Followup: Diegesis vs. Representation

You played an assassin? Not after 1358 DR!

Jason Corley asked a couple of questions about yesterday’s article on diegetic game design. I answered. Here’s how it went down.


Interesting…how do you distinguish this type of design from purely representational design? 
By addressing social and thematic elements, and by reverse-engineering game-oriented concepts into things in the world. Example: “Mr. Johnson” is a key contact NPC type in Shadowrun, but he’s also a social convention where the name is in-world slang.
Aren’t social elements just representational too? Those people are indeed inside the game world…
Broadly speaking, sure. But simple representation would present “sample contact NPC” of which an actual alias-Mr. Johnson was one. The next level embeds this in the setting the way Shadowrun does. Similarly, there’s a difference between “character class: fight vampire” and a V:TM clan like the Brujah.
I’m still not sure I get it. Surely ‘wizard’ is both a character class and is fully embedded in the world of D&D. Is this just a discussion of how something is presented to a reader/player?
Does the nature of magic matter to the presentation of the default D&D wizard? Not so much. In its simplest presentation, a wizard could have any number of reasons for being, as long as it was explained why somebody can cast spells. You have some implicit things. Read Magic tells you there’s a magical written language. Magic is “Vancian.” But I could say all wizards are specialized librarian-cyborgs and spells are occult machine language instructions and it wouldn’t matter in terns of spell allotment and hit dice and such.
Now of course AD&D did eventually layer on these elements by telling you magic was the art of drawing power from other planes of existence. The diegetic approach to magic happens in the old Manual of the Planes where if you go to another plane you can see the “other end” of M-U spells that summon and communicate with other-planar beings, and you can actively monkey with them. Further along in this method you have Mage: The Ascension, where the systems for magic plug into a world that operates via consensual reality.
Ah, I think I get it now. Representational presentation just says how things operate (A happens, then B maybe or maybe C) whereas diegetic presentation explains why things in the game world happen the way they do? (In the world of Vampire, people with strong will can exert themselves to success.)

I didn’t answer Jason’s question here, but I think he got a good chunk of it. Diegesis is fuzzy. It makes things ambiguously in or out of the story. Sometimes it takes out of game ideas and thrusts it into the game. This can be used for good or ill. I think one of the clumsiest diegetic moves was during the Forgotten Realms’ Time of Troubles, where AD&D 2nd Edition’s removal of the assassin class was interpreted as the literal murder of every assassin in the world, with the assumption that all assassins were tied to one god, Bhaal, to whom they were sacrificed. What if you were just really good at poisoning people but non-observant? Sucks to be you!


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