I try to make it clear that I'm always happy to steal good ideas, and I also try to give credit where it's due. This one is the brainchild of my friend Fuzz who solved a long standing problem in a very elegant way.
One of the classic tropes of literature is "The Best …" - most often it's the best swordsman, but it might just as easily be the strongest guy, the smartest or whatever. We're all familiar with the idea, and when we see it in literature (Benedict of Amber, Richard St. Vier of Swordspoint, and seemingly every third character in the Thieves' World novels) or in films and on TV. This is hellish to model in most games because the spread of dice and the range of potential outcomes of most mechanical systems requires that this paragon be a substantial margin better, mechanically, than everyone else. This tends to be pretty lame for players. It makes such roles virtually unplayable because the cost of creating such a character is prohibitive (and, in fact, usually requires a little bit of cheating), and underscores the 'specialness' of the NPCs.
Now, for more mechanical games (which is to say, virtually any game with hit points or some other way in which combat is composed of many, many elements) this is really not fixable short of just spiking the skill and calling it a day. But for games where outcomes are a little more interpretive then you've actually got some leeway to allow for a player to be a paragon of some sort without breaking the game.
The underlying mechanic is simple enough: it may take a little tweaking to determine how you want to attach it to the chassis, but I leave that up to the individual tinkerer. Anyway, it is as simple of this: add a line to the character sheet somewhere that declares this superiority (Paragon of Willpower, Best Swordsman in the World or the like) but do not otherwise adjust their stats or skills. The only thing that line means is this: if you lose, the loss must respect that fact. Thus, if you're the best swordsman in the world, you can still be beaten, but if you are your opponent must pull a dirty trick, or bring in allies or otherwise describe the victory in such a way as to respect the fact that you're the superior swordsman.
Now, there's obviously a bit of negotiation with this, and the player has some responsibility to build his character to support this idea (in some game, you might have skill requirements for paragon status) but the net result is that the character can still have a skill that is within the normal range for the game while still occupying the narrative role of being the best at something.
At first blush this may seem to distinguish btween players who buy skill high because that's where they want to be challenged and those who buy up because they want to be secure, but it is muddier than that. Being a paragon introduces a new behavior type, best described as "Seeking opportunities to demonstrate that I'm awesome." It also has some potential hooks into other reward systems: consider the possibility that the Paragon's player can throw a fight for currency, but then has to regain his paragon status.
Anyway, it's a small idea, but it's one I'm really chewing on how to apply, and Monday morning suits small ideas. And now: coffee.
1 - AKA Amberyl, and the inspiration for the Evil Hat. As a group, Evil Hat actually began as a 'brand' that she, Fred and I ran games under at Ambercon Northwest.
2 - As with all ideas, it is quite possible someone else had it first. But she's the one I'm stealing it from.
3 -And here's the real dirty trick. If you, as a GM, have gotten you head around this, then consider what you would do if every one of your players had "Paragon of Awesome" on their sheet. Could you manage that? Could you make sure that every time they fail there's a good reason for it and it doesn't make them look like a toolbox? And if you can, will you?
4 - Assuming it's a game of awesome characters. Not every game is, I know. So feel free to replace it with some other term that suits the tone of your game better, and if you can't think of one, try "Not a Freaking Idiot."