WISH 7: Maxims

List three or more maxims/proverbs/bits of conventional wisdom/etc. that you’ve learned in your gaming career, and explain what they mean and how you’ve seen them apply in your gaming experience.

I’m going to list the maxims first, then edit the post in a few minutes and add the details, because this will take time, I have to run errands, but I wanted to get my first thoughts down.
Everything is window-dressing.
Probably one the single most important GMing rules I ever encountered, which is funny since it wasn?t presented as a GMing but a Design rule for Champions. I designed a lot of stuff using that game system when I was in college and the rule stuck in my head.
This is what it boils down to: fireballs or grenades, lightning bolts or blaster rifles, FTL engines or Flying carpets — the effect and purpose of a thing is nine-tenths what it does and one-tenth what it looks like, but everyone focuses on what it looks like. This truism has become more and more important to me as I design settings, stories, and games — do what you like, but when it all comes down to it the backbone of it a game should allow you to compare a witch’s firebolt to a cyborg mercenary?s flamethrower on the same scale… aside from window dressing, they might be the exact same thing.
Hot rods or tamed dinosaurs = cool way to travel.
Old star ships or ancient magical artifacts = glitchy way to travel quickly.
Nuclear bombs or primal chaos = ridiculous levels of destruction.
Trumps or cell phones = instant communication and quirky functionality.
Window dressing. Don?t be distracted by the window-dressing.
Don?t be afraid of getting big.
This one comes from the Amber DRPG and is probably the most useful bit of advice in that gamebook: don?t try to force you player?s character into a box of your design if they?re gotten to big for the box… just make the box bigger. RPG?s have been around for close to thirty years now, the good ones have stayed around, and if they are well designed (which they probably are if they survived that long), then this is true: they can handle it if the world gets bigger.
Partly, this ties into the window dressing maxim. Here?s an example: a month or so ago, I kicked the ever-lovin? crap out of my DnD group. This was understandable as they were fighting a dark god?s avatar. I won?t get into numbers, but the best fighter had only about a 25% chance to hit with each swing, the spell casters were wrestling with the thing?s natural resistances, and everyone else was using their best tricks just to help the most effective people out. Afterwards, one mentioned how much tougher the fights were now that they were higher level.
To which I said bullshit. When they were at fourth level, I used two ogres and six orcs, but the results were the same: 25% chance to hit the main target, mages (using web and sleep) unable to solidly smite the main guys, and everyone else working like hell to keep everyone fighting and breathing. Both fights took almost exactly the same toll on the part, relative to their strength at the time.
So they become minor diefied heroes and want to keep playing? No problem: if you were ever able to handle them, I guarantee you still can.
Everyone needs a niche. (Everyone?s a star)
This is just one of those things you realize after awhile — a trick for making everyone in the group happy.
Here?s the thing: no one really wants to be the sidekick. They might play Robin, but in their mind, this Batman story is actually being told from Robin’s point of view.
That’s impossible to do in a multiplayer game, at least 100 percent of the time — if it is true, then everyone else but the ?star? is unhappy. Everyone has to be a star sometimes. It?s fine to watch Buffy or Angel and say ?that?s a damn good show?, but if that were a group of players, everyone would start hating the person playing the title characters and resenting the GM?s fixation (especially in the first two seasons of either show).
Contrast this to Farscape. Hell of a lot more like a group of PC?s there.
Everyone wants to shine… everyone wants their moments. For that, everyone needs a niche — something only they can do or which they can clearly do better than everyone else. In my experience, this can be Amber DRPG?s strength and weakness: with ranking, you might clearly be the best at Attribute X, but there are only Four attributes, so what do you do when there are five, six, seven or more players? Power niches? They still need you to be good at an attribute, and if owner of that Attribute also has ?your power?…
It?s tough, and it lies with the GM to say ?that?s a really neat character concept, but we really already have a computer whiz… how about focusing more on Repair and Craft skills… it works with the history and you would be the tech/mechanic.
Before the game starts, it helps if you know what all the character?s niches are. Depending on the game, it may fall to you or the player to highlight that niche, but either way you need to be aware of it. I guarantee the player is.


  1. I dunno ’bout that last one. I actually enjoy playing sidekicks. Less stress, less Sturm und Drang und Angst, more subversive humor, more fun.
    But that’s me.

  2. Oh, I agree that people will play sidekicks, but no one wants to be nothing more than Socrates’ chorus of “but why is that, sir?”
    The sidekick characters (or at least their players) still want those moments when they say “well, my guy’s the only one qualified to remote pilot the ship anyway…”

  3. Sidekicks are an Art all their own, or a power niche, if you do it right.
    I’m glad you took time to fully flesh these out. Excellent additions to the bunch. I, too, had my eyes first opened by ‘Champions’ about window-dressing . . . and it helps with many aspects of scenarios and game-logic, too.

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