One of my earliest blog posts about e-books, back in 2002 when I was writing for Jeff Kirvin’s “Writing on Your Palm,” was called “Whither the PDA D&D?”. I pointed out that, whereas fiction e-books had made the transition to portable e-format, role-playing games had yet to do so. Possibly one of the biggest obstacles was the way that so many of them depend on tables, which don’t tend to translate well to small screens.
Given how big and thick role-playing game books tend to be, they would seem tailor-made for such a conversion—if someone could get around the table issue. One of the big reasons for e-textbooks is how big and heavy they are and how much of a strain they put on kids’ backs—but role-playing games are arguably just as bad. Perhaps worse, because kids actually want to carry these monsters around with them. But aside from the ubiquitous PDFs and a few experimental examples I cited in that blog post, there has not been much in the way of e-RPGs—until now.
Last week, my friend Jenna Moran called my attention to the electronic edition of the third edition of her role-playing game Nobilis. (Note: The first and second editions, which I also own, were written under a different name but by the same person.) She comped me a copy of the $19.95 DriveThruRPG e-book bundle, which includes a Kindle version, three EPUB versions (Nook-, iBooks-, and generic-device flavored), and three PDF versions (fully-formatted, small illustrations, and no background art). All the e-books are DRM-free, but are digitally watermarked with the name of the purchaser.
Nobilis was a prime candidate for the e-book treatment for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the second edition of it was one of the heaviest and unwieldiest RPG books I’ve ever owned. A gorgeous book, in point of fact, but running to 304 coffee-table-book-sized pages, which makes it tricky to carry around places. I haven’t seen the print version of the third edition, so I don’t know physically how big it is—but the PDF version comes in at 372 8.5” x 11” pages, so I’m guessing it weighs about the same.
The other reason is that, being diceless, it does not have as many or as elaborate tables as most role-playing games (though there are some), meaning that there is less need for extensive reformatting.
However, simply because the nature of books displayed on e-readers is so different from print, some adaptation was necessary—and not just for tables. Moran has written a rather long, well-reasoned explanation of the process she went through to make Nobilis read well in EPUB (and Kindle).
One of the major changes involved reducing the number of “flores,” epigrams from fictitious books included in sidebars as flavor text in the printed version. They were an important part of the book’s overall identity, But on the smaller screen, putting them all in would have been too disruptive, so Moran decided to go with a smaller number and use them as section breaks. There are also some minor differences in formatting, including using clickable links to represent footnotes rather than placing them at the sides of the page as in the PDF and printed book.
I’ve read through portions of the book on Ibis Reader, my iPod Touch, my iPad, and my Kobo Reader, and on the whole am very impressed with the quality of the translation. The links to footnotes and the art gallery section work very well (except, of course, on the Kobo, which still has no method of clicking on links). Some elements are not completely the same from version to version, but the core of rules and setting are present in both.
As for the game itself, it’s a little hard to describe. The idea is that characters take on the role of Powers, people who have been endowed with a spark of divinity allowing them to exercise dominion over concepts in the world. Someone might be the Power of rainfall, meaning he embodies and controls the concept of rain in the world. The game is set against a backdrop of a war for the future of all creation—the gods who gave the players’ their power are off fighting that battle, and the players are left in charge of taking care of the homefront while they’re away.
The game is very atmospheric, but the atmosphere has changed a bit since the second edition. The earlier editions were somewhat dark and moody, which some people can find a bit off-putting. The new edition is based in the same setting, but seems to recast everything to be somehow…cuter.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to play this game, but I have had a lot of fun reading it. Moran has a marvelously active imagination, and has poured it out onto these digital pages in a very accessible way. And her explanation of how the conversion process worked is almost as fascinating as the book itself.
Although I got my copy free, if I hadn’t I would have had few qualms about paying $19.95 for this download given that it’s already a game I enjoy. With three different EPUB formats, three different PDF formats, and a Kindle version, all DRM-free, it’s really a bargain.