RPG Evolution - Minecraft: The Gateway to D&D

Minecraft has become ubiquitous with kids everywhere who are obsessed with the crafting game, and for good reason: the game has a presence on every major game console, raking in over $300 million in revenue in 2014. Although it might seem children are frittering away their time glued to screens, my kids' transition to Dungeons & Dragons was so effortless that Minecraft may be one of the most effective means of getting a younger generation into playing fantasy tabletop role-playing games.


How Did We Get Here?

Microsoft purchased Minecraft last year to the tune of $2.5 billion -- and expects to break even this year. The tech giant explained the game's reach in a press release about the acquisition:
Available across multiple platforms, “Minecraft” is one of the most popular video games in history, with more than 100 million downloads, on PC alone, by players since its launch in 2009. “Minecraft” is one of the top PC games of all time, the most popular online game on Xbox, and the top paid app for iOS and Android in the US. The “Minecraft” community is among the most active and passionate in the industry, with more than 2 billion hours played on Xbox 360 alone in the past two years. Minecraft fans are loyal, with nearly 90 percent of paid customers on the PC having signed in within the past 12 months.
Minecraft's presence is felt everywhere, including on YouTube:
Views from Minecraft's fan channels, however, totaled 31 BILLION views. That means that of total views of videos about Minecraft on YouTube, 99.4% of them were of fan videos. On average, the top 50 games on YouTube (in terms of views) had 96% of views come from fan videos. But Minecraft was off the chart. Furthermore, Minecraft's 31 billion views of fan videos was almost 3x that of the second- and third-place games, Grand Theft Auto (11.8 billion views of fan videos) and Call of Duty (9.7 billion).
And of course, there's the ubiquitous Minecraft stuff: plush toys, clothing, and pixel weapons. That doesn't account for all the imitators, a dizzying host of games that borrow elements from Minecraft to launch their own platforms (Terraria being just one example).

It took me a while to get my son to play Dungeons & Dragons. I had built simpler role-playing games for him in the past, but when we started playing Fifth Edition he immediately got the basics of D&D, and it was all because of Minecraft.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Minecraft

Minecraft teaches some fundamentals that experienced tabletop gamers take for granted in D&D. To begin with, it posits a medieval trade society where equipment is rare and our sole hero is expected to fend for himself. Armed with only a map, the nameless protagonist (sometimes named Steve) begins in the wilderness with nothing but his hands to build a shelter. He has until the sun sets before monsters come out at night.

Minecraft's "survival mode" encourages emergent play, a concept that originated with Dungeons & Dragons, fell out of favor as TSR pushed published adventures, and recently came back into vogue with the Old School Renaissance. Emergent play uses basic rules to encourage creative strategies. D&D originally featured overland navigation as a major element of play. Jon Peterson explains in "Playing At the World":
The object of Outdoor Survival is to navigate a wilderness, though there are five scenarios providing distinct justifications for doing so: for example, lost players returning to civilization at the edges of the map or racing to find the object of a search party. Given that the board itself is not a secret from the players (Outdoor Survival has no referee), some other means is required to simulate being lost in the woods, since the players necessarily command a bird’s-eye view of the environment. Dice therefore determine whether or not players are lost, and if so, in which direction they will wander. The board is overlain with a hexagonal grid, segmenting the board into hexagons about 1.5 centimeters across; as there are six possible directions on a hexagonal board to move, a six-sided die can easily dictate the orientation of lost players. Each hex contains a particular terrain type, in much the manner of Hellwig: there are mountains, swamps, rivers, deserts, plains and even roads (well, trails).
The Outdoor Survival game that Dungeons & Dragons relied on for its overland exploration could just as easily describe Minecraft. The difference being that instead of a bird's-eye view of the terrain the player looks out of his Minecraft character's eyes. Both games are extremely unforgiving in "survival" mode.

The open-world concept was a major factor in Minecraft's development. Minecraft's creator Markus "Notch" Persson was inspired by Dwarf Fortress, a fantasy construction and management simulation of a dwarven colony rendered in ASCII format. Like Dungeons & Dragons, it relies heavily on emergent play to produce an interesting gaming experience:
Dwarf Fortress is a single-player fantasy game. You can control a dwarven outpost or an adventurer in a randomly generated, persistent world...The world is randomly generated with distinct civilizations spanning centuries of detailed history, hundreds of towns, caves and regions with various wildlife...Craft treasures and furniture from many materials and improve these objects with precious metals, jewels and more...Defend yourself against attacks from hostile civilizations, the wilderness, the depths, the dead and creatures of the night...Z coordinate allows you to dig out fortresses with multiple levels. Build towers or conquer the underworld...Honey, wax, pottery, windmills, waterwheels, soap, plaster, wool, eggs, dyes, cheese, glass, animal training, and much much more...
Another inspiration for Minecraft was Dungeon Keeper, in which the player takes on the role of a typical D&D dungeon master by populating a dungeon with monsters and minions to ward off invading adventurers:
Build the ultimate underground lair and summon dark forces to do your bidding. From Imps and Trolls, to Bile Demons and Warlocks, you'll need more than your wit to stop invaders bent on destroying your dungeon's heart. Maximize your defenses to thwart invaders with expertly laid traps and dungeon design. Then, attack enemy dungeons and plunder their resources.
Dwarf Fortress' fantasy construction and management simulation mixed with Dungeon Keeper's strategy evolved into a form of emergent play in Minecraft that's similar to Dungeons & Dragons. Along with these two game systems comes a bunch of other elements endemic to the role-playing genre: treasure to be spent on increasing armor and weapons, fighting monsters to gain experience points and level up, and the ability to view a character from an isometric (miniatures) or first-person view (immersive role-play).

In addition to the standard role-playing game tropes, Minecraft brought some unique monsters that entered the popular fantasy lexicon: creepers and endermen. The adventure that introduces some of these critters is not easy to find; it debuted at PAX East 2013, "Mines of Madness." There's even a comic about it, although the adventurers never made it to the Minecraft-themed area. The adventure includes a portal to the Nether Realm that releases "oink zombies" (zombie pigmen, basically zombie orcs) and "deathstalkers" (creepers, weird aberrations that sneak up on you and explode). Endermen were inspired by the Internet meme known as the Slender Man; see this blog for Fifth Edition stats.

Minecraft also has something that Dungeons & Dragons has grappled with since its first incarnation. It's right there in the title: "craft." This is one aspect of gaming that D&D has sometimes struggled with...the art of making stuff.

The Right Stuff?

Jon Peterson defined the core elements of D&D more specifically in Playing at the World:
The games all admitted of the same core modes of play as Dungeons & Dragons: a mode of exploration, traveling through potentially dangerous places; a mode of combat, when danger manifests; and a mode of logistics, when dealing with the consequences of an expedition or preparing a new one.
The Papers & Pencils blog explains crafting in Peterson's context:
It’s true that crafting is not a core element of D&D or its descendants. It’s difficult to define precisely what the core of D&D is, but if I were to attempt it, I’d say that “D&D is a game where the GM describes an environment containing challenges and rewards, which must be navigated by the players, who each control an individual character.” A lot of different scenarios can fit within that description, but crafting items is not one of them.
Using these definitions, crafting shares some elements with exploration (harvesting, mining, etc.) and logistics (creating, preparing, etc.). Although it wasn't necessarily a core element, D&D has always had some form of crafting, going all the way back to the original boxed set:
Wizards and above may manufacture for their own use (or for sale) such items as potions, scrolls, and just about anything else magical. Costs are commensurate with the value of the item, as is the amount of game time required to enchant it.
And that was basically it. Creating mundane items never entered into the equation. Crafting in Second Edition Dungeons & Dragons wasn't much better:
The goals of the crafting system in the Complete Fighter's Handbook are fundamentally unlike those of, say, 3e's Craft skills, and the goals of the crafting system in the Dungeon Master's Guide are unlike those of 3e's magic item creation feats. The Player's Handbook of 2e sets material costs and crafting times for armor and weapons. As with all nonweapon proficiencies, in general a character is or is not a crafter of the given type; there is no indication that higher levels of skill might relate to working faster, or that more skill might ever be required to make something. The rules in the PH indicate, without particular guidance, that the DM may rule an item more or less difficult to make than normal, and therefore assign a bonus or penalty to the character's skill roll. The CFH introduces a table of such modifiers.
It wasn't until the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons that crafting came into its own. This was the first time there was a skill dedicated to crafting, feats to support it, and a rules system that (unlike Second Edition) cut across all specializations. With 3.5, D&D finally added crafting to combat, exploration, and inventory management as a legitimate style of play.

Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons focused more on the combat style of play most of all, which deprecated crafting in the core rules set. Fifth Edition took the middle road, with much simpler rules for crafting.

All I Wanna Do is Craft Some Fun

But why would anyone want to dabble in crafting? It's a question that came up on the 1d30 blog:
In my experience, it’s because they either want to roleplay a craftsman (very rare) or else get a little extra money. But by “a little” they mean “a good percentage boost to what I make in the dungeon” otherwise it really isn’t worth the time and skill points.
There are many arguments for and against crafting, which has come into vogue with crafting video game simulations. Alexander King outlines why it's popular:
Crafting can serve a variety of purposes in a game's design. It can provide a thematic and flavorful way for the player to access items, whether it's smithing armor in a fantasy setting or applying futuristic gun mods in a sci-fi game. It can play a vital balancing role in how the player acquires upgrades, and with greater subtlety than more overt restrictions. And, if built with sufficient depth, crafting can even provide strategic gameplay in and of itself.
The popularity of the Cooking Mama franchise has brought home just how broadly popular the crafting style of play can be. Crafting simulators has also proved popular with female gamers:
We remember breeding Nintendogs, not-quite-swear-words on Club Penguin, Princess Peach’s magical parasol. The fun we had, the adventures we shared, the friends we made. “Cooking Mama!” she exclaims. “I loved Cooking Mama. It was so much fun.” I agree, recalling the tricky stylus technique one mastered over the course of many digital omelets. I can nearly hear her smile travel through the phone. “That’s what I want,” she says, wistfully. “More Cooking Mama games.”
With all this in mind, I set out to modify Dungeons & Dragons so my eight-year-old boy and five-year-old girl could share their passion for Minecraft with my passion for tabletop role-playing games. Here's how I did it.

You've Got Minecraft in My D&D!

The first change that required a different approach to D&D was sandbox-style play. Sandbox style play works best with a hex map, and since we were using "The Battle of Emridy Meadows" from Dungeon Magazine #221, it was easy to find a map of the surrounding area.

The Dungeons & Dragons Next playtest exploration rules were an opportunity to demonstrate sandbox play, dividing exploration into five-minute, one-hour, and one-day turns. Unfortunately, the entire set of exploration rules didn't make it into the final version of Fifth Edition.

To capture the feel of Minecraft's "stuff," I purchased Stonemaier Games' tokens. The tokens represent wood, stone, brick, and ore. I also used other icons for water and food. The gems and nuggets from the board game Dragon's Gold filled in for other valuables.

Each of my kids got a cloth bag filled with the appropriate supplies. I'm still accumulating tokens for everything else that might be in their packs (potions are missing; Stonemaier Games is working on that), but this was a good start. I also gave each player a separate pouch of plastic gold pieces (you can buy at any party store) to use when calculating costs for buying good or selling raw materials.

This system is highly stylized and meant to represent the fast-paced crafting that kids are accustomed to in Minecraft. They are by no means meant to be realistic! In addition to the D&D Next play test exploration rules I added a few other actions: craft, eat, fish, forage, hunt, and mine. Eating is a 5-minute or 1-hour turn, but the others are 1-hour or 1-day turns.
  • Crafting an item requires the GP value divided by 5 in raw materials. The PC uses the appropriate proficiency in the relevant artisan tool and an Intelligence (Nature) check, with the DC equal to 10 + the GP value of the item divided by 5. For every point over the DC, the PC spends 1 point of raw material (up to a maximum of 8 in a day). For every 5 points below the DC, the PC loses 1 point of raw material. For example, making a longsword (15 gp) requires 3 iron ingots and an Intelligence DC check of 13 (15/3 + 10). The PC can spend a 1-hour turn to craft 1 of the 3 ingots (and then has to make another check on the next 1-hour turn) or complete the effort in 1 day (up to 8 ingots spent in a day).
  • Eating is self-explanatory and covers the rules for eating and drinking in D&D. The food and water tokens helped my kids keep track of their supplies. This is a simple add and subtraction system that works well with my daughter's basic math skills.
  • The other tokens were gathered by using turns to produce them. Fishing, foraging, and hunting requires a Wisdom (Survival) check. The target roll is determined by the terrain type. For hunting and foraging, the DCs range from 10 (forest and plains) to 15 (hills and mountains) to 20 (desert). For mining it's slightly different, with a DC 10 (hills and mountains), 15 (forests and plains), or 20 (desert). Fishing requires a body of water and a judgment call on the quality of the fishing spot (10, 15, or 20). On a 1-hour turn, every point over the DC the character rolls nets 1 pound of appropriate food or 1 cubic foot of material (fish, fruits/vegetables, or meat/leather). For every 5 points rolled under the DC the character suffers damage (cold damage from fishing, poison damage from foraging, slashing damage from hunting). Spending a 1-day turn multiplies these results by 8 (as well as the damage, which could be deadly!).
  • Mining is a little different, with every point over the DC on a Wisdom (Survival) check creating 5-feet of material; a natural 20 means precious metals or gems. Every 5 points below the DC inflicts 1 point of bludgeoning damage from a cave-in. As the PCs gather raw materials they get tokens for each cubic foot/5-feet or pound of material they gather. They spend these tokens by either trading them in or crafting the equipment themselves.
In addition to these rules, the PCs used Intelligence (Nature) to perform search checks. These checks were how the PCs found the villains' lairs, and thus they might move from hex to hex, foraging and searching, until they found their target and then "typical" D&D would ensue.

Did it Work?

The overall verdict was that my kids really enjoyed the harvesting of raw materials and converting it to equipment, but were less enamored with worrying about food and water. The added benefit to this system is it involves addition and subtraction, which goes a long way in helping kids develop their math skills. Perhaps the best indication of the success of the experiment is that my kids frequently beg me to play what they call "Minecraft D&D."

D&D's challenge with crafting is that the purpose of adventuring is the accumulation of stuff, and the game works hard to ensure that PCs focus on adventuring at the expense of crafting. Minecraft doesn't distinguish between these styles of play -- crafting, exploring, and combat are all seamlessly integrated -- and by tweaking the rules a bit D&D might just net us some new converts.
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

This is interesting. Turning D&D into an exploration/ crafting game is very dfifferent. Especially when the common wisdom is that complicated or in depth crafting is not fun.


First Post
This is interesting. Turning D&D into an exploration/ crafting game is very dfifferent. Especially when the common wisdom is that complicated or in depth crafting is not fun.

Crafting in D&D not being fun always seemed to me to be a problem of approach. Most ways to do it were "Follow This Procedure, Instantaneously Gain Item". It should probably be more like a general outline than a series of rules follow. The way I did it when running a campaign that involved crafting (specifically the character crafting a phylactery) was to use the guildelines for cost as a generic lifetime-of-the-crafting process cost. So I had the player go on a long quest to obtain certain more rare materials, set up a lab etc., and made that all ultimately cost 300k gp or whatever, much of it sunk into travel costs, rent, hired help, etc. The "process" of crafting itself was only a simple RP session, which brings up what I think is core to the mistakes of most crafting systems: focusing on the act of crafting itself.

Unless you are there physically doing the crafting, that's not going to be very interesting, so I think it's best not to focus on that, and instead put focus on the journey to get to that point (in acquiring rare materials, a safe haven to work at, money for tools and mundane materials and hired help).


Strigiform Storyteller
If crafting is going to be a fun game activity, then it should involve some of the same kinds of opportunities and hazards as more traditional pursuits like combat, exploration, and social engagement.

"Getting new stuff" is an obvious lure — but you don't always know *what* new stuff you're gaining from the dungeon, forest glade, or grateful noble. So some uncertainty is good, rather than just feeding everything into fixed, pre-known routines. That growth could be as modular as discovering new "recipes" in the same way as wizards discover new spells, or could involve a more elaborate system of experimentation and development for specific, player-initiated inventions or "development paths".

"Margin of success" is another feature: *how well* (or how sloppily) you clear the dungeon, explore the map, or flatter the duke is sometimes just as memorable as the simple fact of accomplishing it. D&D tends to have rather rough quantization of effects, but allowing positive benefits and negative quirks would add more character and fun than, again, a set of cut-and-dried routines, or simple success-or-failure mechanics.

*Improvement* rather than *replacement* is another consideration. Classic D&D is all about grooming a PC on a "hero's journey" through increasing levels of power, ability, and influence; crafting should allow specific items to enjoy some of the same growth. I remember ancient *Dragon* articles lamenting that a PC's ancestral +1 sword might be tossed aside in favor of a later, better weapon, despite the in-world story associated with the former; crafting is one way of accommodating such upgrades, though the hazard lies in making all items into mere arrangements of elemental components that can be re-arranged at will. Balancing rewards with the possibility of absolute failure or ongoing effects is also important: yes, maybe you clear out the troll fens, or re-forge Anduril, but maybe you fail and lose the PC/sword instead, or maybe you mess up and have to live with a puffy scar or annoying lack of balance in the blade until further adventures or further crafting can redress those deficiencies.

Basically, crafting seems mostly of appeal to those gamers sometimes classified as "nesters." For that category of gamers, it's fun and important; for others, it may be unbelievably tedious. To work well, the rules have to offer a variety of scope and, yes, "adventure" comparable to other activities in the game... but not in a way that destroys or denigrates those other parts, such as by wrecking the delicate fictional economy, encouraging PCs to spend their time doodad-designing alone instead of dungeon-delving with their party-mates, or allowing too much of an end-run around accepted setting ideas or rarity or scarcity.

So it's a complex and delicate set of rules which appeal to a limited set of players and actively turn off others. No wonder it's seen limited attention in the already-small pool of tabletop RPG rules sets, companies, and players.


First Post
This is fascinating. Making D&D into an exploration/crafting game is a completely other experience. Especially when conventional thinking holds that complex or in-depth crafting is not enjoyable.
It's not going to be very exciting unless you're physically performing the crafting, so I think it's best not to focus on that and instead focus on the route to get there (in acquiring rare materials, a safe haven to work at, money for tools and mundane materials and hired help).
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