When I started writing fantasy in the mid-1990s, I did most of my world-building by hand. I wrote notes and drew maps on loose-leaf paper, storing them in lever-arch ring binders. Computers then were expensive, and often unreliable. Times have certainly changed, and now I can't imagine doing anything without them. Apps make creative writing and world-building so much more efficient. As of June 2020, we have an abundance of choice, so much choice that decisions are hard to make.
For day three of my winter world-building exercise, I'm going to review some apps that can help manage the complexities of world-building. And by complexities, I don't mean the hard work of actually creating a world. Instead, I mean the logistical challenges — writing, storing, linking and retrieving your information in a meaningful, consistent and way.
Before starting, I'd like to clear the air on two crucial points. Firstly, no software is perfect, nor is any particular app right for everybody. Secondly, I'm only going to look at the solutions I have used. However, I will list some apps I know are popular with writers and table-top Dungeon Masters.
My first pick is Scrivener — no surprise to readers of my blog! Scrivener is a writing app built on the metaphor of a ring binder. Out of the box it's designed to hold your ancillary material as well as your manuscript.
Scrivener imposes very few restrictions and has tones of features of considerable value to the world-builder, including:
- Templates. Though the default templates are basic, there's nothing to stop you from creating templates for aspects of your world. Templates save time and improve consistency. Over the years, I've created dozens of templates to help me create content. Some of which I've even given away to my subscribers.
- Scrivener Links. This feature allows you to link documents within a project, creating your own wiki-like connections.
- Organisation. Scrivener's binder allows you to organise your content without restrictions or impositions. You are free to organise your world in whatever structure and taxonomy suits you and the way you think.
- Split screen. You can easily adjust Scrivener's layout to display two documents at the same time, ideal for referencing one source while editing another. If you learn how to use the Project Notes feature and the revamped Bookmark Browser, you can view your world-building files in this floating window.
Scrivener in summary
Availability: Scrivener is available for macOS, iOS and Microsoft Windows.
Best For: Writers or Dungeon Masters already using Scrivener to write their manuscripts or campaigns.
Pros: Excellent template system, inter-document linking, unparalleled organisation. Compatible with AeonTimeline for those who use that app. DropBox support to sync with iOS and keep your content backed up off-site.
Cons: Windows and iOS version lag behind the macOS version. Syncing big projects to iOS known to crash the app. Has a steep learning curve. No web version.
Cost: $45 USD ($77 Australian) with a 30-day trial period. Click this link, and I'll get a small commission at no cost to you.
OneNote is a very popular choice among D&D Dungeon Masters for world-building and campaign management, and for excellent reasons. OneNote is a freeform note-taking app. It uses the concept of notebooks, sections and pages -- not too different in concept to Scrivener's Binder and Documents. OneNote allows you to organise your content in a structured manner, again with few restrictions. Documents themselves all for free-form note-taking, and you can insert all types of content in them, not just text and images, but also tables, audio recordings, sketches, vector shapes and more. Top features for world-building include:
- Templates: As with Scrivener, you can create reusable templates to improve speed and consistency when creating new content.
- Tablet support: OneNote is just as home on a Windows Hybrid device, such as the Surface, as it is on the desktop. For those who like to sketch images or handwrite notes, OneNote has you covered with its excellent pen support.
- Linking: You can link between pages to build wiki-like relationships between documents.
- Office Support: OneNote is unsurprisingly compatible with Word and Excel documents, for those of you who use those apps.
- Free form editing: documents within OneNote are like paper, allowing you to write or format a document however you like.
OneNote in summary
Availability: OneNote is available for Microsoft Windows, macOS, iOS, Android and the web.
Best For: Tablet users, and/or writers and Dungeon Masters who are more at home with Microsoft Office.
Pros: Tablet/pen support, templates, free-form editing, cloud syncing, cross-platform support.
Cons: macOS and iOS version is limited compared to its Windows counterpart. Requires a Microsoft account and an Office365 subscription to unlock some features.
Cost: Free version available, with additional features unlocked by an Office365 subscription.
World Anvil is both a community of world-buildings and an app for world-building. Ostensibly, it's target audience is D&D Dungeon Masters. Still, it's a viable choice for authors of fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction too. I reviewed the app in full last year, and it's improved a lot since then.
Unlike OneNote or Scrivener, World Anvil is purpose-built for world-building, so all the app's features are geared towards that pursuit. By my reckoning, however, the standout features are:
- Cloud-based: Access your content anywhere you have an internet connection. Eliminates the risks of losing data to computer failure or theft.
- Templates: There are more than twenty built-in templates ready to use for creating just about every aspect of your world. Ideal for those who don't know where to start, or feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
- Interactive maps: You can import your maps and tag them with location markers, creating your own interactive maps.
- Timelines and calendars: There's an integrated timeline feature that's much easier to use than Aeon Timeline. You can also create custom calendars.
- Collaboration and sharing: For authors or dungeon masters who work collectively, World Anvil offers excellent collaboration tools. You can also serve content to readers and players in a controlled manner.
World Anvil in summary
Availability: World Anvil is a web app, all you need is a decent browser and an internet connection.
Best For: Dungeon Masters and writers who prefer cloud services, and those who want to easily share content with readers and players.
Pros: Web app, a vast number of prebuilt templates, interactive map creation.
Cons: Expensive and complicated subscription tiers, proprietary database, templates are hard to customise, content is difficult to export. Messy UI, don't expect a Zen writing experience.
Cost: Limited free version available, subscription starts at $8.50 AUD per month with discounts for annual plans.
This one might seem like an odd choice, but for those who like freedom (as in speech and beer), control and the joys of writing in markdown, MkDocs makes good sense. MkDocs is a static-site generate built for writing technical documentation. It's created with Python and turns markdown into a website using the Jinja2 templating module.
MkDoc's design, and the technology stack it employs, allows you to make whatever you need. Want to create your own equivalent of World Anvil, 100% under your control? You can do that with MkDocs. Prefer to keep it private on your computer? You can do that too.
For about a year I've been tinkering away at a side-project to create my own world-building app using MkDocs as the basis. Here's a screenshot of one of the articles.
Top features for world-builders include:
- Open-source: MkDocs is free-software to do with what you please. No costs, no restrictions, no proprietary servers beyond your control.
- Malleable: With a template engine based on Jinja2 you can create anything you need, styled however you please.
- ** markdown**: Markdown is a plain-text format, separating content from formatting, which many writers prefer because it encourages more focus and less tinkering.
- Use any text editor: Because markdown is plain text, you can edit it using any text editor you like. However, I recommend one that supports markdown syntax.
- Git and Continuous deployment compatible: Place you project under revision control with GIT. Publish it for free on GitHub pages or Netlify using continuous deployment.
- Links: MkDocs supports inter-document linking.
MkDocs in summary
Availability: MkDocs is free and open-source but requires Python installed on your computer.
Best For: Technically proficient writers who want complete freedom and control, and those who prefer markdown to rich text.
Pros: Free, infinitely customisable.
Cost: Nothing, but consider the time taken to learn these skills if you don't already possess them.
There's no way I can exhaustively test or tinker with every piece of software out there. However, I do keep my eye out on what other writers use and here's a couple of honourable mentions.
- Evernote. Online note-taking app with good organisational features. Requires a subscription to unlock all features.
- Google Docs + Drive. Online word processor. Like Word, it doesn't have the kinds of organisational features of the apps I've used, but it's free and easy to learn. The always online, always backed up nature of the app appeals to many.
- Wikis. I used to use VoodooPad years ago for world-building. Wikis make a lot of sense because world-building is a lot like writing an encyclopaedia. MediaWiki, Zim, TiddlyWiki and Docuwiki are all decent options.
- Notepad.ai. Similar to World Anvil in concept but with a nice UI and a simpler pricing model. I've heard good things about the app from its users, but haven't had the chance to review it yet.
World-building is a complex, laborious and yet, a thoroughly rewarding task. It's something into which you'll pour a lot of time — months, years, perhaps even decades. Software can make this easier, if not more enjoyable. Yet, picking an app you're comfortable with is essential, not just here and now, but potentially years down the line. This is an important consideration when using proprietary apps and services, particularly those that lock your content away on their servers. I don't know where World Anvil or even Scrivener will be in 5 or 10 years. Yet, thanks to the nature of the app, I'm confident I'll be able to access my Scrivener files, even if its developer goes bust or calls it a day.
I've used a lot of apps over the years, some purpose-built for world-building, but most were general-purpose affairs that I co-opted. My opinion increasingly is that anything can be made to work, particularly now in 2020 with the range of available apps from big developers, and indies alike.
My preferences and needs are admittedly mine, but I've been doing this long enough to realise I'm not exactly unique. I like an app to conform to the way I world-build, and that means non-linear organisation, templates and the ability to link documents together like a wiki. I also like an app that's pleasant to use, almost to the point where I don't have to think about the UI. For me, that experience is encapsulated by Scrivener 3 on macOS.
Okay, so that's 3 days done, 27 to go.