Foundry VTT: an exciting alternative to Roll20 (review)

Click here for an older post about online play.

For many of us, the pandemic changed the way we play D&D. Our games moved online, and our dice became virtual.

For me, though, online D&D was the norm.

I got back into D&D after a hiatus of nearly a decade in spring 2016. My friends and I all lived in different cities, so playing online was a necessity. Most of us had grown up with 3rd edition and 3.5, so we were looking for a platform that provided sufficient crunch and functionality. We invested heavily in Fantasy Grounds and played through Curse of Strahd, Tomb of Annihilation, Dragon Heist, and a number of homebrew adventures.

Ironically, just before the pandemic hit, I started playing D&D in person again. A friend of mine worked at a WeWork in London, and there were plenty of unused conference rooms after hours. A private room and free beer (yes, you read that right) was a winning combination.

But then Covid hit.

Fantasy Grounds continued, but the WeWork game moved to Roll20. I accidentally started my own campaign, also on Roll20 (I write about it here). I started this blog, and a few old friends got in touch for a game – also on Roll20. At one point during the pandemic, I was playing four or five games a week online, and I came to appreciate the pros and cons of different virtual tabletops (VTTs).

However, there was an elephant in the room that I had largely ignored: Foundry. I knew it was there, but I was reluctant to jump ship. I had poured quite a bit of cash into Fantasy Grounds, and I increasingly liked Roll20 because of its built-in video support and its simple interface. (Fantasy Grounds is arguably more powerful, but its radial menus take a lot of getting used to.) Foundry has a one-time purchase fee of $50 – a not insignificant sum. So why switch?

Two words: Forbidden Lands. I was excited to play this RPG, and I knew that it was only supported officially on Foundry. My friends very kindly clubbed together to cover the purchase fee (thanks, guys), and I started to tinker around. So, what did I find?

Features galore

If you’re completely new to Foundry, check out their official video for an overview:

Firstly, more than any other VTT, Foundry has a ton of customization options. It’s possibly a little overwhelming. Here’s just one example. On Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, you can join either as a DM or a player: that’s it. But on Foundry, you can have a player, a trusted player, a GM, or an assistant GM – and you can customize exactly what ‘permissions’ each of these has. For example, can they create new characters and tokens? Can they make notes on the map? Can they open and close doors in a dungeon or write journal entries? This is just one example, but it typifies the Foundry approach.

Secondly, thanks to contributions from the community, it’s very easy to mod. For Forbidden Lands, for example, I was running twelve modules: About Time, Automated Animations, Dice So Nice!, FXMaster, libWrapper, Reverse Initiative Order, Sequencer, Simple Calendar, SmallTime, socketlib, World Explorer, and Year Zero Actions, not to mention the Forbidden Lands Core Game module itself.

One of my favourite mods for Foundry is the map animation (FXMaster). With a few clicks, I can have clouds drift over the map, or snow, or rain, or soaring eagles. It’s a little thing, but the immersion impact is fantastic.

So, what are the drawbacks? In some ways, it’s not a fair question. A VTT can’t be all things to all users, and there’s always going to be a balance between functionality and accessibility. So rather than drawbacks per se, I am looking at three questions: what can it do, what can it not do, and how easy is it to use?

Foundry can do a lot. I’m almost hesitant to say what it can’t do because I am a very new user and still have plenty of learning to do. But there were two things that were noticeably absent, or awkward to set up.

One was my favourite feature of Fantasy Grounds: the ability to set up automated ‘effects’ for your character. With a bit of coding, you can automate anything on Fantasy Grounds, and I don’t know how possible this is on Foundry. To be fair, I didn’t really need this for Forbidden Lands, which is much more rules lite, but I can imagine feeling its absence for 5e D&D. (On this point, though, it’s worth pointing out that Foundry is the only Virtual Tabletop that integrates with D&D Beyond. This is a Big Deal and enough to swing me towards it in the future.)

My only other gripe was video support. It’s there, but it requires a dedicated server, which is a bit more effort than I’m prepared to put in for a one-shot. Not a biggie – there’s always Discord – but mildly annoying, especially since it come as standard on Roll20.

Should you switch?

The Big Question, then: would I switch to Foundry for all my online games?  

At the risk of dodging the question: it depends. For something quick and rules lite where tactical play doesn’t matter so much and ease of use was paramount, I would probably stick with Roll20. For a group that valued tactical combat, knew their way round the program, and were likely to advance to high-level play, I might suggest Fantasy Grounds, but perhaps that’s a sunk-cost fallacy. For all other situations, though, I think Foundry would take the win for me. The integration with D&D Beyond, the animation effects, the modding options: this all makes me very happy.

As one of my players said: if Roll20 is a Mac and Fantasy Grounds is Windows, then Foundry is Linux. All three have their strengths, and I’m not going to dump on any of them. Now we are over the worst of the pandemic, most of my games are in person, and I hope to continue this for as long as I can. But if the option came up, I would definitely be keen to play a D&D campaign on Foundry.

What is your favourite VTT? Comment below.

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