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All the World's a Stage: Pop culture and its impact on roleplay


My original title for this post was going to be "You got your pop culture in my roleplay!" "No, you got your roleplay in my pop culture!" But that doesn't fit, and it isn't a very descriptive title. Still, this issue of "how many cultural reference is okay in game" is an argument I see come up in roleplay alot. WoW, tabletop, and LARP all seem equally plagued by it.

My example is, of course, the above video. It's not a WoW roleplay thing, but it's still a pretty good illustration of my point. The LARPer is taking the part of Baron Samedi, who is attempting to convert some snake-worshipping vampires to his own religion. I don't know enough about the game dynamic to evaluate it on anything except the obvious; the video's creator is performng a parody of the Old Spice commercials in a very in-character manner. (Thanks to OWbN for the example.) In my opinion, the creator did a pretty good imitation of the vocals, and mirrored the Old Spice commercials pretty well.

With the technical evaluation out of the way, we're left to wonder if it makes sense that an ancient vampire god really spends that much time cruising YouTube. But on the other hand, the video's kind of funny, and probably some people had fun with it. Isn't that kind of the point of roleplay?

Some of my fellow bloggers have reported that the pop culture references in Cataclysm get pretty thick. And there's certainly a little genre bending happening in Kezan, when you cruise by some very Zoolander-esque male models. And who hasn't roleplayed an intense interrogation scene, and had the opportunity to answer that "You can't handle the truth!"

The pop culture references exist in roleplay. The WoW lore spans space-goats, engineering inventions, and wizards. But is this occasional piercing of the 5th wall a good or bad thing?

I tend to think of a spectrum existing between "escapism and genre" on one side, and "pure fun" on the other hand. Neither are inherently better than the other. I'm not judging right and wrong. Instead, I'm simply focused on understand how these two things can be anathema to one another.

Consider the gnome

Adherence to escapism and genre demands a roleplay's strict attention to canon. If you're playing a gnome, for example, you can't really be a healer. That's just not something that exists inside the gnomish canon right now. You could probably approximate some of it with bandages and engineering gadgets, but no gnome is going to raid heal Icecrown Citadel.

By comparison, however, I like the idea of a rogue gnome priest. I can easily see a gnome warlock who had a little too much to drink, tripped down the steps on his way out of Ironforge, and was blessed with a vision of the Light. The next day, he furiously builds gadgets to turn his shadow magic into heal spells.

Lastly, consider a gnome named Misgnomer, Gnomechomsky, or anything similar to that. These gnome puns are valid World of Warcraft canon, given quest names like Show Gnomercy. But, still, these are the "pure fun" kind of names. (Also in this category are Tauren joke names like Allbeef of the guild <Patty Special Sauce>.) Again, nothing wrong with the names, but they're a little closer to the "anything in the name of fun category."

Pop culture references tend to lean to the far side of the "pure fun." But I would actually argue if the rest of WoW is pretty fully immersed in its own canon and genre, then it doesn't really matter. After all, WoW is its own canon, and the designers get to write that canon as they go. If they were to decide that Deathwing is shaped like a My Little Pony, then in canon, he suddenly would be.

The danger roleplayers face is that we're not the designers. We're sharing canon with other players, usually with very little agreement about our genre befor we begin play. So having another player jerk along the spectrum -- racing from "immersive escapism" to "pure fun lolcat jokes" -- can be disorienting and troubling. No one likes to be surprised with altered expectations, and that tends to leave a bad taste in most peoples' mouths.

I think pop culture references are fine, as long as they don't become so common that your roleplay turns into one long string of Serenity quotes. (And trust me, my wife and I spend whole nights quoting Zoe and Wash at each other.) There's a time or place for everything, so just try and choose times and places that aren't disruptive to other places.

And, of course, be context sensitive. If you're roleplaying with a group that's super-high-immersive, then they probably won't appreciate any references at all.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. Let us help you imagine what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying or even RP on a non-RP realm!

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