A few months back, my participation on this site dropped heavily for various reasons, most of them real life commitments. Now I've come back, and there's something I've noticed.

When I left, the site was filled with great stuff about worldbuilding. Information on specific topics, such as the making a map series, great discussion about how to make a world tick logically, or not logically in some cases.

On my return a month or so ago, and ever since then, it seems to me that the focus of the site has changed to being a more whimsical, what-if type of thing. More and more questions seem to me to be idea generation, which we have a close reason for.

Now, I don't personally think that's a good thing. We've lost the great worldbuilding we had going on in favour of hypotheticals to satisfy a curiosity. But it's not up to me. So, several questions for the community at large:

  1. Do you think my observations are correct? Have you seen the same? Something slightly differently? Is Worldbuilding more what-if now than it was?
  2. Should this be happening? This is the killer - is this a good or a bad thing? Do we want to be what-ifs and idea generations? Your opinions, please.

If this is the kind of thing we want to be happening, that's fine - but there are potentially some policies and functions around the site that could do with having another look at.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ I was planning to start this very discussion after the election (whether still mod or not) so a lot of us have been considering the same dilemma. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ This is a very good question. Thanks for bringing it up! $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ After reading this question and all the answers, I felt that the only responsible thing for me to do was to come up with a non-what-if question and ask it. I'm not on here very often, and I don't know what we should do to fix it, so the only action I feel I can take as a community member is to ask better questions. So, I tried. But better questions are hard. XD $\endgroup$
    – Jerenda
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ I would like to point out that the top 10 questions (sorted by votes) are pretty much what-if questions, and these questions seem to be favored by the community $\endgroup$
    – Daniel M.
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielM. That doesn't necessarily mean they are or should be on topic, though. $\endgroup$
    – ArtOfCode
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtOfCode my point is that pretty much everything is on topic and if what if questions aren't allowed then we've run out of questions $\endgroup$
    – Daniel M.
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielM. "pretty much everything is on topic" - therein lies our very problem. $\endgroup$
    – ArtOfCode
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ "What if X -- what would happen?" is very different from "I want to do X; is Z a plausible outcome?" or "I want to do X; it seems to me that this might cause A, B, or C; which of these is most plausible?". (To improve any of these, add "with constraints A and B"...) It's the open-ended, under-specified what-if questions that are really causing us trouble, I suspect. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Hypothetical situations and broad questions $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh I'm going to go with not, because that's a post from right at the start of the site's history. This one is focusing on current observations and points of view. $\endgroup$
    – ArtOfCode
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtOfCode I guess I should have gone with 'Related' then? I think it's at least important to note that this has been considered before, and to see what the early users of the site thought about it. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ New Area 51 proposal for What-If.SE. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ @dotancohen there's also this meta Q describing some of the steps to reopen WhatIf and WB.SE's relationship to/stance on it. $\endgroup$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ I think our problem is what do we consider world building? Where do we draw the line between literally building a world, and building a world figuratively for characters, plots, and other such minutia so that it all makes sense? $\endgroup$
    – Anoplexian
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 20:15

12 Answers 12


Yeah, I'd say we've moved from Worldbuilding SE to Whatif SE. I see three problems that need to be dealt with:

1)- External image. Our most popular questions don't actually seem to be about worldbuilding a lot of the time, so when people see them on the HNQ they get the wrong ideas. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that popular questions should be left open because they are popular, and I disagree with it. You could ask the absolute best question ever, and it might still be off-topic for this site, so we should close it and see if it can be migrated.

2) - Lack of consistent understanding of the scope of this site. We have discussions like this often, and I feel like we never actually get anywhere. Every so often, I get really scared that every question I see is off-topic, but over time I've just given up because it's all "subjective" or "borderline". The way I see it, we should all be a little looser with our close votes; if people agree with you, they'll see the votes and add their own. If you're alone in your opinions, there'll be one downvote and the question will stay open. After doing this for a while, maybe we can get a better understanding of what people think should be closed. Plus, we should keep talking about this. Obviously there's a problem, we just need to figure out exactly what to do about it.

3) - We ARE the problem- I can say with complete confidence that I've asked some off-topic questions here before; we all have. But I think that's the biggest problem, and it bleeds into the other two: if new users come in and see 10k rep and up users asking bad questions, they'll think it's all right to ask bad questions of their own. We're about to graduate, we don't need to contribute questions to fill the void any more. I say those of us who are active in Meta and/or have a lot of reputation should be more careful with the questions we ask, because new users are usually going to end up asking worse questions than us, and if we want those questions to still be on-topic we have to make sure our questions are super on-topic.

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    $\begingroup$ I support the idea of active users being part of the problem (not me, though, I am perfect :D ). Seems like the main idea is: How to promote Sandbox more? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ I definitely agree. I've seen how people on other sites view us, and it's often based on a misunderstanding of what our scope is, based on HNQ questions. And yes, we the high-rep users are definitely a big part of the problem. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:31

I've been wanting to start a meta discussion about this too. Thanks for bringing it up.

I, too, feel that we're getting more of this type of question lately and that it's not good for the site. The reason I haven't mod-hammered more of these closed is that I'm confused about what the community wants -- we say that we're about worldbuilding, not plots or characters or idea-generation -- but people engage with these questions, often enthusiastically. These questions and their many answers get lots of upvotes and positive comments, and not as many close votes as I'd expect. This tells me that the community is divided.

The call on any given question is made more complicated by the fact that there's a spectrum here. At one end, a question about how to work out the orbital mechanics of a multi-mooned planet in a binary-star system given constraints A, B, and C is clearly on-topic. At the other end, a question that describes a multi-mooned planet in a binary-star system and asks for plot ideas set in that world is clearly off-topic. In between we get lots of fuzziness. Is a question about how to kill everybody overnight on-topic? What about a question about how AIs can do so? What about a question about the logistics of alien invasion given factors X, Y, and Z? What about a question about how society would have developed differently if earth had two moons? Binary stars? Double the land mass?

It's not that we've run out of the kinds of questions that used to be our near-exclusive fare; people are asking those too, in comparable numbers I think (anecdote, not data) but in smaller proportion as our overall volume increases. We were averaging 10 questions/day in November; today it's 20/day. That's significant growth, and perhaps we aren't as able to guide users as we once were. Let's fix that. First step: more-clearly describing the boundaries, making some good, clear meta posts about it, and updating our custom close reasons accordingly.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Great answer. Spot on that the problem lies in part on what questions are more popular. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 and what questions make it to HNQ I suppose. It was always a bit of a problem and I'm the first to admit that I asked a few questions that flirted with that a bit (too much?). But it seems that the majority of the user base now thinks these are the preferred type of questions and they seemed to have slipped further and further from our original scope. $\endgroup$
    – overactor
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 5:49
  • $\begingroup$ There may be an easy way to find some of these off topic questions. This isn't anything to base definitions of scope on, but as a general observation - if the question has 'if' in the title, it's likely off topic. $\endgroup$
    – ArtOfCode
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ @overactor Maybe whenever we see a question on our site on the Hot Network Questions list, we should all consider carefully if it should be protected? Protect questions is available to anyone above 3,500 rep, yet I rarely come across questions that have been protected. Protecting questions shouldn't be done all the time, but it might be a reasonable way to ensure that those answering are at least somewhat familiar with what we want to see here. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling that's a good point, but won't necessarily do much to mitigate the problem. A broad question is a broad question and protecting that question is not enough of a signal to new visitors that this is not the type of question we want in my mind. $\endgroup$
    – overactor
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 8:47
  • $\begingroup$ @overactor True, that; ideally, a "too" broad question should end up closed long before it makes it to the HNQ list. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 8:48

I've griped about this in the past, so I'm glad you've brought this up. I agree with a lot of what has already been said, especially in Monica's answer. However, I have a different direction I'd like to go in.

There are three types of questions. . .

After some thought, I realized (well, it seems to me, at least) that there are actually three different types of questions on Worldbuilding, and I've asked questions in each category.

  1. What if . . . ? These are the kinds of questions that are at the center of this discussion. I would further subdivide them into two new categories:

    1. Random hypothetical thoughts. These are things that people may have thought up on the spur of the moment. They are generally not too closely tied in to a specific world. We get these from a variety of sources, mainly just people thinking about weir scenarios. However, some also stem from topic challenges and migrations. The former (topic challenge-based) are cool, and encourage asking questions in niche areas. The latter (migrated questions) are not, in my opinion, good. There is often no motivation to build a world at all. The reason we get these may be because of our external image, as DaaaahWhoosh wrote. I sometimes try to discourage these migrations on the science sites, but this is often unsuccessful.

    2. Broad questions about a world. These are ideas that come from worlds that are not fully fleshed out, but may be in the planning phase. The questions are often about some overarching property that sets the world apart from ours (if people were twelve feet tall, for example). There is generally not a lot of detail in these questions. However, they do have the potential to lead to good worlds. The motivation for worldbuilding is there.

  2. Specific worldbuilding ideas. These are the questions I like best. These questions have several characteristics:

    • The world is well-though out.
    • Specific details are mentioned.
    • Other important ideas/information are/is included in the question.
    • The world is already being built.

    I like these questions, and we had many more of them (certainly by percentage, if not numbers) a long time ago, when the site was young. You can still find them around. In my opinion, these are the questions we should strive to ask and answer.

  3. Meta-topic questions. These questions hide in a few related tags:

    and a couple others. These questions also may not have any of the tags. I find these questions very helpful, and I've used some that others have asked when building my worlds. I think we should also have these.

What do we want?

This meta discussion is, as I have said, about questions in the first part of the first category. I'll be explicit, and say that we should no longer allow these questions. Questions of the second "What if . . . ?" type may be fine, so long as they aren't too broad, opinion-based, etc.

There are, of course, some downsides to this:

  • Lower site participation.
  • Fewer questions.
  • Fewer questions on the HNQ (and these What if? questions often get on the HNQ, because it's easy to answer them).

The upside is simple: A site that's actually about worldbuilding. Is it worth the downsides? I would argue yes.

Enforcing it

If we do end up changing the scope as I've said, then we need to ensure that it's followed. I have a proposal that I think may help:

Show some effort!

A lot of sites on Stack Exchange expect askers to show some effort researching and trying to answer their own question. They should then provide some details of what they know and what they've found, and what they don't know and haven't found.

We can use a modification of this: Namely, to require askers to show that they have a clear, specific world in mind and have spent time developing it. This will hopefully dissuade many of the "random hypothetical thoughts" I talked about earlier.

Here are some sample details:

  • The name of the world's lands and the people.
  • The technological and social era at the time in question.
  • Any developed language (possibly relevant).
  • A map, if possible.
  • A short history of important events in the world.
  • A description of the world's culture.

Clearly, it will not be possible for everyone to provide all of this information. However, I suspect that it will lead to better thought-out questions and better worlds.

Random unrelated thoughts:

  • DaaaahWhoosh is right; a lot of us high-rep/high-activity users are culpable here. Some of my recent questions have been directed towards a specific world I've been developing, but many are questions in the first category - some of which are random thoughts and some of which are about infant worlds that are not well though-out. It is up to us to set a better example here.
  • We need more meta-worldbuilding questions. These are incredibly useful to people, and they will help in the long run.
  • Kudos to anyone who read through all of this. It's a bit extreme insofar as I'm proposing banning many questions that make Worldbuilding Stack Exchange popular, and it's not concise. But I appreciate anyone who reads it all in full and gives feedback.
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    $\begingroup$ Yay I get kudos :) On a serious note, I think you're mostly right. However, we don't want to be too restrictive - so perhaps we should exclude category 1.1, but 1.2 is OK. The site should be a resource to help if you haven't fully fleshed out your world; we can help there. The important bit is that the question is not too broad when taken on its other merits. $\endgroup$
    – ArtOfCode
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @ArtOfCode Yeah, that could be good on a case-by-case basis. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ So for the record are you for or against the topic challenges? How does that position mesh with this suggestion? $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB I'm for them in general, but I think that the questions should still show worldbuilding motivation. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ But wouldn't most topic challenge questions be disallowed under this policy? $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB See my edited comment. They should still hold to the same standards. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like "what-if" is only a small set of the potential problems, and additionally many excellent worldbuilding questions are "what-if". What we need to do is define the "axis" upon which off-topicness can be measured and then set the threshhold for those axis. For example too individual, too broad, too plot, too writing-techniques, etc. The problem with what-if questions is actually a symptom of that rather than a root-cause. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB True; I think that many of the good ones fall into the second part of the first category. They just need defining. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ See my latest answer here. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ Good analysis. I agree that 1.1 should be out of scope and 1.2 (and 2 and 3) should be in. Having a checklist for people to consult is good, but I don't think we want hard requirements. For example, my series of questions on that binary-star system would fail this test; I'm still working out the astronomy and certainly haven't named my world or drawn maps yet. But I think they're in scope, and you answered some of them so I suspect you concur. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ I generally agree with that analysis. However, for your list of examples to show "own research". I fully agree that I don't want WB to be the site where people think: "I had that crazy idea, let's see what those guys think about that?" However, details on their world might be hard to ask. But sometimes they could show that they did some research before. Like asking their own question on google. That should avoid questions of the type gravity replaced by magnetic field, or spin of the Earth reversed. Etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ I can't say I agree with this; the fact that no specific world is being built (yet) might lead to problems, but I can't see it as a problem in and of itself. Furthermore, the more narrowed down a question is by the context of the world, the less likely it is to be useful to anyone else. There is a golden midway I bet, I'm not sure where it lies though. $\endgroup$
    – overactor
    Commented Feb 6, 2016 at 7:41
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like I'm repeating my self here from the first or second time this was brought up. Its all very well and good to have site policy, I'm all for it and made posts on the matter. The problem is that it is not being enforced. And there are only two ways this can happen, the mods enforce it, which we really don't want, or the community enforce it, which isn't happening because people go 'its a cool question, let it live'. There isn't much point in all agreeing that we should do something, that something needs to be done and we need to ask HOW we are going to do it. And soon. $\endgroup$
    – Mourdos
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 16:31

I originally posted this on the case study question but the content makes more sense here in the general discussion.

Whenever we have conversations around what fits world building this answer from meta comes to mind, primarily this section:

For World Building, I feel that the answer might be:

"To a zeroth-order approximation, everything goes on World Building"

I think this is the rub, and we keep discussing over and over again, what is in scope and what is not...

Part of the problem is that all topics are on topic, I mean c'mon we are talking about the entire freaking universe, that pretty obviously covers everything. Which is not to say that all questions belong here, just all potential topics.

I am also not suggesting that questions should not be closed, because obviously that would just make the site a dumping ground for a lot of garbage.

So...I don't think we can just say x is on topic and y is not, I don't think world building fits that paradigm.

Here on world building Forms of questions can be on or off topic.

Off Topic Stuff

  • Plot/Idea Generation is off topic, we are not here to write stories for people. However we can help people confirm an idea would work scientifically or logically in their given scenario. This is where things get hazy in my opinion and in cases like this I tend to give a well asked question the benefit of the doubt and leave it open.

Assessing questions (If you only read one part of my post read this...please)

My general method, which I would suggest is a good one is to do this:

  • Ask: Am I helping someone gain knowledge to build a world?
  • Ask: Am I helping someone write a story

In a Yes, No situation no issues we are good to go.

In a No, Yes situation I vote to close

In a Yes, Yes situation I vote to close and suggest a way to rework the question to avoid the idea generation portion.

In a No, No situation I suggest deletion.


I wanted to answer @overactor's comment on Monica's post, but as the length grew, I thought it could make an answer on its own.

I regularly read: that question is fine because it is popular (in substance, but also sometimes literally). I remember back in July when we closed (one of) the most popular question on the site, because it was too broad. Why couldn't it be done now?

To answer the OP, I too sometimes have the feeling that many of the questions aren't from people actually trying to build a world, but are just curious. If that's in absolute not bad, the appeared predominance of those certainly made the previous approach for our scope somehow shaky.

We could simply say that whatever is popular with good answers, etc. fit the scope. That's a good way to get good stats, a lot of views and good participation.

However, I am more of the approach that we should discuss the scope on meta. See the closing reasons, are they still fine. What does that mean too broad, what does IG means, where does the plot building starts, where does the worldbuilding ends, etc. We've had those discussions before, but maybe it's time the newer users share their views on it.

And then once those discussion have taken place, they should be enforced, regardless of the popularity of a question, even if it might pain to close an otherwise interesting question.

On a concluding note, I think this is a debate that is sane, and needed, but it should be kept to after the election. Even if the candidates could give their views on the subject.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for "keep it after elections" $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the "Question Challenge" is actually inviting people to ask "just curious" questions. If we don't like that we'd need to stop the challenge. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ What makes "just curious" questions necessarily bad? $\endgroup$
    – Daniel M.
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielM., I did mention that those are not necessarily bad. At least not in themselves. The problem is that they tend to fall from the logic: oh we have a lot of flowers in the garden. Hey, dudes, how would the world as we know it be modified if there wasn't any flowers? Without more substantial information. And that lacks research, is too broad, and partly opinion-based. Not a good fit for SE. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 21:25
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB I was going to say the same thing. I got here shortly after reading the current challenge (never actually paid them much attention except that I liked the idea because it helps it feel like a real community). However, all I could think of was curious what-if questions... I actually think they should continue but AS TRAINING on the kinds of questions we expect. $\endgroup$
    – MER
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 9:26

I feel like "what-if" is only a small set of the potential problems, and additionally many excellent worldbuilding questions are "what-if". The problem with what-if questions is actually a symptom of a larger problem rather than a root-cause.

What we need to do is define the "axis" (Risk factors?) upon which off-topicness can be measured and then set the threshhold for those risk factors. For example too individual, too broad, too plot, too writing-techniques, etc.

For example we could have a meta post asking for "things that can make something off topic".

Each answer to that is a single risk factor that can make it off topic (examples listed above) and we can up or downvote that thing as being relevant.

Once we've worked out which risk factors we care about we can then define the threshold for each risk factor and (if it doesn't fall into an existing close reason) do a custom close reason for it.

i.e. "too individual" would have a meta post describing what makes something too individual (describing actions of an individual character), what the threshold is, and suggestions for changes to make to correct that.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm hoping that the case studies will also help with this. Seeing examples with community feedback will go a long way toward getting a feel for where what-if questions cross the line and will help us to better suggest changes to questions that can be salvaged. $\endgroup$
    – Avernium
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that's one reason I started the case studies :) $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 6, 2016 at 13:30

Ok, I will try to put down a defense on what-if questions, because, well, personally I think it is good way of asking questions here:

1. Some ideas are too big to begin with You get an idea for alien life form and at first point (my approach) you care about one thing about that aliens. You as an author are willing to hand vawe most of the attributes, but want one or more to be plausible.

2. To me (and seems that not just to me) it is natural way of processing new idea: I want to invent new bomb/poison/pill/device which goes poof and magically changes one attribute. What will be the consequences?

I want my aliens to live on planet which would be twice as big as Earth. What are the outcomes? And so on.

3. Seems to be better understandable all around the world: As non-English speaker myself, I feel the struggle of actually understanding what is being asked in the question. Again, in my case I get better understanding of questions in What-if format than in Solve for X questions.

However, I agree it is time to draw the line

In this specific example of a question, I caught myself thinking if the question is on topic. Personally I like it, I even upvoted on the question, but truth is, that such question is asking for a plot. And here is where I feel it is beginning to be a bad thing.

Good step forward is stop "plot" questions

I agree with ArtOfCode's observation: Community likes these questions (including myself), these questions get lot of attention, upvotes and answers. But I agree it is time to think if it is good in long run

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    $\begingroup$ A question can actually be both good (upvote-worthy) and off-topic (close-worthy) at the same time. One does not rule out the other, although the combination is often relatively rare. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 8:16
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Thanks for reminder. I will keep this in mind and not be afraid to cast close vote on question where I also want cast upvote $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ If it helps you remember, consider questions that are well-asked, but off-topic for our particular site and on-topic elsewhere in the network. Those should be closed as "not about worldbuilding", likely flagged to request migration, and can certainly be candidates for upvoting. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 8:50
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    $\begingroup$ That particular question I think the problem is too broad rather than anything else. For example "What agency would be able to secure" would work as a question on its own but all the rest is either off topic or part of a separate question. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 12:38

I'll jump in here, even though I've got not much cred. (Somebody's got to bump up the curve, eh?)

Yes, this is beoming WhatIf.SE. And part of me thinks that's cool. But not the part that understands how the various SE work. It's great for the internet to have more than just Randall Munroe answering What Ifs, but its not great for WB.SE for this to be the place where it happens.

Why is it happening? I think it's an artifact of the WorldBuilders' incredible breadth of expertise. Here (it seems to me) questions get answered very quickly and (generally) with really high quality. The presence of objectively-high-quality answers and lots of upvotes and lots of traffic tends to discourage regulars and mods from closing, so scope has crept.

Why is this a problem? There are two reasons I see: (a) WhatIf isn't a great fit for the SE model; (b) diminishing value for worldbuilders! This has become a great site to come read some interesting questions and get really interesting answers. And the fit isn't so bad that it's obviously broken. But it's losing its focus as a place where authors, artists, even RPGers can aggregate wisdom on that topic.

For example, I've got a question brewing in the back of my mind for one of my (RPG) campaigns about how history and culture work in a world where sentient species have vastly different lifespans. (Think Tolkienesque humans, dwarves, elves.) But looking at the frontpage that question feels oddly out of place here....

What to do? Again, two thoughts:

  1. Use close votes. I found my motivation yesterday with How deep underwater do I have to dive to be safe from a 1MT Hydrogen bomb detonation above? Interesting question (if you're into that sort of thing). Answers seem to bring expertise to bear. Popular, and generating traffic. But how is it remotely about worldbuilding? (And the only answer to that was "well, it's not, but it's interesting.") So I'm going to use my close votes much more. If four agree we'll start reining in the WhatIfs. (And we'll be prepared for a stream of "why was this closed as off-topic" meta questions, which will be a good thing for bringing more voices into the discussion.)

  2. I think the obvious thirst for a WhatIf.SE site begs for the attention/input of SE higher-ups: "WB.SE is in danger of being overwhelmed by WhatIf traffic. The community has an urge to pull back its scope to traditional worldbuilding. But SE users clearly like asking and answering these questions, and they bring a lot of expertise to bear. It's just not worldbuilding expertise. Does SE want to host WhatIf.SE?" Can current mods bring this to the attention of our community representative?

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for jumping in with these thoughts. One venue for what-if material would be our blog; maybe we could get volunteers to answer some of the more interesting what-if questions that come our way there? You won't get reputation, but you'll help make the internet a better place for both that content and WB.SE. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ The way to bring this to people's attention would be to create an area51 new site proposal for a WhatIf.SE and see if it can be made into a viable proposal. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB thanks for the suggestion. I've neither the time nor the inclination to shepherd such a project. I guess I just think that trying to shut down the collective what-if urge that's exerting itself--both in questions and in answers--will be easier to manage if we've got a viable place to point to. We get this in RPG.SE a lot with game recommendations: "what's a good game to play mechanized space combat" gets met with a canned response linking to our well-tended meta post collecting other places where that would be a good question. $\endgroup$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB except my conscience's been nagging at me for the last day, and I feel like I'm just <strike>graffitiing</strike> <strike>graffiting</strike> <strike>graffiti'ing</strike> vandalizing the place. So I took a look at Area 51 and it turns out it's already been proposed. Do you have any idea if we can find out more info about the proposal's death? Was it lack of support (s.t. we might resurrect it) or incompatibility with Stack principles (which wouldn't have changed)? $\endgroup$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure off hand, I wasn't involved in that proposal. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 7:08
  • $\begingroup$ New Area 51 proposal for What-If.SE. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 10:53

Asked as a separate question: Case Studies - on or off topic?

  • $\begingroup$ Honestly, from that list I had most issues with the "Santa is Satan" question, becauise it felt like "Idea generation" to me and I even personally did not like it. But then I asked From Where will Santa deliver after North Pole melts which is about the same Idea Generation as yours. The On-Topic has to be carefully discussed before taking any action $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, so you're the one who's been asking all the off-topic questions! $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ @PavelJanicek That's why I offered up these questions as t̶r̶i̶b̶u̶t̶e̶ case studies :) $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB You did great work by posting these here, because some of the questions boil down to "Do I personally like it?" While I borderline hated the "Santa is Satan" I totally enjoyed the language question of atheistic species (And realised I have second best answer by votes there) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ I think we need a series of categories by which you can fail and a definition for where the line is in each category. For example categories might be: Individual, Plot, List Generation (renamed idea generation). Then we define where the border is for questions about individual, about plot, etc. "How would X react" again we need to define the category and boundries. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 15:36

I'll offer a rather extreme view (which I mostly agree with) for people to vote on:

It is happening, it is a problem and it needs fixing

I've also been less active over the past few months and have been visiting more frequently again lately and have the exact same impression. I'm often quite convinced a question should be closed, but am hesitant to do so because of the massive amount of upvotes and complete lack of flags or close votes.

The problem, in my view, comes almost entirely from the HNQ. Almost by design, questions that reach the HNQ are less in depth than the ones that don't. And HNQ is how we get most of our new users, so naturally, they'll ask questions like the ones that brought them here and vote according to the standards set by those. It's easy to see how this would result in a slippery slope.

What we should do

Our scope is rather mushy and it would be difficult to change that. Instead I think we should be very harsh with enforcing our mushy scope and do so immediately and retroactively.

New questions should be judged by high standards, regardless of their popularity. Older popular questions should be retroactively closed or locked to indicate to users that these are not the questions we want.

For the latter I would suggest making a Meta post to keep track of those questions.

What we should also do (but I'm conveniently not addressing because it is hard)

We need to define our scope more clearly. Unfortunately this is way more difficult than enforcing a scope.

  • $\begingroup$ Beware: Closing popular question reroactively will definitely start some flamewar here on meta. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 9:39
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Please don't hesitate to use your close votes just because you don't see any others. Somebody has to be first, and once there's one vote the question goes to the review queue, where it will be either closed or explicitly left open. Either way, you bring it to the attention of the community. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ Retroactive closing is an interesting idea, and I'm not sure how other sites with large changes in scope do this. We will need to make a concerted effort to make sure that the majority of people are onboard with this, though. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ On retroactive closing, after a scope change or clarification, some sites organize a large-scale search-and-close operation and others just deal with the questions as they come up. They both have advantages and disadvantages. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 15:13

I think saying something like "the site is now more of an [X] type of site" is a subjective generalization, and boils down to how many questions of the type you have in mind are being asked.

"Should this be happening?" Well, while I agree that more focused and practical questions may be cooler, it seems to me what we get is about what people ask. I do not think that what-if questions should be banned or closed or made off-topic just for being what-ifs. If a question is too wide open, yeah that's a problem for this format. But I think the thing to do about that is close/edit/moderate those bad what-ifs, and then encourage or lead by example with other types of questions.

In looking at the most recent questions, though, I see a series of questions that all seem, at least from their titles, to be problematic to me, all for the same reason: They all seem to be asking for a creative idea for an answer, and/or include the silly assumption that there would be one answer to the question. This would only mildly annoy me on a forum, but on StackExchange with its weird Q&A rules and moderation, it's extra-annoying.

What mental trait or combination of traits could make a race well suited to warfare?

How many can I think of or invent for you? Probably an infinite number.

What would people on multi-generational ships wear?

Clearly, pink polka-dot pajamas. Again, how many ideas can we list?

What kind of technology would be developed in the process of creating shapeshifters?

Hopefully this question has already done major work narrowing its idea of what shapeshifters are and what "technology to create" them would be in the proposed world. The wording ("would") bothers me. It's fantasy, so you make something up. Again, could be any number of things.

What would modern IT look like if Silicon Valley had been completely destroyed in 1985?

Argh. Again, it hurts my brain because it sounds like the OP thinks this might have one answer. But really, it's asking for alternate histories to be invented for one event.

What effect would a known but lost precursor civilization have on religion and philosophy?

I hope they have a specific one in mind, and they just need some detail figured out. Otherwise, this is not only calling for speculative imagination again, but probably with many points of unknown. I'm afraid to even open the question to see.

Even if these are all narrowly scoped in the details, the titles seem to me all problematic, because they all sound like the OP is asking for a general answer, as if there would be one. If I had a question about what people would be practical to wear on my specific type of multi-generational ships, I would word it more like, "What type of clothing would be practical for my particular type of multi-generational ships?"

Moreover, just that list of titles seems like it's going to inspire people to write more questions that are written like that, which does look to me like an awful problem. I don't know how you all feel about handling it, but if I had the time and energy and were editor, I'd want to write or point to a guideline about broad questions and how to make them specific and how to word them so as not to seem like they were crazy broad, and then edit the crap out of the existing titles so that they were about the OP's specific setting. Because otherwise, I think this will probably just spread.


I'll keep this short errr short-ish cough cough medium-long,
(Apparently bad @ short answers :D ).

I agree with:

  • Too much plot asking (or leaning in that direction) does not fit
    (credit goes to various answers)
  • Having various criteria show a clear balance in a non-world building direction is the best way to determine if a question is of topic
    (credit goes to @TimB)
  • Waaay too broad
    (credit goes to @Dronz)

Having said the above, I emphatically believe it is very important for us to focus on changing the culture through as many non-modhammer-esque means as possible.
With aggressive closing a very last resort.

What we should care about is the average tenor of questions in aggregate.
It's the general feel of the site that matters!!
While we all agree the feel isn't quite right anymore, I believe the best fix is to mold the culture to something more fitting NOT add an aggressive close-hammer approach to the culture.

Over aggressive duplicate concerns, (despite the fact that Jeff Atwood said stop worrying about it), with a nearly belligerent smack down of 'evil' duplicates, seems to have irrevocably changed the feel & decreased the value of StackOverflow (from my view @ least).
It would be very disappointing to have the same experience here.

Possible Solutions (yep, failed @ teh short...)

  1. Keep the fortnightly challenge (great name too) but clearly ask for world building related questions (and maybe even kindly ask users to avoid asking questions unless they are developing a world this applies to)
  2. Possibly add another similar event, or string of events, in which users mention their most helpful world building questions here on meta (or wherever makes the most sense). e.g.: 'List the top two questions asked here on World Building that helped you develop a world.' OR 'List the single most valuable question you asked about a world you were developing' OR 'List the name of the user who you think gave the most useful World Building related answer in the last day'
  3. Migrate to a more fitting site if @ all possible (too heavy on plot goes to Writers Stack Exchange... I actually don't know if there is anywhere for non-plot-but-not-really-world-building questions... but it would be best if we tried)
  4. Only actually close a question, (add the last close vote), if the OP/question asker has been unresponsive to multiple pleas to change their question to be more world building related.
    If the user who asked the question is likely to go away from the experience of getting their question closed feeling positive, we win.

Also, not that my opinion matters much, but I don't feel that what if questions are inherently bad, they just need to actually be about building a world.

  • $\begingroup$ It's that last sentence I'm struggling with on this subject - virtually every Worldbuilding question I can think of is just a "What if" with some context. Are we all simply saying that we don't like open ended questions? I can't help but feel that what if's are simply questions in need of editing rather than inherently off-topic ones. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ @IStanley Assuming I'm understanding you correctly I definitely agree. Sounds like you are suggesting that most What If's fit World Building so long as they are not too broad? If that's true then the implied fix is to urge the users who created the questions to make them more specific? $\endgroup$
    – MER
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 20:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Pretty much. It's the difference between a "Requires editing" and a "flag for off topic". This question seems to imply that what ifs are the latter, you and I agree that they are the former - nothing wrong with the question that a bit of context and specificity can't fix. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 22:32

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