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Relevant test question on Main:

The roll-over text for the Worldbuilding-Process tag reads:

For questions about the process of creating a new world or changing and developing an existing one, as opposed to questions about some element of the world being created or changed. NOTE that this is NOT a generic, catch-all tag; this tag should be used to address process, meaning HOW you world build not what you are building. Don't use it if the question isn't about worldbuilding process. See also the extended tag information for when to use this tag.

The Wiki for this tag is breathtaking and one of the best introductions to the process of worldbuilding and ostensibly to asking questions about worldbuilding on this Stack that I've ever read. Unfortunately, IMO it's also absolutely worthless when it comes to explaining what the nature of of a question about the process of worldbuilding should look like. But it was created seven years ago, long before the current standards of rules and policies came about.

I sincerely believe that questions about the process of worldbuilding should be allowed on a site dedicated to worldbuilding. Unfortunately, while not definitively proven by my test question, the simple fact is, asking "how should I go about X?" (and "how should I" and "advice for" are synonymous in my book) will, at this time, always be closed as too broad, too opinion-based, likely to lead to answers of equal value, being open-ended, and brainstorming.

In other words, it looks like between Stack Exchange and our own best efforts to get people to stop asking low-quality, unprepared, one-off questions, we've boxed ourselves into a corner where we can no longer answer a question about how to build worlds in the first place. We're delighted to answer the question, "how should I achieve X in my world given the following details specific to my world?" But we can no longer answer the question "How should I approach achieving X in a way that isn't specific to just one world?"

Personally, I think that's unacceptable to a staggering degree.

The issue is embodied in a statement from the Help Center:

Questions must be specific as well as answerable. If you are looking for ... an overall process rather than specific questions and answers, the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange might not be a good place for your question.

You'll notice I left out "discussion" and "brainstorming"

I completely agree that a question should lead to a definitive response (not a discussion). I could debate whether or not my test question did so, but let's set that aside.

I also completely agree that brainstorming is bad, but I have always understood brainstorming to mean, "I'm trying to overcome writer's block. I need ideas! Could you throw some ideas at me so I can choose one?" I most certainly do not believe that my test question was brainstorming. Brainstorming about one's world violates the "no Q should lead to answers of equal value" rule because while it's theoretically possible that aspects of more than one answer may be valuable to the OP, it's most likely that we're just throwing spaghetti against the proverbial wall and hoping something sticks.

But seeking advice about the process of worldbuilding is, IMO, not brainstorming because each and every answer is likely to prove valuable to the OP and used by the OP. In fact, all the answers could reasonably be bound into a single canonical answer that can apply to every worldbuilder regardless their experience level. (This could not be done with a "writer's block" question.)

Brainstorming is what happens when a querent is intentionally NOT seeking a definitive answer because the querent doesn't know what they want.

An education is what happens when a querent is asking for experienced guidance because the querent doesn't know how to proceed. There won't be one astonishingly comprehensive "there will never be a better answer than this one!" answer to a Worldbuilding-Process question (unless any of us believes their godlike worldbuilding abilities are just that good). The whole point is getting as much education as you can. Complaining that this is brainstorming is like complaining about buying multiple textbooks while seeking a college degree or complaining that any one textbook has multiple chapters. Frankly, it's silly.

But that doesn't fully discharge the problems with the future use of the tag

The simple truth is, I don't believe a Worldbuilding-Process question can be authoritatively asked within today's rules and policies.

Option #1: It would require a very large, very complex, and very involved change to our existing rules that would also require a change to the Help Center pages to bring the Worldbuilding-Process tag back into conformance. Considering that no effort to change the Help Center pages has succeeded in years, I don't think this is a realistic option.

Option #2: Somebody writes an answer to this post that says, "I think the Worldbuilding-Process tag should be an exception to the rules with the following advice about how to ask a process question added to the wiki" (or some such) that then gets some serious up votes (20+). At that point the tag Wiki can be updated to point back to that answer so that when somebody complains that a Worldbuilding-Process question is too broad, too opinion-based, brainstorming, or otherwise in violation of the Stack's rules and policies, people can point to this and say, "it's an exception."

So, officially...

Question: Should the Worldbuilding-Process tag be discontinued?

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  • $\begingroup$ Your definition of brainstorming is incorrect. You will still be brainstorming if every answer turns out to be of equal value. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brainstorming. We don't prohibit questions where the answers are of equal value, we prohibit questions where the answers are equally valid. We also don't permit questions that violate site policy if the answers happen to be useful. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 5:56
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings --- That's the perennial problem in this forum. Everything we do here is essentially brainstorming. In physics, if you have a question about how two objects interact in a fluid medium, well, there's an equation for that. You apply the equation and you have your answer. Not so in WB! We deal with real things like mechanics in a fluid medium, but always within a fictional context. By nature this makes every consideration in WB a matter of opinion, a matter of brainstorming. The only question we really need to worry about, as a community, is what quality of brainstorming (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ (cont) should we expect within our questions and answers? I think it's pretty much a matter of settled law that questions like "which colour should my hero wear to the ball" are 100% off topic for being "opinion based". There is no qualitative difference between the answers "red" "blue" and "ultraviolet". The problem boils down to so few people understanding that beyond this kind of simplistic opinion, there are other kinds of opinion. If the question focuses on some aspect of culture or folklore or biology, then the "opinion" of red vs blue takes on greater significance. (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ (cont) Questions of artistic process always come down to "opinion", but not all opinions are the same. When it comes to developing opposing forces in magic, or how metals interfere with magic, we're going to be looking into the depths of philosophy, physics, metaphysics, perhaps cosmological and theological issues. We're going to look into how those background presuppositions might fit together to yield a balance of forces within magic. Of course, that answer will be an "opinion"! But it won't be an ordinary opinion and the answer will most certainly not be "well (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ (cont) it's your world, you do it however you want!" That, honestly, is the single lamest comment I see in this forum. And it's almost always aimed at interesting, higher level queries. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas There are lots of questions on this site that aren't about the generating of ideas, but are about refining an idea, or developing a better understanding of some concept. Look at the worldbuilding process question I describe in my answer below. I guess a good criteria is that any decisions that need to be made for an answer need to be informed by criteria explicitly laid out by the asker, or by facts, references, or specific expertise. This constrains the number of equally valid answers, and reduces the influence of opinion on an answer. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with magic systems is that they only have the rules that someone chooses to impose on them. Even commonly used phrases can have wildly different interpretations depending on the world. Take "elemental magic" that could imply 4 elements, or 5, 8, or at least 118 that we know of. Even if you do decide on a 4 element system there can be disagreement about what the elements are, fire, water, wind, and earth, are common, but many games use lightning, and ice, instead of wind and water. Then there's how the magic gets used, does your fire gal invoke the sacred name of an elemental (cont) $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ (cont) lord, drawing arcane sigils in salt and sulfur, to work magic, or does she cultivate her chi through silent meditation, and through practiced movements control it's flow through her body, and bend the flames to her whim? You'd also need to determine what's possible with magic, perhaps once tapped mana of any element can be used for any spell, perhaps each element has entirely different spells, perhaps any element can be used for any spell but the element used will have an influence over the result. This is all ignoring that we still haven't decided what the magic can actually do. (cont) $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ (cont) "It's your world, you can do whatever you want" is a critically important statement on this site. As a worldbuilder the only limitations are those you choose to willingly impose on yourself. That statement emphasizes this universal fact. We're not here to build someone's world for them. We're not here to generate large lists of cool ideas. The help center is very clear that questions with many valid answers are not appropriate. A question where the answer can be whatever the worldbuilder wants it to be, will always be a poor fit for this site. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 14:59

2 Answers 2

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Worldbuilding processes can be incredibly broad, or highly specific. Anything anyone does as part of building a world is part of their worldbuilding process. By extension every question on this site will be related to an worldbuilding process. It would be insane to reject every question on this site for this reason, so we must conclude that at least some worldbuilding process questions are permitted.

There are legitimate appropriate ways to ask questions about worldbuilding process that don't contradict the exclusion described in the help center. Looking closely at the help center quote "Questions must be specific as well as answerable. If you are looking for ... an overall process rather than specific questions and answers, the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange might not be a good place for your question." I think the key phrases are looking for and overall.

By looking for a process, you're not building your world. You're asking us to tell you how to build your world. Everyone on worldbuilding has their own opinions about the right way to build a world. What one worldbuilder finds permissible, another may find entirely unacceptable. Answers will be based in opinions, not facts.

Given the scope of what can go into the process of worldbuilding, asking about overall process is a very broad ask. It's going to be hard to fully engage with such an ask without needing to write a book on the subject.

But what if you're not looking for an overall process but are wanting to refine a specific process? For instance someone could ask "What equations do I need to know to roughly calculate the orbital period of planets in my solar system?" While it's still about the process of worldbuilding, the process has already been decided. They could have just posted their parameters and asked us for the periods, but instead they specifically wanted a process that they could re-use on their own.

Questions about worldbuilding process are hard to ask on this site. Each worldbuilder can have their own process, or processes, and each and every one will be equally valid. To avoid asking an opinion based question with many valid answers care is needed to be specific in the ask about the process being used. A question can be considered sufficiently specific and properly constrained when any decisions that need to be made for an answer are informed by criteria explicitly laid out by the asker, or by facts, references, or specific expertise. This constrains the number of equally valid answers, and also reduces the influence of opinion.

As a general rule you can easily draw the line between good and bad questions on this site by considering the following questions,

  1. Is the core ask related to building a world?
  2. Does this question have many valid answers?
  3. Is the question clear?
  4. Will answers to this question primarily be based on opinion, or by facts, references, or specific expertise?

The prohibition on brainstorming and idea generation comes from that criteria. The prohibition on questions looking for a process, rather than asking about a specific process is also derived from that criteria. We explicitly call out brainstorming, idea generation, and questions looking for an overall process, not because we couldn't prevent them any other way, but because it's easier to communicate and enforce policy. Instead of always needing to explain how brainstorming is a violation of point 2, and often point 4, it is far easier to just say "No brainstorming".

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  • $\begingroup$ That's splitting a mighty fine hair - and your 2nd paragraph is an argument for killing the tag. But what bothers me the most is that you consider multiple ideas about how to solve the problem an inherent identification of opinion-based. Every question asked on this site fails that interpretation. Every question asked in human history fails that interpretation. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ I'm arguing for killing the tag in P2 only if you assume that the tag will always be used for questions looking for us to provide them with a process. However as I show in P3 it is possible to ask otherwise suitable questions using the tag. Hence my argument that the prohibition should be about questions that are asking us to select a process for them. Not any question even vaguely related to process. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ As a general rule you can easily draw the line between good and bad questions on this site by considering, 1. Is the core ask related to building a world? 2. Does this question have many valid answers? 3. Is the question clear? 4. Will answers to this question primarily be based on opinion, or by facts, references, or specific expertise? The prohibition on brainstorming and idea generation comes from that criteria. The prohibition on questions looking for a process, rather than asking about a specific process is also derived from that criteria. If we apply that criteria the line becomes clear. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ And that's why I posited option #2. Our current rules don't allow us to educate, only to refine. I know of several different methods for determining the resistance of an electronic component, and by our rules asking how to find that resistance would be closed simply because there are multiple equally valid (and equally correct) responses. It's idiotic, short-sighted, and self-defeating, but that's what our rules have become. That's a corner we shouldn't have boxed ourselves into. The fact that the line you mention becomes clear is the problem. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH We educate by writing quality answers. A good answer to a question on orbital mechanics shouldn't just be a list of calculated parameters. It should provide the equations used and explain the calculations, if any estimates were made, provide some explanation or justification for the estimate. This is similar to any other SO site. A good answer to a programming question isn't use this snippet instead it explains why the problem exists, and explains how using an alternate snippet will resolve it. We can't do that with magic questions, unless properly constrained by the OP. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ I'd argue that creating an exception for the tag is unnecessary. Properly constrained process questions have and will continue to be permitted. The only questions that are affected by the current policy on process questions, are questions that are already violating one or more of the fundamental criteria questions on any Stack Exchange site. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ What you just said is that an eloquent co-worker is an acceptable substitute for a textbook. That's simply incorrect - especially since expecting anyone on this site to provide the explanation you suggest is highly unlikely. I've even been chastised (by you) for doing it. Worse still, the next worldbuilder who could benefit from the in-answer explanation won't find it because the specifics of their world won't bring the answer up in a search. You're still focused one-to-one when we should be focused one-to-many and proud of it. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Stack Overflow's secret sauce was that it's structure lead to people asking questions that lead to answers that were re-usable. That's why we have the prohibitions listed above. Instead of posting "Code broke. how fix?" the site encourages creating a minimal reproducible example. Worldbuilding isn't the best fit for Stack Exchange. It takes work to create any MRE, on worldbuilding questions are often asked without even attempting to simplify it. It's possible to ask generally applicable questions on worldbuilding, but it requires a very different focus than most questions. (cont) $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ Consider the constant slew of orbital mechanics questions we get here. Instead of asking "I have some body, with some parameters, what's the orbit" ask about the equations needed to determine the orbit. Such a question is definitely permitted on this site, but will be far more helpful to future visitors than another, "what orbit?" question. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ As I said in my comments on your post "answers on Main aren't the place for writing about site policy." and "If a question has issues it should not be answered, even if the answer includes information about resolving said issues." I was chastising you for answering a question that you yourself acknowledged was inappropriate for this site, instead of closing it. Remember that just because a question can be answered, or that there's information we can provide the OP doesn't mean that a question is appropriate for this site. If that was our policy than literally every question would be ok. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ Yup. Educating the user is definitely off-topic here. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Depends on how you do it. Writing a good answer to a well asked question is very different than writing about site policy in a poorly asked question. To quote from the help center "Answer well-asked questions Not all questions can or should be answered here. Save yourself some frustration and avoid trying to answer questions which..." Should you want to better educate users there are better mechanisms than inserting unrelated content into an answer. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ Consider creating helpful wikis on meta, or suggesting users ask questions in chat that don't work on the main site. Consistently apply and quickly close inappropriate questions, then in the comments help them understand site policy, and work with them to refine their question. On of the fundamental promises of SE is that things work differently here, this is a highly structured site, things have a single purpose, and there are systems in place to enforce that singular use. To misuse this site while explaining policy sets a horrible example for new members. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ You're joking. The Sci-based, Sci-fiction, Hard-sci and Internal-C tags are incredibly thorough, nobody reads them. Their roll overs are pretty good, nobody reads those, either. I haven't seen a person ask a question in chat in years. I've used comments to instruct people for years. You're acting like I'm new at this when history proves you're dead wrong to a point of being inane. This entire test case was to demonstrate that problem. Did you try to improve the question? No. All you did was quote the reasons for closure like so many of us do and now patronize as if you know what you're doing. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 2:00
  • $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 2:12
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TLDR; Not gonna sugar coat it ( emotional appeal here ), I love this site and I want it to succeed. Intuitively this aspect of world building, or generally of anything which benefits by having a process or approach ( I personally like the term philosophy ), is important.

I've run into this issue with my first serious attempt at world building. The only reason that I recognize the magnitude of the importance of methodological approach is because I've failed quite a few times and admittedly I continue to fail at producing stories. That said, the difference this time around is a matter of technique and the problem in my case has less to do with the quality of the world ( I failed less ) and more to do with how I proceeded ( I changed my strategy ).

Now I cannot take credit for the strategy because I allowed someone else to slap me back to reality, but I can take credit for allowing the slap to occur and listening after I let that happen ( not literally ).

So the question boils down to the differences in how to create or generate ideas verses the positive and negative space of handwaviness and how to carve away more handwaviness ( presumably ) verses techniques and approaches for organizing information ( generate and data mine, which beginners who are bad students will tend to do in their heads, like myself ).

If I can, in a single sentence, narrow down what world building is then to me it seems, at least intuitively, that it's a point of interest that deserves focus and attention.

Feel free to correct any part of my argument, but if educating the user on the process is off the table, then this site is indeed useless for that. But a site which does educate the user on the process of world building is critical to have. Feel free to direct me to that site if it exists.

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  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, the fundamental problem is that we have a help center statement that reads, "Questions must be specific as well as answerable. 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." (Emphasis mine.) Getting things changed in the help center is very, very difficult. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ That's fair, I'm not suggesting we should allow questions about world building process that are not good questions. I agree with that idea. But newcomers will invariably stumble over this and newcomers keep the site alive. I really appreciate the sandbox, maybe we can more clearly direct people there or have a policy which guides moderation in that direction? Please forgive my ignorance on such matters. :D $\endgroup$
    – Nolo
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ Having said that, we are trying to address the problem (this post was asked over a year ago). For example, we have the worldbuilding resources page and Guidance: How to Create Sensible Plate Tectonics. These are efforts to provide procedural answers without focusing on just one procedure for one person - which is almost always opinion-based and rarely written to be translatable to another person. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ Bleh, random concrete feedback... I get a lot of resistance to walls of text >>guilty<<. Words in some sense, in relation to the nature of the problem of getting over the hump of thought at a philosophical level, are an inferior tool. Does the software stack provide graphical approaches to content search, like mind maps? I think that could reach a lot of people, but there again, data hiding is as important as data revealing. So it's maybe a less difficult problem to solve top to bottom, but I'm not ready to place bets lol. $\endgroup$
    – Nolo
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 18:14

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