The Index Card Method Codex, Part 2

In Part 1, I outlined my favorite ways to use Index to create an entire game world setting. Let’s get into the use of stacks and explore a few variants.

Using a Stack

Regardless of the types of stacks (more below), their use don’t change all that much.

As I mentioned before, a stack can serve as a compact place to keep game notes. Each card bears a significant game element that you can add to whenever something noteworthy happens. For example, you have a card called “Shonda, the scarred fence of Renport”. When the PCs decide to renege on a deal with her. you could write “Swore a vendetta against PCs. Will gladly pay to see characters humiliated, hurt, and possibly killed”

A stack is also a great inspiration tool when you’re looking for what happens next, especially when you run a low or no-prep style game. When you’re thinking about what come next in play, just pick up your stack and go through it. You might find something that inspires a whole scene, especially if you keep up-to-date notes.

Strangely enough, handling objects while thinking helps foster creativity in some people. The same holds true with the stack. I found that playing with one helped my ideas flow more freely. More often than not, this lead me to link together elements from different cards into a coherent, exciting scene within minutes.

A more extreme application transforms the stack into a random scene generator. In my first D&D 5e campaign, whenever I wondered what came next, I’d shuffle the deck and look at the card I drew. An idea invariably came to me.

The methods all come together when you view your stacks as living playing aids. As things evolve in your games, feel free to not only add notes to each cards, but to add and remove cards as events and actions shape the world they live in.  Just keep your removed cards somewhere for possible revisiting later.

When you reach that point, your stacks, stored in an index card box, replace your campaign binders.

The Adventure Stacks

When I started using my “settings” stack to generate plot ideas and encounters, I started making sub-stacks to represented specific areas of the world (like a dungeon or a city).  I didn’t create them with my group, although I could have. Such stacks became quick tools to build scaffolds for an adventure planned for one or more sessions, and took mere minutes to make.

Hell, it would be the perfect complement for those old-school, hex-crawl games. One stack per “point of interest.”

The idea started when I first started using index cards to develop adventures in my downtime. I blogged about this last fall.

The original idea let me work on adventures whenever I had some down time. It worked great when I needed a stack as a repository of ideas and notes for a semi-structured adventure, but it didn’t work as well as a random generator. Thus, I modified things a bit and made the standard stack between 10 or 12 cards. Mostly because I could select them randomly by rolling a d10 or d12 (shuffling cards makes them harder to find cards to add notes to later).

The cards are made by giving each an evocative title that implies a faction/organization, an encounter, a place of interest and some elements linked to the game world.

Here’s an example for a low-level adventure set in an abandoned mine exploited by a local hobgoblin warlord.  It features world elements (the Rumbling Earth, The King’s Touch and Wild Magic) that would be part of the associated world stack.

The Wailing Mines

  • Hobgoblins play bully
  • Kobold slaves dodge trouble
  • Human slaves toil with little hope
  • The Rumbling Earth (Earthquakes)
  • A surprise is unearthed.
  • Something from the Deep stirs
  • The King’s Touch (The dead rise)
  •  A haven of peace
  • Wild Magic surge (roll on Wild Magic table)
  • An unfortunate consequence (roll twice or pick two).

Phrased like that, an adventure stack can provide me with several session’s worth of improv content. As you play you can note things down on the cards, swipe cards for new ones and create a dynamic environment as you document what happens from one encounter/scene to the next.

Plus, it provides the possibility of what both Dungeon World and 13th promise: play to find out what happens. With a stack of cards like that, you don’t have a plot, but rather a contained “open world” where the characters will develop their own stories. Of course, you should find a reason to get the characters there, but once in the dungeon, stories could go a lot further than the “find the warlord and oust him.”

An event-based adventure stack can be constructed like my original adventure stack with labelled “event” cards put in order in it. If you want to make the stack usable as an encounter generator, just add a few blank “Event” cards in the stack, the number of which depending on how often you’d like events to occur during play. If you do this, keep a list of planned events on cards, marking them off as they happen. The big advantage with that is that you don’t have to make the adventure super linear, allowing several opportunities for spontaneous side-quests.

Here, let’s make one in the same world as the previous adventure stack. It takes place in a city called “the Necropolis of Starspire,” the seat of our world’s necrocracy. (that’s a word, right?)

Adventure Stack

  • The Embalmers Guild interfere
  • Body Snatchers strike
  • Event
  • The Wraithguard get involved
  • Spire Supplicants get in trouble
  • Event
  • Ghoul Dance (King’s Touch)
  • An Order of Light cache
  • Event
  • Crisis in Starspire (Roll twice or pick two)

Event Stack:

  1. The Gloomgates close
  2. Wraithguard impose a deadly curfew
  3. Prelude to the Guildwars
  4. The Necropolis opens (Add Necropolis stacks to Adventure and Event stacks)
  5. Decent in Chaos.
  6. A Noble House dies…
  7. …and takes Power?

I kinda want to play that adventure now.

As I was building this stack, I had the idea of adding “extra packs” to it as certain event unfolds… Which kinda makes your adventures into a constructible deck.

I’ll have to explore this some more at some other time.

The Campaign Stacks

Depending on how you play, a campaign stack may not be all that different than a settings one, especially if you use a sandbox, let’s-play-it-as-it-goes approach.

However, if you want to document plotlines, major events, geopolitical powers, organizations, villains and significant phenomenons, a separate campaign stack may do the trick for you. Again, if you make one as part of a play session with the whole group, you’re inviting everyone to some collaborative world building. This can be awesome, but it’s entirely fine doing it alone as part of your game prep.

A campaign stack would have cards like:

  • Starting Point (A city, village, HQ, etc)
  • Points of interests (one card per point)
  • Major organizations (one card each)
    • Each should
      • Be named
      • Have an Agenda/Need
      • Have something to offer potential allies
      • Have a weakness
      • Have a secret
  • Major Characters (possibly linked to organizations)
    • Each major NPCs should have sub-entries similar to what Organization have
  • Minor Organizations and NPC (Multiple per cards)
  • Major Planned campaign Events (Plotlines)
    • Break down each events in steps.

And so on. These are just a few of the cards I could come up while writing this, I’m sure you could come up with your own.

In fact, you could use a stack to document a campaign built using Dave’s very slick 5X5 campaign model. You would have your standard cards outlining places, organizations and NPCs. Your plot arc cards would be made of 5 sentences, exactly like Dave outlines in his first post on the subject.

I think that’s what I’ll do when next I plan a campaign…

Thanks for reading.


  1. I love note cards.

    Marking Events, Factions, and Major NPCs with their faction (represented as a color) can help you weave together related elements or help you notice who you’re not bringing into play enough.

    In 13th Age, mark cards in the corner with the symbol or name of the most closely related Icon. When an Icon roll demands a response, find ones with the right symbol, and you have a thematic and dramatic moment already part of the plot’s ecosystem ready to roll.

    I’m preparing an online game, but this post has reminded me to use paper products. Props: not just for players anymore!

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. Really intrigued by these ideas. This is a neat approach to running a game.

  3. I would be really interested in how the Adventure/Event stack add in works out for you whenever you get around to trying that out. Great article! Keep it up.