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Dwarves in 'Dwarf Fortress' Are Unionizing

The most recent update allows dwarves in the same profession to join guilds and share their skills.
March 4, 2020, 2:46pm

Dwarf Fortress's latest update brings villains with dastardly plots, fortune telling and aquifers that don't immediately kill you. It also gives Dwarves labor guilds. Solidarity forever.

Members of labor guilds in Dwarf Fortress don't yet have the ability to agitate for much. At this point, when a guild is created, they can petition for a guildhall, and not really anything else. That said, guilds are automatically recognized once dwarves decide to start one, which is positively utopian.

Once in a guild, dwarves don't do much else than hang out and teach each other skills. It seems underwhelming until you see it in practice. In my current fortress, Summerpainted, the farmer dwarves decided to create a guild, The Guild of Bucks. In their guildhall, called The Hall of Harvesting, one dwarf held a beekeeping demonstration for the others. That means that any dwarf who attended will learn how to tend bees, and down the line my fortress can produce honey. It introduces a new economy without having to bruteforce dwarves' skill levels, or get lucky with a skilled migrant. Not only that, but other farmers will also share their skills, meaning my laboring dwarves will all become more skilled over time.

Even if the functionality of guilds are still limited, it's easy to see them as analogous to unions. Unions do lots of things in order to ensure that their members get a fair contract and a seat at the bargaining table with management. Smaller things, like skill shares, also build solidarity. It empowers everyone to share knowledge with each other, making each individual worker a strong part of a now even stronger whole, which is just what my dwarves are doing in Summerpainted.

What guilds don't do is collective bargaining, which is the whole reason real life unions exist, nor do they have any requirements for joining other than "have farming related skills enabled." The most that they can petition for at this time is a guild hall and well, the Guild of Bucks already have one. Given that Dwarf Fortress already has a mechanic for demands and requests from dwarves—nobles can request the making of certain goods or impose a trade ban on them--it seems like the guilds in this game have the potential to be more like a union than a medieval trade guild. Given everything I've put my dwarves through, like running out of alcohol and accidentally leaving corpses of their friends laying around, dwarves definitely have a lot to complain about when it comes to their working conditions Then again, the economy of Dwarf Fortress is based largely on barter and trade, meaning it's not like workers have better pay to agitate for. (Don't ask about dwarven healthcare, you don't want to know.)

In Dwarf Fortress you play as a distant, third party observer, a kind of administrator organizing resources, allocating jobs and locking vampire bookkeepers in their studies. From that elevated perspective, you might not see the day-to-day interactions between dwarves, but you can see how your actions affect group morale. Taking the time to smooth and engrave the walls makes everyone happier. Dwarves who can't visit a temple to pray will get stressed out more easily.

From my godlike perch above Summerpainted, I can see that the dwarves who are in the farming guild actively use the resources that it provides, are happier, and are learning more skills to boot. Although none of these are political mechanics, or mechanics that reference real world political issues, they still serve to reinforce an ideology, intentional or not. So far, Dwarf Fortress has taken the position that having your own home and being able to practice your faith, whatever it is, are good things that make people how. Now it is also saying that labor guilds make your workforce happier and overall smart.

Right now in Summperainted, the Guild of Bucks is holding a workshop on sheering. Maybe I should buy some sheep, given that I'll have a workforce that will soon be able to handle a clothmaking economy.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.