Fantasy Grounds Interview with Doug Davison

We sat down with Doug Davison, co-developer of Fantasy Grounds and co-founder of SmiteWorks to talk about the game and why its unique in the world of Greenlight.

Doug Davison
Doug Davison.

Tell us about Fantasy Grounds. Its unique in the sense that it isn’t really a “game”, is it?

Doug: Officially, we refer to Fantasy Grounds as a virtual tabletop, since it virtually replaces the experience of playing pen and paper style RPG games around a table with friends.  For some, their experience will be logging in as a player and playing a game that another user hosts as a GM (GameMaster.)  For GMs, it becomes both a tool to create and run their own adventures or a tool to run one of the pre-made adventures for a group of players.  John and I both love getting together with friends around a table to play our favorite RPG.  Rolling the dice, deciding how our characters will interact with the world and having fun but challenging tactical battles on a map is what we all love.  Our goal with Fantasy Grounds is to capture as much of that as possible.  I think our community would agree that we’ve done a very good job at this and we continue to enhance it all the time.

If you had to highlight a couple features that make Fantasy Grounds special, what would they be?

Doug: We tried very hard to make Fantasy Grounds fade into the background while you play and for the actual game to take center stage.  We’ve been privileged to work with some fantastic companies that publish their own RPG material and nearly every one of our rulesets (what we call our game-specific skins and rules systems) will have a completely custom look, feel and automation specific to those games.  A small two-man indie developer like us would have a hard time creating custom imagery for all the different genres used in RPGs.  Instead of trying to do that, we made it a point to license as much as possible from existing publishers.  When you play a game of Deadlands Reloaded, you know you are playing in a western themed setting.  In that ruleset and extension, you can even play games of Texas hold’em as your character.  In Call of Cthulhu, you can hand out props that look like old matchbooks, typed letters and newspaper articles.

Fantasy Grounds Newspaper

Aside from that, we’ve added lots of automation where it was needed for each game system we support.  If the RPG you play uses playing cards to track who goes next, then we add automatic card dealing mechanics.  If the game requires you to roll a 20-sided dice, add bonuses from your character sheet, add penalties from condition present on the battlefield and then compare it against a specific defense of your target — then we make it so the ruleset engine will do most or all of that for you.  If you need to roll a dice and look something up on a chart, we try to automate that as well.  You can always just roll dice and do those things yourself, as you would around a table, but we’ve found that by automating some of these key features, the game actually plays better online than in person.

What role does Fantasy Grounds play in modern-day tabletop gaming?

Doug: Fantasy Grounds is the current leader in market share for all commercial virtual tabletop applications with around 24K licensed users and a very active community.  There are some free software solutions out there that do some of the same things as Fantasy Grounds, such as Google Hang-outs and some kickstarters that are in the early stages of development for a similar solution.  I think Fantasy Grounds does what it does in a very flexible and polished format.  We are not planning on resting on our laurels here and we plan to continually evolve Fantasy Grounds to take advantage of emerging and popular technologies and to continue to seek relationships with publishers of popular game systems so that no matter what RPG you play or what system you want to play on, Fantasy Grounds can provide the platform for you to use.

Imagine for a moment that I am an aspiring GM. What do I need to host an event using Fantasy Grounds?

Doug: An aspiring GM will need a Full license, a ruleset if it isn’t one of the built-in rulesets, and some interested players.  There are typically more players than GMs, so a good place to recruit players is on our community forums.  Finding players if you don’t already have a group of friends that want to play is similar to finding a gaming group in real-life, but you won’t have to worry about a lack of players in your local environment.  You’d want to start off with a post stating possible game times, what sort of game and genre you want to run and probably a little about your gaming history.  Unlike first-person shooter game lobbies, RPGs normally require players and a GM to get together and play regularly for days, weeks, months or even years.

What rulesets are available?

Doug: This is constantly expanding, but there are 39 rulesets listed on the Fantasy Grounds Wiki page that are either official ones from us or rulesets built by the community.  You can get the full list here:

The official ones comprise the built-in rulesets of D&D 3.0/3.5, Pathfinder RPG and D&D 4E.  There are 9 other rulesets available from our store that include custom skins, automation and typically the entire rulebook in a FG accessible format.  That list can be found here:, but the most popular ones are Savage Worlds, Call of Cthulhu, Mutants and Masterminds, Rolemaster and Castles & Crusades.

Which ruleset is your favorite?

Doug: I am pretty partial to the D&D 3.5/Pathfinder ruleset.  A close second for me would be the Savage Worlds ruleset with the Deadlands Reloaded extension.  I wish I had time to play some of the others, though, because there are some really nice looking ones for other systems I’m less familiar with as a player and GM.

Can GMs create their own campaigns?

Doug: Absolutely.  A GM can create multiple campaigns for each ruleset they own and have installed.  Fantasy Grounds stores everything that happens within that campaign and you can always pick up where you left off.

Aside from creating your own campaigns, GMs can also create their own adventures and then export them so they can be played in other people’s campaigns.  As long as you don’t violate any copyright laws, you can share these on our community forums or contact us and we can put it up for sale on our storefront for an appropriate fee and pay you ongoing commissions as they sell.

How true to the tabletop social experience is Fantasy Grounds? What have you done to preserve the social elements to tabletop gaming?

Doug: This is extremely important to us.  Aside from allowing various chat features common in an MMO environment, most groups also pair this with voice over IP or video chats through Skype, ventrillo, teamspeak or whatever software they prefer.  It’s kind of funny, but one of the things I really like about the chatting within Fantasy Ground’s chat window is that when you are speaking as your character it will wrap a speech bubble graphic around whatever you say and even attach it to a copy of your portrait as you go.  This is like what you’d see in a comic book and for me it really enhances the experience.  You can also whisper something to another player or to the GM, so you can let the party separate if they choose and then only tell the thief that spun off on his own that he just walked into a nest of beholders.

As a GM, you can change your active chat voice as well.  You can have the wolf the player’s are fighting start begging for mercy and then have your players start scratching their head on why a wolf is speaking in clearly understandable words.

Fantasy Grounds DialogueOur community is also great and they write a lot of cool enhancements for us.  Once of these I’ve seen is an extension that allows your characters to actually chat in different mythical languages.  You can toggle whether your character is speaking in common, dwarven or elven, for instance and then only other characters with that language listed on their character sheet will know what you are saying.  Everyone else sees dwarven or elven scripts in a speech bubble.  That is super cool.


GLG: Is there anything that Fantasy Grounds does that in your opinion makes it better than playing on a table?

Doug: Automation and immersion are two of the big ones.  Setting up maps and moving figures around are typically much faster than at the table too.  Another cool feature is that it is self documenting.  Your entire chat log is saved from session to session.  There are a number of groups that take these and post them out on a portal so they have a running history of their game from week to week.

GLG: How important is having  a Mac and Linux version of the game to you?

Doug: It is very important to us.  Anything that blocks one group of gamers from being able to play is a roadblock to gaming.  Fantasy Grounds was built as a PC-only app originally and we have thousands and thousands of lines of code that has gotten us where we are today.  We lucked out when we found Wine and were able to modify hundreds of lines of code instead of thousands to make it fully compatible with most linux and mac systems.  From that point on, we’ve purposefully limited ourselves to code libraries that are fully tested on Wine for these platforms and which are marked as compatible.  This allows us to continually enhance the core engine without having to double or triple our overall codebase.  It also means that the experience is exactly the same on the PC, Mac and Linux instead of one or more of those platforms always lagging months or years behind another.

What inspired you to create Fantasy Grounds?

Doug: The core of Fantasy Grounds was actually created by three gamers and programs in Finland and John and I bought the company from them back in 2009.  What inspired them was similar to what inspired us and that was that they wanted a system to game the way they wanted to game.  John and I actually came into it as users and gamers who were both accomplished software developers and businessmen and we both fell in love with how flexible the environment was for creating new systems.  For me, I built a ruleset to allow me to play Star Wars Saga Edition.  John built a ruleset to play D&D 4E with it.  We both felt that the potential was huge and that Fantasy Grounds had even more to offer than what it was at the time.  Three years and hundreds of add-ons later, we are confident we made the right choice.


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