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There's more than one way to play D&D with your friends online

Scott Swigart
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Yesterday we wrote about Fantasy Grounds, one of the leading virtual tabletop solutions, which is now offering officially licensed Dungeons & Dragons content on Steam. While it's a great solution, offering an incredibly deep set of options and customizations, it can also get expensive. Turns out, there's more than one solution for playing D&D over long distances, and they're much easier to use — and less expensive — than you might think.

First the numbers. A single license of Fantasy Grounds is $40, while a four-pack is $120. For the traditional party of five players plus a Dungeon Master, that means spending $200 on the basic software.

Then come the D&D modules themselves. You're looking at another $20 for your first campaign. Add on another $50 for the class pack and $50 for the monster pack, and now we're sitting at $320, or about $53 per person.

Yes, there's a subscription model as well at their website that offers significant discounts in the short term. But did we mention you're likely to spend hours actually learning the software? It's not at all intuitive, and right now there's nine separate training videos at the official website, and even more on YouTube.

This is what we call the deep end of the pool, as far as software goes.

But Fantasy Grounds, which has been around since 2004, was built to be the deep end of the pool. Once you've got it all tweaked, your campaign can run like butter. And there are a bunch of rulesets available for purchase. All told, there's more than $2,500 in add-on modules available, all for different gaming systems.

So what if you could do it for less?


The biggest competitor to Fantasy Grounds right now is called Roll20. It's an HTML5-based, in-browser tabletop system that works best with Firefox or Chrome, and relies heavily on Adobe Flash.

It's also free.

Roll20 is a powerful set of tools that include many of the same features that Fantasy Grounds does, including virtual dice rolling and full control for the game master. But it adds bells and whistles, like a jukebox for playing sound effects or music while you play. It even has integrated video and voice chat.

Originally funded through Kickstarter, frankly the only thing missing from Roll20 is the licensed D&D material itself.

Tabletop Simulator

This is going to sound weird, but there's actually another tabletop simulation game on Steam. It's called... Tabletop Simulator. Our Griffin McElroy is particularly fond of it, especially for his own game, called Buscemi! A Game for Kids.

Tabletop Simulator is an online sandbox filled with pre-made chits, tokens and 3D objects. There's even a healthy community of modelers and designers creating all manner of adaptations through Steam Workshop. You can find fan-made mods of role-playing games like Pathfinder and D&D, but also board games like Warhammer Quest, The Lords of Waterdeep and Battlestar Galactica. There's even a few really good looking versions of Fantasy Flight Games' X-Wing Miniatures Game.


Plus, Tabletop Simulator has a button that lets you flip the table. That alone should be worth the $14.99 price of admission. Four packs of licenses are available for $45.


Turns out, the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons was designed to be extremely light and easy to play. Several Polygon staff have spent time with the system, and in our experience it's been a breeze to teach, even to newbies. That's because D&D's 5th edition is all about giving control back to the Dungeon Master.

If you want to play a game of D&D that doesn't require a map, that is all theater of the mind, you can do that with Skype. Or with Curse. Or with Google Hangout. Or with Facetime.

Basically, if you can hear the voice of another human being you can play D&D. You don't even need dice.

That's because Dungeons & Dragons, and other role-playing games that came after it, are all about storytelling. The rules are a fun way to arbitrate disputes, the maps and miniatures are awful pretty and the books are filled with amazing art and delicious lore. But Wizards of the Coast just wants you to play, that's why the latest version of the starter rules is available for free.

There's no reason a price tag should get in the way of enjoying the pen and paper experience. A few sessions into your first campaign, after you get your group together and gather some momentum, is probably the best time to migrate over to something like Fantasy Grounds or its competitors.

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