Simple Narrative Design and Role Playing in Minecraft

Creating stories and experiences for other people to enjoy is amazing fun. Lots of people have already discussed doing this within Minecraft, so I’ll simply share a few scenes and ideas from a small quest that I’m working on in my server. The target audience: two pre-teen nephews of a buddy of mine.

The core idea within Minecraft is that of total freedom within a world with seemingly few but very strict rules. I’m talking Survival mode here, where building a decent sized village actually matters, and shows a good amount of dedication.

When you watch kids play Minecraft, or even better -play along with them- you realize very quickly that:

  • a) They don’t need your help, but
  • b) They might benefit from a little focus from time to time.

Ready for adventure?


Kids play Minecraft as naturally as I remember running around my suburban neighborhood in the ’80’s. Back when kids played outside for real, we considered several square miles to be open game (even more in rural areas). Our transportation tended to be BMX style bikes, and we would use each other’s houses as waypoints and safe zones between adventures. Everyone had total mastery of the immediate areas around their house, and everyone shared this knowledge within the group.

We all knew the alleys, and which street to take when going this way, because it curves and meets up with that other street sooner. Or going in the opposite direction, we’ll take that street, because it has a great long slope that we can cruise our bikes down with no hands.

The outer boundaries of our fiefdoms came naturally. As a kid, you learned to stay away from the edges of your world, yet to slowly expand them. If you strayed too far off you feared losing the control you had. This was a very real invisible wall; kids that lived just outside of the fog of war were left out, if getting to their house meant crossing a huge road or passing a few run-down buildings. Yet as we became older and more experienced, we pushed through these walls and slowly expanded the world. The excitement of exploration is a prime motivator.

With that memory in mind, and playing Minecraft for several years with kids of all ages, it finally came about that I would elect myself an adhoc Dungeon Master on the server that I play on. I am not leading groups of players to dungeons, players know how to do that by themselves. Instead, I am simply adding a small amount of structure to the world, to play along side Minecraft’s immense procedural content.

My goal with this is to have players find an unexpected item which triggers a series of events and tasks, leading up to the discovery of a massive underground complex ready to be explored. It’s basically Minecraft with a little history added. (In working on this and writing it, I have become extremely jealous of anyone working on the new EQ game!)


I decided to pick several spots on our map that would make sense for a very simple scavenger hunt. In order to ensure that at least one of the kids would even find my quest, I am creating several starting points, each with their own path to the end of the line. Since I don’t exactly have time to mess around with all of this stuff, I am keeping it very simple.

For the uninitiated: The terrain below was randomly created. Each point of interest on the map was either created randomly by the game, built by everyone on the server, or built by me in secret.


Players will travel between 300-1500 meters per leg of the quest, a good number to keep things moving while still feeling epic.

The players will hopefully find the first clue at the Witch House to the East of our base. This is a fairly new private server, so my plans will not be foiled unless I can’t implement the entire quest before someone stomps into the stuff that I’ve already prepared. In anticipation of that, I have been working backwards. I started in the remote areas I know no one has been to yet, and have worked my way back towards the planned quest starting points.

The quest is temporarily called “The Mystery of the Missing Explorers”. I have located an Abandoned Mineshaft on a different continent that will act as the “Mysterious Abandoned Dig-site”. This is a key strength of Minecraft and good procedural content in general: I am able to skim the game world for what I’m looking for, and re-purpose it to my needs within the story. And since most of the work was done by the creators of Minecraft, I’m just doing an easy piggy-back which will hopefully give a few kids the willies.



Story Devices in Minecraft

We are running a vanilla server with no mods. For now I’m limited to using these items to tell a story:

  • Environmental Details such as buildings and props to build out new story context (It’s minecraft, duh).
  • Explanatory Signs to mark important features, describe areas, and label points of interest.
  • Book and Quill to create individual pages such as journals, instructions, letters, etc.

The limitations are pretty huge when compared to an RPG. I could devise a redstone machine that would allow me to do some collection quests, but I’ll save that for v2. This would also be perfect for booby traps.

The strengths of these devices is that I can quickly build out some detailed, themed areas and fill them with passive story telling. This works great in Left4Dead, and the against the literal vacuum of structure within Minecraft, I believe even a few mysterious notes with simple hints will spur the players along.



If the players find an alternate book hidden in our mega underground mining complex, it will lead them here, via a long ride by horseback from our main area.


This Villager will meet an untimely end…this is to be the “Abandoned Village” and I will be slaughtering these AI in the name of the Muses. The other Village will remain populated. Wish I could script these guys!



I created this house and dock (“Boat House”) to provide a grounded place to travel to before being directed to get across the ocean. In Minecraft it’s very easy to build boats, but the Boat House is just a detail that gives the story more depth.



The player approaches an unknown land with a tiny cabin. What could it be? Who lived there? What happened to them?




One of the books I have written and placed around the world to add story details. These are created in-game.



The most remote part of the quest – the location of the cabin in the woods with an abandoned stairway dug straight down into the ground.


The final bit of light players will have before spelunking below. I tunneled far far below this point, placing chests with story books as I went. At the bottom of this is a procedural (game-created) Mineshaft. I then re-traced my steps and removed all of the torches and any sign of my presence along the way. “Leave no Trace”…

Seriously, it freaked me out. It is sooo un-Minecraft to let the zombies reclaim the land, unless perhaps in pvp.

As I was deep in the ground writing the final book page that describes the Explorer’s moment of doom, I heard a quiet and soft padding approach slowly from behind. At the last second I realized I had become a character in my own novel. It was a creeper.

Will report back with the results of this little adventure.