Let’s Get Digital! ePubs in the RPG Industry

This weekend we have a quest post for Senda from the She’s a Super Geek podcast.

We all know it, RPGs are a hobby that can require massive amounts of shelf space.  Sure, some of the books (Fate Core, for instance) are reasonable sizes, but we tend to go for large, bombastic, glossy covers, thick paper, and so very much art. They’re great visually, they’re nice to hold in your hands, and as a perk most of them are big enough to write on if you’re short on table space.  It’s an expected medium for RPGs these days, and they’re wonderful to own.

We also live in a blooming renaissance of role playing games. I don’t think I can overstate my excitement about this.  So many games!  So little time! And also… I honestly cannot fit every title I’m interested in on my bookshelf. Despite having an office lined with shelving  (as opposed to actual functional furniture like, say, a desk – perhaps this room is better termed “library”), there is simply not enough shelf space.

Let’s Get Digital!

Well! There is an easy answer!  I’ll just buy the digital versions.  Right? Right. Okay. Here’s where I get picky. Having a laptop at the gaming table can be tricky. Sometimes space is an issue. Sometimes having a laptop means carrying it around a convention all day (heavy!). For whatever reason, having a full computer at the table is frequently more of a hassle than having a physical book. “A physical book?  But what about my bookshelf?!” you cry.  Never fear! Let’s just put that PDF on your tablet instead. And now…now we get to the meat of my argument.

PDFs are a great media for presenting print files as they appear in print. RPG rulebooks are beautiful masterpieces of borders, layout, and atmosphere. On my tablet (or for me, let’s be honest, my phone) all that wonderful artwork that makes the print book so fun is now in the way. It makes each page take longer to load. In preserving the layout the text becomes quite small on a tablet and unreadable without zooming on my phone, and zooming means I have to scroll back and forth for each sentence. What do I really need from a rule book at the table? Is this clunkiness and inaccessibility really worth having borders and multiple columns? As a community we’re missing a huge opportunity to make RPG rulebooks both more digitally useable, more accessible to visually impaired people, and available in many more online retail store fronts. Further accessibility both in use and in purchasing may also help new players find RPGs that interest them. What I’m getting at is that RPGs need to make the jump to ePubs.

Don’t Snub the ePub

epubNow bear with me. Let’s start with a brief description of what an ePub file is.  An epub is a digital book file that’s built like a website (xHTML for those of you that are interested) and packaged up like a special zip snowflake. So why epub? Firstly, if you want to sell your book online at a retailer that’s not DriveThruRPG, at least any of the names that you’d know off the top of your head, you’re going to need an epub. Recognize and come to terms with the fact that this epub is not going to look the same way as your printed book/PDF, and that’s okay. In fact, please realize that what I want out of your epub – streamlined digital access to whatever I’m looking for – doesn’t require that your epub look like your print book in the least.  I know you paid someone for that layout, and it’s wonderful, really.  It’s time to take a deep breath and let go. That’s not to say you can’t keep your art (in color even). Art is fine, as long as it’s inline images and it doesn’t make it more difficult for me to navigate. But the multiple columns, intricate borders? These belong in the print.

Okay, all of that’s for publishers, so why should you, as a player, care? Instead of having our own little gated community source of RPGs, a place that you really only know about if you’re already in the “club,” imagine having books available digitally at all the major online retailers. The possibility that a new player might pick up those books – someone who’s never played RPGs – just increased exponentially. And in reality, expanding the consumer base of RPGs helps us all, by making sure that RPGs continue to be profitable for the folks making them.

Secondly, ePub is a format that was created to be sleek, light, and user accessible. An intensively cross linked PDF can attain nearly the same experience, but lacks user control. An epub means that on my phone, I can control the text size to be whatever I want it to be. I can control the font to be whatever is easiest for me to read. I can bookmark pages; I can search; I can access the table of contents in one tap from wherever I am. Pages load as quickly as turning a physical page. So this – this is something I could run a game from.  What I need at the table is a reference document that allows me to find the necessary information as quickly as possible so as not to interrupt the game. Not only that, but as an added bonus the user adjustable font size makes the document significantly more accessible to players with visual impairments. In many ways PDFs actively work against me in this, and yet they’ve become the industry standard for digital RPG files.

It’s worth calling out at this point that Evil Hat has at least made the attempt with the epub conversion of their Fate Core book (which is great). Unfortunately we’ve created a self fulfilling prophecy: the masses stand below the castle chanting “PDF! PDF! PDF!” As a community, we haven’t realized the true potential of a truly portable library of RPGs. In the face of the fan’s demand for layout, we cause exploration like this to fail.

Help Me, ePub Wan Kenobi!

This is my cry for help. Beyond making my life easier, ePubs would make RPGs available on more outlets, to more people, more easily, and with more accessibility. All I really want is a simplified, streamlined document that cuts out the complication of the print and gives it to me straight. I want to mark up that document with highlights and comments, bookmark it, and make it the functional digital file that I can run a game from. Is that going to stop me from buying print books? Not a bit. It would replace the clunky PDFs I end up printing and leafing through (loose pages – the torture) with a truly useful digital document.

What do you think about RPGs as epubs? Have you ever run a game from a PDF document? Do you read epubs for non RPG material?

Senda is a level 8 human parent/worker multiclass.  She is one half of the She’s a Super Geek podcast (sasgeek.com) and an avid player of RPGs of all kinds.