Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: Index Card RPG Core Set

Have you heard of Drunkens & Dragons?  It's a great little channel hosted by "Hankerin Ferinale," who opines at great length about tabletop role-playing, while occasionally getting legitimately hammered.  

Living up to the name

"Hank" records a steady stream of excellent GM advice delivered in a highly entertaining patter.  I recommend his channel without reservation.

Anyway, earlier this year, he started putting out these gaming aids called Index Card RPG Vols. 1 & 2 for his Runehammer Games imprint.  These both consist of nice iconic doodles of fantasy RPG stock gameplay elements - things like treasure chests, animated skeletons, mysterious temples, centipedes, mimics, etc.  

On his channel, Hank explained in greater detail how he intended that these could be used.  The GM could print-and-cut these out and put them on the table to represent elements in play, using card proximity as a simple abstract way of depicting the gamespace.  Not really what you'd call an actual RPG, but this was of course a hint for what was to come.

The other shoe has dropped!  Hank's follow-up arrived in DriveThru the other day, going by the name of Index Card RPG Core Set.

So what do we have here?

Good things!  Mostly.  I have a couple of gripes.  More are small and easily addressed by a good GM, but one is fundamental to the game.  It's a philosophy thing.  We'll get there.

The full package

First, let's consider what we're getting.  The download (it's PDF-only) comes with the core rules, a character sheet, printable minis and individual image files for the same minis for online play.  That's a nice touch.  A nicer touch would have been to include volumes 1 & 2, but I suppose that leaves room for a complete set, or a bundle.

The art is what I'd call "iconic," in that the individual drawings are not highly detailed, and are highly representative of a trope.  It's pretty and expressive with a cartoonish aspect, but it's not going to blow your mind.

This is pretty representative of his style

The character sheet is functional!  As a print-out.  Given Hank's consideration for online gaming with his minis, I wish he had provided form-fillable PDFs.  Or even different formats.  Google Docs would be a good choice (for me).


Let's move on to the meat of this, which lies in the rules.  The writing style mirrors Hank's youtube delivery, which is to say informal, welcoming and engaging.  That's good.  The rules themselves are quite simple, which is unsurprising, considering a lot of what Hank has said on his channel.  I'm a big fan of simple rules, and I also find it interesting how different game designs find clever ways to abstract and simplify a wide array of complex situations.

Index Card RPG does some interesting things.  Nothing 100% unique, which is actually a good thing as far as I'm concerned.  But there are a distinctive mix of mechanics; here are the details that stand out in my memory:

  • Abilities are the usual D&D six classics.  However, instead of being rated 3-18, they are just rated in terms of their roll modifiers.  Abilities are more important than usual because they are often the only roll modifiers.  There's not much of a concept of character level.
  • There's a baseline DC for everything, and it's called the Target.  If something is considered easy or hard, that's relative to whatever the current Target is.
  • Combat time isn't distinct from non-combat time.  Players take turns going around the table in a constant cycle.  The GM can inject events into that whenever he or she wants, but initiative isn't really a thing in ICRPG.
  • Many tasks have their own kind of hit points, called Effort.  To complete any task that isn't instantaneous, you have to plug away with successes, each of which entitles rolling an effort die.  Which die, you ask?  Interesting question...
  • The kind of effort die a character rolls is based on the situation.  A character acting without tools or weapons rolls 1d4.  With appropriate equipment, you roll 1d6.  Magic gives you a 1d8.  When you roll a natural 20, add a 1d12 roll to whatever other effort die you roll.
  • Character progress is very simple.  Instead of gaining levels or improving skills, characters earn "Milestone Rewards".  These are different kinds of iconic "loot" (gear) that simultaneously symbolize progress and provide a bonus.
  • Speaking of loot, many thing in this game are some kind of loot.  Spells are loot.  There's a fine line between your character's talents and their loot.
That's a lot to digest.  Quite a bit I like, but like I said, there are a couple of gripes.  These gripes may not apply to you, and I think the system is overall excellent, anyway.

What's to like

I like the way that combat activities, in general, are not especially distinct from non-combat.  All the same concepts apply, because damage is just a specialized kind of Effort.  A lot of RPGs enter "bullet time" when combat starts i.e. everything starts to slow down and get super-detailed.  That's deftly avoided here.

I've already expressed my interest in the idea of games with low-to-no character progress, and ICRPG is on the very low end.  I like that, because it's not completely devoid of incentive to grow beyond kobold stomping, but you can safely sandbox with something like this.

The Effort system is very interesting, overall.  I like the way that things intersect with gear.  It could be a little more complicated, but this is a game that empowers GMs to make those kinds of on-the-spot rulings.  Boxes checked.  The only thing that concerns me is that it turns magic into something a bit OP.

Overall, I'm very happy with the simplicity.  The rules take all of 32 pages, the rest of the 150 being mainly setting description and GM advice.  This is the sort of game you could safely introduce to new players without worrying about a lot of glazed eyes.  It's also functional enough that I see no reason that an experienced group of players couldn't use it effectively in the right kind of campaign.

What's not to like

I'm not a big fan of the Target system.  That sort of challenge tuning is the kind of thing that sets my teeth on edge in video games.  It's a way of providing artificial balance and tension, rather than emergent drama.  I feel like it just makes the GM's puppeteer strings too blatant.

I told you this got a little philosophical.

When it comes to drama vs. simulation in RPGs, I fall much closer to the drama camp.  Simulation is tedious with little return.  That being said, when drama simply becomes a knob and you can see the GM turn it, I feel like that makes it all seem a bit curated.  It's like having the background music let you know that something bad is about to happen.

To some people, that may sound great.  And I won't begrudge them this sentiment at all.  My attitude to RPGs is that the excitement is best when it's what I'd call emergent.  In other words, the rules can be abstract and stylized to reward all kinds of unrealistic behavior, but once these rules are in place, they should be followed almost heartlessly.

A very small gripe: if Hank was going to reject the traditional 3-to-18 ability score, why did he have to keep with the "Classic Six"?  I mean, do we really need one called "wisdom"?  

Quick aside: DCC is so smart about this, because it combines Willpower (an aspect of how Wisdom is often interpreted) and Charisma to make Personality.  Thus, they take two of the least popular of the C6 to make a very attractive combination.

I'm a little ambivalent about the whole loot-thing.  Spells as makes sense, in that wizards and such are going to be looking to find new spellbooks in their travels.  But I had a hard time finding a magic system in ICRPG, mainly because there isn't one.  Spells are just loot that does...things.  They are like magic items stuck in your brain.  

That keeps things simple, but maybe a bit too simple for me.  The potential for wizards to be OP seems very possible, since magic gets the best effort die.  The GM may have to design his or her own system of drawbacks into spells.


So who should get ICRPG?  Well, if you're into simple and elegant systems, this game certainly qualifies.  Its got a lot up its sleeves.  I did mention that it stuffs two settings into the rulebook, right?  One fantasy, one sci-fi.  They are both rendered with the lightest of touch, sketches of settings.  Hank clearly understands that he doesn't have to give more than an outline and a few story hooks.  

He doesn't need to write up a 1000 year history for his imaginary continent.  I could say "that's what GMs are for," but the truth is, that's what bad GMs are for.  We've all been there.  But the players barely care about this stuff, and they never care about it when you hit them with big exposition bombs.  But I digress!

Anyway, there's a lot here, and a lot of people would find something of value.  So what I'll try to say is who this is ideal for.  In my opinion, ICRPG is ideal for pick-up-and-play.  You can whip this puppy out on short notice, with a one-page dungeon you got for a buck or less on DriveThru, and be off to the races.  Some of the players have never played an RPG before?  No problem, ICRPG is a winner, here.

Can it work for sustained play with grognards?  In that case, I'd say it could, but it depends on the sensibilities of said grogs.  For instance, observe my reservations as listed above.  I'd have to tweak it quite a bit for campaign play, especially in the magic department.  Progress via loot may be a little too, I don't know, video gamey?, for me.  The Target probably has to go, but the fact that PCs don't progress much keeps it from being a brain-dead way of scaling difficulty with progress.  Personally, I prefer things to be a bit more impartial, but you know that.

Still, there are some interesting things here, even if you don't want to adopt the entire set of mechanics.  If you just wanted to rip off a few ideas without running the entire system, I have a feeling that old Hank would tip a mug to you.


Longtime readers will note the dearth of art in this particular post.  It occurred to me that prior posts have borrowed from across the web with zero consideration of the source.  That may not be...ethical?  I don't make a cent off this, and I'm not sure how this works, but I don't think it's a good idea for me to re-purpose someone's posting from DeviantArt.

Well, I wasn't thinking about it before, but I am now, so I'm going to see how I should be doing this going forward before I resume my usual graphical habits.  I may go back and remove art from prior posts.  I have to put a bit more research into this, so please be patient with me.

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