So you’ve mastered the basics in our beginner’s guide to Dwarf Fortress (opens in a new tab). You’ve got your dwarven fortress out of the ground, a somewhat functional outpost in the wilds ready to make an attempt.
But there are dangers out there. Animals, thieves and warlike enemies just waiting to take everything you’ve earned. You need to be ready to fight back – whether it’s with smart defenses, solid walls or a bunch of highly trained soldiers, you need a good way to either take down or avoid your enemies.
Conflict is inevitable in Dwarf Fortress, but being prepared for it is not.
Basics of defense for the dwarven fortress
Start with a drawbridge
The best way to defend your fort is a heavy stone drawbridge. Unlike many other things in the game code (such as doors), a dwarven drift bridge is not a capital building, but a construction, which can not be destroyed. It’s a floor when it’s down, or it’s a wall when it’s up: So under Dwarven Fortress rules, it can’t be destroyed by even the biggest enemies.
To make a nice drawbridge, have the masons make some stone blocks. Use these blocks to build your bridge, but be sure to select it as a drawbridge in the icons that appear and make sure it raises in the right direction. Height and length do not matter here.
Then use a mechanic shop to make some Mechanisms of fine hard stone. You can use these to build a lever in your common area, then more mechanisms to connect that lever to your bridge. Telling dwarves to pull the lever will raise the bridge. Bonus points if you fill a nice deep pit under it with standing spikes and wait for enemies to stand on it before giving the order to raise – they’ll all fall off into the spikes.
A tough militia is better than no militia
By pressing the Q shortcut or by clicking on the banner icon at the bottom right brings up the Militia menu. This is where you can create and mobilize groups of military dwarves. You can use the sword icon here to send them after specific targets, and the arrow icon to send them to defend a specific location. Note that they will automatically go after any enemy they see from there – no such thing as combat discipline in the Dwarf Keep.
It’s helpful in the beginning to just start a team and fill it with your dwarves, giving them the leather armor preset. Even without the proper gear to give them, a pack of dwarves with your standard copper-bearing weapons can defeat a few examples of dangerous local wildlife: dingoes, wolverines, thieving keas, or especially angry geese.
Later you will create a proper squad and ask them to equip the correct armor and weapons, when you have them, or create custom sets of equipment if you don’t.
Train your military
Build a barracks
When the fort is going decent, usually the first fall or winter, you will dig out or build a room for one barracks. This is usually a decent sized 10×10 room with 10 beds, some chests, some cabinets, and some armor and weapon racks for flavor. It’s good to put it somewhere near the entrance, or near where you expect enemies to come from.
Once created, you can use the Zone interface to tell individual teams to train, sleep, and store their stuff here. Putting the first troops of militia dwarves on a partial training plan is a good call: they will train for three months out of every six, and do normal work as assigned for the other three. They can serve as auxiliaries for large enemy attacks.
Once you get enough dwarves that you feel confident sending someone to train full time, you can start putting migrants with no useful skills into a military group who are told to train full time and sleep in the barracks as well. Set their schedule to Constant Training and fill your squad over time, then start a new one. I like to have 20 full time military dwarves in a fortress of 200, with a reserve of 30-40 as part time militia.
Good military candidates include dwarves with virtually useless skills like legendary soapmakers, potash makers, and millers—but anyone without traits like weak, frail, and sickly will do just fine. Don’t worry about crafting training weapons or anything like that – you don’t need them.
Migrant hunters are excellent candidates for the troops of crossbow-wielding field dwarves. When you want them, you can build a nice range for them to practice at – put it next to the barracks and make sure to give it one entrance, on the side they shoot from.
Arm your military
Spears, battle axes and war hammers are the mainstays of dwarven militaries. Armor and weapons are generally best when metal, but leather, bone or wood can do in a desperate pinch.
Here is your general order of quality with metals:
- Bronze (bismuth or plain)
Silver makes terrible cutting weapons, but good hammers – it’s very heavy.
If you’re rich in metals and time, feel free to edit your metal armor gear setup to include both a Metal Mail Shirt and Metal Breastplate to better maximize coverage. Otherwise, you’ll want a Metal Helm, Metal Gauntlets, Metal Greaves, and Metal High Boots for best-armored dwarves.
Most nasty enemies are best taken down with slashing weapons, so battle axes do well against them by removing limbs. I recommend battle axes for your first team, then warhammers for your second. Well-armoured enemies such as siege goblins are best killed with warhammers or maces, which smash through armour. War hammers are especially important against undead and Necromancer attacks because they destroy (“pulp”) limbs instead of cutting them, because a severed limb can only… animate and continue attacking.
There are two exceptions to material rules:
- Shields are fine made of any material, but require regular replacement and are of no help offensively when made of wood or leather.
- Crossbows can be made from literally anything for similar effect when shooting. Bolts are better when made of metals though, but leg bolts fired from crossbows are hard to argue with when there are so many of them.
I’ll also note that your team of miners can make a great auxiliary militia group: the skill used to attack with a pickaxe is mining, so they’ll be very good at it. Just make a new outfit out of a metal suit of armor for them to wear.
…or go for unarmed combat, instead
Not enough metal for good weapons and armor? Dwarves can make remarkably good wrestlers, and even if you don’t have enough weapons to equip them, they’ll be happy to train in unarmed combat. Dwarven MMA gets the job done a lot of the time, and can help if and when your dwarf gets disarmed mid-fight. That said, even an armed novice can trump an unarmed master.
You can also get a lot done with animals. The most effective way to ward off kobold thieves and troll kidnappers is to set a pen/pasture zone near the entrance to the fort for the dogs, then train those dogs as war dogs in the Units menu, Pets tab. Trade the humans and elves for something like grizzly bears, gorillas or even elephants if you want to take this philosophy further – or capture and train them yourself.
I personally am a very big fan of trained War Grizzly Bears.
Traps, traps and more traps
Not much beats a hallway filled with traps. Your own citizens won’t trigger them, nor will visitors, and softening up attackers by running down a long hall with dangerous sharp objects works wonders. A very effective early defense is just a hall filled with Stone-fall traps, which just drop a heavy rock on the bad guys. It won’t stop a troll, but it will stop a wolf.
When upgrading your military’s weapons, I suggest putting the old ones into weapon traps. There’s also a great use for excess bone: Carve it into crossbows and bone bolts to set up a ton of vicious crossbow traps. For bonus points (from me) craft weapons that can only go into traps in the metalsmith’s workshop:
- Gigantic ax blades
- Metal balls with spikes
- Large, jagged discs
I don’t recommend cage traps too early. They’re fun to capture enemies and wild animals with later, but require a bit more steering than beginners want to bother with.
Once you get the hang of it, try making more complex traps. A favorite is a drowning chamber: a sealed room with drawbridges at both ends and floodgates in the ceiling, each of which has a channel above it connected to a water source. Enemies come in, you pull the levers to raise the bridges. Then pull the levers to flood the room. When they drown, you pull one last set to open the lower floodgates and drain the room into something like an underground cave or ocean.
Dwarven Fortress enemies to watch out for
We finish with some descriptions of what may come for you. No spoilers.
Sieges, raiders and raids
💰 Robbers are groups of kobolds who want to steal your things or goblins who want to kidnap your children. They are not visible to you until a dwarf discovers them. The best defense here is to make sure animals like dogs are always near the front entrance: they sniff them out so you can send the militia after them. Note that robbers will bypass traps!
🦹♂️ Ambush are similarly hidden groups of attackers who, instead of stealing, want to cause mayhem. They are smaller and can be very dangerous to the isolated woodcutter or herbalist working outside the fort, but can be picked off even by a small militia.
🗡 Sieges are big attacks of enemies who want to destroy your fort. Goblins and elves will run right in, happily running into trap-filled hallways. You can kill enough of them to make them run or wait for them – they will eventually leave. Elves are usually easy to kill because they only use wooden weapons and armor, but sometimes they bring giant beasts as allies. Human sieges can be nasty because they actually just set up camp outside and wait for you, harassing dwarves leaving the fort and killing incoming trade caravans. Necromancer raids are scary, so as a newbie… just don’t start somewhere that says you have a necromancer as your neighbor.
Megabeasts are abominations that include dragons, colossi, giants and titans, all kinds of horrors. They generally attack from above ground and are very capable of destroying buildings and doors. Some, such as bronze colossi and dragons, are extremely dangerous due to their incredible resilience and/or fiery breath. This is often a case where discretion is the better part of valor if you lack confidence or a strong military: Seal the drawbridge and wait for it to go.
The depth below
🦇 Underground natives exist, including Cavemen, Batmen, Reptilemen, and Ratmen, and can be either peaceful or hostile to your fortress. When you open a level of the caves, hostile cave dwellers will send raids and ambushes against you from time to time. They come more often if you cut down a lot of mushroom trees and fish a lot underground. Be sure to defend your underground entrances as well as those above.
🕷 Forgotten beast of course, those experiments the gods forgot during creation also lurk, sealed away in the caverns beneath the earth. I won’t say much, but be careful with them, especially if they spit webs, exhale poison gas, or are made of an exceptionally springy-sounding substance. The megabeast warnings apply here.
Things that go up in the night
The Dwarf Fortress also has vampires and were creatures, who can either attack directly or infiltrate your fortress disguised as migrants. Creatures in particular are afflicted with a contagious condition that can destroy your fort. I’ll let you figure out how best to defeat these enemies…but pay special attention to any suspiciously pale migrants who are hundreds of years old and have very high skills.
Too greedy, too deep
There are, of course, older and uglier things than goblins in the deep places of the world, where ancient and nameless things gnaw at the pillars of creation.