Mapping D&D With Minecraft

Minecraft + DnD
Minecraft Pocket Edition makes a great interactive map for D&D sessions.

The (mostly) weekly Dungeons & Dragons gaming sessions with my sons and two of their friends took an experimental turn recently. With the addition of Minecraft‘s creative world, we now have an interactive map for our current adventure.

This idea isn’t new, although the examples I found were custom builds created by dungeon masters possessing more experience with either game than I do. Our kids only this summer broke through parental barriers to add the Pocket Edition to our iDevices, and our D&D sessions have recently migrated from my simplified version to the Next edition, currently in playtesting. For us, the goals were less completeness than increased engagement.

We mix the real-time Minecraft movement used to explore the fantasy world with the controlled pace of interaction in D&D. In doing so, we had to deal with some constraints. No individual player controls the iPad. Rather, the game is broadcast to a large screen through HDMI, and my wife (and new Minecraft user) acts as the navigator. This forces the group of four young adventurers to both agree upon and articulate their instructions, occasionally with hilarious results.

To prevent catastrophic damage to a world I spent many nights creating, I launch Minecraft on my iPhone for an iPad to join over wifi. Once I disconnect, any future interactions with the Minecraft blocks won’t be saved, allowing me to restore to a pristine state for later sessions.

This Minecraft adventure began in the middle of another battle, with a goddess in need whisking the party away to this strange realm. I created a “cloud” platform out of wool—it was the closest material available in the limited inventory—where the players were debriefed before stepping off to fall down into the landscape. The goddess tasked the four players with locating five missing gems for a necklace to fully restore her powers.

Most of the items in the created world are representational. We use chests to mark where treasure is found. Some of them are well hidden and need to be unearthed. Some of the material blocks, like the goddess’ signature lapiz lazuli, act as markers to help guide the adventure. The most notable absence is a population. The only creatures the creative mode will allow me to add are cows, sheep and chickens. They move on their own, and are now most likely found floating in the water or trapped underground.

This abstraction forces the kids to use their imagination about fighting zombies or chatting up a local librarian, which is nothing unusual for a D&D game. What Minecraft adds to the experience is an increased participation in moving the story forward. Circumstances have prevented us from scheduling sessions that get to the 3-hour sweet spot. The kids are typically just getting into the story again when they have to leave. With Minecraft, the visuals and surprising depth for such a small area of land keep the narrative moving ahead. The group is also motivated to reach a conclusion to the adventure so they will be free to explore the world on their own.

The intentionality of every dice roll remains intact. Rather than just have the video game manage health and damage during encounters, we still do that on paper. Minecraft helps visualize environments and distances between foes, however. We seem to get less stuck on whether a an arrow can be fired when everybody can see how many blocks separate you from a ghoulie.

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Kevin is finishing up a Ph.D. at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing while working on @SociaLens, a Midwest startup. His new book is Digital Fluency: Building Success in the Digital Age. He's a secret identity waiting for a superhero.