Review: DungeonBuilder

I’m an unusual gamer in that I do most of my gaming online. I live out in the sticks of rural Florida so I can’t really find a real life group. I’ve come to prefer playing online for a few reasons other than that, but nonetheless, when I talk about tabletop games I often have to consider that I’m talking to people who play on tabletops. I often play through some fairly quirky methods. My current favorite is using Google Documents to “write the game” with players (with Invisible Castle for rolls). I also sometimes play using Skype and Gametable/Virtual Daivve. The latter, along with Maptools, is one of the more common methods for playing online, as the program provides dice and maps for your use.

Enter DungeonBuilder into this area. The two pieces of software I’ve linked above are free, but there are pay alternatives that offer a bit more pizzaz, such as Fantasy Ground, and Wizard’s own Virtual Tabletop (though the latter is currently a feature of a D&D Insider subscription, so if you want to play with it you have to pick up the entire package). DungeonBuilder is a browser-based digital tabletop alternative that is purchased by subscription. DungeonBuilder costs $19.99 for a yearly subscription for a GM and $8.99 for a player. Though this is a “launch special” so I’ve no idea how long it will last. The prices seem decent for what you get right now – I’m not sure whether I’d endorse raising them unless more features get rolled out or the webapp gets cleaned up some. While it is a useful program, it could use touching up.

Players and GMs have separate account types because GMs have added functionality in their accounts (they can actually build and schedule game sessions) while players can only make characters, join games and post to the forums and so on. Dividing the accounts makes it more affordable for groups to purchase since they’ll only ever need one GM account. Right now though you can only buy with Paypal or by sending the DungeonBuilder people a check, which is probably going to be a turn-off for some folks.

DungeonBuilder allows you to build maps in its main overall interface, which you can invite players into. It has about everything you’d expect the stock, average gametable-style program to have, including a text chat, mapping interface and dice rolling, and character tracking. Dungeonbuilder can be run from practically anything that can use HTML5 including iPads, tablets and smartphones (though running the app from your browser in a smartphone will make you crushingly aware of your screen size). Everything is done from the browser, whether making maps or hosting games.

During games DungeonBuilder offers a built-in way to communicate using a fairly small text chat that you can’t seem to change the size of. The chat logs the text put in it, and allows you to roll dice there, delete messages, and use text colors and other BBCode. It reminds me a lot of the text boxes used to post in forums, but smaller. It’s better than the text chat in the freeware Gametable/Virtual Daivve by a longshot, but it’s not exactly optimal due to its somewhat cramped dimensions. I suggest using Skype or something like it, whether you want to do text or not (Skype’s text chat is pretty great even if you don’t want voice/video).

draaaaaawing in my skiiiin

these roooooms, they wiiiiill not seeeaal

DungeonBuilder’s main interface contains the chat, mapping tool, dice, and tabs at the bottom with characters and monsters you’ve created and saved in the web app. You click on icons which produce a variety of shaped boxes which you can link together into simple dungeons. You can also upload your own images that will become the background of the map. I uploaded a map to use it in this manner but saw some distortion – and then it just up and disappeared when I clicked the “grid” button to try to overlay the mapping grid on the background. So bring your own grids on your maps, or use the game’s simple geometric shape map drawing when you play (it’s not really a problem to do so). One odd thing is that there’s no generic “line” drawing tool, only shapes and a tool to connect those shapes. This seems a strange thing to overlook in your mapper.

There’s an interface for making characters and monsters, albeit it’s only vaguely suggestive of any actual RPG systems (the character-maker has 12 attributes and AD&D classes), so it’s not a replacement for any building tools you may have, or your own gritty pencil-twisting character-making efforts. Regardless its oddness doesn’t intrude on much. You can also build your own random encounters and normal encounters, including setting the “frequency” of random encounters and when encounters are called for by the program itself.

The interface, while functional, works off clicking various Windows 95-looking icons, pop-ups and pull-downs. The text input boxes feel like I’m posting to an Invisionfree Forum and not in a paid product. The program is overall not very good looking and sometimes unintuitive. For example, all the dice icons are so tiny and weird I could only guess what die I was rolling until the pop-up came up telling me the die and its result, and whenever you click one of the shape icons to make a shape, you have to go back and click it again to make another of the same shape. There’s an FAQ that you should probably read, but the rest is a healthy dose of fiddling and experimentation. Personally there were a lot of features I don’t use often enough to warrant messing around with (like random encounters), and I didn’t feel terribly drawn to trying to understand them through the interface. There’s a forum, but nobody’s actually posting in it yet since the product is fairly recent.

Ultimately, DungeonBuilder is a sentiment I appreciate. It’s a gametable that runs out of a browser, so it’s unlikely to run into connectivity hitches like the ones I butt heads with whenever I try to host Maptools or Gametable games. It is coded entirely in HTML5 so that it can be run from all sorts of mobile devices. For a low yearly cost you and your group can get in, mess around with the interface and host some games. What it could use is polish. The interface is not fantastic. It’s functional, but not exactly a joy to play around with. These are kinks that they’ll probably work on in the future, or are working on right now, or at least I hope so. This could be pushing the envelope, but right now it’s merely “okay.” I would consider it among the other alternatives, as it definitely has perks they do not, but it’s not a knockout.

DungeonBuilder is available from VorpalSoftware now. Review the FAQ for more information. Complimentary access to the software was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

Comments

  1. Alhazred says:

    Sounds a bit primitive. There ARE other online browser-based VTTs as well. I haven’t really tried them except just brief checks. As it stands now I’d think this app needs a bit more work to compete with the free online stuff. Still, if they keep at it the sky is the limit.

    IMHO a project at this level of development would be MUCH better advised to go to something like Kickstarter than to be charging. People get very picky about what they pay for, whereas if they’re donating then its more like whatever they get is OK and if it is really good they love it. Raising a wad of cash right off is also probably better than trying to get anywhere on the trickle of subscription income you’re likely to get starting out. Contributors can get free access (maybe for variable amounts of time based on contribution level), plus recognition on the site’s community, etc. The subscription income is likely to still be good if the funding lets them start out with a nice system, plus you get a base of probably fairly interested playtesters vs people that will drive by and not stick around.

    I’d REALLY love to see one of these projects actually get flying. Maptool is NICE, but a browser-based application that did 2/3 of the more useful stuff Maptool does would be a shoe in as the go-to VTT.

  2. Wyatt Salazar says:

    You raise a great point about kickstarter, it seems like it would’ve been a great way to kick off something like this. It could’ve raised not only money but also a community that could’ve provided valuable feedback before launching. Could you point me to the other browser-based VTTs? I knew there were some out there but I honestly never visited them.

  3. There’s a lot of momentum built up around MapTool, in both good and bad ways. Personally, I’ve played probably several hundred hours of D&D in MapTool, and prefer it without any of the frameworks, especially those that want to automate too much – both 4e and pre-3e are just too much of an exceptions-based game for that to work. I’ve played a little on Wizards’ VTT, and it’s ok, but really just a simpler MapTool with voice chat built in.

    The tool I’m interested in for the future is currently called Tabletop Forge, and it’s a system for running RPGs over google hangouts. It’s still in early development, and is even less packaged than MapTool or OpenRPG, but it has a lot of potential. You should check it out.

    http://tabletopforge.com/

  4. I consider Maptool superior to the other VTTs you identified; it has more “pizzaz” than those that you refer to that cost money, in terms of features, functionality, community, etc.

    I’ve been running a 4E campaign in Maptool since late 2008. It is now in the late epic tier. I strongly disagree with the above comment about how 4E is too much of an exceptions based system for the frameworks to be useful. The frameworks, which are constantly being developed and improved, take into account everything you want them to — I have yet to find an exception that we were unable to code into the system. At this point, were I to start a face-to-face tabletop game, I wouldn’t do it without maptool. It is indispensable, to the point that I cannot imagine gaming without it.

  5. this just received funding from kickstarter (I backed it) and will be free I believe (no doubt some premium version for a price)

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/rileydutton/roll20-virtual-tabletop-gaming-that-tells-a-story

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