I've been playing Dwarf Fortress since 2009. Don't let its steep learning curve deter you from enjoying its fun and challenging world.
Or, How Not to Close the Game As Soon As You Open It
Upon first opening the game and generating a world to play in, the common response of most would-be Dwarf Fortress players is, "Oh, my god! What IS all this? I can't even." This is followed by a swift move to close the game. I was one of them.
Upon seeing a mass of ASCII symbols, abstruse commands, and a message gleefully informing me that Harpies had just attacked and killed all my dwarves, I promptly closed the game. I didn't open it for almost an entire year.
Dwarf Fortress is an amazing game. I've played it since 2009 and have seen it undergo multiple changes. It's also immensely challenging. The game's motto is "Losing is Fun!" with good reason. However, you can't experience the fun (and the Fun) without learning how to play.
While I strongly recommend learning in full-on vanilla mode, there's a fantastic little program called "Lazy Newb Pack" and it's a great help, especially if you'd rather not fool with manually updating the graphics, turning off invasions, and so on.
I won't be covering all the ins and outs on the game: that goes way too far beyond this article's scope. It's intended to offer clarity and encouragement to those new to the game who feel a bit intimidated by it.
Preparing for Embark
This means that you'll be deciding what professions you want your dwarves to have and how proficient they are in them, and what supplies you want to take. You'll also be choosing your group's name (I've settled on Diedships. A good name, but if you don't think that there's potential for goofy and/or lewd names, you really are new to the game) and Fortress name (I chose The Castles of Fording). be advised that you are unable to change this, so choose wisely, or for maximum hilarity, as you wish.
When choosing what to bring, food and booze ought to be paramount. Dwarves are alcohol powered, and having enough for everyone at all times is vital. It effects both their happiness, and their ability to work. Dwarves who are sober work more slowly, which in turn can cause other necessities such as planting crops, digging out living areas, and even going to the defense of the fort to grind slowly to a halt. Worse, while dwarves will drink water during times of scarcity, they will be unable to do so without an unfrozen source of water. Your dwarves will die of thirst, and don't count on spring thaws or traders to save them.
Booze is literally the most important thing in your fort. Bring plenty, and bring seeds for planting the crops to make it.
Food items are also vital. Keep in mind that dwarves are not picky eaters, and will happily consume items that we would normally find disgusting (cat biscuits, anyone?) or impossible (preserved monarch butterfly brains). Grab as much as you can.
Also, depending on how picky you are about things like 'suspension of disbelief', you might consider not taking an axe., Take some logs instead. Due to an odd quirk (the game is full of them), your carpenter can build a wooden training axe... which can then be used to cut down trees.
As regards livestock, if you must bring along cats, only bring males. Cats are cute (try using 'k' in game to look at one, then 'v' to view the description), and great at hunting vermin (whose corpses you'll need to order your dwarves to dispose of in a refuse stockpile) but their rapid reproduction will kill your framerate. This is known as 'catsplosion', and will doom your fort to a laggy, unplayable end.
Get to Know Your Dwarves
Your dwarves have very definite opinions, feelings, and preferences. Some love art and creativity (best for those you wish producing beautiful items and making your fort look nicer). Others are more practical-minded, preferring to work hard (anything involving digging, farming, or military pursuits is best for these sorts) at more mundane pursuits.
While you shouldn't let this control you, do keep it in mind. a dwarf who is more physically flimsy and tires easily is going to make a poor miner. A more artsy but less logical dwarf will be less happy if she's being made to do bookeeping, and so on.
Traits are set in stone (see what I did there?) and cannot be changed. Play to your dwarves strengths and downplay their weaknesses as much as possible. Their happiness is a lot more important that you think.
If you use the arrow keys to move up and down the list, you can hit 'v' to select a given dwarf. A lot of work was put into making the games dwarves as realistic and detailed as possible. Looking at Olin here, we see his likes, dislikes, physical appearance, even his hopes and dreams and current state of mind. As mentioned above, it's best, though not necessary, to assign his professions based on his own preferences.
See where it says he hates jumping spiders? Vermin are tagged in game as 'hateable', meaning a dwarf can have a strong revulsion for a certain creature to the point where seeing them on a constant basis will make him or her very unhappy. Sometimes vermin show up in statue art and fortress engravings. To maximize happiness (or if you want to be sadistic), avoid or restrict the dwarf in question to rooms with these art works as desired.
Upon Embark, or "What the Hell Do I Do Now?"
Here's the part where a lot of new players look at the game and say "Nope!", then quickly close the game. And it is intimidating, especially when using ASCII graphics. Everything looks weird and nothing makes sense.
Fear not. Let's take things step by step.
Ignore everything but the words on the right. Those are the main commands of the game. Most of them we aren't going to worry about right now. To start, we're going to get some basic shelter going.
Hit 'd' on your keyboard. That's going to bring up a bunch more options. You want to hit 'd' again. The easiest way for new players to dig--at least in my opinion--is using the mouse. If you're going to dig into the side of a cliff or mountain, use the mouse to 'draw' squares, lines, and so on. Make sure that you start on the edge of the cliff or mountainside itself, then work outward. If your dwarves can't access where you want them to dig, they won't even start. Alo, make sure that your miners have picks available to them. If you remembered to bring some, they'll just pick them up, and get right to it!
While you're getting some basic living areas dug out, have your woodcutter chop down some trees. Using the 'd' for Designation menu once more, select the 't' option. Use your mouse to 'paint' a good sized swatch to mark it for deforestation. If you have an axe, your woodcutter ought to get right on it.
While he or she is hard at work, select 'b' for build, then 'w'. We're going to make some workshops. some players like to carve everything out first, but I find it easiest when first learning to make them outside, then dismantle them and rebuild them inside.
If I Had a Hammer...
Select 'c' for carpenter's workshop. the game will prompt you to select a material. Don't choose anything in stone or metal, unless you absolutely have to. Decide where you want your workshop, and hit enter. Your carpenter should start building it Most other workshops, unless they require special materials or other considerations, follow the same format.
Build a mason's workshop, still (found under farming workshops), a tanner, a butcher, and a leather workshop in the same manner. Stills are for brewing up more booze, and leathercrafting is good for making basic armor but also for making sacks. You are going to have more seeds than you'll know what to do with, and sacks are helpful for storing them. Otherwise, your dwarves will stockpile them as 'one seed to a stockpile space', taking up valuable room.
Feeding the Masses
Get your carpenter making beds, barrels (for booze) and bins (for trade goods). Now have your miners carve out a space into the soil (easiest for now) so we can build our first farm. Do this into the cliffside if possible, because the seeds you've brought require underground farming, and can't be planted aboveground.
Go back to your 'b' menu. Select 'p'; this will enable you to build a farm plot. we're doing something different this time, though: instead of giving us another letter option, the game is prompting us to hit 'u' and 'm' to size vertically, and 'h' and 'k' to size horizontally. Do just that. It won't form a perfect shape, but that's okay.
See the flashing space? that means you've designated the farm plot. If you have a dwarf assigned to farming, he'll go over there to plow the field. Once it's done, you can hit 'q' them move the cursor over your farm plot, which will show what seeds you can plant, if any.
By now, your carpenter should have made some beds for your dwarves, barrels for brewing, and so on. right now, we're concerned with placing those beds. Dwarves can and do sleep on the bare earth, but they also can and do complain about it. Let's place some beds!
Go back to your 'b' menu, and select 'Bed'. If you have beds available, it will prompt you to select one. Do so.
Now, move the cursor to where you want your bed. It must be indoors.Put it wherever you want (we can worry about proper rooms later) and hit enter. You can either let whatever dwarf comes along for a nap sleep in it, or you can designate it to a particular one.
Doing so requires us to hit 'q' and then move the cursor over the new placed bed. Options will pop up to assign the bed or make it a dorm room. Assign the bed, select the dwrf you want to have ownership of it, and there you go!
Strike the Earth!
This should give you a good start on the bare basics of the game. I leave it to you to explore more on your own. Play around with it, learn how to overcome aquifers, build stockpiles, fend off invasions, and set up your military.Expect to Lose, a lot. even when you're hitting the magma sea, fending off eldritch horrors, and building megaprojects, you'll still die. There is no official way to 'win' Dwarf Fortress, but the winning comes through the fun--and Fun--of playing.
If you want to learn more or socialize with fellow players, there's some amazing resources out there. I'm Nyxalinth on the Df forums, another good link to know is the Dwarf Fortress wiki. Enjoy, and remember: Losing is Fun!