TTRPGs and Me

In January I tweeted this:

Six months later and I’m now in two weekly TTRPG sessions. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

For a long period TTRPGs were a big part of my life.

Like many people of my age, my introduction to TTRPGs was through the D&D “red box” set. When I got my copy I badgered my older teenage cousin and his mates to run a session. They threw us into a tiny dungeon filled with werewolves where we immediately died. Then they went down the pub. But that early taste got me hooked.

I started playing regularly with a group of school friends when I was 11 (1983). We had a weekly RuneQuest session run by my mate Darren’s big brother. I played a Duck.

When Games Workshop announced they were releasing a UK version of Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP) in 1985, I immediately pre-ordered it from the local game shop. Then proceeded to annoy the hell out of the owner by visiting every couple of days to see if it had arrived yet.

Not all of my friends were into TTRPGs. But they were all into board games. So amongst all of RPGs there was plenty of Car Wars and Rogue Trooper, Space Hulk and HeroQuest. Which, as this video eloquently explains, is the best board game. Day long sessions of Talisman with all of the expansions occurred regularly and oddities like Battle of the Halji made guest appearances.

While I was at college we were playing a mix of AD&D and MERP. But by then I’d also picked up the Judge Dredd RPG and Call of Cthulhu.

I even had a go at LARPing.

On 21st July 1989 I spent a day in a disused underground bunker in Nottingham dressed as a wizard. Before jumping on a train to see The Cure at the NEC. Good Times.

When I sent to university in Leicester I naturally made a beeline for the RPG Society. My first weekend I joined a MERP game that proceeded to run every Saturday afternoon for three years. It gave me a near instant set of friends whilst I was still getting to know my housemates and the other people on my course.

At some point we spun out a regular Wednesday afternoon session. Branching out into Shadowrun, Vampire and Werewolf because they were the new and exciting games. Lots of dice were purchased.

I also started regularly running a Call of Cthulhu game.

I’ve joked at times that everything I know about running workshops professionally, I first learned around a table leading a TTRPG session.

It’s not really a joke though. The need for good preparation, helping to ensure that everyone is comfortable and, most importantly, that everyone is getting something out of the event are all transferable skills. And if you’re shy like me then it’s just good practice at leading and speaking in front of a group.

After graduation I turned that Call of Cthulhu game into a free-form play by mail campaign for the same group. Letters with revelations of cosmic horror and containing extracts from cryptic texts flew around the country for a while.

And then things petered out. Life, inevitably, moves on.

I think our last game as a group was a one-off session of Paranoia that I ran. To try and create a suitably ridiculous atmosphere for Alpha Complex, I kept playing sound effects from a BBC Radiophonic Workshop cassette I’d found in the local library. But it just baffled everyone, so we just went down the pub. And that was that for a while.

I continued to collect RPG rulebooks for a bit. Niche stuff like the Whispering Vault, which I’ve still never played. And I dabbled with writing some source material, eventually getting something published in Valkyrie magazine.

I even tried making a board game. It was based on the vampires from Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series. It had a programme to run on the Commodore 64 which handled all of the core rules. It never saw the light of day but I had fun making it.

And that was it for quite a few years.

Now I’ve jumped back in I can’t believe I waited for so long.

I’m currently playing in two campaigns in two very different settings. Masks (which I’m running) is about teenage superheroes. While Good Society is about telling stories inspired by Jane Austen.

Both are “Powered by the Apocalypse” games. These are games that all share some common heritage, being based on a system of rules that were originally designed for a game called Apocalypse World. But that system has been generalised and adapted in many different ways. It now exists as a template for others to build on.

TTRPGs have had a huge boost recently. Largely due to the rise in popularity of Actual Play streams, especially during lockdown. Video calls, tools like Discord and platforms like Roll 20 have also reduced barriers to play, making it easier to play with friends no matter where they are. Both of the groups I’m in include people who are new to TTRPGs.

But mainly the hobby is in an exciting place because of the sheer range of new TTRPGs there are available. Many more than when I was a kid. And many of these systems are Powered by the Apocalypse games. Or at least have some common DNA.

They’re very different to D&D. In ways that encourage creativity and collaboration while placing a focus on narrative. I love rolling dice and pouring over rule books as much as the next nerd. But it’s the opportunity to create fun, exciting or moving stories that really bring people — and increasingly, more people, it seems — to the table.

So now I’ve got a rapidly growing collection of new games to play. Fantastic stuff like TEETH (“Jane Austen’s STALKER”) and Brindlewood Bay (Murder She Wrote x Lovecraft) and Tales from the Loop (based on Simon St√•lenhag’s art).

I picked an exciting time to return to one of my favourite hobbies.


This post is a bit of a diary entry. It’s to help me remember a fun little activity that I was involved in recently.

I’d seen little gifs and screenshots of Townscaper on twitter for months. But then suddenly it was in early access.

I bought it and started playing around. I’ve been feeling like I was in a rut recently and wanted to do something creative. After seeing Jim Rossignol mention playing with townscaper as a nightly activity, I thought I’d do similar.

Years ago I used to do lunchtime hacks and experiments as a way to be a bit more creative than I got to be in my day job. Having exactly an hour to create and build something is a nice constraint. Forces you to plan ahead and do the simplest thing to move an idea forward.

I decided to try lunchtime Townscaper builds. Each one with a different theme. I did my first one, with the theme “Bridge”, and shared it on twitter.

Chris Love liked the idea and suggested adding a hashtag so others could do the same. I hadn’t planned to share my themes and builds every day, but I thought, why not? The idea was to try doing something different after all.

So I tweeted out the first theme using the hashtag.

That tweet is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a “viral” tweet. It’s had over 53,523 impressions and over 650 interactions.

Turns out people love Townscaper. And are making lots of cool things with it.

Tweetdeck was pretty busy for the next few days. I had a few people start following me as a result, and suddenly felt a bit pressured. To help orchestra things and manage my own piece of mind, I did a bit of forward planning.

I decided to run the activity for one week. At the end I’d either hand it over to someone or just step back.

I also spent the first evening brainstorming a list of themes. More than enough for me to keep me going for the week, so I could avoid the need to come up with new themes on the fly. I tried to find a mixture of words that were within the bounds of the types of things you could create in Townscaper, but left room for creativity. In the end I revised and prioritized the initial list over the course of the week based on how people engaged.

I wanted the activity to be inclusive so came up with a few ground rules: “No prizes, no winners. It’s just for fun.”. And some brief guidance about how to participate: post screenshots, use the right hashtags).

I also wanted to help gather together submissions, but didn’t want to retweet or share all of them. So decided to finally try out creating twitter moments. One for each daily challenge. This added some work as I was always worrying I’d missed something, but it also meant I spent time looking at every build.

I ended up with two template tweets, one to introduce the challenge and one to publish the results. These were provided as a single thread to help weave everything together.

And over the course of a week, people built some amazing things. Take a look for yourself:

  1. Townscaper Daily Challenge #1 – Bridge
  2. Townscaper Daily Challenge #2 – Garden
  3. Townscaper Daily Challenge #3 – Neighbours
  4. Townscaper Daily Challenge #4 – Canal
  5. Townscaper Daily Challenge #5 – Eyrie
  6. Townscaper Daily Challenge #6 – Fortress
  7. Townscaper Daily Challenge #7 – Labyrinth

People played with the themes in interesting ways. They praised and commented on each others work. It was one of the most interesting, creative and fun things I’ve done on twitter.

By the end of the week, only a few people were contributing, so it was right to let it run its course. (Although I see that people are still occasionally using the hashtag).

It was a reminder than twitter can be and often is a completely different type of social space. A break from the doomscrolling was good.

It was also a reminded me how much I loved creating and making things. So I’m resolved to do more of that in the future.

The multiverse in which we play

If the Many Worlds hypothesis is true then we are living in a multiverse of parallel realities and alternate histories. Everything that could have happened did happen. At least somewhere. There are different views of how these parallel universes might differ from one another, forming complete taxonomies of universe types.

It’s interesting to consider¬†what kind of experiments could be conducted in order to prove that these realities exist. But it overlooks the fact that we interact with parallel realities all the time. Worlds that obey different physical and logical laws. Worlds that have their own unique landscapes. And worlds that share a geography but act out alternate histories. Worlds that many of us visit on at least a daily basis through readily available portals.

At the time I’m writing this blog post there are currently over 500,000 people playing DOTA 2. That’s more than the population of Manchester. The number of people currently playing the survival games¬†Rust and DayZ¬†is roughly the population of Bath. There are live¬†stats available from Steam. The peak concurrent users for Steam today was 7.2m people. The fact that games are popular is not news to anyone, but that’s a lot of people visiting a variety of virtual realities. And its fun to think about them as more concrete spaces and consider the different ways in which we access them.

What follows is some follow-my-nose research on different types of game worlds, largely biased towards games that I’ve played or are familiar with in some way.

The Lifetime of Pocket Universes

What should we consider to be a separate game universe?

A game server, which might be multi-player or single player, is a portal for accessing at least one virtual environment. Some game servers host a single persistent game world — or pocket universe — that will stick around for the lifetime of the server (barring system admin interventions). Other game servers will provide access to many, short-lived game worlds. Some may persist for only a few minutes, others for longer.

For example most first person shooters cycle through game worlds that last for around 10-15 minutes. But some offer a more consistent environment: all DayZ Standalone servers host the exact same map (Chernarus) but the game clock and state varies between servers. Its possible to jump between servers and appear in the exact same location but at different times.

This is something that has been limited in recent updates to DayZ because players were travelling within¬†the Chernarus multiverse to get unfair advantages on other players. E.g. looting the same location across different servers, or getting the upper hand in a fight by flanking someone by jumping between servers. It’s been¬†restricted by placing increasingly longer wait times for people hopping between servers. Although I found it to be an interesting game mechanic and I’d love¬†to play a game in which it was a central motif.

While at any one time there may be multiple servers hosting a copy of the same game world, there are often differences. Time zones are one, but enemies and loot may also spawn randomly, meaning that while the physical layout of the worlds are the same, their histories are different. Player actions are obviously significant and some game worlds offer more opportunities for permanently affecting the environment, e.g. by building or destroying objects.

At the extreme end of the scale are game worlds that are based entirely on procedural generation: no two pocket universes will be exactly the same, but they will obey the same physical laws.

Number of Pocket Universes

It’s hard to get decent stats on the number of game servers and their distribution, some of the details are likely to be commercially sensitive. This is one area where I’d like to see more open data. Its not world changing, but its interesting to a lot of people.

The best resource I could find, apart from the high level Steam Statistics, was Game Tracker. This is a service that monitors game servers running across the net. Registered users can add servers to share them with friends and team mates. Currently there are over 130,000 different game servers being tracked by their system, spanning 91 different games. This will be a gross under-estimate for the size of the gaming multiverse, but is a useful data point.

There’s some interesting analysis that could be done on the distribution of those servers, across both games and countries, but unfortunately the terms of use for GameTracker do not allow harvesting of their data. Being able to locate game servers in the real world tells us where those universes intersect with ours.

Of course there are also some games in which there is only a single universe, although its state and geography is split across multiple game servers. Most MMORPGs operate on this basis, with Eve Online probably being one of the more interesting. If only because it has a time dilation mechanic that kicks in when lots of players are co-located on a single server: the passage of time slows down in a local area to allow all necessary computation to take place. The Eve game world actually spans more than one game. The Dust 514 FPS exists in the same universe and there are ways to interact between the games.

MMORPGs also use “instancing” to spawn off smaller (fractal?!) pocket universes to allow groups of players to simultaneously access the same content in a sand boxed environment.¬†This blending of public multi-player and private single-player spaces within game worlds is part of what is known as “mingleplayer” (which is an awful term!)

Demon Souls and Dark Souls (both 1 & 2) offer another interesting variation and, in my opinion, one of the earliest implementations of mingleplayer. In Dark Souls every player exists in their own copy of the game world, but those worlds are loosely connected to those of all other players. In Dark Souls 1 (and, I think Demon’s Souls) this was via a peer-to-peer network, but in Dark Souls 2 it’s a classic client-server set-up.¬†In all of these games it’s possible to invade or be invited into other worlds to help or hinder them. There are also a number of mechanics to allow players to communicate in a limited and in some cases automatic way between worlds. Typical of the series, there are also some unique and opaque systems that allow items, creatures and player actions to spread between worlds.

Game World Sizes

So how big are these pocket universes? How to they compare to one another and with our own universe? There’s a few interesting facts and comparisons which¬†I’ve dug up:

A number of people have also collected together game maps that show the relative sizes of different game environments:

In Game Statistics

Game publishers collect statistics on how players move through their worlds. Sometimes this is just done during testing and level design in order to balance a map, in others the data is made available to players in real-time to help them improve their game, etc. There was an interesting article on statistics collection in the Halo games in Wired a few years ago. These kinds of statistics collection tools are a fundamental part of many design tools these days.

There’s been some interesting visualisation work around these statistics too. I wonder whether any of this could be applied to real-world data? For example balance and flow maps provide different perspectives on events. And here is a visualisation of every player death in Just Cause 2.

Minecraft Activities for Younger Kids

So earlier today Thayer asked if I had any suggestions for things to do in Minecraft for younger kids. I thought I might as well write this up as a blog post rather than a long email, then everyone else can add their suggestions too.

Of course, the first thing I did was turn to the experts: my kids. Both my son and daughter have been addicted to Minecraft for some time now. We run our own home server and this gets visits from my son’s friends too. They also play on-line, but having a local server gives us a nice safe environment where we can play with the latest plugins and releases.

So most of the list below was suggested by the kids. I’ve just written it up and added in the links. We’ve assumed that Thayer and Nemi (and you) are playing on the “vanilla” (i.e. out of the box, un-patched) PC version of Minecraft.¬†The browser, XBox, mobile and the Raspberry Pi versions lag behind a little bit so not all of these activities or options might be available.

There’s also a lot more fun to be had exploring many of the amazing mods, maps and mod-packs (bundled packages of mods) that the Minecraft community has shared. The kids are currently obsessed with the Voids Wrath mod pack which has some excellent RPG features. But we decided to focus on the vanilla experience first.

Be Creative

There are lots of ways to play Minecraft. You can opt to build things, undertake survival challenges, explore above and below ground, and push the limits of its sandbox environment in lots of different ways.

But for younger kids we thought it would be best to play on Creative and Peaceful mode. Creative mode removes the survival challenge aspects, allowing you to focus on building and exploration. In Creative mode you have instant access to every block, tool, weapon, etc. in the game. So you can cut to the chase and start building, rather than undertaking a lot of mining and exploring at the start. Peaceful mode disables all of the naturally spawning enemies, meaning you don’t have to worry about being killed by skeletons, exploded by creepers or going hungry whilst travelling.

The Creative mode inventory system can be a little daunting: there are a lot of different blocks in the game. But if you use the compass to activate the search, you can quickly find what you’re looking for. The list of blocks is on the wiki, so that can also be a handy reference.

Build a House

Building a house is obviously the first place to start. Building and decorating a house gives you a base of operations for all your other activities.

There are lots of material to choose from, including varieties of stone, wood, and even glass. Use different coloured wools to make carpets, and then add book shelves, paintings, beds (right click to sleep in it), a jukebox, and lots of other types of furniture.

The minecraft wiki has a good starting reference for building types of shelter

Become a farmer

Once you’ve built a house, you can next turn your hand to a spot of gardening and become a farmer.

Using a hoe, some water, some earth and the right kinds of seeds you can grow all kinds of things, including Wheat, Carrots, Cacti, Melons and even mushrooms. You can even grow giant mushrooms for that fairy tale feel.

You can use a bucket to carry water around to water your garden or to create a pool.

Build a Zoo

You’re not limited to plants. Minecraft has a lot of different types of animals, including pigs, sheep, cows, wolves and ocelots(?!). In Minecraft every animal can be hatched from an egg (unless you breed them).

In Creative mode you have access to Spawn Eggs which you can use to spawn animals. So build you zoo enclosures and then fill them with whatever animals you like.

Tame animals for Pets

Wolves and ocelots can be tamed to make pets. You can do this if you discover them in the wild or just try taming some animals from your zoo. Feed a wolf a bone and it’ll be come a pet dog. If you want a pet cat, then you’ll want to tame an ocelot with some raw fish. Pets will follow you around and you can make your pet dog sit and stay, or follow you on adventures.

Ride a Pig

While we’re talking about animals, why not give Pig riding a try? You’ll be needing a saddle and a carrot on a stick.

Build something amazing

You’re only limited by your imagination when crafting giant castles, houses, hotels, beach resorts, tree houses, or models of your own home and garden. Using creative mode you’ll have full access to all the tools you need. Moving water and lava around using a bucket you can create some really cool landscapes.

If you need some space then you can create a “Superflat” world, using the advanced options in the game menu. This creates a basic, flat world that gives you plenty of space to build, but you won’t get any of those amazing Minecraft landscapes. Speaking of which…

Fly around the world

Roaming around on foot is great for exploring, but you can’t beat flying. Flying is another bonus of creative mode and it’ll let you quickly explore huge areas to find the best place for your next awesome build. Don’t forget to pull out a map and a compass from your inventory. The map will give you a birds-eye view, while the compass will always point to home (e.g. where you last slept).

Other Ideas

Some other ideas we had:

  • Once you’ve mastered flying, then you could try and create some Minecraft pixel art
  • You might also want to change the skin in your minecraft account. There’s lots of sites and apps that provide tools for building and changing skins to your favourite characters.
  • You could also try out an alternative look-and-feel for Minecraft by installing a texture pack. While installing them will probably need some adult help, once installed its easy to switch between them. Then you make Minecraft look more like Pokemon¬†or maybe just give it a more child friendly feel.

Those were just our ideas. If you’ve got other suggestions for younger kids, or starting player, then feel free to leave a comment below.

Second Screens, Asymmetric Gaming and the New Multiplayer

The Second Screen concept has been with us for a while but interestingly the idea still seems to be largely associated with TV. And largely as a means of adding a social dimension to the on-screen events. But there are many ways in which a second screen could potentially enrich other forms of media. Whether its via a smart phone or a tablet, people at home or in an audience often have a internet enabled device at hand that could be used in some interesting ways.

For example at conferences it might be useful to deliver additional supplementary content to a presentation. While synchronizing the on-screen slides to the devices is an obvious step, it would be a natural way to supplement live audio and video streams allowing others to more easily participate remotely. There are other useful bits of information that could be delivered on devices, including speaker bios, references to websites, books (“buy this now”), demos, quick polls, etc.

Second screen apps for films (at home, rather than in cinema) wouldn’t be that dissimilar to TV apps. But while TV apps are typically synchronized to the live broadcast and favour social features, a film app would deliver actor, location or other information cued to the film. Given that many media players are now web enabled, synchronizing the device and playback wouldn’t be that hard.

In fact, with a move towards streaming distribution for films, we can expect that typical DVD and Bluray features are likely to move to online distribution too. A second screen provides more interesting ways to deliver that content. Arguably Rian Johnson’s in-theatre commentary for Looper is the first example of “second screen” use for films.

Second Screen Gaming

But I think the most interesting area for exploration is in gaming. There’s been some work in this area already, notably¬†XBox Smart Glass¬†and the new Wii U with its tablet controller. More on that in a moment.

I realised recently that both my son and are already using second-screens. He’s obsessed by Minecraft and Terraria and has taken to having a iPod Touch to hand whilst playing to access their respective wikis, avoiding switching away from the game itself. I’ve also been using a phone or laptop to access game wikis: in my case for Dark Souls, Fallout 3/New Vegas, etc.

I know we’re not the only gamers who do this. The additional content, although crowd-sourced and not formally part of the game, is becoming an integral part to the game play. It’s not cheating, its a collaborative way to expand the gaming experience. (Although the infamously hard Dark Souls ships with a link to the community wiki on the back of the box: you’re going to need that help!)

There are many more ways that a second screen could be used as part of game playing over and above delivering documentation and guidance. It opens up some interesting new ways to play.

For example resource collection games like Minecraft have separate inventory management and crafting interfaces. These could just as easily be delivered using a second screen app linked to the game. An embedded web server would provide an easy way to hook this kind of extra interface into a game, opening up any web-enabled device as a separate controller.

Asymmetric Game-play

The concept of asymmetric game-play isn’t new, but the idea has seen some attention this year with the impending launch of the WiiU. Asymmetric gaming is where the players don’t all have exactly the same gaming experience. The differences in game play might be small or large.

At one end you might be playing as different characters and character types, basically you can do different things in the game but essentially are experiencing the game in the same way. Most multi-player games that use character classes (e.g. Team Fortress) can be said to offer this kind of limited form of asymmetric game play.

The “Co-Star Mode” of Super Mario Galaxy offers a more advanced style of asymmetric gaming. One player controls Mario while the other uses a pointer in a supporting role: their on-screen presence and forms of interaction are more limited. This style is particularly great when you have players of different abilities, e.g. older and younger siblings.

Continuing down this road its not hard to see how you could end up with some very different experiences, particularly for multi-player games. This is the angle that is being promoted with the WiiU. The Gamepad controller has an integrated screen, allowing one player to potentially have a very different experience to others. Access to a separate screen (e.g. for secret information) creates possibilities for new types of game play. Nintendo have said they want to focus on exploring adversarial challenges where one player is pitted against a number of others, playing the game in different ways.

Even without multi-player the controller offers lots of interesting possibilities, some of which can be seen in the split-screen action included in ZombiU. This trailer has a nice demo: warning zombies. As I noted above, this same functionality could be offered in many games by modding them to expose a web interface that provided additional controls, viewpoints and interactivity.

Arguably the classic example of asymmetric game-play is the classic paper and dice based RPG. One player is the game master, the others the adventurers. The Dungeon Masters screen delineates the space between the GM and the other players similarly to a second screen. The GM has different knowledge of the game world and plays in a radically different way to the other players.

It would be interesting to see this translated more fully into a video game environment. A separate screen could support that kind of mechanics when you’re in the same room, but there are plenty of options to explore asymmetric gaming in an on-line multi-player environment.

New Forms of Multi-player

Traditionally games are designed to fit well-defined genres; RPGs, FPS or RTS to choose just three. The different genres each have their own conventions around interfaces, game play but their common limitation is the AI: designing good artificial intelligence is hard, which is why its so much more fun to play against people. Unfortunately in many cases multi-player is often limited to co-op or deathmatch (head-to-head) game modes with variations on rules and objectives.

But what if I could play a game, offering an RTS style interface whilst others are experiencing it from an FPS perspective? Why not replace the Left 4 Dead Director, for example, with a real human opponent? The “Play, Create, Share” idea needn’t be limited to crafting a LittleBigPlanet level for others to play independently, why not put the game designer into the action, with the means to affect it, just like an old school GM? Why can’t I take control over an entire region in a game like World of Warcraft and shape it as I want?

The upcoming game Dust 514¬†offers an interesting form of asymmetric¬†game play¬†that provides an neat twist on conventional¬†multi-player¬† The game is an FPS that takes place on a planet in the Eve Online¬†universe. Actions in one game can have effects in the other. The games offer different¬†game play¬†experiences, on different hardware, but in the same universe. I’ll be interested to see how that pans out in practice.

Experiments in multi-player gaming might also give us some insight into creating more nuanced, or at least more varied forms of social interaction in other on-line applications and tools. If you’re going to embrace gamification in your application then take it further than just badges and achievements, and let “players” pit themselves against each other or set each other challenges.

Dark Souls has a number of interesting multi-player innovations that come from applying constraints to how players can interact with one another, eschewing conventional friend lists and multi-player options. It’s very difficult to team up with a specific player and communication options are very limited. The primary mechanism is essentially a form of in-game graffiti. You can leave messages for other players, either to help or hinder. The messages are limited, but add an interesting dimension and often humour to the game. You can also catch glimpses of other players in the form of ghosts in your game world.

What if we extended this kind of idea to the web? For example a way to indicate how many other people are also reading the same page, what is their collective impression? It’s not quite a Like or a +1 but neither would it be a conventional comment.

Overall I think we’re at a really interesting stage in the development of gaming in general and multi-player gaming specifically. We have a lot of new highly connected devices, more connectivity and, soon, a new generation of consoles.

A lot of people spend a great deal of time in these Third Places now. In virtual environments we’re no longer limited to existing forms of communication. We can explore a lot of new territory. Unfortunately many of the existing forms of online communications are prone to abuse, spam and trolling. Perhaps some of these newer multi-player ideas might offer ways to create sense of community and sharing that avoids these issues. And if not, well, there’s still a lot of interesting games on the horizon.

Lego Minecraft Building Tips

The official Lego Minecraft set looks really good and does a great job at capturing the feel of a Minecraft environment. However having looked at various pictures of the set, I realised that apart from the couple of custom pieces with faces printed on them, we had the majority of the pieces for the set already. So we just went ahead and made some scenes ourselves.

Combined with its apparently small size, this doesn’t give us a great deal of incentive to pay the rather steep asking price (¬£29.99 in the UK) for the sets. I’d prefer to just buy any additional pieces we need from Bricklink. For example to get the look right, you need a lot of 1×1 tiles.

I’ve written here before about creating custom Lego sets, so I thought I’d share some notes and pointers on creating your own Lego Minecraft creations.

Notes on Scale

Lego bricks aren’t square blocks, so you can’t simply equate one brick to one block in Minecraft. Minifigs also don’t have the blocky feel of Minecraft mobs.

As you can see from the pictures of the sets and as noted in this wired piece, the designers of the official set have instead opted to make it a smaller “microscale” set.

Microscale building allows the creation of some incredibly detailed models by scaling down the model. This gives a closer fit to Minecraft, but means that you’re typically building with the smallest lego pieces — 1×1 plates, tiles, blocks, etc — rather than the larger bricks.

By the way, I’m not sure of which nomenclature your family uses, but I’ll try and stick to the catalog names here, to make the pieces easier to find in Bricklink if you do decide to purchase some extra pieces.

At microscale a single Minecraft block is roughly equivalent to a 1×1 brick with a 1×1 plate or tile on top.

3 Lego plates stacked together is the same height as 1 Lego brick which gives you a way to make slopes, hills, etc.

At microscale you either need to make your own minifigs and animals or use some of the microscale minifigs that come with Lego Heroica or the other recent Lego board games.


Minecraft doesn’t use a huge colour¬†palette¬†so its easy to map the various blocks to an appropriate Lego colour.

Here’s a run-down of some of the useful colours:

Colour ID Usage
White 1 Snow, Wool
Light Bluish Gray 86 Clay
Light Gray 9 Cobblestone
Dark Gray 10 Cobblestone
Black 11 Obsidian, Coal
Red 5 Lava
Brown 8 Dirt or Wood
Tan 2 Sand or Sandstone
Green 6 Grass or Leaves
Lime (or Bright Green) 34 (or 36) Leaves
Blue 7 Water
Trans-clear 12 Glass
Trans-red 17 Lava
Trans-Light blue 15 Water, Diamond, or Ice

Those are the colours that I’ve picked out from the official set, plus some additions of my own. Clearly there are many more colours you can use to create other types of blocks. For example there are lots of different colours of Wool which map over well.

If you browse the Lego colour list you can also find some chrome, pearl, metallic and speckled colours that could also be mixed in to add more detail.

The main limitation in recreating all of the Minecraft blocks is the lack of detailing on the blocks themselves. But if you sandwich a 1×1 red plate between two 1×1 light gray plates then you have a reasonable attempt at a Red Stone Ore block. Use the same technique to simulate other Ore blocks.

I’m a little surprised there isn’t a greater variety of colours and block types included with the official set. Perhaps there are more pieces than are visible in the published images. But this is all the more reason to have a go at creating something yourself.

Suggested Part List

In general you’ll want a mixture of Bricks, Plates and Tiles.

Bricks are used to build up the underlying terrain, including caverns, mountains, etc. You’ll therefore mostly want these in Light and Dark Grey.

Plates are used to build up the layers of the model to add detail. Larger plates can be used as the basis of the model, particularly if you’re aiming for a modular design similar to the official set.

Tiles are the flat pieces that don’t have any studs on top. These are used to “finish” off the model and give a nice smooth terrain.

Generally speaking you’ll want to have smaller versions of each of these types, e.g. 1×1 or 1×2, as these give more of a Minecraft feel to the design. But you can easily substitute larger pieces. We used some larger blue tiles for building some sea when we ran out of smaller pieces.

Here is a complete suggested parts list which is based partly on inspecting the pictures of the official Minecraft set plus some additions of my own. You can use this as a shopping list if you want to buy some pieces from Bricklink.

That might seem like a long list but a lot of these are basic Lego pieces that come with a lot of models. Depending on the size or complexity of the model you want to make you might want some larger plates, bricks or tiles, or additional pieces such as corners.

Buying Parts

To buy pieces from Bricklink, click through to the catalog entry and then select a colour. You can then see “Lots for Sale” for all the available colours, as well as a Price Guide. If you register with the site then you can build up a wishlist of parts.

I’ve typically found that I need to place orders with several vendors to assemble all the parts I need. Most vendors seem happy to accept even fairly small orders.


The official minecraft microfig pieces are easy to recreate, minus the custom decals:


  • Plate 1×1, Black (1)
  • Brick 1×1, Blue (1)
  • Plate 1×12, Tan (2)
  • Tile 1×1, Brown (1)


For our attempt at the Creeper we substituted a 1×1 Brick For a Black 1×1 plate sandwiched between 2 Green 1×1 plates. ¬†You can see that, plus an attempt at a cow and a skeleton in this photo.

If you want to make a Chicken then these pieces make good beaks.

Unfortunately, according to Bricklink, there aren’t any small plates, bricks or tiles in any shade of pink, which means no Pigs! Cheer yourself up by making one out of paper instead.

Modular Building

All lego sets are modular: you can tear them down and create whatever you want. But there are a number of ways in which you can make sections of a larger build modular, allowing you to recombine larger sections into new configurations. There are two techniques used in the official Lego set: Modular Landscape and Modular Surface.

As you can see from the pictures the official set consists of 4 separate landscape pieces. These make up a Modular Landscape because they can be fixed together in several different configurations. This is achieved by building each section of the landscape on top of a separate 6×6 plate, with no overlapping bricks. Immediately on top of those base plates you can add in 4 Technic Brick 1×2 with Axle Holes. By adding in some axles you end up with a simple way to fix the landscape sections together along any of their sides. With a little thought to how you build the surface components you can create some nicely reconfigurable scenes.

What about Modular Surface features? If you look closely at this picture in the Wired gallery you can see that the landscape sections themselves can be broken down to give access to the caverns underneath the surface. This is done by building the surface features on a brown 6×6 plate which is then stuck onto the underlying rock section.

To make the surface easy to remove the rock section has been “capped off” using a number of tiles (Tile 1×3, Tile 1×4, Tile 1×6) so that most of the studs are covered. By adding a Plate, Modified 1×4 with 2 Studs you end up with a couple of studs that crown off the base rock section. These studs provide enough “clutch power” to hold the model together but still give easy access to other sections without requiring a lot of fiddling around: plates can be very hard to pull apart.


Hopefully that’s given some food for thought about how to approach building some of your own Lego Minecraft creations. With a good working set of parts in the necessary colours you can create some great models.

I’ve not priced up a complete working set but with the larger, rarer pieces costing a most a few pence at Bricklink, it should be possible to assemble what you need cheaper than buying the full official set.

Even if you decide to go ahead and buy the official set, buying more parts and using the same modular building techniques will let you create some useful customizations.

Happy building.

Custom Lego Sets

For a couple of years now I’ve tried to do something a little different for Christmas presents for the kids. I’m not particularly good with my hands but I’ve always wanted to be able to make them things: something that will hopefully mean a little more than the average gift.

For example one year I made them a level in LittleBigPlanet called Sackboy Saves Christmas. (Aside for data geeks: each LittleBigPlanet level now has its own unique URI). The level isn’t great, but I had fun making it, and they’ve enjoyed playing it. A little later I also made them some real pods for their sackboys.

This year I decided to do something with Lego.

Lego Digital Designer is a simple and free CAD package for building and designing lego sets. Once you’ve designed something you can get it priced and ultimately have it turned into a real set.

I’ve tried this package a few times but found that the brick set is a little limited and the price racks up quickly. I’m also not the world’s greatest designer so my creations weren’t great. So I decided to take a slightly different tack.

Lego Community Sites

There are a lot of great lego community sites. One of these is Peeron which is a lego inventory website that provides access to a database of lego parts, set inventories, instruction scans and photos. The whole thing is crowd-sourced so you can submit new inventories or scans.

One particularly nice feature is that you can build a personal inventory of lego sets and parts. You can browse sets, ticking off those that you own, and the site builds a database of the various parts that make up the sets. When you’re browsing a set you don’t have you can also click “try to build” and the service will run the set inventory through the list of parts you own, and let you know whether you have all of the required parts, if you have any of the right part but in the wrong colour, or which parts you’re missing.

The core of the family lego collection is the remnants of my childhood collection of Classic Lego Space sets. There were lots of parts missing, but we’ve been able to use Peeron to resurrect some of the sets with substitute parts.

While you can get new bricks, baseplates and minifigs from the lego shop, if you want to track down hard to find or discontinued pieces then there’s one place to go: Bricklink.

For the uninitiated, Bricklink is essentially an Ebay for Lego. It’s a marketplace where anyone can go to buy and sell lego bricks, sets, and instructions. Not only is it a fantastic resource for tracking down hard to find pieces, but I’ve found that even new bricks are much cheaper than buying them direct from lego.

There’s a search engine on the site for tracking down what you need. Lego part numbers are standardised so it’s easy to find what you want if you’re buying missing pieces for a set you want to build from Peeron. It’s also a great place to go to if you’re piecing together a custom set from scratch. You can maintain a wanted list and get alerts as pieces become available. And if you do buy from the marketplace, you can download the part list for your order for importing back into Peeron, to keep you part list up to date.

The Bricklink community is also very friendly and efficient. I’ve found that orders tend to be processed really quickly and come well packaged. I’ve taken care to rate sellers and comment on every order as that kind of quality interaction is something to encourage.

So if you’re thinking about building custom lego sets, Bricklink is definitely the place to start.

Finding and Creating Custom Lego Set Designs

Having ruled out trying to create something completely unique I settled on creating sets from other people’s creations. A bit of a cop out I suppose, but the end result would still be something different to what’s in the the Lego catalogue.

I’ve mentioned Lego Digital Designer already. There’s also a more “professional” Lego CAD package called LDraw which is essentially a suite of open source tools for creating and manipulating Lego model designs. As well as the core CAD package itself there are also tools to support creating rendered images from designs, and even to create complete instructions that are very close to those produced by Lego themselves. The tools are a bit fiddly to work with though and surprisingly I found it hard to track down many designs that people had actually shared.

Another resource is the MOCPages community. MOC stands for “My Own Creation”. It’s essentially a community site where people can upload photo sets for models they’ve created. There are some really great (and big!) Lego models on that site! Little in the way of instructions or parts lists though, so there’s an element of reverse engineering involved.

There’s also a community of people using Flickr to share their creations. I’ve been following Peter Reid for a while as he creates the most fantastic selection of Lego space and robot models. Again, you need to be prepared to reverse engineer, but this isn’t too hard for the smaller models at least.

A final source for some small simple models is the Brick Issue. This is the magazine of the Brickish Association and has a regular feature “5 Minute Model” feature that provides instructions for some simple models.

What I Made

Issue 7 of the Brick Issue, for example, has a 5 minute model of a Turtle droid by Peter Reid (photo). This was perfect for my purposes as my son and I had been admiring the Turtle Factory at the Great Western Lego Show (watch the video!). So this formed the basis for the first set I put together for my son.

I found the second set I decided to package via the Neo Classic Space blog. This is a Lego fan blog focused specifically on people updating the old Lego Classic Space theme to use modern parts as well as covering some fantastic new models made to follow the theme. There are some excellent micro-scale models featured on there, including this one of an X-wing. This was pretty easy to reverse engineer so I put together a second set that consisted of three X-Wings; one with some slight tweaks to make it the “squad leader”.

Lego has a pretty hit and miss affair when it comes to creating sets for girls. My daughter loves Lego too, but primarily for playing with the minifigs and the towns and buildings. So for her I assembled a collection of female minifigs to add to her existing small collection.

Once I’d ordered all of the parts — which involved probably ten or more individual orders across a number of Bricklink sellers — the remaining work was to order some boxes from the The Bag And Box Man. I created some custom labels, following the Lego box art style, which is pretty easy to reproduce. The availability of some great flickr photos of the models meant that I had plenty of existing resources to draw on.

I was pretty pleased with the end result and so were the kids! It was definitely a fun project over the pre-Christmas run-up and a welcome distraction from a very busy work schedule. If you’re interested in trying this out yourself, hopefully there are some useful pointers in this post.

Life With Playstation

Earlier today I was playing with the new Life with PlayStation which is available as a free upgrade to the older “Folding @ Home” application that originally shipped with the PS3.
The new application looks like it is a step towards generalizing the existing interface, which is a “Google Earth-lite” style zoomable, pannable, 3D globe albeit with much less detail than its desktop equivalent. The main new feature is integrated weather reports and news feeds from the capital cities of 60 countries. You can read more about it on the website and watch a video demo.
What intrigued me was the possibility that Sony may decide to open this up further. They’re clearing expecting there to be more “channels”, which is their term for overlays that can be displayed on the globe. At present only the news, plus the older Folding@Home channels are available, but it’d be fantastic if this was opened up to web hackers to allow geo apps to be delivered directly to the Playstation. I’ve done some googling around but there’s doesn’t seem to be any discussion about how they intend to add new services, or whether there may be a developer kit.
There is a huge amount of creative work going on in the world of geo-hackery that could be re-targetted for delivery to the PS3 if Sony decide to embrace open-ness. Indeed, other than the currently fairly limited resolution of the map and the need for Sony to provide a way to feed content into their system, there seems to be little in the way of further obstacles.
I also noticed that the software license page explains that the application ships with a “simple cross-platform XML parser” and LiteSQL. An even more exciting leap would be to see a sandboxed Javascript engine in there too, but lets not run before we can walk!

Lunch Hour Game

Our daily office random lunch hour discussion veered into the topic of reality TV today, namely: what new shows could we make up? Come on, you’ve all done it!
Here are my contributions:
1950’s Wife Swap: Like Wife Swap except your exchange spouse with a family from the 1950s. Hilarity ensues. Note: idea slightly limited by need for time travel and/or availability of character actors.
Ready, Steady, Survive!: Ray Mears takes a number of well-known cooks into the wilderness and then presents them with 5 random ingredients harvested from Nature. The winner is the chef to make the best dish out of the available bush tucker.
Habitat Swap: Presented by David Attenborough and Davina McCall this show selects two animals and forces them to swap habitats for a week. The viewers get to follow the travails of the beasts as they attempt to evolve within a week. The winner is presented with a wildlife preservation order. First guests are a red ant and a black ant.
Call Yourself a Pharoah?: Sarah Beeny presents this show following the efforts of several tyrants to construct massive monuments and/or tombs using a thousand slaves each. Beeney provides constructive advice on managing a large scale project, e.g. transportation of massive stone blocks, costing the plaster work required for a pyramid, etc.
Any better than that?

Lost: The Game

Watching the latest episode of Lost last night I started wonder whether anyone had already seized on the idea of turning it into a game.
Maybe it’s a little close to the bone given current events, but helping survivors build a working community after a plane crash or shipwreck seems like an interesting spin on the whole God Sim genre. Those kind of games revolve around basic puzzle solving and resource management.
Throw a means to write mods to alter the game play, add new elements, etc and you could quickly create the kind of bizarre and strange scenarios that we’re seeing crop up in Lost.
Kind of “The Sims get Lost” or “Post-Apocalyptic Civ”.