Role-playing games are a delightfully analog hobby; the best parts of coming together with your friends to roll dice and tell stories cannot be duplicated by digital media. The way we play, though, has changed, with forums and voice chat programs and online dice rollers all giving us ways to use technology to enhance the RPG experience. When it comes to the actual reference materials, progress has been uneven. Online SRDs and paywalled content providers like D&D Beyond show we at least acknowledge that digital reference materials can look different, but the majority of game PDFs out there are just books, barely improved from the days when RPG PDFs were made with a scanner.
DriveThruRPG’s latest experiment, done in conjunction with a few major developers, is to push the bounds of the PDF format by producing RPG sourcebooks designed to be used on phones. These PDFs are made to be easy to read and easy to search, using extensive linking and small page formats to avoid eye strain. The idea is a good one: more devices that can be used at the table means more players who have copies of the rules, easier lookups, and generally smoother play sessions. The actual documents being released are also quite good, for the most part. However, the execution of the new format has revealed some vulnerabilities, both in the use of these documents themselves and what their design tells us about the state of the digital RPG rulebook.
RPG PDFs in General
PDF stands for portable document format, and was originally developed in the 1990s as a way to send documents that could be viewed and printed on any computer in a consistent manner. Most word processors store things like fonts and images external to the documents themselves, meaning that having a file format which contained all the media necessary to open a document was a serious innovation. The format’s design had two main consequences: first, everyone was able to freely acquire software to read (but not write) PDFs, and second, it was technically trivial to create a document which was a sequence of full-page images, making PDF the de facto standard for digitizing scanned physical documents.
As you may guess, PDF is showing its age; the format is over 25 years old and the codebase it uses is even older than that. While PDF is a flexible format, getting the files to open and scan smoothly takes a fair amount of optimization work. This is improving a bit; PDF was standardized in 2008, so changes to the feature set have slowed. That said, making a bulky PDF is easy, and making a lean one less so.
RPG PDFs mostly started as scanned books, with some early adopters like BTRC and Steve Jackson Games selling digitized games in the early 2000s. The first digital GURPS PDFs from Steve Jackson were basically the laid out books exported into PDF, which was a drastic improvement over scanned books but still not ideal for the format. Unfortunately, even 15 years later this is still the standard: most PDFs are generated directly from book layout files and then populated with links and bookmarks. If we’re lucky, there are layers which let you turn off background art.
The awkwardness of basically reading a book on a computer or tablet brings me to my first gripe with the Phone PDF paradigm: we should be designing PDFs better, period. While the individual Phone PDFs are variable in execution, they’re all designed with consideration made for the device that will be used to read them. As someone who does most of their PDF reading on a device which is pretty much as close as possible to the book format (a full-sized touchscreen tablet), I’m still annoyed at how little is done to make PDFs more usable.
So the entire “RPG PDF” standard is a bit archaic in my opinion. Still, PDFs designed for phone accessibility represent a solid step towards making digital gaming materials easier to use. Sort of. When DriveThruRPG and their partners took aim at phones, they took aim at a digital ecosystem they were woefully unprepared to enter.
Getting the PDFs on my Phone
The DriveThruRPG library app sucks. There, I said it. It wholesale sucks, I do not wish it upon anyone. The login process is utterly retrograde; you must generate a long hexadecimal code and then copy it into the app. To do this, you either have to access the site on a larger device and type on your phone very carefully, or access the site on the phone to copy the key, which is terrible because the site isn’t mobile optimized. Then, when you actually get into the app, you’ll find that it only works in landscape mode because it’s designed for tablets. Also, the actual library and download management is a) not better than just using the website, and b) not better than either Android or iOS’s filesystem. So where do we start with the phone PDFs? With having no worthwhile environment to get them onto your phone.
I downloaded the files onto my computer, uploaded them to Google Drive, then downloaded them again to my phone. Then I had to open them. The native Android PDF reader doesn’t support in-text links. With my default choice unable to load the core functionality of the PDF, I downloaded Foxit Reader. Foxit Reader for Android is good, but on my two year old Moto G5, it’s pretty stuttery. Nonetheless, the links were usable, the PDFs were clear, and if I could accept the jerkiness of page turns, it was at the very least workable.
So we have no software support, no consideration of operating environment, and a really uneven level of optimization (more on this later). Without even trying to use the PDFs, we’re off to a rocky start. While DriveThru’s library system for computers is at least passable, for phones it truly is not. Now, there are plenty of ways to make it work; an ebook library manager would probably be perfect for this task. But we’re now asking users to have three third-party apps (a full-featured PDF reader, some form of cloud file manager, and an ebook library manager) to get a smooth Phone PDF experience on an Android phone. Before we’ve even opened a single file, I can declare this experiment half-baked at best.
Using the PDFs
So getting the PDFs onto my phone was a chore. Once they were on there, though, and I had Foxit installed and had ensured that the links actually worked, it was time to try out some PDFs. I was able to scare up three for a round of testing: Zweihander, which I received due to my ownership of the Zweihander core rules, Pugmire, which DriveThruRPG released for free as part of a Phone PDF promotion, and Masks, which Cannibal Halfling opted to buy due to our illustrious history with the game. While I did not pay for all of these PDFs, Pugmire was available for free and Zweihander was available pay-what-you-want when it came to the Phone PDF format. Considering how this article goes, though, you may be able to guess that none of the publishers are paying me.
Zweihander had, out of the three PDFs, the smallest font size. That said, the layout of the Zweihander book is excellent, and it translated well to the one column phone PDF, with breaks and headers making the text easy on the eyes despite its small size. Unfortunately, Zweihander was the most technically problematic. As you can see from the screenshot, the PDF has two navigation panes; the one on the bottom that gives a ‘back’ button and a link to the table of contents, and a vertical pane on the right which in theory points to different entries in the index. I say in theory, because none of the links on either of these panes worked. My guess is that a fix will be coming shortly, either because someone else has already said something or because I’m saying something right now. Nevertheless, while I like navigation panes I can’t really recommend one that doesn’t have any usable links in it. The evidence that this marketing campaign may have been rushed continues to mount; we’re missing both a good app environment and adequate QA. Another issue which carries over to a degree from the full-size Zweihander PDF is the massive file size; the Zweihander PDF was 90MB while the other two were both less than 20. While the page count is nearly triple that of Pugmire, the file size is triple that over again. I noted the relatively large size of the Zweihander PDF back when I got the game originally and shrugged, but dumping a large PDF into your computer’s RAM is a lot less onerous than doing it on your phone.
The Pugmire PDF had working links, you can just barely see the blue boxes that Foxit uses to highlight them in the screenshot. The font size is larger than Zweihander, though Zweihander is a bit better laid out than Pugmire both in phone and in original formats. On the sample page, though, you can see how Onyx Path was able to incorporate sidebars in their one-column format, and the relative abundance of links. I found that Pugmire had the most issues with wall-of-text pages, both due to weaker breaks and format changes than Zweihander as well as what appears to be less abridgment from the original text. While Pugmire used the most art from the original book, I found it to be more distracting here; Zweihander’s black and white line art was meshed with the formatting better and Masks’ cartoon-style art both scaled down better and was used more judiciously.
Masks is the winner here format-wise; the high-contrast layout works better on a small screen. The two navigation buttons on the bottom work, and lead to what is the best part of the Masks PDF: In addition to a table of contents, Masks employs a number of hierarchical pages that let you browse by topic instead of having to read through the table of contents in page order. It acknowledges that Phone PDFs are more likely to be references than documents which someone will actually read cover to cover. While this mode of displaying topics in the PDF adds a number of pages, Masks was not appreciably larger than Pugmire at 15 MB. Masks also appeared to work the smoothest on my phone, though that could have been equally due to the graphical contrast as the loading time.
With the exception of Zweihander, all the PDFs worked fine, and the Zweihander PDF will also work fine once the link issue is fixed. I didn’t particularly enjoy using my phone to read rulebooks in any of the three cases, but these PDFs are a perfectly usable reference guide for the game table, and will help immensely for a gaming group who doesn’t use laptops or tablets. I don’t think there’s enough of a value-add here to make any of these worth additional money over the price of a rulebook; I’d gladly take one alongside buying a full rules PDF but not pay extra. The biggest problem with these is they simply don’t work well enough for the people who would actually derive utility from them. As a gamer with disposable income, I purchased a convertible tablet instead of a standard portable laptop because I knew I’d use it for PDFs. Anyone who has a few hundred dollars to spare can buy either a tablet or a convertible Chromebook like I did. The people who currently buy phones that will actually display these PDFs smoothly, iPhones and up-to-date Samsung Galaxies and the like, also have enough money to just buy a tablet. If you really couldn’t afford a tablet, you’d be working with something much closer to my Moto G5 than a top-tier phone, and on my phone this PDF experience is something you endure, not enjoy.
So what did I learn from this experiment? Well, the work that went into making these PDFs and making them readable is worth noting. The optimization isn’t great, but there’s a certain point at which that’s Adobe’s fault, not the designer’s. Some of these innovations, like built-in navigation and hierarchical browsing, should be part of all PDFs, not just phone PDFs. Fact is, even among companies known for great layout, PDFs are just digital books. If we want RPGs to be more usable on electronic devices, digital book shouldn’t cut it. If there’s one takeaway I have from these Phone PDFs, it’s that for every device, be it a phone, tablet, or computer, RPGs could be doing better, but aren’t. Whether its print incarnation is a big hardcover, a 6×9 softcover, or even a damn zine, there’s a whole lot of room to do way more with the presentation and accessibility of digital RPGs. Phone PDFs may be imperfect steps forward, but they’ve cracked open a door, and reminded us that we could be doing so much better than reading a book on a screen.