Here's a snapshot of what you get:
400 pages core rulebook - includes a streamlined form of d20; 5 settings (fantasy, sci-fi, weird west, street-level supers, and prehistoric survival); GM guidance that is actually useful at the table; multi-genre bestiary; advanced magic systems and character devlopment; and tables to randomize NPC and adventure creation, and provide extra goodies/loot for players to find and acquire.
160 pages collected adventures - 19 adventures (between 4 and 12 pages each) give hearty tastes of danger across multiple genres.
70 pages collected print-n-play black & white miniatures - 236 unique minis (not including those that are just different sizes) to print, cut, and fold. Around 120 of them appear suitable for use as PCs, and they still manage to cover each creature in the bestiary section of the core rules.
A character sheet in both portrait and landscape formats.
ICRPG Master Edition
A glorious mess. That is how the author introduces this book. As a compilation, I get that wrangling and presenting game ideas cohesively can be challenging, but I feel that more emphasis should be placed on glorious than mess when it comes to ICRPG. The brief introduction covers how this book came to be, the primary content covered, and what's needed for play.
The next 15 or so pages cover the rules of the game. It is a tight affair--the mechanics are simple, with an emphasis on rulings over rules. "Create rather than seek" is the encouraged mindset. Like the pirate code, these rules are more like guidelines. Movement is simplified, with three important distances: Near (arm's reach), close (get there as part of your action), and far (get there as your action). Actions involve a player rolling a d20 plus modifiers to try to meet or beat the target number. The target number is set at the scene level instead of at the individual level, and situationally can be modified to be Hard (the target number is three higher-a 12 becomes a 15) or Easy (the target number is three lower-a 12 becomes a 9). Rolling high enough means either immediate success or the application of effort.
Effort is damage in combat, but can be also applied to any task that can be measured on a gradient or that takes time to accomplish. Examples of effort include: scaling walls, picking complicated locks, researching spells, mapping ruins, hacking a ship's computer, and plotting a course through an asteroid field. Effort is tracked as one heart equals 10 effort or hit points. Players only start with a single heart of health, and additional hearts are difficult to attain. Combat can quickly become quite deadly!
Actual distances are less important for this game, so there is no counting squares or trying to optimize movement. Like many board games, momentum is maintained by taking actions in turns, clockwise around the table. Where you sit can make a huge difference when attempting to save a fellow PC from certain doom.
And you get to try it out immediately! After covering the basic mechanics, there is a short (four small scenes) micro adventure to get you rolling dice and trying out the mechanics before you even get to character creation.
Character creation is quick, too. Around fifty pages are used to explore character creation. The basics are these: Pick an image of what you want to play (to maintain your vision while statting up the character), then assign a handful of points between two types of stats (attributes and effort types, where the number is the actual bonus--no need to derive bonuses from stats), select a form (what you are--modifies starting attributes) and type (what you do--each class-like type presents a choice between three rule-bending specialties), and pick some gear.
For example, the warrior type chooses between killing hurt opponents faster, protecting teammates and tanking it up, or hit harder when you get hit; the mage type chooses between casting like a wizard, sorcerer, or warlock; the priest type covers clerics (healing), druids (elemental/nature magic), and monks (chi-like effects).
Creating characters in the different genres may include the additional trivial step of selecting intrinsic powers, starting spells, or some other special ability, but it remains fast. Advancement is done at milestones, and players pick from the list of milestone rewards assigned to each type. An advanced heroes section details a number of thematic milestone paths that provide additional tiered milestone rewards, where a player must pick up at least two milestone rewards from the current tier before they can select one from the next tier. Gear also plays a large role in advancement and character development, with many abilities are tied to gear. This means that changing profession can often be as simple as swapping out your gear with different loot.
Next is the positively helpful GM section. After a few encouraging paragraphs covering the responsibilities of the GM, you get right into practical advice. This section covers starting adventures based on player goals, knowing what information is important to track, keeping prep efficient, utilizing cliffhangers, tuning challenges, story and encounter architecture that keeps the design focused on novelty and fun, and general adventure building guidelines.
As difficulty is scene-based, there are ten distinct room (or scene) designs (with default difficulties already figured) that use positive and negative space and door positioning to encourage specific types of encounters. It is all generally useful and practical advice, applicable to encounter design for most RPGs, especially if viewed figuratively as well as literally. In fact, there's even a page on importing some of ICRPG's mechanics into other games.
The Monsters section comes next. Two-to-a-page, you get 48 example foes of varying difficulty and complexity that cover much of what one might expect in fantasy and sci-fi games. The stat blocks are incredibly simple, but often incorporate special rules or wrote behaviors for the players to figure out at the table. The bestiary is followed by guidelines on how to make your own monsters, and provides some fun inspiration to get you started. Finally, Durathrax (a world-shaking dragon of enormous proportions) is written up as a campaign-ending threat to really drive home that nothing is off the table.
Worlds outlines the five included settings. More than simple gazetteers, each setting is given a high-level overview, followed by series of adventure sparks-never complete adventures, but brief morsels to tempt the players to take an active role in the setting.
Alfheim is 45 pages of fantasy, with a fun mix of the various sub-genres to provide what the author calls a "complex fabric of flavors." Many of the Tolkienesque cultures have been given wrinkles. For example, elves are trying to take over the world through access to four colossal constructs. Each land is given a write-up that includes environmental modifiers to travel, specific threats, peculiar places of interest, important people to meet, and dungeons worth delving (each with accompanying adventure sparks).
Warp Shell is 20 pages of episodic sci-fi adventure. Instead of mapping out planets (or galaxies), this setting provides a common background where a sentient ship (called a Warp Shell) seeks out trouble for the players to handle. Sometimes this means stopping genocidal empire of artificial intelligences that threatens extinction of all organic life, other times it might be chasing a corrupt Warp Shell, or helping a reptilian race renew their honorable warrior culture. With random tables for "planet-of-the-week" style adventures and specific rules for fleet combat, there's a lot of content packed into a few pages.
The next 20 pages covers Ghost Mountain, a unique take on Purgatory. Specifically, a spirit-heavy wild west. You're dead, but not quite DEAD-dead. Good deeds push back sunset, which is good because if the sun sets, everybody here goes straight to Hell. Collect souls to participate in a daily high-stakes poker match with the Devil. Win and you reset the day, freeing the bargained souls from Purgatory; lose and everybody (you guessed it) goes straight to Hell. PCs can be tempted to exchange souls for milestone rewards, the paying unpayable debts, or healing negative conditions. While there are no new life forms (everybody here is-or was-human) there are new types, new gear, and new rules to give the game a distinctive Western flavor.
Vigilante City follows with 40 pages of city-scale supers. Mutant powers are just cropping up, centered on the now-overwhelmed urban locale of Grey Heights. The city is divided into districts, with each district given 6 points of interest/adventure sparks. Players get to respond to assorted crises, natural (like blackouts, fires, and floods) and artificial (like giant robots, mutant beasts, ninja, radiation leaks, and of course, superpowered menaces), randomly generated from handy charts. Modifications to character creation (extra points and the introduction of powers) and rules tweaks (such as the good/evil vigilante points to track morality, stun points to fuel powers, properties for passive character adjustments, and weaknesses) serve to reinforce a comic book flavor. The villains are varied and delightful, and a few random rolls gets you a basic plot with twists for a night of superheroic adventure. The section ends with some supers-specific GM guidance to encourage the right atmosphere.
Last of the Worlds, Blood and Snow is 32 pages of prehistoric tribal adventure. When storms and icy crevasses provide as much danger as sabertoothed cats, survival is always a struggle. This setting provides specific rules and tables for hunting, foraging, trekking across hazardous terrain, seeking (or building) shelter, and otherwise surviving. Unlike typical fantasy settings, Blood and Snow embraces the rather harsh realism (or at least verisimilitude) of life in a frozen wasteland. And it is expected to get worse. The PCs seek a legendary relic rumored to have the power to stop the approaching cataclysmic maelstrom from decimating the last of the ancient ancestors of the human race.
After the five Worlds, there is a 54 page section on enhancing Magic in the game. This is a considerable overhaul to the system provided in the basic rules, and feels designed to let players really explore the mysteries of the arcane. From mix-and-match spell creation to wizard towers, magic-focused campaigns are well supported in this section. Character creation gets a small boost, with origin stories, destinies, and magic-themed. Cross realms, amplify existing spells, and generally make magic a meaningful part of a campaign.
Finally, there are a bunch of tables compiled at the back of the book for easy reference. With a few dice rolls, you can create quests, NPCs, wandering monster encounters, and the treasure in a monster's lair (for however you want to define "monster" and "lair.")
The core book is comprehensive, yet condensed. There is lots of content without feeling unwieldy. There is support for multiple genres, and each World feels fresh and exciting, but the basics are easy enough to keep in your head.
That's not all you get, either.
Here's the list of adventures included in the ICRPG Adventures PDF, with basic synopses:
Last Flight of the Red Sword (9 pgs.) - Warp Shell adventure about an infamous pirate ship (the Red Sword) that is now derelict. It's an exploratory mystery that escalates quickly.
Doomvault (8 pgs.) - Alfheim adventure about a dungeon beneath the city of Norburg. The fate of three kings rests in stopping cultists from completing their ritual to open a gateway to the nether realm of Ogdru.
Speed Kills (8 pgs.) - Warp Shell adventure about dangerous racing and...murderous vehicles? A touch of restless dead is combined with a chance to race through the Underworld.
Eyes of Sett (8 pgs.) - Alfheim adventure about delving into an ancient ruin to purify a desert spring and stop an awakening evil.
Beneath the Door (11 pgs.) - A nonlinear adventure of cosmic horror (a la Lovecraft), with fragile human classes/types to play as instead the typical heroic fare. Explore the grounds of Arden Manor and discover its terrible secret.
Planet Killer (14 pgs.) - Like Rogue One and the end of A New Hope, this is a two-team, two-part Warp Shell adventure involving the ultimate sacrifice of one team during the countdown of a planet's destruction, and depending on what the first team manages to accomplish before their demise, a chance for the second team to avoid a similar fate.
Mercury Dale (11 pgs.) - A Warp Shell adventure involving a starship under siege, a supercomputer mainframe, jumping across space and time, fungal pirate invaders, and saving the universe from the Devourer.
Blackbird (5 pgs.) - Alfheim adventure that involves getting catapulted by dwarves at a massive airship for a fun boss fight along the ship's exterior.
The Heckoon Carapace (10 pgs.) - Alfheim adventure about a nigh-unstoppable crab-like kaiju as it returns to the sea, the dungeons within, symbiotes, and the cult guiding this titan through populated lands.
Into the Sunset (12 pgs.) - Ghost Mountain adventure that starts with a holdup, then spirals out of control. There's a whole town enamored with a single woman, flash floods, a bunch of explosives, and a hellish dungeon crawl that may end with all of Ghost Mountain falling into oblivion.
Devious Dimensions (8 pgs.) - A Magic adventure that serves as an excuse to realm hop. Chase a wizard through portals and prevent them from freeing the prisoners of Splinter.
Red Fang (6 pgs.) - Alfheim adventure involving Dwarven blood magic, tentacled undead, and the return of an enemy that threatens all Alfheim.
Orvald's Tower (5 pgs.) - Alfheim or Magic adventure involving the death of a wizard and a race for survival. Short and sweet.
The Relics of Odium (19 pgs.) - Alfheim adventure where the players seek magic relics to confront Odium, a titanic dungeon-creature. The players modify what the magic relics do based on the special gem socketed into a given relic. Collect, mix, and match the 8 relics and 5 gems to taste, then challenge Odium in an epic showdown.
Crossroads (4 pgs.) - A single "room" Alfheim adventure involving the overthrow of the city guard in an uprising against an evil elven king. Toss in some changelings and things quickly get out of hand.
Minotaur Bridge (4 pgs.) - A single "room" Alfheim adventure involving the perilous crossing of a well-defended bridge. How bad are those crosswinds anyway?
The Myre Miners (4 pgs.) - A single "room" Alfheim adventure involving a haunted abbey and the rescue of dwarven miners who may not ant to be rescued.
Hairpin Gate (4 pgs.) - A stealthy single "room" Alfheim adventure involving gnomish steampunk power armor, a hive of giant insects, and fungal warriors.
Mechs and Myconids (4 pgs.) - Random tables to expand Hairpin Gate.
These extra adventures provide added value to the core rules, and are not included in the printed book; some of the adventures feature extra mechanics, and most include some kind of map and adversary write-ups. Coupled with the print-and-play minis, Index Card RPG is truly an all-in-one offering.
But how does it play? It is fast. Fast to learn, fast to play, and occasionally fast to die. (One heart means a couple hits--or a single crit--is likely to drop even an experienced PC.) Make no mistake, the "do-it-yourself" attitude that permeates this game means there are not always discrete answers to every problem; you may find instruction to "work it out with the player" to be an unacceptable response. Some assembly is required to cater to your particular table. Like the index cards of its namesake, I love the modular nature of the rules, and am quite fond of scene-based difficulty in particular. You can generate anticipation and dread by slowly increasing the target number, and regulate drama by making larger jumps. Like the musical cue signaling a boss battle, raising stakes with the significant shift of a single number is simple and efficient.
I've run a number of sessions of Alfheim and Warp Shell, and am excited to try out each of the other settings. It is my favorite iteration of the d20 system, and I keep coming back to it as a wellspring of inspiration and gaming goodness.