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I'm looking for official PDFs (all editions of D&D). I wanted to give drivethrurpg a try, but I wonder: do different PDFs version of the same book exist (in different quality)?

Subsidiary question, what about PDFs older editions of D&D that they sell, like the D&D Basic Rules Set (1983) — is this basically a high quality scan of the book? How are these PDFs produced?

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DriveThruRPG is the same company as DMsGuild (formerly DNDClassics), and the former RPGnow. They have the same inventory and you can login to either with the same account. As far as I know, DM's guild is the only WoTC-sponsored site that sells PDF classics.

Early in 2016 DM's Guild posted a request for scanning and remastering some classics. From the post:

To that end, together with Wizards of the Coast, we have been digitally re-mastering hundreds of classic D&D titles and offering them through DriveThru and DMSGuild.com. We still have about 600 more classic D&D titles to go, and we need the help of D&D fans to get them all.

The original post is no longer available, but the archive link above may still answer some of your questions. For example, cover and boxes are scanned at 24-bit depth and 300dpi, while interiors at 8-bit depth and 300dpi.

Basically, your assumption is spot-on and we're talking about high resolution scans of original prints.

While browsing a product in DMsGuild, there's a bar on the right side containing the Product Information. Under "Format", you should see either: Scanned image or Original electronic format.

Clicking on the info icon will display the following:

Scanned image
These products were created by scanning an original printed edition. Most older books are in scanned image format because original digital layout files never existed or were no longer available from the publisher.

For PDF download editions, each page has been run through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to attempt to decipher the printed text. The result of this OCR process is placed invisibly behind the picture of each scanned page, to allow for text searching. However, any text in a given book set on a graphical background or in handwritten fonts would most likely not be picked up by the OCR software, and is therefore not searchable. Also, a few larger books may be resampled to fit into the system, and may not have this searchable text background.

For printed books, we have performed high-resolution scans of an original hardcopy of the book. We essentially digitally re-master the book. Unfortunately, the resulting quality of these books is not as high. It's the problem of making a copy of a copy. The text is fine for reading, but illustration work starts to run dark, pixellating and/or losing shades of grey. Moiré patterns may develop in photos. We mark clearly which print titles come from scanned image books so that you can make an informed purchase decision about the quality of what you will receive.

Original electronic format
These ebooks were created from the original electronic layout files, and therefore are fully text searchable. Also, their file size tends to be smaller than scanned image books. Most newer books are in the original electronic format. Both download and print editions of such books should be high quality.

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    \$\begingroup\$ More to the point, they have the same inventory across all sites. \$\endgroup\$ – Tritium21 Oct 18 '16 at 21:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ One important thing is to read reviews about the material, some products are missing some parts (specially when it comes to boxed sets). \$\endgroup\$ – Vicente Cartas Oct 19 '16 at 0:25
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The AD&D1e PDFs I bought from DriveThru have high-quality scans for artwork, but the text appears to have been re-typeset in a DTP program and the PDF generated from that. There are no scan artefacts at all, when you zoom in to the limit.

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Official PDFs versions of the same books have the same quality, as usually only the publisher releases it. In the case of older books, some rescans may have been done in order to offer up a higher-quality version of the product, and then both of these versions can be found.

A lot of the "high-quality scans" are actually pdf versions of the books made by the publisher, who have a pdf version before they produce a printed one. For homebrewn material, templates exist to allow others to create similar-looking content. In the case of PDFs of books published prior to the widespread use of the pdf or its equivalent, it usually is a high-quality scan in which the pages are scanned individually so as to avoid the darkened section of the page caused by the binding. It may also be an already digital image, as formats such as png appeared during the same time as AD&D.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I hear you, but PDFs were created a few years after basic D&D. \$\endgroup\$ – user29601 Oct 18 '16 at 19:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Heads up - the question been edited, and you answer might need some more work to be on-topic again. \$\endgroup\$ – UrhoKarila Oct 18 '16 at 19:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the insight. Could you clarify "In the case of older books, some rescans may have been done in order to offer up a higher-quality version of the product, and then both of these versions can be found."? What books are you talking about? \$\endgroup\$ – user29601 Oct 18 '16 at 20:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ As the resolution possible with scans increases, books which had previously been scanned may be scanned again at a higher resolution (much in the way a DVD is remastered). This would also allow text recognition software to transform the writing into searchable text. The DMs Guild has been sending out request for such improved scans from WotC. \$\endgroup\$ – QuantumDM Oct 18 '16 at 20:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ The earliest D&D books, from 1974, never had an electronic format. It is highly unlikely that anything printed before the mid-80s did. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jul 12 '18 at 15:30

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