The Old-fashioned Way
For about 2 years now I’ve decided to change seats at the D&D table and sit on one of the head ends of the table behind a screen. During my time as DM I tried out several tools to make my life easier. When I first started I decided on the old-fashioned way. I used Pen & Paper to keep all my notes, npc stats, information about the players, battle maps etc. in one big folder. However since I’m one of those DMs that tend to have to look through notes over and over again to not lose track and the fact that I myself was new to the game I don’t need to tell you that this got messy really quickly. Lots of loose papers flying around were the end result.
The “Excel-esque” Way
Long story short, it was a mess. Therefore I decided to switch to a digital version of my notes and used Excel sheets to keep things clean and organized. I was really proud of myself to have a sheet for the player information, one sheet for monster stats, one sheet for menus in the tavern and so on and so forth.
This version of keeping my notes improved from the raw Pen & Paper version I used at the beginning not only because I got used to being a DM but because I found my stuff way quicker than ever before. Still though, there were no real connections between the sheets and when I cross-referenced information it again got really messy with a lot of scrolling around. I
However another problem arose when a lot of my friends I rarely see requested online sessions. In my quest of finding a suitable solution for that challenge I found Fantasy Grounds and Roll20. Back then I decided to give Roll20 a shot, as it allowed me to quickly click together a One-Shot I wanted to run for new players. It gave me a lot of option and I still find Roll20 a relatively good tool. The biggest plus for Roll20 is that it is Free in it’s smallest version. Of course the DM does miss out on some cool features like “Dynamic Lighting”, but for a quick and easy way to run a D&D game with friends this is still awesome and a lot of my friends still use it.
Roll20 as well as Fantasy Grounds are both so called “Virtual Tabletops”. That means they simulate the experience you and your players have when sitting around a real table. You as a DM can manage pretty much everything you want inside Roll20, from NPCs, Battle Maps, Handouts for the players (that can be given out individually) and you even have a set of virtual dice you can roll. All while being able to use a Voice- and Videochat functionality within Roll20. Although, I do recommend against the Voicechat as in my experience it doesn’t work that good and the Video transmissions break up sporadically.
The biggest downside to Roll20 is that it is a web application, so you will need an active internet connection to be able to open all your notes and information. The “Dynamic Lighting” setting I mentioned earlier is a cool feature to gradually unveil the depths of a dungeon while the players explore it. Nevertheless, I found that when using a complex map with a lot of sub-corridors the feature will drastically slow down the performance of the game to a point where it is almost unbearable to play. As a DM you have access to every rule, class, race, NPC etc. of D&D that is covered by the “SRD”. I used this for about 9 months for my online sessions.
Online Sessions vs.Offline Sessions
Because of the fact that I have some offline sessions, where an internet connection is not available I was not able to use Roll20 for these sessions. The convenience of having that “Virtual Tabletop” made me rethink my “Excelesque” way of managing my offline sessions. I came across another tool I used at work called “Boostnote”. That is an advanced notepad using the Markdown language to style pages with the ability to cross-reference the pages and organizing them in so called “Storages”. This was way more more organized than my Excel sheets and the Markdown language allowed me to keep everything very readable and re-usable.
After working that way for about a year and a half I again came across Fantasy Grounds and read about it in various forums so that I decided to test it out and I’m in love with the tool ever since. One of the biggest advantages in using Fantasy Grounds is that it works online as well as offline. The cheapest subscription of about $4 a months allows you to create your own campaign.
It is rather similar to Roll20 but exceeds in functionality by a lot. In Fantasy Grounds you have access to about the same amount of information, as it ships with an “SRD” module for free. However what in my opinion puts Fantasy Ground at the very top is the extendibilty.
While you also have the opportunity to load in “Scripts” in Roll20 (if you are a Pro member for $9,99/mts) Fantasy Grounds gives you the possibility to create your own custom modules that you can load into every game. Let me give an example for that. I recently ran a one-shot called “Murder at Moonveil Manor” that and incorporated it into a running campaign and created all the necessary NPCs, Maps, Trap Tables, Quests, Story Hooks etc. After that, I was then able to export the whole module with everything in it.
In my campaign I simply loaded in the exported Module and tada: There were all my NPCS, Encounters, Maps etc. So what Fantasy Grounds allows you to do is keeping everything modular and even shareable. The module that is exported is saved in the Fantasy Grounds data folder. You can send it to another DM, who can use it right away without any further ado.
Encounters & Parcels
Another great feature FG brings is the possibility to pre-create Encounters and “Parcels”. As an example, if you want four bugbears to live inside the long forgotten mountain caverns you can pre-create the Encounter inside FG. With one click of your mouse you can move all monsters to the Combat Tracker and assign XP after the fight.
“Parcels” are packages of Loot that you can give out to your players. I copied the Magic Item Tables A-F and the Treasure Horde Tables into Fantasy Grounds. As soon as I roll on these tables the parcels are stocked automatically. FG rolls the dice and adds the respective items to the parcel I want to give my players.
Extendibility of Fantasy Grounds
Additionally since everything FG uses are XML based files mods and tools you can easily write tools to generate content. I created two tools with Python that scrape the D&D Beyond page for Common Magic Items. Inside the tool I can still alter some stuff like pricing, weight etc. The tool then allows me to export an XML file that I can load into FG. This way I was able to import all Magic Items in the XtG to FG. Currently I’m working to get everything the PHB, DMG, MM, VGtM and XtG offer into an FG module.
The final straw that helped me decide to use Fantasy Grounds is the fact that you do not need a monthly subscription. There are “Lifetime versions”, meaning you buy the product once with the appropriate license and can use it forever. However, there are three versions of FG and with the free one you can not create campaigns or host games. You are however able to join a game if the DM has either a Standard or Ultimate License. The difference however is, that with a Standard license the DM can only host a game for one “Free” player.
For a session with more than one “Free” player the DM needs an Ultimate License. The prices vary between the two. Nevertheless I recommend on getting the One-time payment licenses. Currently I own the Standard License which was enough for me in the past couple of months. However for next weeks online sessions I will get an Ultimate subscription for a month. Ultimately my goal (literally in this Ko‑fi atm) is to get the Ultimate One-Time payment License.