It feels like ages since I last wrote an app review where I can dive into the weeds. So, when friend and fellow blogger/novelist Mark Timmony asked my opinion on Campfire, I thought it was time to do another.
Campfire is an app for planning novels and creating fictitious worlds. Given my 30 days of world-building series, I thought it was the ideal candidate for a thorough review, and I get to knock off another day!
Pricing, platforms and electrons
As with all my reviews, I like to start with the bottom line. Refreshingly, Campfire is available for a one-time purchase — no subscriptions.
There are two flavours — standard and pro. Standard is just for plotting, while the Pro version adds extensive world-building features. It's the world-building features I'm most interested in exploring.
At $75, Campfire Pro is more expensive than Scrivener and Scapple combined — and you can't write your story in it, the app is purely for planning. That already puts Campfire at a distinct disadvantage. It will take a lot to convince me of its value.
Campfire is available for macOS and Microsoft Windows, thanks to its construction with Electron. This framework allows developers to create cross-platform apps using web technology. My experience with electron apps is mixed; performance isn't great; apps don't feel native. So, I'm a bit hesitant about what I'll find as I use Campfire.
One glaring question arises, however, and it's my first bone to pick. Given Electron, why isn't Campfire on Linux? This would be trivial to do and gratefully received by the not-so-insignificant number of writers who prefer Linux.
Note, for this review, I am testing Campfire's macOS trial version, on a 2015 MacBook Air (i5, 8GB RAM) running macOS 10.15.5
First impressions and user interface
Once I activated the trial, the app presents a rather serene looking project creation window. I'm not expecting an Electron app to look attractive, but this at least is a promising start.
I created a new story and filled in the details using a form that looked like it came right out of a website.
As a quick aside, I looked at the resulting project file and discovered the file-format is an SQLite database disguised with the .cpfr extension. It even opens in the open-source SQLite editor I use.
While I wouldn't recommend poking around in there, I was pleased to find the format is accessible and based on reliable, open-source foundations.
Once you've created a new project, you are shown a title page, and I was stumped for a moment where to go next. There is minimal UI and no toolbar with which to interact.
So, looking instead at the menu bar, I see options for Characters, Relationships, Timeline, Character Arcs, World, Encyclopaedia1, Worldbuilding Pack and the View and Help menus. This menu bar is the sole mechanism for navigating between pages.
The View menu allows you to switch between pages. There is also the option to change the theme, which I immediately did, choosing fantasy for $hits and giggles.
The themes are pretty decent, and it was nice seeing some dark ones there for late-night writing. There's also an option to create your own, which I'm guessing is based on CSS, though I didn't take the time to experiment.
My biggest nitpick with the UI and navigation, is the lack of keyboard shortcuts. Reaching for the mouse to switch views, create characters and so on, is going to get very old, very fast.
Another omission is the lack of a split view or second window. This means you can only see one element at a time, which is a severe limitation when compared to Scrivener, OneNote or Ulysses.
The character sheet is presented as a collection of panels, containing any number of fields. The fields are fully customisable, is the label of each panel and its position in the window. You can also add new panels.
While it's easy to capture all this stuff in Scrivener, I do like how Campfire presents the information. Everything is easy to see and edit at a glance. My Scrivener character sheet, which is quite detailed, runs to several pages and is difficult to parse in a glance.
Another thing I liked is the References, and that's where we start seeing the power of the relational database underpinning Campfire. Using this panel, you can map characters in your world to other characters, events, locations and more. We'll see this capability throughout Campfire.
To stop here a moment, I should note that I've messed with databases for world-building in the past, and to be honest I've found them more tedious than helpful. This is because of the work needed to wire everything up to get the most out them. I can see this being tedious after a while — sometimes the wiki approach of writing and linking free-form articles is better for the creative process.
To test the feature, I created another character (sorry Mark) and added the reference with a brief description.
You can also export characters as a PDF. The output is plain but serviceable. I'd like the option of exporting to Word format, which can be edited just about anywhere. Still, it's better than nothing.
Campfire allows you to connect characters in what it calls a relationship web. These aren't the same as References on the character sheet, which don't get mapped in this view.
You can create multiple webs, add characters to them and link them through coloured lines. The colour key allows you to define what each link means. Double-click a character, and you jump to their character sheet.
In addition to relationship webs, you can also create family trees and friendship webs. They all function the same and are purely visual rather than semantic. Don't expect the family tree web to calculate who's a character's first cousin, twice removed as you'd find in a dedicated genealogy app.
Timelines are an invaluable world-building and plotting tool. Campfire allows you to create multiple timelines, then add numerous elements (events). Events work like relationship webs, with Campfire enables you to link them together any way you like with coloured lines. In this respect, the feature functions more like a plot mind-map than a traditional Timeline app such as Aeon Timeline. If your familiar with Scrivener's free-form corkboard, the concept is similar.
Double-click an element, and you open its editor. Along with the name and a simple description, you can also add references to locations, characters and other items in the database. You can write a full description, and add an image, which can be used as a thumbnail in the timeline view. If that's not enough, you can add more panels.
I liked this feature, but it is a stretch to call it a timeline — it's a plotline. Events aren't organised by dates or times; you must arrange them manually. Unlike Aeon Timeline, there is no way to create custom calendars, which is often required by fantasy novels.
A character arc maps a character's change through a story. Campfire allows you to create an arc for each character in the database — or so I thought.
I was expecting to be able to list the pivotal scenes where a character changes. Instead, when I opened the Character Arc screen, I saw this:
Characters won't appear in this view until you add them to an event in the timeline. You can't create events on the fly in this view. Once you have tagged a character in an event, then you can edit the arc.
The arc editor allows you to detail any emotional and physical change the character undergoes. You can also add additional panels, and note any character traits at play.
Character arcs can also be exported to PDF, in a simple and easy to read format.
Oddly, I couldn't find a way to link or display the character arc back to a character sheet. Certainly not a deal-breaker, but it reveals an inconsistency in the app's user interface — and it's not the only one.
Next, I looked at the World menu, expecting to find the top-level entry point for the world encyclopaedia. Instead, Campfire prompted me to create a map.
Okay, that's cool, I was hoping for this — something akin to WorldAnvil's interactive maps. So, I added a map, expecting then to import an image. Alas, no…
Instead, it's the same relationship editor as before. When you click to add a new location…nothing happened, and the app crashed! Let's try that again.
Double-click the element and the location editor opens. As with other element editors, you can add basic information. Beyond that, you then add the specifics - type, images, descriptions for geography, weather, resources and history. You can also link cultures, which is cool. And, if that's not enough, you can add as many new panels as you like.
For the sake of quickness, I tried to load my map of Hafran. I got into trouble attempting to drag in an image (expected behaviour with any Mac app), and it didn't work. I had to right-click the camera icon and choose Set Image to bring up a Finder window.
When I exited the editor, I expected to see a thumbnail of the map with the name and type superimposed on the top. I was disappointed. The map only appears when you hover over the element.
I added another location and expected to be able to link them together. Not because I necessarily wanted to, but because that's how I expected the app to behave based prior experience. However, that's not the case. This surprised me. If Campfire doesn't give me an interactive map like WorldAnvil, then at least allow me to draw a line between locations, like planning a road trip. Clearly, an interactive atlas is not the intent, but the inability to link locations in the same web-like, thematic structure as other entities left me wondering what the point of this feature is.
Campfire's encyclopaedia serves as a repository for generic long-form articles. Entries can be grouped, and linked to other story elements, like characters and location. Within each entry, you can add multiple panels and an image.
One criticism I have here is that encyclopaedia articles quite limited to the types of panels you can add — only text and images. I suspect this is a deliberate limitation to stop Standard users recreating the templates made available in the Pro licence's world-building pack.
Note that as with characters, and character arcs, you can export encyclopaedia entries as a PDF, either individually or the whole collection of articles.
As noted, Campfire offers a more expensive Pro version that promises more advance world-building features. These are found under the Worldbuilding Pack menu. Given the $25 premium, I'm keen to see if these features add value.
Note before I begin this section, there's no way to import anything created in the world-building pack as a PDF.
Non-human species are a trope of fantasy and sci-fi stories alike. Campfire allows you to define the species of your world, including habitats, abilities, and statistics. You can also create groups to categorise them.
The default species editor covers most of what you'd expect or need, and if you want more, can add more panels.
I dedicate a lot of my world-building to working out the cultures of my world. Years ago, I was a student of history and archaeology, and have always maintained this interest. Campfire allows you to define cultural groups and link them to species, religions, locations, and more.
The editor allows you to record statistics, cultural values, eating habits, hygiene, resources and technology, marriage and relationships, and social interactions. You can also add new panels if there's more you want to detail.
A lot of world-builders love to construct languages. Campfire's approach is logical and well thought out. It allows you to design languages from scratch with custom symbols, a dictionary, grammar rules, and pragmatics. It even has a translator, though you'd have to add thousands of words to get any use from this feature.
Campfire divides its language editor into Phonetics, Dictionary, Grammar and Pragmatics.
Phonetics and Dictionary both work like a spreadsheet, with a predefined table, which you can extend with new columns.
The Grammar editor covers the major elements of grammar, even providing drop-down lists for sentence structure and noun-phrase ordering. You can detail the rules of pluralisation, verb conjugation, negation and inflection. If you want to describe another feature, for example, Mutations like Celtic languages, simply add a new panel.
Finally, the Pragmatic editor allows you to describe other facets of language, such as conversation structure, idioms and literal speech, formality, directness, and a list of common phrases.
Religion and Philosophies
Constructed religions also feature heavily in speculative fiction, and Campfire allows you to create and manage them with ease.
By default, you can note statistics, rituals, list sacred texts, write the history and origins, add linked elements, list deities and symbols, and detail the religion's beliefs about the afterlife.
Similarly, Campfire also allows you to define philosophies — the great intellectual, theological or cosmological ideas that shape the world and its people.
Systems is another mind-map editor, this one allowing you to create and visualise hierarchies. With the systems editor, you can model governments and organisations.
In the flowchart view, you add elements from your world - such as characters, describe the element's role in the system and then draw coloured lines to illustrate their relationships.
The information view, meanwhile, allows you to add any number of different panels to capture whatever information you want to record.
Magic is the defining trope of fantasy, and in my opinion, it's the hardest element of world-building to get right. Campfire's structured approach to creating a cohesive system is one of the best I've seen.
The editor is divided into three parts: Rules, Guidebook and History.
The Rules panel features the defining elements of your magic system: who uses it, how it is channelled and what is its source, what are its limits and costs, and what are the rare exceptions to these rules. As with other editors, you are free to add more panels as you see fit.
The Guidebook editor allows you to add one or more guidebooks. Each guidebook can contain any number of panels. This editor is ideal for creating spell-books and scrolls, grimoires, and alchemical guides.
Finally, the History editor allows you to document your magic system's origins, its rarity and create a timeline of events relating to your magic system. You can also add new panels.
Last, but certainly not least, Campfire allows you to track items and how they're used in your story. These are your artefacts of power, magic swords, lost tomes, potions of healing… your story's props and McGuffins.
By default, the editor presents you the panels for statistics, attributes, value, linked elements, rarity, history and origins, and the composition of the item. As expected, you can always add more panels as needed.
Phew, I'm done, I need a cuppa!
Campfire is better than I thought it would be. It's a planning and world-building tool — and a very flexible one at that. To its credit, it imposes very few restrictions, and almost anything can be customised.
While I found the UI was adequate, there were limitations, quirks and inconsistencies I found jarring. The timeline feature isn't a timeline - it's for plotting. The World feature is downright confusing, and I have no idea what it's trying to be.
I don't like Electron apps; they are slow, and they don't feel native or at home on any platform outside of Chrome. Although Campfire performed well (apart from one crash), the app simply doesn't behave like a good macOS citizen. There's no drag-n-drop, no native spell checking, no service menu, no automatic updates. The lack of a Linux app also irritated me.
That said, Campfire is a desktop app, and there is something good about that. Even the file-format is accessible, albeit with a modicum of technical skill. Most importantly, it saves files locally, to my computer — not locked away on somebody else's server as is the case with WorldAnvil.
The $50 (or $75) dollar question
So, is Campfire worth the $50 or $75 purchase? Oh boy, this is a tough one, so I think I'll have to hedge.
The standard version is not worth the money. At $50 it costs more than Scrivener and gives you less.
Paradoxically, I loved the World-building Pack for its well-thought-out templates. If you are going to buy Campfire, I'd spend that little bit extra and buy the Pro version.
For me, though, the app fell too short. I can't excuse Campfire's glaring problems on macOS. The best thing about Campfire is the templates, and you can easily replicate them. While the free-form reference maps are cool, you can achieve something similar using OneNote, Scapple or Scrivener's free-form corkboard.
I will, however, add a caveat to this opinion. My judgement is based on 25 years of world-building and writing, along with my academic background in history and archaeology. I know how to build a world; I know how to write character arcs. I know how to make templates that fulfil every need I have. I see nothing in Campfire I can't recreate in the tools I already have.
However, you may not be in that position. You may be newer to writing or world-building. You may not know where to start. You might find the sheer magnitude of creating and managing a fantasy or sci-world universe to be utterly daunting. If that's you, then Campfire might be the tool you need to lessen that creative and cognitive burden. Campfire will get you started and closer to finishing your story a hell of a lot faster than an empty Scrivener project.
Campfire or WorldAnvil?
Finally, there's the question of whether I'd recommend Campfire over WorldAnvil.
Campfire and WorldAnvil each set out to solve the same problem, but in very different ways.
WorldAnvil has better mapping and timelining capabilities. Yet, while it has lots of templates, they aren't as good, nor can you customise them to the same degree. Also, I dislike WorldAnvil's UI — it's a loud mess filled with advertising and social crap, and the site runs poorly on Safari. WorldAnvil subscriptions are expensive and confusing. WolrdAnvil stores data on their infrastructure, which makes me very wary about vendor lock-in and longevity.
Campfire meanwhile has much better templates and is built for novelists, not D&D Dungeon Masters. Campfire is also cheaper, uses an open file format, and affords you the luxury of saving your content on your computer. Despite the problems with the UI, and its shortcomings on macOS, I preferred using Campfire over WorldAnvil to create content, and that matters.
So, if I had to buy one over the other, I'd probably go with Campfire.
Spelt the American way, no localisation. ↩