Save State Rolls Into Fantasy Grounds

Welcome back to Save State, where we’re not only killing time, we’re killing them softly. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preparing to host a Dungeons and Dragons campaign again for the first time in years. Due to the fact that now my closest friends and I all live hours apart from one another, it’s taken time and resources to find the best way to play long distance with them. To play Dungeons and Dragons online, you have a ton of great options, like Roll20, Tabletop Simulator, Foundry VTT, and more. I ultimately wound up going with Fantasy Grounds, which is a good deal more expensive than the other options but has a whole host of additional features that I hope my players can take advantage of, and some that should make my life a great deal easier.

Fantasy Grounds is a virtual tabletop (VTT), which means that you can plug in a ruleset and play a tabletop RPG with your friends online through the magic of the internet. Dungeons and Dragons is at a pretty high point in terms of popularity, not the least of which is due to a smash hit video game in the Baldur’s Gate franchise spurring it forward. Due to getting back into Dungeons and Dragons lately, I started looking for a good way to play with my friends long distance and stumbled upon Fantasy Grounds as my solution after trying a number of VTTs. The largest hurdle, in my mind, was gently nudging traditionally pen and paper players into a way we can all play online.

The level of automation in Fantasy Grounds is what I think will smooth over the transition of my players to virtual the most. By applying a ruleset, which in our case will be Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, the core engine of Fantasy Grounds actually understands what it takes to perform an attack action, for example, and can automate that for everyone involved. There’s no need to grab multiple extensions to make things work like when I last tried Foundry a few years ago because it works right out of the box.

The bad part about Fantasy Grounds automation is that it relies on you having rules sets and modules installed. The base 5e rules are free from what I remember, but anything else has a monetary investment cost where you’ll shell out some cash to get the rules, maps, tokens, and more directly injected into the system. Outside of the monetary cost, however, Fantasy Grounds is very plug and play, though if you want to spend your time adding the items individually, you totally can do so and export it all as a module for later use… though that’s pretty time consuming.

One of the features that drew me to Fantasy Grounds the most is that you can set up dynamic lighting, allowing you to indicate light sources and walls in an environment so you can limit information being fed to the players when in dark areas. If Dumpelstiltskin walks into a crypt and doesn’t have a torch, suddenly the adventure is a lot more harrowing for that character in particular, and he needs to rely on information fed to him by players with darkvision in order to make his actions.

Seeing player tokens or details can all be done with a click of the button. You can pin stories to your maps if you so choose, and you can also even hide tokens around the map to set up some combat encounters in advance, too. This is made even easier by the fact that maps can be built in Fantasy Grounds using art packs, though I do prefer to use something like Dungeon Alchemist to just quickly produce a decent-looking map with lighting effects and line of sight already included, ready for import into Fantasy Grounds.

There are some things that don’t seem to be automated well or properly, and those largely seem to be within the realm of spells. Thankfully, there are extensions that can fix that, like Rob Twohy’s 5e Effects Coding – Spells plugin, but it is a little strange that some spells perform strangely or just require a lot of time to resolve in comparison to performing an attack because the DM needs to look up saving throws, apply concentration, and more (Fantasy Grounds can keep track of concentration for some spells, but there was at least one from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything where I needed to manually apply the status to the spell caster. This extension automates that step among others, for example).

If there’s something Fantasy Grounds doesn’t do out of the box, there’s likely an extension that enables it. In this way, support for Fantasy Grounds, especially from its community, is very much like Foundry in how there’s probably an extension or plugin that can help resolve an issue you have in some way. Out of the box, Fantasy Grounds is the most full-featured VTT I’ve experienced by far. With a little bit of knowledge to web search plugins, you can likely get a homebrew campaign running much faster in Fantasy Grounds than you ever could in Roll20. For example, keeping track of everything after a while in Roll20 becomes extremely cumbersome. On top of this in Fantasy Grounds, there’s support for a whole host of rule sets, including Pathfinder, Star Wars, Savage World, Starfinder, and much, much more.

There are still some snags, though: Fantasy Grounds still has a pretty confusing UI that looks very primitive, kind of like it’s an application running on modern machines that’s emulating a desktop program from 1998. Almost everything you need is right there in the software…if you know where to find it. Fantasy Ground’s UI is one of those things that drives me insane as a graphic designer with UI/UX experience, especially coming from Foundry where its user interface is among the best in the VTT sphere. Due to Fantasy Grounds’ constant use of flyout windows and dialog boxes, there’s quite a bit of a learning curve in Fantasy Grounds for DMs. Thankfully, if you know the software well enough as a DM, you should be able to guide most players through it relatively easily even if they bravely walk into a dark corner and get stabbed in the ass by a kobold.

As mentioned previously, the largest learning curve of Fantasy Grounds, or any virtual tabletop really, is on the DM. The DM is responsible for ensuring that everything in the combat tracker resolves as it should, fluidly switching between maps, or even setting up the grid on a map for players to indicate their movement. If you don’t learn how to set up the grid, which is as simple as clicking and dragging with both mouse buttons held down, players will be completely confused as to how far they can move or what the range of their spell even is. There’s a lot of resources to help with this, but I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t been spending a good deal of time preparing so that everyone else can just drop in and have a good time.

However, it’s worth noting that much of my experience with Fantasy Grounds has been in learning and testing. I haven’t run multiple games with it yet, so some issues may arise here or there as we experience my new homebrew campaign. All I know is that I was able to easily create stats and a token to represent Macho Man Randy Savage, and I’m going to use it at some point even if it doesn’t make sense within the confines of the narrative.

That said, I think it’s time to bring this entry of Save State to a close. Remember what your mother told you. No, the other mother. No, the other mother. How do you have so many mothers? Who was your grandfather, Genghis Khan?

See you in two weeks!

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