This is a shortened version of a review from my website "Welcome to the Deathtrap." Read a more detailed edit here: https://deathtrap-games.blogspot.com/2020/06/game-review-index-card-rpg-core-2e.html
Index Card RPG Core 2e (ICRPG) is the brainchild of Hankerin Ferinale of RUNEHAMMER, 5e Hardcore Mode. I am currently about 30 adventures into a home ICRPG campaign that has spanned everything from dungeon crawling to adventures inspired by Heart of Darkness to Game of Thrones style intrigue. It is one of my two go-to games.
What I Loved
Pirates from All the Best
ICRPG is effectively a massive conglomeration of many of the most interesting ideas from the DIY RPG, GLOG, and Indie developer communities, with a heavy dose of ideas pillaged from video games crammed into one D&D game to create something slick, streamlined and fun to play. The most audacious thing ICRPG does is to take D&D5e and just keep throwing ideas at it until it is something totally unique.
Some of my favourite features include:
Set target numbers by room or encounter.
Expressing Attributes as bonuses, rather than the 3-18 stat.
Compressing hit points and hit dice into easily tracked "Hearts".
Using Zone Distances for both Theatre of the Mind and Minis.
Let the Shield be Shattered.
Universal Weapon Damage Dice.
A Hero Point System.
Using a single, universal EASY or HARD task modifier.
Levelless one-line spells.
No Skill System
*Keeping in a turn structure even during downtime.
And that is just a surface list.
In many ways, ICRPG is its own thing. It has been hacked and modified to the point of being unrecognizable as D&D… at least to the point that the OGL is concerned. But it still has d20 at the core of its DNA. Adapting existing D&D material is as easy as using a monster's AC for a room's target and giving it a HEART of health for every Hit Die for older editions of D&D or every 50 hit points it has for 3rd edition or later versions. Saving Throws are just attribute tests agsinst the target, and all distances can be rendered as CLOSE, NEAR, or FAR.
Characters in ICRPG feel about as tough as a 3rd to 6th level D&D characters once they have collected some loot, and can handle most low-to-mid-level adventures designed for a D&D compatible game.
Hankerin Ferinale has made a commitment to ensuring that ICRPG is future-proofed for his buyers. Any time a revision of the ICRPG Core book is made, it is put up online at DrivethruRPG for download for anyone who has purchased it. When 2e was released, digital copies were sent to all purchasers of The original ICRPG Core. Hankerin has committed to following this pattern should an ICRPG Core 3e be issued, he will made available for free to current purchasers.
ICRPG Core 2e provides two detailed settings: Alfheim, a very Appendix-N influenced Sword and Sorcery setting; and Warp Shell, a space opera setting that reminds me a great deal of the TV series Andromeda.
However, the manual also includes adventures in the vein of Call of Cthulhu and Mechwarrior for use with the system. Stone Age and Weird West settings are available in sourcebooks as well.
Given the simplicity of the character class and "bioform" (race) mechanics, creating a new setting for ICRPG can take very little effort.
Possibly the best part of the ICRPG Core 2e book is the GM Section. It includes hands-down some of the best tools for adventure and encounter design I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
The GM section starts with a pledge that describes the sort of mindset that makes for a fun and engaging game. From there, Hankerin shows off his astounding gift for systematizing the best practices into step-by-step tools. These tools include:
Techniques for creating clear and simple adventure structure.
The Three T's of designing exciting encounters.
The three D's of creating and adjusting encounter difficulty.
Setting priorities when planning a session.
When and how to end sessions.
Dealing with players getting frustrated over bad dice rolls.
The DEW system for making locations memorable.
The 10 Archetypal dungeon rooms used in most D&D adventures with tips.
*A simple card-based adventure design tool.
Beyond the standard six ability scores, four effort scores, and an unarmoured AC, characters each have one Heart (10) of Hit Points. All other character abilities are defined by the loot they equip in their 10 active item slots. Spells come from spellbooks, archetypal feats like picking locks or sneaking can be done by anyone, but gear like high-quality lockpicks or a thief's cloak make your character better at it.
This means that characters don't level up in a meaningful way, but rather find or create equipment that enhances the abilities they want to use. A character who wants to be a master swordsman might receive a belt symbolizing their years of training that gives a high bonus on sword attacks. A character that wants to get tougher might make a suit of survival gear that grants a bonus on Constitution-based checks. This system encourages PCs to evolve by customizing and caring for gear that symbolizes their profession.
It encourages a radical shift in play style from level-obsessed D&D.
Lots of Extras
ICRPG Core 2e comes with a hell of a lot more than a book. It includes several variant character sheets, templates for papercraft minis, zip files full of assets to upload to a virtual tabletop, and a mobile-friendly version of the rulebook. The manual itself includes two settings and six fully developed adventures.
Hankerin Ferinale's art has become iconic in papercraft and DIY D&D communities. His black and-white and two-tone art style had a sketchy, comic-bookish style that makes it clear it is a one man DIY project, and conveys incredible imaginative energy at the same time.
ICRPG manages to effectively do away with level, but holds on to classes in a very strange manner. Classes in ICRPG are defined by one starting piece of loot, a list of recommended gear, and then a series of six "Milestones." The milestones are a list of gear that should be rewarded to a character as they attain goals and that will complement the role they have chosen. They are in no particular order, and only have a little synergy with one another. Many are single- or limited- use items. Building a custom class is as simple as making a list of seven magic items and deciding which one a PC gets first.
Given the simplicity of the system, and how little impact it has, I wonder why it is even in the game. It would have been just as easy to include a set of recommended granted rewards for each character archetype in the GM section, and added an "ideal for…" description in each starting loot entry.
Certain Important Rules are Hidden
There are a few absolutely critical rules… like how many Equipped treasures a PC may have at once, and how Wisdom Powers break that rule, is listed in obscure, skippable places in the book. Vehicle rules show up in an adventure, as another example. Making sure every major rule is overt and indexed would be a massive improvement.
ICRPG deploys a lot of video game tropes as part of its design: random loot boxes dropped by enemies, tracking health with hearts, foid-as-healing, and a constant game of comparing gear and selecting the right combos. These can draw attention to the fact that you are playing a game, and have an effect on immersion and the intensity of the simulated experience. I find myself frequently re-rolling loot rolls because I cannot bring myself to have my PCs find edible magic food in ancient ruins,
Confusion in Product Names
Index Card RPG Core 2e is a completely self-contained game that evolved put of Hanketin Furnale's attempts to hack and simplify the DMing process. This started in part with creating a system of dungeon design using illustrated index cards, also called "Index Card RPG:" If you want this game, be sure you are buying the right product.
Index Card RPG Core 2e is a fast, innovative, and incredibly fun take on Dungeons and Dragons with so many clever rules hacks that you can no longer see D&D5e under all of the mods. It is faster, lighter, and often more engaging than vanilla D&D.
Even if you did not want to play ICRPG itself, the DM advice and tools are so helpful it is worth every penny. And because these rules are all hacks originally applied to D&D almost any of them can be pulled out again and applied to the RPG of your choice.
I personally put my money where my mouth was with this game: I bought a copy for every member of my gaming group.
Special Thanks to J. Henning for pointing out my typos.