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“Justify It”

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On September 12, 2011 @ 12:01 am In GMing Advice | 12 Comments

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.

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




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12 Comments To "“Justify It”"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On September 12, 2011 @ 3:25 am

I do this when I can make it make sense for the character. My demon bloodline sorceress didn’t take Knowledge (Planes) till her powers started manifesting and she got some books from the temples. My druid takes only wolf form because he got lycanthropy the level before he got it. I retconned my vague backstory to have a dwarven wizard mentor to explain why I suddenly had Craft Magic Arms and Armor.

I only do this for things that extend my character concept. The Extend Spell feat just isn’t noticeable enough to bother bringing it to the foreground. I’m not going to explain how I learned to cast Flame Strike either — I think it works better as a new trick to keep the other players interested in my character. They’ve seen all my fire elementals and produce flame, they’ve never seen me wreathed in flames and summoning a giant pillar of flame out of the ground.

#2 Comment By Stuart On September 12, 2011 @ 4:43 am

If the players in my Werewolf: The Spocalypse game intend to spend any XP, they have to write a journal for me, describing what happened to earn them that XP. Sometimes it describes something that happened that session which opened a player’s eyes to give him/her a better understanding. Sometimes it describes something outside of game which the player did to earn the XP. Sometimes, it’s from the perspective of a mortal who has no idea what actually happened.

This gives both me, the GM, as well as my players, a better understanding of their characters. Between their journals, which they write, and their character sheets, which I hold onto between sessions, I have a decent idea of who they are, and what kinds of stories their character would appreciate participating in.

#3 Comment By Tsenn On September 12, 2011 @ 8:25 am

We usually ask for a simple justification. If you’ve been using the skill, or found a teacher, that’s fine. New abilities can usually be folded into the backstory, which can add depth and perhaps plant plot seeds. We’re big on ‘keeping it real’ so we like our character development to make sense that way, but we’re happy to use tricks from TV and movies to pad things out.

#4 Comment By BishopOfBattle On September 12, 2011 @ 11:45 am

I haven’t done this, but I like it. Typically, I only allow my players to improve between sessions (or between adventures if an adventure spans more than one session). That makes it easy to hand wave the improvement as “I’m resting, recuperating, training and generally gaining new information which makes my character better” thing.

I did like how leveling up in the old D&D computer games I used to play (Pools of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, etc; this may be how original AD&D handled it too, but I never played that version of the game). Once your character(s) hit an XP milestone to level up, they had to return to town and meet with a trainer who they then paid to teach them new skills and make them better overall. I thought it was an elegant way of handling level ups without your characters just suddenly “being better!”

#5 Comment By Knight of Roses On September 12, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

I have one player whose characters always studied to avoid making the same mistakes (i.e. lack of proper skill) the party had last adventure. Which I am very cool with.

Generally, my players are pretty good about building reasons for their characters to gain new skills. But good ideas for using them to build plot and development hooks.

#6 Comment By taxboy4 On September 12, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

As we play using Mongoose Runequest 2, you use improvement rolls to buy up skills or other abilities individually(as opposed to a raft of changes on attaining a level)so it easier to ask the players to give some logic.

I am pretty lenient but really want some logic – especially around spells. The ruleset is quite practical, in that you can self study or actually be taught certain things by a teacher.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 12, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

I like this, but my players usually don’t. :(

I have an odd ‘take away’ from this article, which is that the group resolved the problem of where he learned martial arts. This is one thing I really like, when the group advises the tactically-ignorant player of the experienced warlord such that his decisions are tactically sound.

#8 Comment By amazingrando On September 12, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

Occasionally it is good to ask a PC to flesh out how they acquire or train a skill. I don’t think that it’s a good idea to do it often though. It can bog down a campaign too much.

That said, tying hooks around character skills is a good idea. If a sorcerer has high ranks in Knowledge (Planes), wouldn’t folk start to ask her questions related to demons? If a brute of a character stays in the town too long, isn’t the local thieves guild going to offer them gold to be a bruiser?

#9 Comment By mercutior On September 12, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

As a Gm and player of D&D/Pathfinder for the past 25 years, the idea of “leveling up” has always been a bone of contention. You use to have to find a trainer and pay some gold, and you leveled up. The biggest constraint of this system though, was not the gold or finding a mentor, it was the time that needed to spent. When you are saving the world on a timeline, it’s difficult to justify spending weeks and weeks training. I used to loathe the idea of leveling up during game play, but then I decided to look at experience a new way. For many, experience is a commodity to be “spent” on new skills. In many RPGs it is quite literally spent. In Pathfinder/3.5 it is earned to gain levels (this of course is tantamount to spending). I admit that I was firmly entrenched in that camp for years. My shift occurred when I decide that experience was just that—experience. As characters adventure, they hone their skills. It is not far-fetched to believe that a fighter swinging his sword repeatedly can become better (increased BAB) and somehow develop new moves (cleave or vital strike). Think of our own lives. As we work, we gain experience and get better at our jobs, hobbies, parenting or sports. Very rarely (if ever) do we stop and “train.” In fact, I would suggest that we are usually ahead of the training curve because of our experience and often resent the training provided to us by higher ups. Experience itself is the training. Heroes train by fire and forge new skills on the fly. Another thing to consider: Don’t look at class abilities and skills as a ladder of trainable skills. Look at them as more of an abstract of what becomes possible through experience. After all, classes (and abilities) are just a concrete attempt to define the intangibles of a fantasy game. If it adventure hooks and plot lines you are looking for, ask players to describe how their experiences fit into their initial backgrounds/motivations. How have their adventures changed or solidified their motivations? Have they seen or thought they’ve seen their long lost family member or their arch-enemy? Or just ask them to let you know what they were doing in their downtime. Where did they go, who did they meet, and most importantly where did they find a +5 dancing, fire burst, vorpal axe? But that’s a discussion for another day.

#10 Comment By FreeRangeGamer On September 12, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

Generally, the players in our group have been exceptionally good at justifying any sort of leveling that occurs. This is mostly due to our GM being ADAMANT about making sure things make sense, and she does a great job of helping us to individual create and develop each of our character concepts as the game advances. As a side-note, however, we’re all really open to ret-conning aspect of our characters if we realize they just aren’t working out (and this is almost exclusively a “concept” rather than “skill roll” conflict).

http://freerangegamer.wordpress.com/

#11 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On September 12, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

This has been fun in my Pathfinder game, where my paladin has learned three languages in the last couple of levels (which have taken almost no game time at all). The other PCs are teaching him, and he’s getting pretty frustrated with all the different words…

#12 Comment By recursive.faults On September 13, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

When I started gaming, the group I played with insisted on justifying all of our 3.5 advancements. This was fine, but there often were gaps where some characters couldn’t find the resource they needed to advance where others could. Like finding someone to teach a Druid a new bag of tricks, or questing to find a guild of rogues in the middle of a forrest outpost.

Now, I game with people who walk a disappointing line of justifications along the lines, of, “We wouldn’t be heros if we had to spend our lives learning to farm like everyone else,” or, “You had the training, now you’re finally realizing it.”

I’ve reconciled this lack of sense to how character progression works to the system that holds it.

I read an interesting article on Fudge that really kind of hit home about this stuff. It boiled down to this: If your character has been significantly tested, or made a concentrated effort to advance in an area, they can. It further suggested that the player make a mark next to those skills as a reminder.

I can’t wait to run a game where I can use something simple and intuitive as that.


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