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Ten Ways to Use Index Cards

by Mike on 27 September 2021

The all-mighty index card may be one of the cheapest and most versatile tools in our [DM's toolkit]. Index cards have been a staple tool for DMs for decades; probably since the beginning of the game.

In this article I offer ten ways you can use index cards in your D&D games.

If you're interested in a video on this topic, see my YouTube video on Ten Uses for Index Cards in D&D.

DM Screen Initiative Cards

Take your index cards, cut them horizontally, fold them in half, and write down your characters' name on one side and your choice character details on the other. Drape them over the edge of your DM screen and use them for table-visible initiative. Write down useful info like passive Perception, Insight, and Investigation, trained skills, or other info to help you streamline your play.

Initiative Table Tents

Alternatively, fold your index cards in half, forming them into table tents, and number them from 1 to 10. When the characters roll for initiative, hand them out from lowest to highest in the order of initiative, keeping cards in front of the DM for the monsters' place in the initiative. This is extremely flexible, works well for one-shot games, and doesn't need to be updated when new characters join the group.

Quest Cards

When a new quest drops in front of the characters, write down the quest, the goal, and any notes and hand it to the players. This makes it easy for them to track the quests they have in front of them and gives them a place to keep their notes for that quest.

Magic Item Cards

When you're handing out magic item rewards, write down the name and details of the item on an index card and then hand it to the player who receives the reward. This makes it easy to keep track of magic items and makes the item feel more "real" to the player who receives it.

Secrets and Clues

Using the powerhouse step from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, write down secrets and clues on index cards and hand them to the players when their characters discover the clue. For more complicated games of detailed intrigue, such clues help the players piece together the larger story, even if its out of order. Alternatively, write down our own ten secrets and clues on the front and back of an index card as part of your game prep.

Combat Zones

The excellent RPG Fate Condensed describes using index cards to identify zones and "aspects" during gameplay. We can take this idea and drop it right into our D&D games. When using zone-based combat treat each index card as its own zone in a larger combat area and write down the notable character-usable features of that zone on the card so players remember them during the battle. A large throne room might include three such zones, each represented by its own index card: a hall of cracked statues, a dais with burning braziers, and a gilded arcane throne. Moving from one zone to another takes a move and spells and effects typically affect creatures in a single zone. There's actually an entire RPG based on this idea called Index Card RPG worth checking out.

X Cards

Index cards are the default tool for X cards, the most popular of safety tools. Give each player an index card with a large X drawn on it. During the game, if any player is uncomfortable with the direction the game is going, they can touch or hold up the X card and move the story beyond the situation or take a break to discuss the situation out of character.

NPC Notes

During prep, write down the details of NPCs on an index card. Use them yourself or hand them to your players so they can keep track of NPCs. You can also use index cards for companion characters complete with stat blocks.

Secret Notes to Players

Sometimes you want to give information to just one player. Write it down and hand it to them. If you don't want to telegraph that you're giving info to just one player, write a bunch of notes, some meaningless, and give them to a bunch of players at once ensuring the player receiving the vital information gets the right card.

Modified Monster Stat Blocks

If you're making modifications to a default monster stat block, jot down those modifications onto an index card and keep it with the monster stat block in your Monster Manual. Some DMs like to write down the whole stat block but that can be a lot of work if the stat block is long.

A Flexible Tool for Improvisational D&D

The index card is a near-perfect flexible tool that reinforces the style of improvisational play. We don't know exactly how our games will go and having a blank card able to fill in such a wide range of situations fits perfectly. It's a great example of the kind of tools that help us run great D&D games. Stick a stack of index cards into your DM kit today.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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