As a concept, playing D&D online has been around for decades now. Over this time the online community has developed from play-by-post forums to fully dedicated, real-time systems that can simulate everything from tense battles to lazy nights in the tavern. There are now many of these systems to chose from, each offering a different set of features, but which is the best? To help new and old players alike, here's three of the best online D&D systems out there right now.
First launched back in 2012, Roll20 is a free virtual tabletop site that has evolved a lot over its lifespan. The focus of Roll20 has always been accessibility, which means that as a set of tools its considerably more user-friendly than many of its competitors. This does come at a cost of flexibility and customization, but not a large one, as Roll20 players can create fairly complicated macros and systems to help run their games.
Roll20 campaigns are started by a GM, who can invite players into their game using either a link or the site's extensive looking-for-group system. The GM can then control what the players see in the game, handing out character sheets and documents, while also being able to add maps for the players to move their tokens on. The system's character sheet functionality can be tied to its tokens, allowing video-game style HP bars above each character.
On top of this Roll20 boasts built-in webcam support, drawing and measuring ruler systems use-able by any player, as well as 3D dice that are truly random. All these features are available to players and GMs for free, though this does come with a limit of only 100MB in uploaded assets. For those willing to splash out for the $4.16/mo Plus edition, this limit is increased to 3GB. As well as this, Plus members also get access to the site's Dynamic Lighting system, which tracks players vision on the map and limits them to only what their character can see.
Although it's well set up for running homebrew games, Roll20 also has a variety of licensed campaigns and modules for sale. A GM who buys one of these gets access to the full campaign book, character handouts for important NPCs and items, tokens for all monsters, and upgraded high-rez versions of the module's battle-maps.
While not designed solely for tabletop role-playing games, Tabletop Simulator delivers a unique TTRPG experience with its 3D graphics and high level of mod support. Able to simulate a full table, complete with books, battle-maps. and character tokens, Tabletop Sim can be picked up on the Steam Store for $20.
Highlights of the program for D&D in particular include the 3D dungeon tiles and animated monster tokens. Unfortunately, Tabletop Simulator often struggles with the sheer amount of data needed to load a complete TTRPG experience, particularly on slower machines. To compound this, Tabletop Sim provides little support for written aspects of D&D, such as character sheets, meaning that most players will need to combine it with another program, such as D&D Beyond.
Despite these downsides, a fully modded up and customized Tabletop Simulator is certainly the most visually appealing alternative to face-to-face TTRPGs out there right now. It's also surprisingly intuitive, with the physics system giving the dice a satisfying tumble when tossed with a mouse.
The granddaddy of D&D simulators, Fantasy Grounds has been around in one form or another since way back in 2004. Like Tabletop Simulator, Fantasy Grounds can be found on the Steam Store, but it's also available directly from its own website. Also like Tabletop Sim, Fantasy Grounds needs to be purchased before it can be used. Either each player will need to buy their own version, or alternatively the GM can buy an Ultimate License that allows other players to play for free.
As the oldest virtual tabletop, Fantasy Grounds has access to a wide range of officially licensed and fully supported systems. These range from Dungeons & Dragons to Call of Cthulu, and include full adventures set in these worlds. Finding groups for all these games can be a little difficult, as the program doesn't include a built-in looking-for-group system, but the Fantasy Grounds' forums fill the gap by providing a place for players to get together.
Fantasy Grounds' strength lies in its well-honed systems and extensive customization options, though the latter of these has a steep learning curve and requires a fair bit of programming knowledge to really get the best out of it. Another advantage is that all the files are saved to the player's computer, making the program less susceptible to the whims of its servers.
The big downside with Fantasy Grounds is the price, especially with the free Roll20 as a competitor. Individual players need to fork out $40 to play, or a whopping $149 for the Ultimate License. Adding to this cost are the pre-built modules and campaigns, which range from $20 to $50.
All three of the options above have a different approach to simulating a virtual tabletop, and between them offer something for every kind of gamer. While they may be the three biggest and most polished systems, there are many other smaller competitors that offer their own advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, every group will require different things from their virtual tabletop, so the best idea is to research thoroughly.