Skip to content

Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds – a comparison

I recently returned to role-playing games after 23 or so years away. In that intervening period, I got married, had kids, built a career and generally became quite time poor.

The biggest realisation was that finding time to play was going to be challenging. If I was going to play then it would need to be nearby and it couldn’t start until the kids went to bed. As you can imagine, I didn’t have much joy with that, so I began playing by post in order to get back into gaming. But it was slow, and I wanted to play ‘properly’.

In seeking out a solution to my problem, I came across a number of ‘virtual tabletops’. Most prominent amongst these seemed to be Fantasy Grounds and Roll20. These services would allow me to play exactly as I wanted to. I could find a group near to home. Well, not exactly near to home – the players were actually from all over the world – but I played from the front room of our house. What’s more, with such a diverse pool of games and players to choose from, my requirement to start slightly later in the evening made little difference. I could always find players somewhere who were online at any time of day and night.

But then I hit a snag. Which virtual tabletop should I use? I’m sure you may be asking yourself the same question. Over the past year, I’ve used both quite extensively and in this article I compare the two virtual tabletops in a number of different categories and will award a winner in each category.

  • Set up and ease of use
  • Cost
  • Ease of joining or recruiting for a game
  • Designing an adventure and encounters
  • Running a combat encounter
  • In game book-keeping (e.g. experience, party loot etc)

Set up and ease of use

The two services work in slightly different ways. Fantasy Grounds is a piece of software which needs to be installed while Roll20 runs in the browser. Immediately this gives Roll20 the edge as there is no complicated set up, you just sign in to the site, open up your game and go. Fantasy Grounds has the added complication of needing to tweak your firewall to allow incoming connections from your players (if you are running as the DM). While this is not so complex a process as to be insurmountable, it’s not for beginners either.

Verdict: Roll20 has the edge here by a considerable margin.


Cost

Both services offer a premium level of access and both offer free access. To play using either you only need a free account (in Fantasy Grounds case though, this is only true if the GM has an ‘Ultimate’ account). Only Roll20 let’s you GM a game for free though. Using Roll20, an entire group can play without paying a penny. This will make it a more appealing product than Fantasy Grounds if you happen to have a limited budget. Sure, there are no bells and whistles and you’ll need to do a lot of leg work as a GM, but it can be done. With Fantasy Grounds someone or everyone is paying (they offer a standard account rate where a GM with a standard account can host a game for other standard account holders, but not free account holders).

Verdict: Roll20 again. It’s indisputably cheaper.


Ease of joining and recruiting for a game

Roll20 has a built in Looking for Group tool in the app, whereas Fantasy Grounds depends on recruitment forums to find players or sign up for games. While the latter is not exactly difficult to negotiate, it’s not as slick as a dedicated tool.

Roll20 games do tend to be ridiculously over-subscribed though and it’s not unusual to try and sign up for a game to find 20 applications already submitted before you, all with full backstories and portraits of the character. For all of the ease of use of the Roll20 looking for group tool, I’ve generally had more success finding a game on Fantasy Grounds, even if it’s more cumbersome.

Of course, none of this matters if you are the GM. You’ll be in high demand and have your pick of players. As a GM, Roll20’s interface is far easier to keep track of and approve players to your game with.

Once you’ve been accepted into a game, connecting and playing in Roll20 is much less arduous than the Fantasy Grounds equivalent which is convoluted and arduous, at least for the first couple of times you do it.

Verdict: I’m a user experience designer so the Roll20 approach ticks that box for me, however the fact of the matter is that Fantasy Grounds just shades it in terms of there being greater chance of finding a game and there generally being less time-wasters (due to the higher cost involved). Fantasy Grounds hands down.


Designing an adventure and encounters

Fantasy Grounds is streets ahead here. It’s not clear how you go about setting up an encounter in Roll20. While there is an extensive Wiki explaining it, it’s unlikely that anyone will invest the many hours needed to read it.

Fantasy Grounds has clear interface elements labelled ‘Story’, ‘Images/Maps’, ‘Encounters’ and ‘Parcels’. While it’s still challenging, it’s much clearer where everything lives. What’s more, the ability to drag and drop any of these elements on to a map for a quick ‘Google Maps’ style push-pin link is invaluable when it comes to running the game.

In contrast, setting up an encounter in Roll20 is unclear, necessitates the creation of multiple ‘Handouts’ and is not automated in terms of working out the Challenge Rating of the encounter you are building. Fantasy Grounds even has tables which generate loot and magic items.

While it’s clear this is because Roll20 is much more system agnostic, as a GM anything which saves you time and effort is hugely beneficial.

Verdict: Fantasy Grounds is untouchable in this regard.


Running a combat encounter

Running a combat encounter is a core part of any online tabletop. Each of the two services takes a different approach. With Roll20’s system agnostic approach, it lets you do all the rolls but all of the mechanics are up to you as a player or GM to apply. This is good and bad. It’s good in that it allows Roll20 to be used for any RPG system you could possibly think of. It’s not constrained by having to follow a ruleset. Where it’s bad is that it doesn’t support automatic resolution for more popular rulesets like 5e or Pathfinder, even though (in the case of 5E) it supports other elements of these rulesets (like monster manual, magic items, 5eSRD etc).

Fantasy Grounds does it all for you basically. If an attack or spell triggers a saving roll, well it makes that for you. Damage is applied to players and monsters. It’s a big weight off the DM’s mind allowing you to focus on the story. The only problem I found was that as a rusty, returning DM, it perhaps did too much and didn’t help me learn the game for the times that I might run a game in person.

Fantasy Grounds handles initiative very well, automatically rolling and adding opponents to the combat tracker. Roll20 needs it to be done manually. Not a deal breaker but irritating enough if you have a few encounters with multiple opponents per session.

Verdict: Fantasy Grounds walks this one.


In-game book keeping

Roll20 doesn’t support any of this beyond providing bubbles above tokens to manually track hit points. There is no mechanism in the application for tracking XP or party treasure. While this isn’t an issue if you are running a one shot, for a longer campaign it means more work for the DM. Not more work than a standard in person game obviously but the difference compared to the wealth of options Fantasy Grounds provides is noticeable.

Fantasy Grounds offers a slew of functionality around this. Encounters can be dragged to the party sheet once completed which results in XP being split evenly. Treasure can be generated, distributed and even sold by players within the interface, with them receiving the proceeds in coins. It’s impressive.

Verdict: Fantasy Grounds again. By a length.


Overall

Fantasy Grounds just pips this one for me. While Roll20 has some great features, not least dynamic lighting, the ability to access it via a web browser from anywhere and a lot of freedom around different rules sets, Fantasy Grounds reduces the GM’s burden significantly. From my own personal perspective, being time poor, this is crucial.

That’s not to say I won’t continue to use and enjoy both but for an involved campaign like the one I am currently running, Fantasy Grounds doesn’t just facilitate my game, it improves it dramatically.

Return of the DM View All

I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.

15 thoughts on “Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds – a comparison Leave a comment

  1. Nice write up. I have seen a few youtube vids of FG games and the automation definitely looks nice. I have run a long campaign for 1.5 years on Roll20 as a free sub and it works well. We really enjoy the integrated video features. Setting up encounters is very much like a table top experience, lots of paper notes etc. I am looking forward to running a Tales of the Yawning Portal dungeon crawl in roll20 as i want to see how they have it all organised.

    We have utilised macro’s quite extensively as well. I guess the cost really is the only thing stopping me from trying FG properly. I doubt my friends would sign up which would mean an ultimate sub or purchase for me then the Yawning Portal purchase. Thanks for the write up though.

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment. I’ve spent a bit more time with both services since I wrote that article – with a lot more exposure to Roll20 – and that’s changed my views on some things. For me, the two services are really split in their strengths.

      Roll20 (in some respects, not all) is actually much better for the DM setting up a session (contrary to my previous opinion). The map ribbon bar at the top and (if you have the Monster Manual), the dragging and dropping of combat tokens on to the map really makes setting up a session quick and easy. I didn’t appreciate that at the time but having set up a few sessions since (and purchased the Monster Manual) I can now see that it’s easier than I thought (although still poorly explained).

      The only place FG betters Roll20 in that respect is the ability to drag story and encounter ‘pins’ on to the map which allow you to click on them during the game and access the narrative for that area. Yes, you can do it in Roll20 with a number key in the GM layer along with corresponding journal entries, but from experience it’s manual so definitely slower and more clunky.

      Fantasy grounds absolutely still wins in the running combat stakes. It’s so much easier for the DM – no macros need to be written for NPC attacks etc because it’s all built in to the Combat tracker. But Roll20 isn’t so clunky you couldn’t use it.

      I currently have a secondary campaign running in Roll20 and I enjoy it. If they could manage to get the voice and video working consistently then Roll20 would probably be my VTT of choice just for the simplicity of having everything in one place and easy to access because it’s browser based. Unfortunately, we probably lose about 30 mins of each session reconnecting to the session to see if we can get everyone to be seen and heard before eventually just defaulting back to Discord.

      It’s a shame because the webcam is really the game changer for Roll20. It feels like an in person session when you can see people’s reactions. Sort that out and it would have my vote.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Been looking at pros/cons and one big BIG con is that FG is win/mac native only. On Linux FG needs to run wine and that means even more setup issues. FG really cripples things out the gate with free vs. pay although it appears that it can be a one and done payment which is nice. Browser based these days seems a no-brainer to get a larger audience, especially for VTT.

    Roll20 is heaps better from the agnostic side. (Traveller *cough* *cough*) although FG has implemented an outdated ruleset which is better than nothing.

    As to voice/audio, roll20 frankly….sucks. Which is why most games use discord for that and roll20 for the game. (A nice compromise.)

    And just a fyi, there is a new kid in town that is showing great promise. Still in open beta with some stuff not implemented yet, but is under heavy development at this point with good dev interaction over on discord.
    https://www.astraltabletop.com/

    Like

    • Hey. Thanks for the comment.

      Since I wrote the original blog post, I’ve spent a lot of time with both platforms. I’ve been a paid subscriber to both and I desperately want both to succeed. I play pretty much exclusively online so I’ve no interest in one system succeeding while the other fails. Choice is good.

      However, the conclusion I’ve definitely drawn over the last 2 years is that FG is infinitely superior to Roll20. Yes, it’s not browser based and it’s fiddlier to set up initially but the cloud based nature of Roll20 can be it’s downfall. Try and run a monster pre-purchased adventure with loads of visual assets (e.g. Curse of Strahd) and you’ll soon witness the limitations. Sluggish response times, lag, it’s all there. Because FG is a direct peer to peer link, it doesn’t suffer those limitations.

      In terms of payment, yes FG appears to cost more money at the outset. However, this isn’t actually a true reflection of total cost. FG actually gives you way more functionality for that money. I remember a highly detailed blog post recently (forgive me but I can’t for the life of me find the link) breaking down the cost of the two platforms. The conclusion was that to achieve the same functionality in Roll20 as in Fantasy Grounds you would actually need to take the highest paid Roll20 subscription AND do a lot of manual work around installing macros to make it happen. Furthermore, the Roll20 subscription was ongoing, meaning that while Fantasy Grounds caps out at a total of £149 for a one off payment license, you would need to keep paying £9.99 a month to Roll20 indefinitely to maintain the same feature set. As soon as you stopped the subscription then you’d lose access to the functionality. You can access FG full functionality for years and years at the same cost as only 12 months of Roll20. So if you used Roll20 for 3 years, you’d end up paying 3 times as much as you’d pay for Fantasy Grounds over the same period and the cost would continue to climb monthly.

      Finally, Fantasy Grounds just automates so much more than Roll20. As a 48 year old father of three young kids, my time is limited. With the automation in Fantasy Grounds I can get 4 hours worth of gaming out of a 3 hour session because I’m not running around manually updating or tracking stuff.

      Very interested in seeing what Astral has to offer though.

      Like

  3. Exactly in same circumstances you were three years ago or so when you wrote this. 🙂 Being older means the money isn’t as much a factor. Appreciated the article and points you raised! Looking forward to dipping my toe back in. Thanks again for article and comment/updates!, —Kevin

    Like

    • Thanks Kevin. I have to say, I’m a bit better disposed towards Roll20 these days but still prefer Fantasy Grounds for my main campaign as it automates so much. Roll20 is great for throwing together a one shot group on the fly, although for actual campaigns it can be daunting because the number of applications you can receive to play can be pretty daunting to sort through as the balance of users is skewed disproportionately towards more players than DMs. You tend to get a lot more in the way of idiots on Roll20 as well as ultimately it’s an easy entry point. There’s no outlay to sign up as a player, no need to install anything etc so it tends to attract people who are a wee bit more casual.

      Ultimately, either of them is a good route back in to gaming. Roll20 is lower in terms of initial price point although I’ve seen multiple blog posts showing that Fantasy Grounds is actually cheaper than paying the Roll20 subscription (which you’d need to do for Roll20 to have the same level of functionality as FG). Fantasy Grounds is a one off payment but Roll20 requires a continuous subscription and some understanding of how to install the API scripts to achieve the same functions.

      Good luck with your return to gaming. I’ve not looked back since.

      Like

  4. Which system is better for a homebrew D&D game. That is my issue, I run a hybrid 5e homebrew system and am curious as to which system would be better suited for a homebrew?

    Like

    • I guess it depends on what you mean by homebrew. If you mean homebrew setting then either is fine. Both support official and homebrew adventure content. You’ll have to do more work if you’re not using purchased adventures but the amount of work is comparable whichever system you use.

      For homebrew rules, Fantasy Grounds is probably better because there’s way more scope for editing the functionality on the official character sheets.

      Like

  5. I’m in also exactly the same position that you are/were.

    I’d devoted a good number of hours in the past couple weeks learning Roll20 to run some DnD (5e) now during Covid for my kids and their friends. But I was wondering, “Is time on Roll20 well spent? Or should I be looking at Fantasy Grounds?” I found your observations *very* meaningful. And not having used FG, I am now disposed not to try. It would be nice, but it would limit my ability to attract and retain players.

    That said, I am *stupefied* that Roll20 appears to have existed for so darn long with so many deep and obvious flaws! Hey, charge me a little more and fix this crap! Folks out there have written some wonderful scripts for buttons, nested routines for treasure, etc, etc. Why don’t they take some of those and have a “standard set”!?

    I was thinking, it is like you buy “a house” and you get a pile of lumber sitting on a lot. “You can build anything you want! Your flexibility is endless!” Yeah, sure … but I wanted something that *basically* works that I can maybe add on extra features, not something that I must put hours into just to use AT ALL.

    Anyway … maybe as we get older we are becoming that “grumpy old man” that we made fun of?

    Like

    • Hi Kevin. I’ve actually had a lot more time to reflect since I wrote this article and I’ve recently had a long stint of playing on Roll20 before returning to Fantasy Grounds.

      I’ve warmed to Roll20 in that time but I’m now more convinced than ever that Fantasy Grounds is the route I’m going to stick with.

      Firstly, FG has a full suite of features that are available for a one off payment and are available equally to DMs and players. Roll20 charges you monthly to install flaky and often conflicting third party scripts. Sometimes they stop working mid game and you end up having to restart your game to get them working again, which is tedious to say the least.

      More annoyingly, the DMs account type dictates everything. Even if you are a player with a Pro account, you can’t install API scripts to help you. Many of these scripts are aimed at players. If you have a pro account as a player then you should be able to install and run these scripts, even if only for your own use. Roll20 only allows the DM to install and configure these scripts and only if the DM has a pro account, which most don’t. Not only is it nonsensical but it’s a missed trick on their part as having access to those scripts would be worth paying for as a player. As it currently stands, as soon as I stop DMing and switch to playing then there’s no reason not to cancel my subscription.

      Furthermore, Roll20 is totally price gouging on official content. It’s a long running joke that you’ll pay $49.99 on Roll20 for the same thing as you pay $24.99 for on FG. The cloud based nature of Roll20 also counts against it. Back at the start of lockdown, when everyone went online, Roll20 could be a nightmare to try and manage a game with frequent outages and laggy episodes.

      Ultimately, the system you are running will dictate your VTT. For supported systems with official rulesets, then FG wins hands down in my opinion. Rules automation doesn’t sound like a huge bonus for a DM used to playing at the table but if you end up DMing online for a long period (e.g. COVID lockdown) then all those seconds you save add up over the long term. Roll20 on the other hand should be your VTT of choice for unsupported systems or less popular systems.

      Just my thoughts anyway.

      Like

      • It should be noted that currently I run for an established group so I’ve no need to recruit for players. At first glance, Roll20 does do a better job of providing a player recruitment portal. However the underlying truth is slightly more complicated.

        Roll20 attracts a lot of assholes. It’s a very cheap point of entry into the VTT world. Granted, FG demo is also free but there’s an additional step of downloading and installing which seems to be enough to weed out some of the dickheads.

        The Roll20 LFG tool is peppered with application spammers. There are so many players on Roll20 and so few DMs that players literally apply for everything that’s going in the hope of getting an offer. Often you can offer a slot in your game only to never hear from the player because they’ve gotten in somewhere else. Usually they don’t even inform you of that.

        The free aspect of it also attracts a fair deal of offensive edgelords. I’ve even had one player tell me that he hoped my son died of cancer (he had Leukaemia at the time) because I dared to double check with him whether he’d understood the timezone that the game was happening in.

        FG on the other hand seems to just have a better community. It seems more civilised and less self-centred. There’s a strong Discord community and a Fantasy Grounds College community as well. A lot of people on Roll20 are only interested in you if there’s a chance of a space in your game.

        I’d say that FG is a killer LFG tool short of stealing a significant portion of the users away from Roll20 once they release Unity. I also think that Foundry VTT, which is also nicely done, will also vacuum up a lot of their customer base.

        Like

      • Hmm … good to chew on …

        Yeah, I’d bought the pack on Roll20 to run Waterdeep: Dragon Heist specifically because I figure there’d be a lot of stuff out there for it (and I was right).

        So I bought the stuff on Roll20 to support that game cause I thought I’d see how a well-developed game might have all the parts for it done. Answer? Eh …. Yeah, its a start, but I’m spending lots of time getting new and different maps to replace what they have (what I’d already bought). Plus NO explanation on how the stuff is to be used.

        But then there’s the fact that the module — itself — is flawed in parts. A second floor in the maps that has no first floor below it. Monsters that are setup to do some idiotic stuff to “defend” themselves. Plot development that has the PCs go — for unknown or weak reasons — across town to some other place. I think there was a core good campaign idea there by some DM who made his or her short-hand notes … but was not developed enough by TSR (yes, I know its now WOTC, but Im still in denial).

        I suppose we just get more grumpy as time goes by.

        Like

  6. Yeah, I get grumpier as I get older as well.

    Personally I feel the quality of more recent WOTC 5e adventure releases have dipped a little. I’m playing through Waterdeep Dragon Heist just now as a player. While it’s a fine adventure, it follows the usual WOTC pattern of over complicating things with factions and politics which really doesn’t work for our group so well. I’ve become increasingly drawn towards the OSR and the gonzo, less politically intricate plots that result from beeing freed from the confines of the Forgotten Realms.

    WOTC has also opted for Dyson Logos style hand-drawn, low fidelity maps as standard these days. While they work well at the table, in the VTT space they are terrible. Using WDH as an example, the detail is strikingly poor in an environment (online) that everyone expects to be graphically rich. Often the squares in the maps are roughly drawn and don’t match the VTT squares. Of course, this isn’t exclusively a Roll20 issue as the same maps come with the FG release of the adventure but at least you can rest a bit easier knowing you paid $25 less than on Roll20 for such a bad experience. Moving away from the beautiful Mike Schley maps of earlier releases was a big mistake in my opinion.

    My biggest grievance with Roll20 off the shelf adventures is that they now seem to come set up for dynamic lighting and line of sight. In theory, this should be a good thing. The intention is to save the DM hours of work and enhance the immersion of the experience. Unfortunately, despite supposedly releasing an upgraded version of dynamic lighting, it just continues to at worst fail completely or at best work intermittently with absolutely no rhyme or reason. Sometime whether it works varies from token to token, even when the tokens have exactly the same settings. Because of this, the DM spends a shitload of time removing the dynamic lighting and putting all the NPC tokens back to the GM layer which is the opposite of what the developers set out to achieve.

    For me Roll20 seems way too rough around the edges to justify $9.99 a month. Of course, I pay it religiously every month, as well as owning both a Fantasy Grounds ultimate license and a Foundry VTT license. I’m a fan of VTT platforms. I play entirely online at the moment and I’m keen to support any organisation that is enabling that. However, with the exception of the addition of the charactermancer, I’ve seen very little in the way of anything new from Roll20 in years.

    Like

  7. I’ve actually just finished recording a panel for a convention I’m running (https://albacon.co.uk/) with representatives from Cubicle 7, Modiphius, Winghorn Press, Trollish Delver Games and the Rolistes Podcast.

    The main topic was “2020: A year in RPGs” and obviously online gaming and COVID came up, which inevitably led to a close inspection of the VTT scene. The general concensus was that WOTC isn’t even remotely hiding the fact that they are moulding D&D Beyond into a virtual tabletop exclusively for 5e. Given the proportion of games on Roll20 that are 5e, plus the far superior user experience of D&D Beyond (night and day compared to Roll20) then the only conclusion we could reach was that D&D Beyond will wipe Roll20 (and probably other VTTs) off the map and leave them scrabbling around for the scraps of other non-5e systems.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Chasing my Hunger

We all have a hunger. Well said Florence. Here is a humble attempt to recount my chase.

Double Jump

A blog run by two geeky sisters sharing their love for video games.

Jimmi Waz 'Ere

Blogging Miniature Wargames

Inside the Tower of Dust

The official blog of writer Andrew J. Luther

Diane Morrison

Speculative Fiction Writer

Unseen beauty

A blind UK blogger's thoughts on beauty and skincare products, animals, technology, travel, and accessibility issues

Longreads

The best longform stories on the web

Dyson's Dodecahedron

Award Winning Dungeon Design

Sage Advice D&D

Questions on Dungeons & Dragons answered by designers

Non-Washable Gamer

Games, Movies, Writing and other Creative Nonsense, Sometimes With Friends!

%d bloggers like this: