Waaaaay back in the day I did a review of a new tabletop gaming adjacent piece of software called Tabletop Simulator. It was one of the first ways to recreate some of the in-person experience online with a 3D approach. Since then, the amount of Virtual Table Tops (VTTs) being created specifically for tabletop role-playing games has exploded. On forums I frequent, there is the joke – Which of the 100 VTTs are you currently using? While that’s a bit exaggerated, it does seem like every week or so I discover a new early access VTT being built in Unity or Unreal Engine that offers something just slightly different to the competition already in the field.
Since I’ve been moving away from physical minis, I’ve been digging into and testing out a lot of these VTTs that offer 3D gameplay – the ones that mimic the real life minis on the table experience. I figured I’d share my findings and opinions to help people similarly navigating these waters. As I’ve been researching, I’ve been considering different use case scenarios, primarily online play, in person play, customizability, ease of map creation, and getting “adequate” maps for quick improvisation. Everyone has slightly different uses, so if there is a specific question you have about a particular VTT that I don’t address, drop it in the comments.
In general, Talespire is a block building 3D Engine. You create with pre-built tiles much like you might in minecraft. You drag things onto the map and arrange them. Everything is built of the smaller blocks, so building a house means setting all of the walls, floor, roofs, etc. The visual look is very pretty and looks very polished. There is no currently supported importing of your own assets or use of 2d tokens, but Heroforge API access has been added in a recent update. Talespire is very much a digital version of the old Heroscape board game with play elements included.
- Complexity – Building in Talespire can be fairly complex, but you can get some great results and impressive maps. There can be a bit of a time sink to create a map and all the little details, but it can also be an enjoyable experience just to build.
- Accessibility / Playability – Talespire requires every person to own their own copy of the game and the dev teams communications seem to indicate this won’t change in the future. As a platform to connect into and play together, it works fairly well and is easy enough to control. I’ve played with Talespire and a second screen, but there is no player view popout so Talespire is decent but not great for in person play.
- Pricing Model – As mentioned previously, Talespire requires every person to own a copy of the game. There is no free player client or ability to buy player seats as the GM – so the only way to get others to connect is to have them buy the $25 game or buy a copy for all your players. I’ve seen discussion about possibly selling asset packs and creating a community portal to sell things independently, but I’m not sure where things will land once the game fully releases.
- Quick Map Capabilities – This is an area where Talespire shines. There are sites like https://talestavern.com that allow you to grab the hashed values for a map someone else has made and paste it into your own game. Creators are out there constantly making new maps so there is often a map that fits enough of your needs that you can easily drop in and modify.
What It could do better
- Custom support / 2d Tokens – The dev team does plan to have some kind of modding support, but we are not sure exactly what form that will take. Currently there are hacky workarounds that allow you to use your own models, but it requires a decent amount of technical knowledge. There is also no desire to allow 2D tokens. The dev team has stated in the FAQ that they “murder the feel of the whole game and make us sad”. That’s unfortunate, because I want to play my game and sometimes that would be better with using 2d images as a placeholder rather than the built in monsters. Often I’ve had to say “imagine this giant knight is a final fantasy magitek” and that is far more immersion breaking than using a PNG image in my opinion.
- Resource Intensive – Talespire makes my computer run VERY hot and I have a decent video editing rig. I’ve had friends who couldn’t boot it up and had multiple issues if they could. Maybe they will resolve performance issues as development continues, but the build style of the game hints that it will probably always be a fairly intense in its resource usage.
- Lack of player seats / options – I can’t really ask all my players to buy a tool to play in the game I’m running, and even if I can shell out for my home group I can’t easily use Talespire with anyone new. As a GM I’m happy to pay for access to the tool, but it’s a hard sell to do that over and over. Many other VTTs have player seats or free clients for players and that would be a huge improvement over their current model.
- Finicky Controls Sometimes – Sometimes the controls and camera movement can be finicky, especially when maps are built with roofs and interiors. There is a “cutout box” that removes the elements inside of it so you can see into things, but it isn’t the easiest tool to use.
- Not Require an Online Connection – Discovered this just recently, but apparently you need to be online to load any maps at all. This is a big limitation in a lot of ways if you plan to game in person at a place without a connection or Talespire’s servers go down for any reason. Not as much of a limitation if you always game online, but a potential issue and not a customer focused business practice.
Final Take: Talespire is pretty and fairly easy to build in or use maps from other creators for quick play. It has limitations that cut off enough quality of life factors that I switched to something different after a while. The pricing model leaves something to be desired and I’m not sure where it will evolve to in the future.
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Foundry 3d Canvas
Foundry VTT is a highly modifiable play platform that allows many modules to be added to it. One of those modules is the 3D Canvas by theripper93. This module turns the 2d canvas in foundry into a fully immersive and option filled 3D environment. There is support for custom models to be imported, multiple effects, and a lot of control over many small details of each model, tile, and any setting you can think of. There is nothing built in as far as worldbuilding assets, but the dev has a 3D mapmaking pack of freely available assets (mostly aimed at game developers) and a 3D Miniatures pack of tokens created by MZ4250. These can be used to build multiple map types of varying visual looks. There are also tools to generate terrain, add in 2d maps that you can put 3D miniatures on top of and multiple tutorials that teach you the very basics of 3D programs and modeling to use the program.
- Complexity – If you’ve ever used regular Foundry you know that it is more complex than other VTT options.That is the norm in the 3D Canvas module as well, but scaled up an order of magnitude. This is essentially a 3D level creation program aimed at TTRPGs. There are so many options that allow so much capability, but you really do have to learn to use it. Some elements are simple and the dev does create tutorials that are often helpful, but it is a fairly complex program to learn and get setup. If you use Foundry already, you are probably used to that. If you are looking for something more drag and drop out of the box, understand that this requires some learning to get that functionality.
- Accessibility / Playability – The core Foundry VTT is built as a web app based on NodeJS. This gives it a lot of versatility and interoperability between platforms, even hosting it on a website or specialized foundry hosting. Players go to a website and log in – no need to buy anything extra on their ends. There are some control issues with the 3D. The camera mode is more akin to a 3D builder like blender than an FPS as far as controls and it was the biggest complaint from all the players I used it with. Once people got used to it, it was fairly easy to run the games. There was some lag with larger maps and a lot of those issues will depend on your hosting or if you are running it from your computer. Every asset and 3D model needs transferred to the players, so it can have some issues with speed. There are some really good quality of life features built in. Foundry takes 2D tokens and makes them vertical so that you can easily play with them in 3D mode. If the map is built right, you can switch back and forth between 2D and 3D. There are also some really cool particle effects and options built in.
- Pricing Model – The 3D Canvas module isn’t a program you can buy, but you can get access if you subscribe to the dev’s patreon. This model makes sense in some ways, as the dev is constantly updating and applying bug patches and fixes. If you stop subscription you will still have access to the current version, but not future ones. Foundry updates it’s base program fairly often (current version is v10 with lots of .4 or .8 updates as new bugs are patched). That means that Foundry Modules (of any type) can suddenly not work until their maintainer updates them.
- Quick Map Capabilities – Where Talespire and a few other options excel at this, Foundry 3D Canvas does not, at least not yet. There are not really any 3D full map repositories available that you can quickly pull from. There are other Patreons you can become part of to get some maps and more building assets, and the dev has been creating some procedural generation tools and options that give you at least basic structures and terrain (like ground, not trees, rocks, walls, etc – you can just pull those in onto the generated terrain).
What It could do better
- Complexity – Foundry 3D Canvas is much more complex and much less optimized than other programs. That’s the trade off for being so flexible, but it is a big enough issue to make me procrastinate on building maps for the next game session. I know I’ll need to devote a decent chunk of time to it and often end up just reverting to 2D maps or pretty meh adequate enough maps.
- Quick Map Creation – Improvisational play is much harder here because of the time it takes to really build things. You could subscribe to one of the Patreons making maps and assets, but that’s another Patreon to subscribe to in order to get a small amount of that “easy to create” functionality. Even with other maps, you still have to build and tweak things a bit.
- Bugs / Finicky – Like most any foundry module, there are enough unpolished elements depending on your usage and enough “the user will just have to learn how to work around it” areas that the UI/UX designer in me always struggles with the program. Bear in mind it’s a single developer building a 3D platform on top of a web server platform built for VTTs with lots of modules. It’s going to have bugs. There are also some finicky things to using the program and the dev does work to fix bugs and make new features available, but doesn’t look at many of the user experience options in other areas. Foundry already has a higher bar to entry, so the majority of the userbase will probably accept the lack of some quality of life improvements you wouldn’t tolerate in a larger, dedicated program.
- Pricing Model – I’m a little burned out on software as a service. It’s nice to know that the money is going straight to the person making the program, but I’d rather pay once than feel compelled to keep going with the Patreon support in order to keep the program working. Throw in the fact that any pre-built maps I’ve found are behind separate Patreons from various creators and it can get quite expensive on a monthly basis to keep using the option.
Final Take: I like 3D Canvas in Foundry a lot, but I already have the skills in many areas that are required to really make use of the program. Even one of my players who does 3D modelling for their job finds the amount of options and complexity a bit daunting. The incredible capability of what you can do (nearly anything) is counterbalanced by the complexity of learning and amount of work (quite a lot) that goes into making a good experience for your players. If you are already playing in Foundry and want to keep the mapping there, definitely check out 3D Canvas. If you aren’t sure you are up for the complexity and want a program geared at doing just the 3D mapping well another option may suit you better.
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Rolltable.app is a fully online web-browser based VTT and that alone makes it kind of impressive. The options in rolltable.app are limited, but it is perfect for those who want to emulate the in-person tabletop experience without having to deal with much muss and fuss. The core idea of the program is 2D maps and 3D miniatures. There is a 2.5D isometric camera, a 2D camera and a full 3D camera. You can load in your own minis and they have also been taking all the free MZ4250 miniatures and digitally painting them one by one. You can load in your own miniatures as well as Hero Forge, although that takes a few extra steps.
- Complexity – Minimal. Like, seriously, this was the first 3D VTT that I instantly understood how to use. There are some things to learn to get a bit more out of the program and the team is updating some things to give more options. There are no 3D terrain models, although you could load your own in. They would currently work like minis loaded into the table, but that isn’t what the program is currently made to do. It does one thing and does it very well.
- Accessibility / Playability – To access the program you need to create a login and that’s it. Players link to the GM’s campaign and can be assigned their miniatures. There is fog of war and multiple camera options. It’s very easy to use the program and everything is incredibly intuitive.
- Pricing Model – I’m not currently sure how they intend to monetize the program. Currently it is free but they are very much in development. They have a Patreon and it looks like they are working towards an “early release”.
- Quick Map Capabilities – Since all the maps are 2D it is exactly as easy as finding maps for 2D VTTs like ROLL20. It’s actually quite charming and feels much like the majority of gaming I do in person. I don’t have 3D models for everything I do, often just hand drawn or 2D maps I’ve printed, or my TV Map enclosure that I use for digital maps. This feels exactly like that, just in a virtual setup.
What It could do better
- Careful Growth – The current iteration is very much in development and being worked on, but as an in progress project it is very good. For quick games or games I want to be easy to run, I’ll 100% use this program. While it doesn’t have as many features as some others, it is also super easy to use and learn. It just needs to add enough features while keeping an eye towards usability. They are planning some good features in their roadmap and talking with the devs in their discord gives me a sense they are looking at the community desires and needs.
- Hosting – The app has had a few outages due to hosting. I am sure the devs are trying to find the right amount of server usage that isn’t too expensive, and depending on their pricing model they may be able to improve that. While I’m not a fan of perpetually paying for software, a small fee as the GM monthly for hosting would feel viable here for reliable access.
Final Take: I consider rolltable.app my “backup” right now. It’s also the one I’ve recommended to a few people wanting to do more with 3D VTTs, but not really wanting to dig into more complex options. This would also be great for narrative games that need just a bit of visual representation. It is well worth checking out as an entry point into 3D VTTs and I would use this over Roll20 or other 2D only options. It lacks character sheets, game systems, etc. but I can do that more easily in other places.
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Upcoming VTTs Worth Mentioning
Currently slated to have a “worldbuilder” version released in early 2023, RPG Stories looks like it might have the capability to “win” the VTT showdowns if it can deliver on what it has promised during it’s crowdfunding campaign. The visual look is on par with Talespire and has assets for multiple genres. It also promotes using your own custom miniatures and exporting anything made in the engine for COMMERCIAL use. Obviously that wouldn’t extend to custom assets unless you also owned rights to the models you pulled off of sketchfab or other areas. One of the standout features of the platform is the procedural generation. Much like Dungeon Alchemist, you can draw areas and have them auto populate with assets, but unlike Dungeon Alchemist they are more than just images you can use as 2D maps. There is also a Player Seat setup and Player Version setup already in place, meaning that it should be easy for GMs to run without asking extra of their players. The play options are slated to come later, but the dev diaries and alpha videos show a lot of good options on par with other VTTs. Interacting with devs in their discord, I have high hopes they will keep building things in a way that is community oriented and accessible. Since this isn’t released yet, it’s hard to say much about how it actually operates but it’s definitely one to keep an eye on.
I didn’t hear about Menyr when it first came to Kickstarter, but my friends certainly did. I was able to get in as a late backer and I’m impressed with the scale and scope of what they are trying to achieve. Menyr looks to be capable of incredible procedural generation and nearly first-person style control and play alongside isometric / 3D top down play. The videos and looks are impressive and they promise a lot. They also say the final product will be free. I’m not sure what their pricing model will be or how they’ll monetize after the fact. The one thing that strikes me is that nothing is ever truly free. Maybe the base options will be free with access to some areas or options behind a paywall, subscription, or DLC purchase. Menyr is a VTT to keep an eye on, but it promises a lot and that may be hard to fulfill. There also doesn’t seem to be current support for sci-fi or modern play. That may come later in some form, perhaps how they plan to monetize, but it doesn’t currently seem to be an option.
What Makes a Great VTT
Having looked deeply into so many different VTTs, I’ve got a few thoughts on what makes a VTT really work. I don’t think any VTT will ever be perfect and new technologies (like the ARR promised by products like Tilt Five) will shift the landscape even more. That being said, here are a few things I think a VTT needs to be truly competitive against all the other entries in the field.
- Simple to Moderate Complexity – People won’t want to learn level design comparable to game developers to build their maps. Focus on ease of building and using the program will make it much more viable. Advanced and complex options are always great for those who want to take the time and learn them, but they shouldn’t be required to use the program.
- Transparent and Fair Pricing – There are going to be so many competitors as new 3D VTTs keep getting made that people will be much more likely to choose and use the ones that they feel a sense of ownership over. Given a similar featureset, I will always choose the program or option that I don’t have to continue shelling out to use. I may be willing to purchase extra asset packs and models so long as they are cheap enough and don’t feel like micro-transactions in MMOs. When it comes down to choosing between paying monthly fees for streaming services / online games for low effort entertainment or paying for the VTT I use to run games bi-weekly, I’ll probably be dropping the VTT first and finding a different option even if it’s not as robust. Subscription services, even ones like Patreon that go directly to the developer, are going to have issues competing unless they offer vastly superior options to the other VTTs out there.
- Player Seats / Free Player Options – In a similar vein, the VTTs that allow the GM to invest the resources to play with anyone they want will be much more likely to succeed. Some groups share costs or loan books and you may be able to convince some tight-knit groups to each cover the cost of their own “license”, but for any GM that wants to use the system at conventions or might run different games with different people from time to time that model breaks down. As a GM, I might be convinced to cover the costs for my core players if I really like the VTT I’m using, but it’s far easier to convince me to buy 4 player seats that I know I can use with anyone. Asking players to buy Tabletop Simulator licenses was what prevented me from ever using it in a major way back when it first came out.
- Asset Importing – There are already a ton of 3D assets available out there for props, terrain, and characters. It probably won’t be too long before someone comes along and builds a character creator like Hero Forge, but standalone and capable of exporting 3D models for 3D VTTs. The JRPG game development market already has some sprite based and 2D avatar creators that look really good and it won’t take long for someone to build a decent 3D model creation one with options for TTRPGs as a second userbase. There are already tons of models available and there will only ever be more available. The VTTs that allow you to pull your own ones in without having to learn 3D modeling will have a huge advantage over other competitors.
- Bonus Points – Exporting: RPG Stories has mentioned allowing exporting of built maps to use in other VTTs and their impressive range of asset options is phenomenal. Even if the VTT options are sub-par, the program has already proven itself useful. I could build whole maps there and import into Foundry 3D Canvas or RPG Engine to use. That alone is worth the price of admission, especially if procedural generation is available.
- Quick Maps / Community Workshop – I enjoy fiddling around with map building, but like my settlements in Fallout 4 and bases in No Man’s Sky, I lose interest after a while. When it comes to TTRPGs, I also often have a sudden need for ye old jail to break out of (or into) or a new spaceship interior as the players raid the merchant ship they were supposed to be escorting. Talespire and The RPG Engine have this option available through community built maps and RPG Stories is slated to do this procedural generation options. Even Foundry 3D Canvas has some impressive “repeat model” options that allow you to quickly and semi-randomly populate a forest of the same model of trees. Some way to get quick maps that are “good enough” is going to almost be a baseline requirement.
- Fun Unexpected Details – I didn’t know I wanted the ability to “ping” with emojis in a VTT until one of my players made a barf face emoji appear over their head when they got sickened in the last session. Suddenly everyone was dropping emojis and laughing their heads off. This option in the The RPG Engine was at the end of the list of “spell effect pings” people were using to “cast” their spells for visual effects. Little extras like that aren’t necessary, but now that I’ve discovered it I’ll be sad if I don’t see it in other VTTs. I’m going to call out the awesome features of The RPG Engine here, but the animations built in to the built-in character creator and the ability to “open” doors and chests just blew my players away. They weren’t necessary, but they were a small, extra, immersive element that made things more interesting.
I hope this article has give you some things to look at in the current (and soon to be) realm of 3D VTTs. If you want some more info, there’s some great video overviews of various options out there.
If there is a VTT you currently use that you’d love to see added, let me know. I’m always on the lookout for the best available option. There are a few I didn’t add or talk about here for one reason or another, but I’d love to hear which ones you think are the best.