18
Feb

Obsidian Portal – Thursday Feature – A Chat with TableSmith’s Bruce Gulke

Author: Kallak

Hello everyone, and welcome to another Words in the Dark Thursday Feature. For this week, I had the opportunity to sit down with the creator of probably my favorite program related to tabletop gaming: TableSmith’s own Bruce Gulke.

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If you don’t know what TableSmith is, that’s okay – this interview will get you up to speed and point you in the right direction. Bruce, in addition to giving me some information about himself and where things are going for TableSmith, was also good enough to answer some questions that people learning about the program for the first time might have.

 

As someone who has used TableSmith extensively for my own campaigns for years (and ported over its HTML-based output onto my campaign here on Obsidian Portal), I promise you this is a program you’re going to want to take a look at if you haven’t already. So read on (I know, it’s a bit long), and enjoy.

 

First and foremost, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your experiences with gaming? Who is the man behind the program? and what led to its development?

I’m a typical nerd who enjoys gaming, fantasy/sci-fi, and other geeky hobbies. I also work in IT as a software developer (shocking, I know :), so combining those two things came naturally. I’ve been gaming for 30+ years, playing everything from board games to computer/console games to miniature war games, but my emphasis has been on tabletop RPGs, primarily the various editions of D&D (currently 5E).

 

TableSmith’s origins lie in an old Windows program I started sometime back in the late 90’s called “Campaign Master”. My intention was to integrate a variety of gaming apps I’d written into a single gaming utility for GMs. For whatever reason, I never finished the app, but I extracted the “random generator” part of the application and turned it into a standalone program.

 

Now, for the uninitiated out there, what is TableSmith? and how can it add to their games?

TableSmith is a Windows program that can be used to generate random results for RPGs. It can do things as simple as a list of character names to something as complex as the entire population of a city, including the inhabitants’ professions, stat blocks, and inventories of their shops. The results are output as HTML (like a web page), so you can even include graphics and do things like generate maps from geomorphs. It uses text files (called “tables”) to generate the results. Off the top of my head, there are tables out there for generating names for elves, dwarves, orcs, dragons, various human nationalities, etc., as well as towns/cities, treasure hoards, books, inns, wandering monster encounters, organizations, herbs, magic shops, and starship stats. Most of the tables are fantasy-oriented, but there’s a few for sci-fi or modern games. TableSmith isn’t restricted to any particular genre, game, or edition.

 

As for adding to your game, anywhere you need something generated (or just need some inspiration), you can do it in TableSmith. You can use it before a game or during if you use a laptop or Surface. Names for NPCs, random towns or villages, treasure, etc. can be generated with TableSmith.

 

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Check out this map maker!

 

Is there a learning curve to using TableSmith? If so, how steep?

Yes and no. Just using TableSmith isn’t terribly difficult – you select a category, then a table, and click a button and you start getting results. Only a handful of tables ship with the app, but there are plenty that myself and others have created that can be downloaded from the Web or the TableSmith Yahoo mailing list, so there’s a plethora of free, useful tables you can add to the program (you do need to know how to copy files into a folder on Windows, but hopefully that’s something most people can do).

 

If you want to create your own tables or modify existing ones, that can be a little more difficult. The table files that TableSmith uses are written in a particular scripting format that I developed over time (and which is documented in the TableSmith help file). Making your own basic table, like a simple name generator, is relatively easy; making a table for your Traveller game that generates entire star systems down to the individual populations of each planet’s settlement is a bit more involved. Fortunately, there are enough tables available that if you’re uncomfortable with creating your own there’s probably one already out there that can meet your needs. And if you do decide to tackle creating or modifying tables, the folks on the Yahoo list are very helpful if you run into problems (I try to help as my time allows, but often people on the list are able to address and solve their fellow user’s issues before me).

 

Suppose I’m just starting out, and having some trouble. Are there tutorials out there? or a community to turn to? What’s the best way to really get a handle on this program and how to use it?

Just using tables shouldn’t be too difficult, but I’m available to help via email and the Yahoo group I mentioned earlier is very useful. For making/editing tables, there’s a small tutorial in the help file, but beyond that, I’d again recommend asking on the Yahoo group. Looking at what other people have done in their tables can be helpful as well, to see just what potential there is for one’s own tables.

 

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A peak at the files section of the TableSmith Yahoo Group

 

Once I start getting proficient, how far does the other end of the spectrum go? Just how advanced can I get with my tables?

You can pretty much get as advanced as you want. The tables in TableSmith can call other tables, so you can intermingle different tables to create very complex results. As an example, the most complex table I’ve created would probably be a Town Generator for D&D 3.5. It started with the town generation tables in the DMG as a basis (generating population, town guard/militia, government, etc.), but then I took it farther and using demographic information from the old 2E World Builder’s Guide, I had it create each and every shop and service, from blacksmiths to inns to coopers to sages. Then, for each shop I had it generate the name of the proprietor (contained in a different table), their personality (from another table), the quality of their products (inspired by Harn supplements), and “buy” and “sell” factors – multipliers to use against equipment values for when PCs wanted to buy or sell something to that particular merchant. For people like sages it generated their particular specialty (I.e.; botany, history, etc.), for laborers, their daily cost, etc. I could have also had it generate inventories for each shop, daily events happening in the city, and whatever else I might want to add.

 

The results that TableSmith generates are HTML files, which is what allows the use of graphics if you want to create things like random maps. You could conceivably use layers to create random portraits for NPCs, or hex maps, etc. You could get really fancy with HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, etc. if you’re familiar with those, though I haven’t really seen too much of that yet.

 

I understand that there’s a mobile version of sorts out there. Can you tell us about that? How does it compare to the desktop version? How does it differ?

I recently released an iOS app called “FantasyGen”. It’s sort of a relative of TableSmith in that it’s a generator tool, but unlike TableSmith it’s not customizable; it has a static set of tables for generating names for people, monsters, places, and groups. The tables are mostly ported over from ones I created for TableSmith, so they’re similar in that regard.

 

I’m eventually planning for a more “TableSmith-like” mobile app down the line. Part of the purpose of creating FantasyGen was for me to learn iOS development and to get familiar with the deployment process (i.e.; submission to the App Store and all the overhead that entails). The ability to edit or create your own tables will come in time (though when that time is I couldn’t say right now).

 

What’s next for TableSmith? What sorts of things are coming down the pipe?

A new version is actually in the pipeline right now, though it’s more of a technical update than anything with major changes. Development has been somewhat stalled for the past 6 or 7 years, due to various other obligations (becoming the father of twins in 2009, work-related responsibilities, etc.). But I’ve finally gotten back to TableSmith in the past few months, primarily getting the program updated to operate correctly with the latest versions of Windows.

 

Past this update, I have a variety of things I’d like to do, though I’m reluctant to commit to anything specific since my plans tend to fluctuate so much. My biggest goal is to work to make things easier for table development, including but not limited to making error-handling and debugging easier and more useful, and providing tools that make table creation easier for beginners. A lot of time was spent in the past on adding more functionality, and now I’d like to make it easier to use that functionality.

 

Beyond that, there’s further development of the iOS app, probably porting it to Android, using “Markov chains” (feed the app a list of names and have it generate its own table based on the “feel” of those names), more graphical tables, and possible integration into other applications. I’m sure I’ll think of more as time goes on…

 

And once again, we’re at the end of another Thursday Feature. We’ll be back your way next week. Until then, thanks for being with us, and we wish you all the best.

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