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The Play's the Thing

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: or, What Should I Do with All These Experience Points?

by David Goodner
Jun 16,2003


The Play's the Thing

By David Goodner

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: or, What Should I Do with All These Experience Points?

Almost every game on the market has some kind of advancement mechanic. In Dungeons & Dragons, it's pretty simple. Going on adventures is rewarded by Experience Points (hereafter referred to as XP no matter what any given game system might call them). XP stack up to buy levels. Levels let you get new Feats, more Skill points, and access to Keweler Ninja Powers (sometimes referred to as Class Abilities and Spells). In Pendragon, it's a little fuzzier. Characters collect Skill Checks, then, at the end of the year, test the Checked Skills to see if they improve. They also get Advancements to represent whatever they might have been studying in their spare time. Marvel Superheroes (as far as I know) started a really brutal trend wherein your Karma (XP) was useful for day-to-day bonuses to rolls, and also for character advancement. Shadow Run did the same thing, as did Deadlands. Castle Falkenstein has no XP system, instead using GM fiat. I'd kind of like to play Castle Falkenstein long enough to know how well that works out.

Most advancement systems do pretty much the same thing, allow a character to gradually become more capable, or capable of new things. Which brings us to the topic of this installment: "How should I spend my XP?"

I can't recall ever being in a situation where I couldn't think of something to buy with my shiny new XPs, but lots of times I've run into not having enough to buy everything I want (which is pretty much everything). I'm guessing here that most of my readership has had similar experiences. So, what follows is mostly some thoughts on how to pare down the shopping list to manageable levels.

Before we Begin

Most XP systems aren't terribly realistic, with "realistic" being defined as "producing results similar to the way people in the real world learn and improve. Most XP systems aren't terribly genre emulative, either. In a lot of the fiction that inspires our hobby, people don't change much at all, or change radically in a very short time.

I don't particularly care. I like going up in levels. (Well, really, I prefer gradually spending XP wherever I want, but you get the idea.)

So, now that we've got that out of our systems, let's move on.

What Have You Been Doing?

This is the most realistic guideline for XP expenditure. If your character has been getting in a lot of fights and living through them, his combat-related abilities are probably increasing. If he's been spending all his time on research and investigation, those skills are probably getting better. Sure, he may really want to become a ninja master, but if he's not spending any time studying martial arts and mystical handsigns, then he's just not going to get there.

If realism is at all your aim, this is the way you should spend most of your XP. It may mean you can't always develop your character the way you'd like, though. That's just life, as they say. If your character doesn't have the chance to learn something, then it starts to hurt the shared illusion of the game if he suddenly knows it anyway. Some genres are more tolerant of this than others, mind you. Rather than feeling totally constrained, think of it as a challenge. A warrior who wants to be the world's best swordsman will have to make a lot of sacrifices to do so. Those sacrifices are roleplaying opportunities. I ran into this a lot with Sir Magnus, my favorite Pendragon character. He was the second-best at just about everything because he never focused on anything. Except Intrigue. Magnus rocked at Intrigue. He knew everything that happened wherever he was. It was those charming Roman manners.

Even so, it was really frustrating to me that I couldn't get his Sword skill quite as high as the guy who spent all his time dueling. Doubly so because I was so close. But in the stillness of my soul, I knew that's the way it should have been.

Most GMs will have no problem what-so-ever with you spending your XP in this way. If they do, it generally comes at the upper levels of skill, where, logically, you might really not be able to improve any more because you haven't reached a situation that challenges your abilities. In those cases, you can either argue with your GM, or pick something related to improve. For example, Ghost (my Tribe 8 character) had a 4 Melee skill for the longest time. The Weaver was really reluctant to let me buy one more point. Eventually I decided it wasn't worth arguing (since she might stop baking fresh cookies for the game session if I made her mad) and that maybe Ghost could use a higher Dodge skill instead. Or hey, maybe some more Weapon-smithing since that was theoretically the way he earned his living. I still held out my dream, though, that in a far future, the legendary God of Death of some distant tribe would look like Ghost holding his funky magic sword.

So, there's realism for you. But sometimes realism isn't your goal. For those times, there are several more philosophies to choose from.

What Do You Wish You'd Been Doing?

Here's the second way, and maybe the most common. Essentially, you just spend your XP however you want and back-justify it by saying that's what your character has been doing in his off-time. This pre-supposes your character has off-time. I've had games where a day where no one was trying to kill my character were rare events to be cherished and held in loving memory for all time. Fortunately, most of those characters really wanted the higher combat skills anyway...

I still try to maintain a little bit of narrative justification, even when game events don't completely back me up. As much as I might want her to, and despite the fact that the rules technically allow it, I would never have bought Sorcery for Juri (my Potential Slayer in a Buffy game). It completely didn't fit the character, and she had never shown the slightest inclination toward magic. I wouldn't have bought Gun Fu (generic Firearms skill, for the Buffy-impaired) either. Juri doesn't like guns, and would have been very unlikely to spend any time training with them.

On the other hand, I'd have no problem buying up Knowledge, Computers, Science, or Sports even though I haven't made any issue of those skills. They're all things she could logically have picked up here and there even though it didn't come up in the game. Juri's a high school student. Presumably, they still teach things in school. That's plenty of justification for a point or two. (But I'll probably buy more Kung Fu and Get Medieval instead...)

Oh, I Always Knew That

Here, we're stretching a little bit. Sometimes, that's OK, though. The rationalization here is that you're buying up an ability retroactively. Your character always spoke French, or knew how to disarm a bomb, or whatever. It just never came up before. Feng Shui (another game I'd like to get to play some day) actively encourages this. Other games tolerate it fairly well. It's not something you want to necessarily make a habit of, though. Sooner or later, you'll hit a continuity error.

GM approval is a much bigger deal here. There's a temptation to ret-con abilities that would come in really handy now, but that you really don't have any justification for. Some GMs like their continuity to be more sacrosanct than others, too.

I most often find myself buying retroactive abilities when the starting characters aren't quite as tough or skilled as I'd like them to be. If I'm playing an esoteric character (which is frequently) I might have to fudge some abilities. In those cases, I talk to the GM first to make my case. Then I buy up the abilities that will really matter first to the appropriate levels, and buy at least a little of whatever strange thing I want to work on later. This only stretches so far, and doesn't work for everything. Before the Revised Edition, if I wanted to play someone who spoke five or six languages in Vampire, that was going to be a big chunk of my starting points. If I was making up a Linguist, I'd probably have bought a good level in the Linguistics ability and one or two languages, then donated a large chunk of my XP to buying the other ones I wanted as rapidly as possible. Otherwise, a starting character might be severely crippled in other areas that didn't make s ense. On the other hand, if I wanted to play a fighter-type, but never picked up Melee, it wouldn't make a lot of sense for me to dump a lot of points into it later on and say he'd just never bothered to pick up a sword before now.

That, by the way, is the guiding rule. In all but the loosest of realities (Toon, Feng Shui, Amber...) this is only a good philosophy as long as it makes sense. If it doesn't make sense, you've moved into the next philosophy...

Because I Really Want To

Sometimes there's no justification for what you want to do. This can really be the case with any games with supernatural powers. How do you practice flying? (Throw yourself at the ground until you miss) Sometimes it doesn't really matter much. If you're playing a hack & slash D&D game with minimal roleplaying and no particular overarching plot, you can probably take whatever new abilities you want and no one will bat an eye. Of course, you are probably not a big fan of my column, either, so the rest of this section is aimed at other people.

Generally, I try to advance my characters logically, with minimal back-justification. Sometimes, though, I want something totally new, usually because I came to regret decisions I made when I made the character in the first place. For example, Ghost started the game with no Synthesis abilities (magic, basically). I did that intentionally since I originally wanted Ghost to be the "big, dumb fighter," but as the game progressed I realized that without Synthesis, he'd never be as effective as a character who had Synthesis, even if that character had lower skills and stats. So eventually I saved up some points and bought some Synthesis. The Weaver worked an opportunity for him to learn into the story, and we went on from there. It actually took quite a while, because part of Ghost's personality was his rejection of the Fatimas, who were the source of Synthesis.

If you can't justify something in the backstory, you should try to justify it in the future, and work with the GM to make it happen. I'm in the process of this right now with Juri, though I'm on the fence about whether or not to go through with it. This is a pretty good example, and it's fresh on my mind, so let's take a look.

Juri began as a Slayer in Training. For about the past ten years of her life, she'd been raised by the Watchers' Council, studying and training so that if she were called as the next Slayer, she'd be ready. At the end of our first Season, she was Chosen, just in time to beat up our Big Bad for the season and survive the beating she got in return. (Handy, that. It's almost like the GM planned it that way...)

Which brings us to the present. Implicit, instinctive trust in the Watchers is a huge part of Juri's character. She sees them as her parents since they pretty much raised her. She sees herself as a Vassal of the Council since she was brought up in the Samurai tradition. But, the Watchers don't really have her best interests at heart, and aren't necessarily worthy of her respect. They've already misled her and betrayed her friends a couple of times, and are likely to do so again.

Originally, I thought I'd follow the path laid out by the Buffy TV show, wherein the Slayer gradually becomes disillusioned with the Watchers and rejects them. That would be really easy to do. In Buffy, it only costs as many XP to buy off a Drawback as you originally paid in Character Points. I could buy off Juri's Obligation: Watcher's Council, and be done with it. There would be a somewhat more substantial effect on the game, though. Juri is a foreign national living in America. If she ticks off the Watchers, they could easily get her visa revoked. She also has no particular job skills or means of income. She's completely reliant on the Council. If she told them to kiss off, she'd have to find another way to get by, and would shake up the lives of some of the other characters.

All that would be fun to play, and still may be the route I take, but I recently thought of another one. The Watchers have always tried to control the Slayer even as they say they're trying to assist her. What if a Slayer found some way to turn the tables, to gain a significant amount of control over the Council? In mechanical terms, that would be buying a 5 point Contact: Watcher's Council, and maybe a few points of Resources (3 at the absolute most, probably only 1, if that).

In game terms, it's a major shift, even bigger than abandonment of the Council. It's also not something I can do on my own. For this to work at all, I have to have the GM behind me. (I love you, Stone).

It would have to start with Juri getting the chance to get influence with some members of the Council, at which point I might buy Contacts: Watchers (1). Then time would pass, and Juri would have to get more involved in Council politics somehow. This would probably culminate in a major story-arc in which she either made it to the top, or lost everything.

At that point, I'd either spend whatever XP I needed to spend to buy the Watchers Contact up to 5 points, or I might lose the points I'd already spent up to this point and have to buy off the Obligation. (Actually, the whole Obligation thing is a little hazy due to a fuzzy spot in the rules)

Now, this example would have a pretty significant effect on the game's tone. If the GM doesn't want the Watchers to be a big part of the story, he's probably not going to let me turn them into one of Juri's most significant advantages. (Did I mention that I love you, Stone?)

A better example from Buffy is the Werewolf Quality. Oz picked up the Drawback version, and eventually kind of maybe the Quality version later on. Being a Werewolf is cool. You get to be strong and fast and tough, and have claws. Claws are very useful. Just ask Juri, who has 4 points of natural armor against blunt damage, which never seems to matter since everyone who tries to kill her has claws. (But I love you anyway, Stone)

There's not really any way to foreshadow your character becoming a Werewolf. He gets bit, then about a month later, things get a little hairy. If you wanted to do it, you'd need to have the GM on your side. In fact, you'd better be prepared to suffer for it for a while. If it came up in my game, you'd start off with the Drawback version and have to go through at least one story where your character got loose accidentally and might have killed someone. I'd also try to sneak in someone you bit, but who survived without you knowing about it, so I could smite you with a nemesis later. Then, after a while, you'd get to buy off the Drawback and buy the Quality, but only after something had happened in the game to explain your control over your condition.

The key to "Because I really want to" is thinking ahead. In its way, it's no different than improving the abilities you're using in game. You're just actively trying to improve the ones you want, and going a bit beyond that by asking the GM to help you engineer situations that produce the results you want.

Closing Thoughts

Is it that time already? I suppose so.

Like just about everything in gaming, spending XP is part of the story, and it's one of the parts where the players have a lot of power. (Please don't make me go all GNS here. By "story" I just mean "the collective narrative of the game's events, from inception to end.")

The GM can keep your character from being able to talk to the people he wants to find, and he can make sure his big uber-pet-NPC nemesis guy who's really his old PC from a D&D game he played back in high school never sticks around long enough for you to stick your magic sword through his spleen. Heck, he can keep you from getting a magic sword in the first place in most games. But in general, he can't keep your character from studying swordplay, or trying to make new contacts.

While your deciding where to spend your XP, you should think about how your decisions will develop the story. The decisions you make will say a lot about your character's personality. Does he say he's a pacifist, but you keep buying more Melee? Why? There could be a really neat reason. Once he's the best swordsman in the city, what's going to happen? The other Best Swordsman in the City may have something to say about it. And all those Second Best Swordsmen who want to be the new Best Swordsman will probably also take an interest.

Then there's the GM. He almost certainly has something up his sleeve. If the group is headed off to investigate the ancient ruins over the next hill, being the best swordsman in the city may not be quite as useful as being the guy who knows how to light a torch from flint and steel in the dark, or the guy who knows how to bind someone's wounds when the cleric is unconscious. It helps everyone if you develop your character along lines that don't diverge too far from the overall plot of the game. If you want to play the world's greatest detective, you're going to be pretty bored unless the GM has some mysteries in mind. Of course, if one of my players wanted to play the world's greatest detective, I'd try to come up with some mysteries for him to solve. It's a give and take thing.

Like just about all of my columns, the final advice comes down to "play nice." It's easy to get caught up in what you want (like my weeks-long attempt to talk my T8 GM into letting me have a 5 Melee score) but in the end it's almost always better to compromise if you hit serious resistance. Playing selfishly or irresponsibly makes the entire game worse, and if the game becomes not fun, what good is whatever shiny toy you got out of it?

Compromise works both ways, though. If the game is not fun because you're never allowed to have any shiny toys, then something needs to change. I've been in a couple of games where the GM and the players had radically different views of how powerful the characters should be, or of where the game should go. Sometimes it's best just to cut your losses and move on to something you'll enjoy.

I guess that's enough blathering for this time.

Next up: a complete surprise (since I haven't decided yet)

See you then.

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