The Digital Revolution

I’m writing this on my iPad while on the bus home from work. I initially just wanted to test the WordPress app, but I began thinking about how much this little device and others like it are having an impact on tabletop gaming.

An extremely analogue experience, roleplaying would seem to be the natural enemy of digital entertainment. But these devices can have a positive impact on our gaming, if, and that’s a big if, its done right.

I’m not taking about computer games. There are some great RPG computer games out there, but if we wanted to spend our time playing WOW, we would. And some of us do. But by choosing to play tabletop RPGs we have chosen the more tangible, and arguably more social experience. And I’m not talking about Program’s on the PC. That’s a whole different topic I have many thoughts about. This is just about mobile devices, mostly of the Apple “i” verity.

Let’s start with the bad rather than the good. There are quite a few apps on the Apple App Store that are made for tabletop RPGs. Campaign journals, encounter builders, character sheets, initiative and combat trackers, dice rollers, I’ve tried a lot of them, and besides one or two exceptions, I didn’t like them. They are clunky, slow, difficult to use on the fly, and ultimately you end up putting much more time and effort into an end result that is worse than their analogue equivalent.
I have yet to see a digital character sheet that is as fast as using a pencil and paper. And the same goes for initiative trackers. They are a very good idea, but I have yet to actually see or use one that works as well as my GameMastery combat tracker pad and a wet erase marker.

I didn’t let these go easily either. I kept trying and trying to make these apps work for me. Eventually I gave up. the only app I really found both useful and with the polish of an app worth paying for was The Dicenomicon. It’s great for when you want to roll some dice but actual dice are not permissive, such as rolling up a character in a library or at work. Defiantly the best of all the dice rollers out there, and I believe it’s physics based, so no issues with “not truly random” algorithms.

Now… To the good! There is one major way that mobile devices, and in particular tablet PCs, can make an incredible impact to our gaming lives. And that…. is with books.

Books are large, heavy, and expensive. Until…. They become digital. There is a massive growing market for digital books, and RPGs have not escaped this. In the space of one mid size book, you can have literally hundreds of books at your (digital) fingertips. And with sites like DriveThruRPG it is almost too easy to fill a 32gb ipad with gaming books. Trust me I know.

Some gaming companies have been more progressive than others in the area. Eclipse Phase by Posthuman Studios is released under the Creative Commons licence, and offers free downloads of all it’s books, though they are somewhat “hidden”. And Paizo Publishing offer all their books digitally at extremely reasonable prices. These publishers are by far the leaders of the pack, but many more companies are following suit and releasing their products in digital form. Wizards of the Coast, after a dramatic withdrawal from digital books several years ago for fear of piracy, are now stepping into that world again. Releasing not just current edition books, but products from over the entire history of D&D. And Evil Hat Productions will send you the PDFs of the Dresden Files game if you can prove you own the physical books.

But like the apps, some do it right and some do it wrong. Fantasy Flight has been ravenous in releasing their books digitally, but in true Games Workshop fashion, their search for profits is also ravenous. Depending on which discounts are on at the time, It can be cheaper to by the new core book “Only War” off amazon and have it shipped to you than to buy the PDF from DriveThruRPG. At best they are roughly the same price. They, along with Mongoose Publishing, Catalyst Game Labs, Alderac Entertainment, to name a few, all expect you to pay the same or near the same for a digital PDF as you do you for physical book. A digital product does cost money to make, but nowhere near what it costs to make a book, and to charge us physical book prices for digital books is at best encouraging piracy, and at worst borderline criminal.

The main advantages of the digital book over the physical portability, cost, availability, and digital features such as bookmarks and searchable text. Many gaming PDFs are sold without bookmarks or without being searchable, these two features are what makes using a PDF at the table fast enough to be useful. There is no excuse for not adding these simple features.

Availability is a big plus for this format, though it occupies murky legal and ethical issues. Star Wars SAGA edition is a good example of this. Not a very old system, but almost completely unavailable in physical form, and digital distribution will never be an option due to licensing issues. The only way you can play this fantastic system is by downloading a torrent or similar, which is at best legally questionable.

Illegal downloads aside, there are many older systems that are out of print, but legitimately available digitally. and that alone is reason enough to support this new format of semi-digital gaming.

But the question of digital books go beyond rational issues like space and cost. There is just something about a book. Something special. Something about feeling the weight in you hands, the smell of the printers ink, the gloss of the page, the complete physical presence of a big hardcover book. Having this information digitally is fantastic, but something about seeing a full bookshelf, with row upon row of curious tomes, gives me a warm satisfied glowing feeling in my stomach. It was this feeling that got me into roleplaying in the first place. And I think it’s this feeling, that says no matter how many, or how completely these mobile digital devices integrate themselves into every aspect of our lives, they will never completely replace our pencils, paper, dice…. and books.

Never stop gaming.

Steve.

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