A Pile of Index Cards

I’ve been running D&D 5e for some old friends lately. I have been doing something to organize running it that I call “a pile of index cards”, and I like it. Here it is.

So, after each session, I write down on an index card[1] any threads that come up:

  • An open question
  • An impending consequence
  • A cool idea sparked by in-play conversation

It has to be just a short note, no more than can easily fit on an index card!

Between sessions, I go through them and organize them, letting the things that make sense to happen soon, or that I’m most excited about, float near the top. I add in more threads that become clear as I connect the dots.

Then, in play, I try to go through my index cards. I prep the most prep-demanding (it’s D&D, so stats and maps and art etc), but I have the rest or the low-prep-demand ones just handy, in case they come up. I just keep the top few in the back of my mind, and I know that the rest… we’ll get to them or we will forget about them, either is fine.

If a player hasn’t gotten a lot of screen time lately and wants it, I scan through for “the next thing that relates to them especially”. If, to quote Apocalypse World, “there’s a pause in the conversation and everyone looks to [me] to say something”, I pick one.

Once I’ve used it, I set it aside, strike it out, whatever.

This is heavily inspired by @Judd’s Context, Cool Shit, & Consequences (which I still insist on calling 3C) sheet. The things on cards can be any of those three! And I just now realized that the three bullet points at the top of this post are roughly those three Cs!

AMA and help me refine how I explain this and get better ideas for how to improve it.

Try out a Pile of Index Cards for yourself, lemme know how it goes!

  1. For various reasons, I’m not using physical index cards, but it should be equivalent. ↩︎

6 Appreciations

Nice. I think Index cards are a somewhat underused RPG appendage/prosthetic, actually. (For instance, how about maintaining a random encounter table or a treasure table as a deck of index cards, instead? Easy to adjust on the fly - e.g. you take a card out, the PCs kill that monster, just don’t put it back in the deck. No need to rewrite a table each time you take out or replace an element.)

Similarly, it’s a great way to track Consequences, too. When an element pops up and enters play, and something changes, make note of it on the card and put it back in the ‘deck’. (E.g. an NPC is wounded, bears a grudge, or feels indebted to the PCs - write that on their card, put it back. A nice organizational tool, perhaps.)

I wonder if there is a good electronic version of such a tool? (The main advantage would be searchability - you don’t have to choose between leaving things in order/indexed so you can find things and shuffled, so you can get random draws.)

As for your technique specifically, as I understand it, you’re just keeping a list of stuff you want to throw into the game, and drawing from the deck when a moment calls for you (a la Apocalypse World’s MC moves). Is that right? Or is there more technique/nuance you can share?

I suppose it helps you prepare, too, as you describe, by ordering these things in relevance (and the prepping where necessary).

I love those ideas for using these as cards.

Yes, I’m using this as a list of things I want to see, but a list I can reorder, such that the things that just don’t happen… just float away towards the bottom, and that’s okay. Basically, it’s a way for me as the GM to be okay with threads getting dropped if no one is really interested in them, while staying on top of the things that excite me or seem like they really need to come back up.

I never draw from it, though—I may look at the top few for ideas, but I don’t go in for random encounters as a GM tool, so I don’t want that style of randomization here, either. I much prefer things to be “what feels right” over “well, this is out of left field, let’s make it work!” (While acknowledging that that flavour is good for those as like it!)

1 Appreciation

Makes sense, sure! A good way, perhaps, to keep track of various lines of thought.

Adding a picture for the thread thumbnail.


1 Appreciation

This technique is very similar to the GM advice in 13th Age, except there the players are the ones that write the things on index cards every session. So every game, the players are able to choose one element of the game that they enjoyed and would like to see again later in the campaign. and the GM’s job is to sort through those things and build plots out of those elements.

2 Appreciations

I appreciate it. Finding images is not something I am good at or prioritize :sweat_smile:

That’s pretty great; I like techniques like these, that get the whole group to somehow make their attention/focus on certain elements more tangible. It shapes play in a really fun way.

When I run Monsterhearts, for instance, I use a modified “highlighting” procedure, where players can highlight elements of the fiction instead of each others’ stats. They usually highlight an NPC, but it could a place or a thing, too. That’s really fruitful: as the GM, I essentially get a prompt like “we want to see more of the Ethics teacher in this session”, and I can simply play that NPC hard. It feels like we’re all steering the game a little bit more collaboratively that way.

1 Appreciation

I love the idea of highlighting elements of the fiction! Does that apply per-player? Do you highlight a thing for yourself, and for someone else? Are there limits on highlight-camping, as it were?

Meanwhile, this also relates to one of the things I love about a Pile of Index Cards: both systems let you forget or de-emphasize things that aren’t interesting, too. I’m kinda always looking for the RPG equivalent of “kill your darlings”, ways to get less precious about ideas in RPGs and let the cream rise and the dross sink. Continually re-checking in on what you wanna see more of is a system that does that.

Yes, in my Monsterhearts campaigns, each player gets to highlight something. It can be another PC’s stat (as usual), a person, a place, or a thing. You can highlight another PC, in theory, but usually it’s NPCs who get highlighted.

It’s been a nice way to guide the game a bit; gives me, as the MC, some ideas and some constraints about where things might go this session.

The only downside was that sometimes it took a while to get those elements into play - if we had unresolved business from the previous session, that might take up most of this session, before we get to the highlighted business. In those cases it sometimes felt like the effect was delayed: you want to highlight my character’s mother, we play most of the session, she finally enters the scene at the end, and then the session’s over, so the stuff with her might only get resolved in the next session.

Not really a problem but not totally ideal, either. I guess that’s just a pacing thing, though.

Hey Kit,

D&D5 is a bit fraught with the problem of—people play this game an infinite amount of ways. Which makes it difficult for me to contextualise the use of these index cards.

Could you give some practical play accounts of you using those things? What was happening when you decided to bring one out? How does bringing one out look like? What did the players do?

Also, did it ever happen that you struck some of them down as you were playing, or didn’t use them in the order that you put them in initially? What caused this to happen?

1 Appreciation

For sure!

So, the D&D game is in a Baltic dark-fantasy setting, drawing from the Witcher, Spinning Silver, historical interest in the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian werewolves, and a dash of Ravenloft and Innistrad. Everyone at the table is big into culture-and-religion based tensions and identities for the characters.

I had a pile of index cards that included, among other things, these:

  • The Sword Brethren are going to love the news that the haunted manor is safe now. What’s brother Abraam going to do with the news?
  • Vigo’s old captain Janina Laur is due back from sea now. What if she has the sole survivor of a ship wrecked by a leviathan, an Ishmael bearing ill tidings?
  • Kalveis’ old master [a secret werewolf of the order of lunar smiths] is still looking for him.
  • Algis’ family are going to be proud of him for opening up trade on the north shore, but they still don’t care about his truth. So?

Meanwhile, the proximate situation that all the players were invested in was this: “We rescued a sea-nymph from the smugglers and need to help her safely get back to her village—and figure out why the smugglers were able to find and capture her, because they’re clearly up to something more.” So that was, no questions asked, the next thing they were going to press for. The index cards were all complications, hanging consequences, or just “man, I wanna see this at some point” things.

They decide to set off into the dark forest because they’ve heard rumours that there are two figures there who could help them get to the sea-nymph’s underwater village, the witch Mother Marrow, and the scientist Dr. Traumfresser. They figure they’ll get to the witch, because they trust her more, and failing that, get to the scientist.

I look at my cards and think: do I want to bring any of these up now? They’re in town, and I could delay their departure. I am gonna hold off on Captain Laur; she’s cool and deserves a proper intro. I’ll drop hints about the Brethren and Brother Abraam, but if they don’t take the bait, that situation will get worse by the time they choose to act. I check my in-game calendar and realize that the full moon is three nights away; that’s perfect for Kalveis’s old master. I tell them that the innkeeper (Valdis, a good friend of theirs) had some people ask after them, but he disavowed knowledge. He’s not gonna rat out his friends to suspicious strangers. Kalveis knows this bodes ill, but doesn’t know what to do yet, besides trust his new friends.

At this point, I realize that the thing about Algis just isn’t interesting to me right now, and I haven’t even thought about it—it has settled peacefully lower in the pile, maybe to stay there, maybe to float up later. That’s okay.

They set off into the forest, meet with the witch. Kalveis asks her to read the cards and tell his fortune, so that’s a perfect opportunity to do some creepy stuff with “the whole deck is the Moon now and she tells you you’re cursed and to get out”.

That means that they’re trekking through the forest, on the night of the full moon, with knowledge of a curse hanging over their heads, and have taken no real precautions against being tracked. (Well, they travelled by water a bit, but it turns out that canines can track better along small running water, so!)

That means that as soon as they settle down in an old sawmill for the night, I bring in Svarogo (the old master) and his friend, who come just to talk with Kalveis—and we follow the situation from there, because it’s hard for a werewolf to keep their temper on a full moon.

That play then generates more cards after I’ve crossed out the “Svarogo is hunting Kalveis” card. But those are for next time.

Basically: if I know what has to happen next, I do it. If I’m in one of those “which thread do I pick up?” moments, I look at the top few and see which seems right. Between sessions, I look through the whole pile and see if I forgot anything important, adding some, reordering the pile, etc.

4 Appreciations

@wlonk (Kit): that’s a great example. Really illustrates what you’re going for here, and how you’re doing it.

I love the setting here - it’s a part of European history that doesn’t get touched as much mainstream films and other media, and it’s quite interesting. I spent a fair bit of time in that part of the world as a kid, so the nature imagery is very vivid to me, as well.

I like how your index cards are almost (but not always) Bangs, and you can sort or rifle through them as a very effective and simple form of organizing your prep for the session. I can see myself trying this, as well.

Your 5e sounds very drama and character-focused, compared to what I’ve seen. Very appealing content!

Re: drama and character focused:

I’m a theatre kid. Most of the folks I’m playing with are too, and all but one are “the group that I played with back in high school”, so this is how we all grew up playing RPGs.

I also hear that many people learned to play RPGs from the proverbial “someone’s older sibling” who already played; none of us did, we just picked up D&D and decided to play it; I was the GM first, but we rotated it around and just figured things out on our own. So this is in many ways a return to form for me (though like… I’ve never left that form, either, especially as I tended towards more niche RPGs.)

Re: bangs

YES that’s a great way of putting it. They are always a thing that I want to provoke, somehow. Even if it’s just “a cool thing” that can be provoking! Like one is “the temple of the Drowned God, made in the rib cage of a long-dead leviathan”. I dunno! It doesn’t demand action, but maybe it’ll demand some kind of response!

Re: Baltic fantasy

I dunno, I find the confluence of cultures and religions in that time and place really fruitful! And it’s a good setting for “spooky”, too. Also, one of the players is a professional literary translator of Polish, and he’s always up for Baltic and Western Slavic anything and brings tons of delicious context to the game!

4 Appreciations

It does sound similar to Bangs, at least in the fact that it seems that all of the things you write on these index cards seem to be put as an implicit question towards one or more players that demands some sort of response.

Are there things that would be inappropriate to write as cards? For example “I want to defeat the dragon” or something like this. Something that is kind of self-answering, that resolves more than setting up.

I think all that’s actually inappropriate is things that are affirmatively uninteresting to you or the players. This is not a Highly Structured System, by design. If it’s something that’ll provoke the players to respond, or provoke you to do something they find interesting and cool, it’s good. Bangs are a good style, but not the only style, for the cards. If something’s self-answering, I guess it’s pretty likely to be uninteresting to me at least, and therefore something I wouldn’t include.

2 Appreciations

Indeed, I see this as more of a brainstorming and organizational tool, as well as a good tactile reminder in play. The “temple of the Drowned God”, for instance, is probably not a Bang on its own, but more of a Colour element. However, it could also be a Bang, depending on the circumstances of the game and what the players think it’s there for.

I’m not familiar with the term “bangs” in this context. Could someone provide an explanation and/or reference to where the term originates?

1 Appreciation

It’s from Ron Edwards’ game Sorcerer. He describes them thus:

Bangs are those moments when the characters realize they have a problem right now and have to get moving to deal with it.

2 Appreciations

Sure, it’s a technique from the game Sorcerer (1999) by Ron Edwards, employed under other names in many other games.

A Bang is essentially a big moment that poses a strong question—usually of a moral nature—to one or more player characters, something that demands an answer right now.

Dang, @wlonk beat me to it.

1 Appreciation