When people learn I didn't play a proper pen-and-paper game of Dungeons & Dragons until my mid-20s, they usually think my rural Texas upbringing had something to do with it—that my parents feared calling myself ‘Crunchytacos the Horseback Wizard’ for a few hours at a time might lead to the damnation of my immortal soul. There was a (tiny) bit of that, sure, but the truth is I simply never managed to find anyone else who could imagine high adventure in masses of calculated sums on scratch paper.
How I wish I’d had something then like Fantasy Grounds, Roll20, or any one of a number of the "virtual tables" now available that simulate the classic D&D tabletop environment on the PC. The best ones handle much of D&D's busywork, leaving the fun stuff like embarking on fully custom adventures with friends as strong as ever. Better yet, their Internet connectivity means no longer having to hunt down enough people to play with, or losing great D&D friends to distance and circumstance.
Recently, instead of trying to find D&D friends on Craigslist in a part of the US where more people know about bovine palpation than rolling for initiative, I went on a quest to find the best PC tools for running or improving a D&D campaign. Here’s what I discovered.
What it's best at: Authentic D&D campaigns with licensed modules; extensive customization, if you develop the programming skills necessary to write your own rulesets and character sheets.
Website: Fantasy Grounds | Price: $40 per license, or $150 for an Ultimate license that can run the game for multiple players.
Fantasy Grounds comes highly recommended among D&D players—including Jordan Thomas, the creative director for BioShock 2 and senior writer for Bioshock Infinite. Several times a month, he uses it to play D&D with other professional writers who've worked on games like Halo and Borderlands.
He especially admires it because it offers official D&D modules from Wizards of the Coast. The robust virtual tabletop snagged the license back in 2014, and since then the developers have embraced the concept as giddily as a gelatinous cube sweeps up tunnels. It's all right here, down to automatic calculations for resists from the 5th edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and even licensed modules for other RPGs like Call of Cthulhu and Castles & Crusades. And the best part? As Thomas says, "All I really have to do is plug them in."
The game files are stored on your computer, so you don't have to worry about fiddly things like server crashes and online storage space for tokens. It's also available on Steam, and while it doesn't offer any kind of in-game Looking for Group tool, Fantasy Grounds' forums buzz with helpful Dungeon Masters advertising games familiar and obscure. It's a shame there's no built-in webcam support, but most groups do fine using a third-party service like Skype or, in Thomas' case, GoToMeeting.
Yet if you plan on playing Dungeon Master and taking advantage of Fantasy Grounds' huge range of options, dig in your heels and brace yourself for a decent learning curve. Sure, it allows you to make house rules and character sheets, but only if you know programming like Steph Curry knows basketball. Even as a player, I found it still took hours to feel my way around. Fortunately, Fantasy Grounds boasts a ton of video tutorials in its wiki.
The catch? It costs a dragon's hoard. The single license costs $40, but you'll end up paying $120 if you want to buy four more licenses for other friends to play with you. The price goes up further when you tack on the D&D modules themselves, which start at $20 for some campaigns and jump to $50 each for class and monster packs.
It's not as bad as it sounds in practice, as much of this works out to similar costs as the printed materials from Wizards of the Coast. In fact, many serious DMs are like Thomas, who opted the $149 Ultimate License (also available monthly for $9.99), which lets any and all invited players join the fun, even if they've only downloaded the free demo client.
What it's best at: Can run virtual campaigns or augment pen-and-paper ones. A dynamic lighting system tracks player vision and integrated video/voice chat simplifies online play.
Website: Roll20 | Price: Free, or $5 per month for a premium account that supports up to 1GB of uploadable assets for customization.
If all that talk of money frightens you, take heart: Roll20 is free and fun. It may not have official Dungeons & Dragons modules, but it does have user-made D&D projects as well as native support for webcams, freehand drawing, Google Hangouts, and a "3D Quantum Roll" that (get this) grants true randomness "based on the power fluctuations of a split beam of light." It boasts a "jukebox" that lets you yank music and ambient sounds from SoundCloud's full library (although it won't let you upload your own music), and it allows a dizzying range of customization for maps, tokens, and more. Its menus are a bit drab, but they're intuitive almost to the point of genius, and the package is especially celebrated for its fantastic line-of-sight dynamic lighting system.
Small wonder that over a million players reportedly use Roll20 regularly. The forums are full of helpful players happily answering even the most noobie questions, and it has a built-in tool that easily lets players find open games of their choosing. Importing is a breeze.
That's a pretty big list of pluses, but Roll20 isn't without a few drawbacks. For one, it's browser based, which means your gameplay's subject to the vagaries of the server. It may cost nothing up front, but the free version restricts you to 100 MB for uploadable assets; to get 1GB, you'll need to fork over $4.99 a month or $49 per year. You also can't use the dynamic lighting functions unless you pay the sub, although you'll still have a fog of war option if you choose not to pay.
But these are hardly deal killers. And if you're relatively new to D&D and want a friendly place to hop in, Roll20's probably the best place to do it outside of a dining room table with friends.
What it's best at: Fully simulating the tabletop experience, including the table. Extensive mod support allows for playing a variety of games, from D&D to chess.
Website: Tabletop Simulator | Price: $20
Tabletop Simulator let me play a brief session of D&D in Skyrim's Jorrvaskr longhall with a Steam Workshop mod, and I'm tempted to call it the best based on that experience alone. It's certainly the most literal of the virtual tables: upon booting it up after forking out $20, I found myself standing around what looked like a real, physical (if slightly pixelated) table. When I found I could scoop up the dice and throw them across a huge range of customizable 3D boards with satisfying tumbles, I briefly ceased to care about how little it offered in the way of automation.
It doesn't hurt that the whole business is beautifully moddable, allowing the creation of room-sized tables complete with rulesets lining the board. When I tried to import a map I'd sketched out on paper and uploaded to Imgur, I found I only needed to link the file's URL in a little menu for it to show up on the playing surface.
Too bad that these pretty boards and their huge files and multiple pieces sometimes hobble the pace on weaker machines. Tabletop Simulator just isn't that friendly to pen-and-paper RPGs in general, in fact, as much of the work still has to take place on actual paper. It's got cool animated figures like trolls and goblins in its RPG set, but preparing the areas take a load of time and creating effects like a fog of war require an extra bit of GM interaction. It's definitely a looker, but probably best used for D&D as a dice roller at best.
It does offer one huge advantage, though: if you're sick of how a session is going, you can flip the table and send the pieces flying into the virtual wind.
What it's best at: Extensively customizable, but you'll need real programming knowledge to get much out of it. Also, free.
Website: MapTool | Price: Free
It only takes one second to understand why the free Java-based MapTool calls itself "the Millennium Falcon" of RPG software. I mean, God, look at it. It's like a relic from the days when Geocities was bigger than Kanye West, and it sometimes plays like it, too.
Though it's improved in recent years, it's still subject to a frightful number of disconnects and Java issues, which can leave players throwing up their hands and refusing to play until everyone switches over to Roll20.
But yes, it'll get you where you want to go. Just don't expect record-breaking Kessel Runs. It's powerful, offering both dynamic lightning and automatic calculations as well as a pile of other features, but if you want to use it for anything more intensive than a virtual map, you're going to have to know how to code and spend a lot of time doing it.
The good news is that its strong open-source community has already handled most of the tough stuff (and provided links for it), but it's still comparatively rough territory for novice DMs. There's also a new app based on MapTool's open-source code called Mote, and while it offers many some improvements, it's still very much a work in progress
Keep in mind that all this says little about the wealth of tutorials sprawling across YouTube and on the official forums for each service, and it excludes a host of lesser known virtual tables like d20Pro, OpenRPG, the Gametable Project, and Battlegrounds: RPG Edition, all of which have their own unique appeal.
None of these fully supplant the magic of playing with a classic table group, not even AltspaceVR, which brings virtual tabletops to virtual reality. But they solve problems that were unsolvable just 20 years ago, and they ease the journey in for newcomers. Happy hunting.