PDFs are the bastards of the RPG community: tacitly acknowledged but rarely advertised. In general, they are used exclusively only when a product is either too short or too niche to deserve a print run, and are priced as such. When put out alongside a print run, they are the byproduct of the print file process, and still treated as nothing more than an afterthought.
I think this is a mistake. While there is a definite joy in the physical book, PDFs have advantages that no book can claim, advantages that have for a long time been sorely underutilized. Our current kickstarter, The Demon Collective, Vol 1., has just hit 250% funding, and subsequently unlocked the stretch goal that allows me to give the PDF version the full white-glove treatment. Let’s talk about what that means, why it’s important, and how you can do it in your work.
What it Means to Optimize a PDF
To make it more than a Word doc with a different file type, or a digital scan of the print copy. It means to recognize the sometimes-hidden strengths of the PDF format and explicitly design for them, ideally before even starting layout. Lets start with the generals.
PDFs are portable and indestructible. You know how in JRPGs, the protagonist can stow a nigh-infinite number of potions in their pouch? You can do that with PDFs. I have dozens, if not hundreds, of games, supplements, and adventures stored online in my Google Drive, with others downloaded to my phone, tablet, and laptop for even faster convenience. I can carry a library’s worth of game books with me on my phone, a device I have on my person at all times anyways. They take up no physical space and cannot be damaged or destroyed (assuming you have backups or host them online in one of the many free sites).
Say you’ve got a game that uses the triad of RPG material: Player Book, GM Book, Monster Book. You are doing yourself and your audience a disservice if you do not produce high-quality PDFs for them. The ability to alt-tab through multiple books simultaneously on my laptop’s PDF viewer is one that I’ve used many times, and making it easy to do so is a responsibility that falls on the designer.
PDFs are responsive to the reader. Have you ever considered how much we take adjustable zoom for granted? The ability to infinitely resize a document to show us just as much or little as we need, for text to automatically refocus to ensure sharpness at all magnifications? Large-print books exist for a reason, but the market for them in tabletop RPGs is likely not enough to justify a full print run, which are capriciously profitable in the best of cases. But there are ways to accommodate the visually-impaired with a PDF that are simple, responsive, and require very little effort on the part of the designer.
PDF layers can be used to turn on/off backgrounds and visual noise to produce a cleaner page that has higher contrast with the text, making it easier to read. Typefaces optimized for print (not webfonts as, due to arcane mathematics too complicated to explain here, PDFs “draw” more legibly with print fonts) also help ensure your book remains readable at all magnifications and when printed out.
There are other ways to make your book accessible to the visually-impaired. PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) is a badge of honor indicating that your book conforms to the highest standards of accessibility. This means being fully readable by screen readers such as JAWS (including tables and images!), having high color contrast between text, images, and background, and being properly tagged (more on that in a future article). This can be a monumental undertaking for large books with lots of information, but it’s well worth it to accommodate people who may otherwise have trouble reading and running your game.
PDFs can be interlinked. Think of this as “threading.” If you’ve got a citation or footnote directing the reader to another page, have the text link directly to that page when clicked! Better yet, if the relevant information is short enough, set up a comment that shows when you hover over the piece in the text. If you’re using Indesign to layout your document, the former can actually be done within the document (to prevent it from being undone by revisions and future exports), but Acrobat can do it from any PDF.
Because PDFs are not books, there is no reason to subject your reader to needless page-flipping. Interlink your PDF, and give it bookmarks for easy navigation to specific sections. If you look above to the previous image, you’ll notice a header that lists six different chapters. That header is on every single text page of the PDF, and each of those chapters can be jumped to immediately by clicking on its name in the header. In a book, this would be impossible, but in a PDF, it’s just practicality.
How This All Affects the Demon Collective, Vol. 1
To start, the PDF is going to be fully interlinked. The file size will be reduced as much as physically possible without reducing image quality, to take up less storage space. Backgrounds, borders, and art will all be placed on separate layers, so they can be toggle on and off at the readers’ convenience. The entire document will be PDF/UA compatible. And one more thing: there will be a specially formatted version of the PDF, designed to be printed on a4 paper and folded to make a zine. Some people have been disappointed by our shipping costs, and while we have no way of changing those, we’re determined to provide a way for our backers to create their own physical zine with minimal effort.
Stay tuned for a more detailed look at all that goes into PDF optimization, including guides on PDF/UA compliance, and a detailed rundown of everything we’re doing for The Demon Collective, Vol. 1.