At the beginning of my last game session I asked my players if any of them spent their experience points (this for WitchCraft, if it matters). Only one of them did, and he announced that he’d spent some points on improving his Martial Arts. That’s when I threw him a curve ball.
I asked him to justify it.
He looked stunned, primarily because it’s not something I normally ask. I did it on a lark, just to get the creative juices flowing (I didn’t intend to ban him from taking it, no matter what the outcome). He panicked, so I walked him through it. Within a few minutes I, with the help of the other players, worked out that he’d been spending time in a neighborhood dojo that the PCs had visited in a previous adventure. Someone remembered that the dojo was in same the neighborhood that the PC lived in, so it was a natural fit. We all smiled and I put on the theme music to start our game.
I realized in that moment that I’ve been missing out on a great source of plot threads and game color. So often in my games and those I’ve played in no one pays much attention to how new abilities are gained. I’ve been involved in D&D dungeon crawls where, upon destroying the creature in the fourth room, a couple of PCs were suddenly more awesome and could do things they couldn’t moments before. In other games, a Telepath suddenly learns a new power, a swordsman learns a new technique, and a lecherous PC suddenly has no issues around people of her favorite gender. Most of the time we just hand-wave things like training.
I understand hand-waving. There’s only so much time in a session and, if discussing training eats up too much time, especially in cases where the answer is obvious (I just helped solve four major crimes! Of course my Investigation skill is going to get better!). Still, there’s a lot of plot meat to be had when you ask players to justify their XP spends. You can put a face on the trainer as well as other NPCs.
In my martial arts example, the sensai knows that the PC is a cop. Maybe he’ll ask the PC to look into something in the future. Maybe one of the other students will come to him for help. Maybe there’s a budding romance in the works. Maybe another PC will join him for training. Or maybe something bad will happen to someone connected to the dojo, and now for that PC it’s personal.
So if you aren’t in the habit of doing so already, ask a player to justify their XP spend and invite the other players to brainstorm with her. You’ll definitely be coloring in your game world and you may garner a few new plot ideas in the process.
If you do this on a regular basis and have some techniques or suggestions to share, please do so! And if you’ve tried this and it turned out to be too much bother, then I’d like to hear about those experiences as well.