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Index Cards for Prep

This is part one of a two-part series on index cards. The second part will deal with using index cards at the gaming table.

Unless you’re new to gaming, or live and die by the laptop, you’re probably familiar with index cards at the gaming table. A stack fits in your hand, and they can be used for any number of things, from notes to character sheets.


Before you run off and buy a thousand cards, know that they come in many different sizes and styles. I prefer the 3”x5” size, but you can definitely fit more on a 4”x6” card (although they don’t fit the hand as well). Index cards are also available in different colors, lined in both landscape and portrait views, and blank. They even come spiral-bound and in pads. Each option has its use. Colored cards can differentiate critters, locations, and organizations; portrait cards are easier to take notes on; unlined cards are better for pictures; etc.

Geeks being what they are, you’ll probably want to organize them. You could get a large box [1] for all your cards, but I find that smaller separate cases [2] for each category make them more portable and useful. The ‘tabbed filing dividers’ work in the smaller cases as well.


Everyone has a different approach, but I prefer to use index cards for just about everything. Obviously, I have a card for each type of NPC or critter, but also for each location, organization, scene, plot element, and reward.

Note that you don’t have to do all of this at once. Write up only the cards you need at any given time. As your game progresses, you’ll have dozens of cards, and can pull out an old enemy at any time.


Now that everything’s in place, grab a location card, a few NPC cards, and a treasure card or two. Write up a scene card in the front of them, and you have an encounter in your hand. Repeat for the rest of tonight’s encounters.

Care for a challenge? Grab random NPC, location, and treasure cards, and come up with a good reason why Colonel Mustard was in the conservatory with the candlestick. Convey that reason to your players.

Want a more free-form approach for tonight’s raid on the thieves guild? Grab the appropriate organization, NPC, treasure, and location cards, and let the guild respond rationally to the PC’s actions.

In addition to encounter or location-specific prep, index cards are handy for longer-range planning and visualizing your world. Using a battlemap and colored pens, arrange the organization and NPC cards to represent the relationships between them. Do the relationships make sense, or do you need to make some changes?

With your organizations still arrayed, imagine advancing your game’s timeline. How will the relationships change over time? Are you communicating those changes to your players?

Sort your lower-level NPC cards into organizations. Do they accurately reflect the membership of the organization, or has it drifted as you’ve developed the group?

After building a few encounters, grab an NPC or organization card you haven’t used in a while. Find a way to involve him/her/it.

There are certainly many more ways to prep with index cards; I’ve only covered what I’ve done in the past couple of years. Do you have any techniques or advice that you’d like to share? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Index Cards for Prep"

#1 Comment By granger44 On June 30, 2011 @ 6:34 am

Another index card type I’ve used in the past is the rules card. For a 3.5 game, I put all the undead traits in 3.5 on an index card. I also made an index card or two with the rules for aquatic fighting. I even put the grappling rules on a couple index cards and handed it to the woman playing a grappling monk PC. These were all very handy.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On June 30, 2011 @ 10:58 am

I do almost all my prep on Index cards. I also use them for NPC names and pictures that I place out into the front of my GM screen to keep names fresh and handy. The blank ones can be run through normal printers, meaning you can make some really pretty ones.

#3 Comment By HighKeeba On June 30, 2011 @ 11:07 am

For me index cards are ideally suited for the “random-random encounter deck.” Take six index cards, put a number in one corner, then on each outline six encounters; no more than a short sentence or paragraph in length. Whenever there is a lull in the action (or if the GM is feeling especially frisky and wants to surprise the PC’s, roll 2d6 with the tens being a card and the ones a specific encounter, and off you go…

#4 Comment By evil On June 30, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

One thing I like to do when I have a number of index cards set up is to color code them. In some adventures I’ll go with a larger scope of colors, but at the very least I like to have two colors: one that only I will see and ones that my players can look at.

Since these notes are things that players have previously experienced or played through, I prefer to give them the information that they remarked on last session or two sessions back. Since we play once every month or two, it’s likely the players will have forgotten, but only an hour or two have passed for the PCs, so they are not likely to forget pertenent facts about the dungeon they just walked out of. The players keep their own notes for their thoughts and guesses about where the game is going, but I will give my players facts they’ve already figured out or background information that isn’t initially hidden or secret.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 30, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

Thanks for the comments. I’ll have another article covering the use of index cards in play. Look for it in a week or two (or whenever the latest hatchling starts sleeping through the night).

[4] – You can get the colored cards, or just run a sharpie around the edges to color-code the border. I’ve done both, but I spent more time remembering what was what than I saved with the codes.

#6 Comment By Tsenn On July 2, 2011 @ 3:44 am

@Telas: How about putting the codes on an index card for reference? 🙂

The use of index cards for plug ‘n play prep is interesting. Might work well for my Firefly/ Diaspora game, should it ever get started. I think they’d mesh well with a sandbox universe.

#7 Comment By Svengaard On July 4, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

I’ve recently started creating index cards myself. I’ve found they’re great for building hostile encounters quickly. Take four “Swordsman A”, three “Halbadier A”, and one “Priest C” and you’ve got all the stats and rules right in front of you, plus short descriptions, spells (for casters), and loot.
I’ve found keeping tracks of shops and taverns is useful too. It can save having to describe numerous places again and again, when I can just pull out a card and have them go back to the same shop, and I don’t have to improv as much.
Finally on most of my cards I leave space to keep track of how the players have interacted with NPCs and their opinions of each of the party members. If a player gets the name of their employer wrong, then that’s going to come back on them later. . .

#8 Comment By Psibot On July 6, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

The cards I’m using in my Star Wars Saga game tonight are “Director Cards”. The cards have small bits of information, tied to characters background, which the card will instruct the player to casually bring up in conversation with NPCs at appropriate times.

These ‘triggers’ will prompt certain responses or cause other events to unfold.

Example: one NPC has a background detail regarding an event from a PC’s past. Once uncovered, the NPC will flip from being an ally to an enemy. If it never comes up naturally, and I need it to, I’ll slip the character the ‘Director’s Card’ and let it play out as the player see’s fit.

The card won’t tell the character HOW to bring it up, or WHY, so they will still have some interesting role-playing to do, but I’m hopeful this will work well – I’ll report back here with the results after tonight’s episode.

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#10 Pingback By RPG News from Around the Net: 15-JUL-2011 | Game Knight Reviews On July 15, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

[…] to use in infinite ways. Kurt Schneider at Gnome Stew has put together a couple of great articles (part 1 and part 2) on using them to help prep your game sessions. And let me say, he uses a LOT of cards […]

#11 Comment By Coldbringer On August 9, 2011 @ 10:05 am

So I started using index cards last session largely for initiative tracking and time slice management. It worked like a dream, everyone got their fair share of fun. I think one of my players was a little less than happy about not forcing his way into a larger time slice than he was used to.

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