Index cards are one of the GM’s best friends — they’re useful, cheap and versatile.
7 12 ideas for making the most of index cards as a GM.
At least in the U.S., index cards generally come in two sizes — 4″ x 6″ and 3″ x 5″ — as well as in lined and unlined versions. I much prefer lined 3×5 cards to any other kind — 4x6s are just too big, and the lined side is too useful to give up.
To get the most out of some of these ideas, you’ll also need an index card box. These generally only cost a few bucks, and they hold several hundred cards. Most stores also sell little dividers for them, so you can alphabetize your cards. (I also like to put a thick rubber band around mine, since they have a tendency to pop open during travel.)
Update: In the comments, Lilith mentioned using an index card binder instead of a box, which will also work very well.
Here are some of the better uses I’ve found for index cards as a GM:
- Counters: In emergencies, I cut up index cards to make counters. For D&D, I have several thousand Fiery Dragon counters, and I use pieces of index cards to size up Small creatures into Large ones.
- Lists: I like to clip notes to the inside of my GM’s screen, and index cards tend to be just the right size; they’re also stiffer than paper, and last longer. List-wise, I always make a list of the party’s perception skills, and create other lists depending on the game.
- Magic items: For D&D, I draw particularly interesting magic items on the blank side, and write their stats on the back. My players always seem to like these, even though the artwork isn’t stellar.
- NPCs: Write the NPC’s name on the top of the lined side, and their description and relevant stats below. If you can draw reasonably well, sketch the NPC on the back of the card, or just paste on a printed-out picture. (This works very well with an index card box.)
- World info: Every time you create a significant world element, write notes about it on an index card and file it in an alphabetized card box. When the PCs return to the Plucky Kobold — an inn you’ve long since forgotten about — you just flip to the Ps and there it is.
…and a couple more that I’ve heard about, but never tried myself:
- Initiative cards: Give each PC their own card, and keep a few aside for NPCs and foes. In combat, write everyone’s initiative at the top of their card, put them in order, and then just cycle through the deck. You can also add frequently-referenced stats to each PC’s card — and use the tape trick to make the cards last longer.
- Potions and other consumables: Many GMs like to give out index cards to represent common consumables — healing potions in D&D, for example. That way there’s no chance of losing track of them, and they can be passed between PCs with no bookkeeping.
Update: …and several reader tips, from the comments section below:
- Items with charges: Magic items like wands and staves often have charges, so make a series of little checkboxes to represent each charge. Use the tape trick (mentioned above) to make them re-usable. (Frank)
- Notes for players: Since you’ve already got a stack of index cards at the table, why not use them to write notes to your players? (DMN)
- Random encounters: Write up a few for each region/terrain type, and draw from the deck as needed. (Dave)
- Spell cards: Put all the info for a spell on each card, with checkboxes for duration if applicable. Then you can slide a paperclip along the duration track (or just check off the boxes) each round. (Frank)
- Weapon cards: If you run a game with complicated weapon stats and options, putting all of the PCs’ weapons on an index card will be a big timesaver (and whatever weapon the player is holding is the one their PC has out). (Crazy Jerome)
Are you a fan of index cards? What are some of your favorite uses for them as a GM?
On index cards for magic items: I made an array of check boxes on cards for wands so that it was easy to keep track of the charges by just crossing off boxes.
Here’s another use: if your game system has spells or other conditions that are confusing to remember everything about, put that information on a card. You could even use a piece of writeable tape to make a reinforced place for people to mark what turn the effect ends for them (for spells). Or print a row of numbers on the botton and use a paper clip to indicate the turn.
Some printers these days can handle printing on index cards which would make many of these suggestions easier to implement.
I’ve started using index cards for disposable magic items, like potions and scrolls, as Martin mentioned, but when the item gets used, we just rip it up. It works really well.
I also use index cards to write notes to players. These may be used for something that character saw or heard, so they can roleplay what occurred, or just to increase the general paranoia of the players.
My Canon Pixma iP3000 prints directly to index cards with very narrow margins. Having a printer that can do this multiplies the usefulness of index cards by tenfold, in my experience.
Throw in TiddlyWiki with the index card printing style sheet and you’ve got a nifty campaign database that can print directly to index cards.
I use the cards in a vertical format, unlined.
I do double-sided NPC summary cards… my stuff on one side and a picture for the players on the other side.
If you’ve got the dough, hit Levengers.com for their Index Card Bleachers. If you don’t, grab some inexpensive playing card racks for a frugal substitute. I use these as my “GM’s screen”, standing up my important notes in them. NPC cards go where the players can see the pictures on the backs.
I carry a small index card “wallet” for taking notes and brainstorming while away from the computer. There are a lot more index card carriers than the traditional boxes now… wallets, wallet-sized plastic boxes, spiral-bound flip-pockets, and so on. Worth checking out.
If only I could get my scribbled notes scanned back into the computer.
In addition to the excellent ideas posted above, I also like to use index cards for a “Deck of Random Encounters.” I organize them by region, and then I can just grab the one off the top and have an instant random encounter if I need it. Note that these aren’t just wandering monster encounters, but interesting sights, NPCs, and other miscellanea as well.
I think TSR actually produced a couple of things similar. there was a deck of magical items that I actualy owned but can’t find anymore, and I think there was a deck of encounters, too.
Index card bleachers for $54! I guess it’s worth it if you don’t want to futz with making it yourself. It might be a specialized enough item that you couldn’t find a cheap plastic thing for $10, which is about the most I would want to pay.
Way back when, there was a company that had some encounter and treasure cards with several slots cut in the edge, or a hole punched instead. You put a coat hanger through the appropriate hole/slot, and the cards with a slot instead of a hole would drop out of the deck. So for example, one slot could be woods, another hills. Something that could both be in the woods and the hills would have both slots, while something for woods only would have the woods slot but just a hole for hills.
I know they have little binders small enough for index cards now, those are quite handy. Also handy are snap-rings. Hole punch index card in corner and add to snap ring. Add colored index cards as dividers. Handy.
Using a rolodex would work as well as index cards, too.
We’ve been using initiative cards in d20 almost since 3E came out. That is the single biggest thing we did to speed up combat. In our group in particular, it is very handy to look ahead one or two people. I cue them while the previous person is rolling. Initiative cards works so well with d20, because the delay and ready actions are easy to handle–simply move the cards.
Back when I ran Fantasy Hero (and derived homebrews) a lot, we used index cards for weapons. An experienced FH character might have several different possibilities with each weapon (due to skill levels, maneuvers, etc.) We would list OCV (offensive combat value), DCV (defensive combat value), Damage, and special notes, pre-calculated, one line per combination the character would likely use. It cut down on errors. We could have done the same thing on another page on the character sheet, but the other nice thing was that the weapon in hand was the card the player had out. 😀
Initiative cards are hands-down the best use of index cards.
1. When combat starts, the GM hands the PC cards to the closest player. That player gets initiatives from everyone else and puts them in numerical order while the GM does other stuff. Then he hands them back and the GM inserts the NPCs and monsters. Much faster.
2. During combat, if a PC wants to hold their action the GM just hands them their card. When they want to act, the PC returns the card and the GM just drops it back in the stack. The card is a very important physical reminder for the player, and helps remove those “whoops, I forgot to act” moments.
3. When I GM, I write monster HP and AC on the cards, because these are the stats I reference most often. When a monster is attacked, I flip to its card and if necessary, write the change directly on it. I can also add notes like “rounds remaining” or “cursed”. You can write more if you want, but you need to balance your prep time with your need for details.
4. Likewise, PC cards may as well have more than initiative on them. Make it a mini character sheet. Make sure you have the PCs put on the skills and saves you might need to roll secretly. And if you’re worried that the erasing and re-writing of initiative wears out the cards too fast to bother with the rest of the info, I can tell you that is not the case – the index cards are usually quite durable, and the PCs stats will probably change enough to require a new card before the old one is really worn out.
I’m going to need to add a reader tips section to this post — thanks for all the great suggestions! 🙂
Thanks for the follow-up, Carl. 🙂
I’d never heard of Levenger’s before, and they have some very cool stuff — but it’s crazy expensive! I loved their magazine rack/table with the swing-out top — which would be very cool for GMing — but $250? Ouch. 😉
Just wanted to throw in my 2-cents:
I’ve recently started to use index cards for initiative in combat. Similar to the above, I have a card for each player with brief stats on it and I will order them to the order they are going to take.
This works great for DMs like me who often skip players or forget where they are after an interruption. Unfortunatly this doesn’t work super great for DMs who like to fiddle with what’s in their hands, as they might unorder the cards, ruining 1/2 the point of them.
Also, keeping the brief stats of the characters on the cards is handy in the middle of a session and out, giving you an overview of what a character is capable of.
I started using index cards as initiative cards this summer — and I’m never going back to any other method.
A regular part of my game prep is to create all the npc/monster cards needed for a given encounter, then paper clip them to the same page as their corresponding encounter in a 3-ring binder, which holds my notes for the adventure. The cards then go into the shuffle with the PC cards during any combat.
One of my DMs uses index cards to track important PC stats, such as initiative, hit points, ranks in skills that the DM might roll (secret Spot checks, hide/move silently, etc.)
I used to use them to track initiative, but I found that I was recreating them ever week because, ahem, I kept losting them. I like the idea of using them for lists, particularly name lists or random encounters (I envision printing out the lists, then taping them to the cards).
Hmmm. Maybe I need to go pick up some more index cards after work today … thanks for the suggestions!
Patrick: I use an intitiative sheet (laminated, with boxes for each number), and I’d never thought of the fact that intitiative cards let you pick up more easily after an interruption. Good point!
Troy: Prepping initiative cards — such a simple idea, but one I’ve never heard before! I like it.
Ken: If you lose your initiative cards easily, you might try the 4×6 ones instead. That may not not do the trick, but it’s worth a shot. 😉
Been using this from when I had to prep for LG games. They can be a life-saver, especially in an interactive or battle interactive.
I have a set-up on excel that fits in 2 3/4″ x 4 1/2″ labels and I can print out I think 8 on a page. Gives pretty much full stat blocks and are easily altered for different monster types. I can then easily cut and paste for easier entry. I’ve prepped entire modules in about 45 minutes and just pull the cards. It can be very convenient for Judges like me who never want to consult books when running my games. 🙂
Because the labels are opaque white, you can re-use your cards a few times by just slapping a new label on it.
As initiative mods don’t usually change often, you can laminate or just use clear packing tape over the PCs cards, using a sharpie to correct if something changes.
Regarding card racks:
I liked the index card ideas so much and was too impatient to wait for an order online. So, I went to Walmart and bought the board games Rummikub and Racko and took the card and domino racks out of them. (8 racks all together for about $17)
F. Martin: I’ve never seen printer labels that large — I’ll have to check those out.
Avlor: That’s an excellent idea! How well do the racks work?
Well, we tried them out last night. For my character stuff, I really liked them (but I may hunt down a small dowl and put it in the rummikub trays. The index cards do stand up, but we played really close together and sometimes my cards got brushed lightly by player next to me and fell out.) But I took up less real estate to see EVERYTHING (space is at a premium for us). That was really nice. Previously, I settled for rummaging through a binder. 2 rummikub and 1 racko rack worked for me. (Now to hunt down a lap version of a TV tray for sitting on the floor.)
I conned my group into trying out initiative cards too. I think we’re going to keep using them. My DM used 1 racko rack for our initiative cards. Really helped speed up our combat rounds.
That’s great to hear, Avlor! From your story, I take it that the Racko racks worked well without any modifications — better than the Rummikub racks, in other words?
Yes, the racko racks did work well right out of the box. (Great for initiative cards and for my PC’s assorment weapons.) (They stand 10 cards one in front of another)
The rummikub ones with a small mod should work well for things that I want to see all at once. A couple cards can stand up side by side, with 2 more rows to put cards behind them.
Very cool, thanks again for the details. Makes me wish I had my old Racko set!