided some useful feedback, and graciously agreed to write the foreword. As for whether he's read it yet, I haven't asked! Thanks for reminding me!

GZ: Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress is supposed to make the learning curve easier for new players. What was it like for you when you first discovered the game, and, looking back on that experience, what do you think are its most challenging aspects?

PT: In a way I had it easy when I picked up the game. It was 2D and fairly linear — one simply dug into a hillside and kept digging across underground rivers, pits, and then magma, building your fortress rooms and workshops as you went. I believe I learned from forums and a couple of friends. These days Dwarf Fortress is a lot more complex, with your fortress able to exist on multiple levels and the complexity of the industry and military systems greatly increased. There are some great resources out there to help you learn Dwarf Fortress, but sometimes just sitting down with a book and following along with its guidance makes everything just that little bit easier.

As for what is most challenging? All of it! The fact that it's almost entirely driven by keystrokes is, initially, the greatest hurdle new players have to clear, but the challenges don't stop there! Losing your first few fortresses exceptionally rapidly is quite common.

Credit: Tim Denee - Oilfurnace comic

GZ: Some of our readers might not be familiar with Dwarf Fortress, although its gameplay helped inspire other popular releases like Minecraft. What makes Dwarf Fortress so fascinating and enjoyable, and what would you tell others to convince them to give it a chance?

PT: The sandbox nature of it is quite charming and engaging, despite all the other complexities. Do you wish to make a massive fortress in the clouds on top of a pillar of solid obsidian? Sure, you can do that. Do you want to construct your fortress entirely out of ice blocks? Yes, it's possible! But watch out for the dragons. Can you conceive of an automated defense system using computer logic and highly pressurized magma? Chances are you can build it in Dwarf Fortress. The player has a great deal of control over the physical world of Dwarf Fortress, and this is interestingly contrasted with your control over your dwarves, which is quite indirect. It isn't uncommon to lose a fortress to an "emo death spiral," whereby emotionally upset dwarves throw tantrums and attack each other, causing more tantrums. The player has few controls to stop a tantrum spiral once it starts, but lots of ways to reduce the chance of one before it begins. This makes for an interesting and tense game where if you dream it, you can build it, so long as your miner hasn't gone berserk and driven his pick through a popular and well-loved dwarf's skull.

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We recently spoke with Peter Tyson, author of the new game guide Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress. Peter passionately detailed the roguelike’s history, talked about the creative process of writing the book, and recounted some spectacular adventures with dwarves and goblins. He also gave us more than a few good reasons to fall in love with the game.

Publisher O’Reilly Media has generously offered us two copies to give away to our readers. To enter, 1) take a moment to register with the site or sign in via your Facebook account and 2) leave a comment on this article. We'll randomly select two winners and notify you by email if you’ve won! Be ready to respond with your address if you’d like a print copy, or let us know if you prefer e-books.

Deadline for entries: Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Good luck!

GameZone: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Peter! Your book, Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress, just came out in May. Have you had any experience with book writing before? What inspired you to sit down and write?

Peter Tyson: I was actually contacted by O'Reilly, the publisher. An editor there thought O'Reilly should publish a guide on Dwarf Fortress — the whole concept being wonderfully funny. Yes, you need a publisher like O'Reilly and a 240-page technical manual to get to grips with Dwarf Fortress! I was approached by my editor, Shawn, because of the tutorials I had written for Dwarf Fortress on my site, After Action Reporter. These tutorials were now quite old and out-of-date but still very popular with players looking to learn this game.

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GZ: Did you have any concerns or reservations about completing the book or seeing it through to publication? What have you learned during the process?

PT: I guess my biggest concern was getting the detail right so that it didn't mislead in any way (Dwarf Fortress is complex; a confusing mistake would be easy). I also wanted to see a book published that existing players of Dwarf Fortress might enjoy. I know how hardcore Dwarf Fortress fans can be, and I figured a lot of them would love to own something they could give to friends to explain their obsession. But if the book was just a guide (without the illustrations we've added), I worried it would in some way disappoint people who would love to have something physical about Dwarf Fortress to treasure.

The biggest lesson has been to keep talking to the community so they understand what the book aims to do. It is neither a rip of the wiki, nor a short book that gives people just enough to get started. It truly is designed to take players from knowing next to nothing about Dwarf Fortress to having a solid grasp of the game and some challenges to pursue. I think the community understands and appreciates what we've tried to achieve.

GZ: How long have you been playing Dwarf Fortress?

PT: Oh, since the game was 2D. I can't even remember when that was! At least five years, on and off, I'd guess?

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GZ: Can you outline the history of the game, and explain why you and your fellow players enjoy it so much?

PT: Dwarf Fortress was released in 2006 and has been in alpha ever since. The two developers, brothers Tarn and Zach Adams, think it will take another 20 years to reach a version 1.0! Tarn, the programmer behind Dwarf Fortress, survives entirely on community donations, which as it turns out isn't so hard to do when you've got a community like the Dwarf Fortress fans.

What players love about Dwarf Fortress varies. Some love modding; some love the stories that unfold as you play through the drives and desires of your dwarves mixed with the lethal nature of the world they live in. In the end, I think what unites Dwarf Fortress players is a love of Tarn's vision. He wants to make a fantasy world simulator. That you are playing as an adventurer (in Adventurer mode) or a fortress manager in Dwarf Fortress mode is entirely coincidental to his vision. Why it works is that Tarn is able to create an amazingly complex world simulation that leads to fantastic in-game events. Looking through the legends of a randomly generated world you join, it isn't uncommon to come across stories of occupied elf cities where the children grow up to be guards in the Dwarf military, and in the famous case of Cacame, the elf even became King of the Dwarfs, defeated a dragon, and later went on to join a player at his fortress!

GZ: The book’s description argues that Dwarf Fortress is “the most complex video game ever made.” How would you support that claim?

PT: Well, I am familiar with games that are close to the complexity of Dwarf Fortress — mostly in the strategy and simulation genre — but know of no other game that models some of the crazy detail that Dwarf Fortress does. For example, every dwarf has "thoughts" that determine his happiness, along with likes and dislikes that affect his mood. Every creature has its body modeled by the game — skin, flesh, tissue, and bones. A bash to the skull can cause death from skull fragments damaging the brain; individual fingers can be broken (and set by your medical team) or taken off entirely with a resulting impact on the dwarf's ability to work. Conversely, randomly generated creatures like fleshy balls of organs turn out to be remarkably easy to kill. All their vitals are easily bashed or stabbed!

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