Citing Sources for World-Builders

Hopefully, most of you have gotten The Talk About Plagiarism, and know that thou shalt not pass another’s words off as your own. It’s not so easy to be clear on how it works when what you’re borrowing is ideas, though, and it’s easy to think that fiction, and moreso roleplaying, gives you a pass—but it doesn’t. (Okay, fiction doesn’t. RP…depends.) More importantly, there are benefits to being willing to relay or at least hint at where you got an idea, particularly if it came from the real world.

What it mostly boils down to is the appearance of knowledge. After all, people responsible for the creation and maintenance of fantasy worlds are expected to make up bizarre world-facts with varying degrees of plausibility. It’s what they pay us the big bucks for, right? So if something’s just slipped in, okay, cool, the writer is at it again, and we move on. Cool, right?

But there’s something downright appealing about a writer—or a GM, or what have you—who does her homework. How many of you remember Watership Down? I think one of the biggest selling points—certainly, the biggest for me—was that for all that the rabbits had language and a culture, in the end they were rabbits. They thought and reacted like prey, things that come naturally to us didn’t occur to them, and often they engaged in behaviors that would make no sense to us until we remembered that, well, rabbits (or in some cases, that were footnoted as rabbit facts, like the tendency of does in an overcrowded litter to reabsorb their offspring).

Granted, some of these might serve as Easter eggs rather than explicit references. For instance, I once designed a character who was deliberately named after, and whose modus operandi was similar to, a real historical figure I’d tripped over in a history sampler a while back. The name is at the very best obscure, but is likely to be a “Was this on purpose?” sort of treat for someone looking through the materials. (And no, I’m not going to explain who; there are reasons.) And in other cases, something is obvious enough that you’re less likely to need to explain where it came from—or you managed to pull a complex and blatant reference to something with which you were completely unfamiliar, but that’s only a problem if it’s a bad reference or if they catch you.

Others, though, benefit by explaining that yes, this is a real world fact; sometimes, it’s just more memorable if it’s one of those things that isn’t just strange fiction but stranger than fiction. For instance, I’ve twice run into people who referenced the Balkan legends about vampire squash. The first time, it was an aside in Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum, and to be perfectly honest I forgot about it completely; I don’t remember if it was cited or not, but I don’t think it was, or at least not in such a way that I’d realize this was an Earth-thing. The second, though, was in the webcomic Digger by Ursula Vernon, and she actually does leave a note at the bottom of the panel in which the squash appear explaining that yes, this is a real legend. That time, I remembered. (Then there are the other real-world things; she did that a lot.)

If you borrow liberally from the real world, do you cite your sources?


  1. Shinali says:

    I shouldn’t have to get out my anthropology notes for a blog comment! *shakes fist at you*
    When I borrow I usually borrow piecemeal.
    Recently I did up a whole thing on marriage in my character’s village which began because I wanted her parents to be married, but canon said that many cultures in the area have no marriage [clearly cribbed from the Na in China] and the easiest solution was their marriage customs don’t look like marriage. I cribbed natolocality (from the Nayar), polygamy (from a lot of cultures, I don’t know of any real world culture with this particular iteration, but if you are curious about polyandry, look in Nepal and southern India), ritual tattoos (from a rant of mine, if I were to send you for real world stuff I’d suggest the Maori), clans (we probably talked most about the Navajo in class), lineages (importance is from a canon conculture, but RW I’d have you track your own lineage, using LDS resources), bilineality (from… the USA!)…. The rest of things are either practical (marriage ages) or widespread (rites of passage). But honestly, if say you had a culturally mixed family with all the cultures I referenced, you’d get nothing like Samar’s customs. Why? Because one or two elements does not a culture make.

    I know, you’re thinking, “she makes cultures all the time, some things must be taken wholesale from somewhere!” Not really. I’m more likely to make it out of whole cloth and have accidental similarities than go “they live on an island, they must live exactly as this or that island culture!’ I will admit that my understanding of surviving alpine environments is limited and I stole a lot of clothing and such from a handful of cultures in artic and alpine environments, but that doesn’t mean I cribbed legends or culture. I did crib the chanting for a ritual for a game almost completely from a book on shamanism, but I had the full source at the ready if asked.
    My question is, where is the line between, “I cribbed vampiric squash from the Balkans” and “I cribbed the notion of not moving in together at all from the Nayar, but really their cultures are nothing alike otherwise” and “Well, Samar has ritual tattoos, and while I never looked at Maori tattoos, I know they have them too, so I must cite them.” Seriously, if I footnoted my marriage thing, it would have more footnotes than text!
    Can something like kayaks or practical clothing really be cribbed? If I had used patrilocality (which is ridiculously common) would it be even worth it to reference any culture? How about neolocality which while uncommon, is very American? And what’s more, what happens when a culture no longer even practices something (the Nayar marriage customs we learned about are pretty much nonexistent now)? What about when it’s from a culture that took it from another culture that took it from another, etc.?

  2. Ravyn says:

    I see it as mainly being “If you’ve got an interesting or obscure feature, and you actually did crib it on purpose, say so because that’ll impress people who like a little Believe It Or Not with their worldbuilding.” Particularly if, as in the case of the vegetables, it doubles as a stranger than fiction fact. If you happen to coincide with something that you hadn’t intended at all, I’d say leave it for people to find on their own; most of the time, it’s possible to tell a loving reference from a coincidence.

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