Laptops and PDFs

Posted: 7 December 2009 in Reviews

From a gaming perspective, these two go together for me. I don’t use computers for in-game assistance – I did use DMGenie for a while, and jolly good it was too, but I eventually decided that any game I couldn’t run without computer assistance was too complex. (D&D 3.5, I’m lookin’ at you.) I do use character management software like MetaCreator (for Savage Worlds) and the D&D 4e Character Builder, but that’s as far as I go; I don’t like the screen between my players and I.

However, I’m a huge fan of PDFs. They have a number of benefits:

  • Once you have the computer, the PDFs don’t weigh any more, or take up any extra space. Running out of shelf space isn’t a problem. Carrying a major part of my gaming library with me when I travel isn’t a problem, since I generally have a laptop with me. Up to a year ago, I would have said this was the main advantage.
  • They are (mostly) searchable. Can’t remember where that pesky table is? Can’t remember the monster stats? Enter a keyword or two in Acrobat, hit search, and you’re there, much more quickly than skim-reading. These days, I’d say this is the main advantage.
  • It’s easy to print out parts that you need – usually character sheets or quick reference sheets – without damaging your rulebook.
  • Short products, or those with a weird page count, are viable in PDF even when they aren’t as a published book.
  • The PDF doesn’t get dog-eared, coffee-stained, or lost. I still have it for as long as I have something that can read the PDF format, and it’s still pristine.
  • I can magnify pages. This is starting to get important as my eyes get older.
  • I can have multiple instances of the same, or different, PDFs open in different windows, and flip between them more easily than if I had the actual books laid out around me. This is useful because I do a lot of crossovers, with the setting of one game and the rules of another.

If you follow sites like ICv2, you will see game shop owners – and sometimes publishers – complaining about PDFs hurting their sales. Maybe that’s true; I can’t say, I don’t work in a games shop any more. There’s another side to this story, though.

Firstly, I am more prepared to take a risk on a PDF product. Let’s face it, most of the game materials I buy are read a few times, then languish on the shelf forever. I’m more reluctant to do that with hard copy.

Secondly, the argument against PDFs assumes it is cheaper for me to buy a PDF and print it off than it is to buy the rulebook. Not so; the PDF is often the same price, most schools and businesses frown on people who print out 200+ page full-colour books, and if you trot along to the copy shop, it generally costs more than buying a hard copy, besides being bigger and less professional in appearance.

Thirdly, the argument assumes that a PDF bought is a hard copy sale lost. As per my first point, most of the PDFs I buy are things I wouldn’t buy if they were only available in print. Further, I use the PDF to evaluate a game, and for travel use afterwards; if it’s a game I am actually going to play, I generally buy a hard copy as well, and often multiple copies so that everyone in my gaming group has access to the core rules (they make great presents for fellow gamers). I am possibly not typical in this regard, but I suspect I am not unique, either.

Let’s look at True20 and Savage Worlds as examples of this. In both cases, I downloaded the free quickstart rules to evaluate. I was intrigued enough to buy the full PDF rules. Those I liked well enough to start a campaign, which led to me buying a hard copy for myself as GM, and later several more for the players. Then I started buying the supplements as well. (I point out to my wife that, as vices go, my gaming habit is fairly benign and not that expensive. But I digress.)

When I do buy hard copies, I try to do so from a Friendly Local Games Shop. This is because I want them to stay in business. Hard copies may (or may not) be more expensive than PDFs, but I consider any extra cost to be a kind of subscription. The FLGS doesn’t only offer games, it offers a place where I can meet other gamers, chat about games, get advice, and sometimes play as well – personally I think that’s worth paying a little over what Amazon or RPGNow would charge.


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