Following Footsteps and Casting Shadows
This morning I was reading the article Resurgence of Gonzo by Norman Harman, from the blog Troll and Flame and it got me thinking about how there really isn't much of a chance for any of us to be wholly original.
I should explain myself here.
By that statement I do not mean that you cannot create an experience that is unique to you and your gaming group or that you cannot create a new thing that expresses your own unique view on the world and its influences on you; but, I do mean that there is nothing you can create that is without an outside influence that may be traced back to some earlier idea or thing you encountered previously. In simpler words, if you create a race of hillbilly dwarves it will be easy to demonstrate the influence of the trope and to point to similar works that occurred prior to your own creation as precursors.
This is a fact of life: we are the culmination of our unique experiences and how we view, and interact, with the world at large is a result of those experiences. So being influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien or Jack L. Chalker and having our fantasy games take elements from those precursors is a natural extension of being human. That doesn't mean that it's okay to steal whole cloth from them and claim it as your own original idea, but you can take elements of their work and adjust it to fall in line with your own internal vision and sensibilities.
For example, I love the dwarves found in Terry Brooks' Sword of Shanara book. They're essentially a shorter stock of humanity that broke away from the more dominant branch after the fall of the old world - and naturally they tend to be miners. So for my games I'm going to make the dwarves a separate branch of humanity but rather than having them become shorter due to their time underground and the fall of the old world I'm going to have them being specially bred by a self-important corporation for use as engineers on galactic space freighters.
Even in this idea, that I really enjoy, you can see influences that have shaped my internal vision. Not only can you see elements of Terry Brooks but there are also bits from William King's Gotrik and Felix novels, Jack L. Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls novel, Hewlitt and Martin's Tank Girl comics, and my own deep mistrust of corporations - which has more influences than I care to go into at this point.
Now the dwarves I've created are original to me, but there is a clear line of influences in their creation. Does that mean that I shouldn't bring them into a game of Metamorphosis Alpha because they're the cumulative work of my experiences?
Of course not.
If you were to eliminate all the races, settings, and games that were derivative works based on the efforts of those who came before them then you'd never play anything at all.