RPG Books: Paper or Digital?

I have mixed feelings about digital books. On the one hand, I really like the idea of them and I definitely like the convenience of being able to pop online and get pretty much whatever you want at a moment’s notice. I am not so keen on eBook readers, however, and you just can’t beat the tactile experience of picking up a book on impulse from your shelf and leafing through it.

The Problem with Print

With the recent rekindling (hah, I’m talking about digital book and I said rekindling! It’s funny because Kindle! That’s an ebook reader, you see. Oh fine, whatever, let’s continue) of my interest in RPG books, this topic has been on my mind as, more and more, RPG publishers seem to be shifting towards digital distribution for their game materials. RPGs have never been particularly well represented in mainstream book shops, with the possible exception of the now-defunct Ottakers chain where I purchased several of my old World of Darkness books. If you want to find a roleplaying game you really need to visit a specialist store (for Scottish readers, I recommend Edinburgh’s Black Lion Games, Glasgow’s Static Games and Stirling’s Common Ground Games) or online retailer. Distribution and exposure is therefore an issue that impacts heavily on the viability of print copies of RPGs, as is the fact that roleplaying is, when it comes right down to it, a very niche hobby. It’s easy to see why the publisher would consider digital distribution to be an attractive option.

The cost of these books is also significant and building an RPG library is an expensive undertaking for the average hobbyist. For the most part, core rulebooks are large, hardback affairs with lots of lovely art, often in colour, and with teams of people behind them. They are not cheap to produce, and they are certainly not cheap for the consumer. Here are some sample prices for the popular RPGs du jour:

  • Pathfiner: Large, 576 page, full colour hardback at £34.99
  • Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition: 3 core books (Player’s Guide, Monster Manual, DM’s Guide) at £29.99 each
  • Star Wars: Age of Rebellion/Edge of the Empire: 464 page, full colour hardback at £39.99
  • Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer’s Edition: Handy little 6.5″ x 9″ softcover edition at £6.99 (larger edition available for £19.99)
  • Fiasco: Slimmish paperback at around £15

The Case for PDFs

Now, also consider that the core books are often sold at a slimmer margin or benefit from greater economies of scale than many of the supplements, source books and modules that are released for these games and you can see how collecting can soon become very expensive indeed. PDF sales allow publishers to sell a product to anyone, anywhere with no printing or shipping costs. There are also a number of benefits to the consumer. RPG rulebooks are, by their nature, large and often unwieldy tomes that are rarely read in order from cover to cover, but dipped into and out of as required. This makes the indexing and search functions of the PDF particularly useful. There is also something to be said for the flexibility of a transferable digital format. I place my own PDFs into my Dropbox account, allowing me to access my books across a number of platforms and devices.

Some companies (such as the wonderful Bully Pulpit Games) sell their PDFs through their own websites whilst others sign up with dedicated PDF resellers such as DriveThruRPG.

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Services like DriveThruRPG allow publishers to sell their PDFs without having to worry about the technical infrastructure aspects. They may also benefit from exposure to a wider browsing audience and the print on demand options that the site offers. The service becomes particularly intriguing when you consider that much of their content, and I refer particularly to an extensive range of World of Darkness games and supplements from the effectively defunct (long story, very sad, lots of feels) White Wolf Publishing and the company which licenses much of their intellectual property, The Onyx Path. This gives gamers comprehensive, affordable access to a range of books that simply are not otherwise legally obtainable, save for the occasional eBay auction or car boot sale.

POD: Best of Both Worlds?

The PDF format, although flexible, is not always the ideal solution. Personally, although I am happy to read my 80’s style Vampire  supplements and wonderful Christina Rossetti-inspired Changeling source books on a monitor or tablet, I prefer my core rulebooks in a physical form that I can flip through at leisure, pass around the table and pepper with post-it notes and marker tags. Many of the World of Darkness books and a number of other titles across the websites are also available as print on demand titles. Generally, the prices are reasonable and the quality is not too bad either.

I have a POD copy of Hunter: The Vigil and was pleasantly surprised by what I received. The paper is decent, but does feel cheap and light in comparison to the heavier, glossier pages of the original editions. Similarly, although the POD edition uses a thick, tough, durable cardstock for their covers, DriveThruRPG’s offerings do not have the same combined matt/gloss shimmer as the original White Wolf covers. The binding feels decent and looks like it will hold, but the pages do sit quite high on the spine. I think that compared to a lot of smaller RPGs, the quality of the book is very good, and I probably would not have picked as many faults had I not been so familiar with the style and quality of White Wolf’s original books.

After this reassuring experience, I ordered a further three POD books and have been satisfied by the quality of all three.

Conclusion: Inconclusive

The thing about tabletop roleplaying games is that many of the enthusiastic players are not particularly bothered one way or the other when it comes to PDFs. Many groups and GMs are happy to go on with the books they have owned and enjoyed for years and won’t care for anything that the internet has to offer. Others will fully embrace the PDF and see it as a way to cultivate a large and diverse library without spending quite as much money or typing quite as many words.

Somewhere in the middle, you will find people like me who enjoy the best of both worlds and will happily purchase a mix of PDFs, physical and POD books to suit whatever it is that I am doing. If PDFs are making the traditionally very difficult area of reaching and attracting  new players any easier, or helping the developers and publishers  make a few extra bucks in a tricky marketplace, then I am all for it.

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