90s Design: Diegesis

This critical discourse brought to you by a diegetic “What if?”*

Misunderstood and awaiting revival, diegesis is one of the distinctive features of the 90s revolution in RPG design. It’s a fancy word though, so let’s stop and unpack. I’ll start with a dictionary definition: the lowest form of analysis.


  1. the telling of a story by a narrator who summarizes events in the plot and comments on the conversations, thoughts, etc., of the characters.
  2. the sphere or world in which these narrated events and other elements occur.

These both apply to the game design sense of the term but #2 is a bit more relevant. The last post in this series talked about deep story worlds. Diegetic game design concentrates on systems that directly represent things that exist in those worlds. These aren’t just physical properties – it’s not about Strength or AC and all. Mechanics describe psychological, social and metaphysical things in the world too.

This works well because it’s how we already think about RPGs before being indoctrinated. Contemporary games often encourage you to look at systems the way a designer does: as abstract objects that can be given story rationales. This is really convenient for game designers because they don’t have to do one of the most difficult chunks of game design: attaching systems to specific narrative contexts. Fate throws four actions at you and essentially says, “You figure it out – here are some essays!” It’s trickier to think about swinging a sword or seducing someone in the context of individual character actions.

But when we grab a game before reading the essays or otherwise being acculturated, we think of someone with a high Strength score as an indicator that someone’s burly. The ability to use magic indicates our character’s been initiated into a society that teaches someone to cast spells. Diegetic design follows on the promise of that first scan and extends it into unexpected realms. Vampire gives character classes (clans) specific traditions, slang and political relationships with other groups. Magic in Shadowrun digs into the world’s mystical underpinnings. It’s about the relationship between personal life force (Essence) and the magical (Astral) realm.

Shadowrun’s approach to magic also demonstrates how to weave design goals and niche protection into the world. Essence loss from cyberware makes you worse at magic because the game wants to encourage separate niches for tough folks with metal limbs, and people who can cast spells. That niche protection is part of the world, and not a game design convenience in the “wizards can’t use swords” vein.  Best of all, this distinction drives stories and expansions. What does it mean when you replace your whole body, reducing your life force to a trickle? Can improved technology provide a workaround? How much will someone pay your Runners to steal designs for new cyberware that reduces Essence loss?

My favorite example of diegetic design is Willpower in Storyteller games. Willpower is a “brownie points” system that helps you succeed at things you really want to do well at. But unlike abstract versions of this system, it represents an actual psychological factor. Willpower is a measure of how determines the character is, and also applies to resisting mind control. You replenish it with acts of self-affirmation, doing what your Nature encourages. It can be attacked, enhanced and otherwise utilized in other systems. Best of all, when you look at your score, you get an immediate roleplaying cue. Are you fresh and enthusiastic, or worn out?

Diegesis isn’t new, and evolved from simple representational game design – what the OSR will later enshrine as “Gygaxian naturalism.” It differs in getting beyond purely physical (monsters have claws and teeth, they attack with claw/claw/bite) or functional (being charismatic means you can hire X flunkies) criteria. It wrestles with genre and theme without trying to force a structure, taking it past “realism” while situating it firmly in the realm of what makes RPGs distinctive: the ability to explore a fictional physical, social and metaphysical realm. The story games movement blew past these distinctions and went straight to systems that impose structures across narratives, but diegetic games take a more sophisticated tack, asking: What relationship should we have with a genre-coded world?

It’s not about asking what it would be like if vampires were real, or what kind of vampire story we can tell. It’s about wrestling with the values of the world vampires live in, complete with its dramatic logic. Exploring this requires a bit more thought. It means we can run games that are critical of the world’s assumptions (and like the Anarchs in Vampire: The Masquerade, we can even emulate the tendency of societies to classify and tame criticism) or which interpret them in unexpected ways, such as when Shadowrun takes the convention of Runners (mercenaries) and “Johnsons” (job contacts), feeds them back into the game as social institutions, and then asks you what that means, and how to react to it. These games are messy. They entangle systems, settings and motifs. The reward is in unraveling the knots, then making new ones.

* Hey, at the bottom here I just want to clarify that today’s image isn’t about dudebro-shaming Twilight for having sparkle-vampires who fall in love. It’s about how, when we create worlds in which they exist without hard-coding a narrative focus, we can create situations that criticize things that might otherwise go unexamined. Blade’s there on the outside asking what a romance between a teenager and an old vampire says about power. Being inside but standing on the outside is the shit.





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