Adventure Creation Hacks: Index Cards

As I grow older, I find it harder to spend quality time prepping my regular RPG sessions. I often default to relying on my experience and my ability to improvise at the table. Most of the time, those games are adequate and we have fun. Yet I often feel things could be more satisfying if I invested just a little more effort in my preparation.

Back in November, I posted about an adventure prep method that works really well for episodic, ‘one-story-per-session’ play. Of course, as things  often are with campaigns, my players decided to follow their own plot threads and the story grew beyond the merely episodic.

I had to adapt my approach to prepping. I needed a way to do a little amount of prep whenever I had a short break: during lunch breaks, long meetings or at home. I got the original idea, of all places, in a task management book called From Zen to Done. It describes a great tool to list tasks and ideas in something called a Hipster PDA: a stack of index cards held by a binder clip.

The idea is to have one Index cards for each important element in your adventure, and a cover card acting as “table of content.”

To prepare an adventure, I grab a half-inch stack of lined index cards and inscribe the following headers: Hipster_PDA

  • Title
  • Summary
  • Background
  • Factions (one card each)
  • The Main Villain (if necessary)
  • Big Threats (one card each)
  • Interesting Locales (add more cards if needed)
  • Event (one card each)
  • Icon Involvement (add more cards if needed)
  • Extra Notes
  • (Lots of untitled) Blanks

Hold the stack together with a 1 inch binder clip and stick a pen or pencil in it.

Bam! Instant adventure template!

Whenever I have some free time, I whip out the stack from my pocket and fill the cards with whatever crosses my mind, using blanks for brainstorms when necessary. In fact, my favorite approach is to take a long lunch-time walk during which I build the adventure in my mind. When I return, I take the stack of cards and transcribe my ideas.

It’s also worth noting that these cards are compatible with the system agnostic fantasy adventure generator I wrote for the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide.

Let’s explore how I use each card below.

TitleCue Card 2

This card is a one-glance summary of the whole stack. It should list one liners for each key element of the adventure. This is mostly for GMs who like to keep a record of what they worked on. Feel free to put a reference code on it if you plan to file these stacks. The image to the right does a good job showing you what my recent 13th Age adventure, The Path of Shadows, was all about… although it was unfinished when I took the pic.


The summary card is the adventure’s elevator pitch. The card should provide a synopsis of what’s going on and what the characters are likely to accomplish.


The background card is about the context of the adventure. This is where you talk about the dungeon’s history, the local political situation, or about that war brewing in the region. This is where you insert “Setting” one-liners.

The Main Villain

If your adventure has one, this is where you describe him/her/it. I haven’t made a card like that yet, but I’d put the following elements on it:

  • Name: A villain needs to be named.
  • Plan: What is she/he/it trying to accomplish.
  • Outlook: The villain’s main personality trait.
  • What it wants: Usually related to the plan, but complex villains may want something else/other.
  • What it fears: This is GREAT roleplaying fodder and great improv fuel.
  • Stats: Use the back of the card or put a reference to where the stats can be found.

Of course, if you have more than one villain (who aren’t faction leaders), feel free to make cards for them. You might want to do this if you want named lieutenants and allies that aren’t faction leaders (see below.)


Factions with conflicting goals are the staples of good adventures. For each faction in your adventure, I suggest from 2 to 5, create a card. If the adventure is a dungeon crawl or set in the wilderness, factions are likely to be the various sentient creatures that work together for the same goals, like goblins, kobolds, drow, or even beholders with their mind flayer servants. In urban settings or civilized lands, factions can be groups of humanoids (and allies) bound together by common purpose. Guilds, political factions, noble houses, anything goes.

In my case, I break down each faction cards as follows:

  • Agenda: What the faction seeks to do in the time frame of the adventure.
  • Leader: Name and short one liner of the faction leader.
  • What it wants: Beyond (or complimentary to) the faction’s agenda, I list what it lacks, what it needs.
  • What it can offer: I list things the players (or other factions) may find useful.

These last two list items are crucial to create dynamic adventures. You and the players can tap in those to create amazing roleplaying opportunities.

13th Age Advice: This is also where you can sneak in some of the PC’s relationship rolls 5 and 6 results.

You might want to put the leader’s stats behind the card, if they are different from the rank and file stats. I usually have a stapled document with all my monster stat (pulled from various more or less official sources) as a secondary document.

Big Threat(s)

If your adventure has big threats, independent of the villain. Here’s where you describe it. We’re talking wandering monsters, dragons, hordes of undead, etc. Basically, anything that’s dangerous irrespective of the rest of the adventure.

If it is sentient, you should use the Main Villain template described above.

Interesting Locales

I’ve stopped using detailed dungeon maps a long time ago. That doesn’t mean I don’t like location-based adventures. I just like to use abstract representation maps (circles and arrows), combined  with a “explore by dice-roll” approach.*  Therefore, this card has a list of evocatively named places the players may discover, find themselves brought to, seek, etc.

Given how little space you have, go wild! “The Font of a Thousand Shattered Nightmares,” “The Plagued Ossuary,” “The Pustular Stag” (literal or figurative), “The Crying Fane”… If you have any space after the names, you can add short one-liners about them. But if the name is evocative enough, you should have no trouble improvising from that card.


If you run an event-based adventure, you want to have one such cards for each “scenes” you plan to use. You could template the card as such:

  • Setup: Short description who what’s happening.
  • Who: Who’s there
  • Conflict: In my book, a scene worth running (or at least, prep), requires a conflict… combat or not.
  • Likely outcomes: Where things may go from here.

For the ultimate dynamic adventure, add event cards to an otherwise location-based adventure.

In my group’s case, I usually put placeholder “Mini-Event” cards in the stack. They remind me to ask my players if they want to frame a scene to handle parts of the story I didn’t plan for. It is great to let players advance their own stories.

13th Age advice: This is especially useful when the characters want to roleplay the use of a Icon relationship roll like finding a new contact, or sending NPC Assassins after an annoying Faction leader.

13th Age Specific Cards: Icon InvolvementCue Cards 1

On this card(s), you list possible involvement of Icons the characters have relationships with. For each you set what kind of stakes Icon agents have in this settings or during the events of the adventure. This will help when you need to come up with potential outcomes for Icon relationship rolls, and it will bring extra flavor to your adventure.

Extra Notes

Finally, if you have anything more to add that didn’t fit anywhere, put it there. For instance, you might want to jot down element of note that crop up during your sessions that you want to remember for the next ones.

The Cards in Action

So with my stack of cards, a printouts of various monsters (including a few hacks to fit my needs), and some of Wizards of the Coast’s Fantastic Locales battlemaps, I was able to run four sessions lasting 2-3 hours each. I started with the introduction based on our previous games and drew an abstract map of the Interesting locales, linked by arrows. I then assigned each factions to locations and identified zones where they clashed.

From there, I improvised each scene based on the many elements available to me, especially what the factions needed or could provide. It was a much more satisfying adventure than those I’d experience lately. This truly is an adventure prep tool I plan use and refine onwards.

Let me know if it speaks to you and share it!


* Explore-by-diceroll: Set a difficutly, have a player roll an exploration-related skill. Success: They make it there. Failure: They don’t reach their destination and get into trouble OR they reach their destination, at a cost (trap, combat, lost someone…).


  1. Chatty,

    This is perfect! I have been on an quest of my own to teach myself how to write adventures after 30+ years of playing. I have been reading as much as I can from various sources and this article summarizes much of what I have been concluding about how I want to approach adventure design. I hope to see more of this as it is refined. Please check out my blog,; I am trying to keep a diary of sorts to help other adventure “hacks” like myself who might be intimidated by the idea of writing their own adventure—feedback would be much appreciated.

    Thanks again,


  2. What’s the second method?

  3. I really like this I might try to do a modified version of this for investigative games.


  1. […] Over on Critical Hits, we explore Phil’s idea of constructing adventures on the fly from a series of note cards, it sounds great, but would it work for you? A nice low-tech solution for jotting down thoughts as they come to you. What do you guys think? […]