11 Ways to Take the Suck Out of Inspiration in D&D

05-04-15 Feature Art 800 x 450All right, let me get a couple of things out of the way before we get started. First of all, when I decided to write about the Inspiration system in Dungeons & Dragons, it took all of my restraint not to do some sort of pun about the whole system being “uninspired” in the title. But that sort of crap is the last bastion of the hack blogger/critic who is far less clever than he thinks he is. Well, I ain’t a critic, I’m very clever, and I can’t call myself a “blogger” without retching a little. Because I write articles.

Now, I have not made any secret of the fact that I hate the Inspiration system. And I am going to explain why. But, I’m not going to stop there. Because that’s the hack blogger/critic approach. Me, I’m constructive. I’m a force for motherf$&%ing progress. I don’t tear s$&% down. I build s$&%. And the only reason to talk about why Inspiration is so un-… the only reason to talk about why Inspiration is so bland and so easily ignored and overlooked is because hidden underneath Inspiration is a really powerful, useful tool for both GMs and players. If we can make it less un-…interesting, make it less un-… exciting, we can do a lot of cool s$&% with it.

And that’s what this article is really about. Not just banging on about how un-…awesome Inspiration is, but banging on about how useful it could be if you’re willing to f$&% with it a little. In fact, I’m going to give you a whole bunch of different, optional ways to tweak the Inspiration system to add some real flair to your game. And I’m going to give you some advice on how to use it as written. And then, I’m going to give you an alternative Inspiration system that is almost the same as the one in the book, but that works much better.

I know that sounds like a lot to promise, but it’s me. I’m f$&%ing awesome.

Oh, by the way, if you LIKE the Inspiration system as it’s presented in the core D&D rules, that’s your prerogative. I’ll make you a deal. If you don’t choke my comment section with diatribes about how Inspiration is actually good the way it is, I won’t have to tell you why you are objectively, provably wrong until you cry. And then slap you. Seriously. I will find a way.

Understanding Inspiration

Let’s just review the basics so that we can understand what’s wrong with Inspiration so we can use it better. Cool?

When you create a character, you are invited to choose two Personality Traits, one Bond, one Ideal, and one Flaw that define your character. Personality Traits are simple descriptors of what makes your character unique. Ideals represent deeply held beliefs and motivations. Bonds represent connections to people, places, and things in the world. And Flaws represent weaknesses, foibles, compulsions, fears, and other negative aspects of personality.

Now, in theory, when you somehow exemplify one of these traits in play, your DM will reward you with a thing called Inspiration. Inspiration is a special bonus that you can spend any time you want to gain Advantage on an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check. Any one you want. Or, you can even choose to give Inspiration away to another player for whatever reason you want. And then that player can use it whenever they want.

Where do these Traits, Flaws, Ideals, and Bonds (collectively called Personal Characteristics) come from? Well, you make them up. But each Background includes a list of eight Personality Traits, six Ideals, six Bonds, and six Flaws you can choose from, roll for, or use as inspiration to invent your own (now you see why I keep capitalizing it when I talk about the game term). In fact, the whole system is explained in the chapter where Backgrounds are presented.

That’s the theory. And it SEEMS like a good theory. And an okay system. But let’s look a little deeper at where it falls apart.

Where the System Falls Apart

Now, there is this implicit connection between Inspiration, Personal Characteristics, and Background. They are presented together and sequentially and Backgrounds offer examples of each Personal Characteristic. Moreover, on PHB 125, it explicitly says that the DM typically awards Inspiration for portraying your Personal Characteristics. It also lists other ways the DM might award Inspiration, but it’s pretty strongly implied that’s what it’s for.

And honestly, if it were, that would be pretty cool. If my Ideal is “I always try to help those in need, no matter what the cost,” it stands to reason that when I take a big risk to help someone in need, my action might get a little boost. There’s a drive behind it. At the same time, a handy bribe is useful to give me (the player) a nudge toward giving in to a characteristic that might hurt me or my friends. If “I am suspicious of strangers and expect the worst of them,” and a helpful ranger guide appears to lead my friends and out of the wasteland before we starve, that’s a dangerous Flaw to give in to. So, a little bribe makes me think about not making the best choice, but rather making the choice my character would make.

Unfortunately, that is absolutely NOT what Inspiration does.

See, the biggest problem with Inspiration is that the bonus that you receive is not tied to the choice you made in accordance with your Characteristics. When you act like your character, you get to bank a bonus that you can use whenever you want. The Inspiration isn’t tied to the choice you made. It’s earned by the choice, but it can be used on anything. And that’s a little backwards. You’d think that the Inspiration bonus for “helping those in need” would apply directly to the risky action I’m taking to help those in need, connecting motivation, choice, and action.

This gets worse when you consider the ability to pass Inspiration to someone else for whatever reason you want. Not only is the bonus disconnected from the choice that ostensibly earned it, it is now disconnected from the character who made the choice. It literally stops being about choice, action, and personality and becomes a coupon for one free Advantage useable anytime.

Meanwhile, the Flaw thing falls apart. See, I can earn Inspiration by acting in accordance with ANY Characteristic on my sheet. So, instead of choosing the Flaw that is going to get me into trouble as a way to earn Inspiration, I could just as easily choose a positive trait and never endanger myself or the party. Thus, Flaws are the least likely to see use. After all, I can decide my character might distrust the ranger and assume the ranger has ulterior motives, but in the end, he doesn’t act on that assumption because he’s willing to endanger himself (risking the ranger’s betrayal) to help his friends in need (by accepting the ranger’s help). I get Inspiration either way. But one of those things was more costly than the other.

But let’s not stop there. Because there’s another weakness in the system. And that weakness is the DM. The thing is, the DM is encouraged to give Inspiration about once per character per session (DMG 240). And the DM is given a whole list of good reasons to reward Inspiration. In fact, Personal Characteristics are a very small part of that advice even though the PHB suggests it’s a large part of Inspiration. So, in the end, Inspiration actually comes across more as a DM finding an excuse to give everyone one action point per session they can use to gain advantage on any one roll. Or using it to bribe players to play the game right.

And, look, I’m not down on that. I’m all about using incentives to drive the themes of the game. But when you look at it from that perspective, it’s pretty bland. It’s sort of dull. Un-in-… you know. Especially because the connection between Inspiration and Personal Characteristics is pretty damned powerful if you use it right. That’s when it becomes a role-playing tool.

On top of that, what I’ve found is Inspiration is one of the most easily overlooked bits of game in all of 5E. I’ve played and run numerous 5E games, one shots and short campaigns, with friends and with strangers, and Inspiration is almost always forgotten. First of all, it’s very easy for the DM to forget to give it out. Why? Well, first of all, because the DM has a LOT to keep track of. That’s DMing. But second of all, when you consider that you have four to five people at the table and each one has five different Characteristics, that’s 20 to 25 things to be on the look out for. And you never know when they are going to come up. Or which ones will come up.

So the DMs who DO use Inspiration tend to give it out for whatever weird, random reasons they have decided to reward the players. Being funny. Being heroic. Being moronic. Bringing snacks. Good penmanship. Good “role-playing” (by which I mean being able to come up with overwrought prose to describe how to swing an axe on a moment’s notice). Whatever. Which, again, weakens the power of Inspiration. It’s just the “here, have an action point for reasons.”

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that players tend to forget about Inspiration. I’ve seen a lot of players end sessions with Inspiration they never thought to spend and didn’t even remember they had. So you end up with this bowl of poker chips in the middle of the table just to remind everyone that Inspiration is even a thing.

And that, to me, is the perfect metaphor for the Inspiration system in D&D.

It’s just this thing that’s easy to forget and sits in the game not really doing anything. It feels tacked on. Vestigial. An afterthought. It certainly doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose, as evidenced by the fact that the DM and the players get different advice about it and how it is weirdly disconnected from the mechanics that it seems to be connected to. It seems thrown in. “People like Bonds in Dungeon World and Aspects in Fate, we should probably slap something like that in there.”

I hate to say it like that, but that’s how it FEELs.

Using Inspiration Better

So, before we launch into some ideas about how to actually hack Inspiration to get something cool out of it, let’s talk about how to just use Inspiration in your game and get something out of it. Let’s assume you just want the Inspiration system the game is TRYING to give you. How do you pull it off.

Right off the bat, decide how you’re using Inspiration in your game. Are you using it to encourage Personal Characteristics? Are you using it to reward good “role-playing” (whatever the f$&% that means)? Are you using it to reward heroics? Risk? Exploration? Clever play? Whatever. Pick something. Decide what you want it to be about. Tell the players that’s what Inspiration is about. And then STICK TO IT. And for f$&%’s sake, pick ONE thing. Make it about ONE thing. Not “whatever you want.” It loses it’s power when the players don’t know what it’s for and when it’s for whatever random thing you want it to be for that day. All you do is encourage your players to act randomly.

Once you’ve decided what Inspiration is about, find a way to remember it’s there. Poker chips or tokens are a good start. But keep it in your visual field and in your way, whatever it is.

Now, if you’re using the “typical” (PHB 125) method of rewarding Personal Characteristics, you’ve got a bigger challenge. Because you have to keep an eye and reward that s$&%. Here’s a great way to handle that.

Get yourself some index cards. On the front of each index card, write “INSPIRATION! Gain Advantage on a die roll or give Inspiration to an ally!” On the back of each card, have each player write their character’s name and their five Personal Characteristics. Now, hang each of these cards on the back of your DM screen with the name/Characteristic side looking right at you. When a player earns Inspiration, give them their card. And when they use it OR pass it to someone, take the card back. Obviously, give the player receiving Inspiration their card. That way, you can easily see who doesn’t currently have Inspiration AND see their traits right in front of your face. And the players get a big, bright card they can see that reminds them exactly what they can do with it. Maybe add some glitter-glue and sparkles. But don’t do that.

Now, remind people it’s there. Big cards are useful. But you don’t want anyone leaving Inspiration unused. At the end of each session, make a big show of collecting the Inspiration back from the players who didn’t use it. “Do you still have your Inspiration? Wow, you should have spent it to hit that dragon. Oh well. I’ll take it back now.” Over time, players will start to remember it. They won’t want to end a session with it.

Finally, ignore that whole “once per player per session” advice. It’s just advice, after all. But the problem is, it undermines the whole concept of Inspiration. If you can only get it once per session and the GM is always looking for an excuse to give it, well, the incentive to play your character to the hilt is kind of weak. And the incentive to hoard it for the perfect moment (and then never end up using it) is kind of strong. So, give it early, give it often. Ideally, most of your players should have Inspiration most of the time. Is that unbalancing? Eh. Who gives a s$&%. It’s worth the payoff. If you give so much of a crap about acting in character that you think it’s worth magical free arbitrary bonuses to die rolls, you’ve already decided that character and story trump balance. And that’s fine. But go with it.

F$&%ing with Inspiration

Now, let’s look at some ways to use Inspiration differently. First, I’m going to present my alternate scheme for using Inspiration. Then, I’m going to offer a couple of smaller options that you can combine either with the Inspiration system as written or my Angry Inspiration Method.

Option 1: Angry’s Awesome Inspiration System

Forget everything you know about Inspiration. Here’s my alternate take.

Every character begins each session with Inspiration, which is a thing you either have or you don’t.

If you have Inspiration, you can spend it at any time to take an Inspired Action provided that action somehow ties into one of your character’s personal characteristics. If your Ideal is “I will do anything to save a person in danger,” and you want to swing across a ravine on a vine to rescue someone who is about fall into the ravine and hanging by one hand, that fits. You can claim an Inspired Action.

When you take an Inspired Action, you can either gain advantage on an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw OR you can give advantage to someone else’s ability check, attack roll, or saving throw provided you are in a position to assist them directly in some way OR impose disadvantage on someone else’s ability check, attack roll, or saving throw provided you are in a position to hinder their action directly in some way. Whatever it is, the Inspired Action MUST somehow connect to one of your Personal Characteristics.

So, let’s take that “I will take any risk to save a person in danger.” You could do the aforementioned “swinging across the ravine to catch them from falling” thing. Or if they have to attempt a saving throw to avoid a collapsing ceiling, you could throw yourself at them to save them, giving them advantage on the saving throw. Or if a monster is about to attack someone standing near you, you can interpose yourself and give the monster disadvantage on the attack roll. See? Easy.

When you don’t have Inspiration, you can Claim a Setback to gain Inspiration. To Claim a Setback you must either impose disadvantage on one of your own ability checks, saving throws, or attack rolls based on one of your Personal Characteristics OR make a decision that creates a significant story setback, obstacle, or hindrance. When you want to Claim a Setback, simply ask the GM. For example: “I’m easily distracted by shiny objects, so I’m distracted by the giant pile of treasure. Can I Claim a Setback and take disadvantage on my saving throw against the dragon’s fire breath?” Or: “This guy wants to help us, but I distrust all strangers. I’m going to be rude and accusatory of him. Can I Claim a Setback for that?” And then the GM might have the stranger refuse to help or get offended or start a fight. Whatever.

After you Claim a Setback, you get Inspiration. You can use the Inspiration to take an Inspired Action. And on and on it goes.

This simple system uses the same basic elements as the one in the core rules, but it avoids several of the problems and it has several advantages.

First, everyone has Inspiration at least once per session because they start each session with Inspiration to spend. Everyone gets one freebie. Just as the DMG advises.

Second, it creates a strong connection between the action or choice that the player makes and the bonus itself. Inspiration becomes a little less versatile but it becomes a powerful driver of character. In return for that, you can use it to help or hinder others instead of just using it yourself or passing it along.

Third, it takes responsibility for Inspiration AWAY from the GM. Why is this a good thing? Well, for a few reasons. Firstly, it means the GM doesn’t have to keep track of it and can’t forget about. Secondly, it means the GM can’t start using it in crazy, random, or confusing ways. The connection between character traits and inspiration is right in front of the players. They understand how playing their character provides them advantages. Which is precisely what you want to do.

Fourth, it encourages the players to create Characteristics that actually will affect the game. Bonds with your hometown are nice and all, but if the game will never take place in your hometown, it’s just a wasted sentence. But a Bond with a faction that is important in the campaign? That has a real impact. And players will want Characteristics that provide an impact: positive and negative.

Fifth, players can decide how much they want to engage with the system. Inspiration and personality mechanics are not for everyone. That’s fine. And some players are inclined to ignore it. Especially when it’s in the GM’s control. But each player begins with Inspiration they can only use by engaging with the personality system. So even though players can decide Inspiration isn’t worth bothering with, it’s hard to pass up that bonus. So, at least once per session, the player might push to use the Inspiration and get drawn into the system. They might never go so far as to Claim a Setback, but that’s fine. At least they are getting involved. And maybe, someday, they’ll want to Claim a Setback.

Sixth, the incentive is the same for the player and the character. See, I’ve seen a lot of people complain about players gaming the Inspiration system. Metagaming, if you will. And metagaming occurs when the player and the character want different things. This system aligns the goals of the player and the character. Players and characters both WANT to play to their personalities. Characters because it’s who they are and players because they can take Inspired Actions. So even if they do try to game the system, they are gaming it in a way that leads to better role-playing choices. Likewise, Claiming a Setback isn’t something that either the player or the character WANT. But characters feel a compulsion to do certain things that might be bad for them (like Flaws or tripping over Ideals) because that’s who they are. And players feel driven to suffer setbacks because they can claim advantages later. So again, gaming the system leads to a better play experience. And that, kiddos, is how you actually deal with metagaming!

So overall, with that very slight modification, you get a simple personality system that works much better than Inspiration as Written. And whether you use it or you don’t, you can still do a few other things to make Inspiration and Personal Characteristics more interesting.

Option 2: Inspiration Writes the Backstory

A long time ago, I wrote an article about an alternative system of writing character backstories. Instead of writing out a whole f$&%ing fanfiction about your character, most of which was not going to come up in play and all of which the GM really didn’t want to read, I suggested writing three to five vignettes called Significant Memories. These were short, paragraph long moments in the character’s life that stuck with the character and defined them in some way.

If you like that system (and you should, because it’s awesome), consider using it alongside the Personal Characteristics system. That is, each player creates or chooses five Personal Characteristics (two Traits, a Bond, an Ideal, and a Flaw). Then, they write a paragraph for each one that shows a significant even in the character’s life that ties into that Trait, either explaining it or exemplifying it.

Here’s an example for my soldier character that doesn’t exist but I just made up for the purposes of providing an example:

I’ve lost too many friends, I’m slow to make new ones…
Shortly after I was conscripted, the hobgoblin war reached Eraz and my legion was sent to the front lines. At the time, I was excited to go into battle for real. And I was just pleased to have gotten through training. It had been a miserable, lonely experience except for the fact that I met Kyrie, Wael, Dale, and Arvan there. We became inseparable. Kyrie kept me from fleeing from the camp and becoming a deserter. Dale and Arvan got me through training. Wael kept all of our spirits up with his bawdy jokes and songs. I was actually proud of my armor, my pike, my sword. I was a soldier. And I was ready to run some foul goblins through. And they ambushed us before we even got to camp, while we were exhausted from the days of forced marching. Their brutality was shocking and their precision terrifying. They were perfect soldiers, perfect killers, disciplined, cold, savage. The last thing Dale ever did, the last help he ever gave me, was to get his head caved in by a mace that was meant for my skull. I never saw what happened to Arvan and Kyrie was never found. But Wael survived. And that was worse. He had taken a horrible blow, bitten through his tongue, and he would never speak again. Taking his voice was worse than taking his life would have been. And I was alone again.

See? There’s a background story.

Option 3: Racial Characteristics (and Other Characteristics)

Now, look, I know there is nothing in the rules that explicitly says your Personal Characteristics HAVE TO come from your background and only your background. In fact, the rules pretty clearly say you can make them up any way you want. That said, the rules do a good job of IMPLYING they are tied to your background just by presenting all of the sample lists with the backgrounds. And you know a certain majority of players are just going to draw from those lists.

The thing is, those lists serve a couple of purposes. First, they obviously provide Characteristics you can use if you don’t want to create your own. Second, they give you an example of what the Characteristics should look like. Third, they provide an example of how the Characteristics tie into who your character is in game terms by showing the connection between Characteristic and Background. And fourth, they they actually provide extra descriptions of what the backgrounds mean. When you run down the list of Characteristics for, say, the acolyte or the hermit, you get a sense of what acolytes and hermits are and what roles they fill in the world. They serve as extra descriptions.

What I do not understand is why you don’t also get a list of Characteristics for races. I mean, they go through this whole schtick about about what an elf is like and what values most dwarves have. Doesn’t that seem like it would also be a perfect place for these Characteristics? That way, a person could pick and choose. Maybe I take one Elf Personality Trait and an Elf Bond, but then I take a Sage Ideal and a Sage Flaw and make up my own second Personality Trait.

So, for example, the Dwarf Characteristics might look something like this:

Dwarf Traits 520 x 459

And if you check out my Pile O’ S$&%, you’ll soon discover more Characteristics for more races.

Notice how those Characteristics describe dwarves. They clarify what dwarves are in the world. Even if you don’t use any of them, even if you reject dwarvishness, it tells you what dwarves represent. If you combine those tables with the racial bonuses and penalties, you get a pretty complete description of a race. That means, if you want to create your own races, you could do some mechanical bonuses and a list of Characteristics and give the short, short version.

Moreover, you could create lists of those traits for other things. Suppose, for example, your campaign takes place in a kingdom with four different towns, a dwarven stronghold, and an elvish enclave. Each of those settlements could have a list of personality traits and you could ask players to choose from those instead of from Backgrounds (or Races) to emphasize upbringing. These could become a great tool for world building. Speaking of which…

Option 4: Using Characteristics to Build Campaigns

Imagine you have a campaign in which the PCs are all rebels trying to drive out the evil empire. And you want everyone to either have sympathy for the rebels or antipathy with the empire. So, you might say “your Bonds must either connect you to the rebellion or show you are against the empire.” Or if all the PCs work for the Adventuring Guild of Adventure, all of their Bonds must connect them to the AGOA somehow. You could even provide lists.

For that matter, if you’ve got a campaign with multiple factions or organizations, you could give each one an example list of Bonds and require all the PCs are somehow tied to some organization.

Or, if you’re running something inspired by classical mythology with crazy, meddling deities and over-the-top heroes that are practically demigods fighting medusa for golden fleeces or whatever, maybe everyone has to have a bond with one of the ten crazy gods of Tuatha de Olympheim or whatever.

Option 5: Changing Up Characteristics

If I were running a dungeon-of-the-week style traditional campaign, you know what I really wouldn’t give a s$&% about? Ideals. Ideals can f$&% right off. There’s no real room for morality in a game like that. The morality is “go into the dungeon, kill the things, take their stuff.” Or if I were running an awesome Megadungeon campaign. Same thing.

But what I would care about is Motivation. Why do the PCs want to go into the dungeons and kill things and take their stuff. Instead of how they feel about serving the greater good or whatever, I’d be more interested in knowing whether they are in it for the money or looking for magic or trying to prove themselves by killing the bestest monsters around or whatever. So might say “hey, kids, forget Ideals. Don’t pick an idea. Instead, I want one sentence of what Motivates you to go into pits filled with monsters and take their stuff.”

And if I were running a horror game, maybe instead of Ideals, I want Fears. I want to know what scares you? Being alone? Bugs and creepy crawly things? Darkness? The unknown?

The point is, instead of being married to Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws, change up the things you ask for to tie into the themes of your campaign.

Option 6: Growth and Loss

Here’s the problem with Inspiration… okay, wait… here’s ONE MORE problem with Inspiration. It’s static. PCs don’t grow. They don’t change. They don’t overcome their flaws. They don’t develop new bonds. And that sucks because fiction and drama are all about character growth. In fiction, we call characters who don’t change “flat” or “static” or “un-…interesting.”

So, whenever there is a big situation in the game, something mind-blowing or traumatic or awesome or whatever, you should invite players to adopt a new Characteristic. Let them discard one that is played out and create a new one based on the big situation.

Likewise, in game situations which directly impact PC Characteristics, do not be shy about telling them wipe out a characteristic. For example, if the character’s Ideal is “always helps people in danger,” and the PC ignores someone in danger for treasure, feel free to tell the player to erase it and find a new one. If someone loses faith, ask them if they want to discard their Bond with their church.

Significant events, for better or for worse, should leave their mark on the characters. If you’re playing a character driven game, that is.

Option 7: The “Tabula Rasa” Game

Okay, this is a fun one that gets people paying attention to each other at the table. Tell your players not to come up with Characteristics at all. Let them come to the table with blanks.

Now, during the game, they can claim an Inspiration bonus whenever they want, but they have to explain why their Personality, Ideal, Bond, or Flaw has inspired them. That is to say, they come up with the trait on the fly. And then they have to write it in.

If you’re using Option 1, they can Take Inspired Actions OR Claim Setbacks as they wish.

Option 8: The “Didactic Self” Game

Here’s a nifty variant on the Tabula Rasa game. Again, the players come with blank Characteristics. Now, have each player bring five index cards. They should make one blank card for each of two Personality Traits, their Bond, their, Flaw, and their Ideal. They should write their character’s name on each card.

Shuffle up all the cards and hand them out to random players. Players are not allowed to keep their own cards.

Now, just start running the game. Let each player play their character for three or four sessions as they see fit. There is no Inspiration (or Inspired Actions/Setbacks) available during these first few sessions. Instead, each player needs to pay attention to the other players and then fill in the cards they have based on how the character is acting.

So, if I have Alice’s Personality Trait card and Alice seems rude, I might put “doesn’t consider the feelings of others” or “knows she is better than everyone else.”

At the end of the three or four session period, everyone gives the cards back to their rightful owners and those Characteristics, whatever they are, become true. Maybe Alice wasn’t trying to be a know-it-all, but she is now. And now people can gain Inspiration (or take Inspired Actions and Claim Setbacks) based on that stuff.

Option 9: Imposing Setbacks

This system requires you to use Option 1: Angry’s Awesome Inspiration System. And it adds an additional layer.

The GM may Impose Setbacks. That is, in a scene during which one of your Characteristics (specifically flaws) should work against you, the GM can either impose disadvantage on a related roll or require you to take a detrimental action that somehow creates a story setback. This works exactly the same as Claiming a Setback, except the GM requires it instead of the player claiming it.

If the player does not have Inspiration, the player gains Inspiration from the Imposed Setback. If the player does have Inspiration, they may describe how they overcome their Flaw or other trait and they lose their Inspiration.

You’ll have to find the right balance of how often to use this, but honestly, rather than sticking to a strict numerical limit, you should just go by the demands of the story. Moreover, the advantage of this system is that it encourages players to Claim Setbacks on their terms whenever they don’t have Inspiration.

If you want to make this harsher, assume characters DO NOT start each session with Inspiration.

Option 10: Compulsions…

Now, if you really want to f$&% with free-will a little, you can add another layer on top of Imposing Setbacks. Again, you must be using Option 1 for this to work. You must also be using Option 9. Compulsions work best in games where the themes are about choice vs. free-will or disempowerment.

A Compulsion is a special type of Characteristic, not a Personality Trait, Bond, Flaw, or Ideal. It’s extra. And players do not choose them. Instead, they come from outside forces. They work like any other Characteristics, granting Inspired Actions or Providing/Imposing Setbacks (and, for them to really work, the GM must occasionally impose them). But they represent an external intrusion on the character’s free will.

For example, the character might pick up a magic sword that adds the Compulsion “I lust for bloody battle and never shy from an opportunity to spill the blood of my foes.” And now, that Characteristic becomes a part of them for as long as they own the sword. Or, a character might be seduced or possessed by a supernatural entity or have a bond with a particular being. That might add a weird Compulsion. Curses are another great example. You might gain a Compulsion if you turn into undead or a lyncathrope. You can do a lot with Compulsions.

Option 11: Insanity

If you really want to go whole hog into horror, you can use these Characteristics as part of a Sanity System. You must be using Option 1 and Option 9. But do not use Option 10. Instead, this Option replaces Option 10.

An Insanity is a Characteristic that replaces or overrides another Characteristic. It is essentially an uncontrolled personality trait or behavior that overrides the character’s basic traits, ideals, bonds, and even flaws.

Insanities can never grant Inspired Actions. They can only create Setbacks, either Imposed by the GM or Claimed by the PC.

When a character gains an Insanity (due to a trauma of some kind), they take a random Insanity. For example: “Brontophobia: I am absolutely terrified of loud noises,” or “Paranoia: I know everyone is plotting against me, but I can’t let them know I know.” This Insanity overwrites one of their Characteristics. That is, they lose the Characteristic and replace it with the Insanity. That doesn’t mean their behavior has to change. But their will has weakened and they can’t take Inspired Actions related to that trait anymore.

When a PC has lost all of their Characteristics and replaced them all with Insanities, the character goes permanently insane. They are beyond all hope. The character is essentially dead and the player needs a new PC.


Okay, so that’s it. I told you everything that’s wrong with Inspiration in D&D and I gave you eleven different options for better ways to handle it. What more do you want from me, for f$&%’s sake? I’m done.

Seriously. I have no idea how to end this. Just close the page or whatever.

35 thoughts on “11 Ways to Take the Suck Out of Inspiration in D&D

  1. I’m a new DM trying to lead other noobs and totally borked inspiration in our first 6-ish session “campaign”.

    I think I gave out inspiration maybe 3 times. I never took away the last one and it still went unspent after 3 sessions.

    Now that we have the rules mostly down, we’re starting over.
    Going to start with option 1 from this article and see if inspiration has more impact this time.

    Uh… and not to be a boot licker, but your blog collection of articles is f$&%ing outstanding.

  2. Fantastic article, Angry! I was actually just talking to my players the other day about how we never really use their Traits/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws. FYI, the DMG already kinda uses the idea of Compulsions/Insanities, as well as adding or removing Personal Characteristics, with some curses and with the actual Insanity mechanics.

    Option 1: Yes. All the yes.
    Option 2: Not sure my IRL players would go for this, but maybe for PBP games. Or just have them flesh out the backstories they have now.
    Option 3: Maybe just for future characters; it’s a little late to start making changes to their Characteristics, but it might work.
    Option 4: Already use something like this, but I didn’t think if formalizing it as a Characteristic. It might really help my players stay focused on their character’s goals rather than their own. I’ll probably use this when the characters make game-changing decisions, in order to remind people how their characters differ from themselves (of course, their Characteristics can change, but this would be helpful for making the shifts more natural).
    Option 5: I like the idea of Motivations, but the other ones don’t really suit my games. Interesting concept, to be sure, but maybe not something I’d use.
    Option 6: I was already planning on doing this. It’s a nice way to represent character progression.
    Option 7: This would be super-helpful if a player ever had to begin play with a background-less character sheet. That way, the player doesn’t have to miss out on game time, but can still make up their own background. I’d have to be careful of abuse, though (e.g. “By the way, guys. I just remembered that I’m actually Batman, so I can do anything.” “What? Why would you make your character Batman (besides the obvious, of course)?” “Well, I’m only playing today, so what does it matter?”)
    Option 8: Ooh, I like this one! It could be a fun, almost mini game-like, way to fill in Backstories for NPCs. Have them interact with the party, and have the five cards in front of the players. Anyone may submit a Characteristic for the NPC, and it becomes canon. Maybe also grant them done sort of bonus, but I think the ability to affect the game world so much would be enough motivation by itself.
    Option 9: Again, perfect! My player’s absolutely never use their Flaws except as a way of justifying misbehavior (I absolutely detest the Criminal’s Flaw of “If there’s a plan, I’ll forget it. If I don’t forget it, I’ll ignore it.” It just gives “that guy” an excuse to antagonize people).
    Option 10: This is…complicated. I’m not sure if my more casual group would go for it, but maybe the RP-heavier one would.
    Option 11: Hehehe…*Evil DM Grin* That would be great, but not for any of my current games. Next game, maybe.

  3. You know, many of these are very similar to the Force Point and Obligation system of FFG’s Edge of the Empire. You can even through in the Duty and Morality mechanics from Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny. I wonder if you have ever considered running a Star Wars game, Angry?

    • It’s similar to a lot of things. That line in the article about how it felt kind of like Fate’s Aspects or Dungeon World’s bonds, albeit a bit half-assed? That’s pretty much the impression it gives to people familiar with a lot of different systems, because outside of the D&D bubble this sort of mechanic is downright common, with different versions played with. It’s a developed mechanic, and Inspiration is like some sort of decade-old proto-mechanic behind that entire class, lacking refinement. It’s just strapped to a new game.

      You see FFG. Angry sees Fate and DW. I immediately saw Fudge and REIGN. Someone else might see Savage Worlds and Cortex. The introduction of an Inspiration-styled mechanic is welcome, but the specifics are D&D lagging behind the rest of the industry again.

  4. I hate to say this, but I’m gonna: dude, you crushed it.

    Outstanding article. Really. Our group is already working on adding these changes in.

  5. This is really great. The next session of my 5e campaign is in three days, and I fully plan to implement the core idea here, and probably working in Options 3 and 6 over time.

    Thanks a lot for this! (Your series on building combats has also been really helpful in my games.)

  6. Option 1 is pretty much what I’ve had rolling around my head today. Thanks for this post, I needed the nudge.

    I agree with all your problems with Inspiration. I never remember to hand it out and it feels like a crappy move when I do. It’s even crappier to spend: A Cleric player gave up on looting a fresh corpse because of moral reasons (bing, inspiration). But then he gets to spend his Inspiration later, “oh I’ll guess I’ll use this”, and muffs the roll anyway. Inspiration wasn’t fun that day.

    It’s extra admin that the players should be taking care of, but WotC know it can be metagamed. So they’ve gone, meh, don’t know what to do with this but it’s sort of cool – you guys’ll figure it out by 6e right?

    Earning Inspiration through disadvantages actually sounds like what they wanted to say but got scared of the negative impression it gives roleplaying. But letting players hobble themselves for rewards sounds like a lot more fun – hey guys, let’s do this one dangerously.

  7. Unbelievable as it sounds, you made a mistake, Angry. You do not need to have PRECISELY two traits, one bond, ideal and flaw. That is simply the minimum. You can have as many as you want beyond that. But I do really like the insanity option, even though I won’t use your system. And thank you for the index cards idea, that may prove very useful.

  8. I took a real world event (apparently a gamma ray burst from a star hit earth in the dark ages), added it to my mystara setting (a bunch of giants took the dire template due to exposure to an entropic ray), and huzzah! Attack on titan meets dnd. Giants bigger and more savage swoop down and eat the villagers. Its the beginning of a terrible time for folks living on the edge of civilization.

  9. This is a brilliant article, can’t wait to introduce it to my group next week. I’ve tried to get the players to play their traits for inspiration because I can’t remember to do it on top of all the other DM stuff, but they never remember either.

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  12. The criticisms of Inspiration are definitely warranted, and your Fate-derived ideas for altering it are pretty good, but I’m disappointed that you didn’t just come right out and admit that you are basically cramming the Fate point economy into D&D as the root of most of your “ideas”. Cribbing from others is a great way to improve games, but it’s shallow to do so and pretend that it’s your own, um, “inspiration”.

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  14. Dude, mind if I translate this to Portuguese to share with my players on Facebook? I’ll include a link to this page, obviously.

  15. After watching Titansgrave I was interested in adding some kind of stunt system but as I was looking into it more deeply I realized that it’s just adding more rule bloat to something that should be created in the moment. The Inspired Action is much more useful. It gives the PC an opportunity to do something cool (and not dependent on a die roll) but not so often that every other action is cool.

    What’s weird about Titansgrave (as seen on TableTop) is the PCs will call out “and 2 stunt points” and look expectantly at Wil. They would rarely offer a suggestion as to what those stunt points might translate into. The other thing that’s weird about the Fantasy AGE stunt dice is that you have an equal chance of getting 1 or 6 stunt points on each roll. That seems off balance.

    Anyway, as I say, as I was looking into it, it struck me that I didn’t want my PCs to be limited to a prescribed set of stunts. The Inspired Action is much more flexible and integrates with the backgrounds very cleanly.

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  17. The problem with tying the spending of Inspiration to personality trait-related actions, is that many of these personality traits are not tied directly to overcoming obstacles, so advantage or disadvantage don’t apply to them. Say a character has this trait from page 137: “Life is like the seasons, in constant change, and we must change with it.” What kind of roll would that apply to? It seems pretty darn obscure. Now you’ve thrust yourself into the hell of having players min-max their character’s personality for traits that are as generic and widely applicable as possible, which is the exact opposite of what the system is designed to do.

    I think your opinion of Inspiration might change a little bit if you look at systems that implemented it properly. White Wolf’s Storyteller system, for example, has their “Willpower” system that is almost identical to Inspiration in both form and function.

    In the Willpower system, players have a pool of Willpower points, usually around 4-7. These points can be spent for a dice bonus on any task, just like the Inspiration system. The player chooses a positive and a negative trait, which if met, restore Willpower points: one for the negative trait, and all points for the positive trait. Just two traits, with explicit conditions for satisfying them, helps to focus the system, as you mentioned in your article.

    Positive traits only give Willpower if your character suffers a setback because of them. This emphasizes that the traits are there to reward drama. Either your character is causing trouble from their negative trait, or getting themselves into trouble through their positive trait. The reward from gaining Willpower points helps to offset the negative consequences of the character’s actions. This incentivizes players to get into trouble and make the story more exciting.

    Having a pool of points, rather than a single point, helps you remember they’re there during gameplay. It also helps alleviate the indecision on whether to use them on things that are only mildly important. A lot of the time you’ll save inspiration because you think you’ll get a better use out of it later, which never materializes. Having several helps you get into the habit of using them, and then searching for ways to restore them.

    But really, from reading your article, I think the biggest thing you’re getting hung up on is the name “Inspiration”. Yeah, Inspiration seems like it should apply directly to trait-related actions, but I don’t think that’s integral to what the system is trying to do. It’s more about rewarding players for role-playing their character’s flaws and convictions, even if they lead to negative consequences. If the name is what’s really bugging you, that it doesn’t make sense conceptually that you could store “inspiration” and use it for whatever you want, then just change the name to something that fits better.

    • Your point about min-maxing players choosing traits for mechanical advantage is exactly what I was thinking. I have a couple players who would choose traits like “Loves to win fights” or “Is fascinated by watching the effects of his magic on people.” The players who would NOT min-max are also not the ones who need Inspiration as a roleplaying incentive.

      I love the spirit of Angry’s article, and the idea of the players working for their inspiration instead of the DM, but I’m still trying to figure out how to implement it without having to fight my min-maxers.

  18. You made a lot of amazing points in this article especially about racial personality traits. However, links to your Pile O’ S$&% or the racial personality traits of all the races would be appreciated.

  19. I like option one, a definite improvement over the system-as-written in the books. It solves a problem for me because I was trying to cobble together a way of bringing the idea of “passions” into my D&D. I was basing it on a review of Blade of Iron (https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/16/16137.phtml) where the guy mentions that players who engage their character’s “passions” get extra dice added to their dice pool for the action.

    I thought that was such a cool idea and I was surprised to see it would accomplish a lot of the things you manage to do by reworking inspiration (I had just written off inspiration as some kind of generic “luck” mechanism). I love the idea of taking disadvantage in character appropriate ways for an inspiration in the bank.

    Great stuff as (almost) always lol.

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  21. This is how I do it:
    1. Inspiration is for sticking true to Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws primarily.
    2. There’s longer a no one-per-session limit.
    3. There’s a big bowl of token. Stick true to Trait, Ideal, Bond, Flaws? You get a token.
    4. When you want advantage / negate disadvantage, you spend all of your tokens before the roll (not after). E.g. if you have recieved Insp six times, spend all six of those tokens when you invoke it.

    These last two rules make it so that mathematically, it works the same as the by-the-book “You have insp or you don’t”. But I can just hand tokens out as a reward to acknowledge a player even though they might already have inspiration.

    I’ve used this for many, many sessions and I like it.

    • I am going to try this in my next session. However was thinking of expanding it so that 1 or 2 tokens get you a d4 3-4 get a d6 etc. So being more inspired gets you a bigger reward.

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