It’s Unofficial Challenge Month, and it’s time to talk Unofficial Challenges. I’m Annie Stein, the author and artist behind Solaris. I’m a frequent competitor in the awesome challenges run by World Anvil, and I ran the first Unofficial Challenge back in 2021 with two amazing co-judges. This is my Unofficial Guide to Unofficial Challenges, where I teach you all the stuff I’ve learned both as a competitor and organizer!

As an example to help illustrate this article, I’ll be sharing some of the work I did for the last challenge I ran: the Unofficial Under the Sea Flash Challenge  in May of 2022. The Under the Sea challenge is a great example of just how valuable good prep and planning is. With the advice that I’ll be giving you here, I was able to create, run, judge and deliver on the prizes in a month and a half. I’m hoping you’ll outdo me once you add your own special skills to the mix!

Timeline of the Under the Sea Challenge

  • May 2nd – Started making the Challenge page, badge & recruited a co-judge.
  • May 10th – First teaser posted
  • May 15th – Meet the Judges + Prize Reveal
  • May 19th – Under the Sea challenge goes live
  • May 25th – Early entry showcase, deadline approaching
  • May 30th – Entries close, showcase of later entries
  • June  1st – Winners Announcement
  • June 15th – All feedback delivered

Why run an Unofficial Challenge?

Awesome communities like World Anvil’s don’t just spring up out of nowhere. They’re cultivated by awesome beans like you, the people who’re willing to do a little bit extra for those around them. Running an Unofficial Challenge is work, especially if you want to judge and give out prizes, but it’s fun and fulfilling work!

Here are some of the ways it can also be rewarding for you, the organizer:

  • Highlight a topic you’re passionate about! An unofficial challenge can be a great way to create more of what you want to see. It also aligns you with your passion. For example, Stormbril’s annual Marchitecture Challenge lets him share his expertise in architecture!
  • Convert readers into a community! Here on World Anvil, you can safely assume that most of your subscribers are also worldbuilders. Running an unofficial challenge can be a great way to get people engaging with you. We tend to comment more on worlds when we’re familiar with the author!
  • A whole lot of new eyeballs on your world! People are not only going to check your world out to decide if they want to compete, but their readers are also going to come check out what the world they like is participating in.

Preparing for a good time!

A well run challenge is all about the preparation. I think there’s three things all Unofficial Challenges need: an idea, a challenge page, and a secret spreadsheet. The most awesome Unofficial Challenges also include a badge, but those are optional.

Let’s start with the idea! A traditional Unofficial Challenge has a theme that people submit articles for. The more general the theme, the more likely it is to work for a wide variety of worlds. However, a specific theme can be a lot of fun.

Sometimes a challenge is less about a theme, and more about getting a specific thing done. For example, Emily Armstrong’s Spring Cleaning challenge (Currently live!) is all about cleaning up your categories.

After you’ve imagined the awesomest challenge ever, it’s time to plant your feet back on earth and think about how you can actually make it happen. You might find you want to scale down, or find people to help you.

  • How much time do you have? Consider not just how much time you have when the challenge is live, but also how much time you’ll have the month after when you’ll be wrapping things up. You don’t want to run out of steam midway!
  • Do you want help? Consider whether you want to recruit a co-judge or two. Not only does it share the workload, but it might help the judging process be more impartial. If you do plan on adding co-judges, you might want to open up a group chat.

Once you know what your idea is, it’s time to make a challenge page. A Challenge Page is the hub for your challenge, with all the information. Most people make this as a generic article on their world. Before you write this page, here’s a few things to think about:

  • Do you want a winner? If so, how will you choose? In my challenges my co-judges and I judged and scored each entry, and in Tillerz duckuary the winner was chosen by amount of likes.
  • Do you want to give out a prize? Who will get it? Consider the logistics: A digital prize like a competition badge is easy to deliver. Worldanvil writers live all over the world, and postage might not be available or be expensive. You might want to make sure your prize is small and light, or limit the eligibility to people in a certain region, like the US or the EU.

One prize that is deeply valued is feedback. When I offered feedback as a optional prize, it was so popular that all but one asked for it.

  • How much time will the participants have? When does the challenge start, and what’s the deadline? I’ve found that a shorter deadline encourages people to just get writing, while a month is long enough that some will put it off until the last minute. Generally a longer time to work on the article encourages people to put more work into their articles.

Remember that timezones exist! If you want it to end at an exact time, you might want to include a countdown clock, you can set that up online.

What to include on your Challenge Page

A screenshot of the Under the Sea Challenge page, summarizing the event, the prizes and the metrics articles would be judged on.

A screenshot of the Under the Sea Challenge page, summarizing the event, the prizes and the metrics articles would be judged on.

The Challenge Page explains the challenge is, how to participate, and what to expect. Here are my recommendations of what to include on yours.

It’s a good idea to start your Challenge page with a summary of what your challenge is all about. That might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people forget! I like to include a highlighted section that quickly sums it all up in about a sentence,  and when submissions are due.

Next up you’re going to want a simple but thorough explanation of how to join your challenge. If you’re judging or giving away prizes, you should talk about those too.

You might want to include some resources for your theme. Link to some sites you find inspiring, and it’s likely that others will find inspiration there too. You can look over the prompts on World Anvil to see if any work well with your idea.

It’s a huge help to have a few people you know to look over your page to see if you’ve missed anything. Either way, you can expect a couple questions once you go live. Make sure people have a place to ask! I recommend joining the World Anvil discord. Remember that if one person is asking a question there’s a good chance someone else is wondering about it too.

Here’s a few things that you’re likely to be asked

  • How do I submit my work?
  • Can my entry be written in another language?
  • Can I use X template?
  • Are NSFW entries allowed?
  • Can I write prose?
  • What time exactly is the deadline?

Last, but certainly not least, a secret spreadsheet is the ace up a challenge organizer’s sleeve. This helps you keep track of all the entries, and what you need to do for each of them! I add columns to keep track of if I’ve commented back yet, what their word count is, and a place to score each entry based on my chosen metrics. This helps keep my memory of each submission fresh, and it makes sure I don’t miss any of them.

I also like to add discord handles or other ways of contacting the author of each entry, which helps a lot with coordinating prizes.

Optionally: Badges, and why they’re the best!

The badge variants made for the Under the Sea Unofficial Challenge. Badges and graphic by Annie Stein

The badge variants made for the Under the Sea Unofficial Challenge. Badges and graphic by Annie Stein

A challenge doesn’t need a badge, but I won’t lie, we’re all obsessed with badges! Not only are they a nice little collectible, they can serve as free advertisement for your competition, and even be a prize!

Badges can be made by various means. You can draw one or you can use combinations of freely available art and images. If you want to make it extra snazzy, you can commission an artist. As long as it’s badge-like and themed to your competition, people will love it.

One extra fancy trick is making the badge link to your challenge page! You can set that up in the advanced image edit options. You’re probably also going to want to provide the bbcode for your badge. Just take the same code you use, and put it in between a [noparse] and [/noparse]. You can also redirect it to your winners article later!

Getting the Hype Train rolling

You could just launch your challenge and hope for the best, but if you really want to make the most of it, you should take some time to drum up hype. After all, people can’t participate in a challenge they don’t know about.

The best tool at your disposal are the global posts on the home page of World Anvil, which have the benefit of reaching people you might not personally know. Remember to use the hashtag #UnofficialChallenge and consider inventing your own for your challenge!

Timing your hype building is important. You don’t want to start hyping things up too early, because then the hype might fizzle out, but you do want to give yourself enough time to build momentum.

Now, here’s something important to keep in mind: hype can often be invisible! Only a few of the people interested in your challenge will speak up and tell you they are excited. Don’t be disheartened, keep at it, and you’ll be surprised who might submit once the challenge goes live!

Challenge Time!

Once you’re all set up and ready to go, it’s time to take the challenge live. It’s time for a global journal post with your custom hashtag and the #UnofficialChallenge, as well as an announcement any other place you can think of.

For most challenges, it’ll take a while for people to actually make their submissions, but you’ll want to be available in case anyone has any questions. Anything you missed in your preparation is probably going to come up now, so don’t be surprised if you have to edit in a few clarifications to your challenge page.

Once the submissions start coming in, make sure to take the time to acknowledge every entry you get! A big reason why people participate in challenges is to be part of a community. So make sure to check out what they submitted, and respond to their submission so they know you got it.

Consider writing showcase blog posts that summarize the entries you’ve gotten up to that point. Not only do you get to highlight all that awesome work, but it also serves as a reminder that you are, in fact, running a challenge, and that if people want in, now’s the time!

Fulfillment: Bringing it to a close!

Graphic thanking our participants for joining the Under the Sea Challenge. This was included at the end of our feedback comments. Illustration by Annie Stein

Graphic thanking our participants for joining the Under the Sea Challenge. This was included at the end of our feedback comments. Illustration by Annie Stein.

This is the part where you decide your winners, and take the time to get your prizes out. Remember that it’s your responsibility to reach out to your winners, don’t wait for them to get in touch with you. Personally I like to comment on the winning article to let them know they won. Having a comment like that can be a badge of honor, and it doesn’t hurt to add the challenge badge too!

Even if you have no winners and no prizes, you might still want to make a new post summarizing how the challenge went and showcasing the entries. This helps encourage people to check out the other entries, and it wraps it up nicely!

We all want to end on a high note. If you planned well and stayed on top of things in the earlier phases, the fulfillment should be smooth. But sometimes, life gets in the way. Accidents happen, and we’re human, sometimes we think we can handle judging alongside exam season, only to realize we were quite mistaken.

Competitions should be fun for everyone – even you. This is advice I hope you won’t need, but if you’re getting overwhelmed, ask for help, and if you don’t know if you’ll be able to deliver on what you promised, the sooner you say something to your participants, the better. Most people will understand that unforeseen things happen, and this is a challenge that you’ve been running out of the goodness of your heart.

Once you wrap up a challenge, you should take some time to appreciate yourself. Celebrate a job well done! You’ve earned it!