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The Douchey DM » RPG Industry BS » What’s the Best Format for RPG Books? (Rhetorical)

What’s the Best Format for RPG Books? (Rhetorical)

Print. Next question.

Yeah, I know, they’re not “green,” they’re heavy, they take up space, blah, blah.

But it’s the one format I can take with me into the crapper  and not be accused of looking at porn.

And that’s important.

But, alas, time marches on, and the move toward publishing books exclusively in an electronic format is at this point an inevitability.

Sadly .pdfs are the current default format, and I don’t think that’s going to change soon. But as publisher let go of the bonds of printed books, they need to also rethink the design and layout assumptions that exist because of the physical book and page. For instance, some titles that are solely published in pdf format still use the 8.5×11 portrait format.

During this interim period, when both print and e-book formats coexist, it’s understandable. You format your book for print, print to pdf, and you have both formats.

But once you no longer have to format for print, you need to let go of those layout assumptions.

In fact, they need to let go of layout in general. Talk to anyone with a dedicated e-book reader (like me) and they sing the praises of re-flowable text.  It makes the world wide web awesome. It makes reading e-books on my Kindle awesome.

But there are a few obstacles — specifically for the RPG industry.


RPG publishers love their sidebars — and it’s often the first thing publishing people mention about re-flowable formats: it can’t handle side bars (or it handles them poorly).

In many cases, sidebars (that’s the little narrow paragraphs on the sides of the main text in just about any RPG book) are more of a decision of layout than content. The material’s related to the topic in the main text, but perhaps it’s a small tangent, or a special case. Whatever the reason, most sidebars could be integrated into the main text of the page with little, if any, editing.

There are VERY few cases where the content really warrants a sidebar. And what are those cases? When integrating the content into the main text is going to cause confusion.

What did we do before the invention of sidebars? We used italics, maybe parentheticals, etc. Perfectly serviceable alternatives — and re-flowable!

Cool Artwork

Unless you’re using a tablet PC, iPad or some-such, four-color artwork is going to lose its impact. A temporary problem, yes, but a problem. I have no doubt that someday e-paper will be able to support color, but not now. It does a fine job with line art (or any art made to look like a woodcut), but color images end up looking washed out and, well, black and white.


Although it depends on the game and publisher, some tables in RPG books can get downright huge. I’ve seen them span two 8.5×11 pages.  There is no document reader available that I know of that’s going to display that kind of table in any readable way. Even if the table isn’t 11×17, most e-doc readers can’t handle large tables well anyway.

There are only two answers: zooming or breaking the table up into smaller parts. Then again, maybe the RPG hobby and do with less tables …

Alas, Poor Book

I’m going to miss books. Am I a Luddite? Probably. But I’ve come to grip with the inevitable. That last two GURPS 4th Edition books I’ve purchased I had to buy used off They’re out of print, though available on .pdf — GURPS Infinite Worlds, GURPS Traveller Interstellar Wars.

Steve Jackson Games has seen the writing on the wall and embraced the future of e-publishing. So have others. Eventually they all will.



Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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6 Responses to "What’s the Best Format for RPG Books? (Rhetorical)"

  1. DaeglanNo Gravatar says:

    What I want is for RPG publishers to figure out they are content providers and find a way to have new books integrate into existing books. IE new character options get put into the main book in the appropriate place. New combat rules get fit into the combat section new skill in the skill section and so on. So if I buy the first book I get that. when I buy book 3 it fits into the first book in the appropriate manner.

  2. LughNo Gravatar says:

    IMHO, tables are going to be the big issue for the foreseeable future. You can integrate sidebars, dispense with art, and learn to work with hyperlinks instead of page references. But nothing presents large amounts of information in a compact and easily referenced manner like tables. Of course, that’s an issue for many things other than RPGs (textbooks being a prime example), so I imagine that Amazon et al. are working on it.

    I’m fairly sure that in the future we will see hardbound books become collector’s editions, in much the way vinyl is for the music industry these days. Special binding, signed by the author, etc. But those will usually sit on the shelf (maybe behind glass) while the ebooks actually get used at the table.

  3. Chris in KobeNo Gravatar says:

    Maybe this is just over simplifying, but I think the solution is be rid of both pdfs and printed books. We already have a system that reflows text, resizes tables and allows artwork to be replaced with text descriptions or disappear entirely when it can’t be read: HTML. Even sidebars, the bane of kindle, would be better, as the text there may come out funky, but at least it’d be together in a block and on the right page.

    If designers built their books as webpages they could be accessed via password on a publishers cloud, or for those who worry about a cloudpocalypse, HTML files can be downloaded a viewed with any browser from your computer.

    The big problem with this of course is that HTML is open and easy to edit. Piracy is a problem with digital files, but at least with pdf’s, the publisher knows the material being stolen is still what they put out. HTML files might change along the way, or worse, gain some malicious code along the way. I don’t think they’d go for it.

  4. StuNo Gravatar says:

    The mobi format is vanilla HTML, and the Kindle handles it great. In fact, I’m now writing my book in an HTML editor, rather than a word processor, since I’d have to reformat it into HTML anyway.

  5. DaeglanNo Gravatar says:

    What do you think of Ipads and Adroid tablets and such Stu? Seems like the right platform.

  6. tentagilNo Gravatar says:

    I’m something of a luddite myself I think. I can, and do, use e-books and pdf resources for my gaming, but I much prefer a physical copy. Their jsut something about flipping through the pages and seeing the printed artwork that I much prefer. In many cases though PDFs are easier to use.

    Having just started getting into Fate with the Spirit of the Century book and picked up both the PDF and the Hardbound edition they offer through Lulu jsut because I loved what I saw in the pdf so much.

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