Long before the pandemic began, D&D was already heading online. Digital toolsets like D&D Beyond are far more efficient than pen and paper at tracking hit points, gear and level progression, Discord servers can be used to neatly file campaign information, while the world’s first virtual tabletop, Fantasy Grounds, launched in 2004, challenging the possibilities of in person play.
During various lockdowns I played D&D more than ever, as not only did my regular Barcelona-based in person group switch to Zoom, but – having made the jump to online play – it suddenly didn’t make sense not to roll dice with my London friends either. Being 1km or 1500kms away stopped making a difference, as valuable travel time was eradicated and the whole RPG experience was streamlined into efficient 2-3 hour gaming sessions (with less time spent on social interaction, eating, drinking etc…. for better or worse!). Indeed, the speed and ease of logging in and out of a session meant I was able to join a third group. It seemed like I was playing D&D virtually every night!
Most of these online groups started very LoFi, by simply using video conference software like Skype, Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams, in tandem with screen sharing by the DM if they wanted to introduce a combat map. We learned that you can play a perfectly fine game like this. But as we got a little more used to hanging out online, we started using the Roll20 virtual tabletop software and our games have greatly benefited from doing so. Now, when a DM shares a combat map, each player can move their own tokens, while virtual dice, rulers (for measuring range) and dynamic lighting are fantastic ‘quality of life’ tools.
Given that my knowledge of the wide world of VTTs is still very basic, to tackle this topic seriously I’ve invited Robin from Golem Factory to do a deep dive into the subject. Hats off to Robin, he’s done a great job and below you’ll find a near comprehensive list of your VTT options for Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, from comparing the already renowned Roll20 vs. Fantasy Grounds, to previewing up and coming 3D projects. I’m confident your online game will benefit from his insights!
And while I think I’ll alway prefer the old-school paper and pencil in person meetings, with more and improved digital tools to take advantage of, I’m increasingly willing to enjoy different RPG session formats on their own merits.
The Rise of Virtual Tabletops (VTTs)
We’re all familiar with the struggles of organising a Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game. Trouble organising a date. Difficulty in finding someone who can host it. Last minute drop-outs. It goes hand-in-hand with a love of the game – an abiding hatred of the fact that it’s easier to coordinate a heist of a dragon’s hoard than it is to get everyone in one place for a full session.
One of the best and most common solutions is a virtual tabletop. These online platforms allow groups to get together remotely, eliminating a lot of the problems involved in organising sessions (and instead making the difficulty trying to get people to successfully connect to the right chatroom).
While virtual tabletops have understandably seen a bit of a boost in the last couple of years with everyone stuck inside, they’ve actually been around for a while. One of the first was Fantasy Grounds, which has actually been kicking about since 2004, but many might be more familiar with its free competitor Roll20 that emerged from a Kickstarter campaign in 2012. The other major VTT on the market, FoundryVTT, appeared more recently in 2019.
What Is a VTT? And How Do You Use It?
Virtual tabletops provide many of the same functions as playing in person, with the major ones offering character sheets, interactive maps, and in some cases even 3D dice rolling so it feels like the real thing. They’re a great option for those who need to play remotely, whether to help organise your games or need to find non-local players.
Players connect remotely to the server, set up any characters or settings the service offers or needs, and can then play D&D online as easily as in person.
But as well as bypassing the need to be in a room with every other player, these systems often offer a number of conveniences that are easy to overlook, like:
- Macros that let you automate common actions like specific dice rolls
- Dynamic lighting based on character vision
- Map exploration with physical walls
- Automated character creation
- NPC organisation
- Integrations for official content
There are loads of other features too, varying dramatically based on the VTT used. Accordingly, it’s not just playing at home that benefits: there are advantages to using VTTs in person as well.
How Do I Find a D&D Game Online?
There are a number of options available for players without a group, and to an extent it depends on the virtual tabletop you’re using. Many online DMs and players gather in Discord channels, on Reddit, or on specific D&D forums where they look for players.
The best way to find a D&D game online is to seek out communities of D&D players and get to know the people there first – this helps you find people you’ve got the right sort of group chemistry with. Otherwise, it can be all too easy to fall into a game that doesn’t suit your playstyle.
The Best VTTs for D&D
Different virtual tabletops offer different features at different costs. These are some of the most popular.
Cost: Free to play, with subscription options between $4.99 – $9.99/month
Roll20 is arguably the most popular VTT on the market at the moment, largely due to its free-to-play business model and game-finding options.
The system features a built-in game browser, allowing DMs to advertise to potential players and players to find a game in a system that suits them. The feature is one of Roll20’s key selling points, as it takes a lot of manual work out of the process of finding a game.
Roll20 macros also set the standard for many modern designs for new VTTs, giving players and DMs alike ways to roll quickly and easily without having to remember all their bonuses and stats.
But while Roll20 may be the industry standard at this stage, it often serves as a gateway to other VTTs; its buggy interface and unreliable voice service mean it can be frustrating for anyone using it on a regular basis, and the very limited storage space for free users mean that any long-term player is either going to have to start paying the subscription fees – with no permanent licence options – or spend half their time deleting old maps.
- Free to play
- Built-in game finding options
- Dice and ability macros
- Wide native support for official D&D content
- Dynamic lighting
- Token animation
- Easy to set up and use
- Roll20 mobile beta offers completely computer-free playing options
- Roll20 subscription model may not be cost-effective for all if not using the free version
- Limited storage space for free users
- Can be buggy with a clunkier user interface than Roll20 alternatives
- Official content licences can be expensive
Cost: One-off $50 payment by the Dungeon Master
Foundry is one of the strongest options in the VTT market at the moment. High levels of customisability and a slick user interface make it infinitely adaptable to specific DM styles – but it is the Linux of VTTs, with lots of setup required to get things working and configured properly.
Because it can be run off your own computer, storage isn’t limited like Roll20 beyond whatever storage you already have, but those with slower internet might turn instead to hosting it on a server, which comes with its own costs. At any rate, this means Foundry is scalable – but whether you want to put in the time and energy scaling it is up to you.
The core functionality of the game is still very impressive, with dynamic lighting and collision-enabled walls and doors meaning you could build a huge map in the service and have players walk around with no fear that they’ll enter an area they shouldn’t. The experience is also a lot smoother than Roll20, and at times feels more like a finished product.
Foundry really shines in its modules, however – user-generated scripted materials that change how the system is set up. Whether it’s a function to allow characters to light torches on the fly or a whole rework of how combat is handled, there are loads of different ways to configure your system, all free.
- Lots of customisation options with user-made modules
- Easy to use once set up how you like
- Self-hosted options mean no limit on storage space beyond what your computer/server offers
- Smooth user interface
- Macro options
- One-off purchase by only one player can be cheaper in the long run
Dynamic lighting and collision-enabled walls (with options for secret doors, invisible walls etc.) included in base game
- Supports animated files from maps software
- Requires a computer or a server to host the game
- Moderately complex technical setup required
- No official content available
- Can be overly intensive on lower end computers
3. Fantasy Grounds
Cost: $3.99/month or $9.99/month subscription, $39.99 or $149.99 licence; with the higher cost licence, others can play in your game for free.
Fantasy Grounds is the longest standing major virtual tabletop for a reason. With more licences for official material than any other VTT and a D&D-led design, it feels a lot stronger for the game out of the box than most other VTTs.
The higher costs and slightly more complex interface might put many players off, but it’s particularly popular with D&D personality Matt Colville, who insists on it as the better Roll20 alternative.
Fantasy Grounds is great for running D&D games, including repeating the same adventure – as you’re able to save bundles of assets as a single module and import that into a game. That can be a great feature for anyone running a one shot with multiple groups.
It’s also built specifically for D&D, and it shows; much of the busy work involved in setting things up is taken care of by the system. Adding a background to a new character, for example, automatically adds proficiency in the relevant skills.
That automation can be welcome, but for those with more custom stories and worlds going on, it may actually be intrusive at times – if you’re not following the standard rulings, it can be hard to track everything that’s being changed automatically for you.
Fantasy Grounds Unity is the newer version, but older games may still be running on Fantasy Grounds Classic.
- Longest standing VTT with generations of fans
- Designed D&D-first with many game mechanics incorporated more naturally than in other systems
- More official licences than any other VTT, with less configuration required to run them
- Cheaper licences than for Roll20
- Save adventures you make as modules that can loaded later
- Highest costs of major VTTs
- Steep learning curve on the UI
- Much less support for non-D&D systems
Other Major VTTs
While most players will stick with one of the three major VTTs just out of familiarity, there are loads of options out there, with more coming out all the time. Some of the others include:
4. Beyond Tabletop
As a free VTT, Beyond is accessible to all – but perhaps suffers a little from the lack of funding in terms of automation and added functionality. That said, it does replicate the feel of pen and paper games more accurately than the feature-heavy VTTs, and may be a good choice for players who don’t want more than a remote way to play.
5. Game Master Engine
Cost: $49.99 for the DM
Game Master Engine offers 3D world-building with immersive environments, cool lighting, and even weather effects. It’s not a fully fledged VTT however, as it doesn’t offer much in the way of game support, and is more of a map service with lobbies.
A straightforward and easy-to-use system, Tableplop is a great entry point for those looking to explore VTT options. It’s still under development and lacks some of the more advanced features of other systems, but being both free and available on mobile, it has a lot to offer.
7. Tabletop Simulator (TTS)
Cost: $19.99, or $59.99 for four copies
Not specifically designed for D&D and not at all built around the ruleset, Tabletop Simulator is nonetheless an option if you’re looking to really create the feel of a “virtual tabletop”. It functions as a first-person video game and offers VR elements alongside 3D interaction, but no significant features that you wouldn’t get out of a real table.
Another 3D offering, TaleSpire is a complete VTT with a lot to offer in addition to its impressive graphics and broad tile sets – including upcoming support for importing popular HeroForge figures. It’s still in relatively early development and lacks some of the quality of life features available in larger VTTs, but it’s well on its way to drawing in many D&D fans.
The VTT market is constantly expanding, and there are some in early access, beta, or not yet released that are worth keeping an eye on as they develop.
9. Let’s Role
There’s not currently a lot to see on the Let’s Role website, but it promises a free system with microtransactions for dice and sheet skins, features like video maps and shared journaling, and online storage. As stands, the Kickstarter doesn’t have a lot to indicate what it’ll do differently from other, less microtransaction-y services, but with €287,080 from backers, it’s off to a good start on development.
Role is heavily focused on video chat in a way that other VTTs aren’t, so if your D&D games are a way to connect with friends who aren’t local, or if streaming your games is your focus, it may be the ideal platform. Early reviews praise the audio and video quality, reinforcing that as its base, and the UI is much easier to approach than some of the heavily loaded options – but as an early access product, there’s still a lot to be developed.
Getting Started with VTTs
Different virtual tabletops will suit different groups, and it may take exploring a handful of them before you find one that matches both your playstyle and your price point.
But while it’s always possible to play without using anything except pen, paper, and your imagination, it’s definitely worth seeing what these systems can offer: you may find that some of the tools can improve even a game hosted in person!
Robin Langfield Newnham is the founder and owner of Golem Factory, where he writes adventures and creates content for Dungeons and Dragons’ Fifth Edition. Golem Factory’s latest adventure Enter Rotkeep, a horror story for 7th level characters, is available here.