When thinking about using a generic RPG system at my table, I think that simpler is better. Rules sets are easier to adapt to specific genres when there is room to add things. It’s stronger to add in ideas rather than pull things out. Remove mechanics, and it can be a challenge to see how it damages parts of the rules before it’s too late. I’ve seen Index Card RPG bandied about as an excellent rules light system. Modiphius recently published a Master Edition collecting and integrating various elements of the system and sent it along as a review copy. Is it cutting edge or does it fold under the pressure? Let’s find out.
Index Card RPG Master Edition is a 400-page rulebook designed by Hankerin Ferinale featuring black and white line art by Brandish Gilheim. Both the rules and the art are bold, yet simple. Characters are built a recognizable skeleton of a skeleton of d20 rules: six traits defined by modifiers and a special trait or two determined by their origin, class and gear. For those who wish to embrace the chaos, there are tables to roll on for the two main settings included with the book: a fantasy called Alfheim and a space opera called Warp Shell.
Characters take actions by a d20 against a target number between 10 and 18. The number stays the same regardless of the target: if a scene’s target is 15, that’s the number for the rogue to pick the lock, the fighter to hit the dragon, and so on. The action can modify the target by +/- 3if its easy or hard: if the fighter is aiming for the dragon’s eye, that’s +3 but worth more damage for example. On a success, the player does the thing if it's a yes/no question of winning. If it’s an extended task where degree of success matters, the player rolls an Effort die based on their skill and equipment. This is most easily spelled out for combat: fists are d4 effort damage, weapons are d6, and so on. The d12 is reserved for Ulitmate Effort, which is added to a roll if the player rolls well or if a hard roll pays off, such as our fighter trying to put one in Smaug’s eyeball. The effort is applied to the character’s Hearts, which are grouped in multiples of 10. Empty the heart of points, and the creature goes down/the task is resolved
The d20 + effort dice system is surprisingly robust. It’s easy to see how these dice could be applied to other instances in a game.A trash talking bard could do as much damage as a fighter to the right creature. Social combat could easily be modeled here as well with the character’s knowledge of manners represented as different die types. Index Card RPG implies this as well, though I would have liked more hard and fast examples on how to judge what Effort die is worth rolling or when the effort system should be used.
The game also offers plenty of other options on how to use those dice. Need a timer counting down until the magic dohickey explodes? Set a d4 where players can see it and lower the number by 1 every round. Want to simulate a battle on a rumbling volcanic planet? Roll a d6 at the top of the round and add the number to all difficulties as the ground shakes players off their feet. If players don’t like those rolls, let them take support actions to try and bend those rolls in their favor. The book is chock full of great examples of how to add ideas and modify the rules. It’s also a clever course in encounter design that encourages GMs not to make their battles white room grinds, but have environmental details that shake things up and elements that players can use in unusual ways to turn the tides of battle quickly.
The art feels like someone doodled all over the book with a Sharpie, but luckily that person was a very, very talented line artist. The art supports the overall mission statement of Index Card RPG: bold, punchy choices made in the moment to keep flipping through rules to a minimum and the table moving forward in play to a maximum. Character rules and features should be able to be summarized on a single index card. If a rule isn’t working out, tear up the card and make a new one. The settings in the book each have a page that summarizes the important points in a way that feel like you could write each setting point out on an index card, pass them out to players at the top of session zero, and fill in your version of the world as you make characters.
A lot of rules ideas exist in the setting section which has more info on the main settings plus three more: a street level supers game, a weird Western and a post apocalypse. There’s also more information on the fantasy and sci-fi settings, with a suggestion that all these worlds are linked for players who want some sweet, sweet kitchen sink crossover action. The settings make a great impression for the space they have with just enough info to hook the GM but not so much that the player’s eyes glaze over when it comes time to show things off.
Unfortunately, the editing of the book is kind of a mess. It collects several stand alone volumes and it shows. Info on the two big settings are split between two sections of the books. Rules suggestions are sort of tucked in wherever they fit and even sections aimed at specific ideas are a little random. This is also a book without an index, so folks from whom that’s a dealbreaker should be aware. The good news is that it’s easy to make a ruling at the moment, comb the book later for the official and them keep whichever ones works better.
Index Card RPG Master Edition is a great choice for someone looking for a simple system, a clever guide to encounter and game design, or even someone looking for a shiny trick or two to take back to their favorite version of d20.