Skip to main content

Index Card RPG: The DIY Role-Playing Game

A RPG hobbyist for more than two decades, Cameron strives to improve his gaming experience. He enjoys incorporating new games like ICRPG.

Checking Out ICRPG

The Index Card RPG presents a simple ruleset with character creation that takes minutes rather than hours. Created by Brandish Gilhelm under the publisher Runehammer, the tabletop role-playing game combines old school with new school to provide an easy, fast way to enjoy it while presenting some relatively innovative mechanics. Some of the key facets to ICRPG will be immediately recognizable to those who have played video game RPGs such as the Final Fantasy series and the game’s creator admits these were intentional lifts from another medium to bring to the tabletop RPG hobby. Gilhelm is not the first to do this—simply look at Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition and that commentary from that game’s designers.

For those new to RPGs, what Gilhelm has done might go unnoticed. For those who have been involved with the hobby for a length of time, however, his hard work, dedication to the craft, and overall craftiness in cobbling something both familiar and fresh together is undeniable.

Understanding the Genesis of ICRPG

While Gilhelm is a prolific and blatantly honest online content creator, knowing exactly what was going through his mind when he decided to create another game system is unknown. He does, however, provide several reasons behind his creation throughout his videos, podcasts, and more. Furthermore, even cursory examination of the product provides insight into his reasoning behind this new rule system. One of the keys to deciphering where the Index Card RPG came from and why is understanding where the hobby has been over the decades.

Dungeons & Dragons touts itself as the most popular role-playing game in the world. This is most likely true based on sales alone. This is due at least in part to it being the first mass produced tabletop roleplaying game. It was not long after D&D made it onto the market when others realized that there was not only a market for role-playing games, but that they had something to add. Enthusiasts quickly began making their own games, building upon what had come before and even inventing their own ideas and rules whole cloth.

Over the years, many RPGs have been published. There are more games out there than most even know. This goes beyond the gaming books that can be ordered from local retailers and Amazon. Many games are available only in PDF. Other games have no book, a website serving as their means of publishing. Still other games remain in notebooks and on hard drives, shared around, but not published per se.

In the beginning, the rules to D&D and many early systems were relatively simple. The mechanics to Dungeons & Dragons were focused mostly on combat, which made a lot of sense as its roots were deep within tactical wargaming. Anything beyond the combat was role playing. Players acted out their characters and the Dungeon Master and other players responded in kind. Many early systems followed this same suit. As the hobby grew, however, new systems were developed to handle challenges outside of combat including skill usage, social interaction, political influence, and more.

These additional rules added levels of complexity to role-playing games. Supplemental materials were published regularly. It would seem there was always some new rules options to tack onto a game or character. RPG systems such as GURPS and HERO added many levels of infinite minutia that allowed for creating highly defined, statistically heavy characters. These added rules, in the RPG community, are often referred to as “crunch.”

Crunch became part of the game, even a game in and of itself for many players. Creating ultimate characters—ones that stretched and took advantage of the rules or even broke them—called “min-maxing” became a part of the hobby. This part of the pastime was not everyone’s cup of tea, however. People with different amounts of time to commit to pouring over modules and manuals, a more technical mindset over creative, or even budget (RPGs can be an expensive hobby), would suffer or triumph at creating maximally effective characters.

A few years back, more minimalistic rules started making their way onto the scene. These minimalist rules often pushed forward the idea that people should role (play their characters) more than they roll (dice). The rules became less stringent and more subjective. These games started becoming popular with an aging fanbase who found themselves with other obligations and less time. The games were also popular to newer entrants to the hobby, those used to being able to turn on a screen and pick up a controller to play.

Another direction taken in more recent years was to bring back the simplicity of the original RPGs. People started realizing that the original rules were fair game to use in their own, monetized editions. There was a resurgence of what was old being new again. Players were being reintroduced to what they had originally fallen in love with and new players were being introduced to these basic concepts for the first time. These games that brought back the old in the form of new products became part of the Old School Renaissance (OSR).

The New Wave RPGs & Old School Renaissance (OSR)

It might seem strange that these two divergent lines of the hobby would come about around the same time, however, it also makes a lot of sense. There are several reasons for this. One people who had at this time been embedded in the hobby for decades had moved away from the childhood friends they once played with, but the proliferation of broadband internet along with video chat, virtual tabletops, and other software made playing together again possible. Also, a new generation of players were entering the hobby and they were both looking for something new and being taught by those who had played the same game for decades before these new initiates were born. Digital options such as PDFs and print on demand (POD) also made more games accessible to more people. People were also connecting with other hobbyists through social media, forums, and other forms of online communities. The time for a resurgence in the RPG world was ripe.

People new to or getting back into the hobby, however, faced several challenges. Many did not have the hours, weeks, and months to dedicate to reading, studying, and calculating the ultimate build reliant upon intimate understanding of intricate rules. They were (pun totally intended) outclassed by the people who had already dedicated so much time to their favorite RPGs. Many did not have the time to commit to long-running campaigns—they wanted something simple and fast that they could pick up and play for an evening. Those role-playing games with advanced and complex systems suited some, but not all players. With the rise of self-publishing role-playing titles, many creators were putting together entire game systems on their own in their spare time; they did not have the resources or the team to cobble together the myriad of rules and options available in other games. So, gamers were looking for simpler, faster play and publishers—especially smaller, independent ones—were more than happy to oblige (as that was all they could do).

New wave games are odd to some, even those they end up growing on. There was, what seemed to be, a lot of arbitrary rules. For those coming from games where every infinite minutia had been described and defined to games where there was no skill list, a weapons and gear list that fit on a single side of a page, and the rules themselves were less than a fourth of what other RPGs offers, how was anyone supposed to go from one table to the next and expect the same game? Some found a number of the base concepts were odd, too. There were games that didn’t include any sort of progression. There were games that had nothing to do with the tactical combat that spawned RPGs.

Scroll to Continue

On the other hand, the old school renaissance (OSR) games that came out had rules on how to handle tactical combat, but they didn’t include all the various conditions, options, and variables that had been built onto more recent games’ chassis. There were many that include few if any rules beyond combat. Were players supposed to go back to that? This conversation sparks debate and controversy amongst friends and fellow gamers. With the older games, when there didn’t have a rule for something and players felt they needed one way back in the day, they created it. There was no requirement for a book that explained and described everything. Instead, those older games provided just enough.

ICRPG Creator Explains Core Mechanics

ICRPG Old School and Innovative

If you talk to the game’s creator, Brandish Gilhelm / Hankerin Fernale / Runehammer, don’t make the mistake of referring to Index Card RPG as OSR. He has some strong, understandable, and accurate feelings about the term. OSR was supposed to stand for paying homage to role-playing games that had come from before. This included both the simplified rules, black and white line art, and an overall feel. Since then, however, it has become an almost elitist term used to separate out players of different games. The RPG hobby community is one striving to be more inclusive and that kind of separation is not what the community needs.

Meanwhile, there are a number of concepts pulled from so-called new wave RPGs that make their way into ICRPG. It blends the old and the new and provides and innovative approach to gaming. To truly understand where the creator is coming from and trying to achieve with the game, you’d need to do a bit reading / watching YouTube, although I found it interesting that a number of his ideas were clearly conveyed even to my relatively dull, slow wit.

As mentioned earlier, rules for RPGs used to be relatively straightforward and simple. As the years have passed, additional sub-systems and rules have made modifications to that d20 system, adding both options and complications. Runehammer takes things back to basics with ICRPG. Instead of having multiple minutia upon minutia of rules, modifiers, and sub-systems, the rules are broader, defining the core concepts and expecting the players to interpret the rest.

Do-It-Yourself Role-Playing Game

Gilhelm espouses several truths about RPGs and the hobbyists that love them. There is a sort of unwritten rule of playing RPGs: play long enough and players will step toward game design. Look at popular gaming websites and you will see a plethora of homebrew rules, options, and even entire systems. The reality is that no game designer can accurately predict everything that will come up at every table. This is further compounded by the fact that different people enjoy playing different games…differently. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is both expected and encouraged within the hobby.

ICRPG does not make any claims to being the perfect game. In fact, far from it. Instead the game is promoted as a toolset to allow players to run a fun game. The simpler, streamlined rules are purposefully designed to give players the base that they need to play a game, but also provide them the room necessary to facilitate independent interpretation and creation. Classes, for example, are a collection of recommended bonuses and gear. You want to make a sword master? No problem. Take a sword that gives a bonus to attacks or damage, maybe another piece of gear that allows a sweeping attack with the blade so multiple enemies can be struck down at once, and maybe an amulet that allows for deflecting arrows. Gear, or loot, is all important in the game. For those familiar with other d20 systems, the concept of leveling up is familiar. In ICRPG, however, there is no leveling. Instead, characters progress through a story and gain abilities and increased power by gaining new gear. ICRPG and its supplements include literally hundreds of pieces of gear that allow you to build the character a player wants. This concept is innovative as it doesn’t lock a character into any particular build or specialization. Instead, it allows players to modify their characters along the way, keeping things exciting and new throughout even long campaigns.

The Index Card Role-Playing Game is not the only game to be built on a modular system, but it does so cleanly. Many modular games have a variety of categories and sub-systems that allow playing with multiple dials and modifications. ICRPG has only a handful of components, which means (1) there is less to tinker with and (2) more ability to build upon a solid frame. The design concept is thus: if what you want isn’t in the book you can easily reskin what is already there or quickly and easily create something to suit your needs.

The ICRPG provides guidance throughout, but it reads in an easier style than other role-playing game books. The language is friendly and doesn’t require a lot of flipping back and forth to make sense of different sections of the book.

Index Card RPG presents a simple ruleset with character creation that takes minutes rather than hours. The creation process itself is a series of choices although there is also the option to allow dice rolls to make some decisions for you. These creation rules sit atop a d20 rules system that many gamers are familiar with. In fact, the most popular role-playing game in the world uses the same base d20 concept and it has done so since its inception—roll a twenty-sided die, apply positive and negative modifiers, and try to achieve an end result greater than a target number.

Another great concept is the simplification of challenges. Games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder go to great lengths to try and maintain balance. Those games actually create a mathematical equation—complete with numerous tables—to help those planning adventures and running games design traps, rooms, and adversaries. This requires a lot of tracking and adjustment throughout the game, especially in the heat of a fictional battle. It slows everything down. In ICRPG one difficulty is set for an entire area or room. That is the target number that has to be beat for everything there. It’s easy to adjust if the battle isn’t going as planned for the game master. It also means, when facing various challenges, terrain, traps, and enemies, there isn’t a bunch of looking back and forth to see if a roll succeeds or not. Some prefer the uncertainty of knowing what to roll in tactical combat, but for those who want to spend more time playing and less time doing math, it works.

Initiative—the order in which characters act in combat—is based on where people are sitting. The GM goes first and then it goes in order left to right. This also helps streamline things. This basic boardgame mechanic ported over to a tabletop role-playing game also helps simplify and speed things up.

ICRPG Progression & DIY RPG

Will the Index Card RPG Find a Place at Your Table?

ICRPG does not spell out everything for players. Instead, it gives them the base they need to play a fun game whether it be a quick pick up or an ongoing campaign. Gilhelm does these intentionally. All of the answers are not there for players, because he encourages them to come up with their own answers. The different ways people play should not be interrupted by a rulebook. Instead, he aims to inspire.

Of course, understanding that so many people have so many different ways to play, ICRPG is not for everyone. Some people enjoy the meticulous details and innumerable, defined character options and rules sub-systems provided in other games. Still other players get a kick out of even less defined RPG systems.

The ICRPG suits a number of players, however, and it accomplishes what it sets forth to do—inspire and drive great storytelling and gameplay. Runehammer continues to publish games and supplements using the ICRPG. This includes his recent foray into a reimagined cyberpunk setting—Altered State and the creator has already advised a third edition of the ICRPG is in the works.

Related Articles