A few days ago I've made a mistake. It was during a game that I've GMed, an "Avatar: the Last Airbender" game. I had 4 players, three of which watched the series, one did not. The game went smoothly, with a few big action scenes where they defeated a few Dai Li agents. During one of the fights, a cabbage fell on one of the characters. The three players who knew the series, and me of course, started to laugh 'till we fell on the floor. The one who didn't looked at us like we are conspiring something against him.
This brings me to my point: References are a great way to bring the feel of the original story, of Avatar in that example, but it can also be used of course to bring the feel of such stories as Star Wars, LotR and so on...
There is one problem with references, though, which is the bad reference. A good reference is a reference that is good by itself, but makes the story better if you know the original place that the reference came from. A bad one can be bad in 2 very different ways:
- If you know the original, it detracts from the game. The easiest example of this can be with cliches: If you don't know that it's a cliche, it can be very good. If you know that it's a cliche, and you've seen it in action, you know what will come and there's no sense of wonder. Think about the person who says "I'll be back" in a horror game. If you know where it comes from, you'll know that this speaker won't come.
- It's good only if you know the original. That's what happened in the example from above. Three players and me knew the original Cabbage Merchant, and laughed straight away. The one who didn't, on the other hand, probably thought that it was very silly.
And that's the whole thing: If the reference is not good by itself and better when the original context is known, don't include it. If it is, though, why don't include it? One extra thing to remember, though, is that the context in which you give the reference is important too, and can destroy even the best of them all...
How about you? Have you made such a mistake in one of your games? How did it manifest within it? How did the players react?