Pen and Paper Gaming in the Digital Age


by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)

It all started innocently enough. Books. I’ve always loved books. I like everything about them: the feel, the sensation of physically turning the pages, the color of the paper, the smell–my God, the smell! So, when this whole craze of going digital and e-readers began appearing, I was taken by the coolness factor of it, but was never really convinced that I would actually use one. Then there was that fateful Christmas day when we received our first Kindle. I both loved and feared it. It could hold the contents of my entire library, but it had no pages, just some buttons and a screen. I could feel it mocking me, telling me that I’m one of those old codgers that doesn’t like change. To be fair, that was a very astute observation on the part of the Kindle, but still. After looking at the thing for a while, staring at the buttons, pressing them, and getting over “new technology” syndrome, I gave it a try, and I’m so very glad I did.

The first book I read on an e-reader was Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves. This is an important tidbit when easing from reading on paper to screen: it has to be a good story. I was so caught up in the story that I actually forgot that I was staring at a screen. By the end of it, my transition to e-reading was complete. That is, except for one type of book. There was one place the Kindle couldn’t go; one sacred space in my own personal library that has heretofore been free of technology: my gaming books. I’m here to tell you, today, that this last bastion of paper-only goodness has fallen.

There are no better books in the whole world than gaming books. I love the color, the cover, the feel of the pages, the smell (obviously), the flipping back to the index to look something up. I like carrying them from place to place. I like stacking them. I like setting them on my bookshelf and looking at the spines, and thinking, “Yeah, those are awesome.” Even now, writing about them, seeing a stack of them to my right, makes me want to stop typing and open a random book just to look through it. But I must restrain myself. Gaming will come in a couple days.

In spite of my addiction, there are several reasons why my love of gaming books is actually driving me toward an all-digital gaming library. First of all: availability. Many of the older books that I want are no longer in print, and aren’t likely to come back any time soon. Granted, though places like DriveThruRPG have a multitude of print-on-demand titles, many of the older books haven’t made it there yet. Second: price. Gaming books that use full color pages and illustrations are insanely expensive to print, and thus insanely expensive to buy. The Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook carries a hefty MSRP of $49.99. That’s nothing compared to the new Vampire: the Masquerade 20th anniversary edition which comes in at $89.99. Buying all the books becomes cost prohibitive. Third: space. Gaming books tend to take up a lot of room, and even though I love looking at them on my shelf, space is becoming more and more important.

Digital gaming books solve these issues of availability, price, and space. All of the gaming books that I, personally, would want, are available through pdf downloads, either as true digital copies, or scanned prints. I can go to DriveThruRPG or Paizo, or one of several other sites, pick the ones I want, and download them to my Mac. So, that Shadow Court book for Changeling: the Dreaming? Got it. Done. This also solves the price conundrum, which allows me to buy even more books. Paizo’s Pathfinder core book? The one that sells for $49.99? It’s $9.99 as a PDF, and you know what the fantastic folks at Paizo do for you after you’ve purchased that digital book? Each time there is a new printing with errata from previous printings, they send you a new PDF copy of the entire book! You’ll always be up to date for a one-time investment of $9.99! And as for space, these files don’t take up a lot either physically or digitally, which is a good thing, even if it still makes me slightly sad.

Traditional pen & paper gamers and gaming companies are embracing the new freedom of digital media. I remember writing all the stats for my AD&D characters on sheets of notebook paper. Then came character sheets that you could download, and print out. Now, folks are creating interactive character sheets as Excel spreadsheets, or editable PDFs, that dynamically track all of your stuff, negating the need to flip through several books to find that one bonus or penalty your character gets when a particular thing happens. It’s all at your fingertips. Paizo, and other companies, even make many of their PDF books interactive and hyperlinked.

The digital era allows gaming companies to make beautifully illustrated, full color “books” and make them available to their customers without having to charge a large sum of money. This means that more people can buy them, which means the companies can make more books, and because they’re less expensive to the consumer, the consumer can purchase more and more content. Which ultimately means, everybody gets to do more gaming, and that, dear friends, is precisely what the world needs.

But let’s not get too crazy with all the digital gaming wonderment. There are a couple things we need to address first. Gaming books don’t work well on e-readers. As much as I love my Kindle, it’s not terribly friendly to color PDFs. So, when you take the digital plunge, make sure you have a decent tablet or laptop. I would think you’d want something that’s at least the size of the 8.9” Kindle Fire HD. Also remember, when downloading digital gaming books, make sure that you are actually purchasing them. Companies have to survive, and if we don’t support their product by paying for it, then they go out of business. Supporting the content creator means that everybody gets to game and eat. It’s win/win.

So, step with me into the digital age of gaming. Take your tablet or laptop; fill it with gaming books and interactive character sheets. Forget all those superfluous “apps.” This device will be filled with important stuff. Take the newly infused device, now dripping with awesome, to your next gaming session. Have everything at your fingertips, an entire library. But, for the love of Great Cthulhu, take some dice! No skimping here. I know there are dice apps for tablets and smart phones. There are even ones that you can “shake” to simulate rolling dice. But good reader, this is one place where we have to draw the line. We have digital books and they are good. We have digital character sheets and they are good. But we need real, physical, rollable dice. There’s no way to digitize that. Trust me.

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