Review: Fantasy Grounds II meets your virtual tabletop gaming needs
At a Glance
Fantasy Grounds II takes a different approach to virtual tabletop gaming. Most suites made to run-pen-and-paper RPGs over the internet focus on the shared whiteboard model, where the GM and players use an interactive map to move characters, NPCs, and objects around as the story or player decisions dictate. Fantasy Grounds II (FGII) sports a full-featured shared whiteboard, but that's only part of a larger system designed to tell tales in a different, more traditional way, with the focus on the narrative rather than the graph paper.
Firing up the GM client takes you to the campaign load screen where you can create, host, or join a game, and manage characters. This is the first place where Fantasy Grounds diverges from its competitors. When creating a campaign, you are presented with a list of rulesets. These aren't just macros or add-on jpeg title images; they're full skins and script sets for the package based around the theme of the game you are playing. These dramatically change your experience, depending on which rules you run. For example, using FGII, Call of Cthulhu games appear and in many ways play differently enough from D&D that it looks like your campaigns are running on separate products. Roughly a dozen rule sets are supported, including Chaosium, Rolemaster, and Savage Worlds, along with the ubiquitous Dungeons and Dragons (3.5 and 4th editions), and more are available unofficially from the player community.
These rulesets are a double-edged sword. First, the official sets aren't free, running anywhere from $10-$28, although hard copies will still cost you more. Another problem arises if you select a game without an implemented ruleset. Generic game hosting isn't really FGII's forte, and designing your own rules requires some experience with XML (using an XML editor is recommended). This will put off most users, and rightly so. The process isn't overly difficult, but it does have precious little to do with actually enjoying an RPG. It feels suspiciously like office work, an unfortunate yet recurring theme with Fantasy Grounds II. That said, most people will be more than satisfied with the selections already on offer.
Creating campaigns is a pleasant but deliberate process, and you must resign yourself to the cold truth that you won't be starting the night you install FGII, no matter how hardcore a GM you may be. Character records, story events, area descriptions, items of note, maps, tokens and other details must all be entered into various integrated databases for use during play time. The video tutorials provided on Fantasy Grounds' website are quite helpful, but run over two hours when viewed together, which should give you an idea of the breadth of the task that awaits the inexperienced user. The results are often impressive, but so is the time required to prepare them. Extended campaign creation sessions can feel like reorganizing your favorite bookshelf by size and color. Sure, you're spending the day with things you enjoy, but it's work nevertheless. This drains enthusiasm from the subsequent proceedings in ways that more nimble and lushly featured products avoid.
Fantasy Grounds II does have an ace up its sleeve, however, and that is stability. Popular competitors like Gametable and Battlegrounds each have various bug problems that occasionally interrupt or terminate gameplay. Shaky foundations aren't the most confidence-inspiring places to pour months of gameplay time and creative work, and this is one place that FGII shines: it's as solid as dungeon stone. I experienced not a single glitch in week of testing. It takes just a few ruined nights of gaming or lost campaign creation to appreciate just how vital reliability is. This no doubt contributes to another advantage for FGII: its enormous player community. The forums are filled with active players looking to fill slots for their public games and discussing various aspects of the suite.
This stability and popularity will cost you, however. Prices start at $24 just to get in the door as a player and balloon to an astonishing $149 for the highly polished Ultimate edition, which allows unlimited connections with demo clients as full players and includes rulesets and other content. The GM client at $39 isn't bad, but don't forget that you'll need to buy rulesets, and players will need to invest in client software, too. Any way you slice it, you're looking at around $100 to start. It ain't cheap.
That fact makes this a closer call than it should be, as Fantasy Grounds is a nice package. If you’re a social gamer who enjoys finding new groups and gaming with a strong narrative emphasis, Fantasy Grounds should be top on your list. If you prefer shorter pick-up style role play, require detailed mapping visuals, or are on a tight budget, this will be an easy pass. Make your call.
Note: The "Try it for free" button on the Product Information page will download the software to your system.