Guide to Choosing a Virtual Tabletop Program

original text by Hernan Ruiz Camauer in 2013, contributions added since

What is a Virtual Tabletop?

Virtual tabletop software (sometimes referred to as VTT or VT) is designed to enable one or more users to play games on their computer that are traditionally played on or around a table. In the case of multiple users, players, or participants, this is generally done online. A VTT is like a shared whiteboard, but with features that are specifically geared to facilitate gaming in particular.

VTTs come in many shapes and forms, and it might surprise some readers to learn that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 VTT apps available for the various platforms. Some programs are sold commercially for a one-time fee, some use a subscription-based model, and a great many are free or donation-ware. Some are apps that you download, others run in a browser.

A comprehensive list of virtual tabletop software suitable for playing RPGs (which is what this article will focus on) can be found here.

A similar list of virtual tabletop software suitable for playing other sorts of games can be found here.

VTTs are not for everyone. VTTs are also not a replacement for playing RPGs face-to-face. They are, however, a viable alternative for people who have moved away from their regular gaming group. And some VTTs are also useful in face-to-face game sessions, where they are used primarily as a digital battlemap.

The Holdouts

A lot of people still use a chat client (e.g., Signal, FB Messenger), VOIP client (e.g., Jitsi, Zoom) or an IRC (Discord, Slack) client with die rolling scripts to play RPGs online. To these people, I ask: Why not step up to a virtual tabletop that is more full-featured and was designed from the start to play RPGs with? Even if you donʼt need a tactical battlemat, your game can probably benefit from other common VTT features, such as turn sequencing, built-in graphical die rollers, etc.

So, which VTT is the best?

Quite simply, none of them are. There is no single, “best” VTT program. Which program is “best” is entirely dependent on each personʼs (or groupsʼ) particular needs. Nearly every VTT has some feature that it pulls off better than most other VTTs, and every single VTT can be found lacking in one way or another when compared to another VTT.

For some, cost is the deciding factor, and most people gravitate to the free offerings, for obvious reasons. Others realize that the cost of the commercial VTs is practically negligible if the VTT in question has features (and/or pre-made content) that will save them hours of their valuable free time or otherwise make their game sessions more enjoyable. Most commercial VTs cost less than a single RPG book (exception: with subscription-based VTTs, the cost can add up to much more, over time).

The Quandary

Choice is generally a good thing, but since there so many VTTs, it can be extremely daunting to try to evaluate them all. Not only is it time-consuming, but often your experiences with a new VTT will feel tainted because it doesnʼt work the same way as another VTT that youʼve already tried. You must unlearn what you know and approach each new VTT with a fresh slate.

Narrowing the Field: The Contenders

The following is a short summary of what I (and probably most VTT users) consider to be the VTTs that are worth a close look, because they see a fair amount of usage and have a sizable userbase. They are presented in alphabetical order.

Battlegrounds: RPG Edition (aka BRPG)

Pros: Well-rounded featureset that supports many types of games; no scripting or XML editing required
Cons: No support for shared interactive character sheets (bitmaps only)

Togetherness Table

Pros: In-browser with custom dice for Fudge, Genesys. Open Source, developer-friendly, free
Cons: No 3D, default poker and tarot cards are very plain-looking

d20Pro

Pros: Supports d20-based RPG systems very well
Cons: Not ideal for anything not d20-based

Fantasy Grounds

Pros: Visually-appealing interface; 3D dice; many feel that this VTT best captures the feel of face-to- face gaming
Cons: Windows-only; limited map and Fog of War features; non-D&D rulesets sold separately

Hextml

Pros: Works entirely on the browser, zero configuration
Cons: The only things sharable are maps, tokens and text, there is no support for character sheet

iTabletop

Pros: Built-in audio chat and video conferencing features
Cons: Some claim that this VTT is still too buggy and not quite ready for prime-time

MapTool

Pros: Line-of-sight-based Fog of War; powerful macros for automation; frameworks (rulesets) are available for a number of RPG systems
Cons: Steep learning curve if macros and/or frameworks are used

Roll20

Pros: Large userbase that's growing quickly; very easy to use; nothing to install (runs in web browser); free
Cons: Premium features like Dynamic Lighting require a subscription

Owlbear Rodeo

Pros: Free for players, intuitive interface
Cons: Limited selection of assets

Up-and-coming VTTs to keep an eye on

(these are currently in alpha or beta status)
EpicTable

Compare the features side-by-side

You can find a Feature Comparison Chart that compares a number of VTTs here.

Factors to consider when choosing a VTT

These are some of the things you should ask yourself as you evaluate each VTT.

  • If the VTT is a downloadable application (rather than one that runs in a web browser), how easy is the VTT to install? Keep in mind that if it is a difficult process or requires above-average computer proficiency, this will likely escalate to become a major source of frustration in cases where there will be a lot of players.
  • Does the VTT require additional software be installed (e.g., Java, Silverlight, DirectX, etc.) in order to run? Will installing additional software present a problem for you or others in your group?
  • Is the VTT easy to use? Also, how easy is it to learn to use?
  • Documentation? Is there any? If so, what form does it take? A Wiki? A downloadable PDF? A built-in Help feature? Video tutorials? How thorough and up-to-date is the documentation?
  • Is the VTT cross-platform? If not, do I have friends who will be left out because their platform/OS of choice is not supported?
  • Is the VTT still being actively developed and improved, or is it abandon-ware? How long has it been since the VTT last had a meaningful update? Does the developer respond to user requests and bug reports in a timely manner?
  • Check out the VTTʼs support forums (if any). Are there major bugs or issues with the VTT that have gone unaddressed for years? What seems to be the average response time for a support request? Hours? Days? Weeks? Months? Never?
  • How stringent are the VTTʼs system requirements? Will all of your players have computers that meet the minimum requirements?
  • Is the VTT suitable for use with the particular RPG system/s that you plan to use it with? Not everyone plays d20-based RPGs, but some VTTs are strongly geared towards those systems, and may be lacking necessary features if used with another RPG system (for example, no support for hex grids, or character facing).
  • Does the VTT come with maps and tokens, or are you left entirely to your own devices for procuring these?
  • If it is a commercial VTT, is a free demo available, so that you can try it out to evaluate it before making a purchase? Does the demo serve to give you a good idea of what the full product is like?
  • If it is a commercial VTT, how flexible is the licensing scheme?
  • Does the VTT provide for an immersive environment that helps promote role-playing?
  • Does using the VTT feel like work, or is it fun to use? Is there a lot of tedious data entry involved?
  • How easy is it to add your own custom content to the program?
  • Does the program allow you to implement your own house rules? If so, is this an easy thing to do?
  • If you like to play music and/or sound effects to enhance your RPG sessions, does the VTT have support for audio?
  • Most VTTs have some sort of “Fog of War” system that enables you to gradually reveal the map as the players explore. Does the VTT offer enough power, automation, and flexibility to suit your needs? Are things like light sources, special vision types, and line of sight supported?
  • Most VTTs have some form of built-in dice rolling function. This can range from a text-only randomly-generated number, to 2D images or photographs of dice, to 3D animated dice with real-time physics. Does the VTT support dice macros (for frequently-used die rolls)? Can the VTT handle custom dice (e.g. Fudge dice)? Are the dice rolling mechanics that you need supported? (for example, open-ended rolls, counting successes, cross-referencing die rolls against a game chart or table, etc.)
  • Customization and automation: Does the VTT allow for it? If so, does it require you to learn scripting or XML editing in order to customize your gaming environment or to automate functionality?
  • Support/accountability: Is there anyone to turn to if things go wrong or donʼt work the way they are supposed to? Is the developer accessible?
  • What additional content is available for the VTT (e.g., adventures, artpacks, rulesets, games, other freebies)? If yes, is this content professionally produced, or is it fan-created content? If the additional content is for sale, be sure to factor it into your price/value analysis.
  • Does the VTT feature built-in voice chat and/or video-conferencing? (If it doesnʼt, you can easily run a VOIP or video conferencing app in the background.) If so, is the sound quality acceptable? If the VTT has video-conferencing, are the picture quality, video size, and frame rate acceptable?
  • Do you play other types of games besides RPGs (e.g., board games, card games, etc.)? If so, you might want to consider a VTT that can pull double-duty as a general gaming VT.
  • If you are going to use the virtual tabletop in face-to-face game sessions rather than for remote gaming, does the VTT have features that make it well-suited for displaying it on a large TV or LCD screen, or with a projector? Does the VTT work offline, or is an internet connection required in order to use the program?

Parting Thoughts

Very important:

If you try out one particular VTT and donʼt like it, do NOT assume that all VTTs are the same and give up on all VTTs. You could be doing yourself a disservice.

Multiple VTTs

Have you considered having/using more than one VTT? Perhaps even running them simultaneously?

Stay Current

Many VTTs are constantly being improved. If there was a VTT you liked but was lacking a particular feature you needed, check back on it every once in a while (perhaps every 6 to 12 months) to see if the feature has been added.

Provide Feedback to the VTT Developers

A feature is unlikely to be implemented if no one (or very few people) asks for it. If there is some functionality you want or need, or some other issue you would like to see addressed or improved, make sure you let the developer/s know.

Stay Flexible

Perhaps youʼve already chosen a particular VTT to game with. Great! But keep in mind that this doesnʼt mean it has to be the only VTT you will ever use (especially if you chose your current VTT without knowing that there were other well-regarded VTTs available). If someone comes out with a VTT that you think is better, donʼt feel like you canʼt just switch. Maybe finish up the current adventure, then switch VTTs. Keep the VTT developers competing with each other. Competition is good, and leads to better products.

I hope the above-mentioned criteria will help you choose the VTT that is best for you and your groupʼs gaming needs. Happy gaming!

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