Roll20 vs. Foundry VTT

For the last several years I’ve been happily gaming on roll20 and it’s really met my needs. However, I’ve recently started to get into the Free League games and their official modules are primarily for Foundry and I’ve accumulated quite a few Foundry codes courtesy of Kickstarters. So what the heck. I like exploring new systems. Foundry has always seemed like a lot of trouble and overkill for my style of gaming, but maybe I’ll like it.

I’ve had a chance to monkey with it for a few weeks and I’ve now run my first full game, the starter scenario from Vaesen along with the official module. And honestly, I do like Foundry. I’ll also put in a plug for Vaesen, which is a fantastic little game.

If you just want the “Too Long Didn’t Read” summary, my conclusion is that roll20 remains the easiest choice for quickly setting up and running a game, but that Foundry offers so much more sophisticated options that it’s probably a better choice if you’re regularly running games and have some willingness to spend time on setup and/or spend some money.

Roll20 is a website and the basic features are free, so you can just go to the site and create an account and set up a game. That’s it. You’re up and running. Foundry is a piece of software with a $50 pricetag that one member of the group needs to install on their computer. The remaining players join via a web browser, but that means the host must set up port forwarding on their router. Obviously Roll20 has an advantage, particularly for beginners. My router supported UPnP and just set up the port forward automatically. But I did have to give out the specific IP address, ie (note–not the actual address)

So, once we have our service set up, if we go down to basics, we need a few things in order to play any tabletop RPG. We need character sheets and dice. I’d also say that no matter how much you’re in favor of theatre of the mind, you will also want some kind of Tabletop to present information on, most often a map even if you’re just using it for reference and not for grid based tactical combat. That could equally be a place to upload PDFs. But you need something to share documents.

Roll20 is really good at these basics. When you first go in to the site, you’ll create a game and, as part of the settings, select a character sheet which defines what game you’re playing. When you run the game, it opens with a single battlemap of squares and the ability to add character sheets. The sheets are all fill in the blanks. Even if you don’t have a character sheet that automates rolling dice (and most do), there’s a button on the left shaped like a d20 that allows you to roll dice. If you want to share a map or handout, you can just drag and drop jpg’s to the “tabletop” in much the same way as you’d drop a photocopied map or handout on a physical tabletop to show your players. It also has a place to share them as handouts. Players can even drag their token onto the map to show where they are if you’re using a map.

Foundry is another kettle of fish.

In Foundry, you similarly create a game by giving it a name and selecting what game system you’re using. However, once you log in how easily you can work with what’s there by default will depend heavily on how the author of the game system has set things up and it can vary greatly.

For the character sheet, a few of these work the same as roll20. There’s a bunch of fill in the blank fields that you can just fill in with your stats, items, etc. However, for other game systems, really most game systems, the ruleset wants you to use drag and drop. That means you need to create the “item” (it could be a skill or a spell or an actual item–those are all “items” in Foundry-speak) in the Items section, then drag it over to the character sheet. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re first trying to figure out the system, it can be really difficult for players. Some of these get even more extreme, the Call of Cthulhu ruleset treats basic skills that everyone has as “items” and you need to drag them to your sheet to get started. Or start with a template that already has them in place.

Even once you understand what you need to do, Foundry can still be a more lengthy process. I can’t speak for everyone, but in Roll20, I frequently half-ass my character sheets in games. What do I really need for a weapon? I need the damage. So I type “.32” in the name and “1d8” under damage and I’m done. Actual name of the gun? Mentioning it’s an automatic? Range? Magazine size? Yeah, I fill those in later as we’re playing. With some things like range, maybe I don’t until I get to somewhere where I’m not at point blank range. But just doing things quickly lets you get playing.

However, if you’re using a module in Foundry that requires you to first create an item in the items section, then drag it to your character sheet, you really need to fill the entire thing out ahead of time. The “item” becomes a shared resource, so you want to get it right because other people will be using it as well. And that takes longer. The plus side on Foundry is that once it’s created, it’s there for everyone and you just drag and drop it, but on the other side, if you don’t buy a module, you need to make sure that whomever created the item got it correct.

There is one other aspect of roll20’s character sheets that should be noted: vandalism. Not only are they largely created by volunteers, but anyone with a pro account can edit a sheet and push it live to everyone. That has worked pretty well overall and has let different people significantly enhance sheets, but it does leave the sheets subject to damage from bad actors. There was one instance where someone came into the Call of Cthulhu character sheet and decided to do away with all the bonus/penalty dice and levels of success. They just decided it wasn’t important and removed them. (Spoiler: they are important–I suspect this may have been a “generation warrior” who didn’t like their addition in 7th Edition.) And we and dozens of other groups sat down to game and found the character sheets next to useless. We then had to convince the person (or someone else–I can’t recall) to add the removed features back, which took a couple of weeks.

So we have our character sheet and now we need to roll some dice. In both Roll20 and Foundry, the majority of rolls are done by clicking on something in the character sheet which then automatically rolls for you, often including secondary rolls like damage. The results appear in the “chat” window. However, there are always some times when the GM just wants you to roll a random for something. Roll20 provides a dice icon that lets you roll the standard dice. By default, Foundry provides, well, nothing. You have to go to the chat window and type out a command /roll 1d6 etc. That’s deceptive though as we’ll see.

And now we get to the final aspect, the playfield or tabletop or map or whatever you want to call it. In Roll20, you start with one grid based map and you can just drag or drop JPGs to display on it. You can also draw with some simplistic tools. In Foundry, something’s missing right off. There’s no map at all. Instead, you have to create a scene. That’s no problem, you go to the scene menu and create one, accept the defaults, and off you go. However, when your players log in, they’ll just see a black void. That’s because Foundry’s defaults assume you are using dynamic lighting and in order to see anything, a player needs to have a token on the map and that token needs to have some form of lighting applied to it, which it also doesn’t have by default. Once you know what’s going on, that’s easy to fix. You go into the settings for the scene and unclick “token vision” and the entire playfield is shown to all the players. But again, it’s a higher learning curve, not particularly intuitive, and the default assumes more knowledge and setup.

Similarly, it’s more difficult to add items to the tabletop in Foundry. Instead of the easy drag and drop of Roll20, you need to go to the Tile menu, then create a Tile by drawing a rectangle to put it in, then selecting the image or uploading it. That creates problems because the image stretches to fit the space, losing its aspect ratio. It’s better to upload pictures or other handouts as journal entries, which requires multiple clicks and then requires your players to find the entry if they want to go back to it.

Oh yeah. We’re forgetting something. We have our dice, our character sheets, and a playfield. There is one more thing we need to actually play: people to play with! Roll20 has a killer app that no other VTT has: the player search. Very few people talk about this and Gods know, when you’re dealing with random people on the internet it has it’s problems, but I think it’s one of the biggest reasons people gravitate towards roll20. I live in a gaming desert. But I ran a search on roll20, applied for a game on a lark, and a week later I was sitting down to Call of Cthulhu and I’m still playing with that group 7 years later. Sure, there are “LFG” groups on various game forums or reddit, but they’re often clunky to use. People forget to list the time or they say 7pm on Wednesday, but fail to mention that they’re on Australian time and so on. Roll20s game search lets you define one or more game systems that you’d like to play, what days and times of the day (automatically adjusted for your time zone) you can play on, and how often you want to game (weekly, biweekly, monthly). It then has a public message board for applying as well as a private message board for exchanging information about the game. None of the other VTTs have anything close to this and it really makes a difference.

So why the hell would you use Foundry? There’s no way to roll dice. Nobody can see anything. It costs money just to start. And you can’t find any players.

Honestly, there’s a lot of reasons and they all boil down to trading off simplicity for the ability to automate things more easily and present a more unified and professional looking experience for players.

Let’s go back to those character sheets for a perfect example. I called out the Call of Cthulhu one as being particularly confusing in Foundry, but once you have a character set up, the rolling works correctly and easily. You click the button, tell it how many bonus or penalty dice you need, and it makes a roll and reports the results. There’s an official and unofficial sheet for CoC in Roll20, but neither of them is capable of making a simple one click roll because bonus and penalty dice in CoC require rolling multiple “tens” dice, but only a single “ones” die. Roll20 simply has no built-in way to automate that. The unofficial character sheet fudges this by rolling multiple percentile dice, both tens and ones. You choose the best overall roll, not the best tens. The math works out to be roughly the same, but it’s not actually rules as written. The official sheet makes a normal roll without any bonus dice, then offers a button on the results to roll bonus dice. Roll20 has no ability to calculate the final result, so you need to look at the two rolls and figure out whether you have succeeded or not and what level of success you have. That’s not a tragedy. I mean, you’d have to do that at the table and all that. But Foundry is slicker.

Foundry also allows add-ons, which enhance the experience. Going back to Foundry not having a way to roll dice other than via a text command, virtually everyone running Foundry uses the add-on “Dice Tray” which adds a very similar capability to click and roll. Pinging on the map to show people what you’re talking about is built into Roll20, but similarly everyone with Foundry runs one of two “ping” add-ons. That issue above where you can’t drag and drop JPGs to the tabletop? There’s a “Drag Upload” mod for that.

In fact, there’s a mod for damned near everything, including some significant quality of life improvements. Everyone seems to use “Dice So Nice” which adds highly configurable 3d dice that roll on the table. Roll20 has a similar option, but to be really blunt, it doesn’t work beyond a really basic level. If a system requires rolling dice of different colors, it can’t do that. And for some games, I just can’t fathom what roll20 is trying to do such as the Year Zero Engine games from Free League where it lobs out huge numbers of d6s that seem to have no relation to the number that you’re actually rolling. As a result, I’ve just never used the graphic dice in roll20. (And I really do love dice.)

Dice So Nice in Foundry just plain works. For game systems with specialty dice like Alien, you get the two separate colored D6s with the specialty faces from the custom dice showing a success or fumble. It even includes the Dungeon Crawl Classics “funky dice” (d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, and d30). Those also appear as options in the above referenced Dice Tray mod automatically if you’re playing DCC. Each player can also customize the dice color and font to their liking.

Similarly, Year Zero games use a complicated initiative system where you draw cards and move low to high. It also includes the possibility to draw two cards and pick the best, to trade initiative spots with another character, and to have multiple initiative steps for multiple actions. There’s a YZE Combat add-on that just automates all of this. Roll20 has some features for cards, but like the dice, I’ve never seen them actually work or be worth the amount of irritation it takes to get them working. Chances are people are just going to revert to rolling a d10 and that’s fine, but Foundry does it better and more in line with the official rules.

Now, Roll20 isn’t purely limited to “beginner” features. It has options for dynamic lighting and let’s you add scripts to enhance the built in options. This is where suddenly Foundry becomes the one that’s easier to use. In Foundry, you choose these from a menu and apply the mod to your game. In Roll20, the equivalent is an API script, the use of which is limited to paid subscribers. It’s literally a script. They’ve added a pull down to include common ones, but for a long time you had to literally cut and paste the code into a text box. Also, I’ll be honest, I never could get any of them to work. There’s also nothing like the diversity of Foundry available–the assumption is that you’re not using any.

Similarly, both games support dynamic lighting, where players only see the portion of the map that their characters can see. This is more of a dungeon crawling thing in my experience, but I’ve occasionally wanted to obscure part of the map for my games. Simply put, it’s easier in Foundry. In both systems, you draw lines (invisible to players) to indicate where walls are. Foundry makes it easier to see where things connect or don’t and you can quickly test it by simply clicking on a token and it will switch you into the view from that token. And it offers a lot of different options for lighting, including flickering torches, or weird glowing swirls or vortexes, and you can use these for visual excitement even if you aren’t using dynamic lighting. Roll20 is clearly feeling the heat and has recently updated their system a lot, but it’s still not as slick.

Both systems also have ways to integrate tokens with character sheets and to some extent automate combat. Foundry makes the linkage mandatory because you can’t have a token without a linked character sheet. Roll20 linking them is, mostly, optional. I find both of them more trouble than they’re worth, but I don’t play games that are big on tactical combat. Foundry’s seems a little easier to use, which is to say that I could follow the explanations where when I watched Roll20 tutorials, I just never “got it.” (But as Lo Pan reminds us, we were not put on this earth to “get it.” I’m certain if I were running 5E or something like that, I’d have put in the effort.)

One place where I think I prefer roll20 is that many Foundry rulesets mandate that you use automated combat. That is, a player needs to click on the token of the creature it wants to attack and set it as their target, then the system automatically takes into account their armor class or armor rating and the damage is automatically applied. That’d be great if it were optional, but for a lot of systems it isn’t. For example, the Call of Cthulhu sheet will throw players a popup if they try to shoot without specifying a target saying “you don’t have a target do you really want to do this?” Symbaroum will let you attack without a target, but you can’t roll some spells. They just won’t let you roll period. This makes it really hard to “wing it” as a GM. On roll20, I frequently just keep HP totals for NPCs and monsters on scratch paper.

All these add-ons and higher level features bring me to what I think is Foundry’s huge appeal and also it’s biggest weakness: as a GM you can spend hours and hours fiddling with it and it’s a whack of fun to do it. There’s always been a part of RPGs where there’s the game you play at the table, then the “other game” when you’re alone at home creating scenarios, rolling up and optimizing characters, creating elaborate maps, and so on. Particularly as a teenager before I had my driving license, I spent hundreds of hours alone creating things for games, many of which never got played. I think this “at home” game is one of the things that keeps RPGs popular across the decades and I’m of the opinion that a lot of the appeal of Foundry is being able to monkey around with all kinds of different plugins and settings as a GM as well as set up elaborate special effects and so on.

There’s also the issue of what game systems you’re running and how well supported they are on each platform. There are some games that don’t have a ruleset/character sheet available on one or the other platform. If you want things fully set up for you, some companies support one or the other better and I would also go further and say that some are more necessary on one or the other or more functional.

For example, I’m a big fan of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London/Folly series of magical police procedural novels and Chaosium has just released a game based on them. There’s no support for it at all on Roll20 at the time of this writing. No character sheet. Nothing. On the other side, there’s a quite functional ruleset put together by a volunteer on Foundry. For Weird Frontiers, the “weird west” Dungeon Crawl Classics spinoff, it’s the opposite situation–available on roll20, but not Foundry. Obviously, you can just have character sheets in your hands and use the dice roller, but after you get used to running stuff off the character sheet in a full featured VTT, this starts to feel kind of tedious and it may bias a particular group to one or the other VTT. As a GM, I also find it really helpful to be able to peek at the players character sheets.

For full commercial support, the same is true. There’s a D&D ruleset and all the features from the Open Gaming License SRD on Foundry, but WOTC doesn’t sell rulebooks or modules. On the other side, they do sell them for Roll20. (There’s a kludge to import items from D&D Beyond to Foundry, but one has to wonder how long it will be that WotC tolerates that, particularly given their obvious desire to move all D&D players to their subscription only highly monetized D&D only VTT.) Pathfinder 2, on the other side, has pretty much the entire game system available in Foundry, not just a limited OGL compendium and all the adventures are available commercially.

Of the games I play, Chaosium has Call of Cthulhu official support on Roll20, but it’s honestly not great. Free League has fantastic official implementations on Foundry. They’ve started starting to dip into Roll20, but it’s not nearly as fully functional, probably because for a full feature ruleset Roll20 just isn’t as good as Foundry. Delta Green has fan implementations on both sites and both are well done, but there’s no official support. (Since the time this was written, Delta Green official material has started to appear on Foundry.) Dungeon Crawl Classics has commercial support on Foundry, and a pair of decent character sheet options on Roll20 done by volunteers.

How useful or necessary are the commercial additions if you have the books in print? To start, I believe that trying to actually read and learn an adventure in a VTT sucks no matter how it’s implemented. Foundry is a little easier to tolerate then roll20 because it has better formatting options, but either way, it’s not a good option. I think you’re best off reading rules and the narrative of an adventure from a printed book or PDF. When you buy a commercial ruleset, what you’re really looking to buy is having everything set up so you can drag and drop it to the character sheet and have bonuses from skills and feats automatically calculated. For a commercial adventure module, you’re looking to have the NPCs and monsters already created, handouts ready, and maps set up, preferably with the dynamic lighting. So in my opinion, you’re going to want the print or PDF version in addition to the VTT version. Of the commercial modules I have, which include Alien and Blade Runner where I own them on both platforms, Foundry’s are far better implemented because it simply has more power under the hood.

So, for any sort of commercial support, provided your game of choice supports it, I think you get more value out of Foundry. It’s all just more flexible and everything just works a little bit easier and better. On the other hand, you are also far more dependent on having a commercial ruleset on Foundry. For example, I’ve run Call of Cthulhu for two years on Roll20 and can’t see any reason whatsoever to buy the Keeper Guide or anything else for it. Sure, I could drag and drop some things, but who cares. It’s investigative horror. As I’m forever saying in the CoC subreddit, “it’s not that kind of a game.” On the other side, without official support the Foundry CoC worksheet is pretty difficult to use. You need to go in and create a load of items to drag and drop them to your character sheet. It would be hours and hours of work, so I just default to roll20 for CoC.

So which VTT do I like the most? I’ve gone back and forth on this one. When I first dipped into Foundry, I really preferred it, which is very much not the conclusion I thought I was going to come to. It works better at the table, it has more functionality for most of the games I play, and it looks better. I also, Gods help me, really enjoy fiddling with stuff.

However, switching back and forth for different games, I’m less certain. When we’ve run on Foundry, it seems like Foundry because a big focus of the game rather than the actual TTRPG we were playing. Roll20 may not have bells and whistles, but it doesn’t get in the way and I’m fundamentally not looking to play a video game. I’m looking to recreate the experience of gaming at a table with friends.