iAnnotate is fast becoming my most-used in-game iPad RPG app. It not only reads PDFs, but it lets you edit them too. And this is where it becomes a killer GMing app for me, which I will soon explain.

Thanks to Tom Ganz for pointing this app out in his comment on good gaming apps for the iPad.


iAnnotate is available on the iTunes App Store for $10 at the time of writing. Here is a rough feature list:

  • Make annotations: Text Notes, Highlight, Underline, Free-Form Drawing, Stamps, Bookmarks. You can edit and move annotations around.
  • Full-featured PDF reader: supports standard scroll and zoom gestures, supports portrait and landscape modes, also offers full screen mode.
  • Easy transfer of files: I use Dropbox, which is free. You can also use email, iTunes sync, file URL or Aji’s free desktop transfer software.
  • Tabbed PDF Reading: This was a big factor for me. I want rules, adventures, notes and other files open, all at the same time. There is a 6 file open limit, which I hope they increase.
  • Customizable Toolbars: Reposition, resize and customize all the toolbars.
  • PDF support: Copy and paste text, view existing PDF annotations, support for internal and URL links, and PDF outline/bookmarks support. Fully integrates annotations directly into the PDF, which means if you send files to other people, they will see the annotations you’ve made via iAnnotate. Those other people can use the PDF reader of their choice. I have only tested this with PDF reader on a different machine, but it worked well.
  • Document and library search: Search the files you have imported into the app. You can also filter by new, recent, unread, and annotated documents, or browse using folders. I find the GUI a bit confusing. I wish there was just a button that says Open File. Most other functions are intuitive, though.
  • VGA output: Another potentially awesome feature. I’m hoping I see a VGA adapter under the Christmas tree this year to test this out. :) According to the Aji site: “Use the iPad VGA dock connector to display your documents onto an external projector or monitor. Your document view, along with all annotations and popup displays, is mirrored as you navigate and annotate the document. You can also reference documents in other tabs on your iPad, without affecting the presented display.” Sounds like a win to me.

For RPG use

Those are the app’s features, so how can we take advantage of them in-game? I would love to hear your ideas and experiences. Here are mine.

Mapping nirvana

I created an abstract map of Riddleport for my campaign because I wanted to change some buildings on Paizo’s map. I traced their map in Illustrator and PDF’d it. However, you can use any map embedded in a PDF for glorious mapping.

I use my city map to record building identities. While every building is sketched out on the map, I have not figured out what every building is being used for, who owns it, who lives there and other details. To make things tricky, in my version of Riddleport the average building height is three storeys, thanks to magically aided stone construction over the years. So I have potentially three storeys-worth of notes to make on each building!

iPad rpg app for mapping

In-game mapping and notes are simple

iannotate rpg app

Zoom into files for easier mapping

Bookmarks in iAnnotate

Bookmarks make navigation fast

I find it easier to just make up locations as I plan specific encounters or play the game. That means I can use iAnnotate to label buildings and make notes as I go. This has solved a huge problem for me. Where have the PCs visited? What was at the location they visited? Who was at each visited location? I just note these on the PDF as I GM now.

As a bonus, I can search my annotations, so finding buildings previously visited is a snap.

Ultimately, this tool finally marries content with function. I have my map and I can make make notes on it, but with all the benefits of computing: infinite note space, editing, searching and easy filing. Woohoo!

In my screenshot you can see the annotations I have made on my Riddleport map so far. Those black dots are from Illustrator, so ignore those. When I first made the map I was going to update it in Illustrator and re-export each session. Then Tom told me about iAnnotate and I immediately switched, but forgot to remove the black dot labels in Illustrator.

For any map that needs annotation now, I am using this app on my iPad. My next dungeon map? Yup, I am making all my notes on locations and encounters on the map itself after I put it into PDF format. My next pre-designed building layout? Yup. The world map? Yup.

House rules

Sord screenshot

Make comments in your rules

I GM Pathfinder and the Sord product is an awesome rule summary reference. You can get it at RPGNow for $5.

However, when I use it with iAnnotate, all kinds of possibilities open up.

I bookmark frequently used rules. This reduces searching during encounters and speeds up combat, not only because I have an awesome rules summary in Sord, but because I can get around the PDF fast with bookmarks.

You can create bookmarks quick. So do not skimp on temporary ones. If you plan an encounter where monsters have certain abilities or certain tricky rules will come up, bookmark those rules in Sord and delete them after.

Further, you can pass your iPad around. Let a player figure it out while you do something else.

You can see in the screenshot how I have also made a note about house rules. It is the electronic equivalent of using Post-It Notes in your rulebooks. Have a comment, note or house rule? Put it right there in the exact place you need in the PDF version of your rulebook. Links, too.


Rite NPC Deck screenshot

Now it's a killer NPC organizer

I recently received a reviewer copy of the Rite NPC Deck. Now I am trying something new: using NPC images plus iAnnotate.

The product comes in a series of JPG files, which I imported into a single PDF. Then I opened the PDF in iAnnotate and used the bookmark feature to note what NPC pictures I am using for my campaign. I named the bookmark by the NPC name for fast reference.

Next, on the NPC’s page in the PDF, I started making notes about the NPC. Like maps, this now gives me the best of both worlds. Image + data, all-in-one. A single tap on the screen puts the PDF in full-screen mode, which hides the menus and all my annotations for a player-friendly show-and-tell of the NPC when they meet!

Next up, I will experiment with Hero Lab, as I make Pathfinder NPCs using that softwar and it supports PDF export.

Just for reading

I also use the app just to read PDFs. The tabs let me flip between files quick when researching and preparing for a session. I keep an annotation open to record ideas as they hit me, and drag the annotation around so it follows me as I go.

What would you do?

If you could add notes, bookmarks, highlights and lines to a PDF for RPG use, what would you do with those features? Got any ideas how we can take iAnnotate further to help us GM better?

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