PDFs (Three Different Ones)

Here are three different examples of a RPG digital product:

1. The Legacy PDF


The Legacy PDF here is Weather the Cuckoo Likes for Over the Edge. Hard copies can be had for 20 quid or less if you’re lucky, but if you’re not the digital revoloution is a godsend for the RPG collector.

As you’d expect Weather the Cuckoo Likes is a compromise in PDF form. It was designed for the standard magazine print size (US legal? Foolscap?) so it’s not great for reading on a modern 16:9 screen smaller than 24 inches, let alone a modern tablet. There’s no hyperlinked table of contents. But it’s a black-on-white interior and should be fairly cheap to print (under 2 dollars) on a monochrome laser printer. It’s also not a crazy file size and it’s not a fuzzy scan of a physical book like some products (for example Engel) so the text is searchable.

The value proposition of an otherwise OOP book like Weather The Cuckoo Likes is the physical alternative will be hard or expensive to find so realistically it’s this or nothing; and with digital distribution I can get it right now. Unlike a modern PDF I don’t expect it to be supported with new errata since it’s 20 years old, so you take a chance.

2. The Freebie PDF


Trail of Cthulhu isn’t free, of course — but it’s a typical example of bundling the PDF with a physical product. You can buy the PDF only at half the price of the print+PDF bundle, but it’s obvious that the PDF is a free incentive for the full-price print copy.

This is possible when the cost to Pelgrane of bundling the PDF is probably low. Aside from a hyperlinked ToC the PDF doesn’t have any advantages of a modern digital file but it has all the disadvantages of the Legacy PDF (i.e. too big for comfortable screen reading). But on top of that it’s actually worse than the legacy file for printing out, because it’s not just B&W — like a lot of modern games it’s a full bleed, full colour document with a sort of grubby sepia background behind black text. Looks nice but it will muller your toner cartridge.

The annoying thing is of all my Trail of Cthulhu files, only Bookhounds of London has a printer friendly version with a white background. Was that easy to do? I have no idea, but if it was just a matter of turning off the background layer in the source file, then creating a printer friendly copy should add value for low effort.

I honestly wonder if this is a blind spot for publishers. Feng Shui 2 is a gorgeous PDF and at the same time completely useless (to me), because it’s edge to edge colour, white text on black backgrounds, etc. Try to print that out and your printer might not survive. Would a monochrome, white background version for printing have been hard? Maybe. But it’s clear FS2 was always intended to be a physical product, and it’s more likely Atlas just didn’t consider how a print-friendly version could be a value proposition.

This is the problem, I think: mainstream publishers are still focused on physical books, and digital products will always be second string offerings. They’re a value proposition as a free extra, which doesn’t incentivise any effort making the digital products any “better”. The result is a crippled product that ensures the print version from the supplier, dead trees shipped around the world, remains the most practical way to read the game.

3. The epub

My go-to example of a good RPG on epub/mobi is Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions, but there’s a more obvious and mainstream example:


Evil Hat have form for producing digest-sized, e-reader friendly RPGs going back to Spirit of the Century and Don’t Rest Your Head.

I wish I liked FATE Core more. As a digital product it’s really good, portable and device-aware.

Let’s clarify the value of e-readers. What they are not good for is use at the table — too slow and small to flip between bookmarks, and they render tables badly.

What they excel at — not least because with adjustable font size and e-ink they’re easy on they eye — is in the first read-through. I have a terrible habit of not reading my RPG books cover to cover on the first pass, and a Kindle version helps a lot.

Are they better than the physical book for the first read? Supposedly physical books make it easier for the reader to recall the sequence of plot events, and this may be something to do with the “haptic and tactile feedback” of books vs e-readers, where the point at which you absorbed certain content is connected to how the book feels at that time.

On the other hand a Kindle is without peer for reading one-handed while wrangling an infant, and I wouldn’t be without mine.

(here’s an interesting, not at all black-and-white article about comprehension and learning from electronic devices vs. physical books)

Value for Money

You can probably tell that I don’t think the mainstream PDF offerings are good value for money. But that’s OK, because I didn’t pay anything near “full price” for them — they all came free with print, or in Bundles of Holding.

Interestingly the RPG pdf market seems to allow for a lot of consumer price setting, with PDF prices anything from “full whack” (say 15 to 25 dollars) to “free” (free with hardcopy, PWYW). Customers who want it now will pay up the cover price, and those on the fence will wait for the next sale or Bundle of Holding.

Talking about value is difficult. I can say “Feng Shui 2’s PDF is terrible” and it’s a meaningless statement (and could start a fight). It’s subjective. On the other hand “Feng Shui 2 is a poor reading experience compared to FATE Core” can be objectively reasoned; at that point the consumer can decide whether the fact that they want to play Feng Shui 2 more than FATE Core outweighs the inconvenience. These are some value markers I could use:

  1. Is this thing free or low cost, or is it full price?
  2. Can I read it on my tablet, kindle or phone, or do I need the biggest screen possible?
  3. How flexible are my printing options?
  4. How much do I want to own and play the system?
  5. Are there other benefits, like supporting the kickstarter or donating to charity?

Honourable and Dishonourable Mentions

Here’s a short list of other games I like for their approach to digital distribution:

  • Nova Praxis for its “enhanced” (tablet friendly) PDF
  • Urban Shadows for being on epub and mobi
  • Nobilis 3rd Edition has Kindle-ready versions
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess uses a digest format, which is probably a happy coincidence but I find it way better for tablet reading
  • Blades in the Dark’s landscape format for laptop reading, and printer-friendly releases
  • Apocalypse World’s approach to materials at the table, a great approach to play aids, no need to have the complete rulebook printed out (and digest format, so more-or-less tablet-friendly)
  • Durance includes an epub version (that you can probably play to in a pinch)

As far as I can see, most of the innovation in the digital domain is coming from the independants. That should surprise no-one given that it’s driven by a credo of self-publishing and digital distribution.

And for the record, here’s a number of mainstream PDF products I own that are stuck in the 90s, format-wise:

  • Wild Talents (and Monsters and Other Childish Things)
  • Runequest 6 (a.k.a. Mythras)
  • Shadows of Esteren
  • Lords of Gossamer and Shadow
  • Trail of Cthulhu
  • Hillfolk
  • Feng Shui 2

Don’t get me wrong, these are all great games full of quality writing; and in many cases the PDF looks great right up to the point where you start reading. If you can get over the compromised reading experience, go for it.

(well, maybe not Wild Talents)