Card-Based Tools For RPGs – Part 1

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0333

A Brief Word From Johnn

Neverwinter Nights 2 Released

Just got my copy of NWN2 and am mightily looking forward to playing it. While CRPGs won’t replace my addiction to pen-and-paper games, they sure can be a load of fun. They are also useful for getting story, NPC, and encounter ideas. Plus, the graphics and environments make for great description references and visualisation while GMing.

Expeditious Retreat Press Renews E-Zine Sponsorship

Expeditious Retreat Press has renewed their sponsorship of Roleplaying Tips Weekly for another year. This is great news because it helps cover hosting for the e-zine (did you know I was recently quoted $1,000 for e-zine hosting, and that was per month!).

It also solves another problem – that of finding a company with great products that I can stand behind (as in quality products, not products that are tall). I try to screen most advertisers for relevance, type, and quality of product. I keep advertising space limited so content ratios remain high.

With Expeditious Retreat Press, I know their products are top notch, and useful to gamers. I use their products myself, like the Magical Society books and the Monster Geographica books.

You can help support Roleplaying Tips Weekly by reading Expeditious’s ads when they appear in the e zine, and purchasing their great products if they fit a gaming need you have.

Hopefully you can find some time to game this week!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Card-Based Tools For RPGs – Part 1

Big thanks to Thorsten Hunsicker in Germany, Heather Grove, and Patrick Waddington for their submitted tips, which I used in the Plotting And Inspiration section and in part 2 next week.

In Issue #330 I posted a reader request for card-based RPG tools. Cards have many benefits – easy to purchase, inexpensive, many sizes, easy to organize, and portable – making them perfect for gaming. In addition, several products out there already use the card format, which as you’ll see, we can leverage for GM use.

I’m a big fan of using cards, even in this high-tech age. Hopefully, you will find some of the ideas in this article interesting and useful for your games.

Inspiration And Planning Tools

Cards are great because they hold ideas easily in the form of words, colours, and images. You can write, scribble, and draw on them. You can print from your computer onto them with little fuss. You can shuffle them, randomly select them from a deck, and place them in patterns or layouts.

This makes them a perfect tool for inspiring you while crafting campaigns, adventures, encounters, NPCs, critters, traps, puzzles, and other game elements. Imagine having a Deck of Inspiration at your beck and call!

Inspiration Cards for Writing and Roleplaying

Here’s a cool deck of inspiration idea from Heather Grove over at, as mentioned in the original reader request from Issue #330:

The idea is to write provocative phrases onto cards then pull out one or more cards when you need inspiration.

Art Cards For Inspiration

Using a deck of cards with images on them to generate ideas is a quick and easy process for most GMs. If you don’t want to make your own cards, you might consider using commercial cards with art already printed on them. Raid supplies from various games you own, hit eBay for great deals on card sets, and check your friendly local game store for clearance items:

  • Magic the Gathering cards
  • Other CCGs, such as Conan
  • Cards from the Talisman board game
  • Bang! game cards (for Deadlands or other wild west genre games)
  • Larry Elmore art cards
  • Everway game cards (Did you know there was an Everway expansion? You can find complete sets cheap on eBay.)
  • Comic books. If you don’t mind cutting up some old books, comics are loaded with cool images you can pick and choose from. Just cut out the selected pane or image and glue onto a card.
  • Trivial Pursuit board game
  • Talisman board game

Tarot Cards

The ultimate in inspirational tools are tarot cards. There are a gazillion different deck themes to choose from, which makes genre association easy. Some sets, such as the Aleister Crowley Thoth one, add labels to the cards, making a powerful image + word combo for idea generation.

Here’s a neat article about using Tarot to create PCs and NPCs:

A couple of tarot Reader Tips:

Have A Purpose In Mind

Randomly drawing cards and letting your brain freely associate ideas is fun and exciting, and it works. I recently read an excellent book on mind mapping by Tony Buzan called The Ultimate Book of Mind Maps. In it, Tony states the brain is an incredible association engine. Different images and thoughts are stored away and then selected and brought together blindingly fast to form memories, ideas, and solutions. The key, though, is giving the brain a specific problem to work on so it’s association engine has a strong hook to work with.

Therefore, when using cards in any capacity to inspire ideas and solutions, it works best when you have a specific design challenge or GM problem at hand. Before drawing that first card, think about what exactly you need to create or solve.

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Card Layout Patterns: A GM Design Tool

We can take a huge tip from tarot readings. Readings involve laying out cards drawn from a deck in a pattern that guides card interpretation. The layout, or pattern, is an awesome tool we can borrow for our GMing design needs.

There is a huge amount of game stuff we could design patterns for, including NPCs, plots, encounters, world development, treasure, traps, histories, and monsters. Each GM approaches the design of a game element, such as NPCs, in a unique way based their experience, strengths, weaknesses, preferences, game system, and design knowledge.

For example, one GM might design NPCs by crafting a short blurb about their appearance, goals and dreams, and a roleplaying hook. Another GM might craft several personality elements, enemies, power base, and goals and plans. A third GM might prefer to craft a plot hook or purpose, a personality quirk, a history or background, a job, and key possessions.

For each method and approach, you can create a different pattern to help make inspiration and design fast and easy.

How To Create A Pattern

Start by deciding what game element you want to design, such as NPC, encounter, adventure, kingdom.

  1. Create a list of attributes the game element should have, according to your GMing style, campaign needs, and game system. For example, a kingdom profile for the game world gazetteer you’re creating might have: leader, faction #1, faction #2, faction #3, primary resource/income, secondary resource/income, current crisis, future event #1, and future event #2.
  2. Add any design elements or processes you desire to flesh out your design. For example, you might want to add a strong hook, a conflict, or rewards (player and character).
    For our kingdom gazetteer example, you might want to layer in one conflict between each faction, and a strong design hook that makes the kingdom distinct, interesting, and memorable for the players.
  3. Each attribute and element becomes a placement slot for you to place a drawn card on. You interpret cards according to the slot they represent, while keeping the other cards and slots in mind to help create a unified design. You might also create rules and conventions for the pattern reading to help make the process easy to repeat and to make it consistent.


For our kingdom pattern tool, we might start with a card draw for the hook. That hook becomes the theme for the whole kingdom and influences our idea generation for all the other cards. We put that card alone in a top row.

Next, we draw for leader, primary resource/income, and secondary resource/income. We place each card side by side to form a row centered underneath the Hook card.

Next, we draw cards and arrange them for faction #1, faction #2, faction #3.

Then, we draw for current crisis. We place that card sideways on top of the Hook card, and decide that sideways cards placed on other cards represent some form of conflict for the card underneath. So, our Crisis card represents some kind of battle, struggle, or threat our kingdom currently faces, and that is represented as a sideways card on top of the Hook.

We draw conflict cards for each faction next, and place those sideways on top of each faction.

Finally, we draw two cards to represent upcoming kingdom events, and place those in a centered row below the faction’s row.

Once you have a pattern, do draws a few times to test it out. Every GM has different strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, so designing custom patterns like this ensures you get the solution you need in the way/format that works best for you. Don’t be afraid to add, edit, and tweak your pattern until you have a useable and useful tool. The true test will be in the quality of your designs and usability of the pattern.

Create A Pattern Map

You should document your patterns right away after testing and refining them. Who knows when you’ll need them again, and you don’t want to forget the process you’ve crafted. Drawing a layout diagram, or map, is a quick and easy way to remember your designs. Draw a box for where each card goes, and label what the box or slot signifies. Also, label layout conventions, such as sideways cards = conflict, read left > right, and so on.

Consider printing out your diagrams to the scale of your inspiration card deck and glue them to cardboard for a sturdy layout aid, kind of like a board game. If you have several patterns done this way, you’d just select the pattern for what you’re designing, grab that board, draw the cards from the deck and place them, then grab paper and pen and start writing.

Here’s an example I just crafted using the kingdom template:

Encounter Pattern

Here’s a great formula example from the Treasure Tables blog for crafting encounters for which you could make a pattern:

“Challenge (combat, social, puzzle or other) + unique element (memorable NPC, fighting on a rope bridge, etc.) + a way to advance even if the party fails (although perhaps with penalties) = a successful encounter.”

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Mapping And Minis

Card-based tools are useful for mapping and miniatures as well.

SOP Templates

There are common situations in games that you can speed up by using standard operating procedures (SOPs), as discussed in past issues. Some of these procedures are further aided by cards:

Marching order

Marching order often changes according to situation. The party will align themselves one way in the wilderness, and align another way in the dungeon. You can write the marching order on an index card and label the card according to the situation or circumstances. When that situation comes up in- game, just pull the card out.

You can also make to-scale cards of marching orders and just place the minis on them for fast illustration. For example, if you use the D&D plastic minis, bases for medium PCs are about 1″ in diameter. Grab a card, trace a 1″ circle for where each PC stands when exploring a dungeon corridor, and label the card 5′ Dungeon Corridor. In each circle, pencil in a PC’s name. Beside each circle, write the order number in sequence in case you ever need to roll a random PC target. If the PCs are spread out quite far, tape cards together until you can fit them all on.

Next time the PCs are in a dungeon corridor 5′ wide, lay out the card and place the PCs’ minis in their respective circles. That takes 5 seconds and is much faster than a discussion each time. A list on paper of the marching order is even faster, but if you prefer to use minis to note exactly where PCs are standing, then a card-based solution is great.

Traps and doors

As you did for noting PC marching order and position on a card, you can also create a diagram or to scale mapping of where PCs are positioned when confronting a door, disabling a trap, and other situations that you find often happen at least once a session.

Camping and watch

On a card, note what the PCs do when setting up camp and while sleeping. Feel free to add a diagram of how PCs setup their tents, where they tend to stand watch, where the fire and horses are placed, and so on. Make whatever notes you need to prevent the group from having to repeat themselves each session or from answering the same questions over and over. On the back of the card, note the camp break down and packing procedure, such as covering tracks, leaving signs or messages, and so on.

Each time the PCs camp, whip out the card and follow the instructions.

Ask the players to notify you if they ever diverge from SOPs, and hand them the cards, whenever they ask, to make notes and changes on to encourage keeping SOPs up to date.

Minis – Depending on the game and your setup, cards make great miniatures.

Art – Cards with character art on them help the group visualize what the PCs look like.

Stats – You can write PC information on cards, or the back of art cards, for added utility.

At stationery stores you can purchase plastic strips meant to hold posters for hanging.


To make nifty minis card holders, get one of these tracks, cut it up and glue the pieces upside down to coins or bottle caps. You can then slide cards in and out of their bases and move the card minis around pretty easily.

Here are links to some companies who make paper- and card- based minis:

MicroTactix. Maker of printable card models, miniatures, and accessories.

WorldWorksGames. Maker of printable card models and accessories.

Sparks: Paper Miniatures as a TrueType Font. Fonts for printing sheets of paper figures.

Brabantini Yahoo! Group. Discussion group for all things card miniatures and gaming. Site devoted to printable paper modeling.

Map Tiles

Card-based tools are great for in-game mapping as well:

  • Print grids on cards, laminate them, and use them as dry/wet erase mapping tiles.
  • On cardboard, draw your miniatures map or battlemap, cut it up, and lay the pieces down as the PCs explore.
  • Print terrain, such as trees, paths, gulches, and hills, on cards. Shuffle the cards and deal a few out whenever you need a random wilderness map while GMing. Alternatively, plan out your maps ahead of time and then place the cards down as per your design, as needed.

Do you own the Carcassonne (board game)? If so, check out those tiles closely to see how they’ve created terrain that locks together seamlessly, and then have your custom terrain cards use this method so continuous terrain, like paths and creeks, don’t get cut-off.

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Stay tuned next issue for Card-Based Tools For RPGs – Part 2.

If you have any additional card-based RPG tools or ideas, drop me a note: [email protected]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Counters Storage Idea

From Brother Finn

re: The 10 Essentials Of A Swashbuckling Campaign — RPT#153

Great newsletter. I enjoy it with my coffee every Monday morning. It gets the week started off right for me!

Anyway, you posted some token storage tips from Christian T. They were great, but you were wondering about storing larger tokens, like Gelatinous Cubes, Dragons, etc.

You can use the plastic box that usually holds one of those travelling sewing kits you can buy in most corner stores. They’re perfect because they’re usually made of clear, hard plastic with a snap lid to keep it closed.

[Johnn: Thanks Brother Finn. Other counter storage ideas might be:

  • Fishing tackle boxes
  • Nuts and bolts storage boxes
  • Baby food jars ]
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Use A Wheeled Toolbox for Toting Game Stuff

From Lord Damian

I use a wheeled toolbox for my gaming materials. The one I have is out of production, but Stanley still makes them. The ones we use have a covered storage area (small parts bins) in the top, great for dice, and a swing out section in the bottom of the top section, also good for dice (makes a good cup holder, too).

I usually use the top for non- or semi-game related stuff. Snacks, soda, my contact stuff, wallet, etc. all fit nicely under the tool tray. In the tray goes small stuff like pill bottles, miniatures, poker chips….

The bottom half is deep enough to fit standard size RPG books. I’ve put 6 hard back core books in it before, so it’s pretty large.

My fiance uses a rolling tackle box pretty much the same way, but it comes with tackle trays. I’ve seen other stuff that would work well. My suggestion is hit your local sporting goods store or WalMart and look at what they have.

[Johnn: here’s a picture: ]