Thursday, September 05, 2019

Diegesis, Dissociated Mechanics, and You

This is good and useful stuff (if a touch esoteric), as we've come to expect from Cavegirl:

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.

These are handles you can use to grip game rules or ideas and manipulate them in interesting ways:

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?

This, of course, takes us directly to The Alexandrian's discussion of dissociated mechanics:

For example, consider a football game in which a character has the One-Handed Catch ability: Once per game they can make an amazing one-handed catch, granting them a +4 bonus to that catch attempt.

The mechanic is dissociated because the decision made by the player cannot be equated to a decision made by the character. No player, after making an amazing one-handed catch, thinks to themselves, “Wow! I won’t be able to do that again until the next game!” Nor do they think to themselves, “I better not try to catch this ball one-handed, because if I do I won’t be able to make any more one-handed catches today.”

This sort of discussion is highly important to me because verisimilitude is one of my primary goals when I do the RPG thing. I want my players (or even myself) to be as much in the headspace of our characters as possible. The more our decisions map directly to the decisions made by our fictional characters, the easier it is to see our fictional setting from the point-of-view of the characters in it.

Which is a long and fancy way of saying that I want to minimize the use of dissociated mechanics in my game. Does that mean I also want to minimize the presence of non-diegetic elements. Not necessarily. As Cavegirl points out, the soundtrack in most movies is non-diegetic; the characters can't hear it. But it helps us in the audience to interpret what the characters are doing, adding emotional context to their actions helping us to see inside the characters' heads to the emotional states they're experiencing. Music and lighting in the room where you're playing, and the layout of a character sheet are all things that are non-diegetic but which can actually improve the verisimilitude of the experience.

(Note also that, while I want to minimize the use of dissociated mechanics, that's not the same as eliminate them. Abstraction of the boring and the unpleasant can make an experience more immersive by not inviting, or even forcing, you to flee the experience you're supposed to be immersing in.)

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