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"The rules" are spread across a number of locations. This post is an attempt to bring the basics of what this Stack expects of questions together into one place. Before I begin, please let me underscore something that gets ignored a lot on this Stack. From the Help Center we read:

Some subjective questions are allowed, but “subjective” does not mean “anything goes”. All subjective questions are expected to be constructive. What does that mean? Constructive subjective questions: ... are more than just mindless social fun.

We're all here to have fun, but asking questions because you're bored, or are "having fun," or are not really trying to ask questions either to further your own worldbuilding efforts or to further the "cause of worldbuilding,"1 is not welcome. That's a bit harsh, but the rule serves a purpose. It keeps the Stack from becoming cluttered with poor questions that don't help or benefit anyone but, at best, the person who asked the question.

This is NOT a replacement for the Help Center, Tour, or any other rule source

This is a convenience. It isn't the law. The law is found in the Help Center, Tour, VTC explanations, mouse rollovers, and wherever Stack Exchange chose to stuff things, as well as in the many Meta discussions that have established this Stack's unique policies. If there is any contradiction between this summary and the actual Rules, the Rules win.

JB's Commentary

I've included a few words of commentary here-and-there in block-quotes. These are my opinions based on several years of practice. Hopefully I've included relevant Meta links. If you disagree with my commentary, please post a comment to this Post and within a week I'll go chase down the relevant Meta discussions. In other words, if I've done my job right, I'm not just hoisting my opinion, I'm expressing real Policy perspectives that I didn't have the time to go research. Sorry about that....

Meta Policies...

There are a handful of "rules" that are really Stack policies that have been hammered out through months (and often years) of Meta discussions. Most of those are encompassed by the rules listed below and I've linked to a couple of them. But you will occasionally be directed to a meta post about a Stack policy as a justification for asking for your post to be improved or that it's being closed. I apologize that this summary isn't comprehensive — but welcome to Real Life. You can't find a comprehensive summary of your nation's Laws, either. You're expected to eventually do the research to catch up on your own. Nevertheless, as I or others come across those Policies and remember, we'll include them here.

"The Rules"

  • The question cannot be a duplicate of another question previously asked. (Source: "Duplicate" close reason)

If you believe your question is not a duplicate of a previous question, you are expected to explain why it is not.

  • The question lacks enough details or conditions for the average user to clearly understand the problem (Source: "Needs details or clarity" close reason)

  • The post is required to ask one and only one question per post. (Source: "Needs more focus" close reason)

As a tradition, additional questions may be asked, but you must state clearly that they are NOT expected as part of the answer, only "nice to haves." Answers not provided to secondary questions can NOT be used against users when judging a best answer. (Frankly, it's better to just ask one question.)

  • The question cannot seek opinions, start a discussion, or lead to opinion-based answers. (Sources: "Opinion-based" close reason, Tour, Help Center)

  • The question cannot invite too many answers. (Source: Tour)

This site has trouble with "fishing for ideas" questions, which are the most common type of question that completely breaks that rule. However, we respect the reality that when worldbuilding, sometimes what you need to see is a list of options. The bridge between the rule and the need are the concepts of an off-topic infinite list of things and an on-topic finite list of things. As you read through this list, you'll see that goals, expectations, restrictions, conditions, and limitations are insanely important.

  • The question cannot be too broad or expect lengthy answers. (Sources: Tour, Help Center)

Note that there is a contradiction with Help Center which also states questions should inspire long, not short answers. What this means is that a question easily answered with a one-sentence answer is a bad question. Likewise, a question that requires more then 4-5 paragraphs to answer is also a bad question.

  • The question must be about the rules of your world, not a story based in your world or the actions/choices/development of any character. (Sources: "Too Story Based" close reason, Help Center)

Your world... not the Real World (see two bullets down), not a 3rd party or commercial world... not even mythology in any instance save the Anatomically Correct Series (which has specific rules). Worldbuilding is the design and consistent use of rules and systems for a fictional world of your own design wherein an infinite number of stories may be told.

  • The question must refer to a specific, pracitcal issue with worldbuilding and be answerable. (Sources: Tour, Help Center, Help Center)

While we are somewhat lenient with this, questions must have an actual problem to be solved. Inviting Stack users to verify if something is believable, realistic, plausible, etc., is out-of-bounds as such questions are opinion-based unless specifically meeting the criteria of the tag. Note that asking if anything is realistic, plausible, believable, etc. in the Real World is strictly out-of-bounds. We're here to help you build your own, fictional world. Not to enhance the Real World.

  • The question must be about worldbuilding (Source: Tour), specifically an imaginary world (Source: Help Center).

This touches on our Real World Question debate. Real World questions are permitted only if there is a dependency on your worldbuilding. As a specific example, a question about Real World history is only permissible when used as an example when building an alternative history or the history of a fictional world. (Source: Help Center)

  • The question must include context. (Source: Help Center)

  • The question must include restrictions and/or requirements. (Source: Help Center)

  • The question should include research. (Source: Help Center) Lack of simple research is a frequent cause for down voting questions (see down-vote mouse rollover text).

  • A question about an event must include the setting and circumstances of the event and the goal or result the question leads to. (Source: Help Center)

  • A question asking Stack users to "check" a condition (e.g., a "reality check") must include the relevant details (rules) of the OP's world (not the Real World) for the purpose of checking consistency. (Sources: Help Center, the tag wiki)

  • The question must be asked in a way that ever answer is NOT equally valid. (Source: Help Center)

What this means is the question must have a reasonable expectation of a best-answer selection (whether one is selected or not). This means that one answer above all must best meet the goals, conditions, and expectations set forth in the question. If the only criteria for selecting a best answer is the OP's fondness of one answer over another, the question is out-of-bounds.

  • The question must NOT have answers provided with it (e.g., "I've already considered and rejected the following..."). (Source: Help Center)

  • The question cannot be open-ended or hypothetical. (Sources: Help Center, "High Concept Questions")

  • The question should inspire answers that explain "why" and "how." (Source: Help Center)

However, this Stack is much better at answering "how" than "why," which questions are often closed as opinion-based unless sufficient conditions, restrictions, and expectations are provided.

Conclusion

If your question meets all those expectations, you're in great shape! The more it misses, the more likely it'll get closed. And there's a few of them that'll get your question closed without discussion. Honestly, it's better to obey the rules.


1This is just my opinion, but the "cause of worldbuilding" means you're asking questions that might actually have value to other people. That's actually one of the primary purposes of Stack Exchange as a whole. In an ideal world, no question can or should be asked that serves only one person's interest. If you're not working on problems for a specific worldbuilding project of your own design... if you're tempted to ask questions just because it's fun to ask questions or because, in one participant's words, you're only interested in "pure worldbuilding" (meaning you're not building a world, you're just asking random questions of interest to yourself)... please have the minimum courtesy of designing questions that really will benefit someone else's worldbuilding effort. That's actually harder to do than it sounds and while we're tolerant in the beginning, we do start down voting and closing questions from participants who don't grow out of breaking that "mindless social fun" rule.

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    $\begingroup$ Speaking of rules that aren't pinpoint clear, how should we treat answers here? As opinions on what you wrote, extensions of your guidelines core set, something else... ? $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Oct 11 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ 1. " Inviting Stack users if something is believable, realistic, plausible, etc., is out-of-bounds as such questions are opinion-based unless specifically meeting the criteria of the reality-check tag." --- I think there's a word or two missing in here somewhere... iow, what am I inviting WB users to do? $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Oct 11 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ Do you plan on inserting JBH Commentary between the uncommentated-upon bullet points? $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Oct 11 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena From one point of view, they're not really useful as I doubt many people will read through them. So one purpose is as good as another. I'd probably prefer they expound "legitimately" (i.e., "in a way that helps people understand") on one or more rules. $\endgroup$ Oct 11 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Fixed the missing words, thanks. I wasn't intending to place commentary on everything. I've probably put in too much commentary already. My goal with the commentary was to try and clarify either perspective or exceptions. While this could be called a "work in progress," it's complete enough for the vast majority of people who wonder what the rules are. $\endgroup$ Oct 11 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ The question cannot invite too many answers and "The question must be asked in a way that every) answer is NOT equally valid. (Source: HC/dont-ask)" I find these difficult. How are people who put questions supposed to predict that ? and would a developing topic be judged (in hindsight) to have too many answers, or no clear answer to select ? What is the purpose of this rule.. how would it improve quality.. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Oct 11 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Goodies It's not as hard as it sounds. As I said, "goals, expectations, restrictions, conditions, and limitations are insanely important." If you can't explain how you'll judge a best A, your Q is not ready to post. The most common reason someone can't explain how they'll judge a best A is that they're really not looking for one, they're just brainstorming. From the help center, " If you are looking for discussion, brainstorming, or an overall process rather than specific questions and answers, the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange might not be a good place for your question." $\endgroup$ Oct 11 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ "If you can't explain how you'll judge a best A, your Q is not ready to post." so the answer requires an edit.. but what if the edit does not happen.. because the opener does not know how, or why. Suppose no "best answer" is selected.. new answers are not possible anymore, because it gets closed. If the opener is waiting for a really good answer, you run into a chicken-and-egg problem. Maybe the right answer just has not arrived yet.. and it cannot arrive anymore. These things should be bound to a term imho like "this rule applies after xx weeks" $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Oct 11 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Goodies I'm not sure I understand your concern. People post questions on Stack Exchange at their own risk - and they are both expected and obligated to understand the rules. Closing a question isn't a punishment, it's a judgment. People who answer unready questions do so at their risk, too, because SE is focused on quality, not quantity. Any answer at any price is not the model here. If people want no-holds-barred questions, they need to use Quora or Reddit. Stack Exchange has rules. $\endgroup$ Oct 11 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ I don't object to rules in general. The two rules I have questions about (cited above) work out quite unpredictable, from the opener's perspective. Also when the opener has good intent (no fishing ideas) it could be difficult to edit the question to improve it. While the subject could be interesting and yield many answers. Again, I do not understand how these two rules would add anything to quality. Rules should have a purpose ! $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Oct 15 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Goodies Please keep in mind that with only a couple of exceptions, all the rules are rules imposed on us by Stack Exchange. Stack Exchange was designed from the perspective (using their first site, Stack Overflow, as an example) of questions that actually do have an objective, best answer. Worldbuilding is the most subjective Stack on the list - but we're still subject to all of SE's rules, all of which are applied network-wide. So it's an interesting discussion to have - but it'll be fruitless. $\endgroup$ Oct 15 at 13:36
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The Wyes and Wear Fours

On this point:

"The question should inspire answers that explain "why" and "how."" However, this Stack is much better at answering "how" than "why," which questions are often closed as opinion-based unless sufficient conditions, restrictions, and expectations are provided.

I believe we should be much more encouraging both of the asking and answering good "why" questions. If the hows of orbital mechanics & dragon wings are the meat and potatoes of worldbuilding, then the whys and wherefores are literally the metacosmic gravy that holds it all together into one delicious consideration!

This may require a different discussion question, but very frequently how questions are mistakenly asked in the form of why questions. Physics.SE addresses this point. The long and short of it is that "how" really seeks the manner or method or process that something happens in. "How is rain formed?" Evaporated water rises in the atmosphere, condenses into clouds...etc.

But "why does rain form?" --- now that's a whole nother can of worms! One can touch upon the merest & shallowest answer through philosophical investigation. But the way of that journey is long and deep and one can traverse the universe and beyond in considerations of ontology, metaphysics, theology, mythology and other roads less travelled. A veritable leap of reasoned faith.

I think we'd have to make a clear definition or statement of expectations.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't disagree with you at all. The problem the Stack has generally had is that most "why" questions are of the form of "my unicorn's horn twists counter-clockwise rather than the traditional clockwise, how would that evolve?" The question "why" is abused something ferocious on this Stack, mostly because "why" isn't a single-context word. I'd be very open to a Meta post clearly explaining how a good "why" question can be formed, and then link it here and, more importantly, in the help center pages. Frankly, we need to figure out how to convince the Mods to fix some of the help center pages. $\endgroup$ Oct 11 at 23:14
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The question must be about the rules of your world, not a story based in your world or the actions/choices/development of any character. (Sources: "Too Story Based" close reason, Help Center)

Your world... not the Real World (see two bullets down), not a 3rd party or commercial world... not even mythology in any instance save the Anatomically Correct Series (which has specific rules). Worldbuilding is the design and consistent use of rules and systems for a fictional world of your own design wherein an infinite number of stories may be told.

This one seems way too specific and way too prone to loophole abuse for several reasons:

  1. The design of the world from a socio-political perspective is basically the result of the actions/choices/development of the individuals within it. History is, in a sense, the sum total of decisions made up of every individual, and that in turn shapes the world your story is set in. People have argued whether decisions by a few high-profile individuals or many decisions made by large groups of people are more important, but both have an impact.

    Consider, for example, Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great deciding to conquer most of the known world (and the squabbles between Alexander's generals after his death), or the mass-migration of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to the United States in the 19th-20th centuries. Both are the results of decisions made by individuals (i.e., a decision by a monarch to wage war or the decision of large numbers of people to emigrate and seek a better life elsewhere), but both had huge effects on the "setting" (e.g., Alexander's conquests and his army falling apart basically set up the geo-political foundation of the Hellenistic world from 320-280 B.C.E.).

    As a thought experiment, imagine someone asking a question as to how they can justify a specific societal standard for their world, such as the continuation of medieval feudalism in spite of similar historical pressures that ended IRL feudalism (e.g., rising power of the middle class, industrialization and firearms). The authorial reason is the author wants a medieval-inspired setting for the story, but the worldbuilding reason is they need an in-universe justification as to why their setting looks the way they need it to for the story (i.e., why the people didn't make the same decisions as IRL). Some of the solutions to this problem (e.g., the central government banned firearms to retain power, much as what happened in feudal Japan) also revolve around the decisions of one or more people.

    Thus, for this rule to be consistently enforced, we would have to burninate most of the history, alternate-history, and society tags and related questions.

  2. There are a very large number of "worlds" that are essentially the modern world with some science-fiction/fantasy element(s) added. E.g., urban fantasy, magical realism, "superhero settings", "disaster" movies (which also include alien invasions, techno-thrillers, cyberpunk, first contact movies, etc. Many of these worlds focus on how supernatural or science-fiction elements interact with the world in a broader sense. E.g., World War Z is a zombie apocalypse novel, but focuses heavily on how human civilization deals with the zombies, which by definition is dependent on the geopolitical shape and culture of the present world. Under your definition any question set in a contemporary (e.g., urban fantasy, alien invasion stories), historical, or even futuristic setting (because the future is usually an extrapolation of the present, e.g. all the old science fiction stories that believed the Cold War would continue in space) that is intended to be seen as a fictionalized version of our own world would be considered invalid.

    Similarly, would something like, say, elements of a story with an artificial plague, genetic engineering, or autonomous robot soldiers be off-topic, because those are things we theoretically could do with present or near-future technology?

    I see the point you are making with this regard, but it seems to be a bit heavy-handed, retroactively invalidates a lot of valid Worldbuilding SE questions, and lacks nuance when dealing with grey areas. This is why in a similar statement to this I suggested a better definition might be Worldbuilding SE deals with fictional worlds or fictional elements of Earthlike settings.

    If your suggestion is to be followed, it would effectively limit questions on this SE to only those worlds which are intended to have no link at all to the real world (i.e., Middle Earth would be on topic, Hogwarts would not, and virtually all science fiction would be off-topic). It also makes questions based on real-world concepts like evolution, chemistry, physics, etc. hard to apply because there is no reason to believe the setting is "like reality unless noted". Why would species be expected to evolve by natural selection if they were originally created by the life goddess? Why would modern chemistry and physics concepts such as the synthesis of aluminum or nitrate be expected to work in a setting where the physics run off of Plato's four-element system? The answers to these questions become "whatever you want for your story, given you control the physics/chemistry/history/biology", which violates your suggestion that each question should have a theoretical ideal answer.

  3. The distinction between a third-party world and a user-created world is incredibly blurry and vague. This is largely because authors are inspired by the works of other creators when creating their worlds all the time. Take for example this question regarding "how to democratically handle the Immaterium". This question is very specifically for the user's own world, but the user's setting also copies the Immaterium from the Warhammer franchise wholesale as part of its structure, which is a very detailed and specific concept created by a third party. The user provides no indication that there is any difference in function between their setting as Warhammer's use of the Warp (parallel dimension full of demons that keep tempting mortals, source of faster-than-light travel and psychic powers, etc.). This isn't even unique to that user, Dragon Age also lifts the Warp almost wholesale for its setting. Broadly speaking, a user could take any concept from a third-party property they want, stay "it's for a world I want to build", and ask the same questions anyway, which violates the spirit of your suggestion.

    Or, as another example, take this question I asked regarding whether characters that swung from buildings would violate city laws. This trope was popularized in the public consciousness by Spider-Man, but is a very common trope in fiction across multiple mediums, especially given that arachnid-themed Spider-Man parodies are a dime a dozen. I specifically asked this question because I wanted to use it for my own arachnid-themed characters in my setting, but it got closed because it was too close to a third-party world. At what point does a worldbuilding trope (which often originates in some IP initially) become widespread enough that it's not "third party"?

    Another good example of this is your statement that mythology and folklore-based questions are not acceptable. Yet the ideas of things such as dragons and vampires are cribbed from folklore so frequently that we have our own tags for them. While there are sometimes individual differences between these beings per setting, they're usually so consistent enough that they have the same general expectations in each question (e.g., most dragons are treated as flying, fire-breathing reptiles, vampires have a specific list of functions and weaknesses that most people assume unless otherwise noted). So does this mean all questions that crib off of prior folklore or mythology but set in the user's own setting are invalid? Or are the only valid questions those narrow features in which the user's own depiction of vampires or dragons differs from the general consensus?

Thus, this suggestion is overly narrow in scope, ends up negating a lot of valid worldbuilding questions, and although it makes sense in spirit can be easily circumvented in ways that break the spirit of the rule.

And, ultimately, this question kind of seems like one user trying to dictate to the rest of the stack that their standards for what constitutes a right or wrong question are the only acceptable ones. This is especially strange given that OP is not a mod and isn't speaking as one who sets the rules in the stack. Clearly there are defined rules in the help center, but there are gray areas in the interpretation of those rules. E.g., I know that myself and @Tortliena have disagreed on best practices in the past, which there's nothing wrong with but it's clear that different individuals will have different ideas on how to best implement the same set of rules. I have no problem with clarifying the rules, but it would be better if it was coming from site admins (i.e., we have no control over that) or as a consensus of users rather than one user enforcing their definitions on everyone.

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    $\begingroup$ I would add to this that the Help Centre clearly states: 'If a system, event or element of the world is causing you problems we are here to help.' (emphasis added) and 'World building includes geography, culture and creatures for the world, not to mention magic and planetary physics, in short, everything from the physics underlying your reality to the entire universe you want to build.'. Therefore the statement that all questions must be about the rules is not consistent with the existing 'proper' rules. I also share your concerns that the OP is not a part of the moderation team. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Oct 21 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin I mean, in theory, one could round up four like-minded individuals with sufficient reputation and go around closing every question on the stack that they believed conflicted with their interpretation of the rules. There wouldn't be much anyone could do about it outside of mod action. It's a loophole in the rules but the potential for abuse is there. $\endgroup$ Oct 22 at 3:35
  • $\begingroup$ One would still have the option to appeal to moderators and/or the SE team. Decisions of regular members are non-binding, unlike moderators' decisions. Moderators have the power to overrule any decision made by regular members when it comes to closing and opening questions. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Oct 22 at 15:59
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I have 2 points to make:

  1. While it is nice to have someone attempt to compile existing interpretations of the rules, this should be moderators' job. As it is now, this compilation and commentary are nothing more than a personal opinion of one member of this community.

    In case somebody wants to make points about democracy and such, please, make sure that there is a quorum and all necessary democratic procedures have been fully completed. How big is the WB.SE community? Are 5 (five) votes (so far) representative of the entire community?

    Please also note that out of 6 people who wrote something in this thread, at least 3 (50%) expressed disagreement with the OP's views.

  2. It is highly hypocritical to write that this post is not a replacement for the official rules and then link it as 'the rules'.

    I am also concerned that by linking this post as 'the rules', the OP is attempting to impose their own interpretation of the official rules on the rest of the community. Without the input of any qualified personnel (i.e. moderators, SE employees, and alike) this post cannot be (and must not be) considered as official rules or preferred interpretations.


Please note that not even one of the bullet points is a direct quotation from the existing rules. Most of them are paraphrases. Moreover, there are 'rules' that have no support in the linked sources at all. For example, 'The question must be about the rules of your world, not a story based in your world or the actions/choices/development of any character.' is purely the OP's own opinion. The Help Centre does not limit the scope of worldbuilding to the rules of the world. The WB.SE's official definition is:

World building includes geography, culture and creatures for the world, not to mention magic and planetary physics, in short, everything from the physics underlying your reality to the entire universe you want to build.

In addition the same page states:

If a system, event or element of the world is causing you problems we are here to help.

The Help Centre (same page, same section, last paragraph of the section) explicitly states only one limitation on the scope:

If on the other hand you aren’t sure what a character (be it an individual or organization) should do, that is out of scope for the site, though we often have such discussions in Worldbuilding Chat.

The word 'rules' is not used even once on the entire page. Interpretation of worldbuilding as world's rule building is something that the OP prefers and attempts to enforce.

There are other questionable interpretations of the official rules, but discussing them is rather meaningless before the issue with the status of the OP's post is resolved.


I also want to request the moderators' input. It's been a while since this was posted but not even one moderator provided any feedback. In which way this silence should be interpreted?

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  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, the reason I even opened this post is I thought this was some moderator action clarifying a change to the rules of the community, as has been done in the past (e.g., the decree from the StackExchange higher-ups saying that violent content was outside the terms of service, etc.) $\endgroup$ Oct 22 at 3:37

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