dwarf fortress loadout manifesto

Dwarf Fortress is a notoriously complex game, and it isn’t getting any simpler. The barriers to entry are enormous. One of the worst culprits is the process of saying “Hey, I want to start a new game”. Before you start actually bossing dwarves around, you must:

  1. Create a world. This is trivial but time consuming, even on modern hardware – the process is increasingly complex with each build. Thankfully, you only have to do this once, so I consider this the final part of “installing” the game.
  2. Choose an embark location. This is fairly simple but possibly equally time consuming – because see #1. The world is big and there are a lot of possible places you might want to go. Some simple advice can help you get through this quickly enough, and I’ll address this later.
  3. Choose an embark loadout. This should be simple but is one of those choices that can bite you. You can either choose your own dwarves and equipment or you can trust the ever-changing default loadout. Traditionally, the default loadout is pretty mediocre and leaves a lot of room for improvement. I would like to go over my preferred build and the reasons behind it – as well as some reasons to do something else.

I have taken various levels of notes during 14 different playthroughs over the years (starting with 40d up to and including v0.34 builds). Using my notes as reference, I’d like to propose exactly how a person might consider going about the process of choosing an initial loadout.

The current (v0.34.11) default starting loadout is better imho than previous initial loadouts, but it’s still suboptimal – and leaves you open to several potential problems during your first year. If you are aware of your loadout and take care in your embark, you’ll be fine – but isn’t part of the point of the default that it should “just work”?

what ships by default?

Every fortress starts with seven dwarves and a wagon full of stuff (and two pack animals that ostensibly hauled the wagon to its destination). The wagon may be dismantled for the equivalent of three units of lumber and the animals may be eaten or bred or whatever as appropriate – but those don’t matter. What matters is everything else.

There are three parts of the initial loadout.

  1. The skills your seven starting dwarves begin with.
  2. Any animals you add to the group.
  3. Initial stores of food and tools and building materials and whatever else you load onto your wagon.

An unplanned expedition gives you seven dwarves with a good mixture of skills… all at level 1 (with the exception of the miner who starts at level 2). In contrast – if you plan carefully, your dwarves may start with up to 10 skill levels, with a maximum of 5 in any ability.

Animals are an important source of food, cloth/leather, and protection. By default, you start with two cats and two dogs (in addition to your pack animals). This isn’t heinous, but it could be better. Additionally, I noticed that all of my starting animals were female, which means no breeding untill I can order a male or two from the homeland after a year and a half.

I don’t have any specific complaints with the supplies they start you out with. A few of them are more or less useful than others, but they get the job done and aren’t going to leave you wishing you had remembered to pack another X.

what’s wrong with the skills?

The complete default skill list looks something like this:

  • carpenter, crossbowmaker
  • woodcutter/herbalist/grower, wood burner/furnace operator, cook/brewer, potash maker/lye maker
  • miner (lvl 2!)
  • fisher
  • craftsdwarf (wood, stone, gems, bone)
  • mason/engraver, mechanic/architect
  • weaver/tailor, tanner/leatherworker, butcher/fish cleaner

So… not bad. And because dwarves start play with their known skills as active orders, you don’t have to muck with UI to tell someone to cut down the trees you mark for removal, he’s already set to do so.

But there are a few holes and some curious overlap.

Also, what gives with the level 1 skills? Any dwarf can perform any action if you tell them to. With skill comes efficiency and quality. However, the practical difference between level 0 and level 1 is minor. Some actions don’t have quality modifiers (like woodcutting) and some others are used so infrequently in a new fortress that the time to complete a single iteration isn’t terribly important. Each of those level 1 skills cost 3 embark points – and some of those points could be much better spent. I say either take 3-5 levels in an ability or none.

The most notable absences from the skill list are any sort of military or administrative skills. Training soldiers is potentially time consuming (and dangerous) and you don’t want to be caught without them when a crocodile wanders into your livingroom. It’s better to start with at least some degree of military strength, even on low savagery embark locations.

Administrative skills are mostly fluff πŸ™‚ However, some of them make running your little kingdom that much easier – and let’s face it, you need the help. Several of the in-game menu options aren’t even available until one of your dwarves has ranks in the associated skills – so if you’re ever going to consider buying single-level abilities, it would be these.

The overlap I mentioned is harder to quantify. One thing you have to remember is that each dwarf can only do one thing at a time. So just because you have a woodcutter/herbalist/farmer/cook/beertender on staff doesn’t mean he’s going to have time to do all of those. Generally speaking, your dwarves have two types of jobs – full-time and part-time. For example, woodcutting and farming are both part-time jobs in an early fortress, so loading them onto the same guy makes sense. But mining and masonry are both full-time jobs throughout the life of a fortress, so you want to avoid overloading them.

The carpenter/crossbowmaker is probably going to run out of things to do early on – as both of his jobs are part-time affairs. Carpentry is a burst sort of job that can occupy a lot of time while necessary, but most of the time, you’ll want this guy doing something else – like maybe mining.

The farmhand type has a bunch of part-time jobs, so he is probably okay there. However, as food production increases, so does demand for cook/brewer time. I dislike putting both of these abilities on the same guy, and I especially dislike putting both of them on my only plant gatherer.

The miner and craftsdwarf will probably be fully occupied for their entire careers – though woodcrafting is kind of pointless since 1/3 of all caravans will ostracise you if you try to barter with wooden goods.

Mason is a full-time job, or at least mason+mechanic+architect is. These are some related and common skills that generally work well on the same guy. He will be able to craft rooms for you without having to wait for approval from someone else, but may eventually get bogged down later on in the game – but hopefully by then you’ll have given him a mechanic’s assistant.

Fishing… is possibly a full time job. It is very biome specific. When you have a good fisher and an infinite supply of fish, you have an infinite reliable supply of food. But plenty of biomes don’t provide fish and plenty more are hazardous to fish in. Fishing is a dangerous job for a guy who can’t swim. It also potentially produces an enormous amount of food when it does work – so I like making my fisherdwarves clean their own catches to throttle the rate of influx

The weaver/butcher is another strange choice of skills. With a full-time fisher, this guy will generally spend his time cleaning catches. Otherwise, every single one of his skills is less than part-time. Leather industry depends on meat industry depends on having a lot of animals. Cloth industry either depends heavily on wool or textile crops – both of which are kind of slow.

what’s wrong with the animals?

Like I said, the animal choices are fine… but not good. First off, the dogs are all female – so when they die off, that’s it. I like having puppies all over my fortress. Puppies equals military, and spare puppies equals food.

Cats aren’t as important – at least one cat is good, it will magically kill any vermin in your fortress and generally keep people just that much happier. But cats breed faster than dogs, so they are commonly regarded as vermin themselves by the player population, and people will tell stories of fulltime slaughterhouses dedicated to controlling the pet population (and subsequent framerate degradation). Personally, I’ve never had problems with cats, but YMMV.

My normal preference for starter cats and dogs is a single male cat (no surprise kittensplosion that way) and three dogs (one male, two female). All three dogs are then trained as soon as possible after embarkation and are assigned to protect people with dangerous jobs.

The real gap in the animal loadout is the lack of livestock or poultry. You can’t feed a fortress reliably with a couple of dogs – but you can with a couple of goats and chickens.

what’s wrong with the items?

The item loadout is where I have the least room for complaint. It’s good… but not great. In addition to assorted food, booze, and seeds, they start you off with:

  • 1x anvil, 2x axe, 2x pick
  • 5x cloth, 5x thread, 3x rope
  • 5x bag, 3x bucket, 3x quiver
  • 1x wheelbarrow
  • 3x splint, 3x crutches

The anvil is standard. Everyone should start with an anvil because you really don’t want to have to wait for 18+ months to get your first one. Similarly two picks is good. Three isn’t bad. Two axes is probably overkill – you won’t be running two woodcutters. But they’re also weapons, so if you train two axedwarves then it works.

The cloth and thread and rope are spot on. The supply chains to make these goods are annoying enough that you really don’t want to have to set up and wait for the whole cycle after discovering that you need cloth. I tend to have cloth on hand, but starting with some helps smooth things out early on. And ropes are awesome.

Similarly, starting with some bags and buckets is good. Those five bags will go a long way toward keeping your food stores organized the first year and buckets are important when people get wounded or if your farm needs manual irrigation.

The wheelbarrow is something new for haulers in v0.34 and serves as a major organizational aid. You’ll likely want one per hauler in the fortress – but you’re not starting with dedicated haulers.

The medical supplies are… kind of questionable. Certainly, you should have some on hand – but it takes some special bad luck to need crutches early on in the game. I tend to completely ignore this sort of thing – as water and rest are good enough for most injuries and anything more serious tends to need to wait for the water and rest part before it matters much anyway.

fine, how would you do it then?

First, let’s talk animals. I’ve already mentioned that I like to start with three dogs capable of producing puppies and a cat incapable of producing kittens. Additionally, I like eggs and cheese. And wool. I don’t recommend trying to plan for any sort of meat/leather industry until you’ve got a few losses under your belt.

All poultry cost the same at embark – 6 dwarfbucks. They do, however, differ wildly in their egg, meat, and bone production. Generally speaking, turkeys produce the most eggs and produce the most food per shot, however, they also mature slowly – so it takes a few years for egg production to really explode. FWIW, for meat poultry, geese are definitely the way to go – they only lay half as many eggs as turkeys but are almost as big and mature twice as quickly.

As far as livestock goes, sheep are probably the most efficient. They are cheap livestock (51 dwarfbucks) and produce both wool and milk. They also need very little pasture to survive. If sheep aren’t available, alpacas and llamas are almost as good – being more expensive to both embark with and maintain but producing more meat when slaughtered.

Turkeys lay so many eggs it’s ridiculous. If I was serious about using them (and there’s almost no reason not to) – I would start with one tom and two or three hens. I would then attempt to let one of my first batches of eggs fertilize and would forget about them for pretty much forever after that.

Sheep produce wool and milk very regularly – and thankfully the males actually produce wool so they aren’t useless. I’d go with one male and 2-3 females as well here if fish are unavailable. Sheep are comparatively expensive to start with, so if I need to squeeze out space (or if I’m in a good fishing biome), I’d reduce this to one female and be happy with the cloth production and cheese.

Next come the skills… This is probably what a lot of people spend the bulk of their time worrying about. It isn’t worth fretting over too terribly much – as you will get so many bodies after a year that as long as you can keep your fortress together until the first freeloaders arrive (probably in the summer), you’re set.


One of the most important things to consider when getting started is your initial dig. So I like the idea of two miners. They won’t be doing anything else – so maybe they might go into military. Or, if you’re in trouble, they will be your initial military since they’ll hit things with their picks.

I also like the idea of allowing my woodcutter to double as my fisher. Woodcutting is a part-time job and fishing a dangerous one – so it makes sense to make the fisher carry an axe around. Also, one point in swimming just in case.

Next, I consider a good clerk essential. You can get more done and actually keep tabs on things if you have someone on hand who knows how to count. I load a guy up with mercantile skills (with appraiser 5 if possible) and some negotiation and conflict resolution abilities if any points are free. Then – when we’re done with the initial dig, he gets an office of his own and is assigned the bookkeeping task (without having spent any points in it). He’ll spend every waking moment keeping your inventory records up to date and can take breaks to deal with merchants and foreign diplomats.

This leaves us with three more slots. One of those needs to be a carpenter. He can also probably double up as something else (the architect or a crafter of some stripe probably).

One of them needs to be a mason (and probably a mechanic). Masonry is a good job to give new arrivals since it keeps them out of trouble and turns into a valuable skill further down the line. My initial mason tends to double as my cook – and then changes jobs to specialize based on the composition of my first immigrant wave (either to more full time mason or more full time cook).

The final dwarf is the brewmaster. He can also play farmer and possibly herbalist. Herbalist skill points are more important than growing skill if you want both and have to choose – since herbalism determines chance of success and farming only determines speed. Since only plants are brewable this mix makes a fine synergy. Either plants are being collected or they are being brewed.


The most important considerations for initial loadout equipment are an anvil, one or two axes, seeds that grow into useful crops, enough food to last until you’re outproducing demand, and booze that doesn’t come from mushrooms.

The equipment I embarked with on my last game (where I decided to make my miners double as soldiers) was this:

  • copper pick x2, copper axe, copper buckler x2, copper cap x2
  • iron anvil
  • booze: beer x21, ale x21, rum x21
  • seeds: plump helmet x5, pig tail x6, cave wheat x6, sweet pod x6
  • quiver x3, bucket x3, bag x3 (leather), rope x1
  • food: plump helmet x11, fish x11, meat (many)

No wine (that comes from plump helmets, the most plentiful crop) and each of the seed crops I embarked with grow into brewable crops. Food variety is important for happiness, so is drink variety. I never like to have less than 2 different beverages available.

I swap the spare bags out for leather because they are cheaper than cloth bags, and I only take one rope because I plan on turning it into a well. The reasons for the 5x+1 quantities is for the extra shipping containers.

Any points I have left over (and I mean any points) go into meat. One piece of the cheapest meat per source animal type possible until all points are expended. Since containers don’t mix contents, it translates to a massive number of extra barrels – which are then quickly freed for other use as people eat and cook the contents.

okay fine, so where do i embark?

Well, I’m already past the point of rambling – but a few things to look for in an embark location.

The most important consideration (and probably the only one every player who’ll offer you advice worth listening to agrees on) is probably the absence of an aquifer. Aquifers are layers of subterranean water that require significant feats of engineering to dig through. They are such a major challenge that the game will warn you with a popup dialog if you are about to embark with an aquifer.

Second is the difficulty/alignment of the surroundings. The best surrounding descriptor for new players is probably ‘Calm’. This is a low savagery and neutral alignment. ‘Serene’ is a good second choice. Anything else starts to get much more dangerous. Evil surroundings (anything named in purple) is just asking for trouble – even at the lowest savagery level.

After that, you want to make sure you are going to have resources:

  • Trees – Forested or better.
  • Clay or Soil – These layers are important for getting crops in the ground quickly
  • Shallow Metals – Plural. This means you will be able to dig ore at or near the surface – and multiple varieties.

There are a few other resource considerations to be aware of as well – but shouldn’t fret over during your first game or ten:

  • Deep Metals – Same deal as shallow, just, well, deeper. Plural is always better for obvious reasons. But in your first couple of games, you may not get to the point where the deeper ore deposits (or any lack thereof) matter.
  • Flux Stone – This is important for making steel. If you have it, great. If not, it’s not a major loss, steel is complex and probably unnecessary for your first dozen games.
  • Running (fresh) Water – A river means fish and power for machines. If you can only swing a brook, that’s fine, but rivers are awesome if you can swing one without also getting an aquifer layer.

And as one final consideration, try to get a “warm” biome. Goldilocks conditions here. Not too hot, not too cold, just right. In overly hot biomes, standing water boils off during the summer and in colder locations it freezes during the winter. This… is just generally a hassle to be avoided.

And that’s about it. I’m foolish enough that I am probably going to take this advice to heart and attempt a YouTube video or something starting out with these rules. It’ll be fun.

update [2012-11-16]

Well, I did it. 85 minutes of DF on YouTube playing through season one using this advice is now up at http://youtu.be/Kw4_HIEBUGo.

waitaminute you mentioned alternatives?

Yeah. There are a lot of other perfectly viable choices for a starting fortress. Advanced stuff. Interesting stuff. Fun stuff.

I’ll probably get into some more of these things in the near future since I’m playing the game again and have kind of committed to publishing video details of my exploits in the process already πŸ˜‰

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