Tuesday, February 19, 2019

GM Aids: NPC Cards

They don't look like much, but
they kept me organized.

In my last missive I mentioned some of the boxed sets we assembled at West End Games included cards; it reminded me how I’ve used index cards for non-player characters stats and other useful information in both my home games and products I helped design for West End. Having relevant game material handy remains essential for gamemasters, whether running a pre-published scenario or managing the characters’ free-form sandbox hex- or dungeon-crawl. I don’t always care to page through rulebooks in the middle of a game – though a scenario isn’t quite as onerous to peruse – so having cards around allows me to arrange the core information for an encounter just as I like on the tabletop to maximize ease of reference.

I suppose it started in my earliest days immersing myself in adventure gaming and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. Back before desktop publishing and home printers character sheets came at a premium, with game companies releasing packs of the blank sheets in core games and as accessories. We didn’t have much cash for such disposable game materials, so we used what we had: my brother’s Deluxe Star Printing Press. He’d received it as a gift for his birthday or the holidays one year and we’d played around with it, enough for my dad to have a ream of cast-off computer printer paper trimmed to fit the toy drum press. So when we needed D&D character sheets we set a host of rubber type and printed our own. They rolled off the drum all smudged but legible and at a convenient size, slightly longer than a standard index card. We used them to roll up AD&D characters, some as cannon fodder for deadly adventures, but most as practice characters or ones testing out various concepts as outlined in the Player’s Handbook and various articles in Dragon Magazine. Though we didn’t use them as much as player characters, as a gamemaster I found the small pile useful in drawing out suitable NPCs for encounters, usually by class and level, all kitted out with equipment and spells.

But my use of reference cards really started when I was home from college gaming with hometown friends when fare like West End’s Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game drew me back into roleplaying games after a brief academic hiatus. Unlike many other games, Star Wars distilled in-scenario character stats down to a brief paragraph listing, noting the skills, equipment, and other mechanics essential to running an encounter. When I began designing my own adventures I used the same format, yet I didn’t limit it to my textual notes but jotted down stats on individual index cards for in-game and future reference. I could place the cards front-and-center when I needed them and set them aside for later use after an encounter. If I needed an impromptu adversary, contact, or ally, I just had to flip through my pile of cards to see which one seemed most appropriate. I also used cards to note the stats for frequently used starships and vehicles, since those often served as key elements in Star Wars scenarios. This also allowed me to draw on them for future scenarios without having to write down the stats again (though in this computer age of cut-and-paste that’s less of an issue).

I continued using NPC index cards for a host of games I played during my college summers and with friends during my first few years living and working in hometown after graduating: Cyberpunk 2020, Space 1889, even the occasional Teenagers from Outer Space game or a night of Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game with gamers and newcomers alike. A catchy name, template type or occupation, relevant stats, and a few descriptive notes offered enough for me to flesh out the character (or remind me of their deeds in past adventures). A good stock of NPC cards gave me a quick means of finding a close fit for an NPC in any given encounter, whether planned or unexpected. They were and still are a quick means of flipping through one’s rogues gallery to find opponents, allies, contacts, or even inspiration for colorful roleplaying encounters

Color stat cards from West End Games'
Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game.
I brought my love of reference cards with me to West End Games; the idea sat in the back of my head, just a player preference that eventually found its way to enhance official roleplaying game supplements. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to propose this idea, but at some point the creative team lobbied for including perforated cards in a Star Wars sourcebook project. It was a pricey investment to add perforated, color cards bound into game books, not simply for adding the specialty pages but for commissioning the full-color artwork. The first product to feature bound-in cards might have been the Instant Adventures scenario collection, with cards used for reference and illustration to support creatures, vehicles, contacts, and adversaries found in the adventures. Other products featuring perforated reference cards included The Darkstryder Campaign, The Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game, even Stock Ships.

My current iteration of stat cards: big, clear
text and stock line art.
Long after leaving West End after it’s 1998 bankruptcy I still prefer using cards for quick reference. Though I keep a set of some of the professionally illustrated and printed cards West End produced for use in my home games (on those rare occasions when I run), I maintain a set I printed using basic paragraph stats for adversaries and ships adorned with stock line-art or artwork from various West End publications (including some of my favorite artists like Mike Vilardi). I used my personally designed NPC cards for a recent return to the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Hero Kids offers a great introduction to roleplaying games for kids and relies on stats in a card-sized format I’ve printed out and trimmed on cardstock to suit my own purposes. In my occasional solitaire forays back into my heroically house-ruled B/X D&D I’ve grown tired of paging through rulebooks and supplements looking for monster and NPC stats, so I expect I’ll have to make reference cards of my own to support that activity (I did it years ago for a D&D 3.0 campaign I ran at a local game store, but neither the game nor my stat card efforts went very far...and I’ve since lost the taste for D&D editions beyond the first and B/X). I’m sure other gamers have their own preferences for referencing NPCs and monsters – heck, they’re listed in rulebooks and modules, so there’s no imperative need to re-format them – but for me notecards work best to summarize and collate stats from numerous sources, even if those “sources” are the cluttered corridors of my own imagination

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