Note up front. I am going to assume for both programs that the DM is going to pay, and the players will connect for free. I know the DM can run the roll20 version for free, and I acknowledge that as an advantage, but the reality is, that isn’t going to keep roll20 afloat, and it makes the service more likely to disappear, or to be more and more annoying with ads.
The other given is that both products do the job. I have used both products reasonably extensively, both as a player and as a FM, and for each function I mention, the product performs well enough to be considered suitable for the task.
The most important part of the decision is based on a choice between convenience and control. I know, you would like both (and so would I).
However, as we all know, 95% of the time (or 2-19 on a d20), a web tool is convenient for both DMs and players. However, 1’s do happen. We can lose connectivity. The server can go down. The company can die and go away! This is anything from temporarily frustrating, to a complete loss of control and our data.
Roll20 is a web tool. All your data is stored on the server. You and your players are 100% dependent on that server being up, and all of you having a connection to that server (even if you should happen to be in the same house or the same room). For either \$5 or \$10 monthly for the DM, this gives some significant benefits:
- You don’t need to install any software. Just point your browser at a link.
- You can work as a DM from any computer or device you happen to be in front of.
- The DM can host a game even on the free version.
- You don’t need to move/copy any data from one machine to another if you want to work on another machine, or update your machine.
- Players can log on any time to update their characters.
There are also some significant drawbacks:
- To do anything at all, you are now dependent on an outside service.
- That service could be withdrawn, or its terms changed.
- That service could experience load issues.
- You have to pay for the service as a subscription (if you want premium features).
- Your players (if they opt for the free version) will have to put up with advertisements.
These points apply regardless of other feature plusses and minuses. If you use the self contained model of Fantasy Grounds, for between \$4 and \$10 monthly, or a one time \$150 for the DM (often significantly discounted), there are also advantages:
- You can work on a standalone machine to build your campaign.
- You can buy a one time license (no monthly billing).
- Players can connect to your game on a LAN in the same house or room.
- The powerful local script engine allows the technically savvy DM to add crunchy content almost limitlessly.
- No adverts even on the free version.
- You have to install the software (Windows, Mac or Linux).
- The DM cannot host a game on the free version - it has to be paid.
- The DM has to configure their firewall or use the FGU redirector.
- As your content is local, you will need to copy it in order to switch machines, or place it on a shared device that multiple machines can access.
- Your players will have to download and install the (free) program.
- Players cannot log in to update their characters unless your game is up and running.
- The single “window” of Fantasy Grounds can make taking advantage of your monitor real estate awkward.
There are also factors that can swing either way:
- Performance - if you have a decent machine, Fantasy Grounds will be very fast and smooth. The web model is less dependent on your machine.
So that aside (and quite a large aside it is), we can take a look at the actual bells and whistles of the platforms. There is a bunch of stuff they both do quite well, and I am not going to pick nits about the details of these features. They are (in my humble opinion) “good enough” - you can have opinions about them, but you could use either one and achieve the desired result.
- Share content (adventures).
- Show maps and images.
- Fog of war (and dynamic lighting).
- Tokens and movement.
- Distance measuring tools.
- Chat channel.
- Die roller.
- Character Sheets.
- Initiative Tracker.
- Licensed content from major publishers.
Then there are the features that are only strong in one platform or the other.
- Complex extensible rules automation.
- Calculates attacks, applies damage, effects, determines saves etc.
- Counts down on conditions and effects and expires spells etc.
- Rollable tables.
- Hyperlinking story entry system.
- Chat in fantasy languages (that are only trasnslated for characters that have that language).
- Party inventory system.
- Party notes system.
- Party XP and Quest management system.
- Sound and Video built in.
- Players can “tear off” their character sheets to take advantage of multi-monitor setups.
The absense of sound and video sounds like a problem, but in reality, I know a lot of gaming groups use discord for sound and video in spite of using roll20 as a VTT. For Fantasy Grounds, one has to use another application for sound or video, and discord is the popular choice here. Other tools such as google chat, teams, zoom would also work pretty well.
Less Tangible Differences
So far, it would seem like Fantasy Grounds is the “better” platform, but roll20 is more reachable for “no money down”. This is somewhat true. However, Fantasy Grounds is not only more capable, but it also has a steeper learning curve. Bringing on newbies might take longer, or be very difficult. They (all the players) have to install software. In spite of roll20 not implementing rules automatically, it is easier to run a variety of rule systems in, if you already know the rules in question.
So Which is Better?
You’re going to hate me: it depends. If you want a quick pick up game of some system you don’t play often, or with new players, roll20 is your friend. If you intend to play the same game for months with the same group of people, and you don’t mind investing some time and money up front to make those games run as smoothly and automatically as technology will allow, then Fantasy Grounds is for you.
If you are allergic to everlasting monthly subscriptions, then premium roll20 is off the table (pardon the pun). However, you can play a quick game for free. On the other hand, if like me you envisage using electronic play aids even when sitting at the same table as your friends, then Fantasy Grounds, with its LAN capabilities is the bees knees.
Can I have it both ways?
Sort of. It’s hard to move characters from one system to another. However, there is a go between. DnDBeyond is another TTRPG play aid that lets you build characters. There are sites that can convert DnDBeyond characters for Fantasy Grounds, and for Roll20. So if you build your character in DnDBeyond, you can move it to either platform with moderate difficulty.