Two more words I use a lot are homage and pastiche. Most tabletop roleplaying games are engaged in one or the other. They might not acknowledge it. They may not even know it. It’s still a fundamental cultural cornerstone of the hobby.
An homage is a tribute to something or someone as a show of respect. It comes from the French word hommage, which in Medieval feudalism was the oath of fealty sworn to a lord. In modern usage it’s an allusion to another creator’s word. This can be a dedication to a person whose work inspired you, a sly reference, or the use of specific stylistic references associated with another creative work. It is not, however, trying to directly copy or closely imitate the original work.
Delta Green is an homage. It references and pays tribute to various Cthulhu Mythos authors without trying to imitate their style. Mutants & Masterminds is an homage. The tropes of superhero comics are used on a high level and in a loving fashion, but they’re not trying to directly copy DC or Marvel. Shadowrun is an homage to both the straight-up cyberpunk genre and Tolkienesque fantasy. It’s not trying to be either, but celebrates elements of both.
A pastiche is a deliberate attempt to imitate the tone and style of another work, or even an assortment of works. It’s mean to reflect an appreciation of the earlier work. Another word with French origins, it shares the same root as pâté and essentially means to mix ingredients together. It might be tonque-in-cheek, a winking acknowledgement that the creator is knowingly aping someone else’s style, but it’s always done respectfully.
Call of Cthulhu, at least the original version, is meant to be pastiche. It was a conscious effort, with the sanity system and such, to recreate the mood and outcomes of Lovecraft stories. Traveller is pastiche, because the setting is meant to evoke any number of Golden Age science fiction novels. You can go through an pick out bit of H. Beam Piper, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and others. Early Dungeons & Dragons was pastiche, albeit in distinct chunks. The magic system, commonly referred to as Vancian magic, was a recreation of the way things work in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, and the whole aesthetic of thieves imitates Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar.
Homage and Pastiche
Knowing these terms matters for two reasons. First, we need greater acknowledgement that tabletop roleplaying culture is remix culture. Like a lot of fandom, we are celebrating creative work that we love and keeping it alive. The way we’re doing this is by creating original works of our own.
Second, by being aware that we’re creating an homage or pastiche, we can do it better. We can consciously create tributes that elevate the original works without simply being a copycat. The things that really take off in this hobby are the works that have this level of awareness, and use it effectively. The stuff that feels bland and more-of-same is the stuff that doesn’t seem to know that it’s operating in this creative head space.
About Dancing Lights Press
Dancing Lights Press publishes creative aids and story games that embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation. The spotlight belongs on the creativity of the players as they converse and collaborate on plot, worldbuilding, and character development. Roleplaying is an activity, not a book. Our titles are merely part of the delivery system.