PDF and the Mobile Gamer

For a year or so I lived a lie. I didn’t know it was a lie while I was living it. It was that strange sense of change that comes with a lot of energy and conviction, stays long enough to leave scars, but vanishes in a moment and without warning. People shrug, and remark about how they ‘should have known’, but in truth such things are only visible in hindsight, and then only if you are the sort to look back.

For a year or so, I put print behind me and only bought games in PDF.

That year was around ten years ago now and while physics and ridiculous shipping fees have significantly impacted the number of titles I add to my library these days, I haven’t given that digital-only lifestyle another attempt.

One thing stayed with me, though. If available (poor Star Wars), I get all the games I buy in PDF… too.


Initially, the excitement of being able to take actual thousands of different games with you everywhere, not to mention whatever supplements those game lines offered, was enough. On a 10-inch tablet or even on a phone, those files could come through in a pinch… or a zoom. Soon, however, the lack of easy asynchronous access began to grate on people. Not long after that, phrases like, “No bookmarks – No sale!” could be seen popping up wherever PDF games were sold, usually with a, “In this day and age…” attached to it. Gamers can certainly get crotchety.

PDF is capable of a lot more than just bookmarks to chapters and headers, though, and the format has been capable of more for a long time. Interestingly, we haven’t really seen very much of this capacity, and some publishers are still putting games out without bookmarks! In this day and age!


It is not all gamer grousing and endless scrolling, resizing, and sliding. Over the years, some companies have done more. “Who?” you ask. While I will tell you some of the ones I have seen, I prefer to start not with ‘who,’ but with ‘what.’

Corporia does not screw around.
It wants you to get the point and get it NOW!

Gimmicks or Essentials?

Bookmarks are beloved perhaps because we can access them anywhere in the document through a menu in our chosen PDF reader. Sometimes, they even give us insight into the thought processes of the writers (or at least the layout professional) about reading and learning the game, but most of the time they seem to be a simple array of headers, in order. That is v helpful in its own right. A PDF can support internal links, though. Each example can be linked to its relevant rules, each “find more on page XX” can actually take you to that very page XX. Better yet, links can take you to whatever online resources the publisher has prepared.

Classic, elegant, linked

Of course, trust and humanity’s ongoing problem with both earning and keeping it shoot huge holes in that last one.

Some publishers have taken a chance on using embedded media in their products, be that audio or video, or animated images. File sizes swell and compatibility problems arise, but when within industry standards, the effect can be powerful. Of course, we hardly ever see this option deployed, and it is not that surprising that we do not…. but soon. We really should come to see it more in the near future.

Whether these tools, and the many more that could be put in front of us (such as fillable sections for printing props and character sheets and who knows what else) are useful or just something to clutter up or mental and visual workspaces is fairly firmly in the realm of personal bias and preference. One person’s island is another’s battle for territory.

Format, part 2

Legibility, however, is something that I hope we can all support and – in fact – require. We can expect digital books to be readable on common screen sizes. We can expect text to take priority in the reading experience from both a layout standpoint, but also from an editorial one. If the editing and proofing get unexpectedly botched the first time out, updates can belatedly save the day!


What if publishers produced PDF products prepared for proper performance and proportion for the most popular pads and phones in the palms of the people?

Well… some do, but surprisingly few.

Fast, clean, and single-column

PDF products that one can page through without needing to constantly adjust to fit the screen are a joy, particularly when neatly bookmarked and featuring a fantastic font. Again, this is something which we do not see nearly enough of, but hopefully will see much more of, and soon.

PDF Heroes

Who are the paragons of eye-popping PDF power? I hope you know some of your own, but six that have caught my eye at various points in time are below:

  • Corporia by Brabblemark Press
  • EABA by BTRC
  • Mythras by Design Mechanism
  • Vagabonds of Dyfed by Sigil Stone
  • Trinity Continuum by Onyx Path
  • Zweihander by Grim & Perilous
The latest, and possibly greatest PDF format for gamers on the market at time of printing
4 Responses to “PDF and the Mobile Gamer”
  1. Batjutsu says:

    Thanks for a great article about an important design topic. As someone with hand problems, I have a particular dislike of reading on small devices due to the resizing requirements. Can also be a pain on my desktop, although thankfully speech recognition software can help a bit.

  2. Batjutsu says:

    Reblogged this on Batjutsu and commented:
    A great article about the slow adapation of the RPG industry to making better virtual books.

  3. “PDF is capable of a lot more than just bookmarks to chapters and headers, though, and the format has been capable of more for a long time. Interestingly, we haven’t really seen very much of this capacity, and some publishers are still putting games out without bookmarks! In this day and age!”

    Guilty as charged. We did finally start adding bookmarks and links in the table of contents in the later books, but it’s mostly (for my part) the learning curve and a vicious production cycle.

    I think my main issue with PDF is the inability to index quickly. “I know combat rules are about…here.”

    • Runeslinger says:

      The phone format restores some of that feel by having tabs visible, but even so, quick asynchronous search is not a strength of PDF and is the thing I miss most, too.

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