Jake’s Take: How I Stream Our RPG Actual Play, Part 5 – Digging into Virtual Tabletops and Digital Tools

Hi folks! Welcome to part 5 (wow, part 5? Already?) of our stream deep dive. Having done an overview in part 1, looked more closely at audio in part 2, video in part 3, and production in part 4, we’ve now covered all the technical stuff – today I want to chat about less technical stuff, namely the digital tools we use/did use for Chronicles (virtual tabletops, mostly). There isn’t a whole lot to talk about with regards to the stream, the extent of integrations are usually just ‘pull it into OBS and show it in a scene’, so I want to give folks more of an overview of each tool and my thoughts on them. This ought to be less stream focused as a result and so should be interesting to a broader stripe of folk than previous issues.

We’re gonna look at the tabletop we use currently, as well as the tabletops we’ve used previously plus D&D Beyond. As a disclaimer (these discussions appear to be…polarising), there are no sponsorships or affiliate deals or kickbacks or anything like that, just a personal reflection on the different tools we’ve tried and what’s worked and hasn’t worked for us. I liked all these different tabletops for different reasons and I’d use them all again depending on the requirements of a different group or campaign.

With that out of the way, let’s jump in!

Tabletops I’ve Used

Back when the UK first went into lockdown in March of 2020, we moved our game online as a temporary measure, not knowing how long the pandemic would last but expecting to be back around the table as soon as possible. As time went on, it became clearer that we’d be online for a while, so I spent a lot of time trying out different VTT options and trying to find the most robust solution for our game and our needs.

Initially we played on Astral but reading around their help centre I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t allowed to show it on a streamed game which was a key requirement for us (obviously). I don’t actually know if that was true, I should have emailed them to double check, but at the time that had been my understanding and I needed another solution quickly so we switched over to Roll20.

Roll20 is the most popular VTT for good reason and served us well, but I kept on doing research into alternatives to see what feature sets others had to offer. I then tried out Fantasy Grounds for the automation tools it had, really liked them, and we switched over to that for a long time. About a year or so?

A couple of months ago I started to hear some buzz about Foundry so I looked into it and felt it offered a nice balance for the particular requirements of our group, so I picked up a license, had a play, and then we liked it enough to switch over from Fantasy Grounds. We’ve been using Foundry ever since and as I grow more comfortable with it, I like it more and more.

My Philosophy on Virtual Tabletops

So before I get into my thoughts on each of these tabletops, I think it’s useful for you to know my overall feelings and philosophy towards virtual tabletops as a whole. I think there’s basically two schools of thought on this one: 1) the “virtual tabletop” attitude that a virtual tabletop should basically just be a place to manage positioning and show dice rolls and handouts to people, leaving everything else to the GM and players, and 2) the “virtual tabletop” attitude that a virtual tabletop runs on a computer and so should offload some of the busywork and automation to the computer, seeing as it’s there.

I’m pretty firmly in camp 2. I’ve learned that I like a VTT that takes advantages of some of the unique opportunities presented by having a computer at the table. I like automating the busywork, I like stuff like line of sight computations or fantasy language simulations – fundamentally I like having a computer to help me out. Not everyone’s like that and neither attitude is right, so bear that in mind for the rest of this post!

Foundry

This is the landing page the players are greeted with every week, with handy information for them pinned for ease.

Foundry’s been in development since sometime around 2018/2019 I believe, and got a full release early in 2020. It seemed to still be missing a little something something back when we were first making the move to digital so I didn’t consider it at the time, but it’s since picked up enough steam and features that it now seems to be one of the three biggest names in VTTs alongside Fantasy Grounds and Roll20. …I dunno if those are actually the biggest three, they seem to be. Who knows. It’s pretty popular, basically.

There’s a lot to like about Foundry, but some stuff particularly piqued my interest.

  • It’s a self-hosted piece of web software rather than an online service like Roll20 or Astral. That means that even if development grinds to a halt (which shows no signs of happening anytime soon), you’re not locked out of using it in the way you would be if Roll20 or Astral went bust or shut down. Your players still connect via browser like Roll20 or Astral so it remains straightforward for them to join.
  • You pay a one-time fee to buy a license, and that lets you run the server for as many players as you want. Fantasy Grounds also has a one-time fee but there’s a 40 bucks option that everyone in the group needs to pick up to play, or a more expensive Ultimate edition that lets you run for free players. That’s like 140 bucks compared to 50 for Foundry, which is a lot more appealing. Others like Roll20 or Astral have features locked behind subscriptions – I liked being able to buy Foundry and know I had access to everything.
  • Foundry is really extensible and has a rich community of people making rulesets and modules and other stuff to enhance what the software can do. Other VTTs let you do some stuff like that (Fantasy Grounds has extensions and Roll20 has…something similar?) but don’t seem to be at the same scale. Some people feel that this means Foundry outsources development to other users which is true in some way I guess? I see it more as them taking the spirit of open-source software and applying it to VTTs which I think is great.

I picked it up off the back of those points and tried it out, and was really impressed with what Foundry could do. Showing it to my players the consensus was that they preferred it to Fantasy Grounds, so we switched over and haven’t really looked back. To me it feels like a nice middle ground between the power that Fantasy Grounds offers and the ease of use that Roll20 has.

Foundry Setup

Of all the VTTs we’ve used, Foundry did require the most setup, because of its nature as a self-hosted web app. There’s basically two options for setting it up:

  • Host it on your own computer. This involves a bit of port forwarding and networking work, and at the end of the process you hand your players an IP address to connect to through their web browser and they get in. This is (I assume) a bit of work to get up and running, but it doesn’t cost you anything other than time.
  • Pay a fee to have an instance hosted for you online. I think some people have done this through like DigitalOcean or Amazon Web Services, but there’s also a dedicated site called The Forge that’ll do it for you with minimum hassle.

I have our game set up through The Forge, it costs me 3 or 4 bucks a month but gives me space to have as many games as I want without having to go futzing around with my own network settings or anything. There’s a free trial, you just need to have a Foundry license key and you can try it out. It took me maybe fifteen minutes tops to get it working, it was pretty hassle free.

Foundry Features & Modules

Most of the real standout features from Foundry come from plugins I have installed, but even in the base instance there’s a lot to like:

  • It seems very well-optimised and performant. With other tabletops usually at least one of my players would have trouble on their end, but nobody’s experienced any regular issues with Foundry. It has a lot of settings that allow players to limit performance on their end if they’re using an older machine.
  • Line-of-sight tools and dynamic lighting comes as standard with the base software, and so far its had the most robust implementation of them that I’ve seen, with a lot of options to tweak things. You can do stuff like one-way walls to mimic elevation on a map – ‘if you stand on this ledge you can see the goblins down below, but they can’t see you’. Vision can also be done independently which isn’t always the case, and it’s really easy to set up different vision types.
  • It has really robust macro capabilities. This only really appeals to a certain kind of player or DM, but for example it was pretty straightforward to write a macro to allow Zorgar to turn the light from his axe on or off. These can be anything from chat messages to dice rolls to full-blown JavaScript.
  • It handles wild shape / polymorphing really well, far nicer than anything else I’ve seen. In Foundry just drag the creature you want to transform into onto your character sheet and it’ll transform your character into it, obeying the wild shape rules. It’s a small thing but one that’s super handy.
  • The baseline implementation of the 5E character sheet is one of the nicest and most usable I’ve seen in a VTT. It adds spaces to track resources (arrows or class features or magic item charges or whatever), temporary HP and temporary max HP (this is such a nice extra thing oh my word) and exhaustion as well as all the usual suspects. It just feels like someone put it together based on what they needed in play rather than what they expected to use or just porting the paper sheet over.
  • It covers basically all the established VTT functions very well – rulers, grids (hex and square), audio (I haven’t really used any of the audio features), journal notes and handouts, combat tracking, item and feature entries, drawing tools, etc etc.

Beyond that, modules (plugins) are where Foundry really starts to shine. There are literally thousands out there, but I’ll share some stand out ones that we use:

  • Dice So Nice! A somewhat weird omission in the base software is the lack of animated dice, but this module (literally the most popular, I think) adds that functionality in really nicely. There’s a lot of nice controls for customising your dice colours, and you can also add effects that trigger on a certain result. This is mostly for fun, but could actually have practical use to mark dice that can be rerolled, for example. If you’re a Halfling you might want to have natural 1s do something to remind you to reroll them, ditto with something like the Great Weapon fighting style or if you have exploding dice for a feature, maybe.
  • Pings! In another slightly weird omission, there’s no way to ping stuff on the map like on Roll20 in the core software, but this plugin takes care of that really nicely. I half wonder if the Foundry devs don’t add pings and dice in because those existing modules take care of it so well.
  • D&D Beyond Importer! This module takes a bit of setup but will then import your D&D Beyond character sheet into your Foundry game, which is super handy. If you join the developer’s Patreon you’re able to have it sync back as well which we don’t use but seems super useful.
  • Polyglot! This plugin adds support for messages in different fantasy languages and knows which of those your character speaks, and garbles messages in unknown languages. This is a core feature in Fantasy Grounds that I love, even though we never use it much, and is a great example of the sort of ways digital tools can streamline and enhance normal play.
  • Midi QoL! This plugin adds automation features for combat, so that players can target creatures and Foundry will take care of stuff like whether their longsword attack hits and applying the appropriate damage, as well as saving throws. I haven’t dug into it too much yet to see how it compares to something like Fantasy Grounds, but it seems great so far.
  • Dynamic Active Effects! This module adds extra automation of effects and traits. In our game, I have it set up to apply Zorgar’s auras to all appropriate creatures within range. We often forgot about them in person, so this handles stuff like that nicely without getting in the way. Same as with Midi QoL, I feel like there’s a lot more this can do that I’m not taking advantage of yet.
  • X-Card! This is a simple but I think crucially important module, it just adds a button for everyone to show an X-Card anonymously on screen. If you’re unfamiliar, an X-Card is a safety tool by John Stavropoulos () that helps everyone at the table express their needs.
  • Wall Height! This is a nice addition to the line of sight settings to allow walls to have a height. Creatures that are higher than that wall can see over it! Nice little feature if it’s the sort of thing that comes up in your game a lot.
  • PDFoundry! This module allows you to view PDFs within Foundry, both normal and form-fillable. I give a lot of my handouts to players in PDF format and this lets them read them easily in Foundry without me having to paste them into a text entry and lose my formatting and aesthetics. Niche, but useful.
  • Wiki.js Integration! This is even more niche, but allows Foundry to connect to a Wiki.js instance. I run a private wiki for my players with world information, and this lets them access it within Foundry. It’s been a little clunky but it’s a nice addition.
  • Stream View! One of the most useful modules we’re using right now, and relatively fresh, this lets you designate a user as a viewport for a stream or something like a tabletop TV. It cuts out the UI elements you don’t need, and either follows the party around or shows the GM’s view. I was trying to accomplish this before with bad Javascript macros and three or four other modules, this one just does it!

Foundry and the Stream

This is the stream view, which serves as a backdrop for us when I’m showing the VTT.

With regards to the stream, most of the Foundry functionality comes from the aforementioned Stream View module. I have a ‘Stream’ player set up within our game, which I log in as in a separate browser. I then full-screen that browser, pull it into OBS, and let Stream View handle showing the dice rolls and the viewport, which it does really nicely. That’s actually the extent of the setup for Foundry on stream now – there was another module called Foundry Stream Module that pulls Twitch chat into Foundry and lets me ask for dice rolls and stuff from the audience, that sounds great but as of the time of writing the module’s outdated and has a lot of bugs. Hopefully it gets updated cause I’d like to use it!

Full Foundry Module List

For any Foundry nerds reading, here’s a full list of the modules we currently use. There’s too many to go into detail on (and many are dependencies), but you might find something neat!

Fantasy Grounds

The Fantasy Grounds desktop!

Next up on our tour of VTTs is Fantasy Grounds! This was our long-standing haunt until Foundry, so let’s chat about what was good about it.

For starters, Fantasy Grounds has the most robust digital automation I’ve seen from a VTT. That’s it’s main selling point, I think, and definitely my favourite thing about it. It was hugely useful to me that whenever Lidda wanted to throw a fireball, I could have all the targets make a save and Fantasy Grounds would know what damage needed to be rolled, who made their save, and who needed half or full damage.

That automation was also pretty robust regardless of system. I ran Call of Cthulhu, Vampire, and Star Wars FFG in Fantasy Grounds (albeit only for one session each) and it automated stuff well for all of them. I’ve not tried using Foundry for another system yet but I’m not sure whether the automation from Midi QOL is likely to carry over, I think it’s 5E specific.

Fantasy Grounds is however packaged as a standalone app on your computer that everyone needs to install on their machine. That rules out playing on a tablet if anyone in your group does that, and also runs the risk of the usual hiccups between machines. It also has a…polarising? aesthetic that not everyone likes (part of me likes it, part of me doesn’t), and you can’t move between computers in the way that you can with other tabletops. I’d also say it’s the least intuitive of the VTTs we tried – a certain amount of that is bound to happen given the power of many of its features, but other stuff is a touch clunky and liable to frustrate people until they figure stuff out. Once you understand the ‘Fantasy Grounds way of doing stuff’ it opens up a lot more but overall, it does require a bit more learning than others.

I liked Fantasy Grounds a lot, I’d happily go back and it’d be my choice if Foundry wasn’t an option. I liked the notion of having a program on my computer to run with my D&D game in it (I think that’s an idiosyncrasy), and you can package content up as a module for future use which is useful. I think. I’ve never used content I’ve packaged up but I’ve appreciated having it packaged. When we did the Morganth the Green adventure I packaged the map and treasure and all the statblocks together so if I ever want to run that adventure down the line, I can import that module into Fantasy Grounds and have everything ready to go.

The other frustration I had with Fantasy Grounds was that there wasn’t a great way to show it on stream. There’s quite a lot of UI with Fantasy Grounds so I couldn’t do things the way I have with Foundry now where the tabletop is our entire background, I just had to have it as another window which probably wasn’t massively helpful. I also think that a lot of the automation features will maybe have meant that some stuff that happened in game (dice roll results, damage etc) won’t have been communicated super well to the audience, so I don’t know if I would use it for streaming again. I also had to use a whole other computer to pull in a clean instance of it to show, which was a pain in the butt.

Fantasy Grounds has a really strong marketplace with loads of books and modules all set up ready to go (like a certain adventure I wrote wink wink nudge nudge) with the program. This is really helpful and in terms of 5E, for example, Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 are the only places (to my knowledge) that you can get the official Wizards stuff. If I was gonna run an official adventure as a private game, that’d definitely influence what VTT I used.

Overall, if I was gonna run a really tactical, crunchy game like a certain style of 5E campaign or something like Pathfinder, or if I was gonna run an official 5E adventure, I’d probably use Fantasy Grounds for it. For lighter stuff rules-wise, or stuff that I’m streaming, Foundry probably remains my first choice.

Roll20

This is where we last were on our Roll20 game, apparently.

Roll20 is the biggest name in VTTs (numbers I hear bandied about suggest it accounts for something like 50% of digital based groups, not sure how true that is), and it’s pretty easy to understand why. I think Roll20 falls into the ‘emphasis on the tabletop rather than the virtual’ camp, so has less features, but the features it does have work pretty reliably, and I don’t remember anyone in our group having trouble getting it to work for them. We didn’t really have any problems when we used it for Chronicles, and I’ve been playing in a home game of Star Wars FFG (run by my friend Scott over at Venger’s Decks) through Roll20 and haven’t had any trouble at all.

We moved away from Roll20 not because it was bad or anything, I just felt I wanted more out of a tabletop than what Roll20 was offering (automation of stuff, really), so we moved over to Fantasy Grounds. One really obvious nice thing Roll20 has going on for it is…it’s free! Some features are paywalled (like dynamic lighting), but it’s really hard to argue with something that covers all the bases Roll20 does without having to pay for it.

Roll20 also has a big marketplace for loads of games and art assets, and also has a nifty feature for letting you find assets online within Roll20 to make maps on the fly. That’s a really handy feature I think, and I don’t know if any others have something like that. I think Astral does.

Between Roll20 and Foundry I think for me Foundry would win out most times, unless I was running something that really needed marketplace content from Roll20 or I was running for a group that were really heavily invested in using Roll20 already. For pick-up groups Roll20 is probably where I’d go because it’s a baseline for so many people.

Astral

And this is where we last were on our Astral game! Looks pretty sleek, huh?

I picked Astral initially because I really liked the way it looked – it has a clean, modern design that sort of ‘gets out your way’ and lets the map and tabletop do most of the talking. It also has a lot of visual features like dynamic lighting and weather for free, which is nice! We didn’t really have enough time playing with it (we only used it for a session or two) to get a well-informed opinion, but it worked well for us.

Like I mentioned earlier, we moved away because I had seen something in their support docs that made me think I couldn’t show it on stream, but I didn’t actually confirm that with them, I should have. It’s very close in functionality to Roll20 overall, but I don’t have enough of an idea of it to know how well it compares.

One thing I do understand about Astral is that it works well on mobile devices which as far as the others on this list go, is fairly unique. I can get Roll20 working on my iPad (albeit somewhat clunkily), but Foundry and Fantasy Grounds don’t work on mobile. I feel pretty strongly that whichever VTT really nails mobile support could really corner the market – having used VTTs now I see a lot of potential for them both online and at-the-table. Most people play in their living room where there’s probably a TV, and some people have the neat tabletop TV setups, and I feel like throwing art handouts or maps up there and letting players interact via their phone or tablet could have a lot of benefits.

That’s certainly something I’m considering strongly for when/if I get back to running in person, so in that scenario Astral might bear further investigation for me.

D&D Beyond

This is Malbryn’s sheet on D&D Beyond.

The other main digital tool we use, both while playing online and when we played in person back in The Before Times, is D&D Beyond. I think basically everyone who’s interested in playing D&D is already familiar with D&D Beyond so I don’t think there’s much for me to add to it really, but it’s how most of the players manage/managed their character sheets.

Another neat thing about D&D Beyond is their Twitch integration. We have it active on our channel and it essentially provides an overlay that links to folks D&D Beyond sheets so that people watching can see hit points and spell slots get ticked off in real time. Only some of the players manage their character this way, some just use the Foundry sheet, so it’s not super key to our stream but pretty neat.

There’s also a plugin for Firefox and Chrome that you might not be familiar with called Beyond20. Beyond20 integrates your D&D Beyond sheet with Roll20 and Foundry (and apparently Astral and Discord) so you can trigger dice rolls in the VTT. We used this for a bit when we played on Roll20, it seemed to work pretty well.

Conclusion

That’s basically it as far as digital tools go. Foundry’s our VTT of choice right now but all of the ones we’ve used have had their pros and cons, and I’d use all of them in the future depending on the circumstances.

This is basically the end of this series at this point. There may be a Part 6 talking about the lessons I’ve learned after all these episodes, it depends how much ammunition I have for it when I sit down to write it. Until then, we’ll be streaming as usual and I’ll be posting other content here on the blog as and when I think of it. Hopefully you’ve found this series useful, if you have any questions feel free to ping me on Twitter or come by our Discord. Cheers!

Chronicles of Rinn returns Tuesdays, 19:00GMT at twitch.tv/anmncr.

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