Everybody has their own interests. Sports fans. Motor heads. Geeks. Nerds. Bird watchers. Cinephiles. Gamers. Connoisseurs for every thing that there is to take an interest in. One thing that, in my opinion, separates the 'nerds' from the rest is reference humor. A kind of secret handshake in it's own respects. A few well placed words to let others know that 'Hey, I saw that movie too!' and 'we have a lot in common, you and I'. Of course nerds are not the only ones to do this, but we seem to have a regular habit of it, and have even turned it into an art-form. Show of hands: how many GMs out there have put a reference into a game they ran? Probably most of you. I know my group does. A lot. And I've made some observations I feel I should share. Indulge me if you will. You may find something useful.
As I mentioned, it's a polite nod or well placed wink to let others know we're on the same page. The most common usage is for adding a bit of levity. A well placed one-liner from an action film does wonders, as does an ironic quote from some book or TV show. Sometimes it's a call-back to a previous campaign. These are wonderful as it shows that something stuck with you from previous games. I like to take it a step further sometimes. Probably a tad too far, if you ask my gaming group. I like to play with expectations and meta-knowledge.
Anyone who knows me in person will attest that I am a fan of wordplay. Puns are probably my most egregious abuse of the English language, both the good and the bad. Believe it or not, it does take a modicum of thought to put one together without sounding cheesy. I appreciate the cleverness involved, no matter how many times I palm my face. Usually because I didn't think of it first. Wordplay is also one of many tools we use when inserting a reference joke. An example from a previous campaign: my players were set to embark on a train ride through the mountains. On the side of the passenger car, the name of the train was painted in big letters: Solar Xylem. One player knew where I was going with this. For the currently confused, I had mangled the name of a band from the nineties, Soul Asylum, who had a hit song named Runaway Train. One player in my game knew without a shadow of a doubt that this train wasn't going to stop peacefully.
Obscure of course, and probably groan-worthy, but there's a number of reasons why it works. First off, and most importantly, not getting the joke does not slow the game down. If a gag like this is thrown out and no one gets it, just move on like nothing happened. If you have to explain the joke, there is no joke. Secondly, while not getting it doesn't hamper the game, getting it can actually affect the game on some level. In this case, I had foreshadowed an event too late for anyone to do anything about it. To be fair, the game was meant to be troperiffic. Thirdly, and one that I don't see many people use, it's a decent mnemonic. Yup, that's right. It's a subtle reminder of what I had intended to happen in the scene. A lot of my notes for the game are stapled to the game itself rather than note cards.
This trick can also be used with NPCs as well. It's easy to pull a character from some other media and play their personality and quirks that way. That relentless lawman? Any coincidence he was named Javert? Illinois Smith sounds an awful lot like an adventurer I know. Terrible, terrible abuse I know, but consider how many times you may have re-imagined a movie character as a PC. Or modeled an entire plot after something you read in a book? Some people may call you out on it and claim shenanigans, but still some may give you an 'I see what you did there' and applaud the effort. Heck, I often look at movies and say to myself I want to play that. And sometimes you do. And it can be awesome.
Sometimes, subtlety isn't what you're going for however. Prime example, a friend of mine ran us through a scenario with things showing up from all kinds of movies and games in order to demonstrate the weirdness of what we had walked into. The blatant use of references was meant to add to the experience.
On the down-side of this, too many references can be cheesy, and occasionally you get the one guy who's not getting any of the jokes and really starts to feel left out. Much like ye olde plot railroad, great care needs to be taken to prevent abuse and make it blend in seamlessly with what's actually going on. Like I said, it takes some thought and a clever mind to pull off right. If done poorly, you can easily throw your entire audience out of the experience. If done well, though, it becomes art.
See ya next time! Live long and stay classy!