So today guys I’m going to be letting you guys know my thoughts on references in your Roleplaying games. By references, I mean any mention, hint, allusion or tip of the hat to… well anything really. You can make references to real life, films, books, song etc.
Personally, I’m a big fan of having them, they can be a great source of inspiration (or a source of delicious plagiarism if you’re really starved for ideas). They can also inject flavour and feeling directly into the world, and if they’re subtle or slightly obscure your players (or fellow players and DM if your character is a reference) get to feel smug and clever when they get it.
There are some pitfalls however. If your reference flies too much in the face of the tone that’s been set or is too much of a stark contrast to the setting then it can damage the immersion (less of a problem if you’re aiming for a tongue in cheek, parody kinda game). If the reference is too obvious or as a DM you’re too smug or pleased with yourself for having it that can also be a problem. I’m quite guilty of that last one as a player, in a pathfinder game my character is essentially Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride and by god do I make sure everyone knows how clever I’m being. What a dick I am.
The final pitfall is when getting the reference becomes necessary for the players to progress. If your dungeon needs the players to know the quote “Long live the new flesh” from Videodrome for them to be able to proceed, that’s no fun, it’s being forced on them.
For my money, the best part of references is in their subtlety. If people don’t notice them, it doesn’t matter, save it and try again some other time. It’s far better to have some veiled reference to the struggling Lord Roderick, his estates beginning to go to ruin as he frets over his sister than to explain to the players that it’s Lord Roderick Usher, because in the Edgar Allen Poe story “Fall of the House of Usher” etc. etc. etc.
Despite what people may tell you, jokes don’t get better when you explain them 😛
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