23a:Surviving your first winter

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This article is about an older version of DF.

This guide aims to get you started with the game, and to survive the first winter with happy, fed dwarves. Note: this is not the one and only build, but it is very well rounded and sets you up with all you need. See starting build for several other initial party designs.

You may start the game by pressing Enter to get a reasonably balanced loadout, or hit Space to select your own starting goods and skills. A build that seems to work is to set your initial party to have the following skills:

Regarding pets and food, you should add the following (hit Tab to change the menu/mode):

  • Two dogs
  • Optionally one cat
  • As much extra food (meat) as possible. Turtles are a good choice, as they also supply extra shell and bone for your craftsdwarf.
  • Any leftover points should go to plump helmet spawns
  • It is usually enough to take only one battle axe, although two picks (and two miners) are recommended.

Next, select a starting site (hit Tab once more then use either + or - to pick an area):

  • Temperature: find an environment marked 'Temperate', 'Cold', or 'Warm'. If at all possible, avoid 'Freezing', 'Hot', and 'Scorching' climates.
  • Trees: for beginners, 'Woodland' or 'Heavily Forested' are advised. Avoid 'Scarce' and 'None' environments.
  • Vegetation: go with 'Thick' or 'Moderate'. Avoid 'Scarce' and 'None'.
  • Surroundings: ideally, 'Peaceful' or 'Calm' are decent. 'Untamed Wilds', 'Protected Wilds', and 'Wilderness' are also OK, but animals may be tougher and more aggressive. Avoid 'Terrifying', 'Sinister' and 'Haunted'. Tropical climates, particularly tropical forests, may harbor the dreaded elephants, but are otherwise hospitable.

With all this done you can strike the earth by hitting e for Embark!


First, concentrate on infrastructure building. Your dwarves can satisfy their hunger and thirst from the supplies they brought with them, but they will not last long.

  • Hit d for designations, then d for mining. Select an area extending into the mountain face. Initially, there are two objectives to mining: find the cave river to begin farming, and clear enough space for workshops and stockpiles.
  • Avoid digging rooms 7x7 or larger, as they will collapse.
  • In your first few rooms, start making workshops. Hit b to build and w for workshops. The first few critical workshops are mason, carpenter and mechanic. Depending whether you want to start with hunting or fishing, set up a fishery or a butcher's workshop.
  • If you haven't, now is the time to send your workers to work. Use d and t to designate an area containing trees for woodcutting.
  • To set specific dwarves to do certain jobs, use v to choose a dwarf, p for preferences and l to activate the labor menu. Here you can specify which activities they will engage in.
  • To use your mason or carpenter, hit q and move the cursor over the building. Then hit a to add tasks.
  • You will need stockpiles (p) for your products. Set up stockpiles for food, refuse, furniture, wood and finished goods. Place the refuse and wood areas outside and all the rest inside. You want to avoid creatures stealing your food or goods.
  • A craftdwarf's workshop will allow you to make goods to trade for the supply caravan which arrives in the first fall.

What should you have by now? What should you be making?

  • A small fort with a few rooms.
  • Basic workshops and stockpiles.
  • A long straight tunnel east looking for water.

Focus on building these:

  • Beds. You can set up a single room with seven beds to act as a barracks; better yet, make a room for each dwarf.
  • Stone doors. These are used to enclose rooms and to contain flooding, and can be locked to curtail invasions by creatures from outside or the underground river.
  • Tables (masonry) and chairs/thrones (masonry) for each dwarf and your future dining room.
  • Barrels. Make as many as needed to store food, then keep a few spare ones.
  • Bins. These will make it much easier to store things in your fortress, so that you can have lots of items stored in just one bin.

Getting your dwarves to do what you want[edit]

Sometimes, you see your dwarves doing useless things (like lugging stone through your whole fortress) instead of what you want them to do.

Using the orders menu can at times be critical, for instance to disable hauling of stones and wood, in order to make sure food and such gets collected and used. Otherwise, you might have food lying around that your dwarves are not using because it's been scheduled to be stored somewhere.

Another important feature is the individual orders menu, which allows you to issue specific orders to each dwarf. Using this feature, you can give unskilled dwarves new jobs or stop certain dwarves from performing labors like hauling. This menu is accessed by the following procedure : Push v, select a dwarf, push p for Preferences, then push l for Labor. Simply highlight a labor and hit Enter to select/deselect a job.


Now, with production underway you can focus on building more rooms and features in the fortress.

  • Farm plots. Setting up farms is complicated and easy to mess up. You may need to start and abandon a few games before you get the hang of it without flooding your entire fortress. See farming for extensive details.
  • Well or still. The outside river will freeze during winter, so you will either need to reach the underground river or set up a well so your dwarves don't get dehydrated. Dwarves prefer to drink from wells than from the river, but like alcohol best of all. If you manage to get your farms churning out lots of plants, you can set up a brewing operation and never need a well.
  • Dining room. Place tables and seats here, and define one of the tables (via the q menu) as both a dining room and a meeting hall. The other tables and chairs will become part of the dining room.
  • Bedrooms. Dwarves don't need a lot of space, but prefer having a room to themselves. 1x2 is adequate, and 2x3 is usually plenty. Once beds are placed, turn each into a bedroom via the q menu. Use doors to enclose the rooms.

Farming is important. You will want a miner looking for the river as soon as possible. Farming will prove the most reliable and renewable food source up until winter and again in the spring. For the effort, farming will provide by far the most food, not to mention it is fun to build a floodgate system for an underground river.

Once the river is found it may flood all or part of your fortress. (You should be able to use a door to contain the flooding.) Wait until the waters recede and proceed in planting seeds in the muddy ground.

  • The river will flood seasonally, and the ten tiles closest to it will function as a Nile farm. (The flood itself can be much longer than ten tiles, ten tiles are given simply because thats the maximum width a farm plot can be)
  • If you want, you can build a floodgate connected to the river while it is not flooding. Then build a canal, and finally build a second floodgate to a room you wish to flood on command. Build a lever and link to the floodgates to flood the room on command. Check the in-game help page on floodgates for a visual demonstration of how to use them and how to avoid drowning your fortress in the process.
  • Either method will give you more muddy tiles to work with. In the beginning, the Nile farms should be enough, but eventually you'll want as many muddy tiles as you can get.
  • Plant, harvest, flood if needed, rinse and repeat - the winter will soon be on you.
  • Do not forget to mark a stockpile dedicated to food! If you fail to do this, your dwarves will not harvest your plants, and they will eventually wilt. Once food is safely in your stockpile, it will never wilt or rot (although it can be eaten by vermin; this type of food loss is not reported in any way).

The trade caravan will arrive during autumn. Trade your craftsdwarves goods for food and whatever you find necessary. This is the last chance to prepare for the hardships ahead.

What makes the winter so taxing?

  • You cannot fish outside, nor farm for food.
  • A wave of 8-12 immigrant dwarves may arrive just before Winter begins. Your game may end in 21 dwarves starving to death, or killing each other in berserk rages.
  • By now you will need to take at least minimal steps to keep your dwarves happy.

What should I do just before the winter or during it?

  • Hunt. Some say that hunting is inefficient, while others argue it is a great way to bring home the bacon. A skilled hunter with a crossbow on a map with a good wild game population can bring in a lot of meat, fat, bones, and skin. Unlike farming, you can hunt and trap season-round. If your map harbors dangerous game such as elephants, hunting is not recommended.
  • Butchery. You should butcher your mules anytime you can get the food to a stockpile to prevent rotting. They don't do anything, even reproduce. If you see yourself getting into a tight spot, you can butcher your horses as well for a good supply of meat. However, horses will reproduce and make more meat, if you don't eat them right away. If you're truly desperate, you can butcher your cats and dogs as well.
  • Care. Take care to promptly butcher your hunter's returned corpses before they rot, to prepare your raw fish and have it packed into barrels before Winter arrives, and to have some wine made. The wine will make your dwarves work faster and, more importantly, keep them happy throughout the winter.
  • Military. If the immigrants did not arrive, or did not come with soldiers, you need some form of defense. Training your soldiers to fight with hand weapons is very dangerous until you have armor (they are liable to hurt themselves). Crossbows can be produced from wood and are much easier to train with than swords and axes. A few basic traps near your fortress entrance and other danger spots such as the river will help as well. Lastly, if you are under attack and don't have any skilled military dwarves, draft your miners - when they use their picks as a weapon (which will happen if you do not assign them any other weapon), they use their mining skill in combat.
  • Plant gathering. You can set one or two dwarves to gather shrubs from inside or outside the cave. Plant Gathering can be done during the winter, so it is a good way to stretch a dwindling food supply until spring. Furthermore, brewing the plants then cooking the alcohol will quintuple the amount of food produced. The effectiveness of plant gathering is greatly enhanced by skill in herbalism.

As spring arrives, you should continue producing food, digging deeper and fortifying your mountain! A dwarf who refuses to dig deep is no true dwarf.