We are seeing some questions which receive answers that deal with magic. There isn't anything wrong in building worlds where magic exists, but there are two main issues that I can see:

  1. Magic systems differ from world to world. No two writers are likely to come up with exactly the same magic system, so anything proposed would need (possibly fairly extensive) tailoring to the world where it will be used. This isn't necessarily a big problem, but it is something worth keeping in mind. Nothing kills suspension of disbelief like a good repeated whacking over the head with inconsistency.
  2. More importantly, not everyone is building a world where magic exists. In fact, lots of worldbuilding involves worlds where magic doesn't exist, or where it exists but is not understood by the protagonist's race.

If I were to be world-building for a detective story set in some town on Earth, and get stuck on some particular point, I want to come here and be able to ask about it (within the limits of what we ultimately decide is on topic for the site in the first place) without having to explicitly state that I don't want answers involving magic wands, shapeshifters and highly specialized magic systems.

On the flip side, if I'm building a magic-based world, I want to be able to come here and ask questions and receive answers that are likely to be useful to me in that endeavour.

The question thus becomes: should we assume that answers invoking some form of magic are acceptable, by default?

I would argue that we should not; if an asker does not explicitly ask for answers that invoke some sort of magic, then I feel our default stance should be that any answers given should be accurate to within known sciences. Also consider the Area51 proposal blurb:

Q&A site for writers/artists using science, geography and culture to construct imaginary worlds and settings.

This goes in hand with the suggestion that answers should be supportable by facts and references. Answers based (in whole or part) around magic cannot be supported by references to known sciences, for which there appears to be a fairly wide consensus even though the specifics differ between various proposals for how and how strictly to implement it.

TL;DR:

I think that by default, answers should be based in known sciences only, and invoke magic only if that is explicitly asked for.

I totally agree. Unless the question says there is magic and gives a decent description of what is possible, I assume we are sticking to real world physics. Science fiction and steampunk stories have enough variety already, adding magical answers with no knowledge of if magic exists or how is just unproductive and isn't likely to be useful to the OP.

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    Where no science-based or magic tag exists, we should assume the former, but if there is a particularly good or interesting magical answer, add it to the scientific/logical answer. Don't just give a magic-based answer. – Monty Wild Sep 21 '14 at 12:44
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    +1, but I would like to suggest that if a science-based approach won't work, mentioning that magic might be the way to go would be okay if that's not all you provide in the answer. – overactor Oct 9 '14 at 7:45

If a question is unclear, don’t answer it

Vote to put it On Hold, and ask for clarification in the comments instead; that’s what they’re there for. Questions should stipulate at least this much detail in order to avoid being Unclear or Too Broad, anyway.

Guessing or assuming will result, inevitably, in guessing incorrectly and that tends to lead to messes where answers that were good (and even well-received!) but founded on some assumption that turned out to be invalid start to clutter the answer space, and that’s awkward and problematic. This is why the On Hold status exists, and has the name it does (as a special case of Closed): answers are only closed temporarily to allow us to refine and clarify them, so that answers can know what it is they’re supposed to be answering.

  • I do not disagree with this but this is kind of an aside from the original question. – Chad Sep 18 '14 at 19:48
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    So everyone coming to this site should have to know to specifically ask for answers that would work in a world similar to ours? – a CVn Sep 18 '14 at 19:52
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    No one should have to end their question with "P.S. I'm not looking for magic answers". Unless the question is tagged magic or specifically mentions magic, magic is not a valid answer. – trichoplax Sep 18 '14 at 19:58
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    @MichaelKjörling Everyone asking a question about world building should describe what the world they’re building is like, yes. This is part of the basic parameters that make up any sufficiently-detailed question. – KRyan Sep 18 '14 at 20:05

Magic is not a thing that some worlds have and some worlds don't

In fiction, magic is just a name, that is used to describe widely different concepts in different worlds. If the question has not defined what magic is in this particular world, then it is meaningless to refer to magic in an answer unless the answer also describes exactly what magic means in this particular case. Even then, unless a question is asking for a magic system to be designed, such an answer would in most cases be ignoring the purpose of the question.

Magic is a cause without an explanation

In most cases in fiction, magic is not given an underlying explanation. So magic is particularly inappropriate as an answer to questions asking for a cause for some event or behaviour. If someone asks what could be the reason for something happening, and the answer is "maybe magic causes it", that isn't giving a reason - it is simply suggesting that no reason be given. While it is perfectly acceptable for a worldbuilder to have aspects of their world that are not explained, if they are asking for an explanation then suggesting they don't give an explanation is not addressing the question.

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    This is why people need to lay down what their type of world is. Magic generally does have rules and explanations. Any answer which just says "because magic" wasn't a very good answer to begin with. Magic is not "a cause without an explanation." Magic is "physics working differently than it does in our universe." – Jay Vogler Oct 9 '14 at 18:47
  • @JayVogler answers based on a well defined magic system defined in the question are not what this meta discussion is about. The reason this discussion started is because we were seeing large numbers of answers to questions that hadn't mentioned magic, suggesting magic as a solution. – trichoplax Oct 9 '14 at 19:10
  • @JayVogler an answer that suggests an alternative physics under which the question can more easily be answered could be interesting (whether referred to as magic or not). The problem here is with the other use of the word magic, that introduces no explanation. – trichoplax Oct 9 '14 at 19:14
  • @JayVogler I started out by stating that the word magic is used for many different things. Sometimes the vague influence of the undefined supernatural, sometimes clearly defined alternative physical laws, sometimes advanced alien technology based on real world physics. This variety is why "magic" is not an answer in itself. – trichoplax Oct 9 '14 at 19:17
  • @JayVogler the argument here is that answers should be based in science and logic. The magic you are arguing in support of is a scientific, logical magic, and as such is not what we are objecting to (provided it is relevant to the question). – trichoplax Oct 9 '14 at 19:20
  • I'd agree with you, but the proposal says nothing of the sort and in fact specifies "highly specialized magic systems" as one of the undesirable things. – Jay Vogler Oct 11 '14 at 18:35
  • @Jay Vogler I object to two things: 1. Vague answers. 2. Highly specialised answers that are not relevant to the question. If someone suggests a self-consistent alternative physics that is relevant to the question that's fine. If they suggest alternative physics when that is not what the question asks then it's not helpful. Obviously there will be grey areas but most questions should not need to say "how can I fix this without rewriting physics". – trichoplax Oct 11 '14 at 20:55
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    Those are exactly the same things I object to. Answers that don't apply to the question are already bad answers without adding some new "lack of magic should be default" guideline. And if the question is vague enough it actually invites those answers, that's probably a problem with the question. Are there any good, non-overly broad questions that would suffer from "just say magic did it" answers (which are bad answers anyway) without this default? I can't think of a single one. If the setting is vague enough nobody can tell whether to use magic or not, it's a problem with the question. – Jay Vogler Oct 14 '14 at 0:15
  • @JayVogler I completely agree that this shouldn't need a rule, as irrelevant answers are already bad answers. However, this has been raised because early in the private beta there were a lot of very vague magic answers to all sorts of questions whether relevant or not. It does seem to be a lot better recently. – trichoplax Oct 14 '14 at 7:28

No. Let's look at this from the other perspective.

"Magic systems differ from world to world. No two writers are likely to come up with exactly the same magic system, so" the number of worlds where magic is an explanation may very well outnumber the worlds where it is not. Why make lack of magic the default?

More importantly, not everyone is building a world that relies on Earth-based physics. If I were to be world-building for a detective story set in some village on Middle-Earth, and get stuck on some particular point, I want to come here and be able to ask about it (within the limits of what we ultimately decide is on topic for the site in the first place) without having to explicitly state that I don't want answers involving atomic bombs, paratroopers, and highly advanced technology.

Questions should make the type of world they're working in explicit, even if it's something as simple as adding the science-based tag.

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    Even in a question that is not strict enough to add the science-based tag, magic is not an answer unless the question is based in a world with magic. – trichoplax Oct 9 '14 at 7:11
  • The number of worlds argument doesn't really work here. If there are 10 times as many fantasy stories as detective stories, that isn't going to comfort someone asking about a world for their detective story and getting magic as an answer. A detective story in a magical setting could be interesting, but if it's not what is being asked about then magic answers are not addressing the question. – trichoplax Oct 9 '14 at 7:13
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    The setting is a lot easier to infer than magic being an acceptable solution. That's why it's easy to know if the question doesn't want nukes as part of the answer - it should be clarified, but this is a broader concern than magic being in answers by default. On topic, if answering using magic is the default, the chances of an answer employing it without it being relevant to the world are very high - most questions are "what if"s or "how to"s, which demands an answer based on causality. Magic can have that, but only if well-defined - if the definition is missing any answer can be acceptable. – mechalynx Oct 9 '14 at 7:44
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    Except there are instances where science-based answers flat out don't work in magic-based worlds. There is no nice self-contained set here where science is always an answer and magic only sometimes is. If magic-based settings are "easy to infer," so are science-based ones. If real-world physics was always a valid answer, I'd agree with you. But it isn't. Again, why are we making lack of magic the default? – Jay Vogler Oct 9 '14 at 18:45
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    @githubphagocyte: "If there are 10 times as many fantasy stories as detective stories, that isn't going to comfort someone asking about a world for their detective story and getting magic as an answer." And having people assume real-world physics isn't going to comfort one of the writers of the (hypothetically) 10 times as numerous fantasy stories. Both writers should have defined their world well enough that they got on-topic answers. Defining either magic or science as a default is going to disenfranchise the other side. – Jay Vogler Oct 9 '14 at 18:53
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    The default is reality as we know it, otherwise all questions would need to be pages long. If I write a fantasy story with elephant-headed ant monsters, I can't expect people to assume they exist if I haven't mentioned them. If I write a fantasy story without elephant-headed ant monsters, I don't expect to have to explicitly mention that there are none. – trichoplax Oct 9 '14 at 19:25
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    @githubphagocyte: "The default is reality as we know it, otherwise all questions would need to be pages long." If questions require answers pages long, people need to define their universe better, which is exactly what I'm arguing for. I don't see how "if question is too vague to answer, assume an arbitrary default" can be a good thing. If your world excludes modern technology, say it. If your world excludes future technology, say it. If your world excludes magic, say it. – Jay Vogler Oct 11 '14 at 18:31
  • @Jay Vogler I didn't say answers would need to be pages long. I said questions would need to be pages long. – trichoplax Oct 11 '14 at 20:45
  • @githubphagocyte: Ah, sorry. Misread. If questions need to be pages long, people need to make their question less amazingly broad. You don't need pages to say whether or not breaking the laws of thermodynamics is okay in a situation where that would be relevant, and you don't need to bother if it isn't relevant. – Jay Vogler Oct 14 '14 at 0:20
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    @JayVogler my point was that if you need to specify all the laws of physics that need to apply, rather than just assuming any not mentioned are the same as our universe, the question will be very long. Magic is just one example of that - it doesn't apply in our universe so it shouldn't need to be mentioned in a question about a world to which it does not apply. – trichoplax Oct 14 '14 at 7:33

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