A Design Framework for Games

How do you know if you’re creating a campaign with enough buy-in and interest with your group? How can you be sure that you’ve given your players enough context on a new gaming system for them to adequately interact with it? The answer to these sorts of questions is far more art than science, but today I’d like to talk about a framework that can help you out.

As a peak behind the curtain, when I’m not playing games, running games, or creating for games I’m teaching STEM topics in a variety of settings. I’m actually working on a second Masters in Instructional Technology to further that career and lately I’ve been having a lot of discussion about a design framework called ADDIE. This is not a model (meaning it isn’t a set of instructions to create a lesson) but it’s a framework to make sure you are getting through all the necessary parts of the lesson design process. There are five parts to ADDIE, one for each letter, and they are approached in whatever order you want including circling back to one multiple times.

ADDIE “Model” (not strictly accurate) chart from Wikicommons.

When you’re starting a Session Zero, you can think of it as just a planning session or just a low-stakes dry run of the game. In reality, though, it’s an opportunity to frame your campaign in a way that sets up players’ expectations and tailor the campaign plan to what motivates your group. Using ADDIE in your campaign planning helps you to check that no key pieces are missing. How many times do you go around and around through ADDIE? Well, until you’re satisfied. There isn’t an “end” to this process, but you will certainly reach a point where you feel like things are ready to go. More on that at the end of this.


The first part of this process is to Analyze your group and your subject. Basically, you want to take stock and make sure that all the pieces are there before you start, like a chef checking to see if all the ingredients are available before they start in on a recipe. Like a chef’s ingredients, some of these parts will need some advanced prep, others will be ready to go as-is, and many will depend on your intended audience.

Group Needs: First, take a look at what your group needs to play through the campaign. Do you need special dice? How many sets do you need? Are there handouts that the players can use for character creation or game mechanics? If your playing online, do you have a set-up that is engaging and clearly lays out the resources? Have you set up the special dice, deck, or other items in your online space? Lastly, do your players know how to get to or sign into your play area and do they know what to expect?

Player Needs: What sort of players do you have in this group? Is this an established group that knows each other already or do you need some introductions? Are players experienced, beginners, or a mix of both? What systems are the groups already familiar with and are they eager to start a new system or reticent? Looking back at the previous section, are those special dice expensive? Do your players need to buy new books (or purchase accounts on a platform) and can they all afford them? Is there a way for you to reduce that cost? Do any of your players need special accommodations like language help, a handicap-accessible playing space, or alternatives to color-coding for handouts?

Image © Onyx Path Publishing

Setting Concepts: Make an outline of all the parts of the setting that are important for players to know. My recommendation here is to make a list of all the parts, then pare back until you have something a little more manageable. For Eberron, for instance, you might have first-level headings of Races of Eberron, History of Eberron, Nations of Khorvaire, Beyond Khorvaire, Religions of Eberron, Organizations of Eberron, Cosmology of Eberron, and Class Changes. This is a lot, probably too much of an informational dump for new players, but just list it all out down to the second- or third-level topics and revisit later.

System Tasks: If this campaign is going to involve a new game system, what parts of the system do players need to be aware of? Run down an outline of the mechanics as players will need to use them, and to keep this from just rehashing the rulebook, phrase everything with action verbs in terms of “In order to do ______ you would _____.” For example, list out the moves in a Powered by the Apocalypse game so that players know when each applies, or list the different types of metacurrencies in a 2d20 game and when to use them. Even in cases where your players are playing a familiar system, what new things might they want to know how to do? Some might be included above, but if you’re playing a 5e Eberron game you might want to let players know how they would make a dragonmarked character, how they incorporate experiences in the Last War, and any new mechanics like urban gymnastics for a Sharn-based game.


To Design a campaign that is flexible yet established, think about your goals and your objectives. Goals are those overarching desires for the campaign, which might be plot-based, emotion-based, or anything else you might think of. They don’t have to be specific occurrences but you want something that’s a definite outcome of the campaign. Some great examples are things like…

  • Players will show they care about this little town that they are protecting.
  • Players will make the end of this story set in Rohan will be significantly different from the Lord of the Rings.
  • Players will become the most important members of the Waterdeep thieves’ guilds.

Once you have your campaign goals set out, what are the objectives by which you will know they’re being met? You don’t want to wait until the end of the campaign to see if you did what you set out to, so think of how you’ll know if the story’s on the right track. Drawing on the examples above…

  • Players will show they care about this little town that they are protecting by making personal sacrifices for the vulnerable NPCs that live there.
  • Players will make the end of this story set in Rohan will be significantly different from the Lord of the Rings because of the military victories and losses they experience.
  • Players will become the most important members of the Waterdeep thieves’ guilds by blackmailing each of the city’s established guilds in turn.


This is the point where most DMs start this process: Developing some plot ideas, villains, and adventure hooks. That’s worth thinking about, though. Think about everything that’s already been mentioned so far and how much prep work gets skipped when  you rush straight to writing down plot as Step 1. Even if you take nothing else away from this article, doing the above steps before you let your usual campaign planning process take over will definitely leave you with a stronger end product.

Image © Sage Games

But the point is that ADDIE isn’t a linear process so this is just the beginning. Whether you like to full write out your adventures, sketch out a few ideas by storyboard, or just create a sandbox setting with dangers for your PCs to uncover, after you’re done Developing your campaign you should return to one or all of the earlier steps. Write out some plot and then look back at your Analyze step. Are there aspects of the setting content or system tasks that aren’t so important now and can be taken out of the information dump? What about parts you missed earlier or which are much more essential now that you’ve thought about where the campaign is going? Do your plot hooks lead to all of your goals or have you missed some and should write more? Is it now apparent that two of your goals should be combined or that there is a better objective for a campaign goal?


It’s time for Implementation and to play that campaign! Do a Session Zero (potentially even an active Session Zero) and see how it pans out. Are there things you missed in Analysis that should be fixed now (or fixed for next time)? Did your Development have some holes in it that need to be shored up or some extraneous parts that none of your players are biting at? Most importantly, was it fun?

That’s the biggest part of this, after all, and you need to follow all the advice you’ve read again and again for GMs. Listen to the players, react to them, don’t stress about things and just let the game flow. Nobody is going to be mad at you if the plot isn’t Shakespeare but nobody is going to be happy if the game is all arguing over rules and details. Keep it light and let the story shape itself: you’ll have time later to make it dramatic and intense.


This is another often-neglected part of GMing and that’s unfortunate. I think it’s because a lot of GMs think asking about players’ experiences is fishing for compliments, or they worry that it’s opening the door to whining and moaning. Take those compliments and write down the whines, they’ll help make your game better. If you did everything perfectly you wouldn’t be human!

Image © Monte Cook Games

A phrase I like to ask at the end of a game session, taken from Role Playing Public Radio, is “Questions, comments, suggestions?” This lets your players offer a number of different types of feedback in a neat little package. If something doesn’t make sense, this is their chance to say so. If they liked something or would like to see more of something, they can also do that here. Also, the framing of suggestions makes this a two way street. Players can (and should) feel free to say “this didn’t work for me at all” but by asking for suggestions you encourage them to say “this would work better for me.” That way you don’t have to do the work and you have tools to improve the next session.

Even if you feel you’re doing well in GMing and you get good reactions from players, this is an important step. If you never change your approach or style, that’s the definition of stagnation. Players might have a great time at your table and they may not feel like there’s any need to speak up about something. That’s great, but make sure that’s the case. Offer them the chance to provide feedback and actually wait a minute or two for them to think it over. Upon reflection, they might realize there is something they’d like to suggest or to call out, something they didn’t think about in the thrill of the moment. The best part is that if you do this regularly, players will start keeping it in mind as the session goes on and you will find their feedback more specific and their attention on the campaign more incisive.

What Next?

Like I said at the beginning, this is a non-linear framework. After any of the above sections you should feel free to circle around to another portion. Once you use this a few times you might not even start with Analyze or even Design. Maybe you start with Evaluation from your previous campaign and then think of what your next campaign will be like. Maybe you start in on the plot and story with Development and regularly circle back around to it. Maybe you do some Design work and then pick the parts of your outline that will resonate with your players based on your Analysis.

It’s whatever process works for you! That’s why ADDIE is a framework not a model: this is still your personal writing process, ADDIE just lets you improve and expand it for your best game ever.

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