In an effort to start building consensus after asking: Enough is enough. NOBODY can obey rules that are only in someone's head, I'd like to start with what I hope will become a canonical catalog or list of question types we can refer new users toward to help improve site question quality. Obviously it's impossible for this list to encompass 100% of every type of question that could be asked on a creative site like Worldbuilding, but I'm hoping that it'll cover enough that the outliers needn't be worried about.

Before adding a question pattern to the answer list below, please take the time to read through the posts to be absolutely sure you're not materially duplicating patterns. If you have a pattern that is a duplicate but useful to identify, please edit the answer and add it to the "alternate patterns" list.

Upvotes mean the question pattern, description, and advice concerning the question are good and worthy of being canonical (this includes both "we like this pattern" and "we don't like this pattern"). If you are adding to what already exists, please edit the answer. If you are changing or deleting something that already exists (and you're not the original answerer), please use comments to petition the answerer first.

Downvotes may mean the question pattern has already been listed (a comment explaining this would be appropriate), that the pattern description is insufficient, or that the pattern is simply not worthy. If you're downvoting to indicate required improvement, please remember to check back and remove the downvote when/if the post improved.

Answer template:


Question pattern

Alternate Patterns: Lorem Ipsum (this optional block lists alternative versions of the question pattern. The purpose is clarification, not simply listing permutaitons.)...

Suitable: On-Topic/Off-Topic

Description: Lorem ipsum (why this is/isn't a good question for WB, etc.)...

Traps to Avoid: Lorem ipsum (this optional block helps users understand how to avoid the most common VTC reasons for this pattern)...

Relevant Meta Links:

  • Links to pre-existing pre-existing questions
  • that discuss, describe, support, or refuts this pattern.
  • 3
    Thanks for starting this! I agree that it's a herculean labour to list every type of desirable question type!, but perhaps at least a discussion of some of the less obvious on-topic and more contentious off-topic questions can help us sort out some issues. – elemtilas May 8 at 23:57
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    I think while this is a good idea in theory, a lot of questions can fall in a grey area. There is always specific cases. – Vincent May 9 at 14:31
  • @Vincent, I agree and understand. It's a starting point. There's a lot of us mid-generation users who didn't benefit from the discussions of you first-generation users when the rules were made. Now there are late-generation users who are having even greater trouble due to the mid-generation ambiguity. At list this catalog will give everyone a foundation to use when discussing whether or not a specific question is suitable. – JBH May 9 at 15:32
  • I swear we've done something similar before, with the user question analysis series – Aify May 9 at 16:09
  • @Aify, I thought so too, but an (albeit quick) search didn't turn anything up. – JBH May 9 at 17:05
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    @JBH It was the Case Study series; here it is worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3048/… – Aify May 9 at 17:33
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    Actually, I think the Case Study series might be better than this post since it provides concrete examples to look at in each post. – Aify May 9 at 17:38
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    We need a post for the off-topic "how would society react if X happened". – Renan May 9 at 18:37
  • @Renan, We already have one, the more general "How would X change if Y?" question. X can be society, climate, "the world", "the universe", etc. What makes this question off-topic is a failure of scope (too broad). It's not inherently off-topic. – JBH May 9 at 19:12
  • @Aify, I'm looking into how to integrate them. They have better examples, but the solution is difficult to approach, like reading a list of rules without an index. between the two we should be able to come closer to perfect. – JBH May 9 at 19:14
  • Is a post about "I need Y, how do I get from X?" needed? Where you work backwards from a needed result. Could be borderline off topic/idea generation without clear answer parameters. Some of my questions that fit this, would be this this and this – EveryBitHelps May 10 at 11:19
  • @EveryBitHelps, I apologize for not following up with your question sooner. I took a crack at it due to the need to create the counter-balance to "Why would someone X?" – JBH Jul 2 at 23:29

12 Answers 12

I need a situation that would enable a character to (do) X

Suitable: Off-Topic

Description: These questions are about a story set in a world, not about world building. They are sometimes fit for https://writing.stackexchange.com.

Relevant Meta Links:

I need a finite list of things

Suitable: On-Topic

Description: These questions seek insight into a class of issues (I use "class" in the programming sense) that often leads to a bullet list of items. for example, "what are different types of tectonic stress?" or "what are the different governmental types I can use?" These questions result in a finite list of items and a good answer addresses as much of that list as is appropriate for the question with thorough descriptions for each item.

Traps to Avoid: While generally on-topic, these questions are frequently closed as primarily opinion-based because the OP has not performed enough initial research. A simple list of cloud types, for example, is easily and quickly found via a Google search. Questions of this type should be clear, focused, and have already performed basic research.

  • 2
    worldbuilding-resources questions, such as Database of real historical names, might be relevant to this topic, too. They produce a short list of resources, which in turn have very long lists of something. – Secespitus May 9 at 14:06
  • @Secespitus, I'm completely happy with that, from the SE perspective it's a concise and definitive answer. – JBH May 9 at 15:29
  • I would disagree that "What are the different government types I can use?" is a finite list. It is only finite if the number of types of government is limited, and that's not so. For example, what if I say the types of government are democracy, republic, oligarchy, and dictatorship. That's it. That's somewhat defensible. For example, an absolute monarchy could be considered a hereditary dictatorship. But what if it's the difference between a constitutional monarchy and an absolute monarchy that make the system work in terms of the question? Types of governments are shades of gray. – Brythan May 20 at 19:23
  • @Brythan, thank you for your insight. Do you have a better example we can use to illustrate a positive example? I'm all for improving the canonicity of the category. – JBH May 21 at 3:41

How would X change if Y

Suitable: On-Topic

Description: These questions ask what the consequences would be if something we consider normal were changed. For example, such a question may ask about the effect on climate if planetary axial tilt changes, or the effects on society if a particular technology is introduced (or removed), or the effects on history if a particular person was never born.

Traps to Avoid: While generally on-topic, these questions are frequently closed as too broad or too primarily opinion-based because the OP has not performed enough research to ask a specific question. For example, asking "how would the weather change if the Earth was 10% closer to the sun" is too broad because climate is so complex and entire book would be required to provide a definitive answer. Likewise, "How would society have changed if television was invented twenty years earlier?" is primarily opinion-based because there is no clear way to judge the quality of the answers.

Relevant Meta Links:

I need an infinite list of things.

Suitable: Off-Topic

Description: These questions are usually idea-generating questions and are easily identified by their unconstrained nature. For example, "what should I name my city?" Despite descriptions of the city, its surrounds, its founders, etc., the fact is the city can be named anything, resulting in lengthly lists and promoting unproductive answers.

Relevant Meta Links:

  • Yep. Also probably "too broad". – elemtilas May 9 at 17:34
  • I'd say this one is Primarily Opinion Based, because the main issue is, as you say, just about any answer is as good as any other – Pingcode May 9 at 22:21

Is it possible to X

Alternate Patterns: What do you think about X?

Suitability: On-Topic

Description: These questions frequently ask Worldbuilding participants to verify the feasibility of a design, concept, or idea.

Traps to Avoid: Questions of this type easily become off-topic (too broad) because they can violate the basic rule of Stack Exchange: that they are Q&A sites, not discussion forums. This can also easily become Too Broad if the question is How is this possible?

  • 3
    I will object, because there are many good questions that ask if something is possible (even though their titles don't start with "is it possible"). I will comment some links to them. – Renan May 9 at 13:42
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    TL;DR: the pattern "is it possible" is at the very core of the reality check tag. It is also tied strongly to the science based and hard science tags. – Renan May 9 at 13:51
  • @Renan, When I originally wrote this I had the "I need an infinite list of things" question in mind, but that discussion hadn't happened yet and your point is very well taken. I've rewritten the answer (and would appreciate it if you deleted all the example question comments). Thanks! – JBH May 9 at 15:24
  • Done, and I've reversed my vote. – Renan May 9 at 15:39

What is the best name for X?

Alternate Patterns: What should I call my X?

Suitability: Off-Topic

Description: These questions are fishing-for-ideas questions seeking help with an aestheic component ("window dressing") of a story rather than a rule of a fictional world. They always fall into one or both of two categories:

  • Too Story-Based The question is asking for a name that can only be suitable within the context of the story (e.g., "My aliens are a warrior race, what would be a good name for them?").

  • Primarily Opinion-Based If the question is not too story-based, then it is always primarily opinion-based as no amount of limitation will remove the aesthetic "I like this one best just because" judgment of the OP. In short, no amount of limitation will completely distinguise one answer as the best answer.

  • "They always fall into one or both of two categories" - Not true. Or at least does not have to be true. Making consistent name origins can be objective. – Mołot Jun 15 at 14:52
  • @Mołot, I'm willing to believe. Do we have an example of an objective name request? Every one I've dealt with was basically a fishing-for-ideas infinite list question. – JBH Jun 15 at 15:50
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  • @Mołot, All three of those examples are asking, "what method can I use to create names?" That sounds like worldbuilding to me as it's describing the process (if defined well enough) and not simply the much more subjective result. Would you agree? If so, I'll leave this entry as-is and create a second entry for the "what method could I use..." version. – JBH Jun 15 at 23:07
  • @JBH Correct: there is a clear difference between "method for naming" and "preference for a name"! It seems like any iteration of "What's the best..." is a synonym for "What's your opinion..." and thus is off-topic as written. Very narrowly, a question like "Given this and that historical constraint and given X, Y, and Z phonological constraints of the language, which form of the name Q might be the most likely outcome?" And even then, that particular question might best be shunted over to Constructed Langauges SE!! – elemtilas Jul 3 at 1:21

How do I get from X to Y?

Suitable: On-Topic

Description: Questions asking for help applying the rules of a world. For example, "If my world's atmosphere is 90% oxygen, how to I stop the Boy Scouts from burning my planet to crisp?" Properly scoped, this question is a specific version of the "I need a finite list of things" question.

Traps to Avoid: Asking how to apply the rules of your world treads the very thin line between your question being too story-based and primarily opinion-based. This balance, however, is important to avoid question closure. The question must ask for answers that are generally applicable to any story in your world, not specific to just one story. They must also be bound by the rules of your world, and explaining those rules are a requirement for this question.

What is the answer to this maths problem?

Alternate Patterns: How much energy do I get if XYZ? (I use atomic bombs, I initiate a matter-antimatter reaction, etc)

Suitability: Off-Topic

Description: Questions that ask for numeric quantities or for participants to plug numbers into an equation do not directly relate to the conception, making or shaping of a fictional world.

Traps to Avoid: This kind of question is easy to avoid by basic online research. I.e., a Google search. Simple maths questions posed here show no obvious research or demonstration of relevant context.

Relevant Meta Links: In general, see What Topics Can I Post About (in Worldbuilding)?; also What Topics Can I Ask About (in Mathematics)?; and What Topics Can I Ask About (in Physics)?

Notes: The intention here is not to "ban" maths questions per se. Rather it is to shunt simple maths questions to a more appropriate part of SE while simultaneously improving the worldbuilding content of maths questions that do hinge on e.g. an equation dealing with some function of Nature and that we should be dealing with here at Worldbuilding.

The off-topicality of this specific question type derives from its purely "do my homework for me by plugging numbers into an equation and give me the answer" attitude. We should discourage that behaviour; we should continue to be encouraging of querents who need help with difficult physics or geometry in a clearly defined worldbuilding context.

Examples of On-Topic Maths/Worldbuilding Questions:

  • While I agree with your general idea, there are some questions which are on-topic that may fit into this category. I think it should be narrowed somewhat. "What is the answer to this maths problem" is generally the acceptance criteria for the [reality-check] tag – bendl May 9 at 14:20
  • This is easily applied to algebra problems, but what about calculus problems that are often beyond the OP? You can't google what you don't understand. Is asking "how fast can an unladen European swallow fly" off topic as a math problem? Can you provide an example question from the Main site to help clarify the question? – JBH May 9 at 15:27
  • @bendl I agree with you 100% that there may be varieties of this question type that are on-topic. A pure plug in the numbers question, no. A question that seeks to explore likely or plausible sequelae, yeah that would definitely fall under reality check. – elemtilas May 9 at 17:12
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    This would be a dangerous general thing to make off topic and violates the precedent set on the site thus far. – James May 9 at 17:19
  • @JBH To be honest, even algebra & geometry equations are beyond this poor geopoet! I would never ask the community to just plug numbers into an equation for me; but, if I needed help with geometry-in-context, then yeah, I'd ask here. Case in point was a while ago question about calculating the area of a country from its shape on a map. That's a perfect example of on-topic mathematics. Examples to follow. – elemtilas May 9 at 17:19
  • Examples of what I'd consider to be on-topic mathematics questions: example | example | example | example – elemtilas May 9 at 17:33
  • @James Why would it be dangerous? As I see it, if the community has long allowed this kind off-topic questions to be asked and answered, then we really should be answering all kinds of off-topic questions. Like a general discussion forum. I think one of the roots of this discussion is to seek consensus and consistency on policy. What this comes down to: I am more than happy to upvote & answer ALL off topic / low quality questions (if I like them) if we're not going to create & follow a consistent policy. – elemtilas May 9 at 17:40
  • 1
    A blanket ban on these questions doesn't make sense and doesn't follow site precedent, that is all I am saying. Questions should still meet a standard but making them all off topic is wrong in my view. – James May 9 at 18:09
  • I see. I'm not asking for a "blanket ban", just perhaps being a little more selective as regards welcome question types. Giving the answers to math problems, whether it's been done in the past or not, I think really is beyond the scope of worldbuilding. Also I'm asking our querents to raise their own bar a little: if you've got a mathematical question that touches upon worldbuilding, then demonstrate the connexion! How does our filling in the blanks of an equation help to build a world? – elemtilas May 9 at 18:53
  • You and James bring up a good points and you should consider editing your answer to accomodate it. when you do, remember to put yourself into the shoes of someone specifically not you, be sure you see what you intend through their eyes, too. – JBH May 9 at 19:09
  • (Done and done.) – elemtilas Jul 3 at 1:24

Why would someone X?

Alternate Patterns: What reasons would X?

Suitable: Off-Topic

Description: This question is asking for possible reasons or justification for a particular action or decision. For example, "Why would somebody stay inside a burning house?" Question like this are almost always closed as either too broad or primarily opinion-based because without considerable scoping/context/limitation any answer is correct. This question could be thought of as a very specific form of the "I need an infinite list of things" question.

Many questions on Worldbuilding.SE have some degree of fishing-for-ideas. However, ideas that are nothing more than fishing-for-ideas (i.e., helping you write your story, not helping you build a consistent fictional world) are generally off-topic.

Relevant Meta Links:

How to build a world?

Alternate Patterns: How do I go about worldbuilding? What process should I use to build my world? Where do I start with worldbuilding?

Suitable: Off-Topic

Description: It is completely natural to ask "how do I go about building my world" on a site dedicated to worldbuilding. However, there are a great many ways to accomplish this one goal and dozens (if not hundreds) of websites dedicated to answering this very question. These questions are excellent candidates for the Sandbox due to the often subjective nature of the topic.

  • 1
    As asked, I'd consider this question far too broad. You yourself say there are a great many ways to go about it; there are many starting points, ending points; there are differing goals & rationales that all impinge on the mechanics. I definitely agree about restrictions: specific processes, specific end goals. – elemtilas Jul 5 at 2:41
  • @elemtilas, Do you recommend modifications to this entry? I'm 100% in favor of clear descriptions. – JBH Jul 5 at 3:31
  • Well, perhaps. I'd suggest marking "how do I build a world" as off-topic / (way!) too broad; but perhaps add one or two of the extended / focused questions as new questions. Like perhaps "what are some strategies for applying real world physics to a fundamentally fantastic / slightly unpredictable world" or "what are three (or five) first considerations I should be thinking about when beginning a new world?" and mark those as on-topic. – elemtilas Jul 6 at 0:50
  • @elemtilas, after reading your comment and doing a 5-second google search for "worldbuilding 'how to'" I'm 100% convinced. – JBH Jul 6 at 3:46
  • I think that's a positive edit! Thanks! – elemtilas Jul 6 at 3:54

How do I avoid X?

Alternate Patterns: How do I stop X? How do I keep my Y from X?

Suitable: On-Topic

Description: These questions ask how to avoid a situation, effect, or condition. While most questions ask in a positive context (How do I?), these ask from the much more difficult negative context (How do I not?)

Traps to Avoid: These questions are notoriously suceptible to being Primarily Opinion-Based (POB), meaning that the OP cannot judge which answer is better than any other without explaining the criterion for judgement. Consequently, OPs should go out of their way to explain what makes a good answer.

Is X realistic?

Alternate Patterns: Is X plausible? Would [something previously stated] work?

Suitable: On-Topic

Description: Questions asking if the application of world rules to achieve a specified effect are on-topic. Your question should be asked such that the only answers can be of the form, "Yes, because..." and "No, because...". Questions of this type should always use the tag. Please note from the tag's description:

Asks if a given concept is realistic in a given context.

You are required to provide a specific context including all of the necessary world-rules to properly frame the reality-check query. Said another way, you need to completely define the reality you're asking us to check.

Traps to Avoid:SE is not a discussion forum, therefore you must avoid asking your question in a way that invites discussion. For example, "Is there a better way to X?" or "if this doesn't work, what alternatives could I use?" Inviting a discussion makes the question too broad.

Relevant Meta Links:

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