The Best Virtual Tabletops for D&D
Published on January 5, 2021
Virtual tabletops allow D&D groups to overcome two of the biggest threats to consistent sessions: time and distance. With Virtual tabletops and video chat, any D&D group can get a game going without needing to worry about timezones or traffic, just log on and play!
Virtual Tabletops and D&D 5e
With the 5th Edition, Dungeons and Dragons has entered the digital age. One of the biggest hurdles that any group needs to overcome is trying to find a time to meet up that works for everyone’s busy schedules. It’s a pain that comes along with any group-based activity, and D&D is no different.
While playing D&D online isn’t really a new thing, current events have led most groups to move their D&D games online via virtual tabletops and video chat. Virtual tabletops have been indispensable when it comes to keeping groups playing together over the last two years and their undeniable benefits will see them used far into the future.
What is a Virtual Tabletop?
A Virtual Tabletop, or VTT, is software that allows people to experience tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons in a digital environment.
There are several different VTTs available today, and they vary significantly in their functionality and use cases. For example, Roll20’s software can be as simple as some map images with a grid overlay and automated dice rolling. On the other hand, TaleSpire looks like you’re building and exploring a real 3D dungeon, including lighting, fog effects, and minis.
Why use Virtual Tabletops for D&D?
Virtual tabletops have allowed Dungeons and Dragons to evolve from a pen-and-paper game to a digital experience. While not every Dungeon Master uses maps and miniatures, it has become the preferred way to play for many since 3.5 edition. VTTs are now used extensively when groups decide to play online with maps, and for a variety of reasons:
- Scheduling – It’s always been hard to get a group of friends together for anything, let alone a night of D&D. Using VTTs allows groups to meet up without needing to go anywhere. As long as everyone is online, you’re good to go!
- Immersion – Some Virtual Tabletops offer breathtaking immersion, much more than what you can get out of minis on a physical map. While most VTTs are 2D only, they can provide detailed maps and icons for everything a player would need, as well as sound effects and music. There are only a couple of 3D VTTs out there now, but they add an even deeper layer of immersion while playing.
- Plenty of Premade Content – Several VTTs offer support for creators to upload and share their own content with others. Even official outlets like Wizards of the Coast and Paizo have offered resources for their official adventures on some platforms, making it much easier for DMs to get down to business.
The Best Virtual Tabletops for D&D
Naturally, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best virtual tabletops out there for your group to explore and find out which best works for you!
Roll20 has been around for a long time and continues to be one of the most popular VTTs available today.
- Supports almost any system – D&D, Pathfinder, Fiasco, and tons more.
- Offers support from Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, and hundreds of individual creators.
- Allows you to upload your own images for a custom campaign.
- Free to use! No purchase is needed to get started, whether you’re a player or a DM.
- It’s starting to show its age, being one of the oldest VTTs on the market. This is most evident in its clunky, hard to navigate UI.
Roll20 remains to be one of the most popular VTTs on the internet, and for good reason. It’s easy to get started and supports almost any game right out of the box. Paired with the huge swath of content that’s already available on the platform, ranging from official versions of popular adventures to indie creators’ latest hits, this VTT offers tons of content for any group of tabletop gamers.
However, the platform’s god-awful UI leaves something to be desired. It’s hard to navigate, is not at all pretty to look at, and is plagued with awful menus-within-menus. It makes playing Crusader Kings II look like fingerpainting.
All in all, Roll20 is a great starting place to get your feet wet with VTTs. It’s got a huge community of players, and you’re bound to find someone to help you guide yourself through the interface so you can get a game going.
Almost twice the age of Roll20, Fantasy Grounds boasts a powerful platform that supports a solid amount of game systems and comes with a lot more out of the box than appears at first glance.
- Tons of support for over 20 different systems.
- Lots of time-saving features such as automation and a great implementation for whatever system you’re playing, as well as random tables for DMs.
- Tons of assets, maps and tokens are included with the paid license.
- You get to roll 3D dice and watch them bounce around your screen.
- It’s paid software, so at least one person in your group has to pay for the $149 license, or everyone has to pay for the $39 license. There is a monthly subscription as well.
- Getting everything set up can be complicated for first-time users.
- Not as much support for smaller indie systems.
Fantasy Grounds is like the “power gamer” option of VTTs. It’s not as popular as Roll20 but offers a pretty similar amount of content. Those looking to play D&D or Pathfinder will be in luck, as well as some other notable systems that have been implemented. However, those looking to play lesser-known games may struggle to find support here.
It’s also important to talk about the price. While several VTTs are free, Fantasy Grounds is one of the few ones that has an upfront cost just to use the service. Players are able to play for free, as long as someone in the group has paid for the “Ultimate” package, at a whopping $149. This also doesn’t come with any of the books needed to actually run a game and just gives you permission to use the software.
For those who’ve got the wallets and the time to get a session up and running, Fantasy Grounds has you covered.
One of the newest VTTs on the market, Foundry only came out of its closed beta in 2021. Despite being in testing for the last few years, it’s quickly become home to plenty of dedicated players.
- Features dynamic lighting, fog of war, playlists, and built-in VoIP.
- Runs as a self-hosted application, which means it doesn’t rely on any third parties outside of your group.
- Supports almost 200 different systems.
- Offers a huge variety of add-ons to improve or change how you play.
- Can take some getting used to when setting up your custom space.
- It’s still a fairly new product, and there are some growing pains within the community.
It’s exciting to see Foundry come such a long way in such a short time. Beginning its development only a few years ago, Foundry is now a feature-rich, complete package. It supports so many games and systems that it’s hard to compare it to other platforms.
It also has a very robust community that is dedicated to creating new modules and content to add to Foundry. Content creators are constantly adding new animations, music, art assets, and even rulesets to the program.. It may take a little time to get everything you want, but you can certainly get started quickly.
Tech-savvy gamers will love Foundry for its digital-first approach to its implementation, and TTRPG lovers will enjoy it for its ease of use and immersion features.
One of the only fully 3D VTTs out there, TaleSpire aims to immerse you into the game just as much as a video game would.
- Beautiful 3D graphics and high-definition models and textures serve to bring you into your own world.
- Offers a robust map-making feature to let you build your encounters just the way you envisioned them.
- The platform is rules-agnostic for now, so it allows almost any system to be run.
- Offers great mod support through Steam, so you can find or make whatever you need.
- It’s still an Early Access product, and some features are missing.
- The platform is rules-agnostic for now, which means that you’re probably going to be doing a lot of paperwork and note-keeping outside of TaleSpire.
- Each player who wants to join a session needs to have their own copy of TaleSpire ($25), or one GM can host it and others can view it via screen sharing.
TaleSpire’s beautiful visual style paired with its callbacks to the real maps and minis experience feels like it will be the future of playing D&D through VTTs.
However, because the platform is so new, it is missing a few features. It doesn’t have any support for rules currently, meaning it’s just a dice roller and a mapmaker. For some, that’s exactly what they’re looking for, but it may not work for you and your group.
It also comes at a bit of a price – your DM can mitigate this by owning a copy of TaleSpire and running everything on their end, allowing you to view it as things play out. However, if you want to be able to participate, you’ll need to pony up some dough for your own copy.
Shard is a labor of love that’s been in the making ever since its two creators met in high school in the 80s. It recently exceeded its Kickstarter funding goal in early 2021 by over four times, and nothing seems to be slowing them down.
- Entirely free! It comes with a good variety of assets to get your Dungeons and Dragons game up and running in no time.
- Tons of support from third-party creators means there’s a lot of homebrew content available for purchase on the platform.
- Also offers digital character sheets as a standalone product.
- Shard only supports Dungeons and Dragons 5E, and I don’t believe there are any plans to include other non-5E based systems.
- No official support or implementation of any of the 5th edition books, only the SRD. This means you’ll need to transfer everything you’re going to use into each of your campaigns by hand.
Shard is another newcomer to the scene, and it’s specifically aimed at 5th edition over anything else. It has some big third-party publishers supporting it, but there’s no official content from Wizards of the Coast.
Only including the SRD for 5e means that there can be a lot of work to set up a game since the SRD is such a brief portion of the Player’s Handbook. Adding in any content from other books can be a painfully long process.
However, Shard Tabletop remains free and can be used by anyone, with or without a subscription. This means it’s much easier to convince your friends to give it a shot.
Who needs all these fancy bells and whistles? What if you just want a map, some tokens, and some dice? That’s where these good ol’ boys come in.
- No accounts, no signing up, no purchases whatsoever.
- Super simple, rules agnostic tabletop that just lets you get in and play a game.
- Everything is saved locally, so there’s no limit to what you upload for your players to use or see.
- It’s really no-frills. Don’t expect anything fancy from Owlbear Rodeo.
If minimalism had a virtual tabletop, this is it. Unlike John Hammond sparing no expense on his dinosaur accident island, Owlbear Rodeo is about as basic as it gets.
And that’s not a bad thing, not at all. Instead of spending hours trying to familiarize yourself with a clunky UI, or trying to figure out how to add your D&D books to your VTT, just play! Sure, you’ll need to have some books handy, but you’ll sacrifice handiness for accessibility.
D&D Virtual Tabletops FAQ
What’s the best free virtual tabletop for D&D?
It’s really tough to not recommend Roll20, but I want to instead highlight Owlbear Rodeo. There’s no need to set up complex campaigns through a myriad of menus or to try to cram a bunch of homebrew content into this specific campaign’s files. Just get in there, throw a map and some tokens down, and play as Gary Gygax intended.
If you’re looking to cut down on prep, integrate dice rolling and character sheets, and other quality of life features, Roll20 is my first suggestion. Though you might need to subscribe and buy books to integrate into your games to save yourself any real time.
Does D&D Beyond have a virtual tabletop?
As of December 2021, there are no plans for D&D Beyond to implement any sort of VTT, nor does it integrate with any VTTs. D&D Beyond is a standalone application and it doesn’t look to be changing any time soon.
Do I need to use a virtual tabletop for D&D?
Absolutely not. Some groups prefer a “theater of the mind” approach where the environment is described rather than simulated on a map with miniatures. It all boils down to what your group prefers and how they enjoy the game.
Virtual Tabletops are here to stay, whether you like them or not. It’s a new era of Dungeons and Dragons, and with it comes new and exciting ways to play the world’s greatest role-playing game.
Whether you’re looking for a feature-rich, fully immersive experience, or something as simple as drop-and-go gaming, you’ll find something that works for you and your D&D group.