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Index Cards at the Table

This is part two of a two-part series on index cards. The first part [1] dealt with using index cards during game prep, and included a brief overview of what kinds of cards are available, and how to store them.

While no single approach is ideal for everyone, this article will focus on how I’ve been using index cards, along with some ideas that I’ve seen in use, so please excuse the ‘in my campaign’ tone of it. As usual, feel free to take what’s shiny and share your own uses for index cards.

Card Management

I use 200-card cases to manage my cards. They fit perfectly in the boxes I use for GMing, the cases conveniently hold two decks of the Savage Worlds Action Deck (of oversized cards for initiative), and I never needed more than 200 cards at the table. Most of the cases I’ve seen come with dividers.

As mentioned in the last article, NPC character sheets are printed onto 3 x 5 cards. The NPC cards for my recently-ended fantasy campaign were divided into named NPCs, humanoids, other critters, elementals, and infernals. Your mileage may vary, and probably should, because the campaign focused pretty heavily on the last two categories. As the case filled up with NPC cards, I realized that having over a hundred ready-to-use NPC stats at your fingertips is a Good Thing.

Additional cards (location, organization, reward/item, rules, etc) were stashed in the pocket of a 5”x8” padfolio, along with whatever cards I knew I’d need for the session.

At the Table

The bulk of my index cards were NPC cards. I’d pull cards out at the beginning of the encounter and turn them face down until the critter actually showed up. Bennies are placed on Wild Card NPCs, and initiative cards are placed on top of the NPC card. I’d keep notes on the padfolio, and hand over reward/item cards to the players as needed.

Here’s a quick pic of my GMing station; you can see the green poker chip Bennies and eight of clubs initiative card atop the NPC index card.

2010-02-18 21.50.30 [2]

In systems with complex modifiers, index cards make great reminders of the rules. Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth from my D&D 3.5 players when the dreaded “narrow and low” card appeared…

Got a pretty complicated map? Put a legend on an index card. Heck, create one for each player.

Index cards are great for repetitive initiative systems, such as D&D 3.x and 4e. Well before the encounter, pre-roll the critters’ initiative, and sort the cards in order. Add the PCs to the mix as they roll initiative. Anyone holding or delaying gets their card turned sideways. You can even make notes (“Held”, etc) on the cards.

Index cards are perfect for tracking valuable items. Do your players all claim to be wearing the Ring of Regeneration? Not if there’s only one card of it. Don’t remember if you used that Potion of Stupendous Healing? If you ripped it in half, you drank it.

Players having trouble remembering the details of their spells/powers/abilities? Print them out on an index card. (Many printers can print on cardstock, as long as they have a straight-through paper path.)

Do your novice players need a simple cheat-sheet? One might fit on an index card.

Does your game have more than a few conditions that may affect characters? Put one each on index cards for quick reference.

Tired of spelling out names for your players? Write them on index cards.

Convention game? Have each player write their name and their character’s name on a tented index card.

Passing notes? Index card, folded.

Sleeping player? You got it — index cards can be hurled with great accuracy.

When you really get down to it, there are very few gaming tools with more versatility than the lowly index card. I’ve only touched on a few of their possible uses, and surely y’all can come up with far more. Sound off in the comments and let us know!

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Index Cards at the Table"

#1 Comment By Ben Scerri On July 12, 2011 @ 5:22 am

I’ve used index cards before, but they have always been a “One session” sort of thing. Why I never thought to save them before, I’ll never know.

I can really see value in this; collecting all of the NPCs together for easy access is a great idea, and will save me time preping for sure. I run Dark Heresy, so I have solid stat-blocks that are annoying as hell to look up and write down (not to mention 8-hundred billion different talents and traits to remember for each damn monster, NPC, PC and weapon!!!)

I definitely know what my next few purchases are going to be! Thank you!

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On July 12, 2011 @ 8:08 am

[Sleeping Player, Incoming Index Card] But…isn’t that what “jumbo” D12s are for?

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On July 12, 2011 @ 8:11 am

Mr Telas, Roxysteve of the Rangoon Morning Examiner. Would you care to comment on your recent acquisition of The Acme Index Card Company and Ace Index Cards Plc? Or on allegations that you have quietly cornered the market in small, lined cardboard rectangles and are now the Index Card Tsar of the World?

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On July 12, 2011 @ 8:13 am

Damn! Forgot to add “8oD”.

Great idea to use cards for PC consumables. No more everlasting heal potions for my lot from now on!

#5 Comment By Lee Hanna On July 12, 2011 @ 9:17 am

Not too long ago, there was a website that made PDF “weapon cards” for the Serenity (Cortex) RPG, with both illustrations and game statistics. They weren’t 3×5, but I bet they could be scaled. Several of my players liked not having to copy over weapon stats all the time, and it allowed me to avoid the same thing. I could randomly draw some bad guys’ weaponry when the need existed. As the backs were blank, we could track bullets fired/remaining on there.

#6 Comment By Razjah On July 12, 2011 @ 10:57 am

The two articles about index cards have been inspiring for me as a GM. I have always struggled to find a way to organize my notes. I believe that I have found a solution.

I can have a box for people, places, and things. These can then be sorted with the dividers. I am going not use index cards and a note pad this fall for a Savage Worlds game and see how it works.

#7 Comment By Tsenn On July 12, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

I’m totally going to get in on this index card deal. Now I’m thinking of using card door stands of the Space Crusade/ Space Hulk varieties to help note environmental factors and similar in a way the players cannot miss. Or possibly just paperclipping them to the outside of the GM screen. Also, something in me goes squee at the notion of illustrated equipment cards 🙂

#8 Comment By Necrognomicon On July 13, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

One method I’ve used index cards to randomize FATE and SotC NPCs:

A set of White cards with barebone NPCs having a variety of different skill pyramids.
A Blue set with 3 stunts per card.
A Green set with 2 stunts.
A Yellow set with 1 stunt.
A Red set with a bunch of generic aspects.

(The Blue and Green sets are mainly used for stunts with prerequisites or for permutations of stunts like Lieutenant and Minions.)

Grab a White card, 5 stunts’ worth of the Blue, Green or Yellow, and a couple of Reds to quickly build new and different NPCs each time you need one.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On July 22, 2011 @ 11:25 am

I’m currently fabbing-up some custom 3x5s for use in my Red Sands campaign so I can avoid all that tedious flipping back and forth in the book. A spot o’ Photoshop and some creativity and Hey Pasta! “Instant” in-theme reference cards.

Where “Instant” is defined as several hours of squinting myopically over a keyboard, saving files under the wrong name and buggering up the master with the backdrop on it and having to go back and redo the bloody thing etc & so forth.

But hey, this is what GMs actually live for – prep. The game itself is an annoying use of five-six hours of otherwise valuable prep time.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 20, 2011 @ 9:11 am

Another idea: Favors owed and owing.

“Father Gregor let us use his library to research demons.”

“We saved six dwarves of the Gritsucker clan from the dire voles.”