Comedic Notes on the Dwarf Fortress Economy

Originally written in 2023.

The video game Dwarf Fortress is a highly detailed simulation game, in which the player manages a fortress of dwarves starting a new colony in unsettled land. The game is particularly in-depth, often forsaking graphical knowledge and ease of access in favor of depth, with each individual dwarf having a host of simulated and tracked skills, thoughts, and emotions, and an entire simulated world. Graphically, Dwarf Fortress is represented by ASCII (text) art by default and is primarily controlled by keyboard functions. As a whole, the game is certainly one of the most complex games available.

In the 40d update of the game, the development team added an economy function. The economy function was enabled when nobility arrived to the player’s fortress. This had a variety of comedic effects, and was later removed from the game. The most reminiscent and evocative of which are listed here, quoted from the wiki:

All non-legendary and non-noble dwarves are granted personal accounts, initialized at 200 money. They earn wages for performing most kinds of work and spend it on bedroom rent, food, and pets. Whatever’s left over can be spent at shops, which it now becomes possible to build. Dwarves can purchase useful or desirable goods at shops and get happy thoughts from doing so. Current wages can be viewed through the Job List screen. Legendary dwarves and nobles have no account and don’t require money to acquire rooms, items, or food.

Food must also be purchased. Dwarves that cannot afford quality meals must eat something of lower value (plump helmets or meat are common choices). Dwarves will not starve because they cannot buy food; they just choose whatever is cheapest. In doing so, however, their account will go negative (displayed in red on their profile screen), and soon they will likely be evicted or taxed.

An unfortunate side effect of this is that legendary/noble dwarves can purchase any finished good they desire, whether at a shop or not, preventing you from trading them to caravans. They may also acquire unusable armor (which you might prefer to melt) as well as unequippable weapons and ammo, potentially leading to the unfortunate scenario of having no arrows with which to load the bows in your weapon traps. This can be avoided for goblinite by ensuring that they are marked for melting before they are unforbidden, as melt-designated items are ineligible for acquisition.

Bedrooms may only be explicitly assigned to nobles and legendary dwarves – all others are put up for rent. Dwarves will pay rent on their current room and, if they cannot pay, will be evicted and must find a cheaper place to sleep. Make sure you have enough low-price rooms available (or at least beds in the barracks). The rental price can be seen when selecting the room with q; this figure is based on the total worth of furniture, smoothing, and decoration etc. in that room. Inexpensive rooms can be made fairly easily by placing multiple beds close together and declaring overlapping rooms from each of them. You may cause all room rent to become 0 by editing \data\init\init.txt; line “[ZERO_RENT:YES]”. Rooms can become far too expensive otherwise, what with exclusively high quality furniture being produced by skilled workers, and room rent not being adjusted according to supply and demand. Note that, even with this option enabled, dwarves will still be evicted if their accounts go negative from purchasing food.

In addition to those features, the economy had some other profound mechanics. Hauling, an important job that involves moving items from one place to the other, such as rock from outside to a stockpile for other dwarves to use, is unpaid. This means that dwarves performing a very basic yet unskilled job are not paid. Additionally, the economy in the game was not subject to supply and demand, meaning that illustrious masterwork apartments could lie empty in favor of small hovels. While the game itself is an abstraction, it allows for similarly abstract humorous parallels. One can dream that a more equitable and sustainable economy is put in place for the next version of Dwarf Fortress.

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