Edit: An incredibly valuable example of why we should add "This is a high concept question" to the VTC reasons is this question: What would happen if the salt in the oceans disappeared? The OP is even in the process of disputing the closure. In none of the currently visible comments is there a link to the "high concept question" Meta page, explaining why the question is off-topic.

A high concept question is a question where a vague premise leads to the question "what happens next?" (E.G., Let's say the Nazis invented the atom bomb before WWII ended, how would that have changed the outcome of the war?)

We get a lot of high concept questions. They're generally closed as "too broad" or "too opinion-based" or "too story-based" (or, in the current vernacular, not enough details or not enough focus). But this question type is so specific (somewhat like "too story based" questions) that I believe it deserves its own VTC reason, because I think most people who ask them don't realize what the problem is.

Question: Is it both possible and reasonable to add "This is a high concept question" to the list of community-specific reasons to close a question?

It should be noted that when a question is closed for lacking details, which (by definition) basically describes a high-concept question, the text in the closure-reason box is:

Closed. This question needs details or clarity. It is not currently accepting answers.

If you follow that link, you'll discover that it explains the old reasons (too broad, etc.) and none of the new reasons. So while I thought that an alternative to the problem might be to modify that help center page, the reality is that the page is already obsolete. What this means is that users (especially new users) don't have a way to understand the problem. From their perspective, they asked a perfectly sensible question. This is why I'm recommending adding a new VTC reason, which would include a link to the high concept question page.

Addendum: I believe it's worth indicating the primary difference between a question being too story based and a question being a high concept question. In a nutshell...

Too Story Based means querents must provide a story (i.e., story-based conditions) for the question to meet Help Center rules.

High Concept means respondents must provide a story to answer the question.

Both of these reasons are specialized versions of "too opinion-based" but differ in that high concept questions are always too broad (violating the so-called book test, "Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.") However, both of these sub-types are so commonly asked and have such clear explanations for why they are a problem that, IMO, they deserve their own entries.


3 Answers 3


The World Turned Upside Down

This is, on the face of it, an excellent question. As it stands, I'd say "sure! -- go ahead and add that!" But rather than looking for yet another reason to close a broad swath of questions -- literally, the entire genre of Alt-History -- I'd like to turn this question around and ask:

How can we make it so high concept queries are sufficiently answerable in the Worldbuilding forum?

I would state at the outset that I can see where JBH is coming from --- Hitler gets stomped by a circus elephant in Vienna as a child, what happens next? is a wide openly broad and technically opinion based question. Straight up black letter law. I'd also state at the outset that user2352714 makes an excellent point: applying the law too strictly essentially disallows and extirpates a whole genre of worldbuilding. Of course, if you're not a fan of alt-history, this may not be a great loss!

But I'll reiterate my oft iterated iter: Almost every question in this forum is closeable, according to a strict interpretation & application of Stack Exchange rules, for being "opinion based". Everything about space aliens, magic, dragons, fantasy races, etc is essentially counterfactual and thus a matter of opinion. Yet, our forum thrives on the counterfactual and on the opinion based. It's what we do here. We've done this simply by devising ways and means of asking these questions in such ways that focus on query answerability.

I think we need to do the same thing with alt-history / high concept questions. We need to come up with strategies and eventually guidelines for how to answer these questions in this forum such they won't be closed or deleted. Some thoughts and strategies come to mind based on JBH's excellent example:

Let's say the Nazis invented the atom bomb before WWII ended, how would that have changed the outcome of the war?

This question is very much like a number of questions we get. How does XY&Z affect society? How does removing one thing from history change the future? Alt-history fodder for sure!, but would-be alt-historians need better strategy to ask their questions here.

  • One obvious strategy is FOCUS. We demand from all querents a certain amount of focus. If someone asks how does XY&Z affect society, we ask them to focus on some particular aspect of society --- effects on an aspect of economy, effects on daily life of a particular group, effects on technology functionality, etc.
  • Another strategy is opinion reduction. What colour do you think the butterfly wings on my fairies ought to be? is a straight up opinion based question. We would ask the querent to edit the question to make it non-opinion based. Maybe something like "given the context of a world with X type of star and Z type of atmosphere and that many creatures are colourblind in some way or other, how might fairies evolve coloured butterfly wings to evolutionary success?"

And so it should be with the perennial A-H question of Nazi nukes. Historically, we think they may have been working on such a weapon, and may have been able to produce one within a relatively useful time period had the war dragged on a little longer.

I think the example question could be made askable here if we apply FOCUS and OPINION REDUCTION strategies. Perhaps if we focus on where they might drop a bomb or two, we could reign in the wild speculation: this would lead to a narrower question like if the Nazis nuked Moscow, how would the crippling of the USSR's central government alter the balance of power? The answers would then focus on destability within the USSR, lack of central command structure for the armed forces and perhaps some kind of forced peace between Germany and Russia. The outcome of the war might be altered by a) they dropped the bomb first, causing France, the UK and the US to shit their britches, suing for peace or b) by a more resolute western allied force now having to face Germany on a single front war, with several interesting wonderweapons soon to be unveiled -- not only jet fighters but atomic rockets capable of hitting London and perhaps atomic uboats striking NYC, Baltimore, Washington, etc.

  • $\begingroup$ OK, +1 just for the statement "oft iterated iter." On the other hand, we've had the linked explanation for how to avoid being labeled a high concept question for years. If it and the U.S. Flag Code (an actual law on the books) prove anything, it's that a law (explanation, expectation, training guide) unaccompanied by a punishment for lack of obedience means basically nothing. Besides, closing questions isn't a punishment, it's a way to stop low-quality participation until a high-quality question emerges. I.E., it's the training tool. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 9, 2021 at 2:53
  • $\begingroup$ worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/q/6388/40609 $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 9, 2021 at 2:57
  • $\begingroup$ "Almost every question in this forum is closeable" - incredible how easily this is forgotten. A better comparison than the Flag Code example are the US drug laws. Despite millions of incarcerations, drugs abuse is still rampant. The choice is to become more like Singapore, i.e. implement more draconian punishment until everyone "learns", or more like Portugal, where the rules are enforced but unwitting victims are shown empathy. The question is: Do you want to see more high-quality questions, or do you want to see more closed questions? $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2021 at 16:16

I'm not entirely sure. The reason for this is whether a question is a high-concept question or not can vary wildly depending on context. There are minor background details in many stories that can and have been fleshed out in other context. As an example consider this question about the best way to cause a mass exodus from Earth. A mass exodus from Earth could be the centerpiece of an entire story, as it is in Interstellar, or it could be a background detail that sets up the plot, as it is in Titan AE. How much detail the author needs to go into is very different between the two.

Similarly, how much detail answerers need to provide can vary. This goes for even things like seem like relatively straightforward worldbuilding such as species design. Some people can write entire treatises on species biology, indeed a third of Flatland is just dedicated to exploring the sociology and biology of its inhabitants. But on other contexts what a user would consider an "acceptable" answer may be just a couple of paragraphs.

I'd also like to point out that removing high-concept questions would result in a lot of highly rated questions being considered inappropriate for the site. As an example just going through my own saved question log this question about what economic, financial, etc. benefits would humanity gain by being able to time travel to the Late Cretaceous period would be considered off-topic, because entire stories can and have (e.g., Rivers of Time, Terra Nova) been written around this entire premise and their consequences.

This actually ties into another problem I've noticed with this stack where alternate history questions tend to get shut down pretty quickly as "too story-based". Expanding the list of forbidden questions to high concept questions would basically kill any questions on alternate history at all on this stack, as well as questions involving worldbuilding fictional societies that are based around a high concept question (e.g., A Handmaiden's Tale, The Hunger Games, 1984, are all examples where the entire point of the story is the high concept of society). Having an entire avenue of speculative fiction (alternate history) that involves a lot of worldbuilding being off-topic on this stack seems like a bad idea to me.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ IMO alternative history questions are fine. The problem is how they are asked. "Let's introduce X at year Y. What happens after Y?" is inherently unanswerable. Well, you can write basically any answer from "nothing at all changes" through "all people in present day are called Dr. Dre" to "nothing is the same ever". A better question is how "What can I add around year Y to get A" or "If I add X at Y, how do I prevent B" etc. A more concrete and focused questions, that don't expect complete speculation on the answerer's part. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Mar 23, 2021 at 8:49
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ is correct, high concept questions are of the nature, "given X, what happens next?" Although they're likely never intended to be such, they're always an invitation to write a story. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 23, 2021 at 13:34


The original "high concept" post and the example above (what would have happened if Hitler had died as a baby? what would have happened if Nazis had built the A-bomb?) actually do violate a real rule of this forum. According to What topics can I ask about here?:

"History: History questions should NOT be about real-world history, unless asking for examples to construct a particular history for a world."

What this means is that High Concept is distracting people from the few simple rules the forum has, and instead puts them on a wild goose chase for a subjective concept that I'm not sure even has any meaning.

Does this site need to close more questions? Is there a reason to link questions to this description when closing them?

No one writes a book to ask a question, so when do you say that a question is a High Concept? Is it simply a matter of genre - alternative histories versus alternative ecologies or technologies?

Starting at the one defined case, the question of Hitler and Germany is commonplace, but it is hardly vague. It doesn't need to be purely a matter of opinion (someone could document other anti-Semitic groups or German Army infiltrators active in politics). It could get very interesting answers, even if I don't know how to write one. It only needs to be made on-topic for the site by "asking for examples to construct a particular history for a world", as the rule puts it.

Is High Concept a shorthand to decide whether someone is "really" writing? If they would "really" provide details to their question if asked? Is it a way to dismiss a question for being too provocative or too creative?

  • $\begingroup$ Hi, Mike. We have an alternate-history tag that entirely negates this answer. By definition, asking what would happen to real history if some massive change is made creates an alternate history. A high-concept question is, as explained in my post, is a specialized form of "lacking details." But it's so common that I believe it deserves notice. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 7, 2021 at 15:26

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