My thoughts on PDFs vs. printed books

Paper or Plastic? Recently I noticed a discussion on Google+ about whether gamers prefer PDFs or printed books. This subject crops up from time to time and I noticed that with the greater availability of tablet PCs more and more people start to pick electronic versions of roleplaying game books over the dead tree versions. So I thought I should share my thoughts on this subject with my dear readers.

I always have been an early adopter of new technologies and my collection of roleplaying game PDFs is much, much larger than my collection of printed books. PDFs are especially handy when it comes to preparing games. Looking up things is much easier because of full-text search and you can easily copy sections you want to reuse in your cheat sheets or player handouts. A lot of us do their prep work on the PC anyway.

I know from conversations I had with other gamers that a lot of groups have completely switched to PDFs and tablet PCs at the game table. If everyone in the group has a tablet PC or smartphone with a reasonably big screen, using PDFs instead of dead tree versions of books may make a lot of sense. From my D&D 3.5 days I still remember the hassle to carry around half a dozen of heavy hardbound books all the time. So using a tablet PCs and PDFs is the reasonable thing to do for most GMs.

But for some reason I still prefer using mostly dead tree books at the game table. One reason may be that I just like to leaf through real books. The physical sensation of leafing through a book and the smell of the paper are still almost magical to me. I guess nostalgia plays a major role here.

I own a lot of games I will probably never run and in these cases I am more than happy with the PDF version alone. But with the games I run, I prefer to have a dead tree copy of the rules in addition a PDF copy. For preparing the game and quickly looking up things I use the PDF (on my PC or tablet PC) and while running I rely on the paper version. For Stars Without Number I actually got a second copy of the printed book so I can give one copy to my players as well.

I guess that in the future I’ll probably rely more often on PDFs alone. In most cases PDFs are cheaper and if you own a reasonably fast tablet PC they have quite a few advantages over the dead tree version. What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you have the same feeling for dead tree books as I do, or have you fully embraced the digital age? Please share your thoughts below.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “My thoughts on PDFs vs. printed books”

  1. Hah! You suffered at carrying the three D&D 3.0 books around? Think of the poor GURPS or RIFTS players! In a way, it was more fun when one could carry ALL the RPGs in existence — in one little book bag.

  2. First, I think the selection of actual electronic copies of game rules, is kind of dismal. By that, I mean “mobi and ePub”. Stuff that looks decent on an eReader. PDF’s do not, in my opinion, generally look good on an eReader. They’re usually formatted for 8.5×11 -ish page size, which looks awful on a standard (6″ or 7″) eReader. If this one factoid were different, it might change my bias some.

    At my desk, where I design adventures, look up obscure rules, etc., I prefer PDF. I do it all on my large screen monitor, basically. Having every possible piece of reference material (multiple volumes of bestiary, etc.) is just way too much. Especially if I were to lug it around to a game table once that adventure is being put to use.

    But, I also prefer core rules, especially player’s guides and player’s handbooks, to have a copy in print (so, both PDF and print). Something to pass around and use for physical reference. Something everyone to leaf through during character creation, etc.

    For just about everything else, it falls into the PDF category (supplemental rules, including player oriented expansions, campaign worlds, campaign maps, adventures, etc.).

    Aside from that, the only thing I REALLY like to have a physical copy for, are things that will look good on my bookshelf or coffee table. The really really heavily used supplements, a big thick hefty Atlas of a given game world, artwork collections, games that I sort of consider collectable or bragging-rights to just have it (the Dune RPG, for example — not that I had any choice for that one, I’m just saying that if that were to happen today, even though I knew at the time that I would never end up playing it, I would still have bought a physical copy for my collection), etc. If possible, these are things I’ll have as both a physical copy AND an electronic.

    (my second bias, aside from “PDFs formatted for letter size printouts don’t look very nice on a 6 inch screen”, is that “I don’t really want to pass around my laptop or ereader at the game table”. It’s not just “$20 book I don’t care about having soda spilled upon vs. $100 ereader” or “vs $1000 laptop”, it’s ALSO that I don’t want to pass my adventure notes around the table; almost all of my friends are trust-worthy in that regard, but honest mistakes happen)

    If everyone had an eReader (my latest game group actually does seem to be fairly close to that ideal), if the rules were in an eReader friendly format (PDF designed for 6″ screen, or mobi or epub), then I might not feel the need to have a physical core rule or player’s guide at the table. But I still might want to have the core rules for my bookshelf and personal leafing-through. And I will definitely still want the coffee-table type books, and collectable ones, in print.

  3. The biggest determinant for me is whether the PDF is bookmarked, hyperlinked, and easy on my tablet’s processor. I am interested to pick up these so called augmented PDFs like Nova Praxis and see how they compare.

  4. I like the feeling of books, but in the end I prefer PDFs for their mobility. I often do some of my prep on the train, heading for work, where books are a real burden. Unfortunately you don’t get the PDF of the super heavy Pathfinder core book as a Society Venture Lieutenant, even though you bought the hardcover book.

    Maybe your (and mine, when gaming art home) preference for books comes from one simple thing: They got the bigger screen. A full size flipped-open book is larger than most screens. And putting a thumb in, you instantly have dual-monitor . And books scroll much faster.

    Text in books is simply more accessible. And will be until those freaking companies like Adobe will eventually develop an easy way for bookmarking on the fly and “leafing” through PDFs (or whatever format is to come). I absolutely don’t get, why they don’t develop these features.

  5. I am of the same opinion. When I am at the table I prefer to have a book to flip through, especially if the game is more than around 60 pages. I do heavily use my smartphone at the table for my prep, name generators and supplements or adventure modules.

    I think I would use more digital books if they were better formatted for handheld devices. Most publishers don’t have smart bookmarks or linked a linked ToC or index and a lot of games are formatted in 8.5×11 which is a pain to look at on most small screens. Then of course there are the image heavy books which don’t load or view well on a weak device like a Kindle. I have seen a few games released in EPUB or HTML format which a lot more usable.

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