System Split: Campaign Managers

Roleplaying games are an information-heavy endeavor. Before the game, you need to sketch out your setting and initial conceit. During the game you need to track what your characters do and who they encounter. Between sessions you need to prep and see what’s changed. How do you keep all that straight? For years, the standard answer was a spiral-bound notebook, maybe a binder if your notes got particularly voluminous. And while that answer still works, it’s 2023. We can use a little technology.

Somewhere between a completely analog down-in-the-basement experience and a session run entirely on a virtual tabletop is the use case of the campaign manager. Campaign managers don’t aim to run your game or change your environment, but instead serve to provide structure for both your game notes and the setting material you present to your players. What makes campaign managers different from simple note-taking software is that ability to share and collaborate with your players, which helps extend your table into the setting as you’re envisioning and creating it. If it sounds good, it’s because I think it is good; I’ve used the campaign manager Obsidian Portal in the past and it’s very likely that I will start using one of the sites reviewed in this article in the near future. That said, a campaign manager is another tool in the GM’s already bursting toolbox, and reviewing the campaign managers out there fairly starts with a question of need.

Do You Need A Campaign Manager?

I think it’s fair to say that no one needs a specific tool, let alone a specific online tool, to run and organize an RPG campaign. The old ways, involving notebook paper and maybe a three ring binder or two, still work, and plenty of people are perfectly happy with the analog organizational systems they’ve come up with. Even if you’re completely digital, the same principles of the binder apply easily to either a word processor like Word or Google Docs, or a notes app like OneNote. I mention these specific pieces of software because they’re either free or ubiquitous, and using at least one of them, along with the built-in capabilities for outlining and document linking, should require no purchase at all. I personally run most of my campaigns in Google Docs and Google Sheets, and the rudimentary collaboration capabilities available in Google Drive are enough for my purposes most of the time.

The longer your campaign gets, though, and the more writing and setting creation you do, the more information you have to manage and the more you begin to outstrip your tools. I came to understand the utility of online campaign managers from a stretch of time when I was using Obsidian Portal to host documents for several of the campaigns I was running. Not only did the software provide more contextual links that let me actually find my notes, but it encouraged me to keep my notes, my prep, and my engagement up. While many of the constituent elements of these websites aren’t that interesting or technically difficult, making a campaign website on your own that does everything a good campaign manager can do is a lot of work, even with the right tools.

There are of course DIY solutions, and I’ll discuss different approaches to online campaign management that don’t require a bespoke website. What I think you’ll find, though, is that these campaign managers are good enough and interesting enough, even at their free tiers, to be worth signing up for. Beyond that, there are a few features campaign managers provide that would require significant technical ability to replicate on your own. In picking out the campaign managers to review, I made sure that the ones I looked at had a compelling free tier and provided a good feature set around player engagement, the biggest technical feature that is unique to these websites. I checked out three popular ones and one pulls ahead in terms of features, specifically for gamers who don’t want to pony up any cash.

Three Campaign Managers

When you look at the root of what a campaign manager does, they’re all essentially the same. The backend of a campaign manager is a wiki, a user-editable website with inbuilt contextual links to facilitate a strong web of information interconnection. To make this RPG specific, a campaign manager layers contextual wrappers over wiki pages, creating categories like ‘characters’, ‘locations’, and ‘items’ which each have specific labels and tags. This allows a GM to both keep all of their campaign information in one place and also link all the information to session notes, through another blog-like wrapper around ‘sessions’. What can really set a campaign manager apart is the ability to track rules attributes and even use character sheets as built-in objects, as well as an ability to manage player visibility and keep your GM-facing and player-facing notes in the same place while still making sure that all information is only visible and editable to those who need those permissions.

For this article I examined three campaign managers: Obsidian Portal, World Anvil, and Kanka. To lay the groundwork, all three of these websites are perfectly serviceable, and at their respective free tiers they are for the most part comparable. That being said, I do think one is better than the others, and it’s mostly driven around what I want to do (manage an RPG campaign) and how much I want to pay (nothing). If your priorities are different, you may come to a different conclusion than I did, but hopefully I’ll do a decent job of laying out those alternative cases.

Obsidian Portal

The first site and the one I have the most experience with is Obsidian Portal. Obsidian Portal is one of the oldest campaign management communities still running, and it shows through their feature set. While the layout isn’t as ‘Web 2.0’ as either Kanka or World Anvil, I find it perfectly useable and not really a strike against it. That said, some of the bonus features were developed at a time when there weren’t easily available free alternatives. Take the forum feature for Ascendant members. When I started using Obsidian Portal in 2016 I looked long and hard at that forum feature; I had set up my own forum for my gaming group using a free host and phpBB back in college, but by 2016 it had switched hosts at least once and I didn’t know if it was going to die or not (spoiler alert: it did). Having a forum in my campaign manager seemed like a great alternative! Of course, this was before Discord which, while not a forum, replaces the functionality of a forum for most 3-8 person gaming groups very easily. The same goes for scheduling; I have a scheduling bot integrated in my Discord server with all the functionality I need, and once again it’s free. At the free level especially Obsidian Portal is fairly competitive with the upstarts that have risen to replace it, but once you start laying down money it’s hard not to notice the improved feature set of something like World Anvil.

World Anvil

I think if you’re willing to pay for a campaign manager, World Anvil is worth a serious look. The interface is focused significantly more towards worldbuilding than straight campaign management, but that is most noticeable once you get to at least the ‘Master’ tier, which costs $7 a month. World Anvil has the most sophisticated map making and annotation tools of any of these sites by far, and also gives you access to sophisticated timeline, whiteboard, and relational tools, not to mention inbuilt manuscript management tools a la Scrivener and mind mapping utilities. At higher tiers, you get direct Patreon integration, monetization tools, and a host of other content integration capabilities to help you build and sell RPG material. If you want a website with which to support your RPG business, be that game design, content creation, or even paid GMing, World Anvil wins by a country mile.

For the typical GM, though, one who may not want to shell out money for their weekly game night, World Anvil falls flat. The free tier is anemic; even having subscriber access to your worlds, something that’s required for any sort of player management, requires a paid tier. The ads in the site are the worst of all three, and while they disappear at even the lowest paid tier they are a constant reminder that the site isn’t designed for free users.


Kanka is designed for free users. It’s the only one of these three that doesn’t cap the number of campaigns you can have with a free account. It also has some of the more enriched features seen in World Anvil, like timelines and annotated maps, available at the free tier. I don’t think the Kanka versions of these features are as robust as the World Anvil versions, but for a home GM, the price is much easier to swallow.

An interesting feature of Kanka that some may see as a downside comes from their relative lack of built-in rules system content. World Anvil has a number of systems integrated into its backend; I could go into the character manager, select Cyberpunk Red, and have a full-featured Cyberpunk Red character sheet pop up. Kanka doesn’t have that functionality to nearly the same degree, but what it does have is Attributes. Within a campaign, you can define Attributes as rules-driven constants, things like stat blocks or HP or anything else you’d want to track. Once you define an Attribute it’s available for all characters across the campaign. This may not be built-in character sheets, but it gives you a lot of flexibility not only to use any ruleset you want but also to choose the elements that are important to you and your playstyle instead of having to take the full character sheet every time.

Kanka also has fully editable permissions. While I think that secret notes and GM-facing/player-facing differentiation are a key feature of all campaign managers, Kanka takes it a step further and lets you do either user or role-driven permissions for every single element you create. If you want players to be able to edit their own character sheets, you can do that. If one of your players mentions a location in their backstory and you want them to fill it out, you can give them permission to do that while keeping all other edit permissions to yourself. This flexibility just makes it easier to use the tool how you want to use it.

Flexibility and feature set is why I give Kanka the top nod out of these three campaign managers. For a typical home GM, the features and flexibility available at the free tier are simply head and shoulders above the other two options, allowing players to subscribe to your campaigns and giving you an unlimited number of campaigns to manage concurrently. World Anvil is not that impressive at the free tier, but if you’re looking at spending money for a campaign management tool it has a strong number of features available; once you’re using such a tool to support an RPG business, World Anvil becomes the clear winner.

While the decision between Kanka and World Anvil is based on how much money you want to spend and what sort of features you’d be willing to pay for, the decision to use a campaign manager at all is based both on the utility of online tools but also your workflow. Much of the differentiation inherent in websites like World Anvil and Kanka is built into how they differentiate and organize the material you put into them. If you find those sorts of organizational schemas superfluous or grate against how these sites do it, building something for yourself may make more sense.

The DIY Alternatives

Campaign managers provide functionality by giving RPG or worldbuilding-specific contexts which you can use to frame your writing. If you don’t want to make use of templates for characters or locations or sessions, a typical campaign manager is not only not providing you much extra utility, it’s going to be fighting you every time you try not to use the categories it has provided. If you want something more freeform, it’s best to look at more general organizational and note-taking apps. I mentioned OneNote above as something most people have access to, and EverNote is a similar but more feature-laden note-taking app with better user experience than the Microsoft standard and significantly better integration of external material into your notes (perfect for soft prep and finding those visual inspirations). Both of these apps, though, are built around you pulling in notes and material and organizing it yourself. What I personally find most useful for note-taking software in an RPG context is creating that web of links that lets me easily find everything I’ve written previously that’s related to what’s going on. To that end, I tend to prefer software that enables that sort of mental web.


There are two pieces of software I’ve used for notes and organization; one is more flexible while the other is more feature-rich. The flexible entrant is called TiddlyWiki. TiddlyWiki is an open source stack for creating your own Wiki and doing pretty much whatever you want with it. It’s easy and free to integrate TiddlyWiki with other services like Google Drive to host your notes much like you’d host a campaign, and you’re equally able to keep everything offline and local. TiddlyWiki uses wikitext, the same markup language as Wikipedia, but can be modified to accept Markdown (readable by chat programs like Discord as well as every major blogging platform) or even just straight HTML. Between community-created plugins and the sheer flexibility of its codebase, TiddlyWiki can do almost anything. The main downside is that TiddlyWiki is not beginner friendly. If you already have opinions about whether you’d rather use wikitext or Markdown, or if you’re curious whether you can type CSS right into a TiddlyWiki page (you can!), there’s a good chance you’ll feel comfortable (and have some fun) learning how to master TiddlyWiki. If you don’t know what HTML stands for, you’re probably going to be going around in circles trying to make TiddlyWiki do what you want. Even if you’re relatively technically literate, most enrichment features, like adding inline images, are going to take some learning, so you need to ask yourself if the flexibility and power of the TiddlyWiki platform is worth the learning curve.


The other piece of software which I think is rather intriguing for notes and organization is (rather unfortunately, given the existence of Obsidian Portal) called Obsidian. Obsidian is note-taking and mind-mapping software which provides significantly more contextual richness than other notes apps. While Obsidian is based in Markdown, it’s intended to make it easy to jot down your notes and then link them to anything else you’ve already written; in addition to inline cues like links and hashtags the software also provides contextual maps and Canvas, which is a visual mind mapping space kind of similar to (though less overwhelming than) Miro. Obsidian is both easier to use than TiddlyWiki and has more visualization features built in, making it a clear choice for someone who wants mind mapping and other visual tools easily available. The main downside to Obsidian is hosting and sharing. Obsidian sells their Sync and Publish services, and the Sync service costs more than the first premium tiers of any of the worldbuilding managers. Since Obsidian is built around local data it’s certainly possible to use a cloud service to share with a gaming group, though this will not be seamless and require the use of some plugins. Sharing and user management are going to be the primary deficiencies of both TiddlyWiki and Obsidian, as the campaign managers we examined all have user management backends which you’ll be hard pressed to build yourself. That said, if player engagement with your notes isn’t a strong concern, Both TiddlyWiki and Obsidian have the potential to offer much more flexible and customizable notes management experiences at the same great price point (free).

While your typical game master doesn’t ‘need’ software to help them take notes, there is a ton of utility in keeping information organized and accessible. Campaign management software takes your world and campaign information and puts it in front of your players, making it easier for everyone to engage with the events of the campaign and the details of the setting. For the information management aspect of these websites, there are many more flexible solutions, like TiddlyWiki and Obsidian. For engaging your group and sharing campaign information, though, sites like World Anvil, Kanka, and Obsidian Portal do have a unique set of features that may benefit you. If you’re not ready or willing to pay for such a service, Kanka has the best free tier with the most features. If you need or want to invest money to support worldbuilding or monetizing your hobby, World Anvil has what you’re looking for. If you’re already on Obsidian Portal, the oldest of the group, it’s quite functional and you don’t ‘need’ to switch to the others if you don’t want to. If you haven’t tried one of these websites, though, I suggest you check them out, especially if you like running long campaigns or writing your own settings. Campaign managers make it easier for you and your players to explore the wealth of writing you’ve done for your campaign. While everyone has their own preferences, you can use a site like Kanka to make flipping through your overstuffed three ring binder a thing of the past.

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