It’s been a week since I started on my latest project, a RPG campaign. I spent a lot of time (read: excuse to waste time) looking into tools to help with organization and map making, and even picked up a new virtual tabletop app, Foundry VTT. All of this feeds back into my belief that I need a certain caliber of tools to Get Stuff Done, which almost never helps me in that regard, but does make me the best equipped person I know should I ever get around to it. So how has having all of these tools worked out for me?

World Anvil

After engaging with World Anvil, I threw all pretense out the window and got down to some serious World Building. I created a location, generated some names and some organizations, and put that entry to bed before moving on to the next task…at which point I stalled.

Focusing hard on one aspect of this world — which, remember, is intended to support the campaign and not just be world-building for the sake of world-building — took a lot out of me. The upside of the process was that it forced me into corners where I might not have looked and which resulted in some interesting content. The downside is that I set a bar for future content that I don’t have the stamina to engage with.

At this point I am back to thinking that World Anvil is overkill. Right now I am thinking about how to start a campaign, how to get players involved in the scenario, and to say that this is the hardest part of the design process is no exaggeration. Conventional Wisdom says that players should be comfortable with the “hook”, and that requires that the starting point be as organic as possible in respect to the player-characters, their backstories, and what the players want from the game while also providing the stub of the narrative thread that (ideally) players would follow. As World Anvil’s tools are directed towards creating a “compendium” reference, it’s not intrinsically suited to creating the “guideposts” that a campaign needs for a GM to be flexible when running a session. I fear that relying too heavily on World Anvil’s copious data points would result in a railroad campaign, or a very frustrated and burnt-out GM.

DungeonFog

DungeonFog is still a really good interior mapping application. The support for lighting and line of sight is fantastic, and the ability to draw enclosed rooms wins over other tools I’ve tried, hands down.

I went to it last night with the intention of creating an overland map, but that’s when I ran into the app’s limitations. It’s doable, but mapping interiors and mapping overland are two completely different skillsets. Throwing down mountains and trees, some roads and maybe a lake or river or two and calling it a night is not going to cut it. Interiors have a specific logic to them because they were invented specifically for the needs of humans, but Nature is chaotic and doesn’t give a damn about our needs. We don’t put pine trees in a desert, sure, but there’s far more subtilty in creating an overland map than there is in an interior map, and DungeonFog just isn’t up to that task.

Considering the tool’s called “DUNGEON-fog”, this should surprise no one.

Foundry VTT

I admit that I have less experience with Foundry than I do with the other two tools — which isn’t saying much considering I’ve only been at this (this time) for a week now.

Foundry was the lynchpin in the whole creative process once I learned about it. It has integration with World Anvil, so I figured that this was an exciting pipeline that I just had to have in order to be productive. Foundry is very much like Fantasy Grounds in that it’s an installed app that clients can connect to. There’s a GM view and a client view, with the GM operating through the desktop app and the players interacting through a web browser. The UI is nice and clean and modern, and for me, the icing on the cake is that modules are written using JavaScript.

I hate to go down the tit-for-tat road, but Foundry’s design choices are kind of weird, especially to someone so used to working with Fantasy Grounds (or even Roll20, really).

  • The GM has to create player slots that clients “claim” when they log in.
  • The GM also has to create characters or character stubs for players to fill in. Players cannot create their own character sheet, but they can fill in an empty sheet offered by the GM.
  • In order to select tokens to add to the combat tracker, you can draw a box around all participants, but there’s no way to unselect all participants once you’re done.
  • Updates made on the GM side (like, say, opting to display enemy token’s health bars or the name of the token after the token has been placed) do not instantly propagate to the client, requiring the client to refresh his or her screen manually to get the changes
You can’t just “show up” to a virtual tabletop, Kevin

There’s also a lack of core quality of life features, like how the game requires you to select a target to attack, yet doesn’t handle either the hit/miss resolution nor the damage application. At the bare minimum, I’d hope my VTT would handle this, as not doing so forces the GM to open the sheets of all NPCs every time to check to see if the player attack was successful or not, and would then need to modify the NPC’s HP accordingly. What’s the point of having a computer program if it’s got no automation?

The acolyte only has an AC of 10, and 9 HP, and should therefor be dead.

At it’s most charitable, Foundry is a pretty good app specifically because clients connect through their web browser, meaning no software to install for players — which is something that’s been a barrier to entry for Fantasy Grounds user’s in some cases. It also has native support for soundboards, and there are ways to connect to Discord and video chat services. Also, the fog of war/LoS features are a welcome addition. Beyond that, there’s not a lot going for Foundry that makes me recommend it over Fantasy Grounds (or even Roll 20), as Foundry seems to fail at even the most basic tasks we expect from a VTT while adding a lot of (literal) bells and whistles that are nice to have, but only after the bread and butter tasks are taken care of.

Where Are We At?

At this point I’m ready to chuck all of these tools out the window and go back to Notion or OneNote or any of the tools I railed against in my original post. As I am paid up on World Anvil for the next six months, I would expect that it would be a repository for the ideas that come up which need to be codified — personalities, places, organizations, and so on — while some other app would be the main focus of the campaign.

I think what I’d hoped for was a way to integrate complex content like stat blocks into the body of the work, so when this campaign was run, the GM wouldn’t need to resort to outside content for info on NPCs or items. Although personally, I’ve gotten used to the automation that VTTs provide, the fact is that it’s not necessary if the data behind it is easily available to the GM when the GM needs it. Writing a campaign in Google Docs would require a lot of CnP of stats, assuming that stats were available in digital format to cut and paste. For Starfinder, I have all of my hardbound books in PDF form (compliments of Paizo!), but for D&D I’d be reliant upon re-buying digital content through D&D Beyond if I wanted that info.

Unfortunately the more I think about how difficult this process is — or more to the point, how difficult I’m making it — the more I re-gravitate towards Fantasy Grounds for my campaign design needs.

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