In an earlier post, I leveled criticism toward the inspiration mechanic based on Mike Mearls’s preview in “Roleplaying in D&D Next.” I listed two gripes:
- Awarding inspiration seemed to put the dungeon master in an uncomfortable role. Mearls wrote about awarding inspiration for “describing your action in an interesting way, acting out your character’s dialogue, or otherwise helping to bring the game to life by adding some panache to your play.” All this made inspiration seem like an award for showmanship. As a DM, I have enough to do without adopting the role of some sort of competition judge who rates players’ panache.
- Inspiration seemed like a distracting, metagame intrusion. The preview suggested inspiration would be awarded frequently, and said it faded quickly (no longer true). This painted inspiration as a common distraction. You could spend inspiration, bank for later, or pass on to another player (still true). This painted inspiration as a gamey resource that represented nothing in the game world. Such dissociated mechanics force attention away from the characters’ world and prevent players from making choices while immersed in character.
When I read the actual rules, I realized that the inspiration mechanic revives action points, a mechanic I have enjoyed. My harsh judgements were wrong. The preview mislead me, and the sun got in my eyes.
Inspiration is exactly like action points, except (1) with a different name, (2) with a different purpose, and (3) without points. Perhaps I should explain.
The action point entered the D&D game in the Eberron Campaign Setting as a bit of genre emulation. According to the campaign guide, “The setting combines traditional medieval D&D fantasy with swashbuckling action and dark adventure.
“To help capture the cinematic nature of the swordplay and spellcasting, we’re added action points to the rules mix. This spendable, limited resource allows players to alter the outcome of dramatic situations and have their characters accomplish the seemingly impossible.” (p.9)
Characters in Eberron started with a bank of 5 action point that they could spend to kick d20 rolls with an extra d6. In theory, this meager bonus enables characters to accomplish the impossible. In practice, it adds a resource that forces players out of character.
The fourth-edition designers chose to keep action points, but they no longer needed to emulate Indiana Jones in D&D. In 4E, action points became an incentive aimed at discouraging the 15-minute adventuring day. Presumably, players would look ahead to a fresh action points and decide to press on to their next encounter, rather than resting to regain powers, hit points, and, well, action points. To sweeten the incentive, and to keep “action” in the name, action points now granted an extra action.
While action points failed to quash the 15-minute day, they proved fun for players. The additional action provides a more precious benefit than a mere d6 boost. They remain a gamey resource that you cannot manage while immersed in character. But with a mechanic as innocuous as action points, the drawback seems light enough. You need not step out of character for long.
Many aspects of the fourth edition design brought unintended consequences. For example, the fourth-edition design suffered from the unintended consequence of costing most of its designers and planners their jobs at Wizards of the Coast. (Too soon?)
Fourth-edition action points often turned climactic encounters into one turn of nova attacks followed by slow grinds against crippled enemies. This came because action points allowed characters to double their opening salvos of daily and encounter powers, multiplying the potency of their first turns. By the time a guy like Juiblex, demon lord of slimes and oozes, gets a chance to act, he’s prone, immobilized, dazed, suffering -4 to all attacks, and has his pants around his ankles. (In fourth edition, even oozes are subject to the pants-round-ankles condition.) See “As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master?”
So fifth edition scrapped action points.
Meanwhile, the 5E designers worked to improve the role-playing pillar of D&D. They started by inviting players to flesh out characters with a bond and a flaw. “Your bonds are your character’s ties to the world, people, places, or things that are meaningful to your character in some way,” Mearls previewed. “Your flaws are your character’s weaknesses.”
Neither bonds nor flaws count as new to role playing. In games like Champions (1981) and GURPS (1986), you can give your characters flaws and bonds too. Adopting such disadvantages buys points that you can use to strengthen your character in other ways.
The 5E designers may have considered character-creation rewards for bonds and flaws, but once you reap any character-creation benefits, nothing in play encourages you to hold to your liabilities. So instead of adding incentives to character creation, they added an incentive to bring bonds and flaws into play.
In a Ready, Set, Play seminar, Designer Rodney Thompson explained, “Whenever you allow your flaw or your bond to impact your character negatively, maybe by making a decision that isn’t so great for the party but totally is in keeping with your characters flaw, the dungeon master can award you inspiration. And basically this is a reward that the DM can give you to say, hey, you have roleplayed out your character’s flaw even though it may not have been the best and most optimal decision. Here’s your reward in the form of inspiration.”
Although Mike Mearls may award inspiration for panache, I feel more comfortable for Rodney Thompson’s more objective standard. If following your character’s weaknesses drives you into a worse situation, then you gain inspiration. I can spot those situations and feel good about rewarding them.
Inspiration shares a lot with action points. Like the Eberron points, players trade inspiration to boost a die roll. Like the 4E points, inspiration bribes players to do things that improve play. Since inspiration neither supports “swashbuckling action” nor grants additional actions, the “action” had to go.
The term “points” goes too. Unlike action points, inspiration doesn’t come in points. Inspiration works more like a status; your character can have the inspired status or not. Once you spend your inspiration, you have to earn it again. The terminology helps show that your character cannot have more than one inspiration to spend.
As a status, inspiration even gains a gloss of game-world association. Mearls wrote, “By demonstrating that the events in the game are critical to your character’s goals and beliefs, you can allow your character to tap into reserves of energy and determination to carry the day.” By acting true to themselves, characters become inspired without a word from the bard. Mearls even explained how a transfer of inspiration could work in the game world. “In this case, your character’s determination serves as an inspiration for the other party members.”
Only one problem remains. When a character’s flaws drive a player to make suboptimal decisions, the player gains inspiration. But D&D works as a game of teamwork. Often the rest of the party suffers for one character’s bad choice. Sometimes, only the rest of the party suffers. See “Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.”
I’ve seen no end to problems created by players who make choices that cause grief for the other players. “Because that’s what my character would do,” they explain. I hate hearing “that’s what my character would do” as a form of apology. No one explains what their character would do when they don’t screw the party. As a game master, I feel no urge to reward grief with an incentive.
The D&D designers thought of this aspect too. Rodney Thompson explains, “Maybe you did something that the other players at the table weren’t super thrilled about, but you can give them that inspiration as a way of saying sorry.”
The next time I reward inspiration for a choice that caused trouble for the party, I will ask the player to pass the inspiration to another player for a key roll.
As a player, how can you gain the most from inspiration? I suggest saving inspiration for critical saving throws against things like the dragon’s breath or the lich’s disintegrate spell. Also, remember that a single advantage from inspiration can cancel any number of disadvantages, so use inspiration when the odds are stacked against you.