1879: Real World References

Everyone in the gaming industry makes cultural references in their games. Some are subtle, some very much not. The right reference at the right point can make or break the game, can pull the players into the mood and atmosphere the GM wants or throw them out from a failure of suspension of disbelief. In sword and sorcery games, this can be tricky, as the cultural references of our world do not fit comfortably in the culture of the game world. For steampunk games, it’s all a matter of historical appropriateness. We steampunk developers have the advantage of working in a world that is similar to but not quite our own. Let me throw out an example.

We make a series of references to Lewis Carroll’s writings in 1879. These are in-period references, as Rev. Charles Dodgson wrote under the pen name of Carroll with his first publication (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) in 1865. The portal is called the Rabbit Hole. The British military establishment on the far side was given the name Fort Alice, although some insist that it was named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s third child. (Nobody really believes this.) The name conveys to the town surrounding the fort, known simply as Alice. Where Earthdawn refers to one of the metahuman races as orks, we use the term snark, as an in-period reference, and refer to the metahuman races collectively as Boojums, thus making every Snark a Boojum, a joke that not many get. (We operate on the Hodgson Rule: We do not ask, will anybody get the joke. We say, the right people will get the joke.) Each of these cultural references serves as a touchstone into the Victorian era, pulling the players into the milieu through connection with familiar (and not so familiar) literature. There’s references to Ivanhoe, an early 1800s classic penned by Sir Walter Scott and made popular again in the latter part of the century through cheap editions published by W.H. Smith’s and sold at their railway kiosks. We make snide comments about politicians of the era, refer to the gin palaces and the social theories (most of them absolute rubbish) that swirled about them, and generally do our best to immerse the players in the culture of the game world.

Then you have the modern era reference, which must be handled with some care. The right joke at the right point will give the players, or the ones that get the joke, some possibly much-needed humorous relief from the often depressing world of the Gilded Age. A clumsily inserted reference, one that’s dropped in to say, look how clever we are, distracts the players and breaks the mood. Oftimes it’s better to disguise the reference rather than make it directly. Another example, this one from the forthcoming Fort Alice sourcebook, currently in draft:

Geisel’s Frontier Biscuits

Run by an enterprising Canadian fellow, Geisel’s puts on a bit of a rustic air, operating out of a log cabin-style building with rough hewn furniture, decorated heavily with moose antlers and plaid wool. They serve hearty hand-held meals based around the Canadian baking-soda biscuit, a soft, fluffy bread made with a light touch, and a far cry from the crispy, faintly sweet biscuits the British serve with tea and that the Americans insist on calling cookies. Their coffee, made fresh all day instead of sitting in a samovar boiling down to mud like London coffeehouse brews, starts with a dark roasted bean and is only boiled once in a tall teakettle-like pot. It’s strong enough to nearly take the enamel off your teeth. Two cups will set a troll to vibrating like a tuning fork. Ed Geisel, the proprietor, far from being a hulking lumberjack with a bushy beard and an axe tucked in his belt, turns out to be a weedy fellow, fond of cable-knit sweaters, who wears steel-rimmed spectacles and spends his spare time drawing cartoons of elephants. A few of his works are on display in the back, near the kitchen, where they won’t clash with the Canadian frontier décor of the main hall.

Now, what is this a reference to? I’ll give you a hint: I’m sitting at a table in one now, enjoying a cup of coffee and a blueberry sour cream donut while taking advantage of their free WiFi to write and schedule this blog entry. There’s a double reference in that example, one to a writer to establish the name necessary, and one to the establishment itself. Those who figure their way through these references and understand what’s being described here will feel themselves fairly clever. Those who don’t, and may not even want to, can accept the place at face value, start their character’s day with a biscuit and coffee, and move on to greater things.

If you catch us out showing off and being clever, do let us know, as that’s not our goal, but we’re human like everyone else and occasionally our egos slip their leashes and go gallivanting off across the page. The idea is to produce a well built game world with in-jokes that the history and culture nerds (and we count ourselves among that number, proud to be nerds) will get and feel themselves clever for understanding. In the end, the goal is to enable each and every player group to tell a good story.

Tally Ho!