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GM: Come on guys, try and get back into character. This is supposed to be the creepy, angsty climax to the campaign. It's what we've been building to for the past 8 months. If you keep lipping off to this NPC, I'm gonna have to start killing characters. The modern slang's gotta go, too - you were all pretty good about talking in character until about 20 minutes ago, and it's driving me up the wall. Knights do not call people "dude" in the 14th Century.
Players: I don't see what you're complaining about. We wouldn't be "lipping off" if you didn't run us into ol' death dude. That's what's keeping us from taking this seriously anymore. We get the reference, and it's bogus. Is that really how you wanted to wrap up the campaign? If so, we can just summarize things like in the movie, and skip to the end.
GM: Okay, he kills you, but not some random family I haven't even introduced yet. That's what you want?
Players: What? That's not how it happens. We beat him at battleship, then he takes us out of hell and joins our band, and God gives rock and roll to us.
GM: You're not in hell! There's no "battleship" in the middle ages! And if you'd quit insulting death, he'd have already told you there is no God.
Players: What kind of screwed up director's cut of Bill and Ted have you been watching?
GM: Bergman's version! It's called the Seventh Seal. Who are… Bill and Ted? Isn't that that crappy Dr Who parody with Keanu? I saw like half of it once. What does that even have to do with Death?

Basic Information

Popfinition is a neologism created by Brendan Riley, a Professor at Columbia College in Chicago:

popfinition - noun

1. The process by which a bit of popular culture becomes familiar to people unfamiliar with the source for that object.
2. The meaning or significance of a concept defined as above.

Even if you've never seen a production of Hamlet, you still recognize "To Be Or Not To Be", and probably know it involves a depressed prince, the usurpation of a throne, flowery language and a lot of death. Similar things can be said about "Out, out damn spot" (MacBeth) and "Friends, romans, countrymen" (Julius Caesar).

Likewise, without seeing all six nine twelve million Star Wars films, you know it involves space ships, glowing swords, aliens, and silly hairdos. You might even recognize the word Jedi, be familiar with the Vader's costume, or hate Jar Jar, even if you're the type who gets the rest of it confused with Star Trek.

It's very hard to grow up in modern western society without having at least a passing familiarity with the works of Shakespeare, Rodenberry, and Lucas, (and dozens of others) due to all the references in media and culture. Even if you've never seen the originals, you almost certainly have a functional popfinition of them, which you learned via the popfinition process of osmosis from other sources.

Unfortunately - as suggested in the flavour text - many original sources have been violently raped by later 'adaptions' or parody and there is a very real risk that more ignorant players/audiences may only know the modern, mutilated, version. Crimes like this can be visited on history as well as culture - with the wrong set of players you may end up faced with people completely unfamiliar with their own roots who, for example, expect a medieval Benedictine monk to know kung-fu because the sum total of their knowledge of monasticism comes from Wuxia movies.

See Also


1. Digital Sextant - Professor Riley's blog.

In the interests of full disclosure, Brendan Riley is an old friend of the Arcana Wiki contributor who put this page up. See also: Shill. :)

Game and Story Use

  • As a GM, you can't always be certain what references your players will get, especially if playing in public games or one-shots.
    • If you and your players have very different tastes, you'll might end up like the GM in the vignette, above.
      • Unless a source is vital to the setting (such as A New Hope to the Star Wars RPG), don't be surprised if the players don't know it very deeply.
    • Finding the right balance can be tricky, but you can use peoples popfinitions to good effect.
      • Most Tropes will be at least subconsciously familiar to most players. They may intuitively grok trope-respecting characterizations of NPCs (Mad Scientist, anyone?) without ever having used the term trope before.
      • Little details can help establish verisimilitude, but if you go over board to the extent of going right over the players heads, it will only convince them of your geekiness. Test the waters, and fine tune as you figure out how well your players know the subject matter.
  • Historical games, Time Travel scenarios, and World Hopping games can sometimes get away with using popfinitions instead of research, especially when improvising. If the players throw you a curveball and dive off into an area you don't know well, just milk the elements you do know.
    • If I were running a Lord of the Rings game next month, I'd start reading the books again and do some proper research. But if the players in my Amber DRPG campaign surprised me by seeking out Galadriel tonight, she'd be just like the version of her in the movie, and everyone would be fine with that.
  • Possibly useful for characterization. You could have an NPC who makes constant cultural and media references, but actually understands very few of them. Definitely the sort who doesn't know his Wars from his Trek. He'd bumble and mix metaphors. See Loser Archetype.
  • Could happen in-universe. The old artifact has legends about it that are actually centuries of built-up popfinition. Meanwhile, its actual powers are something very different…
    • Tad Williams dropped this one hard at the end of the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn arc.
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