On Roleplaying, GMing, And Cultural References

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

As a GM, I’m not sure whether my pop culture references are a strength or not.
References make things more vivid for me – if I say, “You shoot, but he slides under your bullets Matrix-style, trenchcoat flapping,” then to me that’s a great visual shorthand that lets players know what’s happening.  Likewise, if I tell my players, “This robot talks like the Iron Giant” or “It’s a vast and curved space station, like the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey,” then that provides a lot of info. So I do that a lot.
The issue is, if my players don’t get the reference, then the whole image dissolves – making it a risky technique.  As they’re not likely to tell me they didn’t get it in the heat of things, leaving them out in the cold.
So I have to ponder how to do that.  Because on one level, a good pop culture reference can tell you exactly what mood I’m trying to go for – saying, “He totally Jackie Chans out from under your punches, flipping across the table and then kicking it in your direction” lets the players know that this is a fast-paced kung-fu fight.  But maybe I’m overusing it, and not allowing my own game to breathe in the process, giving players an impression that’s more pastiche than essential creation.
And certainly if I’m going to do it, I need to provide alternate explanations, because “This robot talks like the Iron Giant” is pretty bad description in isolation.  There’s no context for the culturally-bereft (though honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to play with someone who hadn’t seen The Iron Giant).  If I said, “This robot talks deep and metallic, like the Iron Giant,” then that’d be better – but when I’m GMing and trying to juggle so many things at once, I tend to shorthand.
I’m unsure whether it’s a weakness or a strength, or how to leverage that.


  1. trixie hobbit
    Apr 23, 2014

    That can be a problem in geekdom in general. I’ve recently made the acquaintance of a lovely gentleman whom I genuinely like, but he doesn’t speak pop culture much past the 80s. So, if I say something like, my hair looks like Hermione pre Yule ball, or stop” liberating” the special spice blends at red robin, you’re like the daneryes Stormborn of seasoning” he hasn’t a clue.

  2. Tom
    Apr 23, 2014

    I definitely see what you’re saying with references being a useful shorthand. After all, other storytellers did it with the prior text of their days (I’m thinking of Shakespeare and his many references to myths that would have been well-known to his audience), and it’s certainly legitimate.
    Another problem is an over-reliance on this technique, because, as a player or other consumer of stories, it says to me that the storyteller in question doesn’t know how to use any other literary techniques to get their message across.

  3. Bill
    Apr 23, 2014

    Much it depends upon your audience. Pop culture references are very hit or miss for me. (I’ve seen “Iron Giant” but would get hung up assuming you’re trying to say something more significant than “deep and metallic” because otherwise why wouldn’t you just say “deep and metallic”?) On the other hand, when gaming with my friend Steve, pop culture references are a better way to communicate something quickly than my usual barrage of overly-precisely chosen words. So, yeah, it depends.

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