My first impression of inspiration proved wrong

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.

Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

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.

9 thoughts on “My first impression of inspiration proved wrong

  1. Stan

    The more I find out about 5th edition the more I think “they really thought this through”.

    Maybe that’s unfair. Third edition is actually brilliant at what it set out to do, which is nail down as many loose ends as possible and (as the 1st edition DMG says of lawful neutral alignment) “bring all to predictability and regulation”. And that goal truly does have it’s advantages, so I’m not even trashing it on that basis.

    Likewise, 4th edition…okay there I don’t think they really even did what they set out to do. But it was a decent shot at it.

    The thing is, though, with fifth edition, the “goal” of all this analysis and refactoring of the game was more consonant with the sensibilities of the blue-on-white map set. We have the new PHB, and I think we’ll probably be giving this a serious look.

  2. Don Holt

    Why not award the inspiration to the characters hurt by the action, or if that is too much, perhaps the “party” can have inspiration as well. It is the “cross” they learned to bear for befriending this character with a weakness,

    1. SiriusT

      I like this idea a lot better than the simple trade of one player. It supports a constructive team play-style very organically.
      As a single-player resource, I could easily see some players attempting to spam Inspiration, or feeling “less” when they don’t have Inspiration – even with the ability to pass this resource on. A player who constantly plays up their flaws is little more fun at the table than the incorrigible min-maxer.

  3. John Kantor

    A couple of minor side points:

    Complaining about meta-game intrusion in a game which requires owning three 200+ page rule books seems odd. And as for immersive role play – I dislike talking in character and I stay a long way away from Larpers. It’s like saying I only watch movies and TV shows because books are nothing but descriptions of what happens.

    And why is it even necessary to justify a mechanism like this in a day and age where storytelling RPGs and mechanisms that encourage active player involvement in directing the plot are almost ubiquitous? There’s a much bigger world of RPGs than just D&D.

    But the main point is that it’s the DM’s responsibility to put appropriate boundaries on what players can do. If someone says “I fireball the whole party and loot their corpses” then it’s the DM’s job to say “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi John,
      Justin Alexander once wrote a brilliant article comparing role-playing games to storytelling games. See He explains why folks who get a kick out of role playing find gamey mechanics annoying, while folks who enjoy storytelling find objections to metagame intrusions baffling.

      As a DM, I sometimes explain to players that they can play their character, but they are obligated to devise a character who can cooperate with the rest of the party to achieve the common goals of the party.

      1. Don Holt

        Actually I don’t require the party to work together, especially when characters are first meeting or a new character is joining an existing group. (And I find DM’s who expect this behavior right from the start unrealistic. I feel they are forcing preconceived ideas onto their players about how RPGs should be played and many will railroad their players into conformity.) Nor to I expect new characters to just fireball the group.

        What I expect is for some characters to be naturally friendly, some to be grumpy, and some to be a bit standoffish. There’s certainly no deep trust between characters nor is there any blatant animosity.

        I think the group dynamics and trust should form as a result of play. For example, two characters who are/would be natural enemies should begin the game with a dislike of each other. Other characters might have to separate them at times. The party leader would be exasperated at the bickering between the two. (The council of Elrond comes to mind.) All these “realistic” aspects of interpersonal relationships are what I feel are part of a good story/RPG game.

        Given the short time period for many “groups” and the reality of having to deal with new players with bad behaviors, I guess DMs today feel the requirement to squash party acrimony early.

        Ah well, in the good ole days, …

        1. DM David Post author

          Hi Don,
          I think you’ve settled on the best approach. I have no problem when a party has some mistrust or dislike, so long as they can agree to work together toward a common goal. Reckless instigators and evil characters create the most problems. Players who enjoy diplomacy and careful play get frustrated if an instigator charges into every situation, sword drawn. If not for the social contract of the table, such instigators would be run off for endangering the lives of everyone else in the party. You can play an instigator, but you limit trouble you cause so that the other characters would plausibly want your character around. Too often, players of evil characters forget that they must gain the cooperation and even trust of others to succeed. Games of Paranoia aside, most tables benefit from a social contract that bans treachery among players.


    2. SiriusT

      “Complaining about meta-game intrusion in a game which requires owning three 200+ page rule books seems odd”

      No more odd than complaining about gas prices when you’ve bought a several thousands of pounds of steel with an internal combustion engine to get around in.
      We all know we’re playing a game, but we want it to run as smoothly as possible and deliver maximum performance. Of course there are mechanics, but shouldn’t they be GOOD mechanics? Such good mechanics steer the game >without< the DM having to resort to telling a friend to take a hike. Isn't that more fun?

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