Thursday 5 September 2019

Terminology - Diegetic vs Non Diegetic

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). 

To repeat.
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.


  1. It's not super related to your larger point, but a lot of fan media about D&D creates humor out of imagining what it would be like if non-diagetic elements actually WERE diagetic. Knights of the Dinner Table, Order of the Stick, 8-Bit Theatre, and probably others, are all about characters who are aware of the game mechanics governing the success or failure of their actions, and the humor is largely intended to come from the irony of the characters talking about their meta-fictional knowledge.

    1. tbh it's a joke that will never get old.
      I've seen some use of this sort of thing in serious games, too, actually. For example, Veins of the Earth has DeR0 pills that, when you take them, let the PC hear what the players are saying at the table (if they acknowledge this their head explodes), which is a great way of getting across that paranoid twitchy how-do-you-even-know-that weirdness.
      Some of my design (most notably the weirder bits of DMT) use similar stuff.

  2. This is one of those concepts that I keep running across in different places and then forgetting about.

    I think the closest I've seen to standardized terminology for this in gaming is in-character vs. out-of-character, which has quite a bit of overlap, but isn't entirely the same. It's a very useful distinction to be able to make.

    Thanks for bringing this up, and maybe this time I'll actually remember about it!

    1. IC vs OOC covers basically the same ground, but has some slight extra baggage attached. It's more concerned with decision-making and player stance than game elements, I think?

    2. Yeah, that sounds like a pretty good way of describing the distinction. Like I said, there's overlap, but they aren't actually the same thing.

  3. I think there's a huge difference between gatekeeping and simply trying to raise the level of discourse. They may almost be polar opposites, insofar as you're trying to draw more people in and elevate them to your level, rather than putting obstacles in their way until they leave.

    Class in D&D is frequently diegetic, but in some instances perhaps too much so. Not the idea of class, necessarily; I don't think anyone in the game world would refer to Class as its own thing. But Magic-users (regardless of whether you call them wizards, witches, thamaturists) have the diegetical power of weilding magic in a certain way. Paladins, Clerics, and Druids have socio-religious and magical elements. It breaks down with the non-magical classes. Thief as a class sholdn't be a thing you can detect (for instance). Is not a fighter or 0-level human who steals a sack of gold also a thief? But I'm pretty sure that there are magic items somewhere in the old DMG that are 'only useable by thieves'. And Barbarian is a cultural construct, not a profession or calling like most other classes.

    In a silly 3rd. ed. one-shot my friend ran, I played Fred 'Hit Points' Callahan, a dwarf with a 20 CON who decided to become a barbarian so he could get the d12 hit die.

    1. that is a glorious concept for a PC, yes.
      I think the idea of what a class /is/ is poorly defined in D&D. It's a matter of career, or a spiritual calling, or a particular set of techniques, or membership in a specific organisation, or a broad cultural signifier, or just a broad catch all for 'people who fight'. An abstraction, certainly.

      FWIW, I've seen arguments that old-school thieves were members of organised thieves guilds that taught near-supernatural techniques (ex: 'climb sheer surfaces' is an anime-style technique to climb literally any surface like a spider, not just regular climbing that anybody can do). So, a thief PC is a member of these organisations, like a cleric is a member of the church. Fighters are the 'everybody else' class for those not members of particular organisations learning particular techniques.

    2. Back when I was still running & playing AD&D1e I had the intention of running a game where the levels were part of the game world, people belonged to organisations like a church, temple, dojo, [thieves] guild, Arcane College so that it was less an out of game world construct. Maybe one day. But thanks to this post I now have some better language and concepts for understanding (and perhaps communicating to my players) this sort of thing. Also, I can just point them to this post to read if necessary.

      One reason why I never got to this in 1e was because we discovered RQ2 and that seemed to provide more of an in game world experience of ‘levels’, even though it was rather coarse. But you could tell a lot about a character if you knew their cult, their rank in a cult (initiate vs rune lord or rune priest), or if they were described as being a Master of a skill. All ‘in game world’ information - if you could get it. Members of thievish cults didn’t tend to advertise that fact.

    3. See also: OD&D giving each class a title for each level (1st level fighters are 'veterans' etc). It's a little clunky but you can see what they were going for.

  4. I think the difference between Gatekeeping and Elevating discourse is simply flexibility. If youre talking to someone, and they call something that is Diegetic "fluff", and you respond with "well actually the correct term is Diegetic." you're being a gatekeeping pedant. If you instead clarify that they are referring to an in fiction element, even if you follow that up by explaining that you use the term Diegetic, but that you get what they mean, you are trying to maintain the discourse.

    1. I mean words are all made up so there's no 'correct' term. But often it's easier to express an idea using a specific term that might not be familiar to everybody.

    2. Another common bad practice goes something like this:

      Expert — "The key factor here is the degree of swervism"

      Novice — "What is 'swervism'"

      Expert — "It's quite simple, really. Read these two Forge threads totalling over 100 posts between them."

  5. I have loved this distinction since I was given a term for it, and before that I knew that there was something I didn't like about mechanics that went too far astray from diegesis. Even so, though, it's a matter of taste (sorry, this is me going off on my own tangent, I do realize that you are not making any value judgement either way on whether a diegetic or non-diegetic mechanic is "good" or "bad") as to how far from diegesis a mechanic can go. Are Luck Points, as in the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu, acceptable? How about Karma Points from the old Marvel Super Heroes RPG, which serve as both Luck Points and Experience Points? Does the Luck Advantage from GURPS, which allows the player to choose to reroll the dice on occasion, count as diegetic or non-diegetic, since characters can certainly talk about this or that character in the setting being "lucky"?

    Anyway, I think that it's a wonderful discussion to have, much more interesting than, say, "narrativist" this and "gamist" that, and thank you for laying it out in somewhat concrete terms.

    1. well, there are games which use mechanics that are strictly non-diegetic. Take, for example, Stars Without Numbers's /connect/ skill. It's non-diegetic, but I still really like it because it means you can have a PC who just knows lots of useful people, and lets you define the world a bit better.

      The problem comes when trying to tie what's happening on a non-diegetic level and a diegetic level becomes too much of a strain because they don't match up. Inspiration and bennies and other 're-roll points' fall into this category to me, but tastes differ.

    2. That is a good example, and you can see precursors in those games that gave characters a number of generalized "contacts" at the beginning that could be "filled in", as it were, during the game at need.

    3. A Lucky reroll would be non-diegetic because a character wouldn't be making the choice in universe to be lucky in that situation. A wizard chooses to cast a spell in and out of character, a thief is trained at climbing walls and can talk about that skill with the only obfuscation being what exact percentage rolls are needed, but a lucky character cannot define in the world what makes them lucky or how their luck affects the world in a way congruent with the game mechanic.

  6. Thanks for reminding about the term "diegetic". It's one of those words I always know what it means when I see it, but can never remember when I don't.

    I think some people see XP-for-gold as non-diegetic because they try to define "level" as "knowledge, training". Which is also why I've seen some people object to level drain as absurd, because "why would a vampire be able to make you forget skills?"

    I've defined "level" for myself as self-confidence, influenced by the opinions of the community, which in turn makes you more effective at combat and magic. The villagers see you come back with treasure and think "wow, that person's a hero!" Which makes XP-for-gold diegetic for me, and also explains why you get XP for killing monsters and taking their stuff, but not for making and selling handicrafts or even magic scrolls and potions.

    1. ok that's a cool idea, and I approve. Would they get XP for other stuff that the peasantry find impressive (rescuing people, killing monsters, etc)?

    2. Depends on who's running the game, of course. By default, PCs do get XP for killing monsters in TSR-era D&D and its retroclones, but less than they get for treasure... which I think of as the difference between saying "Look at this ancient gold chalice I found in a tomb" and "I killed a buncha zombies once. No, really!" And I've toyed with the idea of awarding XP for rescuing people based on the victim's hit dice, exactly as if the victim were a monster being slain.

      I've also toyed with the idea of PCs having a temporary reduction in levels if they move into a strange area, which must be restored. One way to do that would be to hire bards to sing about your old deeds.

    3. Oh, yeah, I think of XP and levels as something akin to "mana" in the Polynesian sense, or Glory as in Pendragon (and Insight in the 4th edition's magic system). Part of my thinking on that was directly from you, Talysman, so thank you for that.

  7. I really like this approach, and I don't think it's gate-keepy.

    It does fall into the issue that I tend to have with some academic terminology, which is reliance on a Greek term as jargon (same thing happens in philosophy discussion) which can be a brick wall without intending to be. "In-universe" and "out of universe" work just fine, I think.

  8. This is an excellent article and I agree, we need to raise our conversation, not lower it.

  9. WRT gatekeeping, I completely agree. If we're reduced to having all public discussions at the level of the least-informed person who might want to participate, then we're doomed to forever wallow in noise and the obvious. If that's "gatekeeping", then it turns out we do need it after all.

    1. Yeah. I'd rather people who're newer to this stuff be given the tools to learn stuff. Like, I'm 100% OK pausing a conversation to explain it to somebody who's new to the ideas. Seriously. I'm always happy to see people learn something new, and if I can help with that, that's good, right?

  10. Definitely a fruitful direction of thought. If nothing else, suggests a new layer to "show, don't tell" that makes the adage a little more meaningful

  11. I think gate-keeping needs to be broken down more as a concept, like it's not about keeping people out (which isn't innately bad) , it's about why you are and who you are keeping people out and if that's unjust , an excessive waste of time, or even just arbitrary .

    Like if you have a small kitchen and are trying to cook in it you would keep people out who aren't part of that immediate process, but not people who are part of that process but don't like the same music as you.

    So for creation of new terminology it should be done only when it makes things easier and faster to explain and the terms , as much as is possible , should be self evident.
    ( So basically the opposite of much of the work of the Forge and Vincent "rpg text as Zen Koan" Baker .)

    Otherwise there's an unnecessary obstacle to someone unfamiliar with certain works to easily read and understand whatever it is you just wrote.

    Despite that previous swipe at the Forge, the example of the terms "gamist, narrativist , simulationist" is a good example of new terminology.
    The original theory that created them is flawed and is now mostly disregarded, but they communicate useful and self-evident concepts, so they continue to be used.

    Personally if I find myself about to use a piece of lingo , I try and stop and think of if there's way to say it in a more familiar and self explanationary way.
    But not on requiring an overly long entire additional sentence .

    So in this regard, I have mixed feelings about diegetic . Trying to use other terms instead of it is clumsy and easily bloats, such as: "in-setting/outside setting", "known to player but not character" , etc , all of which don't really work.
    So having a single word instead of this is great , but fuck I have to look it up every time to spell it , never know if I'm pronouncing it correctly, and generally acts like a willfull piece of academic obfuscation EXCEPT FOR it does the job better than anything else I can think of

    1. Pretty reasonable.
      One of the things which I want to do is see it get used more widely precisely *because* that will mean more people understand what's meant by it. 'Cos, as you say, there's few existing terms that work for what it's trying to convey.
      Like I figure that every time I use the terms with somebody new, I gotta explain it, but then it's a concept that's in their head for future use; the CONCEPT is one we grasp quite well although the word is quite arcane.

      But yeah. Apart from anything else, it's a bitch to spell.I think this post spells it 3 different ways.

  12. Great article! We'd love to have you on the Appendix N Book Club ( at some point to pick your brain. Any interest? If so, shoot us an email. We have an episode in mind for you!

    1. P.S. Our email address is appendixnbookclub*gmail*com

  13. The most of collision of game mechanics and in-world setting details I've met was in 'Ryuutama', where special DM Dragon-character (who is an actual person in the game world) levels up as the campaign progresses, getting more artifacts and abilities that bend the reality of the campaign and represent various custom rules (such as 'PCs who are in love gain 1 point of armor for the rest of the session (up to two PCs at once)') to emulate a certain genre.

  14. I mean, there's "in-character" and "out-of-character", could that be extended further?

    What about breaking the fourth wall?

    I figure if a 4e fighter is yelling the name of their move, it is diegetic, otherwise, it's not. It's about the yelling.

  15. Only about 14 months late to the game, but: this is an extremely useful concept (obviously it’s shown up everywhere since you posted this). It’s very closely related to, but distinct from, the concept of associated vs dissociated mechanics as articulated by Justin Alexander:

    I would characterize the relationship as follows: associated mechanics are game mechanics that are either diegetic or closely parallel to diegetic phenomena. Justin and I disagreed over whether HP are dissociated in D&D; I think they can either be dissociated (and non-diegetic) or associated (and parallel to diegetic phenomena) depending on how you play the game. Justin has a particular way of framing HP (essentially, “fraction of total HP = severity of wound”) that is close to diegetic and associated, but there are many other ways to frame HP loss.

  16. I think people should look up words they don't understand and learn what they mean. Great analysis and extremely useful. I really don't see where anyone would get lost in your discussion.