Alternate reality requires understanding reality, should we help?

Worldbuilding Stack Exchange exists to help users in their worldbuilding.

One particular branch of worldbuilding is alternate reality, something that starts in our understanding of reality, and then branching out from there.

The issue that tends to crop up when users ask for information about reality — in order to start an alternate reality — is that they get shut down with "Too story based", one recent example being this one (*), or being told to ask on other SE forums.

Alternate reality worldbuilding requires an understanding of reality in order to make an alternate version of it. Asking for help in understanding reality is solving a problem that is a hinderance to the worldbuilder. And even if a branching event that initates the alternate reality is a small story, the purpose is still to form a foundation for building a world.

Yes, there are lots and lots of Stack Exchanges concerning reality. However, turning up in such SEs and saying "Hello, here is a science fiction scenario, please advice" I feel is not nearly as likely to engage the creative muscles, as it would here. The out-of-the-box thinkers are here, as hilariously examplified in this classic answer.

So, I am wondering: are we really supposed to shut down such questions on "Too Story Based", or send them elsewehere, even we can see that the purpose is to understand the world as it is in order to build an alternate version of it?

*) Yes, I know the close reason says "Duplicate" but that is simply wrong, as the referenced link is a related but different question. The comments say "TSB"

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    $\begingroup$ The question about alien ships crashing and UFO specialist agencies was not closed for being too-story-based, but as a duplicate as this question. I do have to stress out the official closure reason which has been chosen is quite important to establish a strong case there's a problem with a specific closure reason :). $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2023 at 11:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena Ah, I see what you mean (I think). In any case, the post is merely an example. A moderator commented that their Vote To Close reason was "Too Story Based". And — again — even this is kind besides the point. The point is that they are getting put down in the first place, with WB SE saying "This is not for us, we will not help you". I am asking: are we really supposed to say that? Yes, I agree that — for instance — pure brainstorming, or questions that fail the answer-would-fill-a-book test, are out of scope. But I am asking about questions that seek to understand reality. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Dec 20, 2023 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ Just a question of clarification: do you actually mean "alternate reality", like where you put on goggles and those fancy shoes, or go into a holodeck to experience a different reality from the one outside; or do you actually mean "alternate history", where you take a historical timeline, set free some butterflies or ASBs and create a divergent node in history such that a new historical timeline emerges from the old? $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Dec 20, 2023 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas The question linked seems to suggest it's actually "the real world". The alternative part comes from introducing a small fictional part* - in the linked question, it's aliens and then the question is about which current real world government agencies would be in charge of investigation. *not really THAT fictional, since the current real world agencies have more or less established guidelines to that effect. But there just haven't been aliens to exercise those. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Dec 20, 2023 at 21:31

2 Answers 2


Something a lot of people struggle with this site is that the way a question is asked is far more important than the topic of the question. Very few questions get closed due to the topic alone. Most questions get closed because they're not asked in a suitable fashion.

It's non-trivial to know enough about the worldbuilding problem you're facing to ask a good question. This is an intentional part of the design of SE. SE is intended to be a repository of answers that are of value to others. Good answers are transferable. Asking for help brainstorming how people will to respond to events in your world isn't an appropriate question for this site. However recognizing that you don't understand how the overlapping jurisdictions of various government agencies work in the US and asking for clarification regarding what agencies could respond to an event, the capacity within which they would respond, and who would have final jurisdiction is a much more appropriate question.

While this may seem like a trivial distinction, the details make all the difference. The answers to the former question aren't easily transferrable to future people having similar issues with understanding how various governmental agencies work together. Asking who would show up first is highly dependent upon in world factors, maybe the handsome ex cop working animal control is first on the scene heroically taking change until the suits from some TLA show up and incompetently take over allowing our hero to save the day in the nick of time. That's a great story but it's not establishing some fact of the world, it's writing a mediocre plot summary. Technically any agency could be first to the scene depending on the whims of the writer. However, asking which organizations could respond, what the nature of their response would be, or who would ultimately be in charge of coordinating the response, isn't dependent upon unestablished facts of the world, or the whims of the writer. It's instead seeking understanding about something in the real world that's relevant to the problem you're facing in your world.

This is similar to how SO responds poorly to pasting a block of code and an error message and saying "how do I fix?" On SO they emphasize editing your question down to a minimum reproduceable example. It's more complicated to create the worldbuilding equivalent to an MRE but the act of doing so, creates questions that enables easier writing of high quality answers.

Since basically anything can be considered on topic for this site, it's up to the asker to demonstrate that they're asking because they need the answer to build a fictional world. By this logic, it could be argued that asking how things work in the real world and changing nothing isn't a worldbuilding question but a research question that's part of the writing process. In general if the question is otherwise well asked, I think we should be permissive to this sort of question when the question couldn't be answered on another exchange, or with basic Googling.

  • $\begingroup$ So, your answer is: it depends. It can be permissible, given that the question refers to an actual world-building problem that needs solving, and(!) that the problem is not easily solved by some own searching. Have I got that right? $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Dec 21, 2023 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK If you can find answers to your worldbuilding problems in less than 5 minutes, it is ought to be downvoted, regardless of the world genre. That's a common factor of any question asked here ^^. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2023 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ I found my way here and wanted to ask then how could I find the answer to the question I have if a potentially real answer exists but is hidden behind the red tape of government bureaucracy? Is this where the fictional aspect comes in? Because the question is inherently assuming a fictional scenario with a fictional setting with a fictional way of doing things. I'm just trying to understand then if the question is simply the wrong one to ask here. Perhaps I should find another stack exchange like the political stack exchange or another forum? I'm asking for future reference. $\endgroup$
    – user43914
    Dec 22, 2023 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ Any question could be a worldbuilding question but that doesn't automatically make every question a worldbuilding question. We won't help you with your chemistry homework, but we will answer questions about chemistry. If your question shows no research effort and can be answered by directly quoting Wikipedia or on the first page of Google results then it's not going to be well received here. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Dec 22, 2023 at 21:42

The question you link wasn't an alternate-history question

It's not tagged that way, it's not asked that way, it's not an alternate-history question. questions are expected to conform to the rules for that tag as explained in that tag's wiki. Worldbuilding.stackexchange.com is not a free-for-all. We have rules.

Worse, it's NOT the job of any user on Stack Exchange to help the querent find all the background information they need to ask a question. The down vote button exists for two reasons:

  1. The question isn't useful.
  2. The question has not been sufficiently researched.

Stack Exchange expects people to perform their due diligence before asking their question. Therefore, the answer to the specific question of your post is, "No."

But more to your point...

You might not like the Too Story-Based VTC reason, but it's been around a very, very long time. This Stack is not to be used to help people write stories. Oh, questions like that sneak by all the time because...

  • Most users neither understand the rules nor care,
  • Most users neither moderate the Stack nor care,
  • Most users neither understand Stack Exchange nor care...

The primary problems, which were understood and embraced by our predecessors who pushed this Stack through Area 51 and its beta period, are that Stack Exchange expects questions to be reasonably objective and useful to more people than just the one person asking the question.

Time has proven that holding to those expectations is not as easy as it seems for a theme as creative and subjective as worldbuilding. But our predecessors did a darn good job of creating a framework that met SE's expectations without wholly losing the creative context they were trying to achieve.

And thus, the rule that we do not help people write their stories was born.

In a nutshell, what does "too story-based" mean?

Honestly, this should be obvious, but a lot of people want to ignore it. If answers are too dependent on the circumstances of the story (vs. the conditions of the world), the question is too story-based.

Add to this the obvious prohibitions in the Help Center against questions that are open-ended, hypothetical, or lead to all answers having equal value (aka opinion-based or brainstorming) and we come to the conclusion that the linked question should have been slammed closed. Nothing about it can be answered in an objective story-independent way. Why did I VTC as a duplicate? Because I'm honestly trying to teach the querent how to build worlds while moderating the Stack according to the rules.

And if you really want to nail this particular issue down, questions about how people and organizations react are also expressly prohibited in the Help Center. If I recall correctly, that specific addition to the Help Center didn't exist when the original Local Authorities version of the question was asked. But it's there today. Therefore, a question about how any organization(s) would react or behave given even the most explicit set of story circumstances is off-topic.

So the answer to your implied question is also, "no."

Stack Exchange was never meant to be a replacement for an education. That people become educated is a delightful byproduct of a service that expects people to have exhausted common educational resources so that Stack Exchange becomes a repository of specifically useful information.

It's bad enough that we allow answers that don't actually help people to understand how to build worlds. It's like someone asking how to build a house and, rather than teaching them masonry, we just give them bricks... and then complain when it's pointed out that the question was asked on a forum intended for questions about architectural design.

  • $\begingroup$ I did not ask for an abolishment of the Too Story-based rule. I asked whether it should be applied in the particular case when someone is asking questions about reality in order to make an alternate reality (not alternate history) world. Your long post misses the mark, going into a defensive posture about something I have not even questioned. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Dec 21, 2023 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelK I did not assume you were looking for its abolition. I assumed (and still do) that you don't understand it. Yes, emphatically yes, the question is too story-based, which I conclude in section #3 paragraph #2. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 21, 2023 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ "I did not assume you were looking for its abolition." Fair enough, I read that wrong. "I assumed (and still do) that you don't understand it." Not fair, you read that wrong. "the question is too story-based" I disagree. Also I am of the opinion that it is more important to find ways to help users comply with the rules than find ways to sanction users with the rules. Finally, @sphennings gave a good answer below that applies to the general case I was asking about. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Dec 22, 2023 at 7:39
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, the raised example question is technically not an "alternate-history" question. In fact, it doesn't even have the tag. Is there a quiproquo between "alternate-history" (very specific subgenre) and alternate-reality" (perhaps more than half of worldbuilding topics)? There seems to be some definition to be made here. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2023 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK If you took the time to read the help center, you'd discover that closing questions isn't a sanction - it's the mechanism created by Stack Exchange to "find ways to help users comply with the rules." We recognize it's imperfect, so we created the Sandbox, which few users use despite a link to it in the help center. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 22, 2023 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena I just posted a revision here on the Meta. Basically it's a compare and contrast of the first question on the site and the revision I had in mind. I truly am interested in learning how to ask the right question. I'd appreciate it if you'd take a look and give some thoughts on it. $\endgroup$
    – user43914
    Dec 22, 2023 at 19:59

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