Recently, I have become interested in playing D&D online. This interest stems from several things – lack of time to play in person, distance from people I’d like to play with, and the desire to play D&D in my underwear. Mostly that last one. At any rate, I’ve taken two programs out for test drives recently (RPTool’s Maptool and WocT’s Virtual Table), and with the D&D Virtual Table (VT) in open beta now, I thought I would do a quick side by side comparison. Please bear in mind that I do not have extensive experience with either of these programs; the opinions stated are first impressions.
Advantage: Virtual Table
The VT has a lot going for it. The first thing that impressed me with this program was how easy it is to set up maps. There’s a menu with dungeon tiles (arranged by size) that you just drag to the map. I had an encounter map put together in the first 5 minutes.
Really, overall most of the controls are very intuitive. I pretty much had everything figured out in about an hour of playing around. Right clicking or dragging will almost always do what you think it will do, which is nice. There is very little I would anticipate needing help with.
There is a voicechat feature built in to the VT. While I did not get the chance to try it out, I will say that it’s very nice to have chat as part of the program instead of trying to make sure everyone has Skype or Ventrilo (or something else).
Of course, VT’s biggest advantage (and everyone knew this was going to be an advantage) is the ability to import monsters and characters directly from the monster builder and character builder. This is huge. While searching for monsters isn’t as robust as it is in the monster builder (less attributes to search by), it’s plenty for most situations. You can even import your custom monsters. Your character will come in with all their powers and magic items, and you have a checkbox to tick off when you use an encounter or daily power. You can also add simple features, like a power for sneak attack or hunter’s quarry dice (which aren’t otherwise included).
Finally, the VT is a common framework. What do I mean by that? When everyone logs on to the VT, they know what they’re going to get, and they know their character is going to work. The program is the same for everyone. Not so with Maptool – because Maptool is so flexible and RPG agnostic, there are many different “frameworks” out there that have been customized by different DMs. The changes and differences aren’t drastic, and are really only evident when using lots of custom macros (discussed below), but if you’ve spent hours writing macros for your character, you don’t want to hear that they can’t be imported into your DM’s framework.
Where the VT is simple and user friendly, Maptool is flexible and robust. For example, a map in Maptool will generally take a bit longer to make than a map in the VT, but objects will actually block line of sight. That’s right; want to know if you have line of sight to the monster? If you can see him, you have line of sight. If he doesn’t appear on your screen, you don’t. A character holding a torch will only be able to see what the torch would reveal using the optional fog of war. Plus, a DM can hide items, traps, and monsters, and create squares that automatically switch maps when a PC walks on them. There’s lots more options, and with options comes complexity.
Now, I know that the VT can import your character sheet. That’s great, I’m not going to knock it. However, in Maptool, you can write macros for your character. What is a macro? It’s a tiny program attached to your character that does something specific when you press a button. “Something specific” is really only limited by your imagination (and, to some extent, your programming ability). Want to use Twin Strike? You can write a macro for that. You can even have the macro ask you if you have combat advantage, and account for it. Want a button for damage taken and healing? Write a macro (or two!). And those are two examples of VERY basic macros. I will be honest, writing macros is not simple, and involves a lot of trial and error (and forums searching) for a non-programmer like me, but I fumble my way through them. And to be honest, when you get a set of macros attached to your character that you wrote, there’s actually a sense of accomplishment and pride that simply importing a character sheet can’t match.
Then there’s the price. Maptool is free. When you need to get a game going and not everyone has a DDi account, this becomes a pretty big selling point. Plus it has a few other free “sister” tools, like Token Tool, which makes creating custom tokens with exactly the image you want a very simple process.
So where do I come out?
I actually like both of them, and will most likely use both of them in the future. If you’re running a regular campaign for a regular group, and they’re not afraid of making macros, I would definitely recommend Maptool. The learning curve is pretty steep, but once you get the hang of it, I believe you will appreciate its many options. If you need to get a quick game together, or are playing in a living campaign, the VT may be the way to go. There’s less prep time, and for all the LFR and AoA players out there, you know your character will work on the VT. Either way you go, online gaming is something I would strongly encourage you to try, especially if you can’t find a local group. One of the living campaigns would be a great place to start.
Note: If you’re interested in learning Maptool macros, head over to the OnlineDM’s blog. He’s got some great advanced stuff, and I have it on pretty good authority he’s going to start doing a “Fix My Code” mailbag feature in the near future for all levels of Maptool macro coders. If you have macro questions, feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edit: I was going through some old Weekly Roundups, and found this article which also compared VT and MapTool at RPGMusings. Check it out.