Monday, February 15, 2021

Index Cards

In my mid-teens, I started getting "serious" about my playing of roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons. It was around this time that I stopped using pre-made settings like the World of Greyhawk and instead created one of my own. This setting, which I called Emaindor, had its own hand-drawn map (of course!) as well as a couple of binders full of setting details I spent untold hours coming up with (or stealing). That's what I mean by serious.

A related project was a catalog of all Emaindor's named non-player characters, from the emperor of Almeria to the proprietor of of the Free City of Zwardzand's most popular tavern. I don't know where I got this idea – probably an article in Dragon, if I had to guess – but it was one to which I devoted a great deal of energy. I wrote up the NPCs on index cards, which I placed in a lovely wooden card file I'd inherited from my grandfather. Each card had the NPC's name, class, level, and other game statistics, along with a brief physical description and information on his connections to other NPCs (or PCs). 

In the end, I produced a couple of hundred of these cards. Making them almost became a game in itself, as I thought about the important and not-so-important people of Emaindor and imagined their lives and activities. Sadly, I'm not absolutely certain what became of my file box. Up until a couple of summers ago, it rested safely in my childhood home. I might have snagged it and brought it back with me to my house but, if so, I can't find it. A couple of years ago, my mother sold that house and moved and it's also possible she has the file box in a small collection of my possessions she held onto. With the world being what is right now, I haven't been able to visit her and so I cannot confirm whether she still has the file box.

I thought about my file box as I read Tony Bath's Setting Up a Wargames Campaign. In Chapter 6 ("Characterisation"), he talks about the importance of establishing the personalities of the leaders of various factions and power groups within a campaign. He adds:

Then for each character I have an index card. These are filed alphabetically under family names so that if I want to look up the card for Ramaos Vanir I merely look in the tray under V. Each card is headed with the name in block capitals. Under this I record first of all his immediate family history, such as "Son of Ban Cruach, Crown Prince of Aquilonia" or "Second daughter to Vakar, Prince of Hyrkania", since this helps to establish the generation and the direct family line... After this is recorded the character, and then follows any information which is added from time to time – the barony he inherited on the death of his father, his marriage to such and such a person, promotion to command a brigade, taken prisoner at the battle of blank; it all helps keep the records straight, and while much of it may never be used, you will be surprised at how much of it can come in useful at times.

Reading that mirrored my own youthful experiences with NPC index files. I was particularly struck by his comment about how even odd, seemingly pointless information can prove useful in the long run. Perhaps unsurprisingly, M.A.R. Barker kept a similar card file of the NPCs of his Tékumel campaigns. Barker was a miniatures wargamer, after all, and had almost certainly read Bath. Whether his practice was directly inspired by Bath, I can't say but that's not important. What is important, I think, is that both these titans of gaming recognized the importance of keeping track of vital – in the most expansive sense – information for the campaign. 

Following their example (and that of my youthful self), I've done something similar for my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign (and the Riphaeus Sector Traveller campaign before it ended), albeit in virtual form. Over the last nearly-six years, I've amassed a large file of all the NPCs the player characters have met or heard of, along with relevant details about them. It's proven quite useful over the years and has, in a couple of notable instances, made my job as a referee much easier, since I didn't need to create a NPC from whole cloth on the spot but could instead pluck a suitable one out of my file. It's a practice I recommend most highly to referees of any game, especially those whose campaigns are open-ended, long-running, and rambling, as mine tend to be these days.


  1. The true power of RPGs hinge on office supply and craft stores.

  2. A couple years ago in the office supply section of a Daiso store (basically a Japanese imports dollar store...) I got some great index cards that were lined on one side but graph-paper squares on the other. I got a single package for $1.50 thinking I would just buy more next time.

    And of course they never stocked them again...

    1. Try searching for “ Kokuyo Information Index Cards” should be what you are after.

    2. My eyes glazed over this topic even though I'm sitting six feet from a stack. These new kinds of cards, I must confess, are great. I've never seen them before.

  3. I also keep an index of NPCs for some of my (wargaming) campaigns. The trick is not to overthink it or try to come up with a complete family history from the beginning. Details are recorded after any game, and over the years, a history of each character will build up.

  4. I keep a box of index cards as a "commonplace book" for RPGs and other gaming. It has character concepts, npcs, system thoughts, weird quotes, adventure ideas, etc..

    This is essentially the system I use: