At the height of the pandemic and while I was still new to TTRPGs, I was in the market for a VTT that suited my purposes. The first I tried was too bare bones and half the time failed in its key purpose. The second was not optimized and limited in features, its free version too lackluster for me to leap to a subscription. Amid this search for my optimal VTT, I stumbled across Foundry VTT and immediately fell in love with the possibilities.
What is Foundry VTT?
Foundry VTT is a formidable virtual tabletop that, in its base form, is a desktop application. This is unique among VTTs and works both in its favor and to its detriment. It officially launched in May 2020 after almost two years of alphas and betas, and it has remained in constant development since with regular updates and feature releases. When I converted to it in August 2020, it had just entered Version 7; as of writing this, we are now at Version 11, with 12 on the horizon!
As someone who loathes subscription models for software, a onetime purchase for a lifetime license appealed to me. The developers regularly run promotions around their launch anniversary and other key events, but even a full-cost $50 USD price is the equivalent of one subscription year for other VTTs. For some, this one cost is enough to unlock everything needed. For others, like me, I have a few additional wants that other developers or services provide. This, of course, costs extra—more on that later.
What TTRPGs Work with Foundry?
One benefit of Foundry is its versatility. You can create game worlds in over 200 TTRPG systems. This means you can hop from popular systems like Pathfinder 2E and Dungeons and Dragons 5E to less familiar games like Honey Heist or Dragon Age RPG. Many of these rule sets have SRD data included, from monsters to basic rules; however, many of the less-renown systems are not optimized as much as the popular ones, so each gamer’s mileage may vary.
That said, the chief systems from Paizo and Wizards of the Coast are beautifully incorporated into Foundry, especially Pathfinder. Paizo and a volunteer team are the official content providers for the data this system uses, and the love this group shows their content translates seamlessly into the VTT. By contrast, Foundry’s developer Atropos designed the interface and data for D&D 5E from the SRD info. Neither is inherently better than the other, yet you can tell Paizo’s team wanted to build the most beautiful and convenient representation of their game for players to interact with. A full list of game systems can be viewed here.
Let the Games Begin
While no gameplay on a digital platform is as smooth or convenient as in-person, Foundry does as much as possible to keep the interface as simple as possible. The player interface (pictured above) focuses on the essentials in the left sidebar, allowing players to switch between managing their character token and placing area of effect templates to distinguish attacks. Other situational elements, such as a combat tracker and access to journal notes, are hidden within the right sidebar’s different tabs—and each of these can be popped out into floating windows with a simple right click. Separating everything into these different areas is reminiscent of other VTTs, making it easy to find them again when transitioning to Foundry.
In-game character sheets are a mixed bag depending on the system. The D&D 5E sheet requires multiple clicks on different pop-ups to determine how you are using a core stats—whether it’s as an ability check or a saving throw. Then you need to select if it’s a normal roll, advantage, or disadvantage. Meanwhile, the Pathfinder 2E sheets have a single pop-up that allows for you to indicate everything at once. Unfortunately, you won’t necessarily know what to expect until after you’ve entered the game. However, rolling for attacks and applying damage is considerably easier, as the abilities are added as cards in the chat that can then be clicked to roll.
One thing that Foundry does exceptionally well is create a method for adding information like items or spells to character sheets. If an item or class feature exists in the different compendiums (essentially a library that contains pre-built or custom-built data), it can be dragged and dropped onto a character with ease. For example, if a character picks up a longsword, the game master can drag it onto their in-game sheet in a matter of moments. These pre-built options are a godsend; more complicated, though, is creating a custom ability directly in Foundry on the creature’s sheet. For anyone who likes creating unique abilities and monsters, this can become a bit more frustrating and time-consuming—again, depending on your TTRPG system and how optimized it is…
Planning Your Battlemaps
For the game master, there of course is additional work required to prepare their game. The most pressing of these is dropping in maps and other assets whenever the situations arise. This is where the game master’s more diverse toolset comes into play, especially once the map has been added to the scene. This is as simple as creating a new scene, naming it, and then importing a background image–done!
To be clear, Foundry is not designed to be an all-in-one map-making software; however, it can enhance existing maps if you upload the assets and place them as tiles. The primary benefit of this is that the environment can be interacted with by the players. Is there a boulder blocking the path that a character wants to push aside? Click and drag the tile where you want it to move to. Need a roof overhead that hides the interior of a building that characters are heading to, but want it to disappear when they cross the threshold? Easy enough to set up!
The other aspects that the game master will need to set up ahead of time are walls and dynamic lighting. Lights are the easier of these to create, as they can be click-and-dragged to whatever size you desire. They can also be edited afterwards to more specifics or to have additional effects applied to them (such as flickering for fire light).
Walls are a bit more manual, as each section is placed with care. There are also multiple types of walls—from standard to terrain, invisible to one-way—that need to be adjusted to the game master’s specifications. There are ways to multi-select these to adjust several at once, yet when laying out a battlemap this feature takes the longest due to the manual work that goes into the process.
Play, Maestro, Play!
Something else that is great to include are music and sounds for a dynamic gaming atmosphere. Foundry has a diverse array of formats that these can be imported as, making it easy to create playlists with various mood music or ambient sounds. The game master then has the option of placing them on the map to interact with where character tokens are located or to apply them globally so that everyone can hear.
Unfortunately, where the issues come up is how the global sounds affect each player. In my experience, the music/sound volume is synched across all players’ experience, and anyone who changes one global volume level affects everyone. This means that there is less flexibility to customize each player’s experience, which leads to the music/sounds not being immersive and more distracting. Everyone has their preference, but in many ways the incorporation of music and sound is not perfectly optimized on Foundry.
Playing Online Together
Despite all the other glowing areas where Foundry flourishes, the most significant pain point is really its online remote play opportunities. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof. This is where the software’s desktop application status works against it; while most other VTTs are web-based and have innate hosting options, this same ease of connection is not present here. For local play, it is as simple as connecting to the host’s internet and accepting the invitation through a browser. Yet most VTTs are used for remote gaming from different homes, states, or even countries, which makes this feature a significant hurdle to overcome.
There are ways to work around this challenge. The most cost-effective option is to establish a connection via port forwarding, but this is very complicated to establish, and the results depend on your internet bandwidth and technological know-how. Someone who knows their way around setting up a cloud hosting site can also use this to resolve the connectivity issues, but most people may prefer to use the ready-to-use—albeit more expensive—services of third-party hosts who set this up for you (Foundry has a list of dedicated partners they recommend here).
It is surprising (if not shocking) that such a prominent VTT is more limited than much of the competition for online play, but Foundry’s focus on developing features rather than online connectivity allows them to refine other aspects of their system. For the less tech-savvy users, of which I include myself, one of the suggested partnerships is an easy decision, even though they have a subscription fee for their hosting services. Many of them have several tiers with a multitude of options, and it is recommended to study the options closely to find the tier that best matches your needs.
There’s a Mod For That….
One of the primary benefits that Foundry has is the VTT can be as simple or complex as you want. “Vanilla” Foundry is serviceable with its collection of features and options on its own, but we can truly make it shine through the various mods that creators have compiled for the program. Want to have players roll directly from DNDBeyond, or to import characters/monsters into Foundry? What about mods that provide more customization for vision settings, or something that can automate nearly everything? And what about importing df2vtt (universal digital VTT files) so that the background, walls, and lighting can already be populated? Every one of these options exist in some capacity or another as additional mods that can be added to the game, whether for free or as subscriptions!
The main issue with mods is that Foundry is continually evolving. What works with one iteration of the software may break in the next. There are several professional coders who maintain their modules assiduously, keeping them up to date and active at all times. Others are hobbyists who may struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of updates or get burned out. Several modules have changed hands or been recreated from scratch when their caretakers walk away. Yet the danger of modules is that when an outdated module breaks something in Foundry’s core processes; in these cases, the game master ma need to hunt to discover what is causing conflicts. I speak from personal experience, as a user with 70+ active mods at times, when I warn that that can be a three-plus hour process to find the one module that is no longer compatible (with an additional two hours to reset anything that was turned off in the process). That speaks more about my multitude of mods employed for quality of life rather than the base VTT, though, so take that last warning with a grain of salt.
While Foundry is a new powerhouse in the VTT market, with ample strengths to its credit, ignoring its flaws is impossible. The lack of a built-in means of connecting to other players may be the breaking point for many game masters, as it necessitates either a complex work-around or a third-party subscription to fix. But if this problem can be overcome, Foundry is a winner for game masters of all systems, whether they want a simple VTT with no frills or the most option with the most automation and immersion imaginable!
- Over 200 TTRPG systems are available to play games in
- One-time purchase for the license rather than a subscription model
- Efficient interface for players to interact with the game
- Exceptional import and customization of maps
- A robust assortment of community and official mods that streamline and enhance gameplay
- Flexibility to make the game as complicated or simple as you desire
- Port forwarding for remote play can be complicated, while hosting in third party/other servers have additional fees
- Can be daunting for people new to VTTs or trying to decide where to begin
- Audio/music controls are not singular for each player, leading to some audio issues