A Digital Gamer's Toolkit

When my wife and I first moved into our house over ten years ago the house seemed enormous. It was just the two of us, with dreams of starting a family. Our considerable collection of books and my RPG collection barely made a dent in our available space.

Move forward from that point and our family did indeed expand. Pets and then children joined our happy house. And with these additions our once seemingly infinite space began to seem, well, rather finite.

During this time many RPG companies began offering their products in PDF format. Wizards of the Coast for a while made old versions of Dungeons & Dragons available as PDFs but one day they convinced themselves the solution to digital piracy was to pull all their gaming products from online stores (making it impossible to download a legal copy but still possible to download illegal copies - not quite certain how that helped them, but hey...)

When Amazon released their first Kindle I eagerly pre-ordered. And I was quite pleased with it as it offered a solution for the clutter of books. It did not really solve the issue of my massive collection of RPG books. I experimented with their Kindle DX which was an excellent size for gaming books but it was often too slow.

It was the first iPad which provided me with the perfect platform for reading of gaming PDFs. The screen was the right size, the Goodreader App offered an excellent way to store and display PDFs. Unlike the Kindle DX I found the iPad to be of adequate speed.

I've since moved from the Apple camp to the Android one. I have two main platforms for reading gaming PDFs. The first is the Amazon Kindle Fire. Built on Android technology its big advantage is its portable size, with its 7-inch display. On the other hand, for gaming products that display size is often a limitation, as the most common size for gaming products remains the letter-sized books (pages typically measuring 8.5 x 11 inches). The pages can be displayed at a smaller scale and for most gaming products the text is still very readable but occasionally one needs to zoom in and out.

I've lately begun making use of a Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9. As the name describes, the screen is 8.9 inches in size. This is a little bit smaller than the iPad and most other tablets but truth to tell, I've found the larger tablets to be a bit unwieldy - the 8.9 inch size is for me an ideal compromise. It is small enough that I can still hold it in a single hand but not so small that I find myself squinting or zooming in and out. I've not seen a rush of 8.9 inch tablets so I'm not certain the size is catching on but I rather like it.

When using either the Kindle Fire or the Galaxy Tab I make use of the ezPDF Reader app. It functions very similar to the iPad Goodreader App. The big difference is Goodreader offers, in my opinion, better cloud access. For example, I store my gaming PDFs in my Dropbox account (for my own use only - being a person whose livelihood depends on software I have a healthy respect for digital copyrights). With Goodreader you can download files directly from Dropbox into Goodreader. ezPDF doesn't have such easy access to Dropbox and other online storage services. On the other hand, it also doesn't need them as much as with Android you can use a Dropbox app to download and then the ezPDF app to access them as both can access the same filesystem. The Apple iPad, on the other hand, silos its applications such that one application can not access data from another application.

One inconvenience on the Amazon Kindle Fire is that it does not support the Dropbox Application. It does support other online storage apps - for example Box.net. I'm not quite certain why this is. As a techie person I found it easy enough to download a copy of the Dropbox Application directly from the vendor's website and then "sideloaded" it onto my Kindle Fire. This is effectively installing an unsupported application, something the Kindle Fire does allow. If you find yourself needing to do this do a Google search for "sideload dropbox kindle fire" - though hopefully Amazon will add support for it soon.

How is the experience using digital gaming books? To be honest, it depends. First of all, once you have more than a few random gaming PDFs it is important to develop a system of organization. This includes both a folder structure that works for you and a system for naming your files - I've found that even from a given product line naming conventions for file names often varies so I will typically provide my own file name after downloading.

Secondly you are dependent on the quality of the PDF. Some older products are essentially scans of the original books. Assuming a good quality scan these usually display just fine but you often will be unable to search, highlight, etc.

Also, the ease of navigating a PDF product varies tremendously. Some gaming PDFs have a hierarchical table of contents, links within them, etc. These are usually a joy to use. Others are just unindexed documents. For a product with a small page-count this is typically not a problem but for larger books this tends to be infuriating. As I'm married to a school teacher who gets discounts on software I have access to a full version of Adobe Acrobat so I will often add my own bookmarks - where possible. Which brings up another consideration - the PDF files have varying degrees of security applied to them. Some are fully open, others won't let you edit them (this is most common in my experience) while others, annoyingly, won't even allow you to copy and paste from them.

With regards to security, I tend to be of the opinion that you are better off assuming your customers are not out to defraud you. It is incredibly easy, for example, to unlock a password-protected PDF to change rights to allow for editing, copy/pasting/etc. Fortunately a brief fad of using DRM (Digital Rights Management) has ended, a security measure that, in  my opinion, mainly provides inconveniences for paying customers who weren't out to defraud you anyways - pirates can crack those with ease.

From my own personal experience I find the newer White Wolf products to be among the better ones, typically well-bookmarked. And they've been diligently re-digitizing their older products to make them easier to use. At the other extreme I'm sorry to say Chaosium products tend to have no navigation aids. (I really am sorry to say this as I'm running a Call of Cthulhu game at present). When I review various gaming products ease of navigation will be one of the criteria which I use.

The picture here shows a product with excellent navigation - Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing.

How well do PDF gaming products replace physical books? For me, from a reading perspective, I actually tend to prefer a PDF to a physical book. No clutter, I'm not likely to misplace it, etc. Multipage maps are sometimes a pain to deal with but in such cases zooming in and out typically works pretty wel. When actually gaming? Usually for me it works pretty well. One negative is it is harder to have two books open at a given time. And while searching is an awesome feature, sometimes a quick flip or scan through a physical book at the gaming table works better. Typically for games which I play regularly I like having the core book of the game physically available (as well as a PDF copy) but I tend to do just fine with digital-only copies of supplements.

As far as PDF pricing goes, given that I often use PDFs exclusively I don't expect companies to provide their digital content for free or at near-free prices - though I certainly don't mind when they do. On the other hand, as someone prepared to pay a reasonable price for a digital copy of a product I definitely want a product that takes advantage of the format - bookmarked, internal links, etc.

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