Dwarf Fortress is a great game, but it's still in development (and likely will be for years and years) and it doesn't exactly hold your hand. In fact, it's not the slightest bit user-friendly. The developer has tons of fans (he's received more than $23,000 in voluntary donations in just the first three months of this year), but I suspect that many people who've tried the game gave up before they really got started.
Certainly, the game isn't for everyone, but it's free, so why not give it a try? But note that you have to be prepared to give it some effort. Also, remember that there's no way to actually win the game. There are many ways to lose, but keep in mind the Dwarf Fortress motto: "Losing Is Fun."
OK, suppose you want to give it a spin. I posted the first clip of a video tutorial awhile back. That's still very useful, but I thought I'd just give some step-by-step directions here. (Note that these are for the complete newbie.)
Since this won't interest most of my readers, I'll put my detailed instructions below the fold:
For beginners and experts alike, I highly recommend the Lazy Newb Pack, which comes bundled with the latest version of Dwarf Fortress, several graphics packs, and some optional utilities. At that link, you can choose from the regular Lazy Newb Pack or the "advanced" pack. Pick either one.
I've been using the advanced pack only because I wanted to post images of my fort using the Stonesense utility. I don't use anything else from it (if you do, and find it useful, please leave me a comment). So it really is up to you.
Either way, you'll download a zip file. Unzip the contents into a new folder. Note that there are frequent updates of this game, and each time, you have to go through this same procedure. You'll need to use a new folder each time, so don't just name it "Dwarf Fortress" or something like that.
As I'm writing this, the current version of Dwarf Fortress is 0.34.07 and the current version of the Lazy Newb Pack is 12. So I named the folder "Lazy Newb Pack 3407 v12". But that's entirely up to you.
After unzipping the zip file (I don't have to explain that, right?), open up your new folder. Inside are a couple of subfolders, a text file with some information about the contents, and the Lazy Newb Pack application. I always make a shortcut to Lazy Newb Pack.exe and put it on my desktop, but again, that's your choice.
If you've already been playing the game, and this is just a new version of it, now is when you'll want to move your saved game files. Just move or copy the whole "save" folder into the new version's Lazy Newb Pack\Dwarf Fortress\data folder. (Don't move anything else. You'll have to change the initial settings manually every time.)
If this is your first time in Dwarf Fortress, or you don't want to keep your saved games, just skip the above paragraph. Start playing by clicking on that shortcut to Lazy Newb Pack.exe. (This is always the way you'll start the game. On subsequent plays, you'll just click on "Play Dwarf Fortress!" at the bottom of that GUI. But the first time, or the first time with a new version, you'll need to set up everything the way you want it, as described below.)
You'll start under the "Options" tab. For the most part, you won't need to change anything here. For myself, I just change the "Liquid Depth" to yes. That means that the depth of water in the game will be shown as a number between 1 (shallowest) to 7 (deepest). Without that, you can still look at a body of water to see how deep it is, but it's handy - if not so pretty - to see that at a glance. But this is entirely up to you.
You can also change the key bindings, if you want. I don't, myself, but you can look in that Lazy Newb Pack text file to see the changes. If you want to keep the default, you don't have to do anything. If you want to change, click on which key bindings you want, then on "Load."
One more thing on this "Options" tab: As a beginner, you won't want an aquifer at your fort. You can turn off aquifers here, if you want, though I've never tried that. I just pick a location that doesn't have an aquifer. This would, presumably, open up a lot more locations for forts, but I worry about the effect it might have on fluid dynamics. So I leave it on.
When you're finished with the "Options" tab, move on to "Graphics." If you don't want any graphics, if you're happy with the default ASCII graphics, you don't have to do anything here. I'm not nearly that hardcore, myself. There's no question for me that I want graphics, minimal though they are.
Which one? I've tried all of them, and I really don't have a preference. I'm using Phoebus graphics right now, but only because I hadn't tried that one before. Just pick the graphics pack you want - at random is perfectly fine - then click on "Install Graphics." If you have saved games that you moved to this version (or if you've played for awhile but want to try a new graphics pack), you'll also want to click on "Update Savegames." If not, skip it.
That's all, here. TrueType fonts change the text in the game. They don't work well for everyone (they're a little small for me), but wait until you start the game, then press F12 to toggle them on and off and see what you think. Don't bother changing that here. Or anything else.
Skip the "Utilities" tab, for now, and move on to the "Advanced" tab. Most of these are self-explanatory and just a matter of individual choice. That "FPS Counter" is a number shown on your screen that indicates the frame-rate. I turn it off, since I find it distracting, and I don't seem to have frame-rate problems, anyway, but that's entirely up to you.
However, I'd definitely play windowed (you can re-size the window as you please), because you'll need to access the wiki sometimes, as you play. And you might want to follow along with my instructions here, too.
You'll also want to set "Initial Save" to yes, so it will save the game when you first get to your fortress location. Trust me, it can take a long time to get to that point, so you won't want to do it all over again, just because of some simple mistake. Likewise, I set it to "Pause on Load," because it takes a little while to load a game, and I don't want to have to sit and stare at the screen all that time.
The other save options are... optional. I set "Autosave" to seasonal, which makes a new saved game whenever the seasons change. That's really nice if a saved game becomes corrupted! And I set "Autosave Pause" to yes for the same reason I pause on load, so I can do something else while the game is being saved. (I set "Auto Backup" to yes, too,
OK, we're almost done. If you want, you can click on "Init File Editor" at the bottom of the page. That's a convenient way to edit a couple of files of initial settings (including the ones you just changed on this page). I wouldn't mess with it now. You can look it over later and see if there's anything you want to change. Make sure you know what you're doing first. (And note that you already set up the graphics earlier. Don't mess with that stuff.)
OK, you're ready to actually play the game. Well, not quite. You're ready to create a world, and that takes a little time. For most of it, you won't have to do anything, but your computer will be busy. So when you're ready, click on "Play Dwarf Fortress!"
If you've installed the "advanced" version of the Lazy Newb Pack, two screens will appear. The smaller one is for the DFHack utility. Just minimize that, or ignore it, since you won't need it. I'd maximize the larger window, which is the Dwarf Fortress game, itself. (Note that now is when you can try F12 to toggle TrueType on and off. But you can experiment with it later, too, especially if you seem to have a problem with text in the game.)
Oh, and note that Dwarf Fortress is a game played almost entirely by keyboard. You can use a mouse for a few things, but I'd just forget about the mouse while you're playing. (Your mouse wheel will increase or decrease the view distance, when you get to your fortress, but after setting it the way you want, that's usually more annoying than helpful.)
Right now, before doing anything else, you need to "Create New World!" You'll get a few basic options. I'd leave everything on "medium," but change mineral occurrence to "frequent." Then press 'y' to start.
Note that this takes a long time (up to 20 minutes?), even on a good computer. The game not only creates a world but a whole history. The history, in fact, plays out differently each time you create a new world. That means you can have worlds where very different things have happened. And often, Dwarf Fortress needs to start over again, when a world doesn't work out. All of this takes time.
Despite my long-winded explanation of the Lazy Newb Pack, all of that is pretty quick. Creating a world takes time, but it's not anything you have to watch (although you can, if you want). Hmm,... maybe now is when I should point out one peculiarity of the game. Sometimes - when saving a game, especially - there won't be any indication that something is happening. Don't worry. I've never had Dwarf Fortress lock up on me. It just looks like it, sometimes. Have patience.
Eventually, you'll get a world. You can look it over and accept it or not. Frankly, it's kind of hard to tell what you're getting. As a beginner, certainly, you'll probably just want to accept whatever world is created for you. Note that you can build one fort in this world or many forts, you can adventure in it with one character or many, but you can only do one of these at a time.
Once you've got a world, you can quit and come back to it later. Or you can go right ahead and play. If you've been playing, if you've got saved games, your top option will be "Continue Playing." Otherwise, it will be "Start Playing." As I say, you won't be able to do anything else on that world (although you can always create a new world) until you either abandon your fortress or retire your adventurer. One thing at a time.
If you're just starting, you'll have the choice of game modes. Adventure Mode is running a single character in an RPG. This isn't really the heart and soul of Dwarf Fortress, but it can be fun as a change of pace. Check out this video series, if you're curious. If you want to play it, I recommend the wiki's Adventure Mode quick-start guide.
In fact, I recommend the wiki for everything. And if you can't find the answer you need on the wiki, try the forum.
I'm going to assume that you want to play Dwarf Fortress Mode. (Note that "Legends" isn't a game mode. You can check it out, if you want. Note that you can't get into it again until you abandon your fortress/adventurer.)
For the most part, I'm going to suggest following the wiki's Fortress Mode quick-start guide. I'll just mention a few things here.
The first thing you must do is pick the location of your fortress. You'll see three screens. The left screen shows the local area, the middle screen the region, and the right screen the whole world. Explore your world a little bit, and read the wiki. That video tutorial series might help, too - especially the first two or three.
The quick-start guide will give you a good idea of what kind of site you need. For a beginning fortress, you do not want an aquifer. You do want some trees, because beds can only be made from lumber. You want a warm or temperate climate, not hot and definitely not freezing. Just think about what makes sense.
But, chances are your first fortress isn't going to last too long, anyway. Don't obsess over the location too much. This is a very complicated game, and you're going to make mistakes. You're better off just learning from them - indeed, enjoying them - rather than trying to be perfect right from the start.
After you pick a location for your fortress, you'll have to prepare for the journey. Here's where you can spend a lot of time. If you want to pick out each skill for your seven dwarves and every single piece of food and equipment they take with them, you can do it. I do, and I enjoy that kind of thing. But maybe you'd rather just get to the game-play, especially on your first attempt.
The first option here will be "Play Now!" That will start you off with the default set of skills and equipment. If you want to get right to the game, pick that. It should work perfectly well for you.
There are also some custom embark profiles at the bottom of the list. These come with the Lazy Newb Pack, and they're the same thing, only with variations that other people preferred. I really don't know anything about them. Try one, if you want.
There's also "Prepare for the journey carefully," which will let you pick everything yourself. That's fun, but it's very time-consuming. And if you forget something, you could be forced to start all over.
If you forget to bring an axe, you can't chop trees. There's a way around that, since you can deconstruct your wagon to get three pieces of lumber, then make a wooden training axe which will chop trees perfectly well. But if you forget to bring a pick - at least one - you're screwed. It's as simple as that.
But hey, it's up to you. There are all sorts of embark strategies on the wiki. One of the neat things about Dwarf Fortress is that there are a million different ways to do everything. For your first game, I might recommend just choosing the "Play Now!" option and going with the default, but I didn't do that for my first game. So who am I to say what sounds most fun to you?
However you do it, you'll eventually end up with seven dwarves and a wagon full of supplies at the site of your future fortress. The game should start paused, if you set the options correctly. If not, pause the game by pressing the spacebar.
Nothing will happen while the game is paused, so look around. Check out the commands. Press tab a few times to see what that does. Press F1 to return to the wagon. From here on, you're on your own.
Well, I would definitely use that quick-start guide to get a handle on things. But your choices are entirely up to you. You can level a mountain, if you want. (Watch out for cave-ins.) You can dig into the side of a cliff or straight down. You can even build an above-ground fortress, although you'll still have to dig for stone (unless you use wood, and there's usually not enough wood for that much construction).
For your first fortress, I'd recommend digging into the side of a nearby cliff. Of course, that assumes your site has cliffs, so you'd have to make sure of that when you picked your location. If not, no problem. Just start digging a staircase straight down.
But there's one more thing I did want to mention. When you get to your embark site, bring up the Lazy Newb Pack GUI again, and go to the "Utilities" tab this time. Highlight Dwarf Therapist, then click on "Run Program." This is one utility that's really useful.
It's pretty much self-explanatory, I think. Basically, you can see all of your dwarves here, and their skills, and you can just click to make job assignments (or remove them). When you're finished, click on "Commit Pending Changes" to make the alterations in Dwarf Fortress itself.
When you start Dwarf Therapist, it will read your Dwarf Fortress game for the information it needs. If you get a migrant wave, or you make some job changes in the game itself, just click on "Read Dwarves" to update Dwarf Therapist. It's simple, but it's really pretty handy.
Enjoy the game! You'll have setbacks. You'll lose dwarves. Eventually, you're almost certain to lose the fortress for some reason. But losing is fun. You'll see.