At first glance you might not think that Minecraft and DnD have anything in common. One is a video game, the other is a TTRPG. One is a boxy game about gathering resources and the other is a narrative storytelling game about adventure. Though they have their surface level differences, Minecraft has a surprising amount of great game design principles that can be extracted and applied to Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a lot we can learn from video games!
Why is Minecraft one of the Most Played Games in The World?
Before we get to extracting elements of Minecraft for DnD, let’s talk about what makes Minecraft a great game that is beloved by millions.
First and foremost, Minecraft is loved for it’s flexibility and creativity. The game can be played basically however you would like. You can go on adventures, build houses, fight monsters, trade with villagers, farm, make big blocky pixel art, or even build a working computer. Just about anything you could want to do is available to you.
The world is big, open, and surprising so you have a lot to explore. And if you ever get bored with the content available there are hundreds of stable mods that change the game in a variety of interesting ways. You can almost never run out of things to do.
Minecraft has its own charms that shine in a consistent set of rules, mechanics, and art styles that people grow to love over other open world crafting games. While there are many games now that do things similar to Minecraft, there are very few that manage to capture its charm.
Beyond having near endless possibilities for gameplay, Minecraft also features a robust multiplayer that allows you to do pretty much whatever you want in a made up world with your friends. Going on adventures, slaying monsters, finding treasure… wait a minute. That sounds a lot like another massively popular game I’ve heard of.
So let’s sum up.
It’s a big open world adventure with limitless possibilities that can best be enjoyed with friends and is a system that people love for its unique charms and quirks.
If you haven’t seen where we’re leading you yet, Minecraft and DnD have a tremendous amount of core features in common.
So, What Can Minecraft Teach Us About DnD?
Minecraft is a gold mine for engaging procedural generation lessons. You might not think about using procedural generation for DnD, but that’s exactly what a roll table is for. You are building an operation that allows you to make randomly generated content within certain parameters.
Beyond the lessons we can learn about procedural content, we can also learn about resource gathering, self-directed adventures and player motivations and incentives. These are just a few examples, but that’s likely more than enough for us to talk about and keep you busy writing sessions for weeks if not years.
With all that out of the way, let’s dive in and draw some parallels.
Procedural Content in Minecraft and How to Use it in DnD
The procedural generation in Minecraft is mind blowingly good. It has tons of variations, makes huge worlds, creates unique and wonderful features, and it essentially can go on forever. It is not something that is easy to replicate in DnD, but the part that we want to look at is the generation itself. Let’s focus on why that generation is possible in the first place. In short, it comes from simple, repeatable rules.
Minecraft can only generate such breathtaking scenes on the fly because the world is made up of discreet building blocks. Its low poly graphics aren’t just for looks- it’s also the reason it can work at all. In DnD you can take the same principle and apply it to your world generation. Focus on easy, repeatable rules and you can make some surprisingly diverse content for people to play through.
What kind of simple rules might you use? How would you apply them?
Both great questions. Let’s explore a few examples to help you get the idea.
First we will look at random dungeon tables. This can be involved for normal dungeon creation, but it doesn’t have to be. Create five to ten room shapes that all fit within the same grid space and make a table to roll for them. Next make a table that tells which type of encounters would be in the dungeon, like traps, combat, NPCs, empty rooms, and treasure.
For each encounter type make a table with at least 5 options. Now you can generate dungeons on fly simply by rolling for a room type, an encounter type, and the encounter. If you did the minimum we suggested, you could have 125 different room combinations. And that’s just creating the minimum.
Roll tables are the most basic form of procedural generation. They work because they have very clear steps. To make them perform optimally you need a few other clean up rules, like the same room type can’t occur twice in a row, or rooms will always be placed so that hallways make sense. This is how the game Betrayal at House on the Hill works and makes a reliably fun game different every time.
While roll tables are good, we can also see these rules when we jump out to the world map. Here you could have a hex grid setup for exploration, something we recommend for large, open world travel. You can also have a table of different types of terrain, but if you just roll the environment at random you can get some weird combos, like a desert next to taiga.
To make your map more believable you need to put simple rules in place. An example would be weighting. Based on the connected tiles the other tiles have a higher or lower chance of being something else. It sounds complicated, but rules like “deserts can be right next to forests” are easy to implement and you can set up a table to cover just about each scenario you would have.
This builds up interesting landscapes that are still unplanned, but they also get a sense of realism. This is very similar to the rules followed for Minecraft’s cave generation system, which builds connecting caverns and dead-ends purposefully so that you feel like the cave makes sense.
One final section where straightforward procedural generation can aid your game is in NPC generation. If you have a new NPC that you’ve had to make on the fly it can be hard to create a unique personality for them. For this we usually roll on the Myer-Briggs personality type chart. This will give you reliable and repeatable characteristics along two axis that can get you role playing that NPC in no time.
You can do a similar thing with character voices by overlaying a bunch of vocal characteristics you can pull off, like young to old, high to deep, breathy to clear, nasally to throaty. With just those options coupled with the personality chart you have 256 different NPCs to play with. If you’re good at voices you can get hundreds more, and if you overlay some basic goal setting you can create thousands of unique characters at your fingertips all by following simple rules.
We can do even more with procedural content and you can randomly generate whole games, but really the best lesson to take away from Minecraft on procedural content is the curation aspect. While there are a lot of things that are randomly generated, there are a lot of things that are the same everywhere.
The mechanisms and systems don’t change from place to place and this makes interfacing with this procedural content more accessible. If you run into a mine shaft in the game, it should have features you can expect in every mine shaft you would find, even though each one has a unique layout.
When using procedural content generation in DnD you can make a lot of content and stitch together the best and most reliable parts. If you don’t like how something generates then you can tweak your rules and figure out how to do it better. If you generate some amazing and unique stuff you can save it and pull it out again whenever you need to.
Minecraft’s Resources and DnD
A lot of Minecraft is centered around resource gathering. In DnD it’s not something you expect your players to do too much of because the crafting system in DnD is designed to deliberately restrict players who want to make their own items. While we think this is a major problem with DnD, we’re going to talk about resource gathering in a way that works with the the base 5e system. Just know that this opens up a ton of options if you add a little crafting homebrew to the game.
There are several things we can learn about resource gathering in Minecraft that are applicable to DnD. The one that sticks out the most is that there are resources everywhere. Punch trees, get wood. Strike the ground, get dirt. Everything is a resource and everything, even the earth itself, can be picked up and stored.
This would be impractical in DnD, but it does highlight that players who want a particular thing need only look around them. No class has been done dirtier than the Ranger over the years, but traditionally they would use their survival skills to help the party gather resources in wilderness adventures.
This died down a lot when the Ranger got a lot of skills in 5e that are automatically successful when it comes to surviving in the wild. This takes all the risk out of the survival aspect and resource gathering is a given. With that aside though, if you want to make resource gathering more meaningful it helps if players know what they are looking for.
In Minecraft you need certain resources to progress in the game. You need a wood pickax to get stone. You need a stone pickax to get iron. You need an iron pickax to get diamonds. The whole game has these little nested trees that make resources both valuable and necessary for progression. Beyond just teaching us that having a basic tech tree is important, knowing what resources to look for makes the act of searching more enjoyable.
On top of having resource gathering be a known initiative the players participate in, they also need to feel that those resources are useful. We’ve all played games where the party survives exclusively on trail rations from level 1 to 20. This is because food is not incentivized and gathering resources that might taste better or be more nutritious doesn’t factor in to the party’s decision making. In Minecraft, veteran players tier their food up to make sure they get the best food they can eat. This is efficient, but it also offers benefits to the player.
DnD should treat gathering resources in a similar fashion. Make resources useful. Give players a reason to want to hunt down specific types of plants and animals. This can be accomplished by granting players inspiration for having eaten a good meal before a long rest, or if you’re cold hearted you can punish players who eat nothing but trail rations with all sorts of stomach ailments.
Another thing that Minecraft does really well is make monsters a source of resources. Zombies, spiders, skeletons, creepers all drop useful resources that can get you through the game. In DnD killing a bunch of wolves and getting a small pile of gold doesn’t make any sense, but getting fangs and furs might be of great use to the party. More exotic monsters might have better bits to collect and those resources might be either functionally useful or valuable trade goods.
Minecraft’s Insane Inventory Management System
Now that we’ve talked a bit about resources, let’s touch on inventory management. We don’t personally feel that many people like inventory management, but we also understand the reason inventories are restricted. In Minecraft inventory space is precious, and one of the first things that many players build is a base to hold their chests. Storage is a key component to survival Minecraft and it’s something that DnD does not spend enough time on.
In DnD most players will carry everything they own on them. This can be difficult to manage on the fly because you often have to do a calculation to figure out if you’re encumbered or not, and then if you are you have to do even more math to figure out what to get rid of.
While we understand that encumbrance can be a hassle, if you bear with it and provide your players the ability to offload goods somewhere, you’ve changed the name of the game entirely. When you give your players a base where they store goods, a bank they drop gold into, or even a cart they can park as they go on their quests, you’ve given them the ability to offload gear they don’t need at the moment and you’ve also given the the ability to pickup and carry new things that they would have otherwise left behind.
Minecraft also shows us how this can be a problem. Resources can pile up, and you can quickly get a bunch of pack rats. To counteract this, make sure you are not giving your players junk resources that won’t get used and audit their inventories often. When you see too much of a certain resource piling up, stop providing it and give them a chance to offload, use, or sell some of it.
Minecraft’s Self-Directed Adventures and Player Freedom
The great thing about Minecraft is that you make your own fun. This can be frustrating for players who are not interested in setting their own goals, but it can be very freeing for players who like to just work on things they choose themselves.
Want to fight a boss? Minecraft has a few and they take some time to get to and defeat. Want to hoard treasure? There are a million ways to do that. Build a mansion. Build a farm. Go on an adventure. Sit in a dirt hut. You can do just about anything.
DnD can easily have a similar amount of freedom if you give it to your players. While it might be a scary concept, letting them decide the point of their own quest can also be a lot of fun.
This is not for everyone. Some players want to be railroaded down a very narrow and straight path to their goal. Assuming that your players are not this way, you can open up your world for them piece by piece with options. If you put them in a town with no money in their pockets, they’ll quickly establish some goals. Drop a job board in, highlight some major roads, drop hints about dungeons, and have NPCs who want help or encourage them to settle down in town. All of these provide different open world paths.
A job board lets your players choose the quests they want to do. Major roads show them that they can travel. Dungeon rumors might call to their sense of adventure, seeking treasure, or fame. If the option presents itself, some groups might even establish themselves in town and set up a base they work out of. Once the players choose a goal they want to pursue you can build more of your game around their goals.
Just like in Minecraft, small incentives help your players pursue larger goals. Initially Minecraft players have nothing, so acquiring gear and resources becomes a top priority. Food needs to be locked down or they will starve. If they don’t get light sources in place monsters will spawn in caves and outdoors at night.
The manageable pressures of the game add up to push the player to work towards some goals, and as they become more comfortable they can set their ambitions higher and work on more comprehensive projects. Your DnD game can work the same way with players gradually increasing the scope of their goals as they progress. Covering basic needs at low levels before moving towards self-directed tasks can be an excellent progression path in DnD.
Putting it all Together
As you can see, Minecraft does a great job of using simple game systems together to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Good procedural generation coupled with a need to gather resources further encourages adventure and exploration. Open options and self-directed goals allow players to take full advantage of their surroundings. And reliable and consistent mechanics allow for good interactions throughout the game.
Translating this to DnD doesn’t take a lot of mental work. If you are running an open world campaign, Minecraft is a great template to look at and another example of fantastic game design that can be copied from video games.
Focusing on making sure you do the simple things right and keep consistent rules for your world can easily build into something far greater than a fully bespoke campaign could in the same time. While you still need to craft and curate your experience to some extent, Minecraft shows us that it’s how each small part fits together that make the overall experience an enjoyable one.