Virtual Tabletops – I am off the Fence

I promised a friend of mine that I would run him a game in Fantasy Grounds.  He has been wanting to do some Pathfinder but as I had just purchased the 5E core packs I talked him in to letting me run a game with that.  I spent the three days prior to today designing away to come up with a starter (1st level) adventure and a character for each of the classes so that the players could take their pick.  I finished this at around 11 P.M. last night and the game was set for me to run this morning at 8.  The game is a treasure hunt as the players get hired by a ship’s captain (read pirate) to get back a deed from a fellow captain who went missing on an island.  It is called the Leavings of Captain Fist, and I have to say, after completion I think it is one of my better efforts yet.

I am going to run it for some Aussies and New Zealanders too starting this week and then I will be sure to share the adventure up here for you all.  Part of the reason for this was to put Fantasy Grounds to the test again though.  I have one person in particular that always goes “Huh, why Fantasy Grounds?” and when I am finished he asks me for an honest answer about which I prefer between that and Roll 20.  Each time I have always given a non-committal answer like “They both have their strengths”.  Well, today I get off the fence.  I have had my eyes opened in the past few weeks to some things that should always be in your Virtual Tabletops but are not.

Dungeons and Dragons
The gateway to 5E Dungeons and Dragons is here

What is the major difference between these two products?  Well, let me say that one works really well and integrates the game system that you are using into it really well.  Sure, there are bugs but it is set up to really save the GM some time and work toward making things easy with the system rather than be everything to everyone.  They fit in a lot of the major systems and community support is strong with them filling in some of the more cult classic style games.  The other VTT that is in the race does not deal so well with the system, in fact it is almost like they are saying we do not care too much about the system, that is your worry.  We will give you slick effects and real ease in incorporating your own images in, oh and by the way if you are really cluey and understand scripting you can put together whatever the hell you want and we will open it up to you.

The first system I spoke about there is Fantasy Grounds and the second is Roll 20.  One of the players said to me today “Oh sure you can do that with Fantasy Grounds but it could be done in Roll 20 too.”  And he was right, the difference is it was an innate tool in Fantasy Grounds and in Roll 20 you would have to program it yourself or find someone that has programmed it in (probably untested and unsupported) and is willing to give it to you.  On top of it you are then going to have to install it with dodgy instructions.

This leads me on to the next subject of support.  I have had issues with both of these products and the response time for support with both is great.  I am a mentor on Roll 20 and have direct email access for support and I do not really know what the go is with support apart from forums with Fantasy Grounds but the community is really strong there.  The difference here is that with Roll 20 they say here is your answer.  With Fantasy Grounds they say here is your answer and then from a few hours to a couple of days later, they come back and say how did that work out for you?

Now let us talk community.  I have had plenty of dealings with both communities and I have to say that I am really sour on the Roll 20 community.  I used to be across every technical update and trying all the new things as they hit the VTT, but then character sheets happened and I was all over it.  Once released to the general server I hit the Pathfinder sheet so hard, and found it to be almost unusable.  I then asked support and they responded that the character sheets were a community support thing and they do not guarantee them but talk to the author.  I sent a list of questions about how can I get x, y and z working in the way it should and I received a short email full of less than polite prose that left me incredibly disillusioned with them.  The result is I barely even look at new features in that tabletop as the Roll 20 team seem to be letting people who are good at macros make their system look good while they produce comics and play games with one another and broadcast them.

On the other hand the Fantasy Grounds community are friendly and welcoming.  Sure, a lot of it is done via forums and I do not like forums but members of the community have approached me and said “Hey Mark, would you like to run something in FG Con?”  The head of the company has said “Hey Mark, I read your blog and see you are interested in FATE Core and have a copy of Fantasy Grounds, would you like to test our new FATE adaption?”  These people are about making it right.  I can shoot off a question to members of this community and they never get tired of me.  They are excited when I am excited and give me great advice every time.

Let us now talk about how they operate.  I was in a role playing chat the day that Fantasy Grounds announced there deal with D&D.  One of the participants pointed out to someone that the files for Fantasy Grounds exist on your computer and when a game is run it is using the Game Master’s machine as the server.  With Roll 20 they have their own servers and use of them occurs via http protocol where you send a request to roll the dice, the server works out what happens and sends something to your computer to emulate it.  Now, take for example, if both companies went bust.  I still have the files for Fantasy Grounds on my machine and they will still work and I can continue with everything I had up until that time.  If Roll 20 goes bust they go in, shut down there servers and all that campaign prep and material I had is gone.  I much prefer to keep my campaign material with me.

And finally the cost question.  When I first got Fantasy Grounds this was a big detractor for a lot of people.  You could buy a GM license but then your players would also need to buy a player license.  Or you could buy an Ultimate license and then nobody needed a license to play with you.  I opted for that option because I do not believe in making people pay to play with me.  It cost me around $150.00 in Australian Dollars at the time.  People were incredulous that I would spend that much.  I have just spent a further $130.00 to get the D&D materials.  But you see, there is no further cost to me.  Every upgrade, I get.  Period.  There is a subscription service now too that makes the ultimate for $9.99 monthly USD.  The same as the level for Roll 20’s mentor program.  I have been a member of the Mentor program since 23 of March 2013.  That means I have paid 24 $9.99 subscriptions to Roll 20 (USD) making the total price I have paid for it $239.76 USD.  That is about the same as the Fantasy Grounds fees I have paid.  But to continue getting the flash level stuff I have to keep paying that to Roll 20 and with Fantasy Grounds, one fee and I am done.

To me, after playing with these systems for such an extended time there is one thing I want from a VTT and that is system support.  I love knowing that I can import my Pathfinder Character from Hero Lab straight into Fantasy Grounds.  I love the fact that I do not need to keep looking up Armor Class values for the seventeen different creatures in the battle and the tool immediately tells the player if they hit or not.  I look at Roll 20 and the bulk of my time is spent building dynamic light maps because it looks cool.  Yes, it does look cool but it does not help me save time in a game.  Some of the macro’s I have seen look incredible, but knowing that I have to install them and ask community members for them just make me feel like it is not worth it.  So, person who always asks me which is better, I am off the fence.  Get Fantasy Grounds.  I am sorry that you can’t get dynamic lighting but honestly, the time it will save you because of their focus on systems over flash will end up saving you hours of lost game time looking at reference material.


  1. Fantasy Grounds is definitely the way to go. I was looking to pick up the Ultimate License with tax money, but wound up not being able to. One time fee, rule system support, and being able to buy modules just outweighs Roll20. I used to use MapTool exclusively for my VTT, but found myself fiddling with the maps too much (line of sight, auto revealing FoW, light sources, etc.) that I wasn’t properly prepared to run the game. Unfortunately, that mistake turned into a near TPK because I didn’t read a creature’s statblock properly and gave the creature an attack it didn’t have. I lost players over that, even though I rectified the situation. Another problem with MapTool is it is no longer being supported; there are no updates anymore (which may have changed, haven’t checked in a while). I still use MapTool to create maps, though, because I am used to it and have a sizeable image library. I can whip out a map in no time flat. I used Roll20 a couple of times and do like it, but again, too much prep setting up stuff which was taking away from being prepared to run the adventure itself. I also had problems with the sessions, mainly the game crashing and running slow, but I think that was problems with my laptop. Once I can afford it, definitely going with FG. For me, it seems like the best option.


  2. Well, one thing you didn’t cover is the fact that roll 20 is web based, which makes it cross system compatible. FG, lets face it, is Windows only. Yes, you can use WINE or screw around with non dmg OSX setup, but what a bad customer experience.


    1. Sean, I have Fantasy Grounds working on Wine in an elementary linux setup. There was one step I needed to do as I installed as I got an error when it tried to start up where it told me something about BASE not being loaded. To fix this I had to go into the files that it sets up under the user C:/Users/Mark/Application Data/Fantasy Grounds/rulesets and delete the packages in that folder. Then restart and it works. Depending on your network setup you may then need to fix port forwarding but there is a lot of help on the messsage boards for that. It works absolutely the same as it does on my Windows distro.


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