Behind the Games – Interview with Doug Davison of Fantasy Grounds

I thought it might be a good idea to start interviewing some of the people behind the awesome products that are available for tabletop gamers. I met Doug on Facebook this week and I asked him if he would be interested in telling us about how he first became involved with tabletop gaming and Fantasy Grounds.

Doug Davison is an entrepreneur software developer and the principal owner of SmiteWorks USA LLC, owners of the Fantasy Grounds virtual tabletop. He has a Computer Science degree from the University of Kentucky. He started a software consulting company at the age of 25 that he operated for 8 years, before selling it and moving back to the corporate world. He acquired SmiteWorks Ltd. in 2009 as a side business and now operates that alongside John Gregory, who he met online through Fantasy Grounds. In 2014, Doug left the corporate world once again to focus his full attention on improving and growing Fantasy Grounds. John and Doug both work on Fantasy Grounds from their home offices in Washington and Kentucky, respectively.

SHAWN: How did you first get into Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop RPGs?

DOUG: I remember seeing the D&D adventure modules at the local bookstore and being very interested in them, thanks partly to the excellent covers and promise of adventure. My parents wouldn’t let me get these at first; however, I got lucky and found a copy of the D&D red box at a yard sale and had enough money from cutting lawns to purchase it without needing to borrow any money. I was instantly hooked on the idea of equipping a character and venturing forth to battle monsters and earn fame. I managed to rope in most of my friends, but that meant that I spent most of my time acting as the DM. Over time, I managed to find other DM’s and had an opportunity to sit on the player side as well.

I enjoy a wide variety of tabletop games and RPGs besides Dungeons & Dragons, but D&D always holds a special meaning for me. It’s been the method by which I’ve met many life-long friends and is a constant source of social interaction for me that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

The Red Box seems to be a shared experience for a ton of us old timers.

Back in my youth, I fell in love with the Dragonlance setting after reading the Chronicles Trilogy and playing the modules with my friends.

Are there any published settings you really enjoy or do you like to play in completely original worlds?

My favorite D&D setting is probably Spelljammer. This is one of the few settings I got to enjoy as a player first and later as a GM for a 16 month or so epic campaign. I also enjoy Forgotten Realms and Dark Sun. For non-D&D settings, Deadlands is very high on my list and I hold it up about as high as Spelljammer. I don’t mind running pre-packaged adventure modules, but my favorite is when I take a basic module and add in a healthy dose of my own creations. Spelljammer was nice for this since you could create entire planets for the players to visit and completely change the environment, the culture or whatever you wanted. You could freely mix your own creations with the existing creations and intersperse them as much as you wanted. Planescape would also work well for this, so I had my eye on that as a possible basis for a campaign at one point. There are a ton of other settings I’d love to play, but I never really got the chance. Birthright would be pretty high on the list for me, followed by Greyhawk.

Do you prefer being a player or a gamemaster?

I enjoy doing a bit of both. If I do one for too long at the exclusion of the other, I find myself wanting to get back on the other side of the screen for a bit. Sometimes the actions of the other players or the GMs will spark some creativity that I want to jump on right away. I tend to prefer longer running campaigns both as a player and a GM, though, so it doesn’t leave enough time to do it all.

When did you first take on the challenge of being a gamemaster?

I’ve been doing it for a long time (25 years or so), so it’s pretty natural to me now.

Any advice for new gamemasters?

I found that the Dungeon Masters Guides normally provided some excellent tips on how to be a good GM. The tips about watching who is leaning forward at attention when you run various parts of your games was golden. Some people really like combat, some people prefer the role-playing and other people might like traps. Take some notes about when the players were most engaged individually and you can use this to tailor a little bit of content for each person. It will really help keep everyone coming back and eager to play the next session. Also, end your sessions on a cliff-hanger from time to time.

When I start a new campaign, I tend to start off relatively local and then start to expand things out. I don’t think it makes sense to plot out the entire massive, epic campaign before you even start. Start small and see what the players give you. I had a Deadlands campaign where the players decided to willingly work for the bad guys instead of fight them. I think it had something to do with the fact that they were a group led by powerful, and often attractive witches. Instead of trying to force a conflict, I tried to think about how the villains would react. Since they routinely hire thugs and other people to do their bidding, it made perfect sense to me that they would be willing to work with the party as long as they helped further their goals. The campaign played out significantly different than what I originally envisioned, but it turns out that bad guys routinely vie for power against other bad guys and there were still plenty of things I could still use — but with a twist.

You first became involved with Fantasy Grounds getting a Star Wars Saga game running. Are you still a huge Star Wars fan?

I’m a fairly big fan, but I haven’t read everything. I’m a big enough fan that I actually liked the prequel trilogy when I first saw them and only started to lose interest with repeat viewings. I’m excited for the new series and hope it will be as well received by my children as the original ones were to me as a kid.

Have you played Fantasy Flight Games’ new Star Wars RPGs?

I haven’t tried them yet or even picked them up. I only had the opportunity to play one or two sessions of Star Wars Saga, but I own a bunch of the books and spent a great deal of time and effort making a ruleset and library modules for use with Fantasy Grounds for them. That unfortunately makes me a little reluctant to pick up and start over with FFG unless my group all wanted to play right away. I’d probably recommend Saga, though, since I already have everything we’d need there and I was pretty happy with what I saw. The Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic showed that you could run a d20 Star Wars game quite successfully. Oh, I also played the West End Games D6 Star Wars RPG back in the day and enjoyed that as well. I’m sure I’d like FFG’s version if I played it.

What games/rules are you playing right now?

I’m a player in three Pathfinder RPG games and a GM for a D&D 5th edition game. My players are an 8th level Human Summoner, a Human Barb4/Sorc1/DragonDisciple3 and a Gnome Cleric 2.

How are you finding the D&D 5th edition rules?

I love how combat is so much faster and movement is more fluid. It’s one of the things I really like about Savage Worlds and Deadlands, and I’m happy to see this improved in the D&D world too. I think in one 3-hr session, we had 5 or 6 combats and a bit of role-playing mixed in too. First and second levels look to be extremely tough for players, but it starts to smooth out from there. I’m not sure which character I’d run first. I’d have to think about that. I haven’t had a chance to be a player yet.

Do you usually play tabletop RPGs face to face or online?

I still play mostly face-to-face but also play some games online. I’m running my D&D 5th edition game online at the moment, but the three Pathfinder RPG games are face-to-face.

You’ve been playing on Fantasy Grounds since 2008. How did you jump from being a user to owning Fantasy Grounds?

I was super impressed with how polished the software was (in 2008) and how extensible it was. You could re-skin it, change the automation, the layout, add new data sources or do pretty much whatever you wanted with enough programming and artwork. When I build my personal Star Wars Saga ruleset, I thought, “Wow. I should see if they have any interest in selling the company.”  They weren’t. Fantasy Grounds was doing well.

At the same time, John Gregory had made a new and improved D&D 3.5 compatible ruleset and was busy working on an even more advanced D&D 4the edition ruleset. A third-party company by the name of Digital Adventures, led by Kevin Melka, was also putting out new licensed rulesets for other popular games like Savage Worlds, Call of Cthulhu and Castles & Crusades. I reached out to John as a fellow community developer and pitched the idea of buying SmiteWorks. We got SmiteWorks to throw out a number that would make it work from their end and after crunching some numbers, we thought we could make it work on our end. Originally, I was planning to have a group of 6 people go in together for the purchase and for a split of the equity, but in the end everyone dropped out but me. Thankfully I was still able to go through with the purchase.  Digital Adventures then came to me and proposed selling all their IP to me as well. At this point I was pretty strapped for cash and not looking to buy anything else. We managed to come to some terms still and then I added somewhere around 100 different products, and more importantly, was able to use this as a way in to a handful of game publishers. I brought John back in at the start of 2010. He brought with him his improved 3.5E ruleset and 4E ruleset, which we gave out to all FG players and GMs for free.

From that point, we made sure that we took good care of our publishers and this has allowed us to continually add more publishers and more products. We have something like 300+ officially licensed products now as a result and 26 game publishers by my last counting. There are a handful of big publishers we’d still love to have licensed.

What feature of Fantasy Grounds are you most proud of?

This is a tough call. The campaign management features are probably my favorite – but the combat tracker and library features are pretty high on the list as well.

What’s the biggest challenge of running a virtual online gaming table application?

For me, not much. For new users, I’d say that getting all the technology to work smoothly is probably their biggest challenge. It’s all fairly simple once you figure it out, but getting Skype or Google Hangouts or port forwarding for a GM is pretty scary to people who have never heard of that before. There are a lot of creative and talented GM’s out there who are not very tech-savvy. Thankfully, youtube has videos on how to do nearly everything now-a-days and they’re normally put together by 12 year old kids, who make it look easy.

Do you have any new features or a major upgrade in development for Fantasy Grounds?

We are continuing to enhance FG for D&D 5E at the moment. On the back-end, we are busy porting everything over to Unity, which will open up a ton of new functionality that we can begin to add. We have a few other general items we might roll out before or after the Unity port, such as expanded dice macros and general improvements to core ruleset functionality.

Anything Else You Would Like to Add?

We added monthly subscriptions recently to be competitive with other online VTT subscription prices. For $3.99/mo, you get a license, all the included rulesets, token packs, map packs and character portrait packs and can cancel at any time. For $9.99 you get the same but with an Ultimate license which lets all your players connect for free with just a demo license.

Doug, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions today. If you have any question for Doug or comments, please leave them in the comments below.