I am sitting here on the morning of the Australian Rules Football League Grand Final and my Team has made it for the third year running. They won the past two and I sit here in trepidation wondering if they can make it three in a row, only the greatest teams have done this in the past. And in a completely unusual twist, this week saw my two favourite virtual table tops combine completely unexpectedly. Fantasy Grounds acquired Tabletop Connect and employed Carl Pinder, the founder and creator of Tabletop Connect. I was flabbergasted and so incredibly happy all at the one moment when I read those words as I was going to sleep on Wednesday night. Early Thursday I confirmed an interview with Doug Davison of Smiteworks and Carl Pinder to find out what the go was and what we could expect from them. I have interacted with both fairly well over my time at G+ but this was the first time that I was actually able to sit in a hangout with them.
To me the acquisition was always going to be about where Fantasy Grounds was going. I did not for a second think that the acquisition was about removing a competitor, though some may have thought this. Fantasy Grounds has been open about being in a state of transition onto the Unity platform, and that is exactly where Tabletop Connect was being created. Carl Pinder is a bit of a genius with Unity and his skills from his “previous life” as a video game designer have given him an excellent basis for using this tool and a fantastic work ethic. He has been developing Tabletop Connect now for almost two years by himself and the tool is just going ahead in leaps and bounds so there was no surprise that Doug swooped in and bought the virtual tabletop as he begins his push for releasing a new and improved user interface for Fantasy Grounds.
But let us start by a brief look at some of the virtual tabletops that are out and vying for your attention. I will include Tabletop Connect so we can see why I am so excited about this merger; Roll 20 is the virtual tabletop that seemingly everyone has played with at one stage or another. It is a system agnostic, virtual lighting virtual tabletop that is famous for its ease of use. It is free at its basic level but they cut back functionality and server storage space that comes on as you front up a monthly fee for the service at two possible backer levels. There are a couple of map-tool clones getting around at the moment that are worth considering too. Both have taken the code and advanced this in different ways. Mote is the first of these and is working on making Map Tools a much more modern and current code base. The program itself is system agnostic and looks similar to the established Map Tools program (including virtual lighting – free) but they are progressively looking through the legacy code from the community and cleaning it up, making it a much more efficient rule set. SyncRPG is another Map Tool clone and one that is taking the vitual tabletop genre into exciting new areas. While it could still be considered system agnostic, this version is targeted very much at Pathfinder but uses a clever hybrid of Map Tools on your computer and a web interface full of useful resources that the GM can click and drag into their game, inclusive of maps that already have virtual lighting built into them. Very nice. As you can see, these three options are fairly similar, with the last two being free at the moment and well worth a look.
Fantasy Grounds is a virtual tabletop that has been around for a long time but still does not seem to be as well known out amongst gamers which is a sad thing. It does have an older interface and claims of some of it being “clunky” are not untrue, though I feel the word “clunky” stands more for people need to learn the interface a little to get the most out of it. It has excellent system support for a number of popular and lesser known systems. Some of that support is official (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons 5E is official only on this VTT, FATE, Pathfinder, Castles and Crusades) and there is a bunch of community supported systems you can load up too (for example I use a Classic Traveller one and a Dungeon Crawl Classics version as well). When I say support here too, I mean an unparalleled level of support that includes a lot of automation that will slash your game time by up to a half for complicated interactions, especially combat. Of course it can be used system agnostic with the CORE rules that is at the base of everything for Fantasy Grounds, but few people seem to realise this as well. The tool also allows for the integration of module materials so much that there is almost no need to open a book while you are playing. Screen space is an issue and the kinds of support for maps (no virtual lighting etc.) is beginning to fall a little behind other tabletops.
Tabletop Connect is/was a marvelous step forward in visuals and creating that at the tabletop feel that these programs are meant to emulate. Every time I played with this tool I felt like I did when I first started playing Role Playing Games as an eleven/twelve year old. I felt like I was Elliott at the start of ET where they are playing D&D around the kitchen table with their folders and scenery. Then there are the magnificent three dimensional images, miniature/3D model support, movement calculation and character sheet support that allows for a brilliant experience. This all goes toward making a robust system that really looks at bringing the tabletop feel to you in a way that is intuitive and quick and easy. The ability to take an image of a character sheet and turn that into an automated sheet for your players was brilliant, and a much loved part of the program by the community. It is definitely a system agnostic tabletop, the GM has to build the system into it, but the three dimensional environment and Unity base provides a perfect backdrop for fuss free dynamic lighting. Unity also allows for brilliant 2D support and is successful in making video games in both environments meaning that it will be a very flexible basis for a new style of virtual tabletop.
The reason that Carl Pinder decided to create his own Tabletop was largely to do with the fact that he felt what was on the market, inclusive of Fantasy Grounds, did not have the interface that he wanted. He felt that Fantasy Grounds had great automation but an awful interface and the other systems just did not have the rule set support or interface that he could use in his own games. He Kickstartered this in August 2013 seeking $22500 and managed to raise $34,061 for the project. He has solidly been working away at the tool since that stage providing excellent progress in that time which is unbelievable considering that it was just himself that was working on a project of this size.
Carl had been discussing how difficult some things can be working by himself with a friend a few months ago and they had asked him if he had considered working with another company? He replied that he did not really have any desire for that unless it was Fantasy Grounds largely because of the pure harmony that the two would bring. The automation and rule sets of Fantasy Grounds tied with his interface and three dimensional capabilities would work so well together. Carl was both surprised and delighted to talk to Doug Davison and find out that he had been thinking the same thing. Carl is very excited about this opportunity and feels that it is in the best interests for the supporters of Tabletop Connect and for Fantasy Grounds.
A large portion of his desire for this to happen is that the feature sets of Tabletop Connect and Fantasy Grounds have almost no overlap. There are such differences between the two tabletops that combining the two is going to create such a streamlined affair. And believe me, when I questioned these two guys on the future of Fantasy Grounds, that is the vision. Tabletop Connect is not going to vanish, it is going to be a highlighted interface that will take its feature set and combine it with the brilliance that is the incorporation of the rules like the Party Sheet, Combat Tracker and the varying rule sets, as well as the ability for a person to create their own rule set or use it as a system agnostic tabletop. Many of the supporters of Tabletop Connect realise that this is where it is headed and that is why we are so excited for it.
The response from the followers of Tabletop Connect users has been a largely positive one. Carl was expecting that there would be some negativity from those people that don’t use or know Fantasy Grounds, and while there has been some of that, much of the negativity I am seeing are from the people that are worried that the functionality that Tabletop Connect has is going to disappear. The beauty of this is that Carl started this journey because he found Fantasy Grounds too clunky and now he is going to be helping them convert the system across to Unity, he will be fixing that in the ways that he did with Tabletop Connect. That is the key. Doug and Carl have come to an agreement where none of the Tabletop Connect users will be disadvantaged (licences will be mapped across to Fantasy Grounds to the most similar tier) to the point that they are even going to refund the Kickstarter money to users that do not want to take up Fantasy Grounds. That is hugely generous from Smiteworks, and I really hope that many people do not take that option. The combination of these tabletops is going to be phenomenal.
Doug had been keeping an eye on Tabletop Connect from very early on and the growth of the project has been providing “very clever solutions to problems they both had” and the fact that they were “moving in a direction that they [Fantasy Grounds] wanted to be” for the new interface in Unity. The move to Unity, according to Doug, is for the flexibility of the interface with its two dimensional and three dimensional support built in. He can see users using it how they want, in effect switching the two dimensional to three dimensional on and off as simple options and using it how they envision they want to. There will be a load of flexible options in the new interface that Unity allows which are simply not plausible in the current legacy code of the tool. The pick up of Carl is a huge acquisition for Fantasy Grounds according to Doug. His knowledge of Unity and his ability to produce solutions will slingshot the new interface to users in a much speedier fashion.
The evolution of Fantasy Grounds this year has been rapid. The integration with Steam, the deal making Dungeons and Dragons an exclusive (for the moment) with Fantasy Grounds and now the new interface coming up has produced a big level of growth that has allowed them to grow to the point where Carl has been able to be put on full time by the company. The new interface will likely be coming out with a Kickstarter in 2016. This is likely to be early to mid 2016 which will allow access to users to test and work toward completing the interface in the best way possible. Doug is looking at this as a way of furthering the acceptance and knowledge of Fantasy Grounds in the wider community. It is unusual to think from my perspective that other people still are completely unaware of Fantasy Grounds.
One of the major issues the followers of Tabletop Connect were concerned about was the loss of the way that Character Sheets were created. When I asked Doug about this and if it is intended to be incorporated. Doug agreed that this was a highlight and something that they are keen to work on for the new interface. He sees Carl’s solution to be a simple one and in Doug’s words “often the simplest solutions are the best.” Of course, there could not be any specific talk as to exactly how this would be implemented as it is still very early days and there are many i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed before they can get into the real business of merging these two products to create that interface.
I also pointed out to Doug how well Carl had evoked the feeling of playing a game at the kitchen table and asked if this was a big reason for the acquisition. I got a nice cryptic response which pointed to the fact that they had already been working on a concept to enhance that themselves, a concept that is likely to be a part of the Kickstarter for the Beta. he did not elaborate but that sounds very cool to me. I love to use a virtual tabletop that makes you feel as though you are just sitting around the kitchen table so I am hoping the Kickstarter happens as soon as it can.
The interface is hopefully going to be able to provide a journal for use inside it. This is likely to replace many of the windowed options in the current portion of Fantasy Grounds. Inclusive of this is the idea that they hope to be providing some of the rules for the systems in a similar way that evokes actually playing with a book. This has already been discussed with Carl and is one that I am excited to have a look at.
I asked Doug, while I had his attention, if there is any news on the Dungeon Master Guide for Fantasy Grounds and it sounds as though they are on their way. The code is going through a bit of polish, and then there will be testing and making sure that it does what it should when it should. Due to the number of magic items in the game they want to try and make sure they do this as correctly as they possibly can when it is implemented. It certainly sounds like it is something that may precede the interface change.
Carl is excited to get started and see how Fantasy Grounds works internally. He is familiar with the external, but as a true programmer he wants to take a look under the hood and see how it really works. Beyond this he is keen to find what is there already that can be adapted to the interface work. Talking to him it is really apparent that he has a real love of interface design. His knowledge of these systems and the theory behind them is very impressive. In fact if I played the recording to you of the interview between Carl, Doug and myself it sounds much of the time like software programming nerds having an awesome little chat about programming quirks.
I took a bit of time to ask Doug and Carl to see if they still play or if the land of the Virtual Tabletop has taken over their playing of games. The conversation swung around both computer and RPG’s with us. Carl admitted that he had decided to work on virtual tabletops to play with old friends that were in different locations but the work has gotten too great. He did say that his brother had packaged up some games and he found his own red box D&D game and thought that it was his favourite game. I have to say, I feel a bit the same and have had the idea of playing through those box sets again seeing I picked them up earlier this year. Doug on the other hand plays a couple of times a month in a game but did point out that they do not really play over Fantasy Grounds inside the company and feels that they should get this going so that they can experience the running of the game from the perspective of how it is used rather than just testing it specifically under certain circumstances.
The community around Tabletop Connect have been very active in the past few days discussing the acquisition. Carl is keen to let them know that he wants that communication to continue with him. He believes that this is the best way forward for Tabletop Connect and stresses that if you do not feel the same, just keep an eye and an ear out for the changes of Fantasy Grounds. It may not be your pick at the moment but he feels that it soon will be with the direction that they are now headed for.
So, hopefully this post has helped you get an idea about what this acquisition is about. It is always about improvement with the Fantasy Grounds crew and the fact that they see Tabletop Connect as delivering a portion of that future. Doug and Carl really are working harder to make the virtual tabletop you play the best that it can be if you consider Fantasy Grounds and the future of that seems to be very exciting indeed. Keep rolling (virtually)!