Twitter discussion with @atminn gave me an interesting idea for how to handle player investment in the setting in a way that ties it directly into advancement. I'm going to present this in a fairly generic fashion, but the concept is pretty easily portable to whatever system you prefer to use.
The core idea is a basic one - tying character advancement to the investment in the setting by tying points earned to specific setting elements (usually people) and paying out advancement when those elements how up in play. The basic model pays out something like this:
1 point if the element shows up during the session.
2 points if the GM has to "take the reins" of the element and actively use it during the session.
3 points if the element is central to the session, seeing use in many scenes.
4 points if the element is put at risk
5 points if the element is lost or destroyed.
This can be tracked pretty easily with something like this on the character sheet - just mark the box as it happens, then pay out the highest value at the end of the session.
For Example, if Lord Chuzzleworth (Chaz to his friends) is your anchor, you might get the highest of the following in a given adventure:
- Get 1 point if you say go see him, send him a letter or otherwise bring him up in play (it's very easy for a player to get 1 point).
- Get 2 points if the GM uses Chaz to hire the group to do something.
- Get 3 points if that something is to escort Chaz to Castle Winterscap
- Get 4 points if there are assassins after Chaz specifically (as opposed to generic road dangers)
- Get 5 points if Chaz gets killed.
Now, by itself this is pretty abusable, since it basically encourages players to get their elements killed and replaced as quickly as possible, so there needs to be some check on that, allowing for investment in an NPC or other element to grow over time. To model this, I propose that at the end of every session (and chargen) the player gets a point. That point can be used to add a new element at "rank 1" (more on that in a second) or to increase the rank of a current element (I'd cap the maximum number of elements somewhere around 3).
The "rank" of an element indicates it's maximum payout. That is, if your character's father is one of his elements, but only at rank 1, then the character only gets 1 point of XP when dad shows up, not matter how involved his role. This is not exactly speedy investment, but it makes the ideas of risk and loss carry a bit of a mechanical edge in addition to whatever they may mean in the fiction.
There's a lot of implicit information for the GM to work with in this kind of setup, but most importantly, it can turn the player into an advocate for risk. Even the most mechanically-minded player has incentive to push things towards the more dangerous (and interesting) outcomes, and at the same time offers some small payback if things go horribly wrong. In some ways, it's the flipside of the XP system from The Shadow of Yesterday. It's not player directed, as TSOY is, but that sentiment of transparency and explicit xp hooks is definitely baked into the thinking.