13th Age: Harnessing Chaos with Index Cards

by Adam Dray

This article describes a little trick I recently discovered. I use it to help me run 13th Age but I believe it’ll help just about any role-playing game where the GM has a lot of information to manage.

13th Age gives a GM and players many tools for creating story. In the player’s toolbox are backgrounds, “one unique thing,” and relationships to icons. In the GM’s toolbox are magic items with personalities, “trouble” out of icon relationship rolls, and plot hooks borrowed from the setting. As a campaign develops, however, a GM must remember more and more. I have to remember that Marcel has a background as the head of the Violet Pearl spy network, that Alma let Priya run rampant in the Memory Trees and change history (the card reads: “History Fiasco, I am probably totally in trouble”), that Priya failed an icon relationship roll and now is owed trouble from a mysterious Diabolist curse, that Kyra has a cursed black eyeball on her palm. (Apparently I enjoy curses.) The plot hooks multiply, the adventurers find more talking magic items, and all of that can get quite unmanageable.

I tried a number of techniques to help me organize all these juicy tidbits of information. The obvious solution is a notebook, but that quickly turned into a messy chaos of factoids. I tried keeping copies of characters, but there’s a lot of information that isn’t there, plus character sheets get out of date quickly and a GM doesn’t need to know how much damage the fighter does with A Dozen Cuts.

A solution: index cards

In the end I took an idea that’s actually in the 13th Age rules. It’s a very short rule with a lot of punch. It’s so short, I’ll include it here in its entirety:

Player Picks: Adding Recurring Elements to the Game

At the end of every game session that has gone well, the GM may ask you to pick an element of the session’s fiction you’d like to see as a recurrent part of the campaign. You might choose an NPC, a city, a type of monster, a legend, a magic item that got away, an ambiguously aligned cult of ecstatic dancing, or any other engaging element of the campaign that appeared in the current session. As the campaign develops further, the GM should incorporate the players’ picks into it. Some of these picks should recur once, with the session “resolving” that pick. For example, killing a recurrent villain resolves that pick. Other picks take central roles in the campaign.

If the campaign already has enough player picks that have not yet been resolved, the GM can stop adding new ones.

I started doing this with my group, but at first I had them share an index card. They all just added to a growing list on one card. That didn’t work particularly well for me, so I changed it subtly. I gave each player a handful of index cards and asked her to write her name in the top left corner and write one and only one thing in the middle of each card. What to write? Something about her character that she wanted me to bring into the spotlight during a game, something she wanted me to remember.

Here’s a short list of the kind of things in 13th Age that make good index cards:

  • backgrounds
  • one unique things
  • icon relationships
  • pets, familiars, animal companions
  • magic items and their personalities
  • boons or trouble owed from icon rolls
  • plot hooks that were introduced but not developed
  • other special things about the character

What “other special things” might a player write? Anything the player wants to highlight during play. For example, Kyra is a Gargoyle, a statue come to life (it’s a custom race in my setting) and we want that fact to get some “screen time” during the games. The card reminds me to make her Gargoyle-ness important every so often.

Some cards don’t belong to a particular character. Some are for the entire group. That’s okay! Just write “EVERYONE” at the top instead of a character’s name. In my campaign, the players wanted me to remember that Princess Melithia shacked up with Sir Tomisium in the dwarven palace. The card will remind me that these NPCs’ actions (which were entirely enabled by the PCs, of course) will create a political shockwave across the Dragon Empire. It’d be a pity to forget that, and I’m sure I would without the card.

Using the cards

So, it might be obvious to you, but here’s how I use the cards: I shuffle them.

Throughout play, especially if there’s a lull in the action, I look a the top card and use its content as a touchpoint. Sometimes the touch is light, giving the player a chance to showcase that special aspect of her character. It can be less subtle, like a magic item rearing his ugly head and trying to influence the character. Sometimes the touch is more like a punch. I had noticed that Priya and Kyra both had a crush on the Prince of Shadows, and each of their players had written a card for their characters, saying so. Kyra’s player had missed a couple games, so I had her return to play on her flying pirate ship, and told her that she’d spent the last month carousing with the Prince of Shadows himself. I was curious to see if Kyra’s bragging to Priya would lead to friendly competition, nasty jealousy, or hushed sharing of personal details. It turned out to be the latter, without the “hushed” part.

Sometimes I have no idea what to do with a card. I just push it down under two or three of the top cards and deal with it later. The point is that I’m cycling through this deck of plot hooks that the players told me were important to them.

The cards change over time. Sometimes I write on the cards myself, clarifying what the card means or fixing the card as its meaning changes through play. At the start of every game, I hand everyone their cards and ask them to update them, remove cards they don’t care about anymore, and add new cards if they like.

Too many cards is not a bad thing. If one player has way more cards than everyone else, that’s probably okay. Just make sure she’s not hogging all the spotlight. Give each of her cards less attention. If one player has far fewer cards than everyone else, just make sure she gets extra spotlight time when her cards come around.

In essence, the players have told you what they want the game to be about. This philosophy runs deep in the text of 13th Age, starting with powerful rules that let players create unique characters who are important to the setting, and encouraging players to invent setting material when they create character backgrounds. The index cards carry that idea forward into play. Every session will be driven by what the players feel is interesting and important. Use these cards to drive your play and the game will practically run itself.


Adam Dray has been running RPGs since 1979 but constantly feels like it’s his first time. Having recently discovered 13th Age, he is currently battling Ash Law for title of Number One Fan. When he’s not causing trouble in imaginary worlds, he explores the real world with his love and constant companion, his wife Stephanie, who invents worlds of her own as a historical fantasy author.

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.