Lessons learned from Minecraft, part two
Last time we looked at what Minecraft can teach us about accepting Alpha as being good enough, different Game Modes and the passage of Time. Without further ado, Onward!
4. The fewer monsters the better
If Minecraft was a role-playing game the bestiary would be two pages long, at most. There’s Zombies, Skeletons, Giant Spiders, Creepers, Slimes and…. that’s about it. Ok, there’s Pigs, Sheep, Cows and Chickens too, but as animals don’t officially exist in 4e D&D, let’s ignore those for the minute.
So, there’s not many different kinds of monster. And you know what? It works.
Each monster has unique characteristics. Zombies are surprisingly fast, hunt in packs and catch fire when exposed to sunlight, while Skeletons fire arrows and can ride Giant Spiders. No, really. Skeletons riding Giant Spiders is so awesome, it’s guaranteed to appear in one of my D&D games as soon as I can find an excuse to drop ‘em in.
With each monster having differing tactics, and therefore requiring different tactics to kill, the game stays fresh and each encounter brings its own unique challenges. You know that oh so aggressive Giant Spider is going to go all sleepy come daytime, while that Creeper is going to explode when he dies, so it’s best to stay away.
Knowing the monsters isn’t hard when there’s so few of them. In contrast, D&D’s thousands of monsters are beyond the ken of all but the most dedicated (not to mention obsessive) of gamers. It’s a good thing you don’t have to use them all.
Consider limiting the number of key monsters in your campaign world to just a handful. This gives each monster plenty of time in the spotlight and the players chance to get to know all their quirks. Player knowledge is it’s own reward – just watch their little faces light up when they recognise a familiar creature. Bless.
For example, imagine a game world over-run by the undead. There’s Zombies, Skeletons, Vampires, Ghouls and Ghosts. Beyond that, everything else is Human (and possibly Elf, Dwarf or Halfling) or animals. This would make a very different campaign tone that one which contained all these things and everything else. Clerics would take centre stage with adventures revolving around defeating a Zombie Infestation or infiltrating a Vampire Lord’s castle. By focusing on just a handful of monsters, you’re giving the players chance to specialize their heroes that much more. Picture a Ghoul-slaying Barbarian or an ex-Vampire Rogue. Clichéd, I know – but it’s a cliché for a reason.
Alternatively, how about an all-lizard theme with Dragons, Kobolds, Lizardfolk and Dragonborn squaring off against the squishy humanoid races for control of ancient technology? It’s Dark Sun meets Gamma World! What about an all Demon campaign such as my own Endday, or one involving humans versus dinosaurs in forgotten jungles?
Cherry-picking the monsters gives the game focus. It helps the GM to get to really know the foes and play them accordingly. In contrast, having all the monsters in the Monster Manuals at your beck and call is like trying to make a meal using every single ingredient in your store cupboard. All you’ll end up with is a soggy mess.
5. The underdark is an onion
The world has layers, like an Ogre. In Minecraft the ground is 64 cubes deep, with another 64 blocks-worth of air, mountains and building potential above sea level. The bottommost layer is solid indestructible Adminium (barring a few holes into the Void!), and above this each strata has varying likelihoods of containing stone, soil, coal, iron, diamonds, lava, etc. In general, the deeper you go the more cool stuff you will find, but there’s a growing likelihood of hitting a dungeon pocket filled with monsters and other foul dangers.
So, the chance of Diamonds and Redstone, plus monsters to fight. What’s not to love?
Our Underdark should be much the same with each layer bringing the promise of fresh surprises. Make the players think “Ooo! This is new!” as they delve deeper with changes in architecture, design and construction material. Have the first layer composed of little more than earthy caves, gradually shifting through rough stone, worked blocks, then all manner of strangeness.
How about a dungeon layer composed of the bodies of dead Gelatinous Cubes (not all of which are dead, creating shifting walls), or entire walls of skeletons – some of which lunge out to grab passers by. Perhaps in one layer the walls are solid gold (an illusion – the gold turns to coal when exposed to daylight), or composed of pure blinding frozen light, or utter darkness. In a world where magic works, anything is possible!
If you favour the more mundane dungeon materials, how about parts of one layer carved out of wet clay, complete with centuries old graffiti, just begging for the heroes to leave their mark. Perhaps one layer’s walls are laced with emeralds, while another is laced with rubies causing outright civil war between the Green Orcs and Red Orcs over whose dungeon is prettiest.
Remember that some elements will transition between layers as well. Picture a waterfall a hundred layers deep, cascading into an Aboleth’s layer right at the bottom. Or how about a pipe network through which the lowest denizens communicate their orders. If the heroes can use that for their own purposes, they could cause all manner of mayhem!
In short, think of your dungeon as a whole three-dimensional thing with layers, strata and changes in the terrain and environment.
6. Darkness is the PC’s greatest foe
Make no bones about it: Minecraft is freakin’ scary! When the sun drops below the horizon there’s an “oh crap” moment when you realise you’ve wandered far from home and it’s time to build a shelter as quickly as possible. My own hero (lovingly called Bob, because of the way he walks) spent a pretty miserable night on the side of a lake hunkered inside a rapidly constructed shed while the Zombies knocked on the walls. Didn’t get any sleep at all, poor Bob.
The thing is that the Zombies weren’t what caused the emotional reaction. Actually, they’re kinda cute. No, what was frightening was the oncoming darkness. It’s a primal thing. It’s Where The Monsters Are (even if they’re cute). It, more than anything else, is both your biggest enemy and most enticing lure in Minecraft. See a dark cave, and you just HAVE to go down there, even though the chill down your spine is telling you otherwise.
Darkness is also probably the most under-used tool in the GM’s arsenal, and it shouldn’t be. In my game I’ve decided to make Sunrods much more rare. They’re only available from Wizard Emporiums found in cities, far from the rugged wilderlands that low-level PCs usually call their home. Sunrods are the enemy of good encounter design. Give ‘em Torches or Lanterns just like in their granddaddy’s day!
Picture a 100’ long corridor. In 4e terms, that’s 20 squares long so even a Lantern is going to illuminate just half of it. The rest is in pitch darkness and could contain all manner of nastiness. Drop a load of Kobold Archers in there and a few animal handlers with Rage Drakes on leashes, and you’ve a setup for a battle royale. All the PCs can hear are the low echoed growls of the Drakes. Come close, and they face a barrage of arrows from unknown assailants. The only alternatives are to charge heroically into the unknown, or pray the Wizard memorized Flaming Sphere. With Sunrods, this encounter would be a level-appropriate pushover.
Without them, and with that lovely Darkness in place, it’s a spine-tingler.
If you want to try Minecraft yourself, head over to http://minecraft.net/ and try Minecraft Classic for free, or buy the full Alpha release with Single Player Survival and Multiplayer Modes for just 10 Euros (about £8.50, or $13) and get all the updates for free, forever. You know you want to.