5e and Inspiration

I've been playing / running a fair amount of D&D 5e oneshots at the local games cafe recently (the owner says they often get RPG curious people asking about D&D and has persuaded some of the regular RPG evening attendees to run it more often). As a result of this I have been thinking about the inspiration mechanic.

Briefly inspiration works like this –  

The Dungeon Master can reward you for playing your character in a way that’s true to his or her personality traits. Typically, DMs award inspiration when you play out your personality traits, give in to the drawbacks presented by a flaw or bond, and otherwise portray your character in a compelling way. You either have inspiration or you don’t. If you have inspiration, you can expend it when you make a roll to get advantage – you roll two d20's and take the higher result. Or you can give it to another player to use if their character does something cool and interesting. The DMs guide recommends awarding it once per player, per session, but that isn't a rule.
A fair chunk of character creation involves selecting or creating or randomly rolling for the ideals, flaws, and bonds, based on your character's background.

I wasn't paying a lot of attention when 5e, D&D NExt as it was, first emerged but I seem to recall a certain amount of triamphalism from some quarters – personality mechanics in D&D! The indie gamers have won! etc.

Aaaaaand I've never seen any DM actually use it or award inspiration in any of the one-shot games I've played in. Perhaps this is just local play culture, or different in ongoing games, who knows. Anyway, when I took a turn running I figured I would see how it actually worked in play. I made sure to point it out to the players, took note of their ideals and flaws etc. and actually awarded inspiration. A lot, becasue hitting the triggers seemed pretty easy, although this might vary from adventure to adventure, I had some village based oneshots with lots of opportunity for interacting in the group and with villagers. In a "you start at the entrance to a dungeon" sort of session this might be a bit more difficult.

So I found the rule pretty un-inspiring (sorry). It was easy to hit the triggers, without the players particularly trying as far as I could tell, so I had often awarded it to pretty much the whole group in the first half hour of play. Keeping track of each characters personality traits was fiddly and the actions that gained inspiration rarely had a big impact on the direction of play, although it was sometimes fun to shine a spotlight on an aspect of their character. I could have done without the character whose personality seemed to be "I'm really irritating", but I can't say the player, who clearly had a bit more D&D experience than most of the others, was going against the spirit of the rules and clearly didn't need inspiration to encourage them (sign, gamers – what can you do?).
And having Inspiration also didn't make much difference to play. Players did use it, when they remembered / were prodded by each other, but rarely did this seem particularly tied back to the source of inspiration or to be saved for climatic moments. I probably made a mistake in letting it get used retrospectively, i.e. to reroll a failed roll, although the rules seem to be silent as to whether that's wrong or not. The players therefore probably succeeded a little more than they otherwie would have but this seemed to have little impact on the game in the context of the scenarios I was using, with balanced encounters as per the rules. There never seemed to be situations where a character might have died but for their inspiration, for example.

What are other peoples experience of this in play?

8 responses to “5e and Inspiration”

  1. Agreed

    Hi Ross! I'm with you on this one, including my brief experience of playing the game, but especially from Tor's thoughts in the very first consulting post here at the site, concerning the same game, Proto-concept from D&D play. We talk quite a bit about why so many so-called reward mechanics are hamster wheels with no content, and perhaps as a surprise, why less direct contact with the relevant fiction is often more engaging for little bonus-type devices. That's not a hard and fast rule or principle, but it does seem to apply a lot of the time. The discussion of House of Spiders raises similar issues, even more so in that case as it ties constantly and more directly into resolution (Lies, patience, and creepy grit).

  2. Table Entertainment & An Attempt at Bite

    For the most part, my experience with Inspiration is a reward for entertaining the table. A player says something ironic or sarcastic (not mean, to be clear) relevant to the current situation and the Dm gives them inspiration. The idea I suppose is that if you entertain the group or cut the tension of a tough scene (being generous) then that is worth inspiring your character.

    I do not have a problem with this in general, but it is not really how inspiration is supposed to work. The actual rules on it seem vague and in any case, completely arbitary? No one that I have witnessed plays or even has to try and play their flaws and bonds. Indeed background is largely ignored once play begins and I do not think it is entirely in the hands of the DM, maybe not in their hands at all, for that content to be brought into play.

    Lately I have been experimenting with having players do two things. Ignoring the flaws and bonds and just playing their background and have that be the character's primary social currency. You are not a thief, you are a criminal, for instance. Play THAT and let's see where it goes. The second experiment is making use of alignment. Right now I explain that alignment is your previous moral and ethical compass, but now either dive into it OR play hard against your alignment.  So far its a mixed bag but players are thinking more about their characters and occasionally getting rewarded for it.

  3. I have the same experience in

    I have the same experience in general, Ross, that the GM forgets to award Inspiration, and players forget to spend it.

    In one game in which I'm a player, the GM awards Inspiration for making the table laugh.  I agree with Sean: that's not how it's supposed to work.  To solve the problem of players forgetting to (or being reluctant to) spend it, the GM gives everyone Inspiration at the start of the adventure.  That has worked.

    When I GM, I can't remember every PC's personality traits (and don't try),and I don't reward funny comments.  I award Inspiration for any non-optimal choice that's made on purpose, like for dramatic reasons.  For example, a player purposely making awkward statements in a social scene because their character wouldn't undertand the nuances and subtext at play.

    Still, I agree, it's not a great mechanic.  We forget to award it and we forget to spend it.

  4. The Problem With Backgrounds

    I really don't like Backgrounds in 5e in general. They feel like an attempt to cram more "character" into an idiom (dungeon exploration fantasy) that is best served by tabula rasa adventurers who develop into real people with real goals and concerns as the game progresses.

    As others have stated I never remember to give out Inspiration.  Any game (like Fate) that requires regular mid-game rewards is very hard for me. Burning Wheel's Artha awards are thankfully done at the end of a session, so it's much of a reflect and discuss process that something you have to think about and acknowledge mid-play.

    Also, there's no procedures for updating Traits, Flaws, Bonds and Ideals (that also come from Backgrounds and which Inspiration is meant to be rewarded).  So, if I take them seriously as scenario prep that maybe gets me to level 4 of play?  If the game is any good the PCs are different people by that point even if "different" is just battle scared and 100gp richer.  So they become less and less relevant over time.

    The main usage I've gotten out of them, honestly, is as justification for rolls either making them, by passing them, or adjusting the difficulty.  "Oh you're a criminal?  Yeah, you'd know where to look for that."

    • I agree with you. By contrast

      I agree with you. By contrast, I've found backgrounds in 4E to be rather helpful. They seem to me to be at the same depth as any other feature such as class, specification of class, race, or choice of abilities, therefore acting as another vector to intersect with the others. This effect might be due to the specific technique I've applied to that game, of highly constraining race/class options to punch into a very limited idiom, but it may also be related to the point of this discussion, that backgrounds in 5E introduce a specific in-play mechanic.

  5. Thanks for all the replies.

    Interesting to see the commonalities in Inspiration not really working at people's tables. Personally I'm not particularly bothered about trying to "fix" it, as it seems less that it's broken and more that it is inert. The behaviour it seems to be trying to encourage, very generally "playing your character" doesn't feel to me like it needs incentiving and, if anything, the way this is set up in 5e tends toward a pretty static characterisation which doesn't go anywhere, as Jesse noted. The reward itself didn't seem very impactful in play, so I don't think not having it, given plenty of other avenues to get advantage exist, will hamper the players unfairly.

    Having said that, I am kind of interested to see how the variatin in the Pugmire / Monarchies of Mau games works in play, where the main way to earn fortune (basically equivalent to inspiration) is for the player to decide to automatically fail a roll, where this is appropriate to their personality traits. (although the examples in the books aren't entirely clear on what that actually means). This does at least seem like it could impact play meaningfully, if there are actual consequences for failure.

    Anyway, having looked at Inspiration a fair bit, I'm fairly certain it isn't the tool I was looking for – which was something to make play go, in particular in the context of one-shot play. Assuming XP really only works for this over longer term (at least a few sessions / levels) play, and that The Crawl, as described by Ron elsewhere, isn't supported by 5e (on purpose as far as I can tell, which is fine), then I'm wondering what there is left?

    • Hi Ross! You said, “I was

      Hi Ross! You said, "I was looking for…something to make play go, in particular in the context of one-shot play." I'm wondering, what problems have you encountered in making play go? Usually, my experience has been that if a player has a character they've bought into, and are put into a context they find compelling, play goes just fine. What have you experienced?

      And just to briefly mention The Crawl: it's perfectly possible to do in 5e, you just have to be strict about keeping track of rations, arrows, flasks of oil, and so on. 

  6. Inspiration House Rules Attempt

    I encountered the same issues with Inspiration not seeming to do much, so I used some house rules to make IP more robust. Here they are:

    Inspiration Points

    Earning Inspiration Points:

    Each player can have up to 7 inspiration points at one time (you’re not limited to 1).

    You can earn IP by taking a setback – use a goal, flaw, bond, or ideal to get disadvantage on a roll, or increase the danger of the situation in a meaningful way. 

    For example, if your flaw is heavy drinker, you can earn a point of inspiration by voluntarily offering to take disadvantage on a dexterity check, by asserting that you're drunk. Or, since your Ideal is Brother’s Keeper, you see an innocent half-elf getting bullied by a bunch of toughs, and decide to confront them (increasing the danger to yourself). 

    Mention you're doing this because you want an IP (in case I’m too preoccupied to notice!) 

    Spending Inspiration Points:

    Before rolling (a saving throw, attack, or ability roll): spend 1 IP to get advantage on the roll. 

    After rolling (a saving throw, attack, or ability roll): spend 1 IP to add 1d6 to the roll, 2 IP to add 2d6, 3 to add 3d6, etc. 

    After a successful hit in Combat: you can spend an IP to have some additional effect, like hit a particular location, knock the opponent down, disarm them, push them back, and so on. At the DM’s discretion this may cost more than one IP, or may not be possible (in which case you don’t have to pay the IP), depending on the situation. 

    To enhance an already successful roll: as above, but more general for non-combat situations. For example, you can spend an IP on a successful persuade roll to get you even more than what you asked for.

    Anytime: you can suggest a plot point or fictional element (e.g., “there's a secret door in this room”), or ask to get a one-time exception from a rule in a particular way, and offer one or more IP for it; the DM can choose to accept it (in which case you pay the IP) or not (in which case you don't have to pay). 


    What effect has this had on play? Well, the jury's still out. Players definitely like getting IP, and are noticeably concerned when they go into combat without any, but for whatever reason they rarely make the effort to earn any. I don't really get it, personally. 

Leave a Reply