I am looking into buying some game rules books as ebooks, but I want to know if anyone else has done this. Ebooks/PDFs are cheaper and easier to get, but I am wondering if that is worth the trade off of portability.

I don't have an e-reader or a tablet yet, but I am considering getting one. So, if I get something like a Kindle, will reading game resource books be too annoying with the small screen and lack of color? Or is getting a more expensive tablet/e-reader necessary to really read game books?


3 Answers 3


The issues involved preclude a simple "yes or no" answer; it's a qualified "It's a bit too early to tell."

The various eBook devices are almost all 6-7" diagonal... A few are 10" diagonal.

Format Types and Issues

The various ebooks to be read on them comprise several different formats.

  • Scanned Image PDF
    usually print poorly but legibly, non-searchable, and almost unreadable on small screens due to imaging an 8.5x11" page on 3.75x6" screen.
  • OCR Scanned Image PDF
    printing not much better than scanned image alone, but text is searchable, and can be read by Text-To-Speech software as well.
  • Print Master PDF
    PDF constructed by taking the same source files as will be used for the dead tree print master. Often results in large files with high density images; can choke some older printers, and often VERY slow to render on ebook readers. Print quality is entirely dependent upon your hardware, and on high end color laser printers can be as good as professionally printed.
  • Distilled from Master PDF
    Usually from the same master files as the print master, these files are rendered at much lower (150-300 instead of 1200-2400 DPI), much smaller files, and usually only slightly slow to render on ebook devices. Print quality usually lower than even Print-on-demand. Typical of Mongoose and several other companies. Can make detailed maps unreadable, as was the case with the ebook version of Mongoose's Traders & Gunboats.
  • ePub
    Relatively new format, standard for novels. Primarily text with limited graphics capability. The only game ePubs I've seen have been adaptations of open source documents that I've done and some new stuff from John Wick. Renders well and quickly on almost all current gen ebooks, phones, and tablets; many older ones do not support ePub.
  • RTF (Microsoft Rich Text Format)
    pretty old, but still common, text with font and limited formatting. Used for SRD files by WotC. Can readily be converted to ePub. A few devices read this natively; conversion readily available.
  • Microsoft Word .doc files
    Pagination inconsistent, formatting often complex but mangled by OS or Word edition changes. Used for some SRD files; readily converted to RTF and other word processor formats. Conversion required for most devices.
  • Open Document Format .odf
    Open Office's native format. Open Office can export to a variety of formats, including MS Word and ePub. Many free open source games released in .odf

Reader Issues

Many devices have specific issues. For color, you need an iPad or Nook Color, or a smartphone. For grayscale PDF, almost any of them will render (tho older kindles are notorious for not handling PDF at all, and newer ones don't look all that good when I use the same file on a friend's kindle versus my Sony PRS505 or PRS600).

The size of ebook reader screens can make most 8.5x11" book layouts hard to read.

Sony readers will reflow text from OCR, Print Master, and distilled from master PDFs; this often causes nauseating jagged right edges, but not always.

Sony's will also do a visual zoom; this makes reading PDF's much easier on the eyes, but also means not seeing an entire page at a time.

PDF Ebooks in 5.5x8.5" or 6x9" layouts are much easier to read; they only shrink a little.

There are 4 major names at present in the eBook reader device market: Sony PRS series, Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, and Apple iPad; a 5th platform is also making a dent - Google's Android OS, but no particular models are standing out. Plus, almost every smartphone is capable of ebook display.

Playability Issues

Warning: stream of consciousness follows:

  • Most dedicated readers are not fast enough on the page refreshes for fast visual searching of an ebook.
  • Most portable devices can only have one book open at once.
  • Printing whole ebooks is often impractical (it's usually cheaper to pay for the bound edition).
  • Most games don't need to be printed to be run
  • Many games can be printed larger than screensize but still smaller than the traditional print in case of needing a reference.
    • Page protectored 2-up (of 8x10 or larger original layout) or 4-up (of 6x9 or smaller original layout) printouts allow readable information in dead tree inexepnsively.
    • additional copies of certain needed pages can be readily printed. Reference Sheets, Character Generation, and such can thus be made table-ready with a decent printer. ¹
    • Many games do not need to actually be referenced much during play; character generation is often highly book driven. It's the section most likely to be useful printed.
  • Use of a laptop with Acrobat Reader allows
    • multiple files open,
    • multiple windows of the same file,
    • visual scan through at speed
    • pagefinding by thumbnails
    • rapid search of all PDFs except pure scanned image files.
    • free ePub reader software is available for all major OS's
    • additional tools are available for many games, including Character Sheet generators.
      • cheap printers are common, and work fine for character sheets for most games, especially those with computerized Character Generation programs (eg: GURPS)
  • Many out of print titles are available in PDF, usually scanned & OCRd
    • Quite a few publishers are putting back catalog materials up in scans as an interim fix for lack of supply
    • Many titles not available legitimately have been pirate scanned.
      • While illegal, pirate scans are often the only choice for certain games.
      • Several publishers will not release PDFs fearing pirating of the official PDFs should they do so. (Here's looking at you, Luke!)
    • A few companies are providing entire collections of out of print materials in OCR and/or distilled PDF.
      • Far Future Enterprises has CD's of out of print GDW materials, including CT, MT, TNE, T4, Twilight 2000, and 2300 AD. Some CD's of 3rd party materials are in preparation as this is being written.
      • Eden Studios produces, then seems to forget, their PDF versions. Several expired license games are still available in PDF.
    • Wizards of the Coast
      • While there are some legal PDFs of older materials, they can no longer be purchased
      • AD&D 2E materials are available in RTF by buying the Master Tools and Dragon Collection CD's; these CD's are out of print.
      • There are no legal scans of current materials from WotC
      • Star Frontiers and the FASERIP version of Marvel Super Heroes are available legitimately in free OCR PDF, and Star Frontiers in relayout medium quality print-master PDFs. The sites doing these have pre-HasBro licenses from WotC, and used to be linked to from TSR.com and later Wizards.com.
    • Other Free & Legal
      • Ars Magica 4th Ed - Atlas uses it as a loss leader
      • Talislanta - multiple editions available free from the publisher; current edition in dead tree only, but compatible. Huge books, cheaper to buy the new edition than to print out the old...
      • Most "Old School Renaissance" type games have art-free versions available for free; mostly D&D retroclones and pseudoclones. A few have full version PDFs for free, only charging for dead tree versions.
      • Alpha and Beta Test versions of a number of games are available free. Some never make it to commercial release; a few are available even after the final version is released. Mongoose left their playtest drafts up for well over a year after the release, for example.
      • design contest entries are often in PDF.
    • Many SRDs are actually fully playable. Mongoose's Traveller SRD only includes one career, and notes that that career isn't part of the open content, but the SRD is fully playable otherwise.
    • Many companies delay PDF by 3-12 months from release of their dead tree versions.

There are pros and cons. Generally, it's quite workable. Of my last 6 game systems I've run (Rogue Trader, Blood & Honor, Mouse Guard, Star Wars d6, Tunnels and Trolls, Mongoose Traveller), only Star Wars and Rogue Trader have been dead tree only, and for Rogue Trader, I simply haven't spent the money for PDF in addition to the hardcovers.

I've run the following games from PDF without doing full printouts, just some tables and charts: Burning Empires (Luke Crane), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Eden Studios), Tunnels & Trolls 7.5 (Fiery Dragon), Cat the RPG (John Wick), Mongoose Traveller (Released version)

The following I've done full printouts*²*: Mars 2100 (BTRC - Alpha Playtest), Mouse Guard (Archaia Studio Press - preorder bonus), EABA (BTRC - Beta Playtest and Release), Mongoose Traveller (Beta Playtest), Freemarket (Jared Sorenson & Luke Crane - Playtest), Arrowflight 1E (supplements only - I got the core in dead tree), Warhammer FRP 2E (Green Ronin/Black Industries - Playtest).

Why full printouts? For playtest, it's so I can make notes in the margins. For Arrowflight, it was lack of a laptop at the time I bought them... but I had a laser printer, and they weren't available in my area in dead tree.

2014 update:

10" tablets (5.4 x 8.4") are now common enough. Low end 10" tablets can be had for under $300, and make 5.5 x 8.5" format books 90% display (the loss is due to interface elements eating some screen real-estate. Some 12.2" (roughly 6.4 x 10.3")tablets are now available, and can display digest (6 x 9") full size, and better than 75% on 8.5 x 11" pages.

Many games now are being dual released in distilled or print master PDFs as well as print; a few are in ePub, but due to poor tables to date, it's still not common.

OCR PDFs are steadily displacing scanned image PDFs, and several publishers are updating their older OCR with redone, more accurate OCR PDFs. (This includes Far Future Enterprises {dba Game Designer's Workshop} and Wizards of the Coast {for the old TSR products}.)

Enhanced PDFs

Several designers are starting to make use of the more advanced features of the PDF standard. The most notable are: extensive hot-linking, especially the index and table of contents, bookmarks, and forms with calculations. The inclusion of calculations is normally done using JavaScript/ECMAScript. A few bind in other media — sounds, animations, movies — and these are not common in gaming materials. A couple of designers are also binding in Text-To-Speech dictionaries. DRM is present in a few publishers' materials, as well, but it's not been present in anything this author has purchased in the last two years. In one case, the presence/absence of DRM determined which point of sale was used.

Note that most of the "Enhanced PDF" features still don't work on tablets as a general rule; few PDF readers for non-Windows tablets support JavaScript/ECMAScript. (I haven't found a free one that does so on Android.) Likewise, enhanced PDFs aren't making much headway in the market.

Legal Issues

It has become clear that some major licenses treat PDFs as software, rather than as books/media. FFG's Star Wars RPGs, Cubicle 7's The One Ring, and a few others have had issues due to the licensor disallowing PDF due to extant software licenses to other companies.

Others seem to show some other oddities - there's a recent (2014) update to licensed game corebook, where the license expired more than 5 years ago according to the developer's website. Serious head-scratcher time.

New Movements in the industry

Since mid-2013, several games have been released as "Pay What You Want" - the PDF has a minimum price set, but the purchaser may pay more. Several, the minimum set is $0. Several authors have claimed that this appears to make them more money.

A couple authors are pushing for better accessibility for visually disabled (blind or low-vision) gamers.

Both of these make the barrier to entry far lower for the consumer. Yes, your Android or iOS tablet can read that PDF to you.

Bottom Line:

The Technology is maturing, but not mature, and the market appears fairly stable.


1: The $50 or less special at Wal*Mart is NOT suitable for this, really. I've done it, it's ugly, people complain. Buy a $100 B&W laser or $200 Color Laser.

2: By full printout, I mean all the text, tho' not always full size. Often, I leave out full-page illos and blank pages. Mars 2100, done in 8.5x11 layout, I printed in booklet printing mode on 8.5x14, leaving lots of white space for notes in the margins. Mouseguard, which was 8x8" layout, I also printed to 8.5x14 in two-up. I still use that copy for some demo work.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "ePub...limited graphics capability" -- What do you mean? ePub is a zip file containing HTML/CSS and some metadata; I haven't heard of any issues with images (raster or vector). \$\endgroup\$
    – Brian S
    Apr 25, 2014 at 13:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BrianS ePub can contain limited image types, but most ePub readers don't scale them well, and several don't even render them. Much the same as how many browsers mishandle graphics. Plus, most of the CSS relating to images is disallowed in early versions. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Apr 25, 2014 at 15:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any references for "pay what you want earns authors more"? Bean Books killed their free library after Jim Baen died, and they originally had an identical justification. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 7, 2014 at 6:38

Sure it's practical, but I've found them to be better for supplements rather than core books

I've purchased several eBooks myself. There are good parts and bad parts. In general these are the major upsides (At least for the well made ones):

  • Searchable
  • Easy to use index/TOC
  • Selectable text for copy and pasting
  • Electronic portability (You can move the files around much more easily than a giant stack of RPG books. I really like Dropbox for this)

On the downside, the are not as good for referencing at the table. You basically have three options to use them mid-session:

  • Bring a laptop
  • Print them
  • Use an eReader

I've had horrible experience trying to use game book PDFs on the Kindle- I really don't recommend buying one for that purpose.

Because of the above issues I personally really like eBooks for supplements that you don't usually need to reference at the table all the time. Buy a physical copy of the core book, because you'll use it all the time, and keep the rest electronic. If you're playing a game that only does eBooks, consider printing the core book (at least the rules) and sticking it in a binder for easy reference.


Yes and No

The money you save and the ability to get a RPG supplement or book right now are both significant factors lending to the Yes portion of this answer. There are however some down sides that I've noticed. I'll break out some Pros and Cons (when I say PDF here, I generally also mean eBook, I just don't want to have to type both over and over):


  • You can get the book you've been eyeing right now, without having to drive to the store.
  • Significant cost savings over physical books.
  • With file backups, you can have access to your books wherever you go. I personally use Dropbox for this, but make sure you read TOS links, because sometimes you agree to things like "not duplicating the pdf", but that's rare.
  • It can save a lot of space if you don't want to lug around 20 different books to various places.


  • PDFs lack the ability to "thumb through" to find a specific thing you are looking for, so be prepared to memorize page numbers or make a good use of the search feature. This is a huge deal for me, and makes referencing things quickly a pain
  • Physical books don't require a power source. This isn't a big deal for a Kindle, but read on..
  • They don't have the new-book-scent we're all so fond of.

As for the device you'd read them on

Amazon Kindle's PDF support was pretty washy last time I tried it out on my smaller kindle. It has a zoom feature now, but it basically leaves the book unreadable. I read my PDFs on a tablet computer, and that is much better, but size is always a factor.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ PDFs on Kindle (or any other current-gen e-ink reader) is still a painful experience. They just don't have the refresh rate needed to flip back-and-forth, as a reference/game book is designed to be used. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 24, 2011 at 23:08

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