This is RPG-ology #62: File Cards, for January 2023.
We began a sort of miniseries specifically focusing on tips for running games. There is a sense in which this entire RPG-ology series is about game tips, but with the entry #58: Random Encounters we recognized a more focused collection on the subject, and noticed that the not-long-previous entry #56: Voices was perhaps coincidentally similar, and we continued two months back with #60: Spreadsheets and this month are continuing with another idea.
For anyone who is using spreadsheets, file cards are probably not a better idea. I’ve used file cards instead of spreadsheets as a referee for some games, and they’re good for games in which you have rotating players, that is, you are never certain how many or which of your players are going to appear at game time. Thumbnail character records on easily organized cards can be quite useful for this. They can also be useful for individual non-player characters, whether villains who continue from session to session or important local people who go beyond the simple functions of innkeeper and shopkeeper. But they’re harder to update than spreadsheets.
Still, I have found them quite useful when I am the party leader. I need much less information about each character in the party than the referee does, and there are quite a few tricks that can keep this information organized, particularly if you have a large party, which I have often had.
On the issue of updating them, I found that writing long-term information, such as character name and such, in ink but using pencil for those more mutable items, such as hit points, worked well. It was best to limit the information to those points which were most likely to be asked in play–armor class, bonuses with various weapons, weapons used, and special skills such as spells normally carried. But there were still ways to make the cards more useful.
One thing to recognize is that these cards come in an assortment of colors, and you can thus color code your characters–those who are primarily fighters in red, spellcasters in blue, healers in yellow, that kind of thing. Alternatively you can use the colors to sort cards into different purposes–you can have a set of cards that tells you who carries torches, lanterns, water, rations, and whatever else you might need to find that would clutter the character cards.
I never used colored cards, but I did use colored slashes at the top. I would put the character names on the second line, and above the top line and spaced specifically I would use highlighters or marking pens to indicate that a character had thief skills, missile weapons, healing, spells, or psionic abilities. That enabled me to sort out those in specific categories quickly.
We never used miniatures, but file cards sometimes served that function, and in some ways could be useful even if you use miniatures. If I needed to construct a lineup for combat, or even a marching order for travel, the cards enabled me to see who did what, positioning my melee fighters, missile weapons, spells, and those that needed to be protected in a sensible arrangement swiftly, and communicating this to the referee effectively. Since the character names were in the top left corner the cards could be overlapped easily.
With use you’ll probably see the most useful ways to arrange the information on each card, and to stack them for reference. I’m sure there are other ways to make these effective, and your thoughts on this are always welcome, in the comments here, on our Facebook page, or in the Christian Gamers Guild group discussion.