Currently we have an unclear policy with regards to the limits of hypothetical questions, and with their increasing frequency on the site we should revisit this and solidify our rules.

Our policy is vaguely outlined here in a mixture of suggestions with varying extents of strictness. a short summary is:

  • No cross-series hypothetical questions
  • "hypothetical questions about a show are fine if the show has a coherent framework of rules from which we can make deductions."

The latter is slightly more strict than what can be seen on other sites such as SciFi & Fantasy - though their policy is subjective too.

Is the current policy sufficient? How do we solve cases of semantics such as this? Do we need to adjust our policy to be more lenient / more strict?

Policies are user driven, so don't be afraid to suggest change :)

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    I'll come back with a more extensive write-up later, but for now I'll just say that I think our current policy was trying too hard to be objective, and ended up even more vague and subjective. We can argue forever about whether a given show has a "coherent framework of rules from which we can make deductions", but it's usually far more clear when an individual question can only be answered as "plot hole" or "we don't know". – Torisuda Aug 29 '16 at 21:35
  • I feel anyone like who doesn't actually know a lot about the anime (and thus can't know if there are any references and/or facts to back up a possible answer) should definitely refrain from voting on it. I myself for example purposefully avoid questions about subjects I don't know anything about, so I can't misjudge something that may be clear to others but not to me. – NoobishPro Aug 29 '16 at 21:45
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    I would like to see some examples which seem controversial. As far as I know, most of these questions are not something a common viewer would ask themselves and would want to search for on the internet. There are very rare examples, but those usually fall within the boundaries of our already existing strict rule (#2 in the summary). – Hakase Aug 29 '16 at 21:58
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    In my opinion, we can't really make up strict policies on "off-topic"questions, since it is subjective to determine whether or not a question can have answers backed up by facts. Most of "What if" question can't be answered objectively but each case is different and must be treated separately – Ikaros Aug 29 '16 at 22:25
  • @Ikaros I agree entirely. I actually think we should have a less strict policy and leave more room for community members to apply their knowledge and judgment. Actually, across the board, I'd like to see us move in a more permissive direction and away from really complicated polices that try to cover all the edge cases. – Torisuda Aug 29 '16 at 23:28

Here are some guidelines I think we should adopt when dealing with hypothetical questions. Michael Edenfield's post on the Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog about this subject is a good read and helped inform my beliefs about how we should handle what-if questions.

Caveat: These are only guidelines. They aren't a formula that will always tell you whether a question should be closed. Use your judgment; if the guidelines are unclear on a question, but your experience suggests that any possible answer will be totally unsubstantiated, go with that.

No cross-universe What-ifs

These are pretty much always opinion-based; they will almost inevitably involve some amount of pure guesswork or unfounded speculation.

Caveat: If there is an official crossover story between two universes, you can ask questions about things that might have happened in that story. For instance, I could ask the question "Does Kyousuke Kousaka think that Ruiko Saten is cute?", because there was in fact an official crossover story between Oreimo and To Aru Kagaku no Railgun. (The answer is yes, by the way.)

Caveat: The burden is always on the question asker to prove that an official crossover exists. If someone shows up asking "Could Naruto beat Luffy? I think they might have crossed over at some point", close the question unless the asker has evidence that they did cross over and might have fought.

What-ifs should be reasonably scoped

This can be tricky to determine if you're not intimately familiar with the series, but basically, any question that would demand an answer summarizing an entire alternate storyline the series could have taken is too broad. As an extreme example, "How would Lelouch's rebellion have gone if he'd never met CC and gotten his Geass?" That asks answerers to rewrite the entire series starting from the very beginning. Educated guesses supported by evidence from the series should be all right, but there is a point where you don't have enough evidence to do that anymore without leaving the realm of reasonable extrapolation.

Makoto's answer has a good set of guidelines to determine if a hypothetical question is reasonable in scope.

What-ifs should obviously relate to the story or the rules of the universe

I like Izkata's comment on the SF&F post that Toshinou-san linked:

Proposed close wording: "Okay, do you have any reason to think this aside from just pulling it out of your ass?"

Of course, we should be more polite than that. But it's reasonable to close a question for being irrelevant or silly or not asked in good faith. We should be able to close things like "What would happen if Motoko Kusanagi ate chili?", because Major Kusanagi eating chili is totally irrelevant to the story or the rules of the universe. (Unless it was strongly hinted at some point that eating chili might corrupt her boot sector and make her slaughter everyone, or something.)

I'm not in love with Death Note lawyer questions, but they relate to the rules of the universe, so they should be allowed. "Does L like chili?" shouldn't be allowed.

"Whatsit-san vs. Who-sama" questions

We get a fair number of these anyway, and I think we've been dealing with them pretty well; the really bad ones I've seen have all been closed. But for completeness, here are the guidelines I'd suggest for them, based on Michael Edenfield's blog:

  • Optimally, the characters should have fought at some point. No "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon here"; if the only way to answer is "Well, XX fought YY who fought ZZ who fought WW, and AA fought BB who fought CC who also fought WW and defeated him, whereas ZZ lost to WW, so going back up the chain, AA wins", it's primarily opinion-based. If you have good reason to think this is the case, vote to close.
  • If they haven't fought, use your judgment, but it's probably not looking good for the question. Lean towards closing, but you might ask the OP whether there was an actual scene that made them curious about this. Give extra scrutiny to cases where the characters, for in-universe reasons, never would fight; we might be able to figure out who would win if Sakura without her magic got in a fist fight with Tomoyo, but it would never happen, so the odds are very much against there being any evidence.
  • If the characters have never fought, but there are in-universe rules we could use to determine who might win (e.g. "100 Staryus vs. 100 Sandshrew: who wins?"—Staryu, because Ground is weak against Water), the question might be okay, depending on how thoroughly it sets up the scenario and how well the scenario conforms to known canon. But any question that would involve vague arguments about "power levels" or requires answerers to construct elaborate scenarios to answer ("Sandshrew would win because they can throw some desiccants at Staryu to dry up all its water it could buy some desiccants at the Pokemart") is opinion-based

"There's not enough information" or "It's a plot hole" should be valid answers, if the question conforms to the other guidelines

The tough thing about "there's not enough information" or "it's a plot hole" is that you never know if there's some interview or special edition one-shot floating around out there that answers the question, but a good-faith effort should be enough. It's not hard to tell when someone actually put some effort in to cover all the bases before writing the answer vs. when someone just plunked in "Nope, it was never explained, not that I remember".

Answers with official evidence like interviews are best, of course.

Global Caveat: Use your Judgment

We can't cover every possible edge case, and bad questions have a tendency to be really weird. If something looks dodgy to you, go ahead and flag or vote to close. Throw it to the community to judge.

If you vote to close a question and the OP just doesn't seem to understand why, I would encourage you to point them to Meta. Meta should be a place where people can debate individual decisions as well as overarching policy.

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  • Just to poke some fun in your 100 Staryu vs 100 Sandshrew question: Could 20 of the Sandshrew use Sunny Day? – Makoto Aug 30 '16 at 7:33
  • @Makoto Sure, but then the 100 Staryu would just hire some Leaf Village Ninjas to throw them like shuriken, which would allow them to defeat the Sandshrew despite the power-sapping effects of Sunny Day. More seriously, if that question really showed up it should probably be closed. It was intentionally really annoying and borderline. – Torisuda Aug 30 '16 at 13:18
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    I love the image of a bunch of Sandshrews going to a Pokémart and buying Pokédesiccant. You have a way with words. – senshin Aug 30 '16 at 23:26
  • I love how half the points somehow involve using your judgement and then you go on to finish with the global caveat of using your judgement. – Jan Sep 1 '16 at 0:23
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    @Jan I really wanted to get that point across. – Torisuda Sep 1 '16 at 0:50

In my mind, there's no hard and fast rule to apply to any individual hypothetical question that could be asked about anime or manga, but there are a few heuristics we could apply to determine if they're suitable or not.

Notably, I'm looking for:

  • A specific timeline,
  • Some specific scenario in which any characters are involved in, and
  • A clear, unambiguous question.

This can vary depending on the requirements of the question (since, for whatever reason, the 100 Staryu vs. 100 Sandshrew question has piqued my interest, but in an annoying way), but in general, I would recommend use of the above heuristic to at least think about if a question should be closed.

Let's look back at an objective, straight-to-the-point sort of question. We can use this one for example.

In the new manga mini-series, Sarada figures out the girl in glasses with Sasuke to whom Sarada seems to look like (the glasses, the face). I was wondering if maybe Sakura isn't her biological mother and that Sarada is a child of Sasuke and the other girl in picture.

Even if I'd like to spend a moment to edit this, this sort of question has a few key characteristics about it:

  • It mentions a specific timeline, either canonically or via publication (new mini-series for Naruto)
  • It describes a specific scenario that the characters (in this case, Sarada, Sakura, Sasuke and Karin ("girl in glasses")) are involved or related in
  • It states the question plainly, and leaves no room for ambiguity ("I was wondering if maybe Sakura isn't her biological mother...")

Based on that heuristic, I can reason that this sort of question can be answered, and even better, it could be answered with canonical source material backing up any claims.

Now, let's take a look at another question which we could use as a benchmark for this heuristic.

  • Is there a specific timeline being offered? In my mind, yes; the start and end of GT.

  • Is there a specific scenario in which the characters are involved in being discussed? Yes; the scenario involves Goku regressing to the age of a child, whereas everyone else maintains their age.

  • Is there a clear, unambiguous question being posed? Not really, because the question is open-ended in nature. We are led to the end of the series by the question, then asked the hypothetical question here, emphasis mine.

    Goku is now walking around the tournament grounds, all grown up again in his base form, still having his tail (proving the wish wasn't reversed, because then his tail would have been gone) just before the end-credits come into play.

    ... What happens if this Goku, all grown up (again), turns SSJ4?

What makes this ambiguous is the fact that we're talking about this supposed, hypothetical Goku which may or may not take the state being described in the future, which makes this difficult to definitively answer. A lot of theories could be thrown around about it, given the story of Dragon Ball GT, but theories aren't evidence, which makes me lean stronger towards questions like that being opinion-based.

So, what do we do in a scenario like that? By and large the best thing to do is to close the question, which gives the OP a chance to edit their question and add disambiguating evidence or circumstantial evidence to demonstrate that their scenario could be realistic. To Torisuda's point on crossovers, if that is a piece that is missing from the question, it should be pointed out. The key here is to point that out, though, which I do feel like the previous Meta question which sparked this one did a really good job of doing.

Can questions like that be redeemed? Some can; most cannot. Pure, unbound hypotheticals aren't the sort of questions we should be allowing around here since they can get a little fantastical ("What would have happened had Itachi actually killed Sasuke when they were reunited?", "What would have happened had Rukia been executed?", ad nauseam). However, if we keep 'em scoped well and emphasize how to get them on-topic, if possible, then I feel like it would work itself out rather well.

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    I really like this as a guideline for when the scope is reasonable, but I still have to disagree about that DBGT question. The question in the title, which was clearer in previous revisions, is Will turning SSJ4 make Goku age to where he would have been if Ultimate Shenron's magic hadn't made him young? That in itself is a specific, reasonably scoped question about the rules of the universe. I think this is a case where "There's not enough information" is an acceptable answer. – Torisuda Aug 30 '16 at 13:29
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    @Torisuda: Actually yes, that does seem like a much less ambiguous sort of thing to be posing. The ambiguity concern that I had was in context to some hypothetical Goku; if there's a version of the question that ties in more specifics like that instead of the hypothetical scenario, then I'd be alright with it, since it would fulfill my last heuristic. – Makoto Aug 30 '16 at 15:33
  • @Makoto but it's not a hypothetical Goku? I'm confused on that point. This Goku I spoke of, was in the anime. – NoobishPro Aug 30 '16 at 17:35
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    @Makoto I made some edits to the DBGT question to make it more clear what was being asked. I've also nominated the question for reopening; as it sits, I think it reasonably fits all the guidelines in both of our answers. – Torisuda Sep 5 '16 at 1:30
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    @Torisuda: Thanks for letting me know. I'm seeing something that's a lot more reasonable to answer. – Makoto Sep 5 '16 at 1:46
  • @Torisuda goddamn, do I love you man. – NoobishPro Sep 5 '16 at 11:36
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    @Babydead No problem. I had no idea I was kicking such a hornet's nest, but I'm glad your question was reopened. – Torisuda Sep 5 '16 at 15:42

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