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We have some lack of clarity, I think as to what consists of a "list" question on the site and why they are undesirable, per recent meta Q (Not) closing question for Spells with Concentration vs Spells with Thunder/Lightning Damage. I think it's worth discussing this in a more general manner.

So, let's start with some context.

Context To Read Before Expressing Your Opinion, And Clearly Treat In Your Answer, If You Want To Be Taken Seriously

"List" questions are often talked about in the same breath as "shopping" questions, so it might also be helpful to review 'the way to ask that right'.

And of course following this network wide guidance, after flirting with trying to do better and allow it here, we've banned shopping/game-rec/tool-rec questions.

Now, this does leave some room for ambiguity. There are unbounded "opinion" lists, where answers will be one or two of a large set of possible answers, often distinguished from each other only by opinion - the classic "shopping" question.

Then there are questions that are best answered with a list of things in a single answer. "Here's the three magic items, two spells, and a whatnot that will make you permanently Large size in D&D 3.5e."

Between these we have some other kinds. There's the "completable list" - like Comprehensive list of WOTC D&D 4.0 products? It's a long list, but won't change any more because 4.0 is over.

Then there's the "can't be complete yet" list - like a list of D&D 5e products, which at this point is "evergreen." On topic, or off topic? It'd certainly require curation over time, but that's not the kind of "list question" Meta.SE bans network wide.

And the "maybe answer with a list, maybe with a resource" questions like Is there a list of wizard spells by level by school? where the best answer is a link to an online spell DB or whatnot.

And then there's the "short list, but no one knows how short when the question's asked really" questions like Sets of spells that have explicit bonuses when used together, or the thunder-and-lightning question and its linked concentration question.

We have discussed some that short lists are OK, possibly if CW-ed - we almost never use CW any more, but even SSD recommended it in this context just a year ago per I want to post some questions that will require (finite, community wiki) list answers. Kosher?

The Question

So what kind of questions in this general category are on or off topic and why, and is the answer "don't ask them" or "ask them in a different way?"

Clearly, "individual answers make a list" is off topic.

Very short lists are totally OK; many questions on the site end up being answered with "these four classes fit that criteria" or whatnot, and that's fine.

Then we have two separate axes I see on these questions - how dynamic they are and how trivial they are.

Long ever-changing lists seem like a PITA. I'm not real sure of the value of us trying to keep these up and whether that really is an effective use of our format or not (probably not).

Triviality is in the eye of the beholder, but many of the list Q's that are just "read books and list X for me that meet a criteria" are on that line IMO.

Is there an orthogonal solution? With game-rec/tool-rec's we've said "well - ask about your problem not your assumed answer." So can you ask "how can I find all the spells that require concentration," and an answer that's either a short list (if short) or a link to a resource (if long/dynamic) be a good Q&A?

I leave it to the community to answer and vote. Please try to make answers not "discussiony" - if they don't evolve into a clear actionable answer with the most upvotes, then it tends to be a waste of time. Answer, adapt your answer to take the aforementioned resources and peoples' comments into account.

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List questions are as Shog9 describes in the Meta Stack Exchange question you linked, What is the definition of a list question?: they're the types of questions from our Don't Ask which lead to unbounded opinion collection in which every answer is equally correct. These are for example the "tell me your favourite X" or "what do you use for X?" questions, which are discussions or surveys, and there's no opportunity to solve a problem nor provide an "answer" as such. Other formulas of questions can experience this problem, e.g. "what are the ways to do this thing?" may or may not be close-worthy depending on whether the thing is "do magic" (bad) or "enlarge my AD&D 2e Fireball spell" (OK).

You summarised it similarly in your linked Are list/collection questions on topic?: "a list question means a question whose answers are a near-infinite, undifferentiated list." (There's very little other attempt in there to define "a list question".)

Most often these questions will specifically be too broad, which has for its close reason: "There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format." I'll note that "too long for this format" means about 30,000 characters (about a 16-page essay), and it doesn't mean "very long" — we do long answers. Opinion poll stuff is primarily opinion-based.


The following do not make a question a "list question" nor are they close reasons:

Lists of things in a single answer. A question that asks "I'm in this situation and need to achieve this result, how can I do that?" regularly gets a response of "here's your options, best to worst". That's good.

Questions that have many potential solutions. As long as we can identify some "best" solutions, distinguished from the bad, destructive, or dumb ideas. Stack Overflow, our founding Q&A site, is about programming, and there's always lots of ways to program things, but there's usually only a small number of wise ways and a smaller number of outstanding best ways. All of our questions are in this category.

Questions where answers will go outdated, and require maintenance to stay up to date. I've been genuinely surprised to see this get brought up as a close reason. Responding to your "too localized" concerns called this out specifically: "Questions that are obsolete definitely need to be addressed, but most technical questions will eventually suffer that fate," and closing things for going out of date "too soon" wasn't working, and so it's not a valid reason to close a question, nor were these questions the main reason we had "too localized" anyway. Sometimes questions require work to keep up to date, but "too much work" isn't a close reason. All of our character build advice questions for "evergreen" games are in this category (), among other things.

That means:

Then there's the "can't be complete yet" list - like a list of D&D 5e products, which at this point is "evergreen." On topic, or off topic? It'd certainly require curation over time, but that's not the kind of "list question" Meta.SE bans network wide.

On topic. Let the people who want to maintain the list do so; we've demonstrably got people willing to work on crazily large lists, and we've got people willing to drop 500-rep bounties to encourage someone to get things back up to date. (See Comprehensive list of WOTC D&D 4.0 products?, and How do you tell if a D&D book is 3.0 or 3.5? for crazily large list examples.)

The "best" answer for "can't be complete yet" lists is the one that is the most comprehensive and correct of all the things being asked for. That means it's not "list one thing per answer", which also means we don't wind up with an unbounded list of equally correct answers, which also means answers providing just one thing should be downvoted as not useful. (People have talked about whether we need a rule about making answers here CW, but I don't see a need to set a rule. People can work out between themselves whether they want to post competing answers, edit other peoples' answers, create something that's CW, etc.)


You also asked how we should handle these questions.

So what kind of questions in this general category are on or off topic and why, and is the answer "don't ask them" or "ask them in a different way?"

There are plenty of times these things are just unsalvageable, like social quizzes. Close those.

However when someone clearly has a problem, we can probably see there's a real, more answerable question there. Where possible questions should be asked in a way that encourages thorough and comprehensive answers. For example, questions phrased "what are some ways I can do X?" often result in streams of answers listing maybe 1-3 of a dozen potential possibilities, which is one of those Bad List questions because all the answers aren't great. Rephrase that question to "I need to do X, how can I do that?" and that more directly challenges people to list effective solutions, and they can go list them comprehensively if they like.


Where do the good kinds of list-ish questions stop being good?

Then we have two separate axes I see on these questions - how dynamic they are and how trivial they are. [...] Triviality is in the eye of the beholder, but many of the list Q's that are just "read books and list X for me that meet a criteria" are on that line IMO.

(Preliminary thoughts now that this has been outlined in the question. Will work on it further.)

Forethought: We've got a downvote tooltip that offers among its reasons, "this question does not show any research effort". I do a lot of research into my personal or professional affairs to try to resolve them on my own, and only bring them to a Stack Exchange site when I've hit a roadblock I don't know how to get past — sometimes that's right at the beginning if I don't even know how to begin looking. I don't expect everyone to do this, but it might be a relevant rule of thumb here.

Often a good question that needs a list, like "what are my options for doing X", "what spells meet {difficult to place criteria}", involves researching and compiling options for an answer. Where that research requires non-obvious resources and/or significant expertise (such as in Sets of spells that have explicit bonuses when used together) I would suggest the question is non-trivial.

The catalyst for this question was "what are all the thunder/lightning spells?" in a game with like, one, maybe two books of that stuff. Solving that question could've involved picking up the book and going through the pages. In those circumstances I think sufficient research wasn't done, the question was trivial, and as with a lot of cases of "read the book to me" questions, we ought to close stuff like that as unclear with a request that they actually read the book, then come back if/when they're still experiencing issues.

There might be people who legitimately would have trouble doing that though, e.g. a dyslexic individual, but hey, something saying "I tried but I'm not sure it's complete" or "I can't really do that, I'm dyslexic" will go a long way, plus an answer with whatever they've got so far (maybe they got the whole thing).

A question like How do you tell if a D&D book is 3.0 or 3.5?, given the listy answers it wound up with, is nontrivial because it requires significant research effort I would not reasonably expect the average person to know how to do, and expertise in being able to know how to distinguish which books belong in that collection.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The most important part of this answer, to me, is the recommendation against a rule for CWs. Ban the question type outright before you make a rule to arbitrarily take away rep. \$\endgroup\$ – Tritium21 Aug 10 '16 at 6:41
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List questions are not bad because they are list questions: they are bad because they may not fit the basic premises of the site:

Focus on questions about an actual problem you have faced. Include details about what you have tried and exactly what you are trying to do.

Tour

List questions are unlikely to be dealing with a specific problem - they are often tool-rec questions of the type "I can't be bothered scouring the books for the answer that is in there but I would like someone to point me to a place where someone has done the work for me."

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

Don't Ask

To my mind, this is really the crucial point - above an indeterminate length a list becomes a catalogue - a catalogue is a book.

The problem with trying to set hard and fast rules on how long a list can get before it is a "bad" list ("Bad list, no biscuit!") is that any decision made at a meta level will always be arbitrary. If we were to decide that the limit was 5, then too bad for questions where a complete, authoritative and brilliant answer needed 6.

The point I am making: the guidelines are there and are, by and large, working - why do we need more guidelines?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure how actionable this is. We know the actual problem and scope rules already, but it appears that opinions vary widely on what an actual problem is and what threshold "can't be bothered" is - in many metas people passionately argue for the most absolutely trivial answered-in-the-book question to be valid. Where exactly is the meaningful line? \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 8 '16 at 0:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk The line is 5 people or 1 moderator - if that many people think it crosses the line then it does. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Aug 8 '16 at 1:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sigh, the point of a meta question is to come to more consensus than "all the voting what's already happening," in cases where it looks like we don't have a common community agreement on it. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 8 '16 at 1:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk sigh, democracy sucks, doesn't it? \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Aug 8 '16 at 1:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ The idea here is we hash out on what basis those 5 people or 1 moderator should be acting to close or reopen a question. It helps to have some consistent ideologies we can work with as a community, as opposed to having an ideological tug of war spread across various main-site and meta questions. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Aug 8 '16 at 1:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah if the answer to every meta was "Whateffer everyone votes for duh" it'd be a pretty quiet place. That's not really a good answer when discussing policy. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 8 '16 at 1:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk not at all - discussion and debate is what its for. My position is that it is best to leave it to individual members to use their intelligence and discretion on particular questions using the guidelines we currently have - other people can argue for more guidelines but I don't think they're needed. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Aug 8 '16 at 1:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's fine. I disagree, since it's causing people on the site to get confused and unhappy because they feel like the rules are unclear or inconsistent, which is a good time to try to get some clarification. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 8 '16 at 1:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk its not good that people are confused and unhappy, however, a) how many? b) 0% confused and unhappy is neither achievable nor worth striving for c) the specific cause of the confusion or unhappiness was an inconsistency in the application of the existing guidelines which resulted in both questions being closed when it was brought up - this no doubt made 2 OP's unhappy instead of 1. No matter what the rules are they will always be unclear and inconsistently applied - that's because they were made and implemented by human beings. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Aug 8 '16 at 1:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ All strawman arguments. Sure, 100% clarity and consistency isn't tenable. Neither is 0%. Is this issue over the line where it needs addressing? Well, I think so, or I wouldn't have wasted the time to write up a big ol post about it. I fully understand your stance is "not worth it," but I see no specific reasoning in here that would change my mind from "I think it is," you could post this exact answer on every Meta here. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 8 '16 at 1:34

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