By Kurt Wilcken
Let no one else's work Evade your eyes!
Remember why the Good Lord Made your eyes!
So don't shade your eyes,
But Plagiarize! Plagiarize!
--But always remember to be calling it RESEARCH!
Tom Lerher, Lobachevsky
True, there are some instances where you do not want to commit plagarism. If you are a journalist or a respected historian, people tend to look at you askance when you forget to credit your sources; and if you want to sell your first novel, it would be best not to name your boy magician hero "Larry Potter." And don't even get me started on Russian mathematicians.
But to role-playing gamers, imitation is more than the sincerest form of flattery; it's our very life blood. Long before E. Gary Gygax put J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard and Fritz Lieber into a blender and poured out Dungeons & Dragons, or the first kid uttered the words "How come I always have to be Tonto?" kids have been stip mining popular culture to use in their games. It's as American as Tom Sawyer and his friends into playing Robin Hood and King Arthur.
This is not always acceptable, as Gygax found out when the Tolkien estate objected to some of his borrowings. That's why D&D has orcs and halflings, words found in old english literature, but not hobbits, a name invented by Tolkien. For that matter, references to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos and Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar stories that were in the original Dungeons & Dragons were also cut out or modified so that the serial numbers no longer showed.
(Phil Foglio did a funny comment on this in one of his old "What's New" cartoons in Dragon Magazine. He visits TSR's Legal Department and overhears one person say "My boyfriend gave me a engagement circular-metal-band!" Another person says, "Look at the children outside playing Circular-metal-band-Around-the-Rosie". Yet another guy yells, "Someone answer the phone! It's circular-metal-banding!" Phil comments: "Still having trouble with the Tolkien estate, I see.")
Although copying will get you a frenzy of salivating lawyers snarling "trademark infringement" if you publish, it can be safely done in the privacy of your home. With a little imagination, it can even be done creatively.
RPG Plagarism (or homage, to use the Politically Correct term) can be divided into two categories: generally speaking, players do it for their characters and GM's do it for their plots
A lot of gamers base their characters off existing ones. If you're going to make your character a feral berserker with rapid healing powers, keen senses and unbreakable metal claws, you might as well just call him "Wolverine" and be done with it. My friend Bryon, who with his wife has run several comic book-based Champions games, likes to say that some actors have an ambition to play Hamlet and that RPG's give him the opportunity to play Captain America.
Apart from the fun of playing your favorite hero, pre-existing characters also have another advantage: they have a ready-made backstory. Not all players care for this. Many prefer to create an original character. Most of the time I do too, but having the character's history and personality already established saves a lot of effort. It gives both the player and the Game Master a feeling for the character from the very beginning and presents the GM with ready-made NPC's and plot possibilities.
Granted, this works better in some games that in others. Game systems designed around choosing abilities and attributes, such as GURPS or HERO, lend themselves well to building characters to match an existing one; games based on archetypes or character classes, such as Dungeons & Dragons don't. The Third Edition D&D rules have a greater emphasis on skills, which gives it a little more flexibility than the classic AD&D, but the system is still designed around character classes. This isn't to say that character borrowing in D&D is impossible, just somewhat limited compared to more flexible systems and gameworlds.
Game Masters can also swipe characters. This is obvious; if a GM is running a game based on X-MEN, his players shouldn't be surprised to encounter Magneto; in fact, they should demand it. But the GM doesn't have to limit himself to opponents. If a player is running Batman, then Alfred is probably lurking nearby as a Non-Player Character; likewise, Spider-Man has Aunt May and Ranma Saotome has his father Genma. (Yes, I once had a player actually volunteer to play Ranma in a Teenagers From Outer Space campaign! You have to admire a guy who's willing to take a bucket of water in the face for the plot).
The GM can also build plots and sub-plots off elements in the character's background. In a WWII-era game I ran once, my brother Steeve was playing Doc Savage. I built a nice wicked plot around his "Crime College" where he rehabilitated criminals by surgically removing their criminal tendencies. (Some of my players were rather startled by Doc's rehabilitation techniques: "You do what???" "I remove their Crime Gland," Steeve replied with a perfectly straight face.)
One of my role models in the practice of Creative Plagarism is comics writer Roy Thomas, who for decades has fought the good fight keeping Golden Age comics alive in the present day. Roy was one of the first wave of comic book creators who had been a comics fan himself and he made a career out of taking characters and plots from the books he loved as a kid and incorporating them in to current stories. He didn't just limit himself to old comic book characters either. He once wrote a storyline in THOR based of Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung and in YOUNG ALL-STARS paid homage to material as disparate as Philip Wylie's Gladiator, (the pulp novel which inspired Superman), and H.P. Blavatsky's The Book of Dyzan with a cameo by Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.
A good example of Roy's technique can be found in an issue of YOUNG ALL-STARS where the heroes visit a secret government laboratory hidden beneath the Statue of Liberty. Apart from the main plot, (which involved the Ultra-Humanite trying to steal a new terrifying body), the story gave us connections to other bits and pieces of the DC Universe circa WWII. We learn that a scientist at this lab built Robotman, a member of the All-Star Squadron; this lab also created the "Creature Commandos", a group of DC's weird war heroes based on classic monsters. Over there sleeping in a coma is an obscure hero named Miss America, and in the big hanger we have a live T-rex captured by American troops on a strange Pacific island that was the setting for the "War That Time Forgot" tales; and next to that, an unnamed gigantic ape who fell off the Empire State Building back in the '30s.
Now of those elements, only the dinosaur and Miss America became relevant to the plot, but the other references gave the lab more believability (well, as believable as a secret government laboratory under the Statue of Liberty can be) by adding what Pooh-Bah called Corroborative Detail. (And yes, I swiped that secret lab for the first Justice League International game I ran. King Kong came back to life and battled the JLI!)
I developed a reputation for strange crossovers in our group. I had the JLI fight everybody from Dr. Loveless from The Wild Wild West to the Misfits of Science. (Hey, I liked Misfits of Science!).
The downside of character lifting is that you have to know when to stop. If every PC in your game is an existing character with his own supporting cast, you'll find yourself up to your eyebrows in NPC buddies. When my brother played Doc Savage in my WWII game, I left his five assistants out of the game except for occasional cameos. (If I'm running too many NPC's, I start arguing with myself. My wife finds this amusing, but I try to avoid it because I never know how to stop).
Sometimes, the crossover characters just don't work. In one of Bryon's super hero games I thought it would be fun to play Jonny Quest as an adult. I drew him with a dapper mustache like his dad's and gave him a robotic version of Bandit. For laughs, I wrote down that he was dating Penny, the niece from Inspector Gadget. So Bryon introduced her into one game along with her bumbling uncle. That was the dreaded Dr. Zin / Dr. Claw Team-up, which provoked another friend of mine to say "If Popeye the Sailor shows up, I'm walking!"
A less obvious practice than lifting characters from other sources is borrowing plots. On a few occasions I've taken favorite mystery stories and altered them to fit my campaign. The only problem is that you have to choose a plot your players are unfamiliar with, but even then you can still get away with it if you modify the plot enough to confound their expectations.
That is where we get to the Creative part of Creative Plagiarism. I once worked as an artguy for a small weekly newspaper. We used a lot of clip art for advertisements and spot illustrations there and our art director gave me a useful piece of advice: Never use clip art straight; always modify it in some way to make it different, to make it your own. I use the same philosophy when I'm stealing... that is, when I'm borrowing material in my games. I always try to tweak, warp or otherwise mutate the source material to make special. I figure if Hollywood can give Spider-Man organic web-shooters, then I can give replace Bucky with Rex the Wonder Dog as Captain America's sidekick.
The most satisfying use of stealing plots is fixing them. I think everybody has read a story that bugged them. Bryon's wife Cath really hated the X-Men storyline from the late '80s where the team faked their own death and went into hiding; so she ran a game which explored what the ramifications of that would be. Likewise, I once ran a JLI game that attempted to explain the mess with Monarch from the DC's ARMAGEDDON 2001 crossover. Swiping a plot and reworking it to your liking is the best revenge against a bad story.
Properly used, plagiarism can be the Game Master's best friend; as long as he remembers to use it creatively.