World Building Tools - World Anvil 1
Those who read this blog know that I spend a lot of time thinking about my game world, Trinity, and how to make it both a robust and playable environment. I've decided to do some articles about the tools I use to manage this content, and what they bring to the table. These will not exactly be product reviews or comparisons, and they certainly are not exactly endorsements. Though I will say that if I'm writing about them, I find them good enough to be useful to me, and if my reasons for liking them are relatable, they may be useful to you, too.
Today's essay is about World Anvil, which is an online webapp for world building. It is free to use at its most basic levels, with purchasable subscription tiers above that. The tier that I am currently at is the "Master" tier, which is around $50/year, and seems right for what I am doing.
This initial article may have a follow-on at some point in the future, as I learn more. At this point, I'm definitely a novice, so these are "first observations" from a month or so of use.
The first thing I absolutely love about World Anvil is that it produces beautiful results from a very small amount of work. The tool is article-based, and the creators have done a wonderful job of creating solid article prototypes and ensuring that they look good when displayed. I've found that placeholder NPC's with just a few lines of reminder text end up looking like finished products. When I actually create a page of fully considered text, it looks fantastic.
This is coming from somebody who learned HTML as an easy segue from it's spiritual cousin LaTeX, an open-source document creation tool originally for Unix systems. My own websites look like they were created in the '90's and never improved upon, despite a vast array of tools that apply CSS themes to both a site and its documents to make them look instantly professional. (They look like this, because it's true.)
So having something that lets me create beauty from creative writing is an instant win for me.
(Examples of content are at the bottom of the article)
The World Anvil site is well organized, and I can generally find what I need, quickly. It segments "world" editing, "article" editing, categorization hierarchies and document storage. Getting to the area I'm after sometimes takes a bit of fiddling, but it's never enough to slow down my creative process.
Ease of Use
First off, every major content concept comes with an associated YouTube video by the creators which explains how to use it. These tend to be straightforward and to focus on the things you might not notice. Once you are comfortable with a concept, you can close the "tip" that provides the YouTube link and the interface will only show you content options.
The act of creating most content is: Pick what kind of content you wish to create, and write an article about it. So if I want to create an NPC, one of the deities, a major power within the city, etc...it's as simple as clicking "Character" and writing about them--and click on easily found fields to add a picture of the character.
You can also place this article correctly within your world content by assigning them to a category you've established, or more easily dragging them onto a category after the fact.
Ease of use is not to say that the tool doesn't have incredible complexity. You can do almost anything with it, and there are numerous advanced capabilities everywhere you turn. But such things are opportunities and advanced features, not required to just get started. And as you are wanting or needing to try something new, the features to let you do it are available.
One example of ease of use is cross-article linking. If you are writing about a character, and they have links to other characters, you can just type "@xxxx" and it will match the articles and let you pick one. . It's a simple and obvious capability, once you are ready to need to do it. An example of that is below:
I think this is what I like most about the tool. My world is absurdly complex with official content, discussions with my co-creator, John, and a separate website for "GM-only" content, and so on. The ability to just pick something and either copy the text or start writing--and have it look better than the official site and quickly part of the content hierarchy is incredible.
World Anvil has footnotes, sidebars, complex content hierarchies, timelines with historic events. As I find that I want to link two articles, create a family tree, need to create a social structure, and so on...the tool inevitably has had some way to do what I want. Sometimes it's advanced features. In other instances its just features I haven't used yet. Worst case, someone on the #help channel has a common workaround or organizational method that works.
There is also the ability to use BBCode to enhance the content. This is normally bold, italic, headings, and a few basic formatting concepts like that. While I'm not an expert, BBCode seems to be encapsulated html, which the tool formats correctly.
One example of expandable content which I haven't used is "campaign" content. I have a game world, Trinity. I am currently running the third set of stories out of it. There is a whole set of capabilities to create the campaign details within the World Anvil site. So independent of the NPC's in the city, there is also a way to track events, story elements, character progressions, etc. as it relates to a group of characters telling a story. The players can actually have PC character sheets, and edit those as the game goes on. This is something I haven't even touched on yet, because I'm only at a point of setting up the world itself. When I get Trinity a point of maturity on the World Anvil site, I'll potentially open it up to the players and start using the site to track the campaign itself--turning it into a one-stop-shopping location.
Relatable Tiers of Service
I've mentioned a couple of times that there are tiers of service. Higher tiers tend to contain more professional features, advanced features and/or the incremental content limits or content control features, based on how you intend to go to the site. And I give the site credit for not creating useless lower tiers of service to entice you into the more advanced tiers. (I'm looking at you Quicken.)
They make the capabilities available at each tier wonderfully transparent, in two separate documents (I do wish they were cross-linked, as they are the same information, but with different organization and perspective of the details.) The tool is clear about what you get at each tier. I signed up for the second tier above free, and it's been more than fine. If I find I have advanced organizational needs, require more storage or my need for more viewers grows then I may look at the next tier up--but only as a growth of my needs, from where I am today (as opposed to a frustrating trade-off of cost against a deliberately or poorly designed-exclusion of a one critical feature.)
I will say that my favorite of the two docs is the "Everything below plus.." view of content, because it seems more relatable in terms of "do I need that content." And I was quickly able to figure out the "absolutely" with "not really/nice to have" in order to pick the level I wanted.
As I mentioned above, there are YouTube videos connected to each piece of major content, plus there are whole YouTube playlists of how to do each thing you might want to. And they are generally short...5-10 minutes--which is more than enough to understand the concept and basic execution, get started, and learn by doing.
There is also an active Discord server, with numerous people around who enjoy helping each other. I started with some very basic questions, and got links, suggestions and photos of which options I needed to use to get the effect.
I will also say that despite World Anvil being a two-person company, they seem to be fantastic about providing support, offering tutorials, keeping the user base up to date and providing new content on a continuous basis. Since I started a month ago, there have been two new major updates of content and a "here's what's coming" video on top of normal support.
The tool isn't perfect, and here are a few oddities or limitations I've found so far:
The online editor is a bit annoying and/or buggy. There seem to be alternatives, as the support comments have asked which editor people are using...but I haven't looked into that.
BBCode doesn't seem to be perfectly supported.
Navigation between worlds is harder than it should be--I figured out how to do it, but since it's the top-node of all editing, I'd expect it to be more obvious. There is also content, such as file, which is viewable in multiple worlds, which I wish could be filtered.
Content is based on web databases and ease of display while minimizing server resources. This means that you have to organize your content in a single way. For example, I have deities, who are part of houses and which are part of Cycles. In another tool I use, which is more database centric, I can link that deity to multiple hierarchies and get to them in any number of ways. While I understand the logic of the design, it does mean I have to put more thought into design, and often end up making compromises.
By the same token, things like the Automatic Family Tree tool are designed for ease of display but then limit the results of that family to a view from the perspective of a chosen family member.
And finally, content is designed to be put on a specifically-designed page--so if the content is larger than that page, you end up with some odd results. (I created a variant 3.x monk class, tied to my three gods of mind, body and spirit.) The table's text had to have a lot of truncation to make the table look good.
Incremental content I wish it had.
I will qualify this with the fact that there MAY be ways to do these things. As I said, I'm a novice. In any case:
I had some trouble with getting timelines to do what I wanted. When I looked into it, there were workarounds, but also a "yeah, we're totally redoing timelines." so it's not like they are resting on their laurels. I'll say that the ability to "line up" timelines would be a big win for me.
I wish there were was a way to do a PDF export (or some such) of specific pages. I've been doing screen shots, but would like to be able to send full articles to people.
I would like more hierarchical security. Currently, we have two websites for Trinity: One of them is the public site, and one is a "Book of Shadows" for GM's. While World Anvil certainly has public vs private content, and content viewer groups, I'd like to be able to expand the dual-view concept, so that everything on *this* side of the site is private to authors--even if categories overlap. (So NPC's in Jadir are "public" and "private" until the characters meet the NPC.)
There are "create and link" feature in many places of the tool. I would like more of that, so there isn't as much need to create placeholders to link in future articles, or go back and link later.
Examples of content
The following are just a few examples of pages that I'm especially happy with, given how they look and as examples of what the tool is capable of.
Here is a view of the full timeline of Trinity, as created in the tool. It was up to me to organize the timeline, obviously, and a bit of twiddling to understand which field caused effects on the timeline, and my arithmetic is still off as different racial timelines relate to each other...but this is clean, professional and what's going on should be clear to a casual observer.
Here is an article about one of the 33 "New Gods" of Trinity, Kylie of Spirit. She is a "character" so there is a specific place to put her picture, and a spot for a picture footnote below. It does NOT provide the Artist info automatically, in this view.
Here is an article about a specific geological feature inside the main city of my new campaign: There is lots of text, but of interest here is that it does provide the artist name at the bottom, with a link to their site, and on the right, some info of how this fits into the world. (Significant additional text is below, just not shown.)
About the Art
The logo at the top of this article is the icon/logo for World Anvil itself.
Both pieces of art, immediately above, are from collaboration with my friend Ricki, who is a wonderful artist. She will be featured prominently on the World Anvil site as I go forward. She has been fantastic at taking a few descriptive words and creating images that exceed my expectations.