I have seen this question about updates of the D&D 4th Edition books, and it got me thinking.
Since I got my Kindle I have not read a single paper novel; they have fewer drawbacks compared to digital copies than rpg rulebooks.

  • Dead-tree types have some benefits like looking good on a bookshelf, but any ebook reader weighs less with 100 novels than the usual hard-cover book.
  • If you want to look for the damage of Ares Alpha, even with a half-decent tablet it takes less than 2 seconds.
  • Digital copies do not get worn, they never get unwanted earmarks, but you can bookmark them.
  • Rulebooks do get updates, and unless you are willing to take a pen to your book, your hard copies will never contain them. The pdfs can be edited and resent to the buyers.
  • Even better is the WotC approach with the DDI, you can look up any monster or item or (almost any) rule, in the most recent form, for 3 years at the cost of seven books.

I think this is the way to go, even considering the horribly slow character builder. Although I must admit good illustrations can help build the athmosphere.

So what am I missing? Why are people buying rpg rulebooks in paper format? Why are books even published, I do not need to know if feats are supposed to be on the right page and skills on the left, I just want a list of them, filterable any way I want.

Is this just a necessary part of earning money? I understand that pdfs are copied illegally, but the Compendium is not.


14 Answers 14


Value Proposition

You mentioned DDI:

Even better is the WotC approach with the DDI, you can look up any monster or item or (almost any) rule, in the most recent form, for 3 years at the cost of seven books. I think this is the way to go, even considering the horribly slow character builder.

It's true, for three years that is a good deal. But what about for six years?

I'm still using my 3.5 PHB, ten years after I got it. I have a set of 3.5 books that is nowhere near the full quantity they released, and I'm okay with that because I don't care about a lot of the books they put out.

If DDI existed for 3.5, it would have cost me more than I paid for the books rather than less. Being an upfront cost, books don't cost more if you use them for longer. Subscriptions do.

And of course, online services disappear every day. Will DDI for 4e still be around in 10 years? If you want to play and it goes away, where did your rules go? I own a book from the 1800s, so I'm pretty confident that Wizards can't take my 3.5 paper books away should they decide it's time to move on and not pay for servers anymore (or go out of business).

Page Flipping & Sharing

I have bookmarks in my PHB & DMG. I also just know where some things are, because I've had to use them so many times. I can open the book and be in the grapple rules in two seconds. No matter how hard I try, I can't get there that fast on my iPad. I also can't have the grapple rules AND my encounter notes open at the same time with the electronic version, since my iPad can only show one thing at a time. With the books, I can put them beside each other. I can then also add a spell description from the Spell Compendium. The area around me when I DM tends to look like a book fort.

It's easy to share the book. I can hand someone my PHB so they can look up a spell description and keep doing what I was doing with my other books & iPad notes. If I have to hand them my iPad, I just lost access to everything until I get it back.

Subjective Stuff

There's a subjective side to this as well. I like how books feel. I find them easier on my eyes than ebooks. They work at the cottage, even with no power.

In the end, it's really about which trade offs you prefer to make.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I happen to disagree. You can make all those things on PDF, you can open two instances of a program at once and have the book opened in two windows, or even three, you may learn the page numbers (once you go there often enough) or keywords unique to the page. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 9:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Baskakov_Dmitriy The iPad I mentioned is not capable of opening three copies simultaneously. Even if it could, there isn't enough screen space to be able to read them. My desktop PC can, but I'm not lugging that and its two monitors across town. It's also slower to open a PDF and go to a page than it is to do so with a physical book. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tridus
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 12:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I always take my laptop with me, and I think it's possible to find a program for tablets that will be capable of opening many PDFs, and there are many tablets with screens big enough. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 15:31

The benefits for owning a book are the same reasons we still have books, and why people still buy books instead of a Kindle or PDFs.

The advantage of books comes down to something basic: interacting with them is different to interacting with e-readers, and in the better for a lot of ways.

Let's consider the case of a single user, with access to a single e-reader or several books.

A key concept: Books are transparent tools for reading. E-readers are not.

One major difference between books and e-readers is the concept of a transparent tool. A transparent tool is one you can use without having to consciously think about operating the tool in order to use it, because it gets out of your way when you use it - it's something you can forget you're even using.

An easy comparison to demonstrate the difference is between a pen, which is a transparent tool, and a keyboard, which is not.

When you pick up a pen to write, you're not consciously thinking of the individual actions of moving the pen up, down, left, across, or so on. You can simply write, and your motions transfer effortlessly through the pen to paper. By contrast, to use a keyboard to write, you have to consciously operate the keys on the keyboard, mindfully reaching for the right keys to produce the results you want. Advanced users will become more at ease with the keyboard, but it will never be quite as transparent a tool to use as a pen, which requires little conscious operation beyond our natural movements.

Books and e-readers share an analogous situation: the e-reader is less transparent than a book, though technical aptitude and being used to the tool can help. E-readers are getting better at being transparent tools, but they're not there yet.

Of course, this sets aside the difficulty of actually writing well and legibly, but when considering the transparency of the tool, how neat your writing ends up looking or how fast you write isn't so much of an issue: whether the tool you're operating gets out of your way is the issue.

What does this mean for books?

In general, books just do what they do exceptionally well, and they do it transparently.

E-readers might let you do some similar things to what you can do with a book, but their equivalents are limited. The e-reader's equivalent action may not be as simple and effortless as performing the same action with a book, and you, the person trying to read their book, may be restricted in how you can perform that action, such that you cannot do it in a way that better suits you.

  • When placing bookmarks in books, you can use the method that works well for you or comes naturally to you. You can put coloured (or named) tabs in them, dogflap the pages, and so on. There are a dozen ways to mark pages. Despite being something small, this is one of the major differences, since for some, the e-reader's equivalent bookmark feature just doesn't work as well as methods such as coloured tabs poking out of the pages.
  • Flipping to those bookmarks is a completely natural and effortless action. You put your finger in beside your bookmark and open the book.
  • Browsing a book is easy, fast and flexible.
    • You can leap variable amounts of pages at a time.
    • For a book you're used to, leaping to an entire section can be as easy as flipping to a bookmark. E-readers offer something similar (if they have a table of contents), but it is not equivalent: you can't easily jump to the middle of a section, or so on. Muscle memory plays a helpful role here that it can't play with an e-reader.
    • RPG manuals will often mark the very edge of pages, so that you can see the different sections whilst the book is still closed. That guides leaping between sections, and e-readers don't generally offer an equivalent yet.
    • You can easily thumb between pages, keeping your fingers in past ones to go back and forth.
  • You can open multiple books at the same time, and have then all visible in parallel, with little loss of ability to read or operate any individual book, given you simply have enough space to lay them out or prop them up.
  • You can pass a book to a friend at the table, without losing the ability to read your other books. (This is hugely relevant to games like D&D, where the GM can have their book open, and each of the players can have a book open with content pertinent to them. The cases may be equal when everyone at the table has an e-reader, though I'm not sure this is common.)
  • You can mark books: annotate them, write, draw, highlight, and so on. You can also leave post-its and other things in them. You can do similar things in e-readers, but they offer far more limited options, depending on the e-reader.
  • Books don't run out of batteries or need a cable.

... and a lot more.

You can do a lot of these things given the right e-reader, and e-readers are getting better at making these things easier to do. But e-readers won't let you do all of them, nor do it as easily.

Plus, books can be nicer for other reasons.

In some cases, the electronic version might be missing content.

  • In D&D 4e, the Compendium offers no lore at all. The compendium will tell you almost nothing about how the Elemental Chaos and Astral Sea came to be, how the World was formed, the Dawn War that was fought, and the present states of the planes.

  • D&D 3.5e's SRD contains very little lore, some names are different, and entire swathes of books are simply not released.

There's also the fact that some people just prefer books. The emotional factor isn't without relevance: to some such as myself, there's something pleasant about being able to pick up a hefty tome.

E-Readers offer little in comparison.

E-readers can give you one device instead of several heavy books, and offer some features that books don't - you can't ctrl+F a book - but it comes with trade-offs in ease of use in virtually every department.

E-readers are just... not yet as easy to interact with as books are.

  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ I subjectively think that the part about the transparent tool is subjective; at least for keyboards, and with touch interfaces, readers are getting more transparent too. Nevertheless, the other arguments stand, so +1. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 12:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Pretty sure the transparency is a matter of adaptation. You grew up with books so they're natural to you. To one of our younger peers and the future generations, the tablet / e-reader will feel just as natural. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nigralbus
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 12:38

In a short acronym: DRM.

It can be present in either the ebook or the reader or both. Paper copies have none. For example Amazon's Kindle is riddled with it thanks to Amazon's strategy leading to the removal of 1984 or remotely wiping a kindle. This is, of course, picking on one company which might not reflect the market as a whole.

However, DRM takes your rights and freedom away. If DRM is so great, why won't anyone warn you when you're buying it? Note that circumventing DRM is illegal so any company that publish such ebooks (regardless of reader) force you to obey by the DRM.

Of course, you can get ebooks and devices that are DRM-free (for example Posthuman Studio's Eclipse Phase) but they are few and far between.

Is this an issue for the vast majority of RPG PDFs? I have no idea and would like some numbers if anyone can provide such.

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ I share your disgust to Amazon's policies and DRM in general. But AFAIK DriveThruRPG has a big catalog of DRM free gamebooks. The only thing is that PDFs come watermarked with your webshop user. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 10:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion I pointed out because if all the books you want are available DRM-free, DRM ceases to be a problem. Maybe DriveThruRPG catalog in not as extensive as I thought and there are many games only available on DRM, I don't know. I still upvoted your answer because I think that calling attention in DRM problems is a good thing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 11:02

I buy paper books because:

  • I can lend the latest player in my group a paper book far easier than I can something on my Kindle.
  • At game time, players on the table can browse different physical books, if they are all on my kindle then we can only look at one at a time.
  • Somewhat related to the above, i find it easier to cross reference physical books than I do PDFs
  • They look nice on the shelf.

I own an ebook, and I find it more comfortable linear reading than in physical books. Also, it's very handy when looking for exact words.

But I find flipping the pages looking for something that is not bookmarked or you don't know exactly where it is, (and you don't know what words look for) or doing diagonal reading on several pages much easier in physical books.

One thing that it's not very important to me, but it is to a lot of people is the aesthetic and emotional factors. A good physical book is something pretty that you can have and manipulate on your hands and that looks well on your bookshelf. Also, in time you can be emotionally attached to your manuals (especially if you own only a handful), but is rarer to feel the same to a digital file.

Still, it's probable that if you have a good and fast ebook reader, the advantages of digital formats are more than the disadvantages, but answering your question, these are the benefits of physical books that come to my mind.


Even if right now at the gaming table, it does not seem to matter, books manage what technical devices can not: books can store memories.

I have roleplaying books on my shelf that have stains on and in them from funny adventures way back in time. I can open that book, look at the wax, coke and crisps stains and remember that one night when we finally slew the lich right before dawn... and the day after that when I flunked the test in school because I could barely keep my eyes open. The stain on page two is from that night.

If all my books in that shelf would reside on a single USB stick, the memories would still be there, but I wouldn't have anything to trigger them. That stick is sterile information. Nobody left a mark on it, no memories are stored on it. It's just information on a stick. Unchanged from when I bought it.

Apart from that, think about the way, the information would have to travel from a technical point of view: I still own that book. It survided a few moves without problems. I can still read it without problems. I have not a single computer document or game from that time. Not because our hardware would not be capable. I could probably store all that information in my phones ringtone memory today. But that was 1990. The computer I had was an Atari ST. That's 4 whole operating systems (counting all the Windows Versions as a single one) between that computer and todays tablets. 20 years from now, people will laugh at the fact we had Android tablets. But you will still own that book. With all it's memories attached.


Something I would like to add:

Document layout

Books usually come in a 2-columned, A4 or letter format with a lot of pictures, text boxes and a fancy background. Sometimes all of this has a poor contrast even as a real book (mostly due to the fancy backgrounds).

An e-book has to work for different screen sizes and at best populates pages dynamically (no need to scroll) while keeping boxes and pictures from braking the reading flow too much and displaying them correctly.

Sadly, nearly all RPG-related digital material I have ever seen is either

  • Poorly translated to a native e-book format, e.g.:

    • Boxes are several pages long, begin mid-sentence and are hard to identify as special text.
    • Pictures clutter at the end of the document and are of poor quality.
    • It is impossible to differentiate section, subsection and paragraph headings.
    • Tables look horrible or do not work at all.
    • Non-ASCII characters do not work.

    Part of this might be due to the fact that there seems to be no standard on how e-books should be displayed (or there is one, but nobody adheres to it).

  • Simple PDF copies of the books: Since for most readers, full-page view is not feasible, this means that you have to scroll a lot for the usual multi-column layout and even more so for pictures and boxes, because you have to guess where the sentence continues. If your reader can only support gray scale or just black and white, identifying pictures or even reading the text at all (fancy background, shading of boxes etc.) might be painful or downright impossible.

I work a lot with lecture-scripts or scientific papers digitally – annotating, bookmarking, crossreferencing etc. (And even scribble lecture notes or doodle on my tablet-pc with a digitizer-pen or graphics tablet.) But I always end up printing the stuff I need to frequently work with because hardly any papers or scripts are formatted in a way that makes it painless to work with them digitally (for about the same reasons as I stated above for RPG-material).

Formatting of digital media (other than webpages) mostly still follows the principles that have been established over centuries to give the best reading experience in print media.

Which (among what has been stated in other answers) is one of the most important aspects, why I usually prefer the book to the digital version with the same content – usually the content was written and/or formatted with a book in mind, not an e-book.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ This annoys the crap out of me. We are finally at a point where anyone can create more or less acceptable typesetting for print documents with a little bit of effort, but with ebooks we are right back at square one with appalling layouts and broken typesetting. iPad & Co with their HiRes displays would be able to show beautiful designs in near-print quality, but they only live up to their potential when you feed them with PDFs set for a similar page size as the devices display. It's a shame, really. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sven
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 0:09

This easily reads as a matter of preference to me over anything. From a subjective standpoint I simply enjoy the smell of ink and paper and the feel of pages but from there... It's anyone's race really.


  • Portability: The only reason I bring a laptop or e-reader to games is usually because the game is when I'm playing at the home of someone else or a neutral location of some sort. Call me lazy, but I'm less than enthused to carry my entire collection which with my AD&D stuff, is easily a dozen each hardback and soft cover books. Having digital copies saves me some potentially considerable effort to keep everything I need with me. Every game I have been a part of for any serious duration usually has several books and everyone needs only one or two pages from the extras but the whole book has to come along.

  • Indexing: There are precious few books that have a pervasive index. Some are simply maddening because they will place an entry as a subsection of another instead of being its own listing. Searchable text has been a life saving feature that helps me even facilitate answers for this site because I can keep jabbing the "find next" button to make sure there isn't some hidden passage of errata in a different section of the book. I can go directly to what I want. Not only this, but I have a dyslexic player who uses the e-book to read aloud to him and that's the only way he learns the rules without a walkthrough mid-game.

  • Errata: Some releases are digital only nowadays. Books can always be scanned for free, but new digital content costs to be printed (even if minutely... at first) and having a file is a resource that can be given back. Unless you choose to print on both sides (or use the back of an already printed page) that page is spent. Maybe line a birdcage with it but that's about it once you're done.

Spined Books

  • Redundancy: Murphy is my worst player. He corrupts files, drops books and readers alike, summons unholy deluges that permeate the stoutest bag as I dart from vehicle to building. A book can take a fair amount of damage before becoming useless. Even if it gets wet or torn, the other pages are still viable. A backup of files is cheap and easy but a backup of devices is frustratingly costly. Even if one book becomes totally useless, the rest should still be in good condition anyway.

  • Psychology: I can't agree more with PlasmaHH when it was stated that genuine books imply something about the DM/GM/ST. They usually mean business unless it's that rich friend who can piddle away money for books like they're tissue boxes. Every game I've been in where the DM is serious about their world, the content, and grasp of the rules they never subsumed on PDFs alone (although certainly had them where possible). It's kind of like the illusion a gym membership provides where by virtue of having spent good money on something, you want full value of the resource and hardback books are the most costly. Other than systems that went out of print before I was aware of them, everything I run I keep at least a core book hard copy for communal use if nothing else.

  • Distribution: Probably beating a dead horse with many of the answers explaining how using a genuine book means you can give media away without losing the entire medium to read it. However with some companies being notorious for bad binding, I've seen books split into binder volumes and individual pages given tot he players who need them and right back in the pot when they're done. No entry cost of time to find the right file, download, change storage device/upload to cloud, download to new device, open, find again for a one time use. Just give the page back when you're done.

  • Wear & Tear Can be Your Friend: Believe it or not, the more a book is used, the more useful it gets in my experience. Several of my books have been opened and creased to specific pages I use so often that with a blind grab at the right depth of the volume I can open to the exact page I want to something I may not have thought to leave a bookmark on (digitally or literally). Typically any system's combat turn order, the start of its magic and skill sections become permanently held for intuitive indexing.

Equality/Trading Off

  • Annotation: Familiarity breeds ease of use. I can place sticky notes or add comments with equal proficiency, as well as remember the page number (within ten pages) or randomly open to it in the book by approximate depth. These functions are synonymous to me because essentially they work the same by keeping custom information. In a hard copy you have limited space and might lose a sticky note or tucked index card where in an e-book you might have to guess where the comment trigger is to be found since it collapses.

  • Multiple Pages: As a subjective factor, being able to separate books and pages to be larger than a screen's resolution can accurately display helps me do the work faster. However! Using a laptop for almost all of my digital reading, I have been known to make a second copy of the core book in the folder so I can hold two pages simultaneously open in the same book without creating a conflict. I have on many occasions held three or four books open and traversed them as easily as my books splayed like scalemail when the situation called for it.

  • Visibility: For hard copies of books the resolution is almost always perfect. It matches the size of the viewer (IE the book's physical size) and thus you can always see a full page at the proper reading size. While the viewing area is often limited on e-readers (I'm rarely displeased with monitors/laptops) the ability to zoom is surprisingly useful, especially for farsighted gamers. Granted, you can zoom with a mundane magnifying lens on a hard copy as well. But ultimately both methods fulfill the need equally to me objectively. I can shrink a window and hold two completely different sources side by side concurrently when not using an e-reader specifically for PDFs.

  • Space: Being able to keep a library in a device the size of a 9v battery is quite handy... But where did you put that book on it? Unless you're a database generating fiend such as myself, you probably just have a big mess of books in one spot with no sorting method in place, which when you're looking at a series of identical icons can get tiresome. Sure hard copies take up space and weight but the visual indexing is powerful as is the mnemonic device of having to sort them as they go on the shelf (if you're even half as compulsive as me when it comes to books) and have at least two senses tied to their shelving - seeing the book slide into space, touching the book (as at least to me different publishers feel different in the slightest ways), maybe even smelling the book as you do. However, searchable indexing on most devices tends to alleviate this issue which is why it shows up in the "both" category instead of as a distinct advantage.


In addition to the excellent answers above, another factor that I can see is that dead-tree books IMHO relate better in feeling to their contents (at least for fantasy RPG, maybe not so much for sci-fi?).

What I mean by that is that often times the fantasy worlds that people play in are inspired by the technological state of the art of about late Medieval times. You have blacksmiths and swords and candles and that kind of stuff. While chronologically before the invention of the modular printing press (in the West), it seems to me that engaging with these worlds through "old-fashioned" paper books just feels more "in game" than using an ebook reader.

(Then again, your mileage may vary: people use their cell phones instead of dice and for calculating, too...)


As others have said - there's definitely something to be said about tactile navigation.

While digital formats (assuming they're text-parseable) can be searched, if you don't know the specific spelling or the specific term, they can be difficult to parse by hand. Quadruply so if the publisher did not provide bookmarks to the different chapters. (Which is really annoying, imo.)

By contrast, with a physical copy, you can pick up a general sense of where the desired content is physically located fairly quickly. For example: Combat Rules are towards the middle. Spell lists are towards the end. Character classes are near the beginning. The more familiar one is with the book, the quicker this is to process (and more accurate one tends to get).

Additionally - I stare at a digital monitor all day at work; then for most of the evening. So if I actually have to read something, I'll opt for ink on paper, just to save my eyes that itty little bit. :)

(Kindles are awesome, but they can be slow; plus, some books have art work and/or tables that I am unsure would translate over very well.)


As a player, I feel being in much more experienced hands when seeing a GM that has a pile of books (usually accompanied by piles of papers/notes and other things), than one that has a laptop/kindle/tablet (sometimes even using it for [secret] dice rolls.

As an occasional and not very experienced GM I like having everything as books with me because:

  • I have tons of sticky notes in the books that help me a lot
  • I have lots of bookmarks for campaigns that I change/add during play
  • Sometimes I correct/change/annotate directly in the book.
  • I feel like copying a few pages sometimes is probably easier, but I never tried using a kindle for printing pages.
  • I can have multiple books open at the same time
  • With ad-hoc bookmarks I can - more or less - read at multiple points in the same book and can easier jump forth and back e.g. to evaluate rule interaction
  • I can pass one book to a player for himself to read while keeping all the others at hand
  • I can slap (or threaten to) people with a book (technically I can do that with a kindle too, but it would probably be more expensive).

And after all, in non-technological rpgs, it just feels cool, sitting there as if you are a librarian of an ancient library, filled with all kinds of secrets. I can remember some occasions where the lines were blurred and the PCs encountered myself in their world, in a level-up/learning situation.


I speak from experience, having DMed several D&D internet-published adventures both by printing them (when I had a working printer on my old PC), by reading from published books and by reading from my laptop.

When playing at my laptop I had problems with the following:

  • showing images to players (easier with a tablet, or with a second linked screen)
  • I had to do all the searches on the SRD myself. Sometimes, other players brought their laptops too, but they started being more distracted since laptops can also be used for gaming.
  • Despite using a program to separate the maps, statblock and room description chapters in three different files, flipping pages was hard. Sometimes, finding the right file between those I had opened was time consuming.
  • Having two or three monsters in a manual on different, distant pages, makes it hard to track the flipping. Scrolling is way less countable than flipping.

For novels and fiction I prefer a e reader. For reference I prefer paper. Why? The design teams for e readers focus on novels with the assumption that if you are going to do serious research you will use a computer. This is not a problem that can't be fixed, just one that hasn't been.


In addition to all the responses above, your collection of physical books are actually worth money and can be sold/traded to other collectors, unlike your collection of PDFs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the Site! Your answer is helpful and concise. Note that the actual questions and answers are intended to be mostly standalone, rather than threaded like a message board. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chemus
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 8:10

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