Years ago, I built my own world-building app from a bunch of Python scripts and lots of markdown templates. While there's a certain appeal to nerding out in this manner, development of such a system cost me a lot of time — so much time in fact, that I didn't write much for several years.
When I discovered World Anvil earlier this year, naturally my interest piqued and I half-heartedly evaluated it. Note, that I say half-heartedly because I was in the middle of revising Cadoc's Contract for its March publication.
Anyway, one day, fate played a hand, and I inherited somebody else's Facebook group along with Issac Walker, who it turns out is the Social Media Manager for World Anvil. We got chatting; I introduced myself as the emerging fantasy novelist and app reviewer I am, and he offered to elevate my World Anvil account temporarily so I could complete my review with full access to all the app's features. Cool bananas!
With Cadoc's Contract published, and the first draft of The Prince's Bastard is mellowing nicely, I decided it was high time I made good on my promise.
Pricing and subscription tiers
World Anvil operates under a subscription model. Fortunately, there's a free tier that doesn't expire, allowing you plenty of time to experiment with the service before committing. Naturally, however, the free tier is limited, not least by forcing you to build your world under the public eye. That's fine for table-top gamers, but most novelists will find this unsettling.
If and when you're ready to subscribe to a paid tier, there's an elaborate feature matrix showing you the features each tier unlocks. You can change between monthly, quarterly, half-yearly and yearly pricing, which I liked as someone who's always cautious about taking on a new subscription.
As I noted above, World Anvil kindly elevated my access for testing and review purposes. Having used the app for about two months, I would cautiously agree with their tier descriptions. I'd say the Journeyman tier would be more than enough for a sole world-builder or novelist. Currently, that will set you back $29 Australia1 for 6 months access, which I think is reasonable.
Go beyond the journeyman tier, and I think you will reach the point of diminishing returns, especially as a sole creator. The higher tiers are really for those with more advanced mapping and configuration needs.
World Anvil is a collaborative online app for world-builders with social networking bolted on. The former makes it similar to a wiki, while the latter makes it somewhat unique. The social aspects not only foster collaboration but also to build a community around the service and the worlds its users create. The interface adopts a night-friendly, if somewhat loud supporting colour palette. If you don't like the colours, you can make (very) limited changes in the Interface Settings screen, available from the Account Menu.
This design choice seems in keeping with the service's target demographic: builders of homebrew table-top gamers. With lights dimmed and the beer flowing, it's easy to imagine a Dungeon Master using World Anvil from a laptop or iPad as a reference while running a game with their mates.
When you log in, you land on the Dashboard. There's a hell of a lot on screen, with an array of widgets that easily distract the eye. There's community news, lists of linked articles, sponsor/partner logos prominently displayed. The free tier also shows adverts.
World Anvil is as unashamedly energetic, nerdy and fun as its exuberant founder, Janet Forbes, who features in several YouTube videos to provide help and inspiration.
So, a Zen writing experience, World Anvil is not. Still, it's usable after a period of adjustment, though I'd appreciate an option to slim down the UI for those who like a calmer place to write.
World Anvil's rasion d'tre is creating content for your world, and its creators have put in a lot of thought and effort into making this monumental task as easy as possible. Knowing how hard this is, I really have to salute them because they've done a terrific job.
World Anvil shares content creation between generic articles and a collection of guided, form-based templates for commonly used world-building elements. For those who are new to world-building, the templates (and there's a lot of them) provide a fantastic, structured approach to developing solid foundations to a fantasy setting. For those who don't like structure and prefer to wing it, this approach might not be the right fit.
At the time of writing, here's the list of article templates — it's quite a lot!
- Condition (as in an ailment)
- Formation (Military)
- Article, Generic
- Law (Meta/Physical)
- Military Conflict
- Myth / Legend
- Religion / Organisation / Country
- Rank / Title
Almost every one of these represents a structured template, using forms to guide you through creating and fleshing out an element of your world. Thanks to the magic of relational databases, many of the form fields allow you to build connections to other elements in your world. So, for example, when you create a new language, you can link to one or more Parent Languages or articles about any ethnic groups you've created. World Anvil also allows you to create a related article on the fly, much as you would in a conventional wiki, albeit in a more structured pattern.
All templates operate the same way, allowing you to write content and make connections between different articles. There's 25+, and the developers seem to add more all the time. I found them easy to use and the pre-defined fields stimulate one's creativity and thought processes without being overly prescriptive. There are no mandatory fields, which I also appreciate. Note I found saving inconsistent, sometimes the app appeared to save for you, while in other instances you have to click a save button — not a huge issue, but I would like to some consistency across the UI.
You write content using simple text boxes (HTML textareas), which you can drag to make larger in any modern browser (I used Safari and Chrome). Plain text dominates, but you can use BBCode to apply character and paragraph level formatting. BBCode is an odd choice in 2019 — I would have preferred Markdown — and it made me wonder if the app had its origins as a fork of an open source forum project.
Depending on your subscription tier, each article also allows you to set access permissions, customise the generated article's appearance, set article preferences, and add Notes and Secrets.
To be honest, the sheer volume of fields and options you can tweak can get a little overwhelming and I ignored most to concentrate on content. Again, as I noted with my general impressions on the UI, content creation could also enjoy a scaled-down interface.
Once created, World Anvil lets you organise articles using drag-and-drop in the Articles page. You can move articles around or nest them below other articles with ease. This creates a hierarchy for your articles, allowing you to structure and order your world bible.
I didn't create categories at first, and this was a mistake. Categories act as the major taxonomical structure for your world, and you should take the time to set these up.
You can create as many categories and name them whatever you like. I went with the fairly conservatives labels of Characters and Locations, but again I reiterate you can create whatever suits your thinking.
Once created, you can then organise your articles accordingly.
Categories then appear as the primary headings in your rendered world's table of contents.
Viewing your world
Like GM Builder, World Anvil takes your articles and renders them as a styled HTML document. Here's the skeleton document.
Mostly, I liked the approach and design aesthetic. What I'd like to see though is a robust mechanism for turning the content into PDFs of different trim sizes, either for printing or distribution. Epub export would also be welcome for those of us who like to view our files offline and on the go using an iPad.
The default templates are great, but world-building is hardly a one-size-fits-all practice. That's where Block help, allowing you to add reusable tables, text, images, iFrames or even a table with a built-in random number generator, which DMs will appreciate for generating content on the fly.
Map editing is where World Anvil really shines — or at least it should have been, were it not a little buggy. I'll also add that World Anvil locks many of the advanced mapping features behind Master and Grandmaster pricing tiers — i.e., they cost more to access.
World Anvil can't draw or generate a map, so you still must do that elsewhere. What it allows you to do, however, is to augment an imported map with layers of interactivity. It's supposed to work like Google Maps, allowing you to pan and zoom around the map and adding interactive elements like markers.
Unfortunately, this didn't work well — at least initially. World Anvil refused to render my 1MB jpeg map in the map editor.
It also wasn't displayed correctly in the published map viewer.
I was disappointed, and because of it not working correctly, I couldn't explore much of the touted editing and interactivity features.
However, I logged out, closed my browser (Safari), and when I returned to the app a few days later, the problem seemed to have righted itself.
Now I could add markers to the map, and I really appreciated the visual aid when adding content to the world. As with other templates, World Anvil's map editor allows you to create new locations, historical events and general articles on the fly.
The other thing I liked was the automatic calculation of longitude and latitude — or at least LonLats relative to your map. You can optionally add height, which I guess is analogous to elevation above sea level. For those who've attempted the fool's errand of creating a GIS for their world-building, this is a much saner and easier alternative.
One thing I'd love to see is the ability to calculate distances between markers. Bonus points would be the ability to define countries using some kind of polygon and then calculate their area, essential to those of us world-builders who like planning agricultural carrying capacities and so on.
There are lots of additional features too, like the ability to add a compass rose, changing the icons used for markers, and even customising elements through CSS. You can set the default zoom level and the initial location on which the map is centred. Marker groups introduce the possibility of grouping labels by related entities, for example, nations. Maps can even have multiple layers, just like a Photoshop image or Google Earth.
So, after the initial hiccough, I found myself very much in love with World Anvil's mapping features, and it's definitely the strong point of the service.
Timelines and Calendars
World Anvil allows you to create both timelines and custom calendars, something that fantasy and sci-fi builders will appreciate.
For each timeline, you can create as many historical events as you need using the same form-driven template as other content types. You can even add events to different timelines, which is useful when you are creating multiple civilisations with their own calendars. Another helpful feature is that events are dated according to a universal year counter. That means they aren't calendar-specific and can be referenced across multiple calendars.
What I especially liked is how the timelines are rendered when published. For anyone who's tried to make a timeline in Excel look pretty, you'll agree the look and feel of World Anvils timelines are particularly nice.
Custom calendars are also easy to create.
Unfortunately, you are limited to naming months — you can't set the day names, or define the length of weeks or months like you can with Aeon Timeline or DonJon's excellent generator. That said, the limitations make World Anvil much more approachable. For those daunted by Aeon Timeline's complexity, World Anvil offers a very credible alternative.
World Anvil is a cloud app. In plain — or perhaps more accurate — English that means it's running on someone's server somewhere, beyond your reach and control. Fair enough, more and more creative apps are moving to the cloud, but it gives me cause for concern.
World Anvil isn't like Google Docs. It's not a browser-based word processor whose data can be easily extracted and used with a similar program like Microsoft Word. Instead, it is a complex database using a proprietary schema, that means you cannot easily cut your ties with World Anvil and take your data elsewhere.
While there is an export feature, available in the World Configuration page it is limited and doesn't export everything. When you choose to export, World Anvil renders a single HTML page in your browser, which you can either save locally or copy and paste it into a word processor. This is okay, but I noticed a few quirks, not least some links in the generated HTML referred back to the World Anvil app, rather than the corresponding heading in the exported HTML.
There's also the issue of size, a big world-building project with hundreds of articles will result in a massive document. Importing that into a word processor for reformatting and editing would be a considerable undertaking.
I'm not against cloud computing, just keep your eyes open and think about the long-term viability of having your precious content under someone else's control — especially as this is a subscription service.
I used World Anvil for about two months, dipping in and out of the app as time and interest permitted. Overall, I'd say it was a good experience, but the occasional niggle gave me pause for thought.
World Anvil takes the sting and complexity out of world-building, a pursuit that can feel like you are trying to eat an elephant. That said, the app adds complexity unto itself — there's a considerable learning curve. In fact, I've barely scratched the surface of what it offers. The UI takes some getting used to, especially for those who prefer simplicity and minimal clutter. There's also plenty of advanced features that some might find intimidating, though I would argue messing with them is entirely optional.
My take away is that World Anvil is an excellent app for anyone looking to build a table-top gaming world, particularly in collaboration with other users. I'm less convinced this is an instant buy for novelists, not because of the app's limitations, but because it might be more tool than one needs. Novelists like myself often work in isolation, so much of the community and collaboration aspect of the app is redundant. One must also come to terms with the subscription pricing and the slightly uncomfortable fact your creative content is stored on someone else's computer, and in a proprietary format.
Leaving aside the maps feature for a moment and much of the core functionality can be reproduced in any generic wiki or even Scrivener. There is no shortage of free world-building templates available, which can be readily adapted into whatever tool you prefer — and with much more customisation than what World Anvil allows. Admittedly, that's a lot of work, and if you prefer your hand held, then World Anvil might be a great choice.
The mapping features really impressed me — once I overcame the initial quirks2. To have a Google Maps like experience for your own maps is invaluable for world-building. Likewise, the timeline feature was another win. Maps and timelines are hard to get right, and World Anvil has pulled it off with aplomb.
On a final note, keep one thing in mind. World-building is a labour of love, spanning months, years or even decades of a writer's life. While I think World Anvil isn't going anywhere, I would caution you to be very sure it's the right fit for you before committing your creativity, time and money to it. It's a great app, but can you see yourself using it in five years' time, or ten? I've been working on my fantasy setting for over twenty years — as I said, it's a labour of love.
- Cover by Maranda Vandergriff on Unsplash
- My thanks to Issac Walker and the wonderful folk at World Anvil for making this review possible.