Drive-Through RPG is an important fixture of the RPG industry. It is the largest consolidated site for electronic RPG products, mostly in the form of PDFs. There has been a lot of discussion about the suitability of PDFs for the delivery of RPG material, and this isn’t likely to be a matter settled any time soon, but the site is now introducing a new format — the Phone PDF.

The Phone PDF format is not a format that the site itself creates, but is a new format that has several common traits, which a few companies have created to show off the format’s features. In general, the traits are:

  • Specific format with larger fonts, usually only displaying a few paragraphs at a time
  • Bottom navigation buttons with “back” and “contents” links — these move the PDF back a page, or display the table of contents of the PDF
  • Heading hyperlinks in the index to navigate quickly to multiple sections of the PDF

Within this format, there is some variation. In this instance, I looked at the Phone PDFs for Masks, Pugmire, and Zweihander. Because of the special formatting of the pages and the larger font sizes, the number of pages increases greatly in these PDFs. The already huge Zweihander balloons to over 2200 pages in this format.

A Tale of Three Layouts

Pugmire has the most “standard” setup of the three PDFs. All of the above bullet points are true of the PDF, and several hyperlinks allow for quick navigation from the table of contents to the various headers in the book. While it is difficult to do an in-depth read of each page on short notice, one particular oddity of formatting I noticed in the Pugmire PDF was the sideways oriented “average monster statistics” table, which is also spread across two pages.

Masks has several custom-built landing pages in the PDF, and has an overall more visual navigation system. There are specially formatted landing pages for topics like playbooks or villain rules, and the book can be navigated by both standard index and newly organized topics pages. The addition of the specialized landing pages still does something similar to the standard additional hyperlinks, but they feel like a more self-evident, guided manner of presenting the same options.

The Zweihander Phone PDF has its own customizations compared to the “standard” elements of the Phone PDF construction. It has a “back” and “contents” button at the bottom of the page, but there are also letters lined up on the right-hand side of the pages, and clicking on one of the links on the side takes the reader specifically to the index, to the letter indicated by the letter touched.

Playtime 

I took some time to use these PDFs using different PDF readers, and using them on phone, tablet, and PC. For anyone wondering, I’m still rocking the Galaxy S7 for my phone, and using a Galaxy Tab 10.1 for my mobile devices. The PDF readers I used were ezPDF reader, Adobe, Foxit, and Xodo on my phone and tablet, and Foxit and Adobe on my PC.

The recommended PDF reader for Zweihander is Xodo, although the “back” button doesn’t respond in this format. I’m also not a fan because if Xodo has a “read out loud” feature, I was hard-pressed to figure out where it is. Additionally, while the Foxit reader works fine for PC, the Foxit app won’t open the Zweihander PDF.

Aside from the above issues, I didn’t notice a great deal of difference between the formats. ezPDF’s default screen usage causes some issues, as the interface often covers the bottom of the page, making it difficult to navigate the buttons at the bottom.

While I haven’t used any of the PDFs “in play,” I did write down a few topics, and then tried to see how quickly I could track down data on that topic. While I can’t speak to use at the table yet, I can say that it was much easier to jump to a topic after a few clicks in all of the formats than it was to use the search function. Part of this is that the format makes multiple hyperlinks a necessary addition to the document.

Between my fingers and the phone cover, I had a few clumsy moments navigating the PDFs on my phone, because the navigation buttons are so near to the external buttons on my phone. Despite this, it wasn’t too bad to deal with, and was less of an issue with PDF readers that aren’t fighting to take up real estate in the same area. The tablet navigation was much easier, with more room to click on links and less potential for accidentally hitting multiple screen items at once.

Clicking on the links by mouse on PC was extremely fast. While the PDFs are formatted for Phones, the additional hyperlinks and contents pages (as well as the landing pages and index shortcuts on some of the PDFs) made navigating the topics fast.

Ghosts of PDFs Past

While the Phone PDF format is new, some of the features are not. Nova Praxis and Titan Effect are both RPGs that have “enhanced” PDFs. Instead of just having a few hyperlinks in the table of contents, both of these PDFs have navigation bars at the top or sides of the pages.

Nova Praxis, specifically, is formatted for a horizontal display, with topics along the left-hand side, and sub-topics that pop up along the bottom of the page for navigation. Titan Effect has a more traditional layout, but there are multiple topics displayed across the top of the page that allow for quick navigation to different sections of the PDF.

My Two Crypto-Currency Bits

My credentials as a “futurist” are probably not particularly strong, but when it comes to mobile access to game data, it has been my feeling lately that proprietary apps that can be tailored to the needs of the game rules being displayed are the most likely way forward. These apps may even incorporate tools like token tracking, dice, or cards that are native to the game being played.

From the various press releases and discussions of this format, it takes a considerable amount of effort to reformat PDFs for this particular style. I’ve never laid out a PDF in this manner, nor have I ever created an app, but I do wonder how much extra effort it creates to move in one direction versus another.

I can’t deny that the Phone PDFs were far more useful for reference than a standard PDF. I have several times wondered if the RPG industry could realign to accommodate the idea there is some worth to publishing rules that are primarily a reference document, versus a core set that exists to introduce and teach the game. While the Phone PDFs released have the same content as the standard rulebooks, the “meta-construct” of the Phone PDF navigation buttons, to varying degrees, merge “reference” to “teaching document.”

Varying Opinions

Reading comments from various gamers over the last few days, I’ve seen comments like “I don’t think this is for me, since I view PDFs on my PC.” I’m wondering if the marketing of this format as specifically for phones is undercutting the advanced navigation tools that the format is adopting.

I have also seen some discussion about the wisdom of creating this format, which is static regarding page size and font, versus epub formats. I’m not an expert in this area, but every RPG epub that I have seen loses some of the trade dress of the game in favor of the flexibility of the format, and while some gamers may not care if the epub of the game looks like other epub books they are reading, sometimes part of the “experience” is to see how the book was designed to look.

This preservation of trade dress is another reason I wonder about the “third way” of proprietary apps. While it doesn’t yet have the full functionality of the desktop site, the D&D Beyond app allows for some of the customizations of font size and page set up, while retaining the “look” of the D&D book from which the content is derived.

The Digital Road Goes Ever On
 I can see them being popular in the “short term,” as others are developing the next generation of data presentation. That said, the RPG industry is very good at hanging on to old ideas for a very long time. 

I don’t think that Phone PDFs are the wave of the future, but I do think that the functionality of the format may introduce players to options that they want in electronic rules references in the future. I can see them being popular in the “short term,” as others are developing the next generation of data presentation. That said, the RPG industry is very good at hanging on to old ideas for a very long time.

I also have the odd concern that if this format does become popular, it may end up being a potential issue for some independent publishers. While there are more and more tools that allow a single newcomer to produce impressively formatted products at a reasonable price, the amount of time it might take to add the extra functionality, which is largely comprised of a web of interconnected hyperlinks, may end up creating some expectations that can’t be met at the entry-level.

Overall, I’m excited at the increased functionality, and I hope it heralds a change in mindset regarding teaching and introduction versus referencing information, but I wonder if the specifics of delivering this new functionality will prove to be more cumbersome than as yet undreamt of future paradigms might provide.