Kobold Press, Experimentation, and the Future of Electronic Game Formats

In case you missed it, Kobold Press decided to try something new with their current Kickstarter. The product, Tales of the Old Margreve,  is a level 1-10 set of adventures set around an ancient forest in the Midgard setting, with an accompanying Player’s Guide that has new player options centered around the people living in the region, subclasses and spells that are focused on the theme, etc.
The experimental part is that the Kickstarter doesn’t offer PDF support for the product. The only electronic reference material will be through data sets on either Roll 20 or Fantasy Grounds.
The cited reasons for this are as follows:
  • Nobody really loves PDFs as a format for electronic books
  • Lots of people really like D&D Beyond
The Kickstarter funded quickly, but there have been a significant number of people on social media platforms or in the comments of the Kickstarter voicing their concern over the lack of PDFs. Kobold Press has said that there may be PDFs in the future, but they aren’t part of this offering.
I will admit, I’m one of the people that posted to say that I wish there had been PDF support, and I also wanted to make sure that I was very clear to point out that my opinion is just a single data point. Kobold Press doesn’t need to do what I want them to do, but as a previous customer, I was volunteering my preference.
All of that said, there is a lot going on with this decision. I’ve never been an expert on anything, but I’ve also continually suffered from impulse control when it comes to expressing my thoughts, so here we go.
Nobody Likes PDFs
PDFs are not the best electronic media for expressing game books. We already know they aren’t the best way of presenting a book, in general, because so many people would much rather have their books in a format for some kind of epublishing format. Being able to change font, size, background colors, and the like make a document infinitely more readable for a wide number of people.
The problem is, RPGs often have some challenges when it comes to being expressed in an epublishing format. Images, charts, and examples often don’t scale well. While it’s less about expressing the core information in the text, many companies spend a lot of time developing distinctive trade dress, which also doesn’t translate well into epublishing formats (and may actually be subverted by allowing readers to change things like fonts).

The RPG industry hasn’t developed a good “offline” solution for reading game books, and the current solutions were designed for sending smaller files of text documents (PDFs), or for expressing traditional books to be read (epublishing). Creating a solution that works offline, works on portable devices, and preserves the formatting of pictures, tables, examples, and trade dress is something that may require more specialized work.

Lots of People Like D&D Beyond
I have a full set of D&D products on D&D Beyond. It can be a steep introductory price, but the ability to search for content across everything you own, customize monsters, and create and store characters is extremely powerful.
Even taking the above into account, I still wish two things were true:
  • I wish I had PDFs of all of my D&D books that worked offline
  • Even with all of the functionality that it has, I wouldn’t go all in for any other game that I can think of for a D&D Beyond-like site
Aside: I’ve got the Beta app for D&D Beyond that lets you download local copies of the rulebooks to read on a device without an internet connection, but unfortunately, as far as I’ve been able to tell, you can’t save your data to an SD card, meaning that if I have to deal with the internal memory of my tablet or my phone, I’m running out of space really quickly at this point.
D&D tugs at my heartstrings because of nostalgia, but it also has a strong lock on being the entry point into RPGs for a ton of people. That’s more true now than ever. But imagine for a moment that Pathfinder, Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs, Onyx Path, or White Wolf had a similar service, with similar prices. Are all of those likely to survive?
Curse does an amazing job with D&D Beyond, and I actually think their prices are reasonable for what they provide, but unless you had some consolidated service that charged a base price and then lesser licensing fees for individual games to provide similar functionality to all of them, this becomes a really hard sell the deeper into the RPG well you go. Even at that, what might be profitable for the company providing the service may still not recoup what the individual companies want if the electronic purchase of the material ends up outstripping physical sales.
One of the things that hurt 4th edition D&D is that D&D Insider was actually too good a deal. While it was a low enough price point that I stayed subscribed even when I wasn’t playing 4th edition anymore, the price point was good enough that many people didn’t bother to pick up physical books, especially when the online content was updated with errata—and there was a lot of that to go around.
What I’m really getting at isn’t that someday we won’t have a D&D Beyond like site for multiple RPG companies, it is that D&D Beyond is really the first to successfully do what WOTC has been trying to do since the 4th edition era—create an online content platform that performs well and provides proper value for the service generated.
We have had character builders that have worked across multiple game systems. We’ve had VTT data sets that could be used to streamline rules usage. But those are specialized applications, not solutions that were created, first and foremost, to provide access to the information in a book and to serve as a reference to what is contained in that book. It may do things like this ancillary to its primary purpose, but that’s not what they were designed to do.
I’m not going to rail against VTTs just because I’m really bad at using them. There are thousands of gamers using them right now, and they work well for them. They have allowed a ton of people without games to have access to game groups and to continue to experience an awesome hobby.
That said, a VTT, even when it has rules references built in, has some limitations.

  • The VTT will always need to serve as a VTT first—that means that rules references will trump learning the game or the material to begin with
  • VTTs are designed to be online—if you have a tablet and no internet access, you can read a PDF
Now, if your answer to this is “if you want to read the book for the first time, get the physical copy,” then we have the problem of portability. Let’s say I’m reading an adventure set in a particular world. There is a good sized world book for that setting. There is a player’s guide for the adventures, and one for the setting.
If I’m going on a trip, or if I’m reading these over lunch while I’m at work, I am unlikely to carry four good sized books with me. I can, however, carry a tablet with all four of those PDFs loaded onto it, and see how the adventure material fits into the setting, and how the new player options work with previously introduced options, fairly easily.
Marketing Plans
The other problem with the D&D Beyond analogy, and attempting to use VTTs as a D&D Beyond substitute is that WOTC started their 5th edition business plan without issuing PDFs for 5th edition material. Whether you think they are right or wrong, there is no option to get any of the main D&D 5th edition releases on PDF.
At this point, Kobold Press has multiple major releases for 5th edition D&D on PDF. They have an ongoing monthly pamphlet funded by Patreon that has PDF-only supplements every month. Right next to me on the desk, I have five good sized hardcover products, for which I also have the PDFs.
Because so much of Kobold Press’ library is available on PDF at this point, picking a 1-10th level hardcover adventure release with player’s guide support as the test bed for VTT substituting as electronic book support feels very odd. If this had been done with the Midgard Worldbook, for example, that would have felt like an organic cutoff point to try a new strategy. At this point, it’s just strange, because it’s not just a change in business strategy, it’s a request that consumers change their buying patterns.
I’m not saying that rolling this out with the Midgard Worldbook Kickstarter would have made it a more popular option, but it would have been a clearer dividing line between the previous products in the line, and moving forward.

PDFs aren’t the best option for electronic reference of game material. VTTs are useful to people that primarily play and prep their games online, but even then, physical books seem like they are needed to supplement that option at times. We are entering a new era of how technology interacts with our hobbies, but entering that era is the same has already having the best solution to the challenges posed by consumers that want better options. Putting a square peg in a round hole is just swapping one imperfect reference solution for another, and it’s swapping it for what may be a more limited subset of consumers.

What Do I Know?

All of the above is my gut reaction on a lot of things and how they interact in the RPG industry. I’ve got no special knowledge of anything, other than just being a consumer that spends way too much time thinking about things. Kobold Press makes good products, and in addition, they were way ahead of the curve when it comes to crowdfunding back in the day. They had patron projects to fund their earliest products back before crowdfunding was even a thing that most people thought about.

I wish them the best. I hope they continue to make good quality products, and that people continue to buy them. It will be interesting to watch this experiment as it unfolds, and it will be interesting to see if the vocal customers (myself included) are representative or outliers. 

One comment

  • I think it's important to note they haven't said they were abandoning PDF, they were just trying an experiment for *this* project.


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