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Kismet's Review of World Anvil

 

What It Is & Why I Tried It

In May of 2021, I started looking into World Anvil after backing a Kickstarter that offered a 20% off lifetime discount for it as one of its rewards. I'd heard mentions of World Anvil online before but didn't really know what it was. I discovered the site offers tools to develop, save, and share your fictional worlds online. It caters to hobbyist and professional authors and roleplayers and tries to address the needs of both groups.

The first thing you do after making your account is create a "world" for each project you want to work on (or a "campaign" for an RPG you're running in an established world). This builds a separate space to save the information for that setting and a unique dashboard for accessing everything you make for it. Then, there are templates you can use to create details for people, places, and things; these are saved on wiki-style pages. There's also a variety of additional tools, like timelines and interactive maps. If you're a DM, you can set up stat blocks, and if you pay for a membership, you can give players access so they can contribute their own articles.

There are four membership tiers, from "Freeman" to "Sage," with paid tiers gaining access to more features and space. You can pay monthly, yearly, or for a lifetime membership. At first, I signed up for a free account to try it out, but then I got an ad which offered a 60% discount for the "Grandmaster" yearly membership, so I upgraded. If you pay for membership, you can keep your work private; otherwise, everything is public. You can share your worlds with collaborators (who don't have to pay) and fans and even try to monetize access. This seems particularly useful for authors (since they can write and share manuscripts inside WA) and for game developers who already have a devoted audience.

I wasn't looking to monetize anything; I was hoping to find easy ways to get inspired, organize articles, make things look cool, and set up features I didn't know how to create on my gaming sites. I wasn't aiming to produce fictional stories or novels, either; I was approaching World Anvil as a Dungeon Master and as a player, since I set up a world for my husband's game and gave my husband access to try it out. I figured I could share neat things like the timelines and family trees from this site and share private articles with my players.

A Big Caveat

It's important for you to know that I don't often use paid subscription services. They don't tend to work with my lifestyle for long. I'll start out by using a service a lot but then things come up and I get derailed. It could take weeks or months before I remember the clock is ticking or have enough energy to pour into that personal project. Before I know it, time has run out and I'm left feeling like I've wasted money. Since I got such a deep discount on my WA membership, I didn't feel quite as under the gun, and I don't feel deeply disappointed as I'm writing this review a year later. But I haven't done much on WA in months, so I canceled my paid membership before it got renewed. I have a 20% lifetime discount that I probably won't use. I'll keep my free account and use some of the features I'll still have access to, but I don't see myself spending a ton of time there, and I'll tell you why.

The Good

The Tone

First things first: World Anvil has an enthusiastic community-based approach. On the homepage of your dashboard, you'll find reports on the development of new features (based on community feedback) and articles on how to develop stronger worlds. There are challenges, writing prompts, and community-generated content. All of the official videos are upbeat and informative, and responses from the team to users are respectful and helpful. The staff set and maintain a positive tone that is important in online ventures, and it's great to see.

Just about all pages have links for help, which lead to a drop-down menu with related videos, a link to their Discord, and a link to the World Anvil Codex (and you will need these resources; more on that later). You can also find solutions and ask for help on the WA Reddit page, where people are generally kind, as far as I saw.

Basic Layout

World Anvil's dashboard starts with a simple layout: site-wide links are in a bar at the top, with major categories for your world in the left-hand bar. The search box at the top can help you find article whatever you need right away. There's also a light and dark mode toggle, which is nice. Saving your work is quick and painless. From the account icon in the top right-hand corner, you can activate features that are relevant to your purposes (like writing prompts and RPG stat blocks. Every day you log in, you get Anvil coins; you can "cash in" these coins to suggest future features or support other members' suggestions.

Features

I didn't use some of the features WA offers (such as discussion boards, manuscript creator, and the latest addition as of this writing, whiteboards). I tried out many of them (such as tables and stat blocks), with varying degrees of success. I appreciate that they're trying to keep things flexible. For instance, you won't create a table in an article page; you'll make it in the Tables section. While that may seem annoying at first, from there, you can use the table's code to add it to any article you want. There are a few features I really like that I want to highlight here:

Article Templates

I found the writing templates to be inspiring. If you've been stuck on a project and aren't sure how to get the juices flowing, start an article about a character or location. You'll need to click on the bar at the bottom of the article to reveal the prompts for that template, but once you do, you'll have your pick of what to answer. You can cherry-pick which prompts you'll respond to; you can always return to write more later. Inputting NPCs into WA made me look at them in an extended way. For a brief while, I was writing a lot more than I expected and I was genuinely engrossed in answering the prompts. While you can't easily add your own prompts to the basic options, you can add more in the vignette (main section) and in the sidebars.

Family (and Other) Trees

portrait A section of the World Anvil family tree for my Valgons (pretty cool, no?)

While it can take some getting used to and a bit of work to set up, linking characters to each other through the relationships panel creates a family tree behind the scenes. To see the tree, you copy the family tree code for that character, paste it somewhere in their article, and it will load when you view their page (using the eye icon). If you've uploaded a character portrait to the article, the portrait (along with birth and death years) will show up in the tree, which I must say leads to visually striking results. A similar feature (content trees) can help you make trees for organizations that lay them out in a visually appealing way. This is one of the main features I wanted a subscription for.

One thing to note is that the tree won't load more than four generations at a time and won't always show all of the people in it (such as multiple spouses). It's also important to know that each character has their own unique family tree code: when the tree is loaded, it will center on that character. If you paste one character's code in another character's article, it could lead to confusion.

Maps

One of the greatest features of World Anvil is the ability to upload a map and use Google-style tools on it. You can add place markers, draw colored sections to represent districts, and draw lines. And by and large, there aren't many things you need to learn before you can get the map just the way you want it. This is a wonderful thing for roleplayers, since it can help to see where locations are in the world you're playing in. It's hard to find this feature anywhere else; the vast majority of interactive map apps and sites offer real-world maps only, which leaves fantasy gamers to their own devices.

Timelines

There's a section for timelines, which you can create for world events, tracking your progress, or character lifetimes. You can make however many timelines you need. You'll then need to add historic events one at a time and add relevant details (like the event type, duration, and which timelines) for each event. Then, you can grab the unique link for a timeline and paste it into whichever article you want. When it loads, it shows a neat and tidy vertical review of the events. This is a really nice feature that isn't too complicated to set up and which can be helpful for everyone's reference. Check out one of my timelines here.

The Frustrating

The word that comes up the most when my husband and I discuss World Anvil is frustration. What seemed cool at first quickly became tedious most steps of the way. We felt like we were constantly fighting to get what we wanted until we gave up or found a solution that took more time than we liked to implement. We're both working people and DMs, so time is at a premium. We both had some knowledge of CSS coming in but it clearly wasn't enough. And we're both running homebrews, so we couldn't usually rely on community-created things, like character sheets. After a while, having to create so much from scratch just to set up the containers we needed for content was daunting. It only took a few months for us to see that we were better off returning to Google Docs and Sheets for our needs. There were a few aspects in particular that bear special mentions.

Customization

At first glance, it seems like World Anvil will be simple to use, and in some ways, it is. The quick menu (the plus sign in the lower right-hand corner) allows you to start making and saving articles of all kinds - well, quickly, especially if you don't care that much about what they look like. But from there, the stumbling blocks will likely begin. For instance, there are many BB codes available for formatting text, but it can be distracting to have to scroll through to find the one you need. (And no, you won't be able to memorize them all.) If you like everything about the visual theme you've chosen for your world, great! But the more you want to change it, the more you'll need to dive into the guides. Not only will you need to understand CSS well, but you'll also have to work with their restrictions on it. (Since their service is website-based, they have to restrict some CSS options, and I don't blame them for that.)

The very customization I paid to access was a double-edged sword. Sure, I learned a lot more about CSS as I went, but it just wasn't worth the time and energy.

Deeper Navigation

Inevitably, you'll try to figure out where to find specific options (such as the social media widgets available) and end up Googling it because they aren't easy to find and can't be searched for (the text box at the top just searches the content you add, not the features). You'll also need to look at all buttons, tabs, and drop-down menus (and there are a lot of them), or you'll miss vital functions. Some of this gets better with time and use, but not all of it.

So Many Options

While it's a major selling point, the sheer number of options you face on World Anvil may quickly become overwhelming. To be fair, they're trying to serve two different audiences and offer all they can to keep subscriptions. But if you're neurodivergent, dealing with a lot of stress, have memory issues, or otherwise not able to keep track of many "moving parts," you could end up restricting yourself to just a few features (while many that you're paying to access go unused) or giving up on the platform entirely. You can cancel anytime or go back to a free account, but paid subscriptions are not refundable, so keep that in mind if you're choosing a paid tier.

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

From our experience, just about any time you want to try a feature, you're probably going to need to consult reference material about something. Chances are good that you'll end up reviewing several things each time, really. And just when you've gotten the hang of it, you'll probably run into aspects that don't work as expected. Then, you'll be back to reading the Codex and experimenting when you just want to move forward on your material.

And if you bring on collaborators or players, be aware that they'll face the same problems.

The Bottom Line

Many problems with World Anvil seem to stem from its platform: it's a web-based service you use in your browser, not an app or desktop program. It doesn't offer drag-and-drop widgets with easy basic customization, which would be a boon for new and casual users. They take advantage of their web pages by filling them with tabs and buttons, but that leads to difficulties with finding things. And by relying on CSS for so much, it puts the onus on the user to deal in that medium within their rules.

In the end, I see it like this: If you're looking to spend most of your time writing, you'll need to be content with the basic options presented or you'll end up getting lost down rabbit holes of advice. But if you want the end results to look professional, you'll feel pressure to spend your time digging, experimenting, and refining layout and other visual options. The more time, energy, and money you have, the less the problems above might bother you.

Perhaps someday I'll have the time and frame of mind to enjoy exploring, learning, and using World Anvil. You should certainly try it out for free to see if it feels right for you. I appreciate that the people who run it are always communicating and working on improving it strategically. I also appreciate that this experience made me look at how I create and consider what works best for me. I'm going to miss the family trees I made with my Grandmaster account, but I only wrote on it for about 3 months out of the 12, and that's just not enough for me to renew my subscription. Your mileage may vary.

 

Resources are free for personal use; please do not offer them for sale or claim them as your own work.

Please do not repost material elsewhere; link to this site instead. Thank you, and happy gaming!

 

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