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"Hello Community... I have a great idea for my Worldbuilding. Assume Earth and history as we know it, but in my world, Hitler died from whooping cough as a baby. What is my world like after this change? Ok, thanks, bye. Yours truly, /E. X. Ample"

At least once per week there is this kind of question: the author has come up with a High Concept. But then they have not gone anywhere with it. They have not even started authoring their world or (as is seemingly often the case) their story. Instead they ask here on Worldbuilding about what happens as a consequence of their High Concept.

Two obvious problems with this kind of question:

  • Too broad
  • Opinion based

...and even if we could just slam-dunk close the questions on that alone, I feel this could be handled better.

Now I truly believe that those that ask in this manner are not actually lazy and just expect us to do their work for them. Instead I imagine that for the most part they — in their eagerness and joy over having come up with this interesting concept — simply forget that it probably has a lot bigger consequences than they could imagine, and that there are many possible variations where it may take them. They have — innocently — missed those bits, and they do not actually want us to be the authors of their world/story.

Nevertheless: in practice they have just asked us to do their work as an author for them.

We then need to inform them of this fact, but at the same time not kill their joy of wanting to write, using the concept. My problem is how to decline their request without quenching their enthusiasm for their authorship.

Hence my questions:

  • How can we guide them in cases like this, especially without coming off as rude or unhelpful?
  • How should we express ourselves to them so that they are not put down or discouraged?
  • How can we encourage them to start tugging on the great conspicuous loose thread that is their High Concept and see what unravels?
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe we could point them to the chat. We regularly discuss a lot of broad concepts in a brainstorming-style there. By brainstorming with them a bit we might make them aware of the problems and maybe they get some ideas for a question that might fit the style of WorldBuilding more, which could then be posted in the Sandbox and, again, discussed in the chat. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    May 3, 2017 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Secespitus Chat requires 20 rep. $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 3, 2017 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Yes, you are right. This does not work with completely new users, but there are also a few users with more reputation that post such questions. When writing this comment I was thinking about the latest question from Alex. For new users it might still be a good idea to point out that they can come to the chat with 20 rep and use the Sandbox on Meta with 5 rep, so that they know they can ask about their idea there. It just takes a few upvotes on another question/answer to get to that point. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    May 3, 2017 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ Related question I asked a while ago $\endgroup$ May 3, 2017 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ I always instantly VTC them as Opinion Based or Too Broad (if it is the case). The faster the better, I say, such that answer writers don't end up answering a bad question. $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    May 4, 2017 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ Seems like "High Concept" is jargon for a high-level concept. This question's title might be more recognizable/comprehensible if the jargon term is avoided. $\endgroup$
    – Nat
    May 5, 2017 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ @NatWhic That is why I link to its Wikipedia page. :) $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    May 9, 2017 at 6:55
  • $\begingroup$ Related answer from way back when. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Aug 26, 2017 at 21:05

3 Answers 3

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The first thing to do when coming across such a question, in my mind, is to vote to close as too broad. Sorry, but as posed (and I have seen a few such examples myself, so I know what you mean), it's simply asking for far too much. It cannot meaningfully be answered in its current form, particularly within the Stack Exchange format, and therefore should be closed. Remember the so-called book test: if you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

However, voting to close should only be the first step (first in order to ensure that people don't waste time answering what amounts to an unanswerable question).

The very next thing to do is to leave constructive criticism in comments. Such should ideally always accompany a vote to close; in practice, I know that it doesn't always work out that way. For example, particularly for a user who is new to the site or the network:

  • If you know of any similar, relevant questions, then link to those. If space allows and it isn't obvious from looking at them, discuss briefly why you feel they are relevant. Avoid calling them "duplicates" if they aren't actually; I like to use "you may be interested in..." or just plain "relevant:" especially if space is tight.
  • Explain why the question as posed cannot be answered within our format.
  • Try to guide the person asking the question to narrow it down such that it becomes answerable.
  • Point out that having a question be put on hold is not the end of the world, and that if the question gets edited during the "on hold" grace period, it is automatically nominated for the community to review for reopening.
  • If you can identify some aspect that would narrow the question sufficiently to bring it into scope, then suggest that the OP edits the question accordingly. Do not, however, make such an edit to the question directly, at least unless and until the OP has clearly expressed that they are happy with it; doing so would likely be changing the intent of the question's author, which is something we should always strive to avoid as much as is at all possible.
  • Do point out that it's okay to ask multiple questions about a single subject, but that they should be asked as separate question posts and that what one learns from one should be incorporated into the next somehow. (Asking multiple, related questions in a single post is an art that takes time to get the feel for. It's very easy to take what could be a perfectly fine question and turn it into one that is too broad by doing it.)
  • Point the person asking the question at the site tour ([tour]) and/or help center ([help]), as appropriate. Particularly if pointing them at the help center, don't be afraid to direct them toward a specific section or even a specific article within the help center. Those texts aren't perfect, and for the very most part they aren't tailored per site, but much of what's in them is generally applicable.
  • If the asker appears to be receptive, pointing them to Eric Raymond's How To Ask Questions The Smart Way can also be beneficial; it even has a specific section for Stack Overflow. As written, How To Ask Questions The Smart Way is tailored mainly for technical questions, but lots of it applies equally across subject disciplines, and I tend to find that following the general advice laid out there usually gets me useful answers in a variety of fora.

The reputation limit to participate on Meta has been lowered to 1 on Worldbuilding, so pointing them to the question sandbox is probably a good idea.

If the asker has sufficient reputation to participate in chat (20 rep), then pointing them to our main chat room can be an option for more back-and-forth discussion about the question.

Unfortunately many of the people who most need help getting their questions figured out are those with the lowest reputation. However, I am personally very much against "sympathy upvotes". Posts should be voted on based on their content, not based on who or the reputation of the user who posted them. Instead, encourage them to go answer some question that doesn't require clarification. A good answer to an existing, even an older, question can quickly earn someone several upvotes, moving them quickly past many of the new user reputation limits.

Generally speaking, I try to be more gentle with new users. Someone who has earned a few hundred or even a few thousand rep on a site, particularly with a history of posting well-received material, should know how the going goes; particularly so if they have access to cast close/reopen votes and review such votes, they should be familiar enough with how the system works that they shouldn't need specific guidance. In such a case I might leave a brief comment and maybe link to some other page or question if I have it handy, but I won't spend significant amounts of time hand-holding the person asking the question or digging out obscure posts. More or less the same goes with people who have an established presence on the Stack Exchange network, but who are new to Worldbuilding SE specifically; I might cut those a little more slack for not being familiar with the specific standards of the site, but not for very long. Basically, if you have earned enough reputation elsewhere to get the association bonus to start out at 101 rep instead of 1 rep, I expect that you know how things work at least to some degree.

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    $\begingroup$ You mentioned the book test. That reminds me of a few questions regarding AIs that I've VTC'd with the comment "not only could you write a book about this, but you could write books for an entire lifetime on the topic and barely scratch the surface here. In fact, Issac Asimov actually did spend an entire lifetime writing books on this topic!" $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    May 5, 2017 at 23:34
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I can't top a CVn's answer, but I'd like to add another perspective for the benefit of new users.

Users may not realize it, but when they ask an open-ended or "high concept" question, they're inviting one or both of two things:

  1. They're inviting a discussion.

  2. They're inviting a short-story writing competition.

Both are off-topic on this site. The first, because Stack Exchange is a question-and-answer site, meaning they want specific, objective questions that have a single, best answer. The second, because while it might seem odd, our purpose is to not help someone write their story, but to develop a world wherein someone can set many stories. And the best questions are those that lead to answers other people can use, too.

A new user may think that we're closing the question as "too broad" simply because the answer(s) would be too long. The issue isn't that Stack Exchange doesn't like long answers. Quite the contrary, SE loves long answers. Or, perhaps more accurately, SE likes thorough answers. An ideal answer on Stack Exchange would be "yes" or "no" followed by a mountain of mathematics, article citations, and analysis to justify the simple, precise, objective answer.

High concept questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. They have no simple or objective answer at all. They don't even fall into the SE description of good subjective, bad subjective. They can only be answered by telling a story, often one that only has value to the person asking the question — and that's off-topic.

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  • $\begingroup$ [Scans down question & other answer] Oh dang! I just recently answered one I think fits this criteria? I might have to take myself through the help again // is there also perhaps an option 3. They're asking for the most plausible broad strokes to reach B from A // where would you say that fits in all of this? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Sep 15, 2021 at 11:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore Once again we're in the murky waters of an imaginative Stack in a galaxy of very objective Stacks. A high concept question (HCQ) is a specialized form of "too story-based," which is a specialized form of "too opinion-based." Additionally, it's too broad (tends to fail the book test in the help center). However, when you review the "your Q may be closed if..." list on the don't-ask help center page, you'll see why HCQs are obviously off topic (open-ended, all answers equally valuable). The effort we made a long time ago (*continued*) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 16, 2021 at 0:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore ...to help bridge the gap between "too opinion-based" and "reasonably opinion-based" (on a Stack where almost all questions are intrinsically opinion-based" was to define a difference (as an example) between an off-topic infinite list of things (or too broad/too opinion-based) vs. an on-topic finite list of things (decently scoped, reasonably opinion-based). But we admitted and admit that even this effort is often incredibly subjective. We all do our best. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 16, 2021 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore Finally, I believe the Q you linked is "too much." (Almost every question that ends, "...I didn't think of?" is too much.) It could/should have been closed for needing more details or for needing focus because the OP is asking (IMO) too much of the respondents. (It fails the book test...). However, is it an HCQ? Kinda, it's close. The example MichaelK gave in his post, above, is pretty good: an HCQ is a Q that proposes a seemingly small issue/change/idea and then asks (intentionally or not) for every possible consequence of what in reality is a BIG DEAL. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 16, 2021 at 1:02
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The Accepted Answer Violates SE's Abusive behavior policy

The stack exchange abusive behavior policy states:

To ensure that all users feel safe and welcome, we do not allow behaviors or content that cause or contribute to an atmosphere that excludes, marginalizes, or dehumanizes individuals or communities

... and goes on to define Bullying and Harassment as:

Severe, repeated, or persistent unsolicited conduct, misuse of power or tools, or attacks that target specific users or groups of people in a manner that causes harm. Content that contributes to a hostile or threatening environment, denies a person's expressed gender identity, or invalidates a person's individual experiences in a manner that causes harm.

To understand how this is a violation of the abusive behavior policy, you need to first understand that not all people solve problems the same way. People in the autism spectrum typically suffer from a Mnesic Imbalance limiting them to solving problems using only top-down (concept-before-the-details) or bottom-up (details-before-the-concept) thinking. This does not mean that people with a Mnesic Imbalance are not intelligent, people at both ends of this disorder are both common and very capable thinkers given reasonable accommodation.

By enforcing a policy against High Concept Questions you are saying that to use this platform, you MUST be a bottom up thinker which discriminates against and excludes many people Mnesic Imbalances because they literally can not get to the details until they have figured out the high concept. The high concept is not just an author's choice. Just like the smaller more specific rules, it must be cohesive with reality and/or the reader's expectations to create a believable setting. While some authors are better at building up the high concept from smaller details, this is not universal writing style and the variance in different author's cognitive abilities deserve to be accommodated.

A Few Frame Challenges

There are several common misconceptions in the OP's question that have lead him to believe there is a problem with asking High Concept questions.

Two obvious problems with this kind of question:

Too broad

Opinion based

There seems to be a misunderstanding here about what "too broad" means. A question can itself be very broad, but still compel a simple and concise answer. High Concepts are by definition ideas that encompass a lot of other ideas, but can itself be treated as a single idea. So, if you ask a broad question about the tree density in a forest, then an answer breaks down every type of forest and all the hundreds of different kinds of trees that live in each one... it's is not really answering the question as asked; so, it's not the OPs fault that the person answering him sees it as "too broad" when a simple statistical average would have answered the question just fine.

Opinion Based means that the OP is asking for your opinion, not that a question might be answered with an opinion. If you do not know HOW to answer a question without just stating an opinion, then you as the person answering should just not try. Leave it open and let the next guy try to figure it out. I've seen countless questions over the years get VtCed as opinion based because someone could only think of opinions to answer with and then go on to be answered with an extremely factual, well researched, and highly rated answer. Opinion Based VtC means that you are expressly asking for an opinion, not that it might be answered with an opinion.

NOT OPIONION BASED: Assume Earth and history as we know it, but in my world, Hitler died from whooping cough as a baby. What is my world like after this change?

OPIONION BASED: In my world, Hitler died from whooping cough as a baby. Is this a good idea for a story?

Nevertheless: in practice they have just asked us to do their work as an author for them.

No they haven't. If they ask for a High Concept, and you can only figure our how to answer it with a list of details, that is your fault, not theirs. If they ask for help with a High Concept, then just address the High Concept. There is still tons of work that comes after that in filling out the details that they can do on thier own.

Solution: High Concept Questions need High Concept Answers

In summery, if you see a question asking for help with a high concept, then answer the question as it is asked and only as it is asked. In your head you might be able to break down thier question into 100 parts and answer them each accordingly, and extrapolate a whole setting from thier one question... but if that's not what was asked, then just don't do it. Only if they expressly ask for all the low level details should you VtC it as being too broad.

Spotting the difference between a Good and Bad High Concept Question

Assume Earth and history as we know it, but in my world, Hitler died from whooping cough as a baby. What is my world like after this change?

This is a good High Concept question because it asks for a vague answer to a specific question. A vague answer in this context means that you are talking in probabilities and generalizations instead of specific details. A vague answer tells you what direction to go in without dictating each step you must take. So a good answer to a question like this might read:

History would mostly have stayed the same because Hitler only highlighted existing social problems. Fascism, Racism, and bitterness about WWI would all happen with or without Hitler. If he did not take power as he did, then someone like him, influenced by the same environment and principles would have likely risen to take his place. So, you might see some minor changes here and there, but you'd still probably see the rise of a powerful and militant fascist Germany in the mid-20th century leading to a similar future as our own.

Here you can see that the question can be answered following facts and evidence without going into a whole cascade of details and similar possible answers.

A bad high High Concept Question is when someone asks for specific details about a topic that is too broad to answer in specific details:

Assume Earth and history as we know it, who would I have to kill as a baby to prevent WWII?

This is too specific for a High-Level Concept because it can be answered too many ways. Millions of people contributed to WWII and killing off any given person or group of people might be able to prevent the war.

OR:

Assume Earth and history as we know it, but in my world, Hitler died from whooping cough as a baby. How would each decade from then until now have changed because of it?

This is too specific for a High-Level Concept because it can only be answered with an exhaustive list of ideas and possibilities where each variable splinters off more ideas.

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  • $\begingroup$ You write "This Proposal Violates...". I must ask: what proposal are you referring to? If you mean the question, there is no proposal there, it is a request for a proposal. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    May 31, 2023 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I meant the accepted answer. VTCing a question because it is is a High Concept Question is inherently discriminatory. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 31, 2023 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ "VTCing a question because it is is a High Concept Question is inherently discriminatory" Then I suggest you advocate a rule change that states that brainstorming High Concepts is now allowed. Just because people approach worldbuilding differently does not mean that SE has to acquiesce each and every manner of doing it. Yes, it is discriminatory, and rightfully so. SE has a right to discriminate against questions they do not see fit a particular network. The only manner in which they may not discriminate is to explicitly single out protected groups. And "top-down worldbuilders" is not that. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    May 31, 2023 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ Remember this: Stack Exchange is a private venture. You are in their house, therefore you follow their rules. Unless you can show that they are deliberately discriminating against protected groups, you are SOOL trying to claim unlawful discrimination. If you want to bring about a change where brainstorming is allowed, then advocate that. Right now it is not, and if that means that top-down worldbuilders have to take in the chat (yes, brainstorming is allowed in the chat), then them are the breaks. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    May 31, 2023 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ Wait, isn't it the reverse? If you're asking what would happen to Earth if Hitler never came, it's the bottom-up thinking, isn't it? You come from the detail, and want to know more about the whole world. The reverse, top-down approach is instead "I have this pacifist world, can I have a fascist dictator rise up and make genocides?" (regardless of the question's quality itself ^^"). $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelK The Abusive behavior policy is a Stack Exchange policy, as such all member sites of SE are supposed to follow it's guidance. If a WB.SE specific guideline is in contradiction with the SE guideline, then the WB.SE guideline needs to change. SE does not restrict discrimination against groups based on if they are a legally recognized/protected groups or not under any particular legal system. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 31, 2023 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena A detail can be either a specific something or a broad something. Hitler not being born is a detail with over-aching consequences that are expected to have implications on the whole setting. From this detail, top down thinking deduces smaller, more specific details. Bottom up thinking is like saying: I have a setting where all these things about Europe are different, could this be explained by Hitler not being born? In both cases, the High Concept is a world where Hitler was never born, but in one case, that is the starting point, and in the other, it's the conclusion. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 31, 2023 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ The reason I bring this up is that top down thinkers often introduce High Concept questions and get criticized for not knowing where that high concept should lead... because to the bottom up thinker, you should have already done a lot of work by that point, so they think these authors "have just asked us to do their work as an author for them" which is not the case. They still plan to do the same work on the backend, that a bottom up author considers front-end work. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 31, 2023 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ I reread again and I think I got mixed-up x). We are on par with the definitions. I think my confusion comes from a typo just when you wrote "people must be bottom-up thinkers which discriminates against and excludes allistic people." I believe you meant autistic ones, per the previous paragraph. All these close-reading words are giving me headhaches XD $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki It is not abusive behaviour to enforce existing rules. It is not abusive behaviour to refuse to cater to absolutely everyone and all their individual idiosyncrasies. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    May 31, 2023 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena I meant Allistic, but it's such a new term that a lot of the research you will find will call all sorts of abnormalities Autism, even the stuff that presents as the opposite of what we generally associate with Autism. This makes Autism a pretty useless medical term... but at this time, researching things as Allistic disorders is generally not going to yield a lot of results; so, I'll go ahead and revise my answer to better match available research on the topic. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 2, 2023 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelK it is Abusive Behavior as SE defines it exclusive to a person with a disability. Allowing top-down lines of questioning is a reasonable accommodation for people with certain forms of Autism. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 2, 2023 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Sorry, but your argument are outright obtuse now. Two things in particular: 1) Questions about High Concept worlds are allowed, no-one has said they are forbidden. If you believe that, then you have not read the question, nor the answer you are complaining about. 2) Worldbuilding SE does not advertise itself to be an all-inclusive service for all your worldbuilding needs. Worldbuilding SE is a Q&A forum that sets constraints on what questions can be asked. This is not abusive. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jun 2, 2023 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki By your same reasoning, Skeptics SE is abusive towards people with schizophrenia for not accepting questions concerning their delusions; Earth Science SE is abusive for banning Young Earth and Flat Earth questions; and so on. You do not have a right to be served by any Stack Exchange network, and just because your special needs makes it harder for you to use SE, does not mean SE is abusive towards you. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jun 2, 2023 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelK the accepted answer says you should VtC High Concept questions out of hand any time you come across them. My first section was aimed at addressing the issues with this as an accepted approach because it makes all High Concept questions off limits. My second section points out the flaws in the OP's thinking that lead to the accepted answer, and the remaining 2 sections are a proposal that takes these errors into consideration as a way to better judge High Concept questions. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 2, 2023 at 15:23

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