Review: Dungeons & Dragons and Fantasy Grounds, A Happy Medium

Note: The following article originally appears on The Mad Adventurers Society in three parts (one two three.) It has been consolidated and reprinted here with the author’s permission.

When it was announced a few months ago, I wrote at length of virtual tabletop app Fantasy Grounds and its acquisition of the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition license. After that discussion, the folks at Fantasy Grounds (www.fantasygrounds.com) were kind enough to send me a copy of the 5E content for review. I downloaded the game on Steam, loaded the Player’s Handbook module (“Complete Core Class Pack”), the Monster Manual module (“Complete Core Monster Pack”), and the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure module, grabbed a few friends, and ran a trial adventure.

This is a hands-on review of Fantasy Grounds’ D&D 5E licensed content. We’ll start by discussing my impressions of Fantasy Grounds as a virtual tabletop overall, followed by the Player’s Handbook licensed content aimed at players, and conclude with a discussion of the licensed content for Dungeon Masters, namely the D&D Complete Core Monster Pack and Lost Mine of Phandelver adventures. Please note that there are spoilers for the first act of Lost Mine of Phandelver contained within.

Contents:
Fantasy Grounds Overview
D&D Player Overview
D&D Dungeon Master Overview

Fantasy Grounds: What’s in the (Metaphorical) Box?

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Fantasy Grounds is a standalone virtual tabletop (VTT) application for Windows and Mac, and is available as its own program or as a part of Steam (which I highly recommend for Mac users.) It has all of the functionality you expect from a VTT: campaign management, encounter planning, combat tracking, character sheets, integrated dice roller, maps and tokens, and various chat options. The only feature conspicuously missing from the list is integrated voice or video chat.

Fantasy Grounds uses an individual server-client design. This means one user (the GM/DM) must load Fantasy Grounds and “host” a game for the remaining players to connect to. We didn’t have any connectivity problems, but I did have to forward some ports on my router. This stands in contrast to the web-based design of free alternative Roll20, which allows all players to connect to games hosted on Roll20’s servers. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of both designs later, but keep the distinction in mind. 

Since the most popular VTT app, Roll20, is free, it’s important to understand the pricing structure for Fantasy Grounds up front. Before you can use any of the licensed D&D content, you need to purchase a license for Fantasy Grounds. There are a few options, and I’ve summarized them below using the one-time fee price; note that both the Fantasy Grounds and Ultimate licenses are also available as a monthly subscription:

  1. The Demo/Free license ($0)
  2. The Fantasy Grounds license ($39)
  3. The Ultimate license ($149)

The Demo/Free license is accurately named: you can’t host games or save anything you create under this license, so you can’t really play a game with it unless you’re connecting to an Ultimate license (more on that later.) The Fantasy Grounds license unlocks all functionality and lets you host and connect to other players with a paid license. The Ultimate license also has full functionality, plus it allows you to host for players using any type of license, including the Demo/Free.

Since RPGs are inherently multiplayer, for a group to play any game via Fantasy Grounds, this means either all players must purchase a Fantasy Grounds license for $39, or one player must purchase the Ultimate license for $149. The D&D 5E content is an additional cost on top of those licenses. The Complete Core Class Pack is $49.99. The Complete Core Monster Pack is another $49.99. Each of the adventures (Lost Mines of Phandelver, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and Rise of Tiamat) are $19.99.

Here’s where my head spins: dependent on the licenses the group is using, certain modules can only be used a certain way. For a group using an Ultimate license, if the DM (host) owns the D&D 5E Complete Core Class Pack, she can share the module with all players while they are connected to her game, but those players must be connected to her game in order to access it. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to “pass the DM screen,” so only the player with the Ultimate license will be able to host and DM. The alternative, each player owning an individual license, would require each player to own the PHB content, but would allow a group to easily pass the DM screen (though each DM would need to decide if the Core Monster Pack or published adventure modules were worth it, as they would each need to purchase separately.)

How We Tested

Fantasy Grounds gave me an Ultimate license to test the 5E content with, so I quickly recruited three friends to join for a one-shot of Lost Mines of Phandelver, the adventure included in the D&D Starter Set. We played for a little over four hours, and completed the first act of the adventure (defeating Klarg in the Cragmaw Cave.) Two players used the pre-made characters included in the Starter Set, while the third made a character on his own before we started. We used Google Hangouts for video chat, and used map and minis within Fantasy Grounds for all the combat encounters. In fairness, we probably devoted an above-average portion of our time to roleplaying—after all, while we had gathered to kick the tires on Fantasy Grounds, we still wanted to enjoy the session.

Fantasy Grounds has a reputation as a very polished, premium VTT, whose functionality is fully fleshed out. I sort of expected all the functionality it has to be there, so in terms of the Fantasy Grounds application itself, I was most interested in testing out the user interface. I wanted to figure out how easy it is to learn, how easy it is to navigate, and if it enhanced the gaming experience or impeded it. I also sought a direct comparison to Fantasy Grounds’ free competitor, Roll20, which I’ve used more extensively.

Owing to the steep price tag, I also wanted to figure out exactly what to recommend in terms of licensing. What were the practical limitations of using a single Ultimate license versus four individual Player licenses? Should a group of six pay $234 for individual Fantasy Ground licenses, or pool their money for a single $149 Ultimate license?

Fantasy Grounds: What I Liked

The polish.

The interface is pretty visually stunning, with a dedicated D&D skin to enhance the mood. But the functionality is very polished as well. The way that the adventure planning pieces feed encounter data into the map/tokens and combat tracking is great. We were able to flow seamlessly between narrative time and combat encounters, and as a DM, I had everything I needed where and when I needed it.

The flexibility.

Rather than approach the Cragmaw Hideout directly, the party decided to set a trap and draw the goblins out. Without missing a beat, I was able to pull the goblins from the first encounter (the guards at the mouth of the cave) forward in the adventure, and adjust the remaining encounters accordingly. This isn’t a big deal in a relatively linear adventure/dungeon, but in more complicated scenarios, it’s good to be able to track quickly and easily the impact of the PCs actions.

Running encounters is a breeze.

The combat tracker is basically a one-stop shop for DMs. I can see all the relative stats and statuses for each creature in the encounter, including monster stat blocks. There’s no need for virtual “page flipping” to use multiple creatures, and when presented within the initiative tracker, this makes it very easy to play multiple monsters without slowing down the pace of play. Combined with the easy maps and tokens, FG enables a very smooth encounter management experience, which results in faster, more immersive combats.

Fantasy Grounds: What I Didn’t Like

The user interface is just a bit off.

As my Mad Adventurers colleague Fiddleback put it, everything just seemed to be one click further away than we expected. Many button labels throughout FG have been replaced with symbols, so there’s a learning curve as you hover the mouse over each symbol waiting for the tooltip to appear. There are also contextual right click menus—complete with additional symbols—that I never really mastered. None of these complaints are dealbreakers, and I think the group consensus was that within a couple sessions we would have been flying through the interface.

Screen real estate is limited.

This comes down to personal preference, but as a DM, I tend to have multiple books, notebooks, and scribbled pages spread out in front of me. When I DM using Roll20, I accomplish this by grouping the information I need and keeping multiple tabs of Roll20 open dedicated to each purpose. Within Fantasy Grounds, windows open within the Fantasy Ground program which can be moved, resized, minimized, and layered. Because of this, I had to actively manage the windows I had open rather than simply adding more screen real estate. This required an adjustment on how I organize the data I’m used to having, but other than some more clicking on my part, I don’t think it impacted the session overall.

The application architecture.

Another bit of personal preference, but requiring the DM to host the session and everyone connect directly to the DM just feels old-fashioned. I had to setup port forwarding on my router, which wasn’t a big deal—the FG forums offered plenty of help—but it still feels very outdated. Of course, having suffered through plenty of Roll20 server outages on Friday nights, I am sympathetic to the argument in favor of this Host-Client architecture.

But even on my local computer, I was more than surprised at how thirsty the Fantasy Grounds application ran. It rabidly consumed processor and memory, and my 2013 MacBook Air was running at full-fan for the duration of the session. It wasn’t just on the host end, either; Devon, from the SharkBone podcast, noted that his Windows PC was running hot. Fantasy Grounds doesn’t have particularly high minimum system requirements, but if you’ve got an older computer, you may notice the performance. 

Fantasy Grounds: Who Should Buy This?

Considering how much functionality Roll20 provides for free, it’s easy to dismiss premium alternatives like Fantasy Grounds out of hand. And given the potentially steep price tag, I entered into our session more than a bit skeptical that Fantasy Grounds could be worth the price of admission. After having used it, I would definitely recommend groups give Fantasy Grounds a look before settling on a virtual tabletop app.

The licensing structure is critical to the value proposition of Fantasy Grounds, so each group needs to consider its style of play and resources, and figure out realistically what it will cost each member to get the content they want and need. Playstyle is an important consideration, both in terms of the types of games a group plays and the way a group plays. This is perhaps obvious, but a group needs to actually use the tools Fantasy Grounds provides in order to justify its cost. There’s a lot more value in FG for groups that use map-and-minis for combat, and the more planning/organization the DM requires, the better a group can maximize their benefit. Since we played a one-shot, we had limited interaction with the broader campaign planning tools, but Doug Davison, owner of Fantasy Grounds publisher SmiteWorks, insists that he “uses FG to organize [his] in-person games.”

If your group is stable, plays regularly, and prefers longer campaigns, then Fantasy Grounds’ improved functionality easily justifies its cost, especially since the monthly fee to try out an Ultimate License is only $10 and would allow the entire group to evaluate the platform. Groups with a rotating DM will need to consider the extra cost of individual Fantasy Grounds licenses (plus potentially duplicate costs of licensed content for D&D or other systems.)

Perhaps more importantly, no one else has D&D 5E content available. If your group is interested in having licensed D&D 5E content, you have no choice: Fantasy Grounds is the only way you’re going to get it. You can retain some comfort in the fact that, at the very least, Fantasy Grounds is as good as platform as any to leverage the content.

Of course, there are many groups for whom the functionality isn’t the decision driver: the cost, be it monthly or one-time, is simple too steep. While I think Fantasy Grounds gives a premium gaming experience, it’s by no means a “must have.” If you spend your whole gaming career without ever having tried Fantasy Grounds, you can have a very long and enjoyable gaming career. I, personally, will continue to play the majority of my games without any Virtual Tabletop.

A final note for DMs: Many folks run campaigns online for a rotating group of players, either because their games have high player turnover, or because they run short campaigns and then seek out new players. I don’t have any strong inkling as to how Fantasy Grounds compares to Roll20 in the player recruitment department, where Roll20 has a very strong Looking For Group community. Either way, I would assume a DM with an Ultimate license will have an easier time finding players to join a Fantasy Grounds-based campaign than will a DM who asks potential new players to subscribe on their own.

D&D Player Content: What’s in the (Metaphorical) Box?

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For $49.99, the Complete Core Class Pack is an add-on for Fantasy Grounds, and comes with all of the character options available to PCs from the Player’s Handbook. This includes all of the races/classes and their abilities, the backgrounds and their various random tables, equipment, weapons, feats, and spells. It also includes a massive number of character portraits (328 of them) with gorgeous art and a D&D 5E “custom theme” which reskins the standard Fantasy Grounds windows and buttons. Finally, the Core Class Pack includes “reference material” which I would generously describe as the text of the PHB in a bookmarked format.

Each of the classes is also available as its own “Class Pack,” with prices ranging from $2.99 for the Wizard, Fighter, Cleric, and Rogue to $5.99 for the Sorcerer, Druid, Warlock, and Bard. The remaining content within the Complete Core Class Pack is available for $8.99 in the “Character Customization Pack.”

In terms of functionality, these class packs allow players to build characters by dragging and dropping links to pre-populated abilities, options, and gear into their Fantasy Grounds character sheets rather than adding them manually. Once added to the character sheet, it also grants quick reference to the text of the rules: simply click a butto, and the game text of a spell, feat, class or racial ability appears.

It’s important to note that the linking of abilities on the character sheet to their reference text is a core function of all Fantasy Grounds’ character sheets. Any player can enter the relevant game text and link it through the character sheet, but the D&D Class Packs provide the pre-populated links, as well as the ability to browse all of the options available to a particular character before making that choice, which is particularly handy for spellcaster classes who must choose a handful of spells from a large list.

D&D Player Content: What I Liked

Character creation is a breeze.

Simply put: it’s fast. D&D 5E already boasts pretty quick character creation, but being able to open a class’ module, drag the relevant abilities and gear into the character sheet, and update a few fields saves a ton of time, especially for higher-level characters and choice-heavy classes like casters. And if you’re one for random character generation, all of the rollable options for a character are available for random assignment.

Spellcasting made simple.

The layout of the Spells chapter in the PHB is one of my biggest pet peeves, and even for experienced players, spells are one of the most vexing character abilities to manage. It’s no coincidence that many players use spell cards to track their slots, known, and prepared spells. Making these manually for each character can be a rote timesuck, so having all the spell data automatically entered and hot-linked on your sheet not only saves players’ set-up time, but it speeds the pace of play. Since the spell text is copy-and-pasteable, it also helps the Do-It-Yourself spell card maker, and makes for a compelling, cost-effective alternative to officially licensed spell cards from Gale Force Nine, which run $6.99 for the Ranger and Paladin; $12.99 for the Bard, Cleric, and Druid; and $19.99 for all the arcane spells (Wizard and Sorcerer).

The art stands out.

There’s not a whole lot to say about it, but between the 5E skin for Fantasy Grounds itself and all of the player character portraits, the art is great quality. The internet is, of course, full of art options for characters, but it’s helpful that there are so many options included in the module, already loaded into the game, and at players’ fingertips. I don’t say this lightly; the portraits are the kind that inspire players to build characters, not just the sort that get retrofitted to fill an empty spot on the sheet.

D&D Player Content: What I Didn’t Like

Duplicate digital content, but no PDF.

Aside from the art assets, there’s nothing new in here. You’re buying the Player’s Handbook, chopped up into little Fantasy Grounds-sized nuggets. Duplicate digital content is nothing new; PDFs are increasingly popular, and many publishers include them for free with the dead-tree book. But this isn’t a PDF. It’s intricately woven into Fantasy Grounds’ platform, which means it’s only useful when a player is using Fantasy Grounds. If this seems axiomatic, consider that many players prefer digital copies for the search and bookmarking capabilities at a live table, along with the ease of bringing along a library of books to these in-person sessions.

In the same vein, Fantasy Grounds offers very little to players looking for digital 5E content, but not looking for a Virtual Tabletop. FG lacks a mobile app, browser-lite, or otherwise mobile-optimized version, and as I previously discussed, it just chugs system resources and drains laptop batteries in a hurry. It just isn’t easy to get to the content unless you’re using Fantasy Grounds for your game. For that reason, the only players who will be able to use this content for quick reference in their home games will be the players who already bring laptops and are happy being tethered to a wall. That definitely isn’t me.

The “reference material” is garbage.

While I previously described the “reference material” included in the Complete Core Class Pack as “the text of the PHB in a bookmarked format,” allow me to expand. This is a text dump with a table of contents. It is in no way comparable to a PDF copy of the PHB; it’s only moderately better than the d20 SRD, in the sense that the table of contents shows the order topics are presented in the physical book, but navigating within the material is clunkier than a website. My Mad Adventurers colleague Fiddleback and I had a long, derisive laugh at this; it’s that bad. 

Not great for new players.

I would emphatically caution new players against purchasing the Complete Core Class Pack in lieu of a physical book. Perhaps I’m old fashioned—I’ll admit that I don’t love using PDFs to read and learn a new system. But I simply don’t believe a new player can learn to play D&D from the stripped-down “reference material” version of the Player’s Handbook included in the module. The reason books are effective for teaching the game is because they are laid out in a thoughtful order that introduces concepts which build in complexity, with immersive art to keep the reader engaged. Without that holistic form, the PHB is a very dull instruction manual. This was my biggest disappointment in the Complete Core Class Pack, for as much of a triumph as the PHB is in its book form, there are simply too many layers of abstraction between the reader and the information to get that enjoyable learning experience within Fantasy Grounds.

Price.

The strange caveat to all this criticism is that I actually don’t mind paying for duplicate digital content and I could easily overlook some of the flaws here. But at $49.99, the Complete Core Class Pack is just too damn expensive. It’s more expensive than a physical copy of the Player’s Handbook (under $30 on Amazon!) If this were priced comparable to other digital editions, in the $10-20 range, I’d happily forgive its shortcomings and heartily recommend it to all players.

But then, who am I kidding? This is Dungeons & Dragons, one of the most expensive games in the hobby. If Wizards of the Coast wanted full MSRP for their digital content, I’d probably still buy it… in PDF. I just don’t think the convenience of the Core Class Pack is worth the price if it doesn’t also offer a PDF-like experience. The content, overall, is very good and useful, but it’s just not useful enough at this price point.

D&D Player Content: Who Should Buy This?

My initial thought was “no one,” but I suppose there is a segment of the gamer population with money burning a hole in their pockets and/or an obsessive need to collect 100% of the D&D line. Perhaps that’s too glib: while anyone can manually enter all of their character information from the PHB into her character sheet/game and duplicate the benefits of the licensed content, I suspect in reality that most players enter comparatively little information into their character sheet. If you’re the sort who likes to have all of your character information in a single place, but don’t want to enter it yourself, then the Core Class Pack content is a great, if expensive, solution.

For a player who is interested, I would recommend first picking up an individual class pack, especially if she’s using the individual Fantasy Grounds license and/or playing a spell caster. For a few bucks, that covers most of the heavy lifting, and provides a chance to kick the tires. But I only recommend it only after she’s bought a physical copy of the Player’s Handbook.

D&D DM Content: What’s in the (Metaphorical) Box?

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For $49.99, the Complete Core Monster Pack is an add-on for Fantasy Grounds that includes art, tokens, and descriptions/stat blocks for every monster in the Monster Manual. Similar to the Complete Core Class Pack, it also includes a reference document with the full text of the Monster Manual, indexed and searchable. Like the Core Class Packs, the content is also available as individual Monster Packs grouped by monster type for $4.99 each. (Note that while the prices for individual Monster Packs are the same, the number of monsters in a given pack varies greatly, from only 18 creatures in the Monster Pack – Aberrations to the 87 creatures in the Monster Pack – Beasts.)

Each of the adventure module add-ons (Lost Mine of Phandelver, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and The Rise of Tiamat) are available for $19.99. These modules include the full contents of the adventure, including full module text, image handouts, maps, pre-linked encounters with monster stats and tokens, and XP/treasure rewards. The Lost Mine of Phandelver module also includes the five pre-gen characters included in the D&D Starter Set, while Hoard of the Dragon Queen includes 11 additional “bonus” maps for encounters that were not included in the book. And while all of the content is setup to run within the published adventure’s story, it can also be copied wholesale or recycled in parts for a DM’s own adventures and stories.

All of this content is built to be utilized within Fantasy Grounds’ adventure planning framework. Monsters can be dragged into and removed from encounters, which can quickly be dropped into the combat tracker and added to the map. Most notably, in combat, monster actions are a series of clicks and drags: one button for the attack roll, another for the damage. Similar to the Core Class Packs, there’s no new functionality that other Fantasy Grounds users don’t have. Anyone could load in the story, encounters, monsters, maps, and handouts into Fantasy Grounds and replicate the experience, but the Core Monster Pack and adventure modules simply pre-load the content.

D&D DM Content: What I Liked

The lowest prep time possible.

As I noted, these modules are largely a matter of convenience. Rather than manually entering information from the source book, for the price of the module, you can have it all loaded for you. While I wasn’t sold on the value of this for Player’s Handbook content for players, I think this is a no brainer for DMs. Simply put: this cuts a DM’s preparation time significantly.

Given the constant intrusion of real-world responsibilities on my precious gaming time, I just don’t have the time for elaborate prep any more. My personal goal is to condense my prep time for a four-hour D&D session down to a single hour, including world building, story development, and encounter planning. That’s aggressive, and means that every minute saved on the rote preparation—organizing monster stat blocks, finding maps and tokens, bookmarking relevant pages across the core books, etc—is a minute I can devote to enhancing the players’ immersion and their characters’ plot.

I am both pleased and excited to report that, even allowing for the time it took to familiarize myself with Fantasy Grounds and poke around the module itself, I ran the first session of Lost Mine with less than an hour of prep. Perhaps more importantly, with less than an hour of prep, I actually felt comfortable running it, and the results speak for themselves: other than a brief interlude to familiarize ourselves with the buttons in the first combat, there really wasn’t a break in the narrative action until we finished.

Flexibility.

As experience players often do in Lost Mines, our playtest group took an unconventional approach to entering the first dungeon, the Cragmaw Hideout. After following the trail and avoiding the traps, they decided to lure some of the goblins into a trap of their own construction, capture the wretched creatures, and turn them to their cause. This led to rearranging the goblins within the cave, so encounters in each room didn’t exactly follow the published script. I handled this on the fly without an issue, hiding the tokens behind the Fog of War and pulling them into the Combat Tracker as the party got to each appropriate encounter.

This is a common instruction in published adventures: if combat in Room 1 starts, the goblins in rooms 2 and 3 will listen and react. It’s extremely difficult to track at the table without slowing down the session. Within Fantasy Grounds, though, that challenge goes away. The adventure tells how each room reacts, and the DM can update the map in real time, revealing the results to the PCs as they move through a dungeon. It’s extremely satisfying to have that grasp of the overall dungeon. It’s even more satisfying to reconstruct multiple encounters in the middle of a session without interrupting the game at all.

Price.

I’ve been skeptical of price since the beginning of this series, but I don’t think there is a better dollar-for-dollar value across the range of D&D products than Fantasy Grounds’ adventure modules. While the Lost Mine of Phandelver module runs the same price as the D&D Starter Set its sold in, the Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat adventure modules are both cheaper than their physical book counterparts. At $19.99 even DMs who purchase copies of the physical book can easily justify the digital version for even a single playthrough of the module.

An excellent primer in using Fantasy Grounds.

One of the things that struck me as I started digging into the meat of digital campaign planning tools, including Virtual Tabletops and campaign wiki-style solutions like Obsidian Portal, is that it can be tough to figure out the best way to use the tools. For the most part, they all offer a framework for tracking and organizing, but the blank canvas can be very intimidating, especially as a DM is still learning al of the available functionality. After loading the Lost Mine module, I could easily see Fantasy Grounds’ vision for utilizing their campaign tools, which is a great guideline for DMs as they work on their own campaigns, whether they are new to the DM’s chair or just to Fantasy Grounds’ toolset.

D&D DM Content: What I Didn’t Like

Value is dependent on playstyle.

This is more of a note of caution than a real complaint, but the value in either of these products is tied to how much you use them. A DM who writes his own adventures and campaigns will get much more value out of the Complete Core Monster Pack than a DM who runs primarily published adventures. Likewise, a DM who wishes to run published adventures will get less benefit out of the Complete Core Monster Pack. No matter which kind of DM you are, one of these products should appeal to you, but most DMs won’t need to collect the adventure modules as well as the Complete Core Monster Pack.

Functional, but Not “optimized” for VTT.

With some limited exceptions, such as the additional maps included in the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module, these products are simply digitally translated copies of their dead-tree counterparts. This certainly satisfies an immediate need, in terms of translating the material from a face-to-face tabletop to Fantasy Grounds’ virtual tabletop, but it doesn’t explore the potential to make the virtual tabletop experience better than its analog counterpart.

Fantasy Grounds and other virtual tabletops have long sought to simulate an in-person gaming experience, but I’d like to see these premium-priced D&D products taking VTT forward to the next generation of gaming. There are limitations that players face when sitting around a kitchen table that don’t apply at a virtual tabletop, such as music, token animations, visual spell and effect templates, sound effects, and dynamic maps.

I don’t have time to seek out music for every scene of my adventure, but music is one of the lowest hanging fruit for enhancing the immersion of a session. What if the module I bought on Fantasy Grounds could play a 15-20 second bumper to lead into each new scene by clicking a button as I read the narration text of an adventure? No matter how well my pewter miniatures are painted, or how dynamic their pose, they are fixed. Fantasy Grounds could introduce animations for tokens as they move, attack, or cast spells, as well as the animated effects of a Fireball or Entanglement spell. Taking the next step forward, each monster could have unique sounds for when it attacks, uses abilities, or takes damage. Finally, the maps in these modules are flat; the table in the corner of the room is a fixed part of the map, rather than a separate, interactive asset. If a player wants to drag a brazier from the center of the room to the doorway, the DM could grab the brazier itself rather than drawing a red square on the map.

Still not a PDF.

I’ve previously beaten this horse to death with my complaints about the Complete Core Class Pack’s digitization of the Player’s Handbook, but as good as this content is, it’s not a PDF. I can’t read it on my morning commute. I can’t load it on my phone or tablet for quick reference. The value is tethered to the Fantasy Grounds platform, and while this causes much less friction for me with DM content than the player-targeted Complete Core Class Pack, it’s still not ideal. I’d prefer to use the digital content I buy at every table, not just my virtual one.

D&D DM Content: Who Should Buy This?

Owing to their low price, I have no qualms recommending a DM pick up the adventure modules in Fantasy Grounds even if they own the adventure in book form. However, as long as you’re comfortable doing all of your reading within Fantasy Grounds, I think the adventure modules are a suitable alternative to the books. For the Complete Core Monster Pack and Monster Manual, though, I’m less confident. An experienced DM with a history in prior editions of D&D can likely get by with only the digital version, but I would caution new players against eschewing the physical copy. The Monster Manual is not only an important resource for game statistics, but also a wonderfully immersive tome for inspiration. Many players recall fondly the first time they cracked open a Monster Manual to take a tour through its fantastic creatures, and I think that’s an important experience as you enter the hobby.

If cost is a concern, I recommend one of the full-length adventure modules (Hoard of the Dragon Queen or The Rise of Tiamat) as an entry point. Given the steep up-front cost of lifetime licenses, I consider a sub-$20 outlay less risky even if I were using a monthly subscription to kick the tires and had the potential to cancel my license and lose access to the content. Even for DMs that typically plan their own adventures, one of the FG adventure modules gives the benefit of a primer for using FG’s planning tools, as well as some recurring value: DMs can easily recycle monsters, encounters, maps, tokens and other assets wholesale for future groups, adventures, and campaigns.

With the caveat that you should buy the right product for your DMing style and group preferences, every DM who plans to run D&D 5th Edition on Fantasy Grounds should own either the Complete Core Monster Pack or the adventure modules. There is simply too much value contained in these add-ons to pass on them.

But the more important question for many readers is: “If I’m already running games in another virtual tabletop, should I switch to Fantasy Grounds and buy this content?” Yes. Despite being lukewarm on the player-focused content, this DM content is worth the price of admission just for the time savings. And since a one-month Ultimate license and one adventure will run less than $30, given the amount of money DMs already blow on their gaming habits, I think every group playing on a virtual tabletop owes it to themselves to give it a try.

3 responses to “Review: Dungeons & Dragons and Fantasy Grounds, A Happy Medium

  1. Pingback: With Fantasy Grounds, Amazon Sales, D&D is Awfully Cheap Right Now | Mundangerous

  2. Pingback: D&D, The OGL, DMs Guild, and You. | The Mad Adventurers Society

  3. This is way old but … if you buy the core books on Amazon, you are not getting a PDF either. Weird point to keep harping on.

    At least you can print out your character sheets to a PDF, which actually look really nice, from FG.

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