There are multiple questions on the site about fantasy or science fiction creatures that aren't directly related to a specific on-topic work. Most are eventually closed, but they're often quite contentious

A few examples:

Do we have a set policy on how to treat these type of questions?

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    I personally feel that these should be on-topic. I suspect community opinion is against me though :-( – Rand al'Thor Mod Jun 6 '16 at 18:01
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    @Randal'Thor I usually see comments of needing to constrain these to one work to avoid them being "too broad" as the creatures can have highly different abilities/features depending on the universe. – Skooba Jun 6 '16 at 18:04
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    Can you please post more examples so we can vote them closed. – Valorum Jun 6 '16 at 18:35
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    @Valorum After waiting to get a community consensus here on meta first, I hope :-) – Rand al'Thor Mod Jun 6 '16 at 18:38
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    @Randal'Thor - We already have a strong rule about this, as evidenced by the existing close reason. If we want to change the way the site operates (potentially affecting hundreds of currently closed question), I'd hope that you would seek a greater consensus of opinion than a single unfeatured Meta question asking what the existing policy is. – Valorum Jun 6 '16 at 18:41
  • Creature featured – AncientSwordRage Mod Jun 7 '16 at 22:35
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    Considering that there's currently a split on this meta question, the assumption that we have a "strong rule about this" is clearly mistaken. – Beofett Jun 8 '16 at 13:18
  • @Beofett +1 to you, but it looks like your votes to reopen were foiled. – Rand al'Thor Mod Jun 8 '16 at 14:22
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    @Randal'Thor Small groups or individuals deciding that meta discussion is irrelevant to their opinion is one of the primary reasons I've limited my participation on this site. – Beofett Jun 8 '16 at 14:28
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    I find it ironic that the complaint is being made that a meta discussion is insufficient to change our policy, when the majority of these questions were open for years, until a handful of users decided to change the policy by closing them without meta discussion just within the past few months. – Beofett Jun 10 '16 at 15:39
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    It would seem that we have a majority view, if not a consensus. – Valorum Jul 7 '16 at 18:13
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    @Valorum My "on-topic" answer now has both more upvotes and more downvotes than Skooba's "off-topic" answer. Each answer has more upvotes than it has downvotes, but their scores are almost neck-and-neck. And your claim that we already had a consensus on this issue has been proved wrong :-) – Rand al'Thor Mod Jul 7 '16 at 22:54
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    @Valorum The idea that we might allow interesting questions requiring in-depth knowledge of the SF/F genre as a whole, as well as franchise-specific trivia which can usually be answered by electronic searching, makes me rather happy. – Rand al'Thor Mod Jul 7 '16 at 23:10
  • @Randal'Thor - For the record, I'm not overly fussed about the result (for the reasons mentioned above) but I am concerned that with as strong a split between yay and nay, however we decide to go will result in hurt feelings and annoyance, in exactly the same way that we persistently have to deal with the fallout of never really getting to grips with self-answered questions and those who insist on downvoting them., – Valorum Jul 10 '16 at 18:36

In general the format of these questions would be considered off-topic should be closed. The reason being that the creatures have different abilities or features across a vast number of works.

Any one question therefore may have numerous acceptable answers. As our "too broad" close reason states (emphasis mine):

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.

While these may be good questions that can solicit good answers from some our dedicated users who have a great knowledge of, it seems the overall SE preference to not do this. This is also not to say the subject matter is "off-topic"... Obviously vampires, werewolves, and zombies are on-topic; the formatting on the question would just need to be a better fit for the community.

One possible way to answer these questions could be a community wiki and have a different answer for each universe. However, that may still to be too much as many creatures such as zombie or vampires are in an almost countless number of works.

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    Agreed. Wikipedia has a list of over 400 zombie films. Even taking into account sequels, that's potentially hundreds of different fictional universes just from cinema. If we add in famous zombie books, TV shows and radio plays, that's potentially thousands of sources. – Valorum Jun 6 '16 at 18:30
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    Note also that this is our existing policy and has been almost since the creation of the site. – Valorum Jun 6 '16 at 18:42
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    @Valorum Was this policy previously decided somewhere on meta, or do you mean "existing policy" as in what VTCers have been doing for years? – Rand al'Thor Mod Jun 6 '16 at 19:08
  • @Randal'Thor - Good question. I'll go hunting. I'm reasonably sure I read it was posted within a few months of the "elevator pitch" Q – Valorum Jun 6 '16 at 19:17
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    I'm forced to downvote. These questions aren't off-topic, they're too broad. Voting to close as off-topic is incorrect, but they should be closed. – Anthony Grist Jun 8 '16 at 22:11
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    @AnthonyGrist Good point actually. I think we were combining "off-topic" and "should be closed". I am going to adjust my answer a bit. – Skooba Jun 9 '16 at 12:47
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    @Skooba - If I could +1 again, I would. We should definitely be closing questions that don't specify a universe but what's weird is that we just seem to have wandered into that policy without any real discussion on the issue. – Valorum Jun 9 '16 at 14:35

OK, I'll bite. (Note that this is my personal opinion - I'm not speaking as a moderator here.)

These questions should be on-topic.

Questions about (for instance) zombies in general, without being tied to a particular work of SFF, are answerable by experts in SFF works. Where on Stack Exchange can we find experts on SFF works? Here, that's where. This is a site about the science fiction and fantasy genres, and questions like these are archetypal genre questions. A good answer to Why don't zombies eat each other? adds more to our collective knowledge of these genres than a good answer to some specific question like Why didn't Gandalf or Frodo Fly to Mount Doom? or Why don't muggle-born wizards use Muggle technology to fight Death Eaters? At the end of the day, we're here to gain knowledge about science fiction or fantasy as a whole, and a nice general answer to a genre-specific but not franchise-specific question teaches us more about that than any amount of knowledge about one particular work.

To put it another way, imagine you're an expert on SFF literature (the sort of person we want to attract to this site). What kind of question is more likely to pique your interest and inspire you to write up a really good answer: Aren't zombie outbreaks self defeating? or How many times has "Make It So" been demanded by anyone other than Picard? ? Trivia has its place here, but we shouldn't throw out complex and interesting questions in favour of keeping only trivia.

The counter-argument I'm expecting to see is that these questions are "too broad": they could take too many different possible answers depending on which particular work is used for context. My response to that is that a good answer will consider the genre as a whole and cover many different works. For instance, consider What Happens to Zombies that Don't Eat? and the excellent answers it has received from Jeff and Wad Cheber, both of which are general answers about zombie fiction. Franchise-specific answers to general genre questions should be considered bad answers.

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    The problem with "non-universe bound" question is that they can spawn contradictory answers that are equally 'right', for a given value of rightness. Even somethign as basic as "Do vampires drink blood" = yes, no and sometimes depending on which universe you're talking about – Valorum Jun 6 '16 at 18:27
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    @Valorum So can universe-bound questions. Even something as basic is "Is the Doctor really a doctor?" = yes, no, maybe, sometimes, or you've got it the wrong way round. The point is that a good answer would cover all the different possibilities (as in the example I mentioned in my final paragraph). – Rand al'Thor Mod Jun 6 '16 at 18:29
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    Ah, but in that instance we can all agree on which fictional universe answers should relate to. Now imagine the question wasn't restricted to Doctor Who and was "Are all doctors in scifi actually doctors?" – Valorum Jun 6 '16 at 18:32
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    @Valorum That broader question would be analogous to, say, "What happens to legendary beings that don't eat?" The question of where to draw the line between too broad and not too broad isn't as clear as you're making it sound :-) – Rand al'Thor Mod Jun 6 '16 at 18:35
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    @Valorum - there's a fairly broad spectrum between "general discussion" and "an answer analyzing trends and synthesizing a summary". You cannot legitimately claim tat ALL non-specific-universe questions fall under the former end of the spectrum just because some do. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jun 6 '16 at 20:21
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    @Valorum - sorry, i'm calling you out on definition games again :) Adding one topic to valid scope isn't "reshaping the site". Especially if adding said topic is done intelligently, within guidelines conductive to SE format and good-subjective-bad-subjective and all that. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jun 6 '16 at 20:28
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    @Valorum - that's the point. You don't enumerate BOOKS, you enumerate approaches. 1. Vampires that die from garlic (ex1, ex2). 2. Vampires that are in severe pain from garlic (ex1, ex2). 3. Vampires that are irritated by garlic (ex1, ex2). 4. Vampires that aren't affected by garlic anymore than humans (ex1). 5. Vampires that only drink garlic infused blood as it's a delicacy (ex3). 7. Vampires made of garlic (ex) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jun 6 '16 at 20:36
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    There truly aren't all THAT many distinct, different ideas out there on any topic. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jun 6 '16 at 20:37
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    These broad questions could be made on topic with something like "What's the historical SFF reason that x?" We can answer it objectively with history, and I'm sure we have plenty of experts on SFF history around here. – user31178 Jun 7 '16 at 3:00
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    I totally agree... I actually think that broad questions often help expand the knowledge base of the genre in question. Without these types of questions how are we would not have gained enough knowledge to be here on SE in the first place. I really can't see the harm if excepting these questions. – Rincewind Jun 7 '16 at 19:32
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    Just throwing it out here, but this answer (which I agree with) doesn't make any question about fantasy/sci-fi creatures that aren't about a specific canon automatically a good question. Such questions can still be too broad, or unclear, or primarily opinion-based. I think assuming all questions of this type should be closed, without meeting the criteria of any of the close reasons I just mentioned, would result in us losing good content. – Beofett Jun 8 '16 at 19:06
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    @Valorum - one feature, no. 10 main ones, yes. I seriously doubt there are many that don't fit within 10 broad ideas – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jun 9 '16 at 15:36
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    @Valorum - who cares? I am interested in an analysis of tropes, not individual zombie instances of them. Highlight some example of 9 out of 10 ones, some of 1 out of 10, and then concentrate on tropes – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jun 9 '16 at 16:12
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    +1, 100x this. Don't throw out a whole class of the most useful questions because we don't like the paperwork. – DCShannon Jun 13 '16 at 20:36
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    @Adamant Source for that statistic? Have you looked at the list of people who close voted questions of this type prior to this discussion (in many cases after months or even years after the questions staying open and upvoted)? I seem to recall a dozen or so users. I'm pretty sure the total number of users on this site is significantly higher than a couple of dozen. – Beofett Sep 7 '16 at 1:37

These are too broad

Without specifying a particular work, questions like Why don't zombies eat each other? are far too broad. Virtually any answer one wants can be correct, depending on whether one can find a work containing a "zombie" that follows the right principles.

Is it because:

  • The virus in them seeks to infect human beings?
  • They are reanimated corpses that simply obey the whims of their animator, and thus have no desire to attack their fellows?
  • They are humans placed in a near-death state, and those don't want to eat humans' brains anyway?
  • They thrive on life energy, and the undead don't possess it?
  • They are evil, and see no reason to attack other evil creatures?
  • They are actually aliens, and the "brain-eating" was a myth made up by frightened humans?

Any and all of these could be true, and most of them likely are nothing close to the sort of answer the OP wants.

The accepted answer on this question ends thus:

In short, it's a conceit of the genre, and each author gives it his own spin (or doesn't - some just don't address it).

Such questions are the definition of "too broad." They can have any of a very large set of answers, and producing a complete answer is basically a matter of creating a large set of mutually contradictory answers and combining them into one.

Fortunately, I believe most such questions can be made clearly on-topic by clarifying what kind of creature or situation the questioner has in mind, and asking about a specific work that exemplifies that situation. Thus the question becomes narrow, with well-defined answers.

For example, perhaps the questioner has Romero-style zombies in mind:

Question: Why do zombies in the Romero films not attack each other?

Answer: "...they seek living flesh. If it isn't warm, they leave it be."

Similarly, Should werewolves in literature be considered magical living creatures or part of the Undead? has two equally correct, entirely contradictory answers: yes and no. But specify a work of fiction (and the questioner probably had one vaguely in mind in any case), and the question becomes much more clear:

Question: In the Parasol Protectorate, are werewolves undead or alive?

Answer: Werewolves are considered a form of undead.


Question: In the Dungeons and Dragons, are werewolves undead or alive?

Answer: Werewolves are living shapeshifters. Although they are vulnerable to silver, they are not undead.

Indeed, there very premise of such questions is often incorrect if applied to every instance of a category.

Why are vampires not rotten like other undead?

The answer varies from "magic" to "no, they are most certainly rotten." Specify a universe or narrow set of universes, and the question becomes better-posed.

With all such questions, we should pick a work that exemplifies what kind of creature the questioner is thinking of, and run with it.

That way we get to keep the question, but actually give it a proper answer, rather than a (possibly unbounded) set of answers. In addition, there's nothing preventing one from adding contextual genre information (if such a concept is well-defined) to such an answer.

  • I like this answer as a middle ground. Many times a questioner may not even know enough about the genre to know how broad their question is, they just have a question about "zombies". This lets the Romero expert answer, the Walking Dead expert answer, etc; the questioner learns more than they expected to, I have a more interesting topic to read, everyone wins. This reminds me of the way answers happen on the code golf stack - same question gets answered a dozen times in a different language. The languages here in SFF are franchises. – nexus_2006 Dec 6 '16 at 13:43

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