The Index Card Method Codex, Part 1

(It’s come to my attention that the methods described therein show similarities with a RPG called Microscope. While I have yet to read it, I’m happy to credit it and invite people interested in this post to purchase the game.)

I’ve been using index cards as a GMing tool a lot this last year. In July, I posted about using them to create adventures in your downtime. I’ve since found new uses for them and brought everything together in this post.

The Basic Stack

Inspired by mechanics I’ve seen in RPGs such as Freemarket and Smallville, I came up with methods to seed adventures, campaign arcs, and entire home-brewed settings in one hour or less. I’ve used this a few times to great success so far in games like D&D, 13th Age, and Dungeon World. It also works ESPECIALLY well for games that don’t have implied settings but it’s not a necessity.

Applications of this method have the following in common: You need a bunch of index card, pencils and document clips. While you could do it with digital tools, I really like handling stacks of cards. You then need to gather your players for a pre-game session. For a new campaign, I’d suggest combining it with character generation.

I’ll outline variants below, but the core method consists of asking players to come up with three to four unique themes, NPCs, locations or any other elements they would like to see and experience during play. For example, a player could pick “Investigating the Occult”, another could come up with “Courtly intrigue” while the last one picks “Killing Orcs”.

(I can already see Lovecraftian Cultists infiltrating a royal court and summoning fiendish pig-faced fiends from strange dimensions.)

Each of those is written on individual index cards which form  a stack. Once completed, the GM uses that stack as a play aid and game notes.

It’s worth noting that you should be among those creating cards, adding your own themes to the stack. It’s vital you retain significant creative input in this process if you want to remain excited and invested in it. In the example above, I’d probably add “The Apocalypse has started”

The Setting Stack

At the highest level, you can build a game world stack. This lets you create a new playable world or customize an existing one to fit your group’s needs.

You do this by getting your group to pick among categories like the following  (I included a few examples for each):

  • World Themes
    • Eternal War
    • Mutant Apocalypse
    • Only nobles get to be wizards and priests.
    • Otherworldly Invasion
    • Death of the Sun Queen
  • Noteworthy Geographic Landmarks
    • The Sleepless Volcano
    • The Rumbling Plains
    • Thunder Plateau
    • Whispering Caves
    • Geolithes!
  • Noteworthy world phenomena
    • Bloodthirsty Wildlife
    • Perpetual dusk
    • Dead Zones (Radiation/Undeath/Magic/Etc.)
    • No surface water
    • Wonky gravity
  • Traces of the Past
    • The Infernal Mines
    • The Blood Fortress
    • The Howling Pillars
    • The Blind Obelisk
    • The Steel Spire
  • Civilization
    • Cities, towns and villages of note (name them)
    • Modes of transport
    • Grand Alliances
    • Wars (Civil or otherwise)
    • Trade routes
  • People of note (With name, function and relation to PC)

And so on.

Go around the table and ask each player to come with an idea, preferably from a different category than their last choice. Three cards per players (including you) should serve as a good foundation.

As the GM, you can (and should) impose clear boundaries as to the type and scale of elements you want your players to come up with. If you’re willing to try this but are afraid things will get out of hand, you should clearly state what you’re comfortable with. For instance, you could ask for themes, places and NPC that could conceivably exist on the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms, or during the War of the Lance era on Krynn. You could also ask players to refrain from themes you don’t feel comfortable exploring, like slavery or explicit sexual themes.

In fact, if you use an established setting, you could add a set of cards tagged as “Established Canon”, establishing crucial elements needed to run your game. Don’t try to fit all of a setting’s canon in your stack, that’s insane and counterproductive. Focus on picking vital elements to you. If you do so, I would consider asking everyone to come up with a certain number of “Canon Breaking” cards to mark how your group plans to take ownership of the setting. For example, in the Forgotten Realms, someone could put a card saying “Lathender never came back.” or “No Drow has been seen on the surface for the last decade.”

Of course, canon breakers should not invalidate anything you came up in the stack before. Creating a world stack should be a collaborative and fun exercise, not an opportunity for confrontation.

Some of your players may feel uncomfortable with so much narrative power and freeze when put on the spot. It’s your job to ask questions to help them tie character concepts to the game. As a group, the table should help all players come up with their ideas. Just make sure to keep pushy players in check so they don’t impose their own choices to struggling players. Make sure individual players like whatever choices they settle on.

While everyone around the table can write their own cards, I believe you should gather everyone’s choice and write them yourself. First, it lets you veto or rephrase stuff as is your right as GM. More importantly, it opens discussions with the group to ensure you all settle on evocative themes that represents what everyone wants to explore in play.

For example, if my son Nico came up with “Rain of Fire”, my friend Yan may suggest we go with “The Tears of Asmodeus (Rain of Fire)” instead. Thus, Nico gets what he wants and we all gain an evocative name that brings into play one of the most iconic Fiends of D&D.

Here’s an example adapted from my short-lived workplace Dungeon World game:

Shadow’s Ruins

  • Airships & Flying Cities
  • Scavaging Nomads
  • Thaurium is Power
  • The Secret Council
  • The Heresy
  • The Lady of Lights
  • Elven Invasion
  • Muscle Cars
  • Rockability

This foundation for a setting can go in many directions.

Once the stack is done, you should spread the cards on the table and start doing free association with them. Chances are, you’ll start seeing potential dependencies, relationships and plot lines pop out within seconds. Don’t hesitate to create new ones to fill holes and complete relationships. You can also combine a few together if they end up being too close.

Add, remove, rename… until you have a stack you’re satisfied with and everyone is excited about the upcoming game.

Once done, you’ll have the pocket equivalent of a game world binder. Slip the stack in a document clip (you know, those one-inch finger crushers) and keep it near when you prep and play.

Here’s another example where I used this technique.

In Part 2, I’ll get into ways of using stacks and discuss variants for site-based and event-based adventures as well as campaign-specific stacks.


  1. I like this. I think this is an interesting idea to get all the players involved in creating the new world for a new campaign. The players could easily add ideas to the world that they could then feed into their back story. It should get everyone very exited and invested in the new campaign/world. I could also see this being viable for a new story arc in an existing campaign.

  2. Olddreamer says:

    While this shares similarities with Microscope, it is dramatically easier to grasp. My group enjoyed using Microscope (and Kingdom, the other book in the series) but not the mechanics involved. We just wanted to share world building. This will be the method of our next campaign. Thanks!


  1. […] In Part 1, I outlined my favorite ways to use Index to create an entire game world setting. […]