The 2019 Purple Sorcerer Games Free Tools Pledge Drive is underway, and our intrepid roving reporter Dieter Zimmerman sat down (virtually) with the Purple Sorcerer himself, Jon Marr, to ask him a few questions about why he felt called to create these fine tools in the first place. Read on, noble scholars, and discover the answer.
Why did you decide that digital tools were something you wanted to do?
Just a few months after I first began playing Dungeons and Dragons in 1978, I was introduced to a local wargaming club called The Mid-Columbia Wargaming society (in the Tri-Cities Washington where I grew up). It was filled with a number of weird (in a good way) dudes who introduced me to a much larger world of gaming, including other RPGs like Traveler and Melee, and board games like Rail Baron, Swords and Sorcery, Panzerblitz, and Squad Leader.
Many of the guys were also early-ish tech-nerds, and for a particular memorable D&D campaign (which I seem to remember involved sending 1st level PC’s into the Tomb of Horrors!) one of the guys had carted in his TRS-80 computer, tiny TV, tape-drive, and daisy-wheel printer into the old WW2-era government hall where we were gathering. I think it was the first home computer I’d ever seen. After what seemed like 10 minutes slowly loading the program from tape, it would spit out a sheet with six barely-legible ability scores, and your character’s hit points and class. I was mesmerized.
When I finally got access to a computer at school years later, the first thing I wrote was my own simple D&D character generator. When I got my Commodore 64 during my first year in college, I spent months building a massive Rolemaster character generator (and if you ever played Rolemaster, you’ll understand how complicated that could be). Creating RPG tools was the entire reason I got into computers and programming, and it still fascinates me to this day.
What’s your background in programming/app design?
As mentioned, it really started on my Commodore 64 as a hobby. I didn’t really understand at that point that programming could be a profession. Regardless, it wouldn’t have applied to me, since I was going to be a history professor…
Except for my word processor (and the early CRPG’s Temple of Apshai and Telengard), I only used my C64 to program gaming utilities for my own amusement. When I got my first PC years later, my self-teaching continued. MS Basic led to a love affair with Visual Basic for Windows (my first foray into interface design) and then various flavors of C. When the internet arrived, the possibility of creating programs that you could share with others changed my mindset pretty significantly, and I began taking my dev skills more seriously, though it was still just a hobby.
Unfortunately, about that time I grew increasingly ill over a period of about three years. I had to set graduate school aside, and we moved to a new state so my wife could prepare for the bar exam. It was a terrible period health-wise, but I basically used every bit of energy I had to develop skills that would help me find a job when we finally figured out what was going on. During that period I taught myself graphic design and web programming. When we did finally discover what was going on (my thyroid had been sputtering before it finally stopped working completely: the terrified call we received from the lab tech was one of the happiest moments of my life!), the skills I’d learned during my down-time helped me get a position as a Webmaster at a local college. My skill-set moved forward pretty quickly from that point on.
At the college I managed 3 large site redesigns, building both the web interfaces and eventually the dynamic engine that drove the site. This combination of graphic design work, web scripting, animation in Flash, and database work basically prepared me for everything that has come after. Specifically I had one major project where I built a tool to dynamically generate PDF brochures based on the programs a potential student was interested in. When I first encountered the quick-start rules for DCC, the 4-up zero-level sheets everyone knows and loves was a direct outgrowth of that application!
Why did you choose Dungeon Crawl Classics in particular to create your tools?
That is an interesting question, and I think it has more to do with the culture of Goodman Games than anything else.
Long before I had ever heard of DCC, our group was attempting to transition from 3E to 4E. However, combat was taking FOREVER to complete, and sucked the wind out of every session. So I embarked on a huge project to create both a mobile app to streamline 4E combat, and an online tool to spit out character-specific ‘battle-sheets’ and spell/ability cards to help manage combat and make everything run faster. After months of work, and just before I shared my work with the world, the owners of the world’s most popular RPG begin issuing fairly brutal take-down notices to anyone producing tools for the new edition that included any of their IP, etc. So that ended that (as well as my interest in 4E…though I still love Mists of Madness and Sellswords of Punjar; those adventures gave me my first contact with Goodman Games!)
But this didn’t diminish by love of building utilities. When my wife and son returned from Free RPG Day with a copy of the DCC quick start rules, the funnel character creation rules just screamed to be turned into a tool: everything was random, and there weren’t any of those messy player options to worry about! So that first weekend I created the initial simple version of the generator. (I did add one option: you could choose to roll up characters with 4d6 rather than the Crom-approved 3d6. Over the years, the options have grown just a bit. I believe at last count there are now over 3.6 million different combinations of occupation sources/hit point methods/rolling methods etc. available in the zero level generator!)
Of course, I had no idea how Joseph Goodman would respond to the generator, and I sent off the link with a certain level of trepidation. His generous and enthusiastic support of the new tool basically established the path that I have followed ever since.
Were there any unforeseen problems/challenges with putting them together?
Like how I had no idea how horrible it would be to publish to the Apple App Store? But I’ll save everyone that diatribe.
More interestingly, I look back at what was required to build the Crawler’s Companion and I just shake my head in wonder at what possessed me to take on the task at that time! We were preparing to move, and I was in the middle of a massive high-visibility project at work. Just the amount of work required to convert all the tables was astonishing. And the Kickstarter to raise the funds to get the Mac stuff to make iOS development possible turned out to be incredibly stressful as well.
It’s strange that even though I had no official connection to Goodman Games outside of their forum, I immediately felt a sort of… kinship? loyalty? with/to that community. When I read the quickstart rules, I knew a tool like the Zero-Level Character Generator would ease the process for new judges to run a funnel for the first time. It needed to happen, and I could do it.
Then when I read the first full beta rules for DCC, two additional challenges almost immediately jumped out to me: most players at that point wouldn’t have the funky dice, and many players new to the system would be intimidated by the number of charts. The Crawler’s Companion was absolutely designed from the beginning to address these challenges, and I went about the task of completing it with a fervor I can’t really understand now. But I’m glad I did. All the tools I’ve created since have been built for that same purpose: to make playing or running DCC as easy as possible, especially for new players.
Which gets used more: the demon generator or the dragon generator?
The demon generator, by a sulfurous whisker.
Your digital tools are funded by donation. Why did you decide to go that route instead of charging for use, or advertising?
As I worked day and night on the Crawler’s Companion, I remember clearly my wife asking me, with some bewilderment, why I wasn’t planning on charging for it…
I explained I just didn’t want the hassle of have ‘paying customers’ hanging over my head and the free tools would always be a wonderful motivator for fans of the tools to pick up our adventures, which proved to be true: our first adventure Perils of the Sunken City sat at the top of the charts at RPGNow for over a week and many told me they purchased it as a way of saying thanks. It was even more gratifying that many also told me that they were somewhat surprised that it was actually pretty good…
I really hate ads as well, but eventually the reality of the expenses I was racking up building, hosting, maintaining, and testing the tools forced me to find a way to get some help. The first Free Tools Pledge Drive grew up pretty organically: I had some dev fees and yearly server costs looming that I didn’t know how I was going to cover. I put out a call for support, and 28 fans raised $350. I thought that was awesome. But it just grew from there.
The next year folks who donated were able to choose which major project I would work on next, and 45 backers raised over $1250 (the Sorcerer’s Grimoire came out of that).
Two years later, in addition to the normal costs, I had some pressing hardware needs, and this is when folks started donating awesome stuff to reward backers. I’m not exactly sure where that idea even came from, but I think it was Harley Stroh! It was that drive when things really started to take off, mainly because the prizes have just been so incredible. 92 backers raised $2700 in 2016, followed by 137 backers raising $4000 in 2017. And finally, last year 142 backers raised over $5000. It’s been astonishing!
The pool of hardware has grown to startling proportions over the years, but it seems there’s always a need to refresh the pool of devices to test at higher resolutions, with new kernal software, etc. Sometimes I laugh when I’m surrounded by 5-6 devices at the same time testing a tool. But in the end it’s still fun: I love working on RPG tools just as much as I did 35 years ago on my Commodore 64!
Any final words?
Yes, I can’t believe it’s been over eight years since we starting doing this stuff! When I look at the vid we created for the Crawler’s Companion Kickstarter, how much the kids have changed since we started really brings it home.
I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the incredible support I’ve received over the years from the DCC community. It’s so gratifying to hear from folks who have used the tools to make it easier to prep their DCC sessions, and this community hasn’t been shy about letting me know how much they appreciate the tools. I never get tired of seeing sheets from the generators covering tables at Free RPG Day events and Cons around the world.
And happily there’s still much to look forward to: I’m about to open up testing on the html5 version of the Crawler’s Companion, which will insure that the tool will be available for many years to come. It will be followed by a new Monster Generator, an MCC version of the Crawler, basic additional languages support for the generators, and much more. I enjoy this stuff too much to ever really stop. It’s comforting to know that because of the community’s support I don’t have to worry about financial concerns being a roadblock to moving forward. Thank you!