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The Help secton states that

questions are welcome that are about [...] as long as they are not about:

  • Actions of individual characters, rather than elements of the world they inhabit

The problem is that we have a rather huge number of questions which might be considered off-topic due to that reason. It might be interesting to clarify where to draw the line, to avoid random closing of some questions and not closing of others, which would (justly) appear unfair to some users.

There have been some discussion on the chat yesterday, to be read starting from @MonicaCellio's question

Where's the line between worldbuilding and plotbuilding? Examples that seem more like plot-generation to me (but have no close votes)

. The examples that have been thrown in the discussion are

But as @HDE226868 pointed,

quite a few of our top questions could be closed for the same reason.

Which calls for the present discussion to clarify what we want, as a community. Where to draw the line?

Some points to keep in mind. Stricter closing mean less users and less questions. Weaker closing means that actuall world building questions might be drawn into the mass of plot-related questions.

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While Plato has taught me to be wary of simple answers, I want to provide this single criterion:

Questions must not be about a single individual's reaction. 

This is a lot like the answer to that linked question, but I'd like to elaborate in my own way.

So let's examine some edge cases. As bilbo_pingouin mentioned, we should accept questions about figures of authority. I would say this is somewhat false: we should not answer questions about the reaction of any individual. However, we may answer questions about the authority of these figures, and how they are able to react. Thus, answers will not be about the single individual, but anyone in that position of power, and are more about the power itself than the people holding it.

Similarly, in pingoin's second example, the question is not about the individual, but about the society/world that aids him/her. Since this particular individual could be just about anyone, the question isn't really about just one person, and anyway they're not reacting to anything. Since the individual is the object rather than the subject, more of the action than the reaction, it's fine.

The problem we may run into with this criterion (the only problem I can think of at the moment) is that questions that seek to fulfill it may end up being too broad; after all, how can you tell what the President would do if you can't specify who the president is? To this, I would say that these questions are off-topic for being too broad, or opinion based, or idea generation. Thus, we keep the 'questions about an individual' problem simple by pushing most of the edge cases into other categories.

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Questions about individual actions are a part of the issue (and I agree with other answers that they should be closed if character-specific but possibly not if role-based). But I also think this is one type of broader plot questions.

"Given this situation, what would people do?" is often problematic whether we're talking about an individual or a group -- it veers into idea-generation and it feels more like we're collaboratively writing a story than answering questions about building a world. However, "given this situation and this societal structure, how should we expect this segment of society to react?" feels more about the world -- or it least it can be. How would a militaristic society respond to a visit from seemingly-peaceful aliens? How would a deeply religious society respond if their god showed up and said "no, you got it wrong"? How would an ancient Roman army train to engage a zombie attack? These all feel like they're on the on-topic side of the line to me.

This line is very fuzzy, which is why I brought the question up in chat (thanks for bringing it here!). Most of the examples listed in the question feel like they're on the off-topic side of the line to me, but saying exactly why -- beyond "plot-building" -- turns out to be hard.

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I think we should have a strict closing policy, and might have to revise past questions, but we need to agree on what is and what isn't on-topic. To me, questions about

the actions of single individual within a given frame/world

are off-topic. However, the following points would be exceptions

  1. The "individual" is a person (physics or moral) of authority. Like the government, the defense forces, a widely recognised spiritual leader.

The reactions of persons of authority participates in the creation of a world. Not so much on a geography level, but more to do with the society of that world. Is the police allowed to send SWAT units for a 7 year-old child stealing a sweet in a sweet shop?

  1. The question implies the modification of the world around the character.

Something along the line of What should be changed in the American electing process to allow the previously unkown Joe Average be elected POTUS within a 4 years? Yes it is about the actions of a single individual, but we are focusing on the world around that individual.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think #1 in a way implies #2. This is because you are asking what someone in a particular role or function can do. That implies a certain amount of worldbuilding: you are focusing on the role, not the individual. For example, IMO worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/16866/29 is about the role, not the individual. To my mind, the restriction is in place to prevent character building questions, because character building questions are almost never useful to anyone but the original asker. It's like how e.g. The Workplace lists as off topic questions seeking specific billing rates. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 5 '15 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ I think those two can be seen together, but I don't think #2 is a subset of #1. I cannot find any good example at the moment, but something like defining the world such that a random person in it can achieve something: traveling around the world. So the focus isn't on the character but the world which allowed normal characters to accomplish her goals. But that character does not have a given and recognisable function. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Oct 5 '15 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ Right; the purpose, to my mind, of the exclusion from the site scope of questions specifically about individual characters, is to ensure we don't get overrun with questions that are only relevant to the one individual who asks. Instead, we focus on how to build the world such that it allows some -- any -- character to do what the author wants their characters to be able to do. I will have to see if I can put this better into words, but don't have the time for that right now. Let me get back to this question later. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 5 '15 at 9:32
  • $\begingroup$ That's what that discussion is for :-) I merely tried to give it a go myself. But that does not have to be the only view (nor even the accepted view). $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Oct 5 '15 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ I don't really think either of these cases are about individual characters (or at least they shouldn't be). Questions that fall under #1 should not be about people in power, but about the power itself, and how it is used. Questions about #2 shouldn't be about the character, but about the world the character inhabits. In either case, a question that focuses too much on the character would still be off-topic. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Oct 5 '15 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ Your last example doesn't really work - since it's a question about changes to a political system not about the actions of a single character. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 9 '15 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB, which is why it is on-topic :D But more seriously, the point is that sometimes, the focus is on the action of a specific character, but for the character to be able to do something, parts of the world have to be adapted. Which is what I tried to explain there. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Oct 9 '15 at 9:27
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Worldbuilding is about creating systems or systems of systems. Character-building or plot-building is about the actions of an individual in a system they cannot alter. So a question about how the leader of a political uprising might orchestrate a coup would be fine while a question about an underling in that same uprising would not be okay.

There's some gray area here, of course.

Brightline definition: If the actions of a person role have the capacity to substantially alter the world-system then it's an okay question. If the person is operating in a defined world-system (even if the world system itself may change over time) where that person has no power to change the system then it is an off-topic question and should be closed.

Note the distinction between a person and the role they fill. Mahatma Ghandi is a man but his role was that of political transformer in Indian society. So questions incorporating his role are okay. Questions about who he is independent of that role are off-topic.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think I disagree with your words, but might agree with your ideas. As I said above, questions about the power itself are fine, but questions about people who have power should still be off-topic. Asking how someone could orchestrate a coup is fine, until you start specifying who this person is, and what they can and cannot do based on their personality. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Oct 5 '15 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ I think I understand the distinction you're trying to make. I'll update my answer. $\endgroup$ – Green Oct 5 '15 at 14:36

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