In this post, I'm going to clarify and explain some terminology I use when discussing RPGs. It's going to be wordy and pedantic. It's also getting posted up because I made a quick post on twitter, people got the wrong end of the stick, and now I want to explain what I mean in more than 240 characters.
First, I'm going to give a definition of the term as it's used in film studies (which is where I'm stealing it from).
Diegetic (adjective): Actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted.
Non-diegetic (adjective): Not actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted, an external thing to the fictional world depicted that the audience percieves.
'Diegesis (noun)' has some accademic stuff attached to it, but I generally see it used to mean 'the concept of things being diegetic' or sometimes 'the fictional world that diegetic things take place in'.
So, for example. A scene's musical soundtrack is non-diegetic. John Williams wrote some music, an orchestra played it, and now that music is being played to the audience at the same time as we watch the scene. However: music coming from in the world is diagetic: a good example of this is when we see characters actually singing or playing instruments. Jessica Rabbit singing 'Why Don't You Do Right' in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is diagetic; in the fictional world she's literally singing that, whilst The Doors playing at the beginning of Apocalypse Now isn't: it's a soundtrack added for the audience.
Other stuff in films that's non-diegetic includes the credits, subtitles, voiceovers, slow-motion, all that stuff.
You can apply this to other mediums, too. In comics, the white boxes around panels are non-diegetic; the world doesn't exist enclosed in a little white square. In video games, your mini-map, control scheme, etc are all non-diegetic; they're contrivances to make the game work, not real things that exist in the fictional world depicted.
With me so far?
(As an aside, while this is technically academic language, I've seen it used plenty outside academia. I studied theoretical physics at university - until I ran out of money for tuition and got kicked out - so I never had any formal academic interaction with the terms. I picked them up from watching film & anime reviews on youtube. Anybody who pays much attention to film criticism and analysis has probably come across the terms.)
Anyway. This is an RPG blog, and I'm here to talk about RPGs. So, Diegesis in RPGs.
One thing I find attracts me to various games - notably Powered By The Apocalypse and OSR games - is that you first interact with things using the fictional actions of your PC to affect the fictional world. You treat the world as a real, consistent place, and the GM adjudicates what happens based off that.
I find it useful to talk about 'things that exist in the fictional setting' versus 'things that only exist for the players'. So, it's useful to me to steal terminology from film studies and talk about diegetic and non-diegetic elements of games. Diegetic things are things which exist or happen or are observable in the fictional world, while non-diegetic things only exist to the players, on an out-of-character level.
Here's some things that are diegetic in RPGs:
- A PC's equipment.
- A character's height, weight, eye colour, etc.
- Alignments, probably; if you can cast 'detect evil' to know that that monster over there is objectively evil, then alignments are concrete forces in the game world, and your paladin being Lawful Good is a diagetic fact.
- A wizard's spell-slots in D&D; a wizard can meaningfully talk about 'I have two spells left today, and they are Sleep and Spider Climb' without breaking the fourth wall.
- Blood Points in Vampire the Masquerade; it's an observable (and generally understood) fact of the setting that you need to drink about a pint of blood each night to make up for the blood used to wake up, and if you don't you'll start starving, likewise that using your powers probably needs about a pint of blood.
- Getting Turned On in monsterhearts. While its expressed through a slightly simplified game mechanic, it is a fact of the setting that a PC has experienced a stirring of erotic or romantic desire. Their response to this varies, and might involve more game mechanics, but the state of being Turned On is a real thing in the fictional world.
- That some PCs are stronger than other PCs. Gronk the Fighter can lift heavier weights, hit harder, break down doors better, arm-wrestle better etc than Elzebeth the Wizard.
- Being injured: the victim has - in the fictional world - been hurt, and might be bleeding, have broken bones, etc.
Here's some things that are non-diegetic in RPGs:
- Dice rolls.
- Numerical measures of things like HP, attributes, etc. Those are abstractions being used to quantify a more complex fictional thing for the purposes of game-play.
- Experience points, inspiration, bennies, etc that give the player a resource to use on a meta-level that doesn't represent anything in-world.
- Lines & veils over what content and themes will make it into the game.
- Mechanics that allow a player to introduce content to the game, such as Stars Without Numbers's Connect skill, which gives a PC a chance to know an NPC they just met from before the game began, letting the player define what their relationship is like. There's a LOT of collaberative world building techniques and mechanics out there that do similar things.
- Mechanics such as fate-points,
- References to other media. A lot of old Paranoia adventures had PCs whose names were puns, took the piss out of other RPGs, and so on: these jokes are on the meta-level, for the players: a paranoia called Hamburg-ELL-R was not named by Friend Computer to be a reference to old macdonalds adverts, and nobody in the setting will get the reference.
- Metaphors and themes of the game. For example, I'm in a V5 game where we're explicitly exploring ideas around power, control, and moral judgement; these things are gonna come up and be relevant. Our PCs, however, aren't aware that they're being used to discuss these themes; they're just people.
- Character 'theme songs' and other inspiration.
To clarify: this is not the same as the distinction between 'fluff' and 'crunch' (also expressed as flavour vs mechanics, lore vs rules, etc).
The distinction between diegetic content and nondiegetic content is not the same as the distinction between flavour and mechanics.
Why is this? Something can be a game mechanic and also diegetic. (See: blood points are a real thing in VtM, and so 'spend a point of blood to rise each night' is just... what happens in the fiction). Something could also be non-mechanical and not diegetic (for example "Changeling the Dreaming explores themes around loss of innocence, growing old, dementia, etc" is not a mechanic but not a diegetic fact, neither is "This game will not include rape or sexual assault, or any mention of those").
So why am I explaining this?
I think it's useful to be able to discuss if a game element is diegetic or not when discussing game design, and I've not really seen useful terminology for.
Mostly, these discussions use the terminology for fluff vs crunch, which leads to active confusion.
This area of gameplay/game design is one where even subtle distinctions in phrasing can dramatically alter meaning. I think it's useful to have a precise term that means 'this thing and only this thing' with no room for confusion or other common usages.
If you start thinking about things in terms of diegesis, you get the tools to explain and explore stuff nicely that you wouldn't otherwise. For example:
- Are the powers a D&D 4th edition PC has diegetic or not? Do the different weapon strikes, moves, spells and so on represent distinct techniques a PC has been taught? Can a 4e fighter talk about the different techniques they use? Or are they a non-diegetic abstraction that simplifies the chaos of combat into maneagable gameplay? Or is it somewhere between the two?
- Similarly, D&D 4e uses its 'bloodied' mechanic to take a previously non-diegetic mechanic (losing HP) and make it somewhat more diegetic; it's an in-fiction fact that when half of a monster's HP are gone, it's got visible injuries, blood everywhere, etc. It allows you to discuss a non-diegetic thing (how many HP has the monster lost?) in diegetic terms (is the monster bloodied yet?).
- Is the symbolism in a game diegetic or not? As a audience, we know that a vampire feeding is a bit rapey. Could a toreador poet draw on that symbolism in their poetry, describing feeding using rape as a metaphor? Etc.
- Can lines and veils be made diegetic? For example, there's a difference between 'this is a game where you won't encounter sexism' and 'this setting is completely gender-blind and no society sees any differentiation between genders; sexism is a meaningless concept in this setting'.
- Can game mechanics be made diegetic? What happens if you take the idea of a 'class' in D&D and make it an obvoious measurable thing; so that you can cast 'detect barbarian' to tell if a PC is a barbarian, just like if you cast 'detect evil' to tell if they're evil.
This is something that I deal with a lot because a lot of my design goals centre around the boundries and blurry areas between diegetic and non-diegetic mechanics, ways to make a mechanic more diegetic, and ways to make non-diegetic mechanics at least parallel diegetic things (for example, gold-for-xp is non-diegetic, but it parallels a PCs diegetic desire to get rich because being rich is nice. Likewise most systems which reward XP for specific achievements). Discussion and design around 'can we make this mechanic more diagetic' and 'can we represent this diegetic phenomenon with an elegant abstraction' are some of the areas I'm most interested in.
(as an example: whenever a Wounded Daughter ressurects, she's left robbed of some of her potential, a little more withdrawn and a little more bitter and resentful. She's somehow lesser, and although she can grow past that, it's a serious and unpleasant thing: representing this by a debt of XP that she won't benefit from expresses it in a neat, simple way; the XP is an abstraction for the more diegetic idea of the PCs rich inner life being eroded.)
These are all conversations we can be having already, but the use of the terminology allows us to be more precise and better understand what's being said.
Lastly: is using academic terminology to discuss RPGs gatekeeping? I'm pretty sure it isn't.
As I've said earlier, I have no academic background in this sort of thing, and picked the term up from youtube. This isn't something I'm familiar with because I've got the privilege of a liberal-arts education. I'm not even particularly posh or anything, I just watch too many youtube videos.
On top of this, I do think that tabletop RPGs are kind of lagging behind other media in terms of analysis. Even in terms of interactive media, there's far more discussion for videogames and larps than there is ttrpgs. We basically have the Forge and that's it. Treating the subject matter as something that you can discuss in depth with technical language isn't necessarily a bad thing. If I'm having a deep technical discussion with another RPG writer about this stuff, having the precise language to describe what I mean is useful.
Hell, if somebody uses a term I don't recognise I can just ask them to define it.
The expectation that all discussion around a medium should be accessible to new players without much grounding in the discussion is unreasonable; it keeps the discussion at a shallow level. Some discussions are gonna be in-depth and require a good understanding of the subject matter, and they're not gonna be easy to grock until you've been in the field for a while. Expecting discussions to dumb-down and avoid academic language so everybody knows what's going on will - in practice - just stifle more in-depth discussion.
Anyway, there you go:
Diegetic & Non-diegetic as terms for RPGs. Now go forth and use them in conversation, it will make you sound clever and help explain your thoughts better.