The Sincerest Form of Thievery

HamBurglarIn 2001, my cousin and I made a lengthy drive from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to see Neil Gaiman read from and sign copies of his new novel American Gods.  Given our immense admiration for Mr. Gaiman’s work on the Sandman comic book series, perhaps “pilgrimage” would be a better word than “drive.”  It was an amazing experience, though to this day I could not tell you what chapter he read from, what I said to him after, or what I was wearing when I met him.   What I do remember vividly is a question, asked during the fan forum.

“How do you feel about Harry Potter being a blatant rip-off of your work, and so many other authors’ as well?”

By this time, most comic fans had already subscribed to the same conspiracy theory.  The popular “Harry Potter” book series, while stealing openly from ancient lore and mythology, was also heavily lifted from Mr. Gaiman’s “The Books of Magic” comic series.  Both feature a gifted, bespectacled young wizard from the UK who may be the most powerful sorcerer ever, and who’s allegiance to “good magic” is paramount to the salvation of his kind.  And Tim Hunter (the protagonist in “The Books of Magic Series”) made his debut by 1991, a full six years before young Mr. Potter.

Likewise indelible in my memory is Mr. Gaiman’s response to this query.  (I only use to quotes to represent his voice, rather than claim the following as a verbatim account of his reply.)

“Well, stories have existed almost as long as the people who tell them haven’t they?  And eventually they’re bound to show some similarities.  I think of literature as a melting pot; authors put some things in, and take some things out.  I think the Harry Potter books definitely add something to the pot.”

While this response didn’t please most of the assembled fans, one could certainly see several motivations for it.  First, Mr. Gaiman is an unfailing gentleman and did not wish to publicly flog a fellow author and country(wo)man.  Second, Mr. Gaiman may have truly believed that his statement was absolutely true.  Finally, and my personal favorite, as a notorious borrower of history’s legends and lore, Mr. Gaiman may be sympathetic to the practice in others.  My all-time favorite issue of the Sandman series is Mr. Gaiman’s abridged retelling of the Shakespeare comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the point of view of the faerie characters.

The major difference between Mr. Gaiman’s approach to these stories that have come before, and other authors who may raise the ire of certain pop culture groups, is two-fold.  First, he is open, direct, and honest about his borrowed inspiration.  At no point in the Sandman series is the reader led to believe that Mr. Gaiman actually scribed A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Second, he adds substance to the tales, and not just his own style.  To use his own analogy, Mr. Gaiman doesn’t just add to the melting pot- he brings a whole new one.  His base ingredient may come out of the collective kettle, but the finished product bears his unmistakable signature.

“Thanks for the links,” you may be saying, “but what in the name of the Dream King does any of this have to do with gaming?”.  (I’m getting there, I promise!)  With the increased popularity and appeal of role-playing games in the last decade or so, there are reams of new games and rules being released every year.  Many of them look similar, and many are clearly inspired (if not outright stolen) from previous rules or concepts.

Recently, I had a fellow gamer rant to me that the Pathfinder game system is a carbon copy of D&D Third Edition (or 3.5, or both- he wasn’t yet sure).  I thought it was meant to be the same game, was my reply.  There was some debate between us (inspired by much of the earlier “Hunter v. Potter” story), and we parted with ways with no real resolution.

And here, Intwsicha readers, comes the point.  This whole conflict between my friend and I took place before either of us had read even one page of the gaming system in question.  I’ll openly admit that my early animosity toward the “Harry Potter” series was born much the same way; it was based on the appearance or opinion of thievery.  I had never (and have never) read any of the “Harry Potter” books.  Nor had I read the Pathfinder core rules, or any supporting materials for that matter, and neither had my nerdy companion.  One of us, however, had already decided that the system was flawed and irrelevant because of it shared inspiration, mechanics, and tone with a previously published system.

As it turns out, I later bought the Pathfinder core rules.  I wanted to see if Paizo Publishing had pulled a ”Harry Potter”, or if there was more to the story.  Truth be told, I think they managed to successfully accomplish that sincerest form of flattery in the same way Mr. Gaiman did.  They are honest and direct about their inspiration for the game system.  More importantly, they have built upon the inspiration- dare I say improved it?- and given it more substance over extra style.  While this is by no means a comprehensive review, I really like it.

Maybe it’s because I so often borrow ideas, names, and plot hooks from the culture around me.  Hell, we have a regular feature called Steal This Idea, which makes our intention pretty obvious.  Even previous posts have encouraged readers to take from history whatever they need to improve their games.  Do so with care, however!  Don’t try to fool anyone into thinking it was your idea, and do strive to make something of it that becomes uniquely your own.

And don’t even get me started on the whole “Transformers vs. GoBots” fiasco.  That’s pretty much been decided already anyway…

Want to tout the merits of the Pathfinder system?  Still clinging to your collection of GoBots?  Planning to choke me with your Gryffindor scarf for calling Harry Potter a rip-off?  Bring it on- in the Comments!

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5 Responses to The Sincerest Form of Thievery

  1. I don’t know. I subscribe to the idea that there really are no original ideas. I haven’t read or seen anything that didn’t borrow ideas or concepts from somewhere else.

  2. Honestly, Pathfinder is a good game (so is 3.5) but I would only start playing it if I picked up a subscription to Paizo’s adventure path. For me it didn’t really fulfill its design goal of being backwards compatible. It’s different enough to make converting 3.5 material annoying – so if I did play it would be with Pathfinder books only. But in the end I don’t think it’s really different enough to warrant another edition. But I understand the impetus to want to leave your mark on the game, plus it makes sense for a company to have their own dedicated system if they continue to make products. That’s just my opinion. I have nothing but respect for Paizo as a company, and I definitely think it falls more into the Gaiman camp than Harry Potter (if only because the former is infinitely cooler than the latter).

    Sort of off topic – I agree Gaiman is an incredible speaker. He’s come to Toronto twice, and each time I left entertained and inspired.

  3. My father has long ago instilled in me the belief that everything is in repeat, and we are merely rehashing and flavoring what we already know. “Original Ideas” are just the same ideas which just went through evolution. No more different than calling the height of cinema in the 1950s as pretty rubbish by today’s standard of “good”.

    Sure, understand history and note the changes and similarities, but don’t spoil something good just because the good thing has been done already. Better to evolve than stagnant.

  4. Pingback: Lessons From A Hogwarts Drop-Out | intwischa.com

  5. I’ve heard authors repeatedly say stuff like: “ideas are cheap, writing is hard.” In other words, it’s the execution that counts. You can start two authors off with the same premise, and come out with two completely different stories, both equally good. Even Shakespeare stole from earlier stories. “Idea reuse” is a long well worn literary tradition.

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