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This meta is a check-in on: What are the citation expectations of answers on RPG Stack Exchange?

I created this meta a few years ago so people could point to it while leaving a comment addressing an answer that has insufficient citation for something. It's supposed to explain the basics for the author you're giving feedback to so that you don't have to re-explain them yourself and can instead focus your energy on describing the specific thing they need to do with their answer.

Check-in: Time for review & adjustments

It's been just over three years since the Citation Expectations Q&A was created, so I want to check in on how it's doing at fulfilling that purpose, and if there's anything we can add, remove, or change to make it more effective.

My intention has been that it got revised as needed along the way, but it being a will understandably make many folks hesitant to mess with it! So I'm opening the floor here for us to discuss the revisions we might make.

I've been the de-facto curator of this meta and it's been on my mind to ask about this, so naturally I have questions I want to ask you for feedback. I'm going to try (sort of rubbishly) to lay them out below. I'm also interested in your input generally so you're free to just provide whatever feedback you want in whatever format you want regardless of the prompts I'm providing.

I need to disclaim that it is a community FAQ and community wiki, so it's still yours to edit, too! I'm not asking this so that you tell me what I do with my thing because it's not mine—I'm checking in what we should be doing with our thing to help it work well for us.

Questions I have for you!

Broadly, I'm interested in you considering your usage of the Citation Expectations Q&A when you use it as a reference point to direct users to: What works well? What doesn't work well? What would you add, remove, or change about it to help it work better for you?

If you've got feedback on any/all of these questions you think is worth sharing, I'd be interested in your thoughts.

  1. Are there any common citation scenarios the Citation Expectations Q&A leaves out, that you find yourself missing when you go to reference it in feedback?
    • What would you have it cover?
    • What's most important to cover about that?
  2. Is there any fluff in the Citation Expectations Q&A that by this point is not actually helpful, and makes using it harder rather than easier?
    • What would you suggest removing or replacing to that end?
  3. When referencing our Citation Expectations, are there times you struggle to clearly indicate a relevant part of it more than other parts?
    • Where does this tend to happen for you?
    • What do you do to ensure people see the bit you need to indicate?
  4. Are there any spots in the Citation Expectations you regularly get pushback from authors when you reference them?
    • What would you advise we do to shore it up and better support you guiding users?
  5. Are there any “Not OK” scenarios you run into very often that aren't covered that we should be laying down detailed guidance for? (It's kind of surprising there's only one per section, but that's just how it shook out.)

Or: What would you edit?

The above is a user survey to prompt conversation, but I'm interested also in what you might just propose you'd revise about the Citation Expectations Q&A, minor or major.

Also: Should we split up the answer post?

This one's been on my mind since the start: personally I've considered splitting the answer up into multiple posts (general intro, objective citations, subjective citations) so that people can link to just one of those sections, but that gives up some control over the intro coming first. But maybe that doesn't matter at all. Would it be helpful for us to do this?

This check-in isn't for settling unestablished issues around citations

There's a couple of elephants in the room I need to acknowledge.

First, the smaller elephant: this meta is not about creating brand new citation expectations we don't already use. The Citation Expectations Q&A is simply a guidebook. When I created it, it laid down nothing new, it just summarised what people were already saying to help save people some work. That should continue to be true. If you've got new proposals, I suggest raise them in a separate meta for discussion, and then in the future they might become part of our Citation Expectations Q&A.

Second, the larger elephant: this meta is not about how to enforce our citation expectations. Whether & when we delete, downvote, flag, etc is probably on the forefront of some peoples' minds, but if we have that conversation, it needs to happen in another space. The Citation Expectations Q&A is just there to help users succeed and to help you provide feedback for them. To whatever extent “how do we enforce it?” is a not-entirely-settled issue (and perhaps it never will be), like with the above elephant, this isn't a place to create those new rules. I want us to just focus on what's already the case. If you think the guide should mention something about how unsupported answers might be handled, sure, that's possible. I'd like your assistance though in avoiding this meta getting derailed into debating what to do with invalid citations—that's a different topic to tackle separately.

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There is room for subjective, experience-based answers to objective mechanics questions. Sometimes, they are necessary.

There is one particular section of the citation guidance that I think could be improved upon:

Not OK: “I'd rule it like this” for mechanics questions with no citation

People ask about mechanics because they're trying to better understand the game and how it works. Anyone can make a ruling, but that includes the person who asked the question, so we're not looking for this content. You should answer with how the game affirmatively handles the situation based on its text and cite the game's text to back up your statements.

I'm not sure if this was intentional, but this section reads to me as though well supported subjective, experience-based answers to mechanics questions should be avoided. In particular, the last sentence seems too restrictive:

You should answer with how the game affirmatively handles the situation based on its text and cite the game's text to back up your statements.

While I think this is generally the best approach to rules questions, I don't think it is the only right approach. We need to be careful not to equate "mechanics" with "objective". Sometimes, the written rules fail to provide consistency and clarity, and the only type of answer that strictly adheres to this portion of the guidance is the one that cites the rules and observes that they are inconsistent. In these cases, subjective, experience-based rulings are the necessary component of a good answer to what appears to be an objective, rules-based question.

Let's have an example. Consider the question Can you attack while using Echo Avatar?. On it's face, it appears to be a pretty straightforward rules question. Can you do this thing according to the rules? However, anyone with much experience playing as or DMing for an Echo Knight can tell you, the rules for the subclass are anything but straightforward. So I went on to provide an experience-based "here's how I ruled it" answer, and I think it would technically fall under the "Not OK" section mentioned above, since I didn't make any attempt to justify my ruling with the written rules, opting instead to justify it with an anecdote about how I wasted time at my high school job and a note about the ruling's practical utility at the table.

I don't think the section should be deleted, and it probably doesn't need too much change. And I'm sure I could have come with a better example, and I'm sure we could discuss whether or not my example falls afoul of that section at all. But maybe the language could be softened a bit and maybe we could add something communicating that good subjective answers as described elsewhere in the guidance may still be a suitable response to objective, rules-based questions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a very good catch! In fact Is homebrew an acceptable answer to a question?, which this very Q&A cites later, acknowledges it's a possibility. Something else I see show up in this feedback is that our guide focuses objective answers and subjective answers, but doesn't acknowledge that answers can be a mix of both. Perhaps it should focus less on answers, more on _statements_—we look for this kind of citation on objective stuff, this kind of citation on subjective stuff, you might be doing both. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 at 19:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ There's also the case that it talks about kinds of answers, but kinds of answers don't necessarily correspond to the kind of question: a question that appears highly subjective gets an objective answer. The guide doesn't exactly care about what the question was, but it should be able to acknowledge this dynamic definitely exists if we're going to use it as our touchstone for navigating these citation issues. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 at 19:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is also the section that caught my eye. For me, an answer to an objective question should be encouraged to (at least briefly) cover the objective side of things, before moving on to the subjective, experience-based side. If other answers cover the objective side well (or if RAW is clearly ambiguous), I'd also be fine with noting that before taking a subjective approach. \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Mar 23 at 19:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the idea of that paragraph is to discourage speculative answers, but I agree with your assessment that it goes too far in the direction of indicating that only book/rules citations are appropriate answers to such questions. It should indeed allow for experience-based answers as well, while discouraging untested solutions. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast StaffMod
    Mar 28 at 16:59
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Subjective/Objective both creates a false dichotomy for citation expectation and creates too broad a distinction to be useful.

Quoting an answer from a different issue:

A stack-worthy answer is one that says not just "what should I do" but "why will this help solve the problem I'm having". Even if an answer contains a block of rules text, if nobody who reads the answer understands how to apply the rules text to the problem at hand and you can't or don't clarify it, then as far as everybody but you is concerned you've provided something completely irrelevant.

There isn't a different expectation for different categories of answers, there's the same expectation for every answer: explain how this will help solve the problem in the original question.

However, there are obviously different types of answers that can be given, and there's something to be said for categorization and what form explaining should take for each. Four categories of answer come to mind here: rules, philosophy, experience, and vibes. (If you're familiar with Max Weber's typology of social action you're going to see some commonalities and they're going to be intentional.)

I believe that rules and experience correlate to "objective" and "subjective" as they're summarized now, but "philosophy" and "vibes" are two useful kinds of answers that aren't really accounted for.

Rules: "This will work."

When a rules answer provides a procedure to solve a problem, it expects that the efficacy of its steps can be objectively appraised. Usually this means that it runs through a clear course of action as specified in the game rules, which as part of the game people are expected to defer to as the authority. Here's one of my rules answers.

Because people are expected to defer to the rules in the course of running the game, it helps to provide a clear means to find these rules while running the game - whether that's a page reference in a physical book or a link to an online resource. When practical, it also helps to provide as much of the relevant rules text as is used in the answer, to help people readily assess how effective its steps are.

Philosophy: "You should do this."

When a philosophy answer provides a procedure to solve a problem, it expects that the underlying philosophy of its steps will find agreement and the steps will be judged an acceptable interpretation. While some philosophies are more personal or game-agnostic, many modern games are released incorporating both game rules and a philosophy of game-running. Here's one of my philosophy answers; "make adults seem childish and short-sighted" is part of the stated philosophy of running Masks.

While there isn't the expectation that the philosophy should be objectively regarded as correct, it will be judged on its usefulness for running the game, though this can be more of a given if it's the philosophy the game came with. The useful thing here is worked examples of play or game construction to show how the philosophy is applied, though these can be part of published game material if the philosophy came with the game.

Experience: "This worked for me."

When an experience answer provides a procedure to solve a problem, it expects to be judged on the validity of the past experience the procedure is rooted in. The experience doesn't have to be the answerer's direct experience - part of the history of gaming is the documented actual plays of games. Here's one of my experience answers. Admittedly it kind of blurs the line, there's a bit of what you might call "philosophy of safety" in there maybe?

The important distinction is what it appeals to. Not "do you share this philosophy" but "do you relate to this experience" - there's not much recourse if you don't relate, other than an attempt to build a bridge by extending and analyzing the experience. It's certainly possible that voters and the querent will have varying degrees of being able to relate.

Vibes: "This feels right."

Vibes answers tend not so much to present procedures to solve problems, but when they do they expect to be judged on how much they resonate, how much fellow-feeling you have with the answer. Some vibes answers are an attempt to mask something deeper and more intricate with something quick and pithy, to "skip to the end" as it were, if a deep dive doesn't seem necessary. Others are more like a hopeful shot in the dark, but sometimes a shot in the dark connects. You can't deny there are vibes in you too. What's your favorite color? That's all vibes. Here's one of my vibes answers, and I don't think it's a coincidence that it's a frame challenge - I leave it at "given the limits of your setting I don't think your player is actually buying something that powerful" and don't go into discussing, like, build points and purchasing power in GURPS because I think the reframing is all the querent really needs to be able to solve their own problem.

It feels good to reach out into the Internet and vibe with someone, but the flipside of that is that when the vibe doesn't work there's not much you can do about it. If it was a leap over a vast chasm of explanation you can do that deep dive, but that also changes the type of answer it is and the expectations for backing it up. Vibes answers also tend not to be useful in broader contexts - if somebody has a "my player bought something too powerful" problem that they can't just vibe away, that answer isn't going to help them.

So, how do you evaluate whether an answer will help solve the problem?

For purposes of that evaluation, a block of rules text that nobody else understands how to apply isn't much different from a vibe that nobody else vibes with.

But, from top to bottom those categories do get more and more personally variable. You take a much greater risk that opinion is going to turn against you the further down you drop, so take that into consideration if you're deciding between, say, a rules answer and a vibes answer. Rules answers are "safer" for people with less overall experience - even if it does turn out that you don't give a useful answer, you can still learn something about how the rules apply in the process.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would like to understand the downvotes on this answer, so if you are a downvoter and have the energy to invest into helping me gain some insight, please do so. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Mar 24 at 14:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll vouch that this is very helpful for me in considering some potential blind spots that I might address as I revise the post. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24 at 15:54
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We seem to have a lot of answers that ignore the Back It Up rule. This is because we have a lot of questions that cannot be answered while respecting the Back It Up rule.

Perhaps the best example is all the homebrew-review questions. People post their homebrew and other people tell them whether the homebrew is balanced, and none of the people answering have any experience with that specific homebrew.

Many of our gm questions have this issue as well, for example:

More recently there's How can we as players stop being murderhobos?, which is not technically about GMing, but seems to fall in the same general bucket of "here is a problem our table has, please advise me on how to solve it".

All of these have the same problem, which is that the situation OP finds themself in is quite rare, and very few people have had any experience with it, so the site rules forbid nearly everyone from answering the question. Of course people answer anyway, ignoring the rule. And people upvote the answers anyway.

When we have a rule that is widely unenforced, the risk is that it leads to selective enforcement: when you see someone answer a question in a way that you don't like, the first thing you can do is to point out that it didn't "Back It Up" properly.

I understand what the rule is meant to accomplish, and I don't see an obvious way to change the rules to make it work better. But I don't feel that it's working very well right now.


Appendix: here are two examples involving actual calls to "Back It Up".

  • In How can we as players stop being murderhobos?, OP's table has a problem because their group has committed some serious crimes, and wants advice on how to get the game back on track. Several of the answers received comments asking for citations of how their advice went when implemented in their own experience. Oddly, the highest-voted answer does not have a comment requesting a citation, even though it has no more citations than the other answers.
  • In How do I help a player terrified of their character dying in combat?, OP wants advice on how to help a player feel better about participating in combat. Several of the answers received comments asking for citations of how their advice had worked in practice. Oddly, the highest-voted answer does not have a comment requesting a citation, even though (most of) the advice suggested by this answer has no citations.

I don't understand why some of these answers received requests to "Back It Up" when other answers didn't.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I’ll add to this, it is not uncommon to see lore questions answered with lots of probably-correct information, but with no citations at all. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 2 at 10:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is some good feedback. The guide I wrote heavily depends on users already having filtered for when Back It Up applies, but there's probably things I can do to ensure its used successfully. Do we have any suggestions about what kinds of changes I ought to take on board about what changes I should make? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 2 at 14:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I added two examples of questions where I think users are incorrectly requesting "Back It Up". I'd be interested to hear if you think these are questions where "Back It Up" should apply. If so, I'd like to understand if you think any of the answers have successfully met the bar for "Back It Up". Perhaps you can make changes so that those two questions are handled better. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan B
    Apr 3 at 2:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanB So that appendix is definitely a thing but it's out of scope for the citation expectations Q&A. Like, I'm more likely to challenge answers for citation I think are BS (like an answer to a social Q that recommends something abusive) and not do the same for answers that I think are good recommendations, even if both have a low degree of backup. This can result in an effect where community judgement is effectively vouching for the solution regardless, which isn't necessarily undesirable. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3 at 16:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ These are issues of how and when people request citation though. The Q&A isn't trying to tell people when to do that, it is just giving them a reference to point to when doing so. I can't address this behaviour in such a document because it's just not in scope. This does however give me additional possible considerations when (re-)writing the section on Back It Up. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3 at 16:30

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