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.