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MoonHunter Sayeth 20171023


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
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Copy, Imitate, Steal

We have all heard it before. "Bad GM's Copy. Good GM's imitate. Great GM's steal outright."

We are not the only ones that say something like this. It comes from a variety of creative fields.

“A good composer does not imitate; he steals,” Igor Stravinsky supposedly said. Faulkner allegedly phrased it as “Immature artists copy, great artists steal.” Steve Jobs put it most simply: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” The saying regularly inspires artists, thinkers, and dorm-room poster designers. But in practical terms, what does it mean?

There are some definitely wrong interpretations. “Steal” here doesn’t mean “plagiarize;” that doesn’t turn anyone into a great artist. It explicitly doesn’t mean “copy.”

Steal only what is important

Adam J. Kurtz, author of creative inspiration books like 1 Page at a Time (good read by the way), explained the difference between copying and stealing is this: One is imitation, the other is inspiration. “The difference,” Kurtz says, “is intent.” Imitation is laziness or refusal to accept your influences. Inspiration is recognizing that influence and turning it into something new. “Great artists steal” is at its root about finding inspiration in the work of others, then using it as a starting point for original creative output. Artists may recontextualize, remix, substitute, or otherwise mashup existing work to create something new. Sometimes it’s as simple as calling something art (Duchamp’s “Fountain” being the sort of ultimate example).

So what makes this “stealing”? It’s that instead of just borrowing something for a weak imitation—which just reminds people of the superior original—you change it with your own compelling ideas. When you’ve truly transformed and elevated someone’s idea, an informed audience could look at both works and say yours explores a certain idea better. You “own” that idea now. So you’ve stolen it!

Let use an example that Gamers might know well.

In Macbeth, a ghost prophecies that “Macbeth shall never vanquished be” until the very forest marches on his castle. But then the English army marches on the castle holding branches from the forest, and Macbeth is vanquished. Very old school

J.R.R. Tolkien had such “bitter disappointment and disgust” at this “shabby use” that, as he told the poet W.H. Auden, he invented a moving, talking forest, which actually uproots and goes to war in The Lord of the Rings. And for now, the public knows Tolkien’s trees better than Shakespeare’s. He stole like an artist.

Modern writers also steal Shakespeare’s entire plots; The Lion King is a kid-friendly Hamlet and West Side Story is Romeo & Juliet with a slightly less tragic ending. But note that these adaptations transformed the idea enough to become iconic.

So choose the grandest or most compelling source you can. You want to commit a grand heist, not a mugging.

To sum up
Copy is taking it directly without making it your own.
Imitate is taking something and making something like it, but often missing points that made the original so compelling.
Steal is taking the best parts of someting, and using it as the foundation for your own material.

Here is the test. In a super hero game, I could make Jonny Quest show up. I could make a character like Jonny Quest.. a child adventurer who isn't the DNPC. I could use Jonny as a basis, and have his son be the child adventurer and him be the grown up paranormologist. Which one is the ideal?

Following up with two last points * *

Now that we have made "stealing" good. We have to stay "good". Now we are not just greedy thieves, we are elite artists. (Ever watch Leverage? You should.) Even though we are stealing and transforming the idea...The golden rule applies: Steal in the way you’d want to be stolen from, with credit, respect, and transformative new ideas. Artists, and GM's are artists, all understand the challenges that other creatives face. Nobody should want to deliberately hurt another creative. So buy from your inspiration... it supports them.

So always remember: Great artists steal and transform, but bad artists copy and rip off.

Okay, last point

There’s a difference between inspiration and imitation, but also between inspiration and best practices. It’s not copying to follow the “hero’s journey” plot for your book or chronicle. That’s just what art is.

New creatives (young or old) often feel pressured to invent something entirely new. I don't know who tells them this? I think they don't understand the creative production process. While I could throw out the old chestnut, "that there is nothing new under the sun", there are still new ways and new twists to express those same old ideas. Experimentation is essential! But there’s a reason most people don’t want to watch a student’s “experimental film.” Experiments are for learning why artists all tend to follow similar principles, and to learn which of those principles you want to break. There is a reason why the traditional "quest (retrieve the mcguffin and stop the bad guy) adventure is so often used. It works. If done badly, it is boring as watching an I Love Lucy Marathon for the third time. If done well, everyone loves it.

But to effectively break the rules, you need to understand and appreciate them, and why you’re breaking them. Learning and using traditional methods isn’t lazy, it’s necessary if you want to express your own ideas in the best way.

Take your ideas... no matter the inspiration... and follow the paths that best express it.

This article was inspired by a work of Nick Douglas


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
RPGnet Member
Validated User
It's not where you take things from
-it's where you take them to

Jean-Luc Godard

Steal. From anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.

Devour films, music, books, paintings, poems, photographs, conversations, dreams, trees, architecture, street signs, clouds, light and shadows.

Select only the things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.

Authenticity is invaluable. Originality is non-existent. Don't bother concealing your theivery - celebrate it.

Stolen from Paul Arden who stole it from Jim Jarmusch
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