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The Future of the D&D VTT at the Creator Summit

An ankheg breaks through the ground to attack our heroes

Attendees at the D&D Creator Summit got to see the upcoming D&D Virtual Tabletop. From hands-on demos to an in-depth presentation, we now have a clearer picture of what Wizards of the Coast’s VTT wants to offer, what it could mean for our hobby, and what Wizards must overcome to reach their goals.

This is part three of my review of the D&D Creator Summit. Read part one and part two.

A large screen showed us the DM’s view

Extensive Hands-On Demo

Virtual attendees got to see a demo of the VTT, similar to what you saw if you watched the D&D Direct announcement or the focused D&D Direct video on the VTT.

The demo took place in a conference room with a large table with Alienware gaming laptops. Several staff were on hand to deal with bugs and jot down our ideas and questions. The team previously worked on the Magic the Gathering Arena app. Kale Stutzman, VTT Game Director (and it turns out, Mastering Dungeons podcast listener!) welcomed us and served as our DM. Kale said he started sketching out ideas for the VTT in October 2020.

The demo was a loose game where we could experience some combat in the VTT and try out the functionality. We played for over 30 minutes, which was plenty of time to feel well-acquainted with the functionality.

The build/version we playtested is the same pre-Alpha version seen in the D&D Direct videos, though they are already working in a different build, which features a revised interface. So, keep in mind that many of the aspects we saw could change or be tweaked even when the game reaches Alpha.

Getting started on sweet Alienware laptops

It Starts in a Tavern

We logged in, seeing a beautiful 3-D landscape depicting a town with a flowing river (the water did flow), a temple, some smaller structures, and of course, a tavern.

Clicking an icon removed all the rooftops (this revealed every building’s interior; in the future, it should be possible for the DM to select buildings to reveal). We then used our mouse to “fly” through the 3-D landscape and peer down on the tavern. Inside were several 3-D character minis, and we could click on them to choose one (a fairly unintuitive experience which I am sure will improve). Our account names were all monsters and started with the word “Demo.” My account was called Demo-gorgon, so hats off to the clever staff member that planted that joke!

The “island” where our game took place. This image from the D&D Direct video. It looked even better in-person.

The interface was relatively straightforward. Click on my character mini, see menu, click on icons to then see choices such as rolling one of your skills or making an attack. Or, click and drag mini to see a circle showing your default speed, place the mini where you want it to go. When the DM ran combat, we rolled initiative and a screen banner let us know it was our turn and once done we could end the turn. Our DM could also end the turn or go back if we made a mistake.

Our “game” was very loose. First, the tavern was on fire. Why? Not clear, but there were fire 3-D tokens added to various spots and we did things to put them out. I think this is meant to show that the game allows for this sort of relatively open play, showcasing skill use and DM-player discussion of what can work.

Once a few of us had put out fires, an ankheg burst through the tavern’s floor (did it set the fires… we never found out). The ankheg featured different art, perhaps reflecting the art changes in the 2024 MM? We took turns attacking it and moving around. A melee attack has to be made within reach, while a ranged attack could be done from a distance. At some point the DM added goblins so we could just attack stuff for fun and experiment with interactions.

The interface is in English, but localization to add other languages is planned.

Action – Diversity: The topic of diverse characters came up, and the Wizards team agreed. But it is also important for the background art to be global. Towns, cities, and landscapes should not just come in fantasy Europe.

Moving to put out a fire. This image from the D&D Direct video.

Freeform Approach

What fascinated me was that the visuals suggest a video game with tight rules. The actual gameplay is very loose – closer to Owlbear Rodeo than most existing VTTs. You can move your mini anywhere, even placing it on a wall. You see the distance you can move, but you can ignore it. You can move when it isn’t your turn, move through a wall, and even attack when it isn’t your turn.

This is a perfectly reasonable approach, even if it wasn’t what I expected. It’s arguably the easier approach. If the VTT were to control everything tightly, then every rule exception has to be perfectly captured or the VTT fails. Paraphrasing, here is how Kale described the approach: there are lots of ways D&D allows you to move when it isn’t your turn or attack when it isn’t your turn, so we keep all those options open.

I think some controls may be desirable. For example, letting any character attack or move at any time might be tough with a table full of middle school kids. Even in our game with “adults,” attendees started changing their token to owlbears or devils just for fun, and the game quickly devolved into silly play. That’s okay for a demo, but is likely worth looking into to prevent frustrating experiences.

No Live D&D Beyond Connection

The D&D Direct video suggests you can just port something over from D&D Beyond (DDB). That’s not quite the case at this time. Elements from Beyond are copied at the database level to the VTT, but you can’t control that. You can’t make a custom monster in DDB and bring it to the VTT, and you can’t modify a monster in the VTT either – such as to reduce its hit points or AC.

In VTTs like Roll20, our character is fully present and customizable in the VTT. Here, your character is copied, but it isn’t a live connection. There was a hyperlink to the DDB character sheet so we could presumably see the character in a browser, but the interface itself didn’t let me see what my character could do – it took a while for me to figure out what class I was even playing. If I level up or get a magic item… currently it isn’t clear how that would work. Do I have to do it twice, once in the VTT and once on DDB? Or would I do it in DDB and re-import my character?

I didn’t see a way to use special features in the interface, or my background, or anything other than select attacks. There are many unknowns for now, but I expect this will all improve in future versions, with the key question being how the VTT ends up connecting to DDB. What most players want (and perhaps expect) is a live connection between DDB and the VTT.

Critical Action – Integration: The strength of a VTT at WotC is that it connects to DDB. This is a dealbreaker. If it doesn’t connect and allow the DM to make the changes common at the table, why use this VTT? If the players can’t easily update their characters and see all of their features, that’s a problem.

Concern – Walled Garden: Wizards hasn’t clearly voiced that they will continue to support third-party VTTs having access to 5E products. We assume that’s the case, but it would be good for WotC to strengthen relationships with VTT partners so that players can choose the solution they want. Wizards should consider extending contracts to other companies, such as Demiplane. WotC: make a compelling product, but be good to your partners. A concern voiced on my Patreon was whether purchasing on DDB would lock them into the VTT in some way, making it hard to use other VTTs. That does not seem to be a limitation at this time.

Marketplace and Maps

The beautiful maps are currently sculpted as one-piece buildings. In the future, the idea is it would work more like Legos. Kale said that if a player asks if there were a window, you could quickly add one.

You can also add 2-D maps. While in our game, Kale added a flat 2-D map into the play space, placing it right next to the 3-D “island” we were playing upon. Similarly, a handout could be dropped onto the play area.

Kale says he doesn’t expect that we can import (or offer for sale) our own 3-D maps. Apparently third-party 3-D maps can stress the engine too much. The expectation is that all maps come from Wizards. However, there will be a marketplace for the VTT. Is the idea that the only thing being sold are adventures? Unclear.

Action – Marketplace: The marketplace needs to be easy to create for. A problem Roll20 has encountered is that creating a Roll20 integration is a lot of work and hiring someone to do the work is very expensive compared to the relatively low sales earned. To be viable, it has to be easy to create an adventure and market it.

Action – VTT and DDB Marketplace Integration: Similarly and additionally, if a creator markets on DDB, it should be easy to extend that product to the VTT. For example, if someone offers custom monsters on DDB, those should be easy to extend to the VTT. It becomes harder to envision a third-party subclass in DDB also working on the VTT. Enabling this will require planning up front to make the VTT connect properly and flexibly to Beyond content.

Another picture from our fight. One of the players changed their icon to be an owlbear.

Development Strategy

Kale stated the current goal is to make it a fun experience. Second goal is the creator side. More formally, a presentation broke it down as follows:

  • Step 1: 2023 focus is to support all core mechanics, intuitive player UI and play/assets, DM game controls, increase player testing and feedback.
  • Step 2: 2024. Character and miniature creation/customization, encounter and world building, remixable content library, wider playtesting in 2024.
  • Step 3, 2025+: Share. Use the same creation tools, share creations with each other, community feedback loop. The VTT goes live in 2025.

Playtesting will initially involve staff and their friends/family. It will then be extended to influencers (perhaps including attendees). After that, it will be extended to some DDB subscribers (unclear how they will be chosen). Not going live in 2024 is interesting, and means the investment Wizards is making is even larger (at least three years of initial development).

Economics, and Lack Thereof

It’s clear that Kale and others have thought a lot about the economics of the VTT. Kale talked about how some games end up free that should have had a baseline cost, and some games end up very expensive when the base should have been affordable. For all the thinking, however, they don’t know what it will cost yet. They don’t know whether purchasing Lost Mine on DDB will unlock it on the VTT, for example.

That surprised me, because the VTT seemed core to their worries over the OGL and to their message to shareholders during several investor calls. It seems very important for Wizards to figure this out, unless they have decided movies and TV shows are the core sources of revenue growth? If it’s the VTT, they will need an economic plan.

Much was made during the OGL of things like spell animations. I honestly don’t think that’s why people will choose this VTT. The animations were cool, but far less important than integration, the marketplace, the features, and the play experience. The animations I want to see are things that really help the DM, such as rain, granular control over lighting to reflect the time of day, aging the wood in the tavern or making it look upscale and brand new.

Action – Accessibility: The VTT should run on an everyday computer. It should run on a phone (people in many countries around the world don’t have a computer at home even if they have high incomes). It needs to be affordable globally, as well as stable on a phone or older computer.

Action – Monetization: Monetization should be optional. The ideal model is one where you love what you start with, it feels complete, but you want to pay for fun options if you can afford them.

Concern – Larger Picture: VTTs are important. Just look at the growth of play during Covid. I get it. But, also, the growth before that, which was enormous, was all about people wanting to connect with one another away from screens. When I ran games for middle school kids, each time the parents would thank me for liberating their kids from screens and helping them to socialize in creative ways using their minds and their pencils. Wizards should keep an eye on both sides and make sure that any VTT push isn’t at the expense of what makes D&D special for so many.

There was a time when D&D was telling us to get off of the computer!

Next Time

We look at the 2024 Rules changes and D&D Beyond’s future. What do you think about the VTT so far? Leave a comment below.

Click to preorder the Forge of Foes on BackerKit!

11 comments on “The Future of the D&D VTT at the Creator Summit

  1. Sotoromuro
    April 13, 2023

    VTTs are certainly here to stay and it’s understandable that resources would be put there. But I share your concern: I play to get away from screens. This is great but not for me. I would hate to see the notion that you need a screen to play D&D become the dominant idea.

  2. Jonathan Pettit
    April 14, 2023

    I love using Fantasy Grounds for online play as I’ve got friends not local but do not force us to play on a computer if we wish to play at a table. Since WotC owns DDB, the failure to integrate DDB into their VTT seems to be an epic fail. Make third-party products available on DDB and thus into their VTT. Though I have a pretty good gaming PC, many of my players do not and this would again be a failure. I’m excited to see what WotC comes up with but let’s not force us into this.

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  4. OZ_DM
    April 14, 2023

    Another Fantasy Grounds user. My players are based on 4 contients, and I find that they need a map to play to give a.point of reference (we don’t use video).

    I have found that the more detailed the map the more they are inhibited from creative ideas. Going 3D will (from the observations I have made probably put soft limits on the ideas of players which often aligns wit the rule of cool.

    It will be interesting to observe if more detailed tools change they way a group plays.

    I was surprised that Shawn Merwin didn’t speak that much about the topic on the podcast episode about this!

    • Alphastream
      April 17, 2023

      At least Shawn looked amazing all episode long! 🙂

  5. Krishna See Mon Seh
    April 18, 2023

    The strategy of using a standalone client still baffles me. Unless they are planning some magical asset and scene upgrades, none of the graphics really look like they need unreal engine level 3d rendering.
    Not being able to offer the flexibility of a web based client is likely to hurt adoption significantly and limit is useability in a world were online sessions with different DMs are, slowly, becoming more and more normal.
    And if it does turn out that their VTT has chalenges competing with the web based simplicity of a Roll20 or Foundry, will they resist the temptation of artificially hampering those VTTs by excluding them from specific content?
    I am hopeful, even optimistic that they will turn this into a fun way to play D&D. I just also hope that they are not creating expectations for themselves and this product that are unlikely to be met. Cause as a company they do not have a real good track record of dealing with things not performing as they expect…

    • Alphastream
      April 18, 2023

      I share the hope and the concerns, my friend. I do worry that their plans for exclusive deals when you buy direct will stretch into the VTT as well, and be poisonous to both areas. WizKids does this, offering exclusive minis to people who buy from them. While I’m sure it encourages some sales, I also hear a lot of folks who see have strong negative reactions to that approach.

    • OZ_DM
      April 18, 2023


      I started with Roll20 frankly compared to Fantasy Grounds it offer much less flexibility and speed of creation for a DM. A web browser that just isn’t that dynamic for a.creative DM. It’d also much add and creature your own tables.

      I can run a game and create new on the fly bits during the game. The browser interface doesn’t support this.

      Foundry looks great but a player of mine that used it said its pretty but Fantasy Grounds offers much more to a time sensitive DM.

      When thinking about a VTT you need to mind it’s a.tool for a.DM, not a.player, as a player has needs. DMs are.gping to be customer when it a VTT choice.

      One option they might consider is to cloud host just acces via a virtual.machine.

      BTW roll20 is free to start which sucks but if you play for a couple.of years Fantasy Grounds works out much much cheaper.

      • Krishna Sea Mon Ster
        April 19, 2023

        I am aware about all those things about Fantasy Grounds, as I own it and know it pretty well. And while its options are myriad, its user friendly in the way linux command line is user friendly (i.e. it is, IF you know exactly what you are doing).
        Foundry is what I use in day to day online DMing and I struggle to think what extras FG would offer me in a time sensitive situation, over Foundry. But then, I know what I am doing in Foundry, and a little less so in FG :). As for costs, too many factors go into that to reliably compare any of the VTT.. Besides, VTT preferences and reasons are not really the issue for me here.
        VTT’s when used with new or random players (i.e. you do not have a fixed group that will just be trained on your VTT of choice) are all about the barriers to entry. There is a reason that for virtual conventions (my viewpoint is from BMG’s virtual weekends) Roll20 is used almost exclusively. Fantasy Grounds or Foundry are great, and almost always better from my POV, alternatives to Roll20, but they are not (considered to be) as accessible. And thats with Foundry having a web interface and not needing a client. And this has been proven to be key. Any table not using Roll20 has a significantly higher chance to not run.

        WoTC building a VTT that not only requires a client, but one that is likely to put quite a few demands on the device that it runs on, means that their shiny new VTT will have an uphill battle in several areas. And one way they could level that hill is by using their leverage against the other VTTs,, And that is what worries me.
        I am fairly sure that none of the people working on this from a design or development perspective are thinking that way mind you, but Hasbro is a business. And it knows how to use their arsenal to compete…

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