Monday, May 21, 2012

Kinds of Player Skill

Diegetic Thinking Skill

The term "diegetic" comes up most often in terms of sound in movies. A nondiegetic song is one the audience can hear (like a theme song over the credits) but the characters can't. Diegetic, conversely, refers to songs or dialogue that the characters are supposed to be hearing, too, like if somebody turns on a radio.

Diegetic Thinking Skill is basically when a player is good at imagining themselves as having the same constraints and opportunities their character would have in the game world. Like "Wait, you said every house here had a fireplace, right? That means there must be a chimney, and if there's a chimney then we can..."

Decent Diegetic Thinking requires that the GM and player be basically on the same page as far as what kind of logic and physics apply in the gameworld, or at least in the part of the gameworld they are talking about at the time. This gets harder the more fantastic the gameworld is.

Like: is a medusa vulnerable to the same kind of venom produced by the snakes coming out of her own head? There is normally no diegetic way for a player to figure that out (outside in-game testing or asking an in-game authority) since it is essentially wholly in the hands of the GM's ideas about gameworld biology.

In practice, the best way to encourage and enable diegetic thinking is for the GM to constantly communicate to the players what the current "grit level" of the fiction is. Like "This is pretty much a typical village" or "You are Baba Yaga's house, everything is enchanted and strange..." and sometimes this will require the GM communicating Extradiegetically (that is--talking directly to the players rather than acting as their characters senses), like: "If it'd catch on fire in real life, it'll catch on fire here" or "This is some kinda mystic flame and you don't know what it'll do and there's no way to find out without just trying stuff". This requires good GMing--possibly a level of good GMing you can't expect from an inexperienced GM.

An alternative way to describe "grit level" is trying to get everybody thinking in terms of the same kind of fiction--like "we use Star Trek logic here" or "we use John Woo logic here". This is really hard when the PC actions involve any element of the fantastic--Can we modify the deflector array to do that? Who the fuck knows? However (as in the illustration at the top of this blog entry here) very often the PC's actions themselves involve no fantastic actions despite the fact that they exist in a fantastic world.

From the GMs point of view: if your players consistently find diegetic solutions to problems in terms that you didn't expect but that fit easily within the ideas you already had of what's possible according to the physics and metaphysics in the gameworld (like you think "oh yeah, you could do that, I can't think of any reason why not..."), then you're probably doing a pretty good job of communicating the grit level of the game.

If you argue a lot about it, you're probably not.

If you hear a PCs plan and go "Hmmm...well it could work like that I guess..." then you change or expand your idea of how the gameworld works to accomodate the players you are basically working with the PCs to "create" a solution by changing or expannding the game logic so it works like that and they are kind of getting Extradiegetic about it.

The most important idea here is: once an idea about how stuff works is communicated, it becomes true. Like in common law.

An example of an edge-case was when I tried to saturate a donkey with holy water to act as a baited trap for vampires. It had already been established in-game that vampires would suck the blood out of donkeys (definitely diegetic logic), but the idea that holy water would stay holy once a donkey drank it and would stay in the animal's bloodstream long enough to matter once the vampires drank it was probably all stuff the GM--Jeff--hadn't considered and just went with because it seemed like a fun plan (extradiegetic).

You could argue that if Jeff checked both Christian catechisms and biology textbooks before telling me if my plan was plausible then we've got a wholly diegetic plan, but then I'd counter that I had no way of knowing which authorities were considered true in the gameworld (as obviously the existence of vampires at all implies at least a certain level of folk-science is in play).

Diegetic solutions do not usually require system mastery. They require understanding the fiction--often merely a small part of it.

Extradiegetic Thinking Skill

This is player skill at thinking about or manipulating something that exists as part of the game but not part of the fiction.

A good example is in the (totally sweet) game Dread where your character's fate depends on ability to pull Jenga blocks from a Jenga tower. Another example would be a mechanic which allows you to choose to roll 1d10 or 2d6-pick-the-highest without any corresponding in-game explanation for what these two different die set-ups represent. Another example would be the oft-cited "If it just sounds cool, then the GM will let you try it" policy.

Often Extradiegtic Thinking requires some element of system mastery, but not always. In the above examples, the one with the dice requires system mastery, the Dread one kinda does (if you consider pulling blocks the "system".) The third one involves "mastering" or simply "impressing" the GM.

A large part of player skill is about weighing odds based on character skills--if a character can attempt to do something using two separate skills, like "Library Use 20% " or "Journalism 30%" and opts for Journalism because they have a better chance then it's diegetic skill unless the character for some reason doesn't know they suck even worse at using libraries than being a reporter, then it's extradiegetic.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has Extradiegetic thinking Skills (required to write the story, not just the solution to the murder) and Diegetic Thinking Skill. The reader who solves the mystery while reading before Holmes does using only information provided in the story and science as it was understood up until Holmes' time has Diegetic Thinking skill. The reader who solves the mystery using literary savvy about what kinds of solutions Doyle was likely to come up with given his literary sentiment has Extradiegetic Skill.


This is, quite simply, the ability to make stuff up that is interesting. Like, say, an interesting character background. It's purely subjective, until it becomes....

Creative Problem Solving

This is the ability to make stuff up that is interesting and original (the subjective part) and which also accomplishes a specified game goal (the objective part). Like: "Your character has two magnets and three daggers, make a trap out of that" or "Give me a character background that explains why you have a nose like a turnip and three peanuts in your pocket."

CPS can be diegetic (the first example--the trap--could be) or extradiegetic (the second example--the turnip story).

Mimetic Skill

Basically: Player is good at doing something therefore the character is good at a similar thing, too. There is almost always a "translation gap" involved in mimetic skills and so it's hard to say exactly how "true" the equivalence is.

Example: A Rolemaster player or 4e player in charge of Aragorn is good at telling other players what fighting techniques to use for generally optimum effectiveness on the battlefield just the same way Aragorn is a great tactician.

Or: A player is quick-witted and funny in acted dialogue and makes the other players laugh and so the NPCs also laugh.

Or: deciding someone's PC can't spell because the player misspelled "captain" in that note up there.

This kind of thing overlaps with Extradiegetic Skill if these tactics require weighing of numbers or factors that would matter in the kind of game being played but not if the situation were actually occurring (again, any element of the fantastic can make this hard to judge). That is: a great general might be good at Risk even though many of Risk's tactical rules are extradiegetic because it (perhaps) requires the same kind of brain, just using it to think in different terms.

This usually overlaps with Diegetic Thinking in one way or another, though it is possible to set up situations where it doesn't require actual thinking, like: player throws a dart at a target to determine whether a character manages to hit a target or (and I've done this one) hand the player a maze to solve and as soon as they finish their PC has escaped a maze. In this case the GM has essentially decided that the players' real life skill should be mapped to a character skill and the player hasn't really had to think in-world at all.

The Jenga-block mechanic in Dread is definitely not Mimetic but could suddenly be if the GM created a scenario where the characters were facing an Indiana-Jonesish puzzle where they were pulling blocks out of an ancient idol to get to a treasure without triggering a curse.

The edge cases here are legendary--these occur, for example, every time you see two people arguing over whether a flanking formation should give them a +1 or +2 bonus and whether this is "realistic" and on and on forever.

However, for practical purposes we can say:

-That it is really hard to tell which tactical game mechanics represent actual pieces of mimetic logic and which represent strictly extradiegetic logic made up to make the game work.

-Actual practical military wargames used for actual training of actual military people from Napoleon's time to our own are based on the idea that modelling at least some mimetic situations is possible.

-Whether the mimesis is "true" or not, being good at these kinds of things is a skill.

Notes: there are some clarifications on some of this stuff below in the comments.


  1. How all-encompassing is this list meant to be? Assuming that 'player skill' is being held as a contrast to 'character skill' I'd definitely include system mastery (knowing which choices will make the Most Powerful Character, etc) and tactical skill (being able to set your character up so that the probabilities are always as in your favor as they possibly can be) as kinds of player skills, as well.

    Then again, trying to be complete in listing the different kinds of player skills seems hopeless. Even in the examples you listed there's a ridiculous amount of overlap, and I'm not positive that my definition of tactical skill is anything but a sub-division of system mastery. I guess maybe it's reactive system mastery (knowing how to win in tactical combat) vs. theoretical system mastery (getting all your numbers really big during character creation)?

  2. Since the kinds overlap it would be hard to make an "exhaustive list" (is, for example "figuring out how to get into a building skill" on the list)?

    System mastery and tactical skill both overlap with things mentioned here and can be understood using the tools in the essay above.

  3. I like the comparison of this kind of logic to 'diegetic sound'. I think it's an apt one. It's also the kind of thinking and playing I cherish most when I play D&D.

    That said, I play a lot of 4e and the equivalent of convention games, which limits that kind of thinking and mimetic problem solving (Players just go with what works and what's the most expedient method of solving problems).

    The closest thing I've seen come to that was when a player (new to D&D) was fighting a 'rat swarm' with an axe. The rules say all melee attacks take a -2 penalty because it's a swarm. He said "Can I just turn the blade of my axe sideways and just smoosh them with it?". I said yes, because that makes sense. He did.

    Do you have any other advice for encouraging this kind of play and method of playing?

  4. I would say "system mastery" breaks down into:

    -knowing all the opportunities provided by the system (research + memory)

    -knowing how they interact at a functional level (being able to use the stuff effectively in the game)

    -thinking up (at least locally) novel ways they can interact (creative problem solving)


    The idea that getting your number big during character creation is a skill is not untrue in systems where you can control that, but since I never play in those systems I didn't think of it.

  5. Excellent. And at least the whole section about communicating grit level to players and the challenges of diegetic thinking in a fantasy world is a section in the How to Dungeon Master book I always wanted. Thanks.

  6. Well put - what you consider "grit" and I call "analog" material is one of the underexploited bases for supplements. (Big Book of Medieval Rocks and Timbers, anyone?)

  7. Thanks for the blog post, Zak. It actually helps me with a lot of things I had in my mind right now about my game. I have a few questions though:

    Aren't creative problem solving skills a subset of mimetic skills? Like if a player comes up with a good trap using magnets and daggers, he is miming his character's design traps skills in a way. Or are mimetic skills supposed to not involve much creativity?

    Do you have any thoughts or have seen any examples of extensive use of mimetic skills in play? D&D has at least the dungeon mapping/navigating skill as mimetic, and usually some more depending on the GM. And CoC games usually have the players solve the mystery so the players can solve it. But can you think of other examples of games that tried to do this?

    Also on mimetic skills, have you seen it combined with character skills? On your maze example, the GM might give a simpler maze to a character with higher int, asserting the player will finish it more quickly. Have you seen any examples where higher character skill don't make it just simpler for the player?

    Finally, on the digetic thing, there should be a tendency of requiring less and less extra-digetic thing as the game goes on because it becomes more "real", shouldn't there?

    1. creative--mimetic
      No. They overlap though. A character in a fiction does not, for instance, invent their own past. If a player invents a past for a PC, that's creative.

      Also, clever plans created for nonclever PCs to enact are not mimetic.

      Extra examples: they exist. I don't have time to write more,
      Your last paragraph makes no sense to me. "Should"?

    2. On the first question: of course, I was restricting too much what I was thinking about.

      On the third one, I used should because I think it is also possible to screw this up. Like, usually a game's fantasy reality will develop a greater sense of internal logic the more you play on it. So, rather than having to create new game facts all the time, things slide into place and you are able to use good old logic to find out about them. But if you don't make an effort to create this internal logic, things may become inconsistent and people have no way to figure things but ask the GM. At least, that is my own experience with this. I wondered if yours was similar. Sorry for not wording it better, though.

      On the second question, no problem! But if you do find yourself with time eventually, I think it might make a nice post on your blog, specially for people who are trying to design their own games.

  8. Well put, sir. I continue to learn new things from your blog; it's been a real help to me as a DM. I have a lot to thank you for, (and I suppose, on that note, that my players do as well,) so thanks. Don't stop doing that thing you do.

  9. In my experience many players and many DM discourage "Diegetic Thinking," even if that is the first time I've heard the term but not the first time I've experienced it in game play.

  10. Didn't we used to call diegetic/non-diegetic just "in-game/in-character" and "metagame?"

    1. maybe, but I feel it's less precise and perhaps more confusing. After all everything is "in the game". A mean, whether something is a "metagame" decision ("above the game?") is slightly harder for me to answer than whether it is "diegetic" ("within the fictional world") or not.

    2. Oh, I agree it's theoretically more precise, I just wanted to point out to people that think this is a new distinction that there's historical terms used for it... "In-game" and "in-character" knowledge and actions versus "out of character (OOC) knowledge" or the more general "metagaming". The game used to be understood as "in character" by default and therefore "metagame" was more clear as being actions and decisions not driven from within the game's fictional framework; as sadly many games don't bother with this approach any more it's less clear nowadays I guess. And also as a side note for a more interesting blending of player and character, the term "bleed" is used less for metagaming and more for the inevitable relationship of the character's psychology with the player's.