Competing for the top spot [of painful lessons] is "you are not necessarily representative of the user base". It's a big mistake to assume everyone plays like you do, or needs the things you need, or thinks the same way you think
Our creator today is John Mechalas of Dungeonetics, home to tools for Pathfinder, Starfinder and other RPGs
Generators Q&A with John Mechalas of Dungeonetics
How did you get into creating RPG Tools?
Almost everything on Dungeonetics was created to solve a problem or meet some need in our tabletop game. Our group has been running monthly sessions for almost 16 years and each campaign has gotten more immersive than the one before it. For example, half of our group maintains campaign journals in character, and most of us post little fictional background character stories, too. For my contributions, I found I needed names. Lots and lots of names. But I also wanted them to fit within the guidelines that Paizo was setting out because I am the type of person that obsesses over details. So one day I decided to start writing a name generator.
At some point, you realize you are solving little problems that lots of other people have, too, so why not share?
What tools are you most proud of creating and why?
My favorite one is the Harrow Deck automator. It comes in two flavors: random draws, and "you fill" sheets where you can place the cards like you would draw from a physical deck. Harrow readings can be a lot of fun in Pathfinder, but they take way too much time to do because of all the cross-referencing and interpretation. Like, the whole game grinds to a halt and the focus is on just this one person, which is neither fun for, nor fair to, the other players. So I thought, how can we speed that up? It also makes it easier for the GM to stack a deck in advance to get a particular outcome.
My stats tell me it's the least-visited tool on the site, but that's OK.
What is the most fun thing about creating RPG tools?
Seeing the finished product, hands down. When you put the extra time in to make it look nice and run smoothly and it all is just working, that is the moment.
A close second is the first time you use it in a game and you can objectively see that it has made life better.
What are the most painful lessons you've learned from creating RPG tools?
I spent most of my career as a UNIX systems administrator and systems programmer, and now I do a lot of software enabling: helping developers write code by putting out samples and creating thorough documentation. I was fortunate to learn a lot of the hard lessons in advance: the user interface is the most important piece, the code has to be robust and scalable, you need a maintenance plan, and you must have a disaster recovery strategy.
I think the most painful lesson is that I had to learn was not technical: it's that you can't just put a tool out there and expect people to find it and use it. "If you build it, they will come" is only half the story. You have to advertise. You have to tell people you have a tool. The hard part is advertising in a way that doesn't irritate the community, and each community has their own etiquette. Nothing turns people off like unsolicited advert posts. There's an art to it, and I am still learning it.
Competing for the top spot is "you are not necessarily representative of the user base". It's a big mistake to assume everyone plays like you do, or needs the things you need, or thinks the same way you think. I've had to tweak several of the tools on Dungeonetics because I made assumptions that weren't valid for the majority of the community. Some of those tweaks were actually major code overhauls. Obviously, you have to start somewhere, and you can't make a tool that is infinitely flexible, but you have to be prepared for that moment when you put something out there and you are met with criticism, or crickets chirping. You have to embrace failure and learn from it.
How do you use RPG tools yourself?
Since most of them were designed to ease my own game play, I am using them constantly. And others in our group use them, too. The Golarion/Pathfinder name generator, for example, gets heavy use by our GM. We're a group that is constantly asking for names. If we meet an NPC, our first question is, "What's their name?" We don't know which ones are important and which ones aren't, so we get names for everyone. The name generator has definitely made this easier on the GM.
The spell card generator is probably the one that has helped me the most. I'm playing a wizard for the first time in my 40-year history with D&D in its various forms, and I was ill-prepared for the nightmare that is managing and preparing spells each day. We can only play once a month so every minute of game time is a precious resource, and I was starting to hold it up. I needed a way to select spells that was fast and easy, and also didn't require lots of mouse clicks on a fussy user interface, or cross-referencing printed sheets or books.
There were some good spell card generators out there already, but I also wanted something easier than printing paper and cutting it by hand into evenly-sized cards. So I looked at Avery pre-cut business cards and thought, "Why not print to those?" It was a classic case of the solution taking way more time than the problem, but of course I am not holding up the game while programming.
Our party cleric is using them, too, and it makes covering their character much easier when they have to miss a game.
What are your next big projects (RPG tools or otherwise) that you can talk about?
The spell card generator has outgrown its user interface. The UI wasn't all that great to begin with, but it has not gotten better with time. :) That will be a big undertaking.
I'm working on more generic calendar system. Obviously, there are already such systems out there, but I see a need for some additional features or ease-of-use items that are missing.
Where can people find you on social media?
Social media is such a time sink, and to limit that my accounts are tightly locked down. That being said, I am pretty active on the Paizo forums.
The easiest way to find me, though, is to just email me. I am easy to find because I have an enormous internet footprint. With a name like "Mechalas" there is really no hiding.
Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
I want to publicly thank Emily at fantasynamegenerators.com. When I was first creating my own name generator, she helped me track down some good sources for the "seed" names that would be fed into my Markov chain generators. Obviously, we have very different approaches and her site dwarfs my own, but she was still helping someone that was building a competing product. She didn't have to do that.