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Why We Design PDFs
And why the alternatives aren't always the best.
There is this popular post on Reddit titled "PDFs suck. I would gladly pay extra for a better digital format.".
As a game designer of numerous games released in PDFs, and the maintainer of a web platform dedicated to making browsing games via the web possible and accessible, I want to go over a couple of things about the limitations of PDFs, EPUB and the web.
PDFs Come With Restrictions
I do remember a time when I thought something similar to this Reddit post.
Why would people like to read something on a format that's so limited? PDFs are extremely strict. You need to give them dimensions, and place content exactly where you want it to be. Once rendered, you can be assured that the piece of content you added in the bottom corner will be exactly there, whatever the device. Whatever the resolution.
But with things being so strict, how can you offer a good experience for resolutions that don't fit the original dimensions of the PDF?
The answer is: you can't.
Users would need to zoom in and out to properly read everything on your PDF. Or, you would have to design an entire different PDF for the resolution you want to target. That means redoing the layout work twice. Let me tell you, that's something that I'd call exactly "fun".
There is No Golden Hammer
So, instead of working with PDFs, why don't we just offer our games via web platforms? Or EPUB files? We could indeed just copy the text of our game, change the formatting, and voilà!
Those text-based alternatives also come with problems of their own. One of the biggest drawbacks is that a role-playing game is not just a set of rules, mechanics, lore in the form of text; it's a piece of art.
As a creator, I use PDFs to distribute my games because it's a tool that, while being restrictive, also offers me the ability to place things the way I want them to be so that the final product is a whole work of art.
The Benefits of Restrictions
The text of a game is for sure important, but the way it's displayed, the places where you drop illustrations, add callout boxes, format chapters, etc. is as much important as the text itself. If not more. I believe everything in a TTRPG should reinforce the themes you want to invoke, and the layout of a game is such a powerful way to do this.
Distributing pieces via text-based files, while being more accessible, also removes a huge part of what makes a game appealing in the first place. Every decision I take when making the layout of a game is done for a reason.
The layouts I design are tools for me to strengthen the overall themes of the final product.
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.
If PDFs can help creators distribute a beautiful piece of media, and text-based formats can offer an accessible way to consume them, why not do both?
Well, the thing, some are already doing this. Mork Borg is a (pretty) good example. In the original book the layout is truly a work of art, yet they recently released a Bare Bone Edition. While it is still a PDF, it is way effortless to consume and could be easily converted to a web page or EPUB.
It Takes Time
That being said, distributing in multiple format takes time.
For some games where the user base is bigger, it might be worth it.
For others, especially considering the number of hours available during a day and the amount of them passed doing other things than creation, it might not.
There are plenty of options for a creator to distribute their game, and it's all about using the right tool for the right problem. All of this, while taking in consideration the number of people interested in each format, and the time necessary to redo the work multiple times.
At the end of the day, each creator is responsible for using what they think is the best media to properly distribute their games. It might not please everyone, but everything is done for a reason.
One Last Thing...
If you like nice-looking PDFs you should check out my solo game of exploration, and survival: Nomadic.
It features beautiful layouts, and comes with a black/white version to make the game more accessible.
Nomadic - A Solo Tabletop Role-Playing Game of Exploration and Survival by Fari RPGs — nomadic.farirpgs.com Explore, document, and survive while trying to find a new home for humanity.