An Almost Perfect Toolbox: adding roleplaying depth to Index Card Roleplaying Game

After reading the Index Card Roleplaying Game core rules last summer I was charged with enthusiasm – here was a perfectly tuned machine, whose mechanics could be applied to any setting with minimal fuss. It was D20 stripped down to its core.

And yet the first time I played it, I hated it. The carefully constructed encounters, set room targets, timers, and loot as progression felt like a video game. I was rolling dice, but the experience felt empty. Like something important was missing.

ICRPG is not a videogame or a board game or even a complete roleplaying game. It’s a tool box. Just like the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons (1974). That edition is described as “Rules for fantastic medieval wargames playable with paper and pencil and miniature figures” right on the cover. And yet that game has inspired several generations of gamers to create deep and interesting characters in fully thought out worlds. 46 years later people are still playing it, as evidenced by another energetic and passionate forum, and the White Box edition of Swords and Wizardry.

This is not an uncommon criticism, it even pops up from time to time to interrupt the exceptionally positive energy of the Runehammer forums, but it misses the point.

My mistake when I played ICRPG the first time was to forget it was a toolbox and that tools can be added to in order to create the game you want to play. What I was missing was character depth to transcend the mechanics. I should have known to play my character as a person, I’ve been doing this a long time, but I was trying to understand ICRPG on its own terms, and that meant a lot of dice and numbers in the forefront.

So, here are the tools I’ve adapted from other games like Torchbearer and Dungeon World to add roleplaying depth to ICRPG – while still incorporating rewards to maintain the spirit of the game.

Values and Flaws

We all have values and flaws, and so should our PCs. Think of these as an alternative to an alignment system. When playing your character pass your decisions through the filter of your values and flaws. What would a brave PC do in this situation? What about a reckless one? If you like adding an element of randomness to character creation you can roll for them, but feel free to pick what works for you. Aim for narrative tension – look for flaws that create friction with your values.

2D12 Values

2. Ambition

3. Cleverness

4. Compassion

5. Cooperation

6. Discipline

7. Daring

8. Generosity

9. Happiness

10. Honesty

11. Honour

12. Humility

13. Humour

14. Freedom

15. Leadership

16. Learning

17. Loyalty

18. Optimism

19. Professionalism

20. Spirituality

21. Resilience

22. Resourcefulness

23. Trustworthiness

24. Wisdom

2D12 Flaws

2. Absent minded

3. Arrogant

4. Big Mouth

5. Callous

6. Dependent

7. Disloyal

8. Egotistical

9. Envious

10. Fanatical

11. Gluttonous

12. Gullible

13. Hedonistic

14. Humourlessness

15. Ignorant

16. Judgemental

17. Liar

18. Naïve

19. Overconfident

20. Reckless

21. Selfish

22. Stubborn

23. Temperamental

24. Vain

Session Goals

The object of this tool is to provide a drive and focus for roleplay. At the beginning of every session, each player writes a single sentence that summarizes their PC’s primary goal for the session. This goal should reflect the values and flaws you’ve assigned to your character, and to the nature of your session (court intrigue, dungeon crawling, a daring escape, etc.) Think dramatically – a good goal has an element of risk, which in turn potentially creates conflict, and conflict is the engine at the centre of a good narrative. Use a CHARACTER NAME – WILL/WON’T – ACTION structure for your goals to help sharpen them.

Some examples:

Vortek the Thief will prove his bravery to the party by always being the first one to enter a room.

Sasha Trueblade won’t let anyone in the court speak ill of the Queen.

Captain Mallick will protect his crew no matter what the cost.

NPCs

Memorable NPCs have values, flaws and goals too. Quickly jotting down two or three ideas will help you roleplay the NPCs by giving you a framework to improvise around. A resourceful, vain blacksmith whose goal is to drive another blacksmith out of business is more interesting than a glorified armour and weapon catalogue in an apron.

Rewards!

At the end of every session, ask each player these questions:

  1. Did you live your values?
  2. Did you give in to a flaw?
  3. Did you achieve your goal?

If they answer yes to all three questions you can either a) grant them loot or b) give them a free reroll of any roll during your next session. Whatever works for you and your campaign. Think of them as mini milestone rewards.

I hope you find these ideas helpful, and happy rolling.