PDFs: Who Needs ‘Em?

Some time ago I was invited to a Pathfinder game run by a friend of a friend. I wasn’t certain how things would work out; I had attempted to join a game some time last year and my schedule didn’t permit me to play very often so I dropped out. The only copy of the rules I owned was a PDF of the Core Rulebook I purchased from Paizo before the ill-fated game. After speaking with the GM I knew I wanted to play an alchemist or a witch, so I went the extra mile and got a PDF of the Advanced Player’s Guide as well.

The game is going well. Thing is, it took me three sessions to make my character. I knew his name and his base attack bonus and things like that, but all the fiddly bits like feats and skill points were a bit up in the air. I also wasn’t as comfortable with combat as I should have been. Every time I threw a bomb I found myself checking the “Throw a Splash Weapon” section of the Core Rulebook.

Each time I did, I would reach for another player’s copy of the book.

PDFs of roleplaying games are everywhere. Thanks to sites like DriveThruRPG they are accessible and affordable alternatives to hard copies of the books, and it is possible to find things that are no longer on store shelves. I myself have a pretty hefty folder of them that I acquired during a year abroad, which satiated my RP needs at the time. There is no doubt they provide a great convenience.

Yet, at the risk of being a Luddite, they simply don’t work for me at the game table. For Pathfinder, they haven’t even worked too well for me away from the table. PDFs are great for getting an overview of a game, or learning the basics, but I don’t absorb the information the same way I do when I have a physical copy of the book in front of me. It’s not just a technology gap, either; I own a NOOK that I use often.

Why isn’t this working?

Trying to reference anything in a PDF is a pain. Scrolling is slow. The search function takes time, and doesn’t always get me where I want. I can page through a book quickly, and I’m skilled at using indices. I imagine a tablet would resolve several of my issues, but I can’t afford one right now, and even then you still have to zoom in to read text. The layout for most RPG books is much larger than your average paperback. All that zooming and scrolling distracts me from the experience of the book itself. On the other hand, the typical eReader displays all its text on one screen and requires only the click of a button to progress.

I can’t argue that PDFs have their place in gaming. I got my first PDF when Monte Cook’s Malhavoc Press was new and released the Book of Eldritch Might to an uncertain digital market. I’m glad to have the titles that I do. At the table, though, PDFs just can’t beat a good book. I recently picked up both the Core Rulebook and Advanced Player’s Guide for Pathfinder in paper form, and since then my comfort with the rules has improved. I sit down with the books in my spare time and I read them. I am spinning the starting threads of my own campaign that may or may not see play. All-in-all, I am having fun.

How about you? Are you on board with the digital revolution, or are you still holding a buggy whip like me?

Shaun Welch has been playing RPGs for two decades. He listens to a disproportionately large amount of music from Iceland, and currently lives in Maryland, where he works as a professional unicorn wrangler.

29 thoughts on “PDFs: Who Needs ‘Em?”

  1. If I am playing a particular character, I make copies of the info I need and make cheat cheats. I have iPad, the good thing about PDF’s is that they’d re searchable and in IBooks and Kindle you can highlight what you need.

  2. I mostly printing my PDFs for gaming. But for working on settings or planning campaigns I prefer PDFs, because then I have all the stuff I need at one place.

  3. I actually bought my laser printer and a plastic comb binding machine in order to be able to cheaply print and bind PDFs. Of course I don’t print all of them, sometimes (especially digest-sized ones can be easily read on an iPad), but usually when I run the game, I prefer to have at least one printed copy.

  4. I fall back on a PDF when the other two books are busy being referenced. Although books that have links in their tables of contents are starting to grow on me. A PDF on my little kobo is near unusable and even ePub game books are only good in certain situations.

    I’ve been trying to go all digital but yeah +1 on dead trees being better.

  5. I use PDFs all the time, especially at the table. I don’t have issues with scrolling or searching (maybe the machines I use have more processor and RAM than yours) and I often add bookmarks to pages I know I’ll be referencing a lot (beyond the usual bookmarking that Paizo does) which takes two clicks to get where I want to be (expand bookmarks, select page).

    Unless someone already has their book open to the information, I can usually beat dead tree users to any point of information. It’s all about learning the interface (just like you have become adept at using indices for dead tree versions… which work just as well in digital format).

    Also, you might consider using the d20pfsrd if you’re concerned about layout. It’s web-based (and has all the PF rules) and is pretty good about conforming to the screens I use (but YMMV).

    For me it comes down to portability. I just rather not lug around 50 lbs of books.

    1. Oh, yes, PDFs are a lifesaver when it comes to issues of portability. I’ve known guys who lug around two duffel bags full of books and I swore I would never do that to myself. (I also never reference that many books during a game, anyway.)

      I think I may have a RAM issue when it comes to searching. I’m using the MacBook shown in the photo, but it’s around 5 years old. The Pathfinder Lite PDFs have helped a bit, but as a few people have suggested, it’s a matter of getting used to the technology (before the comments, for instance, I didn’t realize I could set my own bookmarks). I also don’t like having my laptop at the table because I find it distracting to everyone. Like I say in the article, a tablet would likely resolve a lot of my issues.

      I also think I could give you a run for your money looking something up. I tend to beat or tie the guys at the table with tablets. But our duel will have to wait! 😉

      d20pfsrd is very nice! I do use that on occasion at home. Unfortunately I don’t have a wireless connection at the GM’s house, and that presents the normal laptop issues.

  6. Who needs PDFs? I need PDFs! They’re cheaper than printed books, take up no physical space, and get delivered to me immediately when I buy then at no extra cost.

  7. I have found PDFs much more useful with a tablet, but as you noted there is always the price barrier of getting a decent tablet.

    As for the zooming and scrolling, it isn’t bad at all on an iPad if you read with GoodReader. It lets you crop the pages to cut the margins out and apply that to the whole PDF you are reading. With Paizo PDFs this pretty much lets you display the whole text area without the need to scroll or zoom. Works really well.

    Also, Paizo has released Lite versions of their PDFs to minimize any issues with reading on lower powered electronic devices. They really helped a lot as well. If you purchased from Paizo’s site you will have the option to download the Lite version in your My Downloads section.

    At the game table I have been using PDFs there as well recently. Though for rule lookups I tend to use d20pfsrd as Mad Brew mentioned above. As long as you have an Internet connection you can look things up pretty quick, faster than the rulebooks in most cases.

    Now with all of that said, I still love the tactile feel of a book. So if it is a game I am going to play or lot or that I really like I will purchase the physical book as well. It is hard to beat the flipping of pages and browsing you can do with an actual physical book.

    1. I will get a tablet eventually, and may be more of a PDF convert at that time. At the moment the laptop just isn’t cutting it. The Lite PDFs have helped, but the screen resolution and scrolling issues remain. GoodReader seems to be the go-to app of many, so I will definitely check it out when my tablet days begin.

      Until such time, though, I need paper to support my gaming habits. The Pathfinder PDFs were good for refreshing my rusty d20 knowledge, but now that we’re gaming full-steam, it was only polite to actually get my own set of tomes.

  8. I tend to use PDFs more “away from the game table” than at it. Reference material for when I’m building my game things… but at the table, I do prefer the feel of a physical book. Not sure why.

    It’s also cheaper: I don’t buy a physical book until I’m planning to actually play the game. So I end up with lots of PDFs of games I just wanted to steal material from, a much smaller library of physical books for game I actually play.

    1. PDFs are ephemeral, and tablets are fairly lightweight. Books tend to have heft, which brings a sense of physicality and focus to the material inside. It makes it more “real” than reading it off a file.

      PDFs are GLORIOUSLY cheaper, though. Most of the time.

      1. I’m aware of the heft and intangible vs ephemeral aspect. That’s not why I prefer the physical book at the game table. But, as I said, I can’t quite put my finger on the actual reason.

  9. I’ve been saying this for a while: I can’t handle PDFs, or consider them to be “real” books at all. I *need* a book in my hands to actually read and comprehend the words. If an article is more than a few pages, I have to print it out for it to be useful at all to me. I got the feeling that I’m alone in this, but your post has shown me that there are at least a few others out there like me.

  10. I’ve been a big fan of PDFs away from the table, doing GM prep or character creation. I’ve got a reasonable big screen (1920×1200), so I can view two pages at the same time without much problem. I’m mostly using the “Skim” application on Macs, which is able to crop your view, if you’re faced with large margins (empty or with useless fantasy art). There’s also a separate cross-platform application for cropping PDFs, called Briss. Great for readers that don’t support it themselves (i.e. most PC and Android apps).

    Referencing isn’t a big issue. Granted, recently I’ve been doing a lot of HERO, where most rules are spread out over two pretty huge books, but have a very good “bookmark” scheme, i.e. almost every reference is given as “book #, page #”, making it trivial to switch to the proper document and going to the page via a handy keyboard shortcut. And if it’s a proper PDF, not some pirate scan, you can actually search for information, which is great if you need to e.g. find all references to a certain gawd or how torture is handled in your setting.

    And with some Pathfinder stuff, where you’d use a few dozen books, switching between them beats sorting through stacks or having them spread across your desk and/or bed (upside down quite often, when they won’t stay open on a certain page on their own).

    For Windows machines, I’d recommend SumatraPDF instead of the horrible Adobe Reader, and Launchy to quickly open files.

    At the table, I’m mostly using actual books or printouts. I do own an iPad, and with GoodReader it’s almost usable. So it’s pretty good for “emergency reference”, i.e. the stuff you need to look up if it really comes down to it. For HERO, I’ve got the “Basic” rulebook with me, and the iPad has the two core “phonebooks” and the tomes for the current background (where searching for the town you’re in comes handy, especially if info is spread through the book). For Pathfinder, having the core book at your side and setting and splat books on storage was enough for me.

    Everything I need to quickly reference I’ve either got printed out or stored in a “notes” application that is automatically synched via Dropbox. I prefer to use pieces of paper that are proportional to the information given, so e.g. adventures are on normal printer paper, but NPCs, items etc. are on index cards.

    Skim: http://skim-app.sourceforge.net/
    SumatraPDF: http://blog.kowalczyk.info/software/sumatrapdf/free-pdf-reader.html
    Briss: http://sourceforge.net/projects/briss/
    Launchy: http://www.launchy.net/

  11. How well PDFs work for me really depends on a number of factors, including the PDF and the device being used.

    My Kindle Keyboard for example could handle PDFs, but complex PDFs, you know, the kind an RPG book is likely to be, took way too long to scroll through or even turn the page. Not to mention often zooming in was a must, which was also on the slow side. So while it was great for books in general, it wasn’t the best game table reference around.

    I actually ended up switching to a Kindle Fire later on, and the PDF performance was a night and day difference. I could scroll, browse, zoom, etc. with no issues what so ever. For simply flipping through pages quickly a book still has the edge for sure, but it makes it a usable reference at the game table still. A faster tablet would be even better.

    The problem is that PDF as a format is all about printed accuracy. It’s not really an ideal format to use digitally oddly enough. It is however, the easiest digital format to hand out because of that. You don’t really have to do any extra work to have it available since you likely made it already to get your product printed.

    Some companies have gone the extra mile and have better ebook formats of their books available. (epub/kindle) For example I’m in a Castles and Crusades game now, and their player’s handbook is on the Nook and Kindle stores. The gotcha is that the conversion was a pretty quick one so there are some issues with it. The table of contents isn’t what I’d call ideal, and tables, (the thing that I’m sure is much more or a mess to convert,) can be a little ugly/confusing. Especially since some of the superscript and subscript got flattened into the regular text. These are all things that could be cleaned up though in a better conversion, but that’s also more time and work to get the product ready.

    Still, I’m trying to go digital as much as I can now. I’ve just got too many books. So many books. (Moving is a bit of a nightmare.) So unless it’s a series I’m dead set on collecting future copies are all digital in some fashion if I can help it.

  12. I’m sure someone else has said it, but I think the main problem is one of interface — if there was a better way to manipulate PDFs than the scroll key on your laptop, they’d be more tabletop friendly. If that turns out to be true, it’s just a matter of time before we fight that missing link.

    1. There already is a better interface.

      1) inertial scrolling — just “swipe” (with touch screen, laptop touchpad, or desktop touchpad) and watch the text whiz by until you the blur of a landmark that you recognize (images, etc.) and then stop the movement by touching the touch-device again.

      2) good PDFs have tables of contents.

      3) good PDFs are done in a way that supports searching (ie. text as text, and not text as images, things like that) — a good PDF combined with a good search engine is invaluable.

      4) a good PDF engine supports bookmarks within documents (to supplement the table of contents). I’m not sure if that’s actually the PDF reader or something that the author has to enable in the document itself — just sayin’, if it’s there, it’s good.

      5) multi-page view, IMO, makes reading easier if the text and screen size work for it. Helps you get a better feel for page layouts and things like that.

    2. Scrolling a multi-column document is about the worst thing you can do. But then again, we’re not using scrolls in the physical world either. You basically *need* a resolution and screen size that allows you to just use it full-screen (cropping helps here, of course.). Then you can go back and forth by tapping (or using PgUp/PgDown, Space/Shift-Space on real computers).

      Becoming familiar with the “go to page #” or table of contents functionality helps a lot, as do hyperlinked PDFs, wher “see pg. 42” actually works. Then again, not that common in an industry where even the printed books are riddle with “see pg. XX” errors, and a good index is hard to find.

      Prepping portable/reference versions of PDFs might be worth it, especially if your reader or device ain’t that grand. Crop the pages (cf. the Briss app I’ve mentioned above), and if at all possible remove the front and back matter. If your first page is your table of contents and your last is your index, getting to them is often easier.

      I also often just pick a few pages from a PDF, instead or in addition of the whole shebang, i.e. just the information of one class, monster, town or dungeon level. The easiest way I found is selecting the pages in the thumbnail view of my Mac’s Preview application and then dragging to save it (“Print to PDF” leaves an ugly margin), but there sure are other options.

  13. Gamebooks. They tend to be very good for smashing lifeforms with more than 4 legs. PDFs just bounce off. Sure you could use the iPad (I’m certain Apple would be fine with it), but I don’t recommend it. YMMV

  14. You can pick up a black and white laser printer with a decent throughput for about £100. Use refilled toner cartridges rather then brand ones and it makes it cheap and easy to print PDFs.

    Between academic papers for uni and games, my printer paid for itself in a few weeks.

  15. My preference is usually to buy a game’s core rulebook in hardcopy and then to collect all of the additional supplements in pdf form. Lately though, I haven’t even bothered with books for Pathfinder. I get the stats via my HeroLab character sheet and then if I need to look up a specific rule I’ll go to http://www.d20pfsrd.com/

  16. I also love companies that update their PDF’s/websites with errata. You have to buy a new copy of the book to get that with preprinted material.

  17. personally, I’m more apt to buy a cheap PDF and then if I like what I read and I feel that I will have a good chance of playing it I will buy the physical book.

    For example, I just bought the High Space beta for Savage worlds for $5, I really liked what I saw even though I had only played SW once and didn’t have any of the books. After that I bought the SW PDF and liked it so much that I am now ordering the Physical book.

    Cheaper PDFs to me really help me try out a system before I am willing to spend more money on the actual books.

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