Let’s Talk About Minecraft Mods

As I’ve spoken about at length a few times on this blog, I’ve been playing Minecraft for a long time. I’m a bit older than the usual Minecraft demographic, but it’s a game that’s very special to me nonetheless. Lately, I’ve been very strong in the conviction that, despite its flaws (and its child-targeted gambling servers), Bedrock is the best version of the game. This is because I’ve recently been going back to Java Edition to play around with some mods, against my better judgement. There is a core contradiction in the design philosophy of the vast majority of Minecraft mods, and it’s that contradiction that I’d like to talk about today. But I’d also like to dive a bit into talking about some of the mods I’ve tried in more detail, since despite their flaws, I do enjoy them from time to time and would like to give you my recommendations.  Well, “recommendation”, singular.  Spoiler alert.

Let’s get the simple stuff out of the way. The mods I’m currently playing with are Galacticraft, Thaumcraft, Botania, AbyssalCraft, and Just Enough Items. To be honest, I’d prefer not to play with JEI, but Galacticraft necessitates it. That’s part of the contradiction I’m going to talk about in a bit. I also don’t really like most of these mods. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s have a general overview of what each mod is.

Generally speaking, Minecraft mods are either quality of life stuff, tech mods, or magic mods. There is another subset, Skyblock-likes, that put you in challenging situations with very limited resources and require you to know a lot about the game and its mechanics. I’m not so much into those, sorry Skyblock fans. Once was enough for me. You can probably tell from my main mods there that I’m a fan of magic mods, mostly. I also have pretty extensive experience with the classic Tekkit mod pack, Equivalent Exchange, Ars Magica, and like… a ton of others.  Side note here, please KYS if your mod pack includes Tinker’s Construct.  You shouldn’t have to go through like a 4 step process just to make a pick and start playing the game.  What are you doing.

Quality of life stuff generally is like, adding a minimap with waypoint functionality (cheating!), making it so your items go in a gravestone instead of scattering on the ground when you die (completely unnecessary, you have 5 full minutes of the chunk being loaded/ticking to grab your stuff), giving you a full listing of every recipe in the game (the game literally already has a recipe book function but no mods ever use it for some reason), etc. Personally, I despise a lot of this. I’m also not a fan of using the Java F3 debug menu to cheat and get coordinates. If you want to know where you are, make a friggin’ map and compass. Why, back in my day, we had to memorize our crafting recipes! Uphill both ways! Et cetera!

Anyway.

Tech mods generally revolve around power sources, things that use that power, and pipes and wires to transfer the power. So, you’re building coal generators and wiring them up to quarries that drill out stuff for you automatically, or what have you. Magic mods tend to have a lot of specialized GUIs for making castable spells or special wizard robes or whatever, and tend to focus on player empowerment rather than building structures to do work for you. This can vary a lot, and the first mod I’m going to talk about subverts both of these expectations, but it’s helpful to have a baseline idea of the categories.  Generally, magic mods tend to be better than tech mods, because they leave more of what’s going on in your hands personally, rather than trying to implement their own overcomplicated version of Redstone.  However, there is one major exception to all these rules: Botania.

Botania is the odd one out as a magic mod, because it’s really more of a tech mod disguised as magic.  Also, unlike all other tech mods, it’s not garbage.  Basically, Botania is what you get when someone asks themselves, “can we do a tech mod without pipes/wires”, and “can we do a magic mod without special GUIs”. The answer is yes, to both. Botania might actually be my favorite Minecraft mod of all time, because of how beautifully it dovetails into the existing game’s dynamics and progression without interfering too much. I also feel like, at least in the early to midgame, the things you can make aren’t even that overpowered. This sidesteps a major epidemic in MC mods, particularly magic mods. Everything you do in Botania (except using crafting halos, sort of) revolves around interactions IN the world itself. You’re throwing petals from special flowers into a thing. You’re putting down other flowers and surrounding them with blocks to transform them. Still more and different flowers absorb stuff like coal to generate mana, which you then beam into a pool with a spreader.  That sort of thing.

Everything in Botania is flowers, and there’s a high emphasis on visual beauty. I think all of the new blocks introduced by the mod look really nice. It’s a bit of a shame that a lot of the mystical flowers themselves kinda look poopy, particularly the ones you use to get the petals for crafting things. Several of the colors are just kind of mushy and ill-defined in structure, and they don’t really resemble any flower I’ve ever seen. They look particularly out of place when compared to vanilla flowers, not just because they emit particle effects. Thus, they’re mostly useless for decorating your homestead.

Botania’s progression revolves around accumulating and using Mana, this mod’s power source. This is largely equivalent to “electricity” in a tech mod, but is stored as a liquid in special pools, instead of in batteries. Rather than pipes, you fire the mana here and there using special emitters called “mana spreaders”, which you can point any which way. Instead of a wrench, you have a wand, but it functions the same as a tech mod’s wrench for repositioning and rotating things. Something that’s really useful to make is a tree farm, which with enough effort becomes a renewable source of both wood and mana, in Botania. This is something you kinda want to build anyway, in vanilla.

In general, you’re encouraged to play around with what you can make in a sandboxy sort of way, and you can almost think of Botania’s flower contraptions as a kind of wireless Redstone.  Unlike most other tech mods, however, this system isn’t trying to replace Redstone.  Instead, Redstone’s existing items fit in so well with the additions in Botania that it feels like the mod finally makes Redstone a complete system that goes somewhere, instead of being something fun but ultimately ignore-able.  Probably the most useful things you can make early on are a set of tools using a mana-infused iron called manasteel. They are actually exactly equivalent to iron tools, but you can repair them automatically using accumulated mana in a tablet or ring, instead of having to spend iron and experience. This is really nice as a quality of life thing.  For the effort required, it feels very balanced.  Later, there’s some diamond-equivalent tools and armor with similar properties.

Apparently, the mod also contains some endgame bosses to fight for special rewards, though I’ve admittedly never gotten that far in it. For what it’s worth, I haven’t felt as though I’m missing out on anything huge by not seeing that content just yet, because of how neatly Botania fits itself into the existing vanilla gameplay. Thus, it is the only mod in my current list that does NOT contain the essential contradiction I’ll talk about later.

Galacticraft is an insanely complex tech mod that lets you go to space eventually. Functionally, other planets are basically just more dimensions to explore, with their own materials and such.  You need a space suit and a rocket to go there, and that’s about where my commentary ends.  I can’t say very much about this mod, unfortunately, because it’s far too complicated for me to wrap my head around what I need to do to even get started. Like most tech mods, there is no central book or in-game guidance helping you to do anything, and you need JEI in order to access any recipes without going to the wiki. I’ve gotten as far as making a coal generator and a circuit fabricator and wiring them together, at which point a creeper snuck up behind me and blew up the fabricator, and I decided “fuck it, I’m done.”  From the looks of it, I would’ve needed diamonds to get anywhere anyway, since they’re required for pressing the wafers needed for basically everything in that mod.

AbyssalCraft is one I have mixed feelings on.  Essentially, it adds a Lovecraftian twist to the game in the form of special monsters, new hell dimensions, a new super evil overworld biome, and some sacrificial magic similar to Thaumcraft’s Infusion rituals but with animal sacrifice.  I’ve barely even scratched the surface of this one in my play, but I can say that it’s a bit irritating to have the mod add in shoggoth lairs to the overworld.  Right from the very beginning, you have these infestations of insanely powerful creatures that raise monoliths to spawn more of themselves, and the second their chunk becomes active you might as well pick up and move.  It’s almost as bad as Thaumcraft 6’s Taint mechanics, except that you can theoretically fight the shoggoths? But realistically, you can’t.  Not until you’ve got fully enchanted diamond gear, a nice shield, an infinite bow, etc.  So in practice, it’s kind of obnoxious to have endgame monsters just sitting around in the overworld right away.  And the darklands biome the game adds has even more obnoxious monsters that blind you on hit.  Also the trees there have a strange pulsing texture to them that isn’t so much unnerving or ethereal so much as it is just regular ugly.  There’s a lot of promise to this one, but it’s really more of an endgame mod.  I would probably have preferred to install it later on after I’d already established a completed vanilla playthrough, so that I could get right into its content.

Thaumcraft is the most ambitious magic mod I’ve ever messed with, and it’s also probably the most comprehensive, with mechanics that range all over the damn place and affect nearly everything you can do. If you’re going to play Thaumcraft, in fact, I recommend making it your only mod; it’s that huge. I don’t know that I’d call it the “best” per se, for reasons I’ll get to. But it’s definitely got a ton of content. This mod introduces a system of interlocking elemental properties linked to every item, block, and mob, as well as an invisible “aura” of energy that blankets the world and varies in level by chunk. I’ve put the most time into Thaumcraft 5, however I’m currently playing 6 (Beta 26), the most current and now-final release. Azanor, the mod’s creator, has said that they’re getting out of MC mods entirely. Given how much they’ve busted their butt on Thaumcraft, I’m not surprised they’re burned out. It must be said, however, that every single new version of this mod has been a dramatic “re-imagining” that’s basically required them to re-do a lot of their work from the ground up, which can’t have helped. Also, the mod (like most MC mods) is absolutely riddled with hundreds of typos and grammatical mistakes. Ask me about the time I spent 3 straight weeks fixing all of them, only to go to upload to github and find that he specifically requested nobody fix his typos because it “messes up [his] rhythm”. Oh, good to know!

Structurally, the mod revolves around a combination of observation and theoretical research, which is used to make progress in the Thaumonomicon, the mod’s central book. Most magic mods have a central text like this, that leads you through progression in the mod and contains recipes. A big part of magic mods is enjoying the writing in these books as you RP a block game wizard, which is why TC’s typos bug me. But, to be fair to Azanor, Botania’s book is also riddled with errors. Tech mods do not generally have a book at all, referring you instead to an outside wiki or something, which I hate. The only way to avoid constant alt-tabbing is to rely heavily on a mod like JEI, tracing back the recipes, power and crafting stations on your own.

The fields of study available to you in Thaumcraft through normal means are Alchemy, Infusion, Auromancy, and Golemcraft, each of which has its own central crafting mechanic to learn.

Alchemy revolves around using an enchanted cauldron to transmute items around into other things by throwing them into it. This puts the elements from that item into the cauldron, and then you throw other things into it to use those elements. This is very messy and imprecise, though, and tends to be extremely wasteful (especially early on, before you have access to essentia smelting and distillation), which causes big big problems in the form of Taint. Taint is especially nasty in TC6, and there’s only like, one or two very rare ways to remove it. If you accidentally open a rift in 6, you might as well just give up and move your base about a thousand blocks away and pretend you didn’t see anything. However, mastery over alchemy gives you the ability to duplicate some items, transmute rotten flesh into leather (by far the most useful thing I’ve ever seen in any mod), and create cool candles, magical lights, and long-burning fuel.

Infusion has you creating a big central altar surrounded by pillars and plinths, arranging candles, jars full of liquid essentia, and other magical paraphernalia in the world to create powerful items, armor, and tools. This tree also has you unlocking special blocks that can make barriers to keep mobs out, or roads that make you run faster. This is probably my favorite part of the mod just from an experiential standpoint. It’s had a lot of love put into the particle effects and stuff that can happen during the rituals, and I love having to position everything in the world just so. It really helps with the whole “feeling like a wizard” thing. My only real complaint here is how insanely overpowered the items you can make are, but that’s nothing new when it comes to MC mods. I’ll get to that.

Auromancy is your typical “spellcasting” tree, containing spell focuses you can create to generate magical effects. These can be pretty cool and very useful for building, since it has capabilities like block switching and fast bridge-building, or even a grappling-hook-like effect for easier navigation of ravines and such. Most of the effects on offer here are combat-focused, however, such as setting things on fire or shooting lightning bolts. Not that that stuff isn’t fun! The other major thing Auromancy is good for is manipulating the aura, either to pull in energies from neighboring chunks, or recharging magical items, etc. You need “vis”, the energetic form of the aura, to do most of your crafting in TC, so it’s crucial to make progress in this field of study as a top priority. Draining the aura repeatedly is another Bad Idea, however, similar to alchemical crafting early on.

Golemancy is a complicated system whereby you can make little mechanical servitors and place down command seals in the world that tell them what to do. You can use these to automate farming, for instance, or defend your base, or even just sort your items for you without using Redstone sorting machines. It’s the last field of study you unlock normally (I’m not counting eldritch/crimson stuff here), requiring you to make progress in all the others first.

The biggest change in TC6 by far is that you get started with the mod in a more intuitive way than before. Rather than having to just know the recipe for a wand and know that you need to use it on a bookshelf, instead you’re given a dream the first time you touch the unique crystals that the mod spawns in caves. The dream is written in a book, and tells you how to make Salis Mundus using the crystals, a bowl, some flint, and redstone, which you sprinkle on a bookshelf to get the Thaumonomicon. This is probably the best intro to a magic mod out there. You also craft a “caster’s gauntlet” instead of a wand, which… is cool I guess? It’s kind of a nothing change, except stylistically, and truth be told I preferred the wands and staffs of TC5. Gone also are nodes and elemental vis in the aura, and instead you just have one aggregate meter for the aura. The research minigame was also changed to be a lot less interesting, switching from a game that teaches you how the elements interlock to a click-to-draw-a-card system that requires basically no thought.

There’s a bunch of other little changes in how the progression works, but like… to be honest, TC6 feels like a dead end for me apart from the revamped introduction. With the Taint the way it is in 6, the mod was literally unplayable for many iterations of the beta, and remains quite a bit more difficult than 5 despite the simplified aura mechanics. Literally the only reason I’m playing 6 over 5 is because 5 requires you to go back to MC version 1.8.9, whereas every other mod I have requires 1.12.2. This is something that’s extremely annoying in MC mods in general, having to match up all the version numbers so everything works nicely, download the particular Forge version for that version of Minecraft, etc.

Seems like as good a time as any to mention that in general, MC modding for the end user was greatly simplified several years ago with the introduction of Minecraft Forge, a front end that handles mod loading so you don’t have to manually copy things into .jar archives and bypass Mojang’s meta-inf and all that stuff anymore. Now, you just put a bunch of .jar files into a “mods” folder in your Minecraft directory and you’re good to go. Every browser under the sun detects Forge as a virus, however, and the site you get the program from is extremely shady even though it’s the official site for the software and everyone uses it. So, even though modding is still a pain in the ass now, it’s a hell of a lot easier than it used to be. It’s also quite a bit more centralized, with most mods requiring Forge compatibility and being designed around it. There’s also a group called Feed the Beast that makes gigantic mod packs that just about everyone uses now, rather than downloading individual mods as I prefer to.  Basically, it’s a lot harder for me to object to Bedrock on the grounds of centralization, since Minecraft modding is also now largely centralized.  The biggest difference is MC mods’ non-corporate/commodified nature, but even that is somewhat in question given the prevalence of professional FTB streamers.

In general, the MC modding scene seems to cater to people who do need to “feed the beast”, so to speak, needing more and more features and changes, piling on complexity to the core game until it’s basically unrecognizable. That’s why this article’s featured image is Chairman Hyoudou, the main villain of a show/manga called Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji. The story of Kaiji is about gambling, and I highly recommend watching season 1 of the anime (and stopping there, s2 is dumb and unnecessary). Hyoudou is a memorable villain because he has burned-out pleasure centers from years of high-stakes thrill-seeking. He needs more and more stimulation to avoid crippling boredom, leading him to do monstrous things in the name of stirring any feeling at all in himself. It’s Hyoudou I think of when I dive into Minecraft modding, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

I’d like to touch briefly on how shitty Java Edition is for a second.  I’ve mostly been playing Bedrock for the past few years, and going back to Java in 2019 to try and satisfy my semi-annual craving for a modded experience has largely been a fucking nightmare.  For starters, I had to remember my Mojang account and password, and figure out whether I should be using my username or my email account.  Then, I had to switch to a new launcher and figure that out.  Then the whole rigamarole of convincing my computer to download and run Forge against my better judgement, since every red flag my computer could throw at me was going up.

Once I actually got into the game, wow it’s bad.  Making a game like Minecraft on a platform like Java was a terrible, terrible decision.  The game runs like shit; it maybe gets 30 FPS sometimes.  It tends to randomly freeze or hang up for several seconds whenever anything is going on, and the only solution is to decrease your draw distance down to like, 15-20 chunks maximum, meaning there’s gray fog everywhere.

On top of the performance issues, having to play on 1.12.2 means that we’re pre-Update Aquatic.  So the water is viscous as all hell and a nightmare to swim through.  You basically need to always carry blocks with you specifically to plug up or dam water in caves.  However, on Java, we’re also post-Combat Update, which means fighting things is a slog through waist-deep shit.  I cannot describe with strong enough language my loathing for this change.  Even if I wanted to go back to Thaumcraft 5, I’d still be on version 1.8.9 and dealing with this anyway.  Having to sit and wait for your sword swing to charge up is absolute balls, and the mini-AOE swing you get is piddly compensation for the wait.  What happened to just swinging your weapon and having fun?

Compared to Bedrock, even on Normal the Java game spawns in a truly batshit insane number of enemies.  If you build a noob tower at night and look down, the ground is covered in shit.  Just mind-blowing how much crap the game throws at you; every time I turn around there’s a creeper or a skeleton in my face, to the point that it’s really annoying.  The combat update also buffed skeleton arrows, so you die SO fast without a shield, but carrying one obstructs your vision all down the left side.  An extremely solid shelter is an absolute must immediately, even though these mods necessitate a lot of roaming and exploration.  Lighting is different and darker, you need more torches to stop spawns and they still come in sometimes where they shouldn’t.  There’s chunk errors, chunk lighting errors, everywhere I go there’s a problem.  Half the time when you boot up the game, there’s no sound and you have to just reboot and cross your fingers.  It’s a fucking mess.

None of this is a problem in Bedrock.  60FPS, 4K, 80 chunk draw distance, and it runs like butter.  Like fucking butter.  There’s only one possible login, far more granularity in the options, and it’s an absolute powerhouse of gorgeous performance.  I miss Botania’s features sometimes, but like… holy shit.  I couldn’t take 2 steps in any village without the framerate completely tanking in Java.  Are you kidding me?  How the hell did I tolerate this for so long?  Why do we all put up with the combat update, also?  And can I just say, compared to the newest textures, man, the old game does not look good these days.

Okay.  Fuck.

Minecraft is, at its heart, a simple game about mining up blocks and building stuff.  I’ve said this before, but the more complexity you add to that formula, the worse the game gets.  I’m gonna partially retract this and say it’s not just added complexity that’s the problem, however.  It’s the ways in which that complexity either adds to or fights against the vanilla experience.

A lot of Minecraft mods contain this core contradiction in their design.  They exist within and on top of a game about mining and crafting, but they all fight against the core design.  Even back in the days of Equivalent Exchange, you would eventually unlock items that could dig out 3×3 tunnels 100 blocks long in a second and vacuum up all the goodies.  And it’s like… why?  Why are there swords in your mod that deal twice the damage of a diamond sword?  Armor with twice the armor rating of diamond and a bunch of permanent buffs?  Why are there guns?  Why are there quarries that obliterate everything down to bedrock level instantly?  Why does every single mod insist on adding a way to double your ore output, thus making it a waste of time to use a regular pick and furnace?  Look!  Do you want to play Minecraft, or not?

This is why a mod like Botania is so good.  It’s not overly ambitious.  Most of the mod consists of a kind of new wireless Redstone, with moving parts that are designed to be pretty.  There’s lots of new blocks, which is good.  It doesn’t overreach itself.  There is a mass crafting mechanic to save you some time, but you have to work hard and do a lot of manual crafting to get there, and even then it’s never entirely hands-off.  Awesome.  That’s all a mod needs to do.  You’re never completely removing yourself from the mining or the crafting, basically.  That’s good.

I don’t need some modder trying to reinvent the wheel of the entire game’s progression.  What’s there is already fine and great.  What would be nice is having additional systems to play with that enmesh with that progression and sit alongside it without being overwhelmingly complex or completely eclipsing what’s already there.  This is also why I’m not terribly excited for Hytale, a game that’s made by a bunch of Minecraft modders and designed to be like, a new platform containing features from All the Mods.  Granted, I’ll give them credit for realizing that they need to strike out on their own and not be bound by Notch’s shitty Java programming anymore.  But like, Minecraft still exists, you guys.  It’s still great, just as it is.  And I burned out on Tekkit years ago already.

So… I guess go play Bedrock, basically.  I have no idea why anyone puts up with Java in 2019.  If you absolutely have to, Botania is pretty good.

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