24 November 2011

Punching Index Cards

Vertical index cards, my white whale
I'm the kind of guy who, when he wants to get down to some really good thinkin', has to pull out a pen and paper instead of typing it on a computer. I've lost track of the number of half-filled notebooks that've been blackened by the ravages of my chewed up ball-point pens. And I've lost track of the number of times I've picked up some ancient notebook, only to be appaled by the horrible, juvenile, blatantly unoriginal scribbles I've found within for projects abandoned years ago. You just can't keep writing in a notebook that's that embarassing. You just can't.

So I find myself doodling on index cards, instead. They're just about the right size to get some really good ideas down, you can re-order them however you want, and (maybe most importantly) you can toss them out without having to rip pages out of anything. Index cards are the best.

I remember finally taking index cards from the preparation phase to making them a part of one of the two only 4e games I've actually run, when I would write quests on them, or give important items out as an index card. The response was phenomenal. It wasn't a line in some backpack somewhere, it was an index card that had to be taken care of, managed, and looked at. You got to be a little posessive. When you had a +2 fire staff, you're not letting the guy next to you take it, you're letting him look at it, and that's how the players acted. If you let him look at the card, you're letting him take your item- and they can see it just fine without touching it, thank you very much. The quests cards were about as useful. They saw the quest to discover the origin of the weird sacrificial dagger they'd found, right next to the "exterminate goblins" quest and the "help the caravan get out of here" quests. It was a sweet feedback loop, too. The players would be interested in something in passing, and then suddenly, I'm flipping them a quest card across the table. Now, they're getting experience for being interested in things, they're being rewarded for engaging with the game world, and they've got a very convenient reminder in case they get bored or overwhelmed.

I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that index cards have improved my game since the first time I tried them.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I plan on having index cards feature prominently in Skeleton Puncher. My motto is "If I can't fit it on an index card, it's getting thrown out." Character sheets can fit comfortably on an index card. Backpacks can hold ten regular-sized items- or the number of lines on an index card that's been cut in half. The game's resolution system? Again, could be written on an index card.

I've heard it said that there could (and possibly should) be hundreds of small retroclone games, each one an ideal as expressed by a DM. I hope the rest of the world thinks the same way, because if Skeleton Puncher keeps going on like it has, it's going to be so idiosyncratic that you and I will practically be best friends if you read the book.


  1. I love that idea, and am going to steal it for my next game!

  2. "If I can't fit it on an index card, it's getting thrown out." Hear, hear!