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  for all your cards, but I find that smaller separate cases  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.
- NPC cards are filled out on my handy-dandy Savage Worlds character sheets , with any additional notes on the back.
- Location cards have a description, any pertinent modifiers, and any hidden aspects such as traps, history, etc. Complexes with common aspects may have a ‘master card’, with individual cards for each room. I’ll usually scrawl a map on the back.
- Organization cards briefly describe the group and list its leadership, numbers, goals, assets, allies, enemies, and its disposition to the PCs.
- Reward cards may start out as a simple description, and evolve into a fully developed item, complete with abilities, history, etc. I hand them to the player when the reward is earned. Rewards need not be tangible; “Professor Plum owes you for saving his daughter” may be a valuable reward. One-use reward cards can be torn or returned to the GM.
- I don’t use scene cards any more, as they were simply a list of the scene’s elements of the scene, but they make nice dividers, and may help keep the scene on target.
- Plot cards help hold everything together by providing overviews of the campaign. I’m still working on these, but they are usually just a place to put reminders as the game progresses.
- Note cards are just that – notes from your sessions. Make sure you update your other cards with this information between sessions.
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!