It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular roleplaying game on the market. Well, aside from Japan where they like Call of Cthulhu more. But anyway, D&D is still a big deal and when you say tabletop roleplaying game, you bet most people are thinking about this Wizards of the Coast IP.
Dungeons and Dragons began in 1974 when it was created by Gary Gygax and David Arneson. The game pioneered the whole idea of fantasy games where players are divided into classes and races, something that would boom in popularity later with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.
But the thing is, the paper and pen format of Dungeons and Dragons meant that you couldn’t exactly just plop your players in a virtual world and let them figure it out from there. It’s (arguably) easier to create an immersive experience when you can actually physically show people what the fantasy world they’re playing in is like. Immersion is a little more tricky when you don’t have that extra visual component.
This is where worldbuilding comes in. A well-built fictional world has the potential to transport players — or readers, if you’re a novelist — into your setting. Worldbuilding goes a long way toward getting players emotionally invested and curious about the world their character exists in.
What’s Worldbuilding and Do I Really Have to Do It?
So what’s worldbuilding anyway? Well, think about the last time you played a video game. It doesn’t have to be an open-world RPG, even an MMO or a MOBA. No matter what game it is, you’ll notice that it has a setting that shapes the way the characters think, feel, behave, and interact.
In League of Legends, you see a lot of worldbuilding tidbits in the fine text that gets reflected in voice lines when characters hint at a deeper lore. In RPGs like The Witcher, you see worldbuilding in the way the Church of Eternal Fire and the Witch hunters treat witchers, elves, and other non-human races.
Sometimes, worldbuilding isn’t as obvious as things that are said and done in a setting. In Genshin Impact, which I’m obviously obsessed with, worldbuilding comes in the form of wall carvings, ruined temples, and even a region’s cuisine.
Worldbuilding is the process of creating a fictional world in a way that makes it thrum with life and plausibly deniability. Well-built worlds feel like they always existed before the main characters were born and will continue to exist long after the story ends.
The conditions set by a world also shape what characters become. For example, in a world where your character is born in a culture that lives in a place that never experiences harsh weather and has fertile land, that character might be more carefree and easy-going compared to someone who comes from a place where life is hard and their culture promotes “tougher” mindsets.
Worldbuilding covers everything a world can contain whether it be climate, geography, religion, culture, race, and, if you’re writing a fantasy setting, magic.
The size of a world can be overwhelming especially if you’re new to being a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master which is why a lot of DMs like to start with a pre-made setting from a D&D module. So no, you don’t have to build your own world.
Here’s the thing, though: there will come a point where you inadvertently start having your own ideas about a setting like making Waterdeep more steampunk or letting your players discover the ruins of an ancient elf civilization in the Moonshae Isles. Just like that, you’ve started worldbuilding, and before you know it…
You’ve become that obsessed dungeon master who lurks on r/worldbuilding. Every obsessed worldbuilder worth their salt understands the value of keeping worldbuilding notes lest they commit the grave atrocity of inconsistency.
With that in mind, let’s jump in and take a look at the pros and cons of some of the most popular notetaking apps that worldbuilders on the r/worldbuilding subreddit have used this 2021.
6 Great Notetaking Apps for Worldbuilders
Evernote is a note-taking and task management app that’s pretty standard fare among notetaking apps. It keeps your notes for you and functions as a digital planner. What more could you want?
Where Evernote stands out is how elegantly it does what it does. It has a simple, easy-to-understand UI that doesn’t leave users feeling overwhelmed, a problem that two of the other notetaking apps on this list have.
As for its organizational features, the app lets you organize your notes into subdivided virtual notebooks so you can actually start an account for one worldbuilding project and create several notebooks that cover broad topics in your world. You could add Countries, Religions, Factions, Cultures, Major Figures notebooks, for example, and add smaller notes inside those that discuss the countries, religions, factions, etc. of your world.
As you can see with my very messy and barely comprehensible law school notes, Evernote also lets you see what you’ve recently worked on at the top of your dashboard. You can also write down random worldbuilding ideas that don’t quite have a place yet in its sticky note widget.
The app also lets you save web clips, images, documents, and audio, all of which come in handy if you’re very obsessive with your worldbuilding. Maps, character portraits, sketches of flora and fauna, national anthems, and in-world propaganda posters, etc.
Whatever you can think of for your world, you can slap it into your Evernote archives as long as it fits the storage allotment of…60/MB a month. But that’s just the free version. If you upgrade to premium, that goes up to 10GB which really isn’t that bad considering you get cross-platform accessibility and cloud storage.
2. Microsoft OneNote
I’ve been on the hunt for a good notetaking app for worldbuilding projects for eons and one of the ones I’ve tried is Microsoft OneNote. If I remember correctly, I’ve seen folks online and on the r/worldbuilding sub call it the best web app Microsoft ever made. When I got my hands on it, I immediately understood why.
While it shares a lot of features with Evernote and, let’s be real, loses functionality since it doesn’t have an equivalent of Evernote’s dashboard, Microsoft OneNote has a leg up on the green lizard app because of the fact that you can make more subcategories in OneNote.
This notetaking app doesn’t restrict you to the Notebook>Page setup. You can actually go Notebook>Page>Notes which, considering how elaborate worldbuilding can get, goes a long way in helping you keep your fictional world organized.
Not to mention, using Microsoft OneNote feels like you’re using the lovechild of a digital notebook and Microsoft Word. And sure, Microsoft Word and its annoyingly shifty tables aren’t exactly ideal but most of us have been taught from an early age how to use Microsoft Word.
So when you make the switch from organizing Word files in folders on your computer to OneNote, you’re bringing years of training from using MS word with you to a notetaking app that uses what is basically the same UI.
OneNote also allows for cross-platform saving and 5GB of free space. If you happen to still be in school or you’re working in academia and have a free education account, you get 1TB of storage for your account leaving you with enough space to upload your entire fictional world and then some.
Just a quick disclaimer here, I didn’t use Notion much because the vibes were off. Kidding, kidding. But I’ve really tried and I just don’t feel as comfortable with it as I do the other notetaking apps on this list. Not good when you’re trying to write weirdly specific notes on in-world urban legends.
That said, it’s an amazing and powerful notetaking app that allows for a lot of layout customization that’s just unmatched by any of the other notetaking apps on this list.
Of course, Notion isn’t designed for worldbuilders and when you first get your hands on it, it’s hard to see what edge it has compared to the other options available. However, and this is something I only realized on my second attempt using it, the Notion templates are where it’s at.
The app allows users to create custom templates that are practically virtual versions of bullet journal layouts. Notion enthusiast u/bast20 created a series of novel writing templates for the notetaking app. The Redditor’s templates let you write detailed plot notes, the actual story itself (for the novelists out there), and organize your typical major world elements like religion, magic, and race.
The creator’s favorite template is the region template which you can see pictured above. They describe it as their “biggest feature and the coolest.” The template lets you create regions with cover photos to represent them and then add cities and tones under that region. These settlements can then be tagged with identifiers for what language their citizens use or what races live in them.
If you haven’t used Scrivener, it’s hard to see how it can be significantly better than freely available notetaking apps when it comes to worldbuilding — something it desperately has to be considering that you need to pay for it.
It’s true that you can easily substitute Scrivener’s features with a couple of these notetaking apps used side-by-side, but that isn’t exactly convenient, is it? With Scrivener, you get access to a notetaking slash word processor app that is specifically designed for writers whether you’re doing formal work stuff like journalism or just writing for fun.
Scrivener is, and I quote, “tailor-made for long writing projects” which is exactly what worldbuilding is all about whether you do it for D&D, an indie video game, a novel, or for the sake of doing it.
Scrivener lets you drag and drop your notes, allowing for easy categorization. The writing app also lets you open resources on the fly so if you need to see earlier notes to make sure you’re not writing anything that contradicts what you just wrote yesterday, you can do it smoothly.
Once you’re finished, just export the part of your notes that you need for a session in the form of a PDF file, print it out, and show up for a game.
That said, Scrivener is an old app that started out in 2007 and despite the updates that have been made to it, the advantages it offers don’t quite justify the costs when you think about the next two specialized notetaking apps on this list.
5. World Anvil
If you’ve researched worldbuilding even just a little, there’s no way you haven’t come across World Anvil and the creators they sponsor. World Anvil is a dedicated worldbuilding app that lets you add maps, content trees, and stat blocks for Dungeons and Dragons monsters and NPCs.
As you can see in the screenshot above, the app also lets you add notes on pre-established categories. Name it and World Anvil has already thought of it. You can write notes on how royal lineages work, who hates who and who are allies, and even local myths and legends.
Seriously, just go check it out and get a feel of the features because there are too many of them to cover here.
Obsidian.md is a note-taking software that lets you create mindmaps with notes that can be linked with each other. The bigger the node, the more notes link back to that note meaning that you can actually see your entire world conceptually mapped out in Obsidian.md’s graph view.
Its powerful backlinking capabilities is where Obsidian.md shines. Sure, you have to pay to get cross-platform saving and you don’t get to see your images nicely embedded within the text of a note, but Obsidian.md can keep up with the increasing complexity of a massive fictional world in a simple, clean interface that’s always yours because it’s stored locally in your device. With World Anvil, you have to pay for that kind of privacy.
Because it works kind of like a wiki, reading a full Obsidian.md vault is like having a Wikipedia for your fictional world.
The best part is, it’s insanely easy to use considering how well it handles a complicated web of info. If you do try this notetaking app for your worldbuilding project, check out Linking Your Thinking’s guide on how to use Obsidian.md.