Books are best!
When I was a kid, I remember going to the hobby stores of my youth and poring over all of the amazing releases there were to be had. Money was tight, and I had to be really careful about what I wanted to spend my parent’s money on. RPG books, unlike paperbacks, are expensive. Goddamned expensive. I remember looking at some books and thinking to myself ‘Thirty dollars? You must be out of your mind!’ It was truly an age of caveat emptor in the tabletop realm. You never knew if a game was good or not, and you never knew if you’d even get a chance to play the games acquired. The typical shopkeeper can tell you whatever you’re talking about is wonderful to get a sale (thankfully, I didn’t have shopkeepers that crass in my hobby shops). Conversely, you could also talk to one of the guys playing in the shop’s back room screaming ‘I AM THE FISH GOD!’ These were the perils of choosing wisely in my day.
It has become radically different in the age of the internet. With a few strokes of the keyboard, you will find an internet full to bursting with RPG content and total strangers to play with (not always great – sometimes you get the fish god). Some content providers have small, exclusive sites that are only able to be located if you knew about them from a friend, and these retain that grassroot feeling akin to buying local band demo tapes in Maxxell cases for three bucks a pop. Then there are massive sites like RPG.now/rpg.drivethrustuff.com in which you can find seemingly anything, even classics resuscitated from your youth. There are also the big brand shops that maintain tight control over their content like Paizo, the makers of Pathfinder, who manage their PDF empire from their own site. Additionally, all of those sites are bound to have comments and reviews. You can find out damn near anything you want to know through the main sites, or through sites that deal with the topic at hand.
But, it begs the question – has video killed the radio star in this case? Is print dead? One could make an argument that if it isn’t, it’s so close to dead that you could grab it by the throat and drown it in your tub. But, I think you’ll find that there’s still a lot of virtue in the printed word when it comes to the tabletop industry. Here’s how I see it:
The Good Stuff: Virtual Resources
– Content: Need I say more? Never before has so much content been available to gamers from across so many years. While RPGs were only born some thirty plus years ago, you can now find some of the very oldest stuff commercially available again. Even some of the biggest of the baddest content providers, like Wizards of the Coast (a.k.a. Hasbro) have seen the value of tossing old supplements into a scanner and re-releasing their oldest stuff. Everything from the original Dungeons and Dragons up to some of the most recent cutting edge stuff from Posthuman Studios (makers of Eclipse Phase) or Evil Hat (FATE Core and Accelerated) can be bought and recovered. I’ve reunited with several older games (Murphy’s World, Tales From the Floating Vagabond) if for no other reason to see if they aged well (most do not) and seen other games available to purchase that either I wasn’t old enough to buy on my parent’s dime or that I simply hadn’t got the gumption to buy (Macho Women With Guns, Kobolds Ate My Baby). So much of it is available again now, and as someone who views games as historical pieces and entertainment in one it’s like having the Library of Alexandria at my disposal.
– Shelf Savers: My home is a mess. I live in a place that needs to be two times larger just to hold my stuff, let alone my roommate’s. I’d say that a good quarter of my bookshelf space in my dwelling is supporting the weight of era upon era of roleplaying books and supplements, and that doesn’t even cover the four copy paper boxes full of World of Darkness and Shadowrun supplements on the floor of my kitchen’s pantry. Space however, is not so much a problem in the age of digital publishing. At present, I have many, many digital copies of games right at my fingertips at any time I want. It’s a wonderful thing realizing that you are no longer going to have to crate around a milk crate full of big-ass books in and out of your chosen game cave. The worst back injury I may have ever dealt to myself came from moving my games to college with me. Never. Again.
– Pricing: If you suffer from poor impulse control like I do, you find that despite the case made above about space isn’t always your primary concern. Like most everything else, a lot of it comes back to money. Physical books are expensive. I recently went to a local store, curious about the latest incarnation of the Star Wars RPG, Edge of Empire, released by Fantasy Flight Games, and the book almost burned into my hand like the amulet did to the creepy Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark when I saw the sixty dollar price tag. For that much coin, you’d better be committed to actually playing the game. With digital content, chances are good that the price is going to be a little less on my wallet for something I’ve only passing curiosity for and might not play. It’s how I came across games like Remnants and the original Gumshoe by Pelgrane Press. Had I been made to pay thirty bucks for either of those games, I’d have given them a pass and missed out on amazing titles.
– Ecological: It goes without saying, this way isn’t taking any more trees to the task of becoming paper. Most people like the idea of lessening the planet’s burden in the form of not making more crap for it to be junked up with – so this is worth mentioning in passing.
The Good Stuff: Hands-on Goodness
– Tactile Response: Let’s face it, humans love to hold stuff. What good is a thing you can buy, but not hold some people say. Others simply come back to one important thing: reading from tablets doesn’t feel right, and reading things off a screen can be especially irritating if your job means sitting in front of a screen for the time you’re indentured to your employers. I’m guilty of this at times – I grew up with physical media and it’ll always have a spot on my shelves. Plus, it’s really cool when you can get Mike Pondsmith to sign your Cyberpunk stuff. Not even he can physically sign a PDF (though a signed iPad from Mike would be boss).
– Easy Indexing: Wait, what? Computers are the best indexing in town you say? It’s what they’re made for apart for crunching numbers! And yeah, you’d be right to a point, but, let’s have an example. Put two gamers around a table at a game. One gamer is armed with an iPad (or Nexus, I don’t care what side of the branding wars you’re on) the other with a physical copy of the book for the system they’re using. Now bring up an obscure rule reference. Who finds it first? I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that the player with the physical book wins. While the guy with the iPad is scrolling and waiting for pages to load, the gal with the actual book in her hand is gonna find it way faster as there’s no load time.
– Wireless and No Batteries Needed: Hey, what’s that blinking red light on your tablet mean? Oh. Sorry. That must suck. I’m gonna sit right here and read my book without having to plug into anything at all. And as the boys at Penny Arcade say, ‘Book works with the shelves you have at home.’
– Local Business: If you’re twenty or older, you probably remember the days when commerce wasn’t non-stop, and you had to actually leave your house to buy something. There was no Amazon.com in 1990. If you wanted a game, you were out and about at the stores that catered to your needs. Now, you can recall my encounters with the denizens of the fish god as seen in my intro, but on the whole, my experience in game stores from Phoenix to Philadelphia has been overwhelmingly positive, and the people who ran those stores are some of my most trusted advisors when it comes to being RPG tastemakers. They’re good people, and often good friends. There are shitty game stores out there, but for the most part, these small businesses are scraping by on Pokemon card sales and consuming cheap whiskey (sometimes simultaneously) and their RPG market is a dwindling return unless they’re dancing to Hasbro or Paizo’s tune. Throwing some duckets for physical copies of the work keeps these guys and gals around and able to keep pointing you to new shiny stuff on their shelves.
The Bad Stuff: Digital Heroin
– The Glut of Low Quality Crap: Let’s be honest, when the entry fee to play is set to something near non-existent, you get what you pay for. Go trawl through some of the ‘content’ on rpg.drivethrustuff.com. I even linked it for you, so I’ll wait. Man, there was sweet stuff in there – but what was the ratio of stuff you’d look at and stuff that you could tell was not worth the whopping price of ‘free?’. A lot of the stuff online is crap. It is hard to physically print anything in the RPG genre these days unless you absolutely know there’s a market to sell to. But, with a low entry bar for digital goods, poorly designed and terrible crap gets pushed out frequently, sometimes at a cost that is surprisingly less than free.
– Limited By Your Viewing Tools: Few things are more frustrating to me than having to wait on my technology at the gaming table. Even if you are good with creating bookmarks in your reader and don’t have curveballs your players throw at you, sometimes the format itself is trying to kill you. I bought a copy of a sweet looking RPG about playing characters in the aftermath of a largely burned-out zombie apocalypse, but since it’s 258 MB in size, my tablet chokes to death on it before I can ever read it. There’s not a lot of quality control on the digital frontier, and as a result, bloat books that crash tablets are regrettably common. Some titles will give you the ‘print-friendly’ edition at a lower file size to mitigate this, but not enough providers do. The alternative is using your desktop or laptop, but those are space killers around the gaming table unless you have a Sultan in your house (Geek Chic – PLEASE gift me a sultan gaming table. I’ll link you as much as you want).
– Death of Community: If you’re not hitting a store, you can argue that you’re unknowingly doing your part to disband the gaming community. You meet people at the stores. You get the opportunity to play with new people in person, which is arguably the best way to play (even if Roll20.net is pretty cool). You also get the opportunity to look at the Fish God Cult and remind yourself of the point at which you might want to stop gaming for a bit. But, despite what people say about games and gamers, gaming is social. Gamers do it to have a little escape while also hanging out with people of the same bent. They used to hang at the stores. But at this rate, stores won’t be around much longer without gamers out there to support them. Then we’ll have to find pick-up groups to play online with. That ends up a little too close to chat roulette for my liking.
– Cheap, but Not TOO Cheap: Would you pay $20 for a PDF? Some digital publishers want you to do just that. The allure of digital format is that since you’re not buying something that comes with the overhead of having to print it a mess of times, it should be cheaper right? People have been saying that to the big publishers for years and they still aren’t changing their tunes (and probably won’t). And the big publishers in the RPG industry aren’t above it either. Sure, they’ll give you a break on pricing, but sometimes not by much. The big organizations like Onyx Path Publishing (current licensee of White Wolf Gaming Studio’s products) charge as much as $40 for some of their PDFs. While one can arguably look at production value or fun-to-dollar-spend ratio and approve… ones and zeroes that expensive can still price out some of the target market, and sometimes providers who think their stuff is worth that price… are really, really wrong.
The Bad Stuff: Dead Tree Format
– Cost: High-end books worth having are hella expensive in the industry these days. The Warhammer 40K universe alone has pulled huge dollar amounts out of my pockets several times a year since they started releasing RPG material through their partners in crime, Fantasy Flight Games. FFG puts out some beautifully illustrated, lovingly crafted and a wondrous material. But, at a price of sixty bucks a core book (and there are five core books for 40k), they have made $300 off of me and every other die-hard 40K fan in this spiral arm of the galaxy. And the little guys ain’t much better. Cubicle 7 puts out amazing books that I just can’t justify paying for unless they’re digital. Hot War, a book that is smaller than a thin quality paperback book when printed, goes for thirty bucks. That’s more than I’d pay for a newly released hardback by a famous novelist. For that cost, the book had best perform sexual favors.
– Age: Paper doesn’t age well, not even high-gloss, fancy paper. Bindings ends up cracking down, hardboung covers bow, paperback covers get shredded, and if you put it in storage, there’s a good chance of the material getting mildewed. Or, more commonly, your players spill beer and hot sauce on it. Physical books’ digital cousins tend to age well so long as you’re keeping them on solid medium, and with cloud based downloads like on RPG Drive Thru, you’re looking at being able to re-download them as many times as you need to. There’s something to be said for a product that could live longer than you will.
So What’s the Answer?
Ultimately, it varies from player to player, but the signs point to an acceptance of digital medium on the whole. The number of hobby shops wane and the internet seems to grab more territory as much as I hate to say it. I’m a bibliophile, have been my whole life. The real printed McCoy is my preferred way to go, but as things dictate, I have to make decisions to buy digital sometimes. I can either accept the digital to increase my ability to intake content, or I can make a principle stand and end up with far less content to show for my spent duckets. Peril abounds. For now, I believe most tabletop gamers will also do something in between, buying physical copies of their favorites, and looking to digital for everything else.
So long as we’re still gaming though, that’s a good thing.