Roleplaying Game Author’s Style Guide V: Plagiarism

This one deserves its own section. Plagiarism is defined here as submitting other people’s work as your own, or otherwise submitting material to which you do not hold the legal copyright. This includes both copying things word-for-word and loosely rewording other people’s work.

Plagiarism is bad. Don’t plagiarize.

Okay, that’s probably totally obvious to 99.5% of the people reading this. You all can move on to the rest of this web site. But every now and then I’m amazed to hear of an author who just didn’t realize that it was bad to change a few words around and otherwise submit someone else’s writing as his own. Since not all of these cases are deliberate attempts to “cheat,” here are a few hints to help you make sure your writing is your own.

Label Your Notes Carefully

When you take notes from research material, carefully keep track of which things are in the author’s own words (or close to it). If you’re writing major points down in the same order that the author did, then note that. When you get to the point where you’re doing your writing, pay careful attention to which notes you shouldn’t crib from too directly. I’ve heard of cases where an author “accidentally” plagiarized because he took notes that were too similar to the research book, then worked from those notes, not realizing he was essentially copying things (with a few wording changes). Don’t get caught by this! Not every company will be understanding and give you the chance to change things.

Adapt Research to Your Game World

If you’re producing interesting game-world information that’s colored by real-world research, as opposed to real-world information with tidbits of game world information thrown in, then it’s much more difficult for you to end up plagiarizing.

Use Multiple Research Sources

If you take notes from five different books on one subject, you’re much less likely to end up copying from one or the other. This takes longer, but it might well be worth it if you have problems in this area.

Put Spin on Things

If the company allows you to write background material in “voice,” then you can give personality and bias to the events you write about. As long as you’re using a different personality or bias than any research resources you used, you’re almost guaranteed to write about things in your own way. (Just try not to get too biased, or your material might not be so useful to GMs.)

Consequences

All of these suggestions apply to people who plagiarize unintentionally. To a certain extent there isn’t a whole lot I can say to people who do it deliberately. You know it’s wrong (not to mention illegal), and it isn’t going to change your mind if I wag my finger at you. On the other hand, I can tell you this:

Companies have become much more aware of plagiarism lately. Many will search the web for some of your phrases if they have any reason to think that something fishy is going on (or even just as a standard precaution). If they’re familiar with any of the major research books they might just go take a look. (I’ve even heard of people checking out major sources of artwork when they think their artists’ sketches look familiar.)

If they find out that you’ve plagiarized, they will not hire you again. Most of them will kill-fee your project (at best) and not publish your work. Some of them will go ahead and tell their industry colleagues about you, and then you won’t be able to get work with other companies either. If you’re truly slick and the project gets published without the company noticing, it could be even worse for you — if the copyright-holder of the original work finds out, then he can sue the company, and most contracts are worded such that the company can recoup any losses from you.

In short, it just isn’t worth it.

Definitions

I’ve watched industry people argue about plagiarism, and in truth, the exact definition of what constitutes plagiarism varies from company to company. You can be pretty sure that any attempt to copy something word-for-word or loosely reword it will be considered plagiarism by any company.

I’ve heard some people argue that any time you take an idea from another work, it’s plagiarism. I don’t entirely agree with this–this means that some of the wonderful updates we’ve seen of very old works would be considered plagiarism. In addition, it has been said that all of the plots in the world boil down to 6 or 7 basic plots — which would mean you could make an argument that pretty much everything at this point is plagiarism of something or another, if you take things too far.

However, I do agree that the line between “homage” and “rip-off” can very much be in the eye of the beholder. So whatever you do, wherever you get your inspiration from, be sure to give your material your own spin. Bring your own personality to it. Give it your own, original trappings. Then you’ll never have to worry about where that line lies.

Posted in Gaming, Writing

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