Foundry Virtual Tabletop takes the online play experience to the next level

A graphic of an anvil with an orange D20 in the center, a smaller anvil in the middle of the D20. It is set on an orange background
Graphic: Polygon | Source image: Foundry

Online play won’t be the same as in person; Foundry VTT embraces that

I first got into Dungeons & Dragons in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which naturally meant that my group started online. This was particularly helpful since most of my group members are spread across the world. Every few weeks, we gather on a Discord call instead of around a physical table to roll dice and tell stories. And usually, we do this via a virtual tabletop, a platform that allows us to move character tokens across a map, roll virtual dice, and (maybe most importantly to some of my group members) do basic math.

A couple of months ago, my Dungeon Master announced that we’d be trying something a little new for our next arc. Instead of logging in to our regular virtual tabletop, he sent over a strange-looking link and told us that our passwords were simply our first names.

It took a second for us to figure out how to move our character icons and scroll around the screen, but once we did, we started to explore. We quickly realized that depending on where our character icons were on the map, we as players saw different parts of the map unfold. A few characters scouted ahead, while others lingered behind on the docks. A marketplace unfolded for those looking ahead, and the rest of us immediately scrambled to follow.

When we eventually entered our first battle on this new platform, and rolled our first attacks, we gleefully realized that there were animations to go along with them. My eldritch blast came out in a dazzling purple, shooting right at the sentient mushroom I was trying to hit. (And then we had a quick detour where we just spammed attacks to see how they came out, because it was all so cool).

We were all dazzled by Foundry Virtual Tabletop, as we learned it was called. And our DM seemed pretty jazzed to make the game more interactive. He’s always been passionate about pulling in voice modifiers and queueing up music, but with Foundry VTT, everything leveled up just that much more.

A virtual tabletop map featuring a lush autumnal landscape, with a platform in themiddle
Image: Foundry

Intrigued by the new possibilities on display, I chatted with Foundry VTT creator Andrew Clayton about the up-and-coming virtual tabletop system, which celebrated its fourth anniversary this month. Like many tabletop players, Clayton took his games online when in-person scheduling became difficult. The virtual tabletop options out there worked decently enough, but he couldn’t help but spot some lost potential.

“I found them to be sort of limiting in ways that I personally found frustrating,” explains Clayton. “And so since I was in a position of being between hobbies [and] between little hobby projects at the time, I kind of had the, I guess, hubris, you might say, to sort of ask the question of, like, Well, what if I try to make something?

He never really intended to make Foundry VTT; but after experimenting, Clayton realized that there was something of value in there and he decided to pursue it further. One of his biggest goals was to push the immersivity of the virtual experience as far as possible. The possibilities with Foundry are much much higher than other VTT spaces.

On the game master’s side, Foundry VTT is a one-time purchase for DMs that lets them download the software and host a server for an unlimited number of players, who access it via a link. There is only one purchase tier, which includes all existing Foundry VTT features, all future updates, and no subscription fees. And unlike other virtual tabletop experiences, Foundry VTT doesn’t require players to sign up for anything.

Foundry VTT has all the basics you need for a virtual tabletop: character sheets, dice rolling (which does all the math for you), maps, and tokens to move around said maps. But the software also offers a chance for DMs to get really immersive, with dynamic lightning, visual and audio effects, and other features that make an adventure come to life.

A virtual tabletop battle map, featuring a cobweb covered cave. The information for a giant spider adversary is pulled up.
Image: Foundry

It’s all pretty invisible to the players. Now that our group is all in on Foundry VTT, we mostly move around our own icons, exploring the map and uncovering new elements as we go. Battles take on an extra level of cool when attacks bring up animations targeted to the enemies we click on. The basic elements of a virtual tabletop are all there, but just augmented and given more options for immersion.

In one particularly climactic moment, for instance, my group watched a snow effect fall across the landscape as a queen made a big announcement. And then, as she spoke, the snow turned gold — indicating a war on the horizon. We all gasped and howled (especially since we, uh, may’ve accidentally caused the war in the first place — whoops!). All of this was done via a particle effect already integrated within Foundry VTT (with the help of a few mods, adds my DM).

Mods are a key part of the Foundry experience. Clayton decided very early on that he wanted Foundry VTT to be super developer-focused, so that members of the community could create different mods for the existing software to help integrate their favorite game systems. As a mod developer himself, this was very important to Clayton. And opening the doors for mod developers to use Foundry as a springboard ended up fostering a particularly creative and passionate community — which ended up paving the way for the company’s first big partnership with Cubicle 7 for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s fourth edition.

“Huge IP, huge franchise, huge game system, huge publisher,” says Clayton. “By all rights that should not have been one of our first gets. […] But part of the reason it did was the community developers who were making the Warhammer Fantasy system for Foundry had just done such a superlative job of making it an absolutely stunning visual game system that really authentically channeled the feeling of Warhammer. It was just such a strong sales pitch that got them excited and got them on board.”

That first big win, built atop user-generated content, opened the door to other partnerships with publishers, including most recently D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast. It’s a relationship that Clayton wasn’t sure would ever happen.

“I’d actually kind of reached a point where I was comfortable with the fact that it might never happen,” Clayton says. “I guess that [resignation] was what it took for [the partnership] to happen.”

I didn’t even realize how integral the official D&D integration was until I thought back on how, when I add new spells to my sheet, all I need to do is search for them and click “add.” The information from the sourcebooks my DM owns is already integrated into the server. Since my campaign is mostly homebrew, with a setting concocted by my DM, we don’t heavily use existing reference materials, but Clayton showed me how easy it is to pull up source guides for specific games, campaigns, and settings. He also demonstrated how seamless it is to jump between different written material. It’s also very useful in showing information to just one person at a time (or a handful, depending on who gets to know), which makes the experience all the more immersive.

A screenshot featuring a page from a D&D sourcebook, a map of the Neverwinter Wood, and a character sheet
Image: Foundry

Foundry VTT has a bit of a learning curve to it, something that Clayton readily admits. Even on the player side, there’s a lot going on with the UI, which makes it a little tricky to get used to. But Clayton likens it to Photoshop or Canva. Foundry is a tool that ultimately has more freedom and flexibility once you get past the initial hurdle of figuring it out.

“I’m very aware of what Foundry can do,” he says. “What surprises me and really blows me away is when a community developer actually leans into that, and really takes advantage of it and pushes the boundary of what’s possible in a really exciting way.”

For instance, Foundry VTT is primarily meant to showcase 2D maps and spaces. But there are some people out there who’ve managed to use it to convey 3D environments. There are also developers who’ve managed to put together complex scripted sequences — way more than just turning some snow a different color — that fully utilizes the software’s audio and visual capabilities.

A virtual tabletop map featuring a dark, eerie setting, and two panels of information pulled up.
Image: Foundry

“We know that that [kind of custom work] can be done,” Clayton says. “But knowing it can be done, and then seeing someone actually take the time to make it and have it work that way is really, really inspiring.”

So should your weekly in-person gaming group consider making the switch online? Clayton believes that there’s some aspects of virtual tabletops that actually eclipse in-person play. Maybe there’s a big encounter on the horizon and your DM wants to try and do something special. But even scheduling games between players can be made much easier, especially at a distance, when you’re doing everything online. (“That’s top of the list [of bullet points],” Clayton quips.)

But there’s also just the simple fact that mechanically dense games are easier to parse when the material can be readily accessible without having to crack open a sourcebook or pull up a bunch of FAQs and databases on the web.

Personally, as a player, what’s really stood out to me over the last several months is just how much Foundry VTT embraces its digital roots, enabling GMs to virtually build out their setting and make it as dynamic as possible. The online space isn’t a limitation; it’s a jumping-off point.

“The ceiling [for creative people] is much, much higher,” says Clayton. “I think people probably think of some of the spectacular sets that they have on a show like Critical Role, where it’s this amazing terrain and [custom] miniatures for every creature. […] The amount of work and production effort that went into that happening is totally impossible for really anyone who’s not a professional company staging that production. But I think having something that’s approaching that level of immersion in a digital environment is much much easier [using a VTT].”

For what the software can do, it’s not terribly demanding on a computer. As a player, it’s all integrated within a browser, so all I have to do is click a link. Of course, it does depend on how complex the GM wants to make the experience, but Clayton absolutely wants to make sure that Foundry VTT’s capabilities balance with its performance, without sacrificing one for the other.

“That’s something that I want us to double down on and continue investing in,” says Clayton. “So that that remains an area where we are the superior choice for a group that wants to tell a very visually rich, very immersive, very high-production-value sort of game.”

A Foundry Virtual Tabletop license is available for $50.

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