The diegesis easily explained

edited June 2019 in Story Games

The basics

So this is a thread that people can link back to when they are confused about diegetics, diegetical, diegesis etc.

Yes, this is a weird word.

But it’s easily explained by saying that it’s opposite to things like in real life, out of character etc.

Let’s say a game group is sitting in mom’s kitchen and they playing a game set in the magical realm of Gondor. The clock on the wall in mom’s kitchen says it’s eight PM. The time in the magical realm of Gondor is just at the crack of dawn, outside the bandit camp. The diegetical time is just at the crack of dawn, not eight PM.

Contrasted to “Dice”

Related concepts, sometimes conflated (including by me #SloppyAcademic2097 ) are the Shared Imagined Space (the “SIS”) and the “Cloud”, the latter most prominently used in @lumpley ’s dice and cloud series from ten years ago; which contrasted it with “dice”, a word that means not only dice but also character sheets, numbers, pencils, special abilities, hit points, stats etc.

Contrasted to mimesis

In classical theatre, and in literary criticism, diegesis (which, in that context, means “narrated stuff”) is contrasted to mimesis, which, in that context, means “shown stuff” — “mimicking” is based on the same word, it means imitation).

In many other media, including tabletop RPG and movies, this distinction has often fallen away and the distinction isn’t really being made (including by me #SloppyAcademic2097 ).

The first time I heard the word “diegetical” it was in the context of “diegetical music is movie music that both the audience and the movie characters hear, maybe they have the radio on in the kitchen and dance to it; extradiegetical music is movie music that only the audience hear — subtle romantic notes as the two main leads first see each other”.

Arguably if people are LARPing out game scenes and showing each other what they do, that’s mimesis rather than diegesis. So maybe that’s a distinction that will be brought back in the future but if you’re digging through old threads don’t worry about it, it’s all the same fuzzy fancy way of saying “in-game”.

Why not just say “in-game” then?

This is kind of a selfish reason but the first couple of times I was legit confused. I mistakenly though this: We are sitting around a game table in a game room and we are a game group; aren’t all of our activities, including mom’s wall clock, “in-game”? And, similarly, the “dice” stuff (see above) is definitely part of the game activity but is still not necessarily diegetical.

So I needed a specific, dedicated word and the phrase from the sound track industry came to mind. (This was like decades ago.)

I later learned of the terms “cloud” and the “SIS” and sometimes use those words instead. Sorry about that.♥

Update about the term “SIS”

In the past, I’ve used the term SIS a lot for the diegesis, like, a lot, and I can’t rellay go back and edit all those posts, but starting now, I’ll stop using it. Here’s where I went wrong.

I’ve learned (in this thread) that people are really hung up on the “Shared” part of the term SIS (Shared Imagined Space). Re-reading old Forge stuff, they’re not wrong. But, I’ll explain myself.

When I heard the word “Shared”, I thought of the Swedish word “gemensam”. Something you have together. Me and my sister can share a book even though I haven’t read all of it. Wiktionary says:


shared (not comparable)Used by multiple entities or for multiple purposes or in multiple ways. quotationsSynonyms(multiple entities): common, mutual
Now, I’m not trying to do an “well, actually, the dictionary says so-and-so, so that’s what you meant when you said shared”. Uh, no. If that’s not what they meant, it’s not what they meant. But… it’s what I meant when using the word shared imagined space up until the last week or so.

In my view of the phrase “SIS”, I thought it meant “OK, we have this imagined space together. It’s shared by us. The red ball in the chest is part of this shared imagined space even though the chest hasn’t been opened so people don’t know that there’s a red ball in there.”

What some of the Forge nerds sometimes meant by “Shared” was specifically things that have been shared in sense four in this definition, while I thought they meant sense two. Which to me with my background in semiotics, sense two would’ve made a hell of a lot more sense!

But in this sense-four “Shared Imagined Space”, the red ball is not part of the SIS because it hasn’t been told-about (“shared” sense four) even though it’s a relevant part of our common imagination (sense two).

Through these last few weeks of debate, I’ve, confusingly enough, gradually shifted my use of SIS over to the Forge “sense four” usage in order to contrast it with my own use of “diegesis” and “canon” and “gamestate” and/or whatever we’re calling it today since we apparently can’t call it SIS because of this “sense-four-only usage”.


  • I later learned of the terms “cloud” and the “SIS” and sometimes use those words instead. Sorry about that.♥

    I mean, sorry that we as a group are using a mix of inconsistent lingo; I'm not sorry for sometimes adapting the words "cloud" or "SIS" because when in Rome♥
  • Great summary, Sandra!

    I agree in full that these terms can be important and useful. "In-game" is used in the way you describe by most/many gamers, but I agree that it's handy to have a term that distinguishes, say, rolling an actual die on the table from the fictional action that's being imagined.

    I like Vincent's "dice" and "cloud", but that also has room for being confusing, since one is a synecdoche and the other a metaphor.

    Arguably if people are LARPing out game scenes and showing each other what they do, that’s mimesis rather than diegesis.

    An interesting point! I agree. Sometimes they will align ("yes, she's sitting down in front of me" - that's both true in the actual room where we're playing as well as in our imagined scenario) and sometimes they won't ("he's waving his arms [in real life], but that represents a shield of arcane energy [in the fiction]").
  • "Cloud" makes me think of Cloud computing or my boy Cloud Strife but otherwise it's good and I've used it a bunch. "Dice" is the metonym I still use until something better comes along♥
  • edited May 2019
    Thanks for the clarification, Sandra.

    I have no schooling in Lit Crit and the vocab you've been posting has been somewhat of a mystery to me. Your clarification, once I can internalize it to the point of consistency, will, I believe, be a big help in my own particular hobby horse. Especially WRT to how dice fit into the game play process. FREX - I would now argue that the die much closer to being mimetic than diegetic. They aren't being used so much as part of an extradiegetical process (FREX - task resolution) but rather a reflection of the fickle hand of fate mimetically (Something is happening, to use that old term, in the SIS. I know, the wrong term but old habits are hard to break).

    Thank you!


  • I've sometimes thought the same thing; they are just as much "in-game" as the diegesis is
  • So I needed a specific, dedicated word and the phrase from the sound track industry came to mind. (This was like decades ago.
    Wow! So you were the one who bring the 'term' diegesis/diegetic into the RPG fields?

    I've always thought that it came from the Knutepunkt people as inThe
    Meilahti Model
    (2003) from Stenros & Hakkarainen:
    A role-playing game is what is created in the interaction between players or between player(s) and gamemaster(s) within a specified diegetic framework.
    Diegesis is what is true within the game. Usually this means the game world. The diegetic frame is composed of what is true in the past (history of the frame and the characters), what the present is, and the expectations of the characters regarding the future. The gamemaster creates the diegetic frame and enunciates it in the depth that is necessary and possible.
  • I started using it in 1999 and I had a lot of friends who went to Knutepunkt around that time;
    otoh it's such an obvious word for it so there may very well be parallel development.
  • I met some scholarly LARP nerds / Knutepunkt regulars [who soon after that joined up with & introduced me to the Interacting Arts set] in late 2003 and taught them this usage of diegetic around then; so if that book was published earlier, S&H prob got it from somewhere else. I was going to Vampire LARPs earlier but I was just a wide eyed young fishmalk in a dark red dress; I kinda doubt that that some of the people I played with could reach that scene that quickly.

    On TBP I think it was me who introduced the term though. This was way later. TBP can sometimes be a kinda insular community.
  • Oooor... is my memory tripping me up here? And I'm claiming credit for something that I got from the Knutepunkt dorks? I lost all my old diaries in a server crash
  • edited May 2019
    I've been using the word for many years and have no crossover with that genealogy. To me the term and usage came directly from screenwriting, and its application to RPGs was readily apparent. It's such a well-worn word in screenwriting circles, it would not be surprising to learn that many people have pushed it beyond that realm independently of each other.
  • edited May 2019

    It's just such an appropriate word for it♥
    Also it makes you look smart
  • edited May 2019

    Also it makes you look smart

    1999? Wow! Its cool that parallel to theForge Nordic culture also invented its own vocabulary!
  • Yeah, I was heavily into Everway at the time & I was reading RGFA threads through Deja News (never posted anything myself).
  • edited May 2019
    All that stuff really helped me once I later studied lit crit! Figured easy degree is easy if you've already nerded out about things. Is also why I went for linguistics since I had taught myself lojban. In hindsight, I don't really recommend going at it that way. It's a bit cart before horse; you don't learn that many new things, and getting "proof" of my knowledge on paper (in the form of a degree) has so far not been worth the money [last time I ran my own numbers at least]. ← kinda weirded myself out talking about this kinda stuff. weird how I can share so openly about my own mental health (lack of) but anything work or study related feels super iffy
  • The Nordic tradition indeed developed its own theory tradition independent of the Forge around the same time-frame. Much of what made the '00s so enchanting (read: terrible) here in Finland had its origins in rigorous disagreements between what amounts to a bunch of Forgites vs. a bunch of Nordic immersionists. Sort of like the RPGnet reaction to the Forge, except there's two crazy theory cults spreading their gospel at the same time.

    Interesting to hear about the origin of "diegetic" - I knew that it was adopted for rpg use in that scene, but didn't know who might've taken it up originally.

    "Diegesis" is pretty much the same thing as "shared imagined space", if one is inclined to translate jargon between traditions. Other synonyms you see used are "the fiction", "in-game reality", "the Watsonian reality", etc.
  • Some people in the OSR world are somewhat allergic to “story” or “media” metaphors (because their games are not stories, damnit, as they like to say!), so they use the term “setting” for the same purpose. (As in, “it’s part of the setting”.)

    I personally find that much less clear, but it’s something I hear people saying and typing in those circles.

    It’s interesting to consider ways in which diegesis and the SIS differ, as terms. For instance, I’ve always taken the diegesis to be something that relates to the fictional stuff we’re imagining, whereas SIS is more specifically something we actually do at the table together.

    In that sense, a sourcebook on the history of Elves (or whatever) could be entirely diegetic but not part of our SIS. A fine line, to be sure, though.
  • "Diegesis" is pretty much the same thing as "shared imagined space"
    In that sense, a sourcebook on the history of Elves (or whatever) could be entirely diegetic but not part of our SIS. A fine line, to be sure, though.
    As I wrote in the OP of this thread I'm more with Eero on this one
  • I think it's an interesting distinction, though, and makes sense with what "diegesis" means in other fields. I mean, it's totally true that what's inside a setting book is not part of the SIS in Forgite analysis, but it is part of a more nebulously defined idea of "this fictional thing we're engaged with". It's very important for the Big Model whether something is factually being imagined and communicated by somebody, or if it's just something that potentially exists in the play tools and background of the players.

    When I first encountered "diegesis" in this context (I think it was at Ropecon in say 2003, one of the Finnish Nordic-style theorists giving a lecture on it) it was defined, if I remember correctly, the same as SIS: the actual actively created imagination space at the game table. I at least remember thinking that it seemed like a different word for the same concept.

    I can't off-hand name any theory jargon framework that would have a word that clearly encompasses both the fiction present between the players and the fiction present in the GM's notes. "Setting" and similar terms of art come closest in bridging the gap. Probably it's just that everybody who starts thinking carefully figures out that they're two different things before they've come up with an encompassing name for both.
  • edited May 2019
    That's true, I can't think of a word anyone's coined for that hybrid/aggregate of content both in play and at-hand. I can come kinda close with my term "Operant Space," which includes the use of both Player and GM fictions in addition to the mechanics of the ruleset, but talking about my Operant Space is really talking about my current affordances or available actions, not fictional elements per se, or the SIS in general.
  • All true.

    I have no issue saying that the GM’s prep or a sourcebook contains “diegetic facts” or “diegetic information” but that they aren’t part of the SIS. The same can happen with, say, my character’s backstory (if I never communicate it to the other players).
  • This is all big brain stuff that I've definitely not studied in an official way but this very discussion was had long ago on this thread - On RPGs and Text [LONG].

    One of the takeaways was that what whatever RPGs are doing is not creating Text and that using Lit Crit terms does not map well onto the activity. One model that was proposed was three layered - Authoring, Fabula and Syuzhet.

    For myself, if it matters, the Shared Imagined Space contains only that information that has been proposed and accepted via the Lumpley Principle. It is composed only of facts. What we as individual players think about the facts -

    Alice - "Carol was murdered!"
    Bob - "No, Ted was only actinging in self-defense!"

    - is not the contained within the SIS but is part of what makes role-play so much fun. The ruminating about what happened, responding emotionally as players, etc. is not part of the SIS anymore than the DM reading a book and planning on introducing Elves into the game some time in the future. Intentionality (I'm going to reveal I'm vampire three games from now) and acting as an audience member responding to the developing fact space are not part of the SIS.

    I don't want to say the SIS is all. Not in the least. These other layers that wrap around the SIS are the Awesome Sauce! I just don't have any idea what these might be called. I tried once and was embarrassed when I had posted with the complete wrong understandings of the words. I'll leave that to the experts. However that we're both audience and creators at the same time (or interwoven time) makes this a very different beast.

    If it's not shared then its not part of the Shared Imagined Space.

    Ducking away as I'm sure I've made of mess of things on this topic again...


  • True, the "shared" part of the SIS is a difference
  • I've come around to the 180° position I've had before after re-readign some of the Forge stuff Sil linked. From now on I'm gonna avoid the term Shared Imagined Space and never use it again. Diegesis is the word I'm gonna use even though mimesis might be more appropriate; let's postpone the whole diegesis/mimesis split for a while because I'm already confused enough
  • Why can't SiS just be the 'cloud', the actual described fictional situation the characters are currently in?
  • Academese can be fun and occasionally more enlightening than confusing, but in normal parlance with normal people I usually just say "the fiction".
  • Fiction implies not real.
  • Why can't SiS just be the 'cloud', the actual described fictional situation the characters are currently in?
    Because part of the cloud / diegesis haven't been shared yet.
  • Academese can be fun and occasionally more enlightening than confusing, but in normal parlance with normal people I usually just say "the fiction".
    the fact that I coin words like "blorb" and "frobnication" might be an indication that i'm no friend of academese but we've been saying "diegetical" since i was in high school♥
  • Fiction implies not real.
    Yes. So does "diegesis," when talking about a game or a movie. We all know that what we're creating is fiction. That's how we avoid the problem of wondering about your mom's clock. The word "diegetic" and the phrase "in the fiction" are functionally equivalent.
  • edited June 2019
    The unshared part is a cue/dice. Even if we get rid of SiS we need a word for:

    the live fictional situation (which I thought was the SiS), imagine we freeze time at a certain moment, that’s the current situation.

    Character fictional positioning

    Player fictional positioning

    Positioning can be relative to cues that aren’t part of the current SiS, and in fact it’s assumed it often is.
  • But like in the movie Moneyball the song Spring Training is extra-diegetical and the song The Show is diegetical but they both have the same degree of fictivity.
    I tried switching from "diegetical" to "in the fiction" for a while back in 2008 when Three Sixteen first came out but everyone I played with got confused so I switched back
  • The unshared part is a cue/dice.
    It's not really wholly on the dice layer since we do finchian resolution

  • I know its been mentioned zillions of times, but what is "finchian resolution?"
  • I'd say it's still cue mediated before it hits the cloud. Although this is saying a principle is a kind of cue, is that legit?
  • Perhaps a more fruitful line of discussion would be for you explain the difference between SIS and Diegesis and why Diegesis is a better representation of the formalized dialogue process we call RPG.
  • Also you could just use the word situation to refer to the current fictional situation (that's what it means in GNS).
  • @AlexanderWhite
    I guess in Vincent's model it might be more dice than cloud but in the "remapping" thread that was def not how I had it sorted. "Dice" lev stuff was things like HP, AC, the d20… "diegetic stuff" was things like the stone floor, the sword, the railing, the precipice, the gargoyle…
  • I know its been mentioned zillions of times, but what is "finchian resolution?"

    The Pit Trap [non-finchian]

    GM: “A ten-foot wide corridor leads north into the darkness.”
    John the Rogue: “I check for traps.”
    GM: “What’s your target number for checking?”
    John the Rogue: “15.”
    GM: Decides that the pit trap in front of the party is “standard,” so all John has to do is roll a 15 or better. “Roll a d20.”
    John the Rogue: “16.”
    GM: “Probing ahead of you, you find a thin crack in the floor – it looks like there’s a pit trap.”
    John the Rogue: “Can I disarm it?”
    GM: “What’s your target number for that?”
    John the Rogue: “12. I rolled a 14.”
    GM: “Okay, moving carefully, you’re able to jam the mechanism so the trap won’t open.”
    John the Rogue: “We walk across. I go first.”The Pit Trap [finchian]GM: “A ten-foot wide corridor leads north into the darkness.”
    John the Roguish: “We move forward, poking the floor ahead with our ten foot pole.”
    GM: Is about to say that the pole pushes open a pit trap, when he remembers something. “Wait, you don’t have the ten foot pole any more. You fed it to the stone idol.” [if the party still had the pole, John would have detected the trap automatically]
    John the Roguish: “I didn’t feed it to the idol, the idol ate it when I poked its head.”
    GM: “That doesn’t mean you have the pole back. Do you go into the corridor?”
    John the Roguish: “No. I’m suspicious. Can I see any cracks in the floor, maybe shaped in a square?”
    GM: Mulls this over, because there’s a pit trap right where John is looking. But it’s dark, so “No, there are about a million cracks in the floor. You wouldn’t see a pit trap that easily, anyway.” [A different referee might absolutely decide that John sees the trap, since he’s looking in the right place for the right thing].
    John the Roguish: “Okay. I take out my waterskin from my backpack. And I’m going to pour some water onto the floor. Does it trickle through the floor anywhere, or reveal some kind of pattern?”
  • I think dice stuff is anything that modifies the next 'bit' of cloud. So that could mean a principle like 'make something up', a bit of prep, a resolution mechanic. In a way the 'cue' IS the system.

    My main concern is that if we blur the current situation with 'diegetic stuff in the prep', it gets confusing talking about positioning (which is the main thing we're interested in).
  • edited June 2019
    Throughout the flamewar research seminar these last few days the offscreen diegesis has been a cornerstone of the position
  • I'm not sure I understand the idea of "offscreen diegesis". Sure, that can (loosely) pertain to what you refer to as 'tier 1 truths', but don't the existence of tier 2 and tier 3 totally demolish the idea of anything outside the SIS being 'real' or binding in any sense?

    Game procedures and fictional content, including rolling on random tables and narration, are constantly negotiated among all the participants. There's no way around that.
  • Well a fictional sword in the next room that the players aren't aware of might be as 'real' as the sword that one of them is currently holding. We still need a word that distinguishes the sword the players know about from the one they don't.
  • edited June 2019
    Offscreen diegesis == gamestate.

    We're playing Battleship. You have a ship behind the screen at (2, 3). I don't know it yet.

    We're playing 2097th Edition D&D. You, Dungeon Master, have written "In area A: 2 Bugbears." I don't know it yet.

    EDIT: I guess I just don't understand how the possibility of you asking "What color is the first bugbear's shirt?" and me responding "Green!" invalidates the bindingness of the fact that, in the gamestate, there are 2 bugbears in area A. Like, what the fuck? We can do it in Battleship too. "What color is your Battleship?" "Green!"
  • I don't think it invalidates the idea. It's just cloud and cue, or Situation>system>situation. Is a fairly well established way to talk about this stuff.
  • Right. For instance, if someone accidentally spills coffee on the module, covering the bit about the sword, and when the PCs enter that room, no sword is described, does it mean anything to say that "it was there before"?

    This can be seen even more clearly with random encounters. If we get to the end of the game and we suddenly roll "green dragon!" on a table somewhere, was it "around" the whole time? Well, sort of. We'll probably pretend it was, but it's quite different from the way that Bob the Fighter was "existing" the whole time.
  • Vaclav (an npc) is going to ring the bell of Doom at 12:00. But a player turns up and shoots him in the eye.
  • Well a fictional sword in the next room that the players aren't aware of might be as 'real' as the sword that one of them is currently holding. We still need a word that distinguishes the sword the players know about from the one they don't.
    Technically you are right that "known by Alice, Bob, and Ted" is a predicate that might differentiate sword X from sword Y.

    In the "no-myth" worldview that predicate is inherently ontological; since that isn't the case in our model where there's a canon offscreen diegesis / gamestate, that predicate is just one of many predicates that are good to keep track of and might become relevant. The ontology of the sword is decoupled from the observance of the sword. Copenhagen interpretation strikes again♥
  • This can be seen even more clearly with random encounters. If we get to the end of the game and we suddenly roll "green dragon!" on a table somewhere, was it "around" the whole time?
    Things go on the encounter table because they exist. The table isn't an ontology table, it's an… encounter table; you've met them, encountered them.
  • edited June 2019
    Uh, "exist" in the gamestate and being a "real" entity in the gamestate. Since I'm being accused of believing in dragons. ← OK I shouldn't escalate. I was disappointed in Paul in the other thread, and hurt.
  • edited June 2019
    Right. No believing in dragons! All good there. :)

    What I mean is: *that particular green dragon* was not part of the diegesis/gamestate/SIS/whatever, until that roll was made. There was no guarantee that roll would be made; it happened as a result of following certain procedures at the table.

    So, we can have a dungeon with a "vorpal sword" written down in prep, and a set of random tables which could be used for encounters which includes the possibility of a green dragon. Clearly, the "vorpal sword" is "real" in the sense of being part of the "offscreen gamestate", but the dragon is not, right?*

    Now, we play the game. The PCs enter the room with the vorpal sword, and the GM starts describing the room... but then someone says, "Hang on! We forgot to roll for a random encounter!"

    Oh no! We pause that narration (no sword has been described yet), and we roll. A green dragon comes up! The PCs fight the dragon and many cool things happen. The GM is about to get back to describing the contents of the room, including the vorpal sword, but then the phone rings and someone has to go to work early! We agree to wrap up the campaign there, and then, sadly, by the time out next session comes around, the GM has moved to Florida (why? oh why?). So we continue playing, but with Julian GMing, instead, and we embark on an entirely different adventure, having left those caverns behind.

    Now imagine an alternative version, where there is a Reaction Check (this particular group plays old-school!), and the green dragon gets a Very Friendly result. Thinking this over, Bob the Fighter realizes that his father had mentioned something about rescuing a green dragon hatchling 50 years ago! Oh, wow! Surely, this might be *that very dragon*! Otherwise, how do you explain a green dragon suddenly being all friendly? It must be because it recognizes Bob's heritage! (Maybe he smells like his dad, or something.)

    Everyone's laughing, and the idea is so clear and so *right* that no one dares ruin the moment: clearly this is what the gloracle has said.


    As far as the prep is concerned, the vorpal sword was "there", right? And was there a friendly green dragon wandering around the dungeon? Not in the same sense as the sword, not at all.

    But, as far as what happened diegetically/in the fiction/at the table/in the SIS, the friendly-dragon-that-Bob's-dad-rescued-long-ago is far more "real" than the vorpal sword, which, as far as we are concerned, never existed at all. (It would be pretty hard to explain why, if it had existed and was in that room, the PCs would have left without taking it with them, even if we someday found the module's text and tried to retcon the whole thing...)

    I think that illustrates the difference between "offscreen gamestate" and "SIS" pretty clearly.

    We can now extend that analogy further - what if this GM doesn't have a random encounter table for this region, and has to make up one, as a tier 3 truth? (Oops! Better make a table for the next session, right? But there's still a dragon in our game now.)

    What if the GM has poor eyesight and the light was dim and she misread the entry entirely, and it actually said "green goblin"?

    And so on.

    (*: As a sidenote, I'm aware - and sometimes use - a different approach, where random encounter tables are "populated" with entities actually assumed to be "in the area"; and as they are killed or driven away, they are removed from those tables. That's a different thing! Cool, but different. I'm thinking more of a scenario where there is a book of random tables which the GM could pull out to generate random encounters, like "Randolpho the Mad's Tome of Random Encounters, volume 3".)
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