WARNING! DIFFICULT DISCUSSION COMING! SKIP TO THE FIRST HEADING IF YOU CAN’T HANDLE IT!
So, I found myself once again thinking about Personality Mechanics in RPGs. That includes, of course, the absolutely terrible Inspiration System in D&D 5E that no one uses. But it also includes other systems in which you pick a set of personality descriptors and traits and get some kind of benefit or penalty. For example, the Aspect system in – *hurk* – FATE. Or the character generation system in Savage Worlds where you get character generation points to spend on cool stuff if you’re willing to weigh your character down with a drinking problem and a harelip. Okay, admittedly, harelip is not a personality trait. But you get the idea.
It’s funny because, as much as I’ve gone on record as saying I hate this crap, Inspiration in D&D has become an obsession of mine. How many times have I fricking fixed it at this point? Three? Four? I don’t even remember. And I don’t know why. Well, I sort of do. But I’m going to save that discussion for the very end of this article and get it out of the Long, Rambling Introduction™. Because I want to talk about the heavy stuff that made me rethink how RPGs handle this crap. And to admit that, once again, maybe FATE didn’t do EVERYTHING wrong. Even if it did. Because FATE isn’t what I’m going for. But it did get something kind of right and D&D and other games could have learned a better lesson for it.
Anyway, here’s the difficult story that might upset you. And this is just context, so feel free to have whatever opinions you want about it. Just don’t assume those opinions are in any way relevant to discussing the article and therefore, keep them out of the comment section.
I had to write about Bill Cosby and The Cosby Show recently. I was writing a script for the GM Word of the Week and wanted to explore the phenomenon of the ugly holiday sweater and the history of sweater-wearing in general. Really. That’s what I do on that show. Go give it a listen. Anyway, the problem was that The Cosby Show, a 1984 family sitcom on American TV, actually had a lot to do with a huge surge in sweater sales. Not only that but the show also literally changed the television landscape in a lot of ways in the 1980s. It was a major, pop-cultural turning point. In some ways, it was highly progressive. In other ways, it was a throwback to certain traditional values of the 1950s. You literally couldn’t discuss the pop-culture history of America without discussing Bill Cosby. Not to mention that, on a personal level, I love Bill Cosby’s brand of family-friendly stand-up comedy. I used to listen to it recorded on these big, flat vinyl discs in which the sound was somehow recorded in spiraling scratches. They were my Dad’s.
But, of course, Bill Cosby was recently accused of a lot of really horrible stuff. And, while he denies it and I will never actually know the truth, he was actually convicted of several of the charges a few months ago. And he managed to avoid being tried on several more of the charges only by virtue of the statute of limitations running out. So, given he had his day in court and the court said “yeah, you did enough horrible crap for us to throw you in prison for a decade and get fined,” I’m willing to say that, yeah, he’s garbage. He did really terrible shit. And he deserves the punishment. Innocent until proven guilty stops one the guilty verdict comes down, right?
Here’s the problem, though: it has become a sort of current practice, culturally, to throw anyone down the memory hole once something bad is revealed. Now, I know that with Cosby and Weinstein and Spacey that it’s not merely the revelation of “something bad.” It’s horrible. It’s evil. They did evil. And they deserve to pay for that evil. I am not excusing anything they did. The problem is – and this in no way excuses the evil – that they didn’t just do the evil thing. Cosby did change the entire course of television history in a way that directed American family life for a decade. We can’t just stop talking about him because of his reprehensible evil acts. It leaves a huge hole in our history. In the story of how we got here. And that means it also leaves out important lessons we learned. The Cosby Show broke down a huge number of television stereotypes about African-American families. It was an important lesson. One too important to forget. And it’s the same with erasing any event in human history. Democracy and freedom only survive with constant vigilance. We need to know what to be vigilant against. Yes, the Civil War in America was horrible. Literally, half our population was fighting for the right to keep people enslaved. Of course, the other half of our population had finally tumbled to the idea that slavery was so evil that we were willing to go to war over it. And, yeah, the side that was fighting for slavery was fighting for a really bad thing, but they were also part of the American character. Because they were trying to overthrow a tyrannical Federal government that was going too far and taking away the rights of the people under its jurisdiction. And while that spirit is to be celebrated, that spirit can lead to evil things as much as it can lead to good things. People should be proud of their willingness to fight and die for their freedoms, but they should also remember that freedom also comes with duty and responsibility. You can’t use your freedom for evil. And you can’t take freedom from someone else. Anyone else. Tearing down monuments, disavowing the founding fathers because they owned slaves, and attempting to erase evil acts from our history is a very dangerous thing. Because the evils we are capable of are a consequence of the same things that make us capable of good. It’s the evil acts – and the results – that teach us how to use our qualities for good.
So, I had to include a disclaimer in the show. Yes, Cosby did evil stuff, but he also had a massive impact on pop culture and because this show deals with pop culture history, we have to be willing to talk about it. Because you can learn good lessons even from evil things. And no one is all evil. Or all good. People do evil things and good things.
And then, I remembered a recent epiphany I had about my own capacity for evil. And it made realize that most Personality Mechanics are barking up the wrong tree. And I’m going to start the article proper here and leave the Long, Rambling Introduction™ behind. Because the next part is the part everyone needs to know.
Carl Jung Says D&D’s Inspiration System Sucks
I want to talk about Personality Mechanics again. Because an experience I had recently that I discussed in the Long, Rambling Introduction™ made me start thinking about them. But the seeds for what I’m thinking actually got planted months ago. And now I find myself thinking about redoing D&D Inspiration AGAIN! Except not really. I mean, it works out that way. But I’ll tell you at the end what’s really at the heart of this. For right now, just assume I’m talking about hacking Inspiration again!
See, for the last year, I’ve been very steeped in clinical psychology and psychiatry. Not under treatment. Well, okay, a little under treatment for a little while. And not studying officially. Just, I got interested in the topic and I’ve been consuming a lot by a lot of different authors. And I’ve even gone through a couple of interesting self-analysis programs administered by professional clinical psychologists. I’m not talking about personality quizzes online or that kind of thing. I wanted to learn more about myself and about the field because of a personal experience I had. And because studying the way people think can be very useful in game design. I’m not claiming to be an expert nor am I diagnosing anything here. I’m just an interested amateur who had a neat idea about RPG mechanics as a result of some stuff I learned.
So, there’s this idea, right? And it’s been around in a lot of different forms for a long time, but it’s really Carl Jung who put it into good words. And it’s now important to certain types of clinical psychology. It’s called the “shadow.” Basically, it’s the dark side of yourself. It’s the primitive, unrestrained impulses and selfish desires. And I’ll use my own “shadow” as an example. Believe it or not, I have a very bad temper. I KNOW, RIGHT?! WHO WOULD GUESS?! I can be really verbally abusive and irrational when I get mad. It’s something I’ve been fighting against for years. And for years, I found myself wishing I could get rid of it. Because it causes me a lot of pain when I lose control of it and it requires me to be constantly vigilant now so it doesn’t take control. Wouldn’t it be great if I could cut it out?
Well, no. I recently had a very interesting epiphany as a result of some of the coursework I was doing in psychology. The activity required us to identify positive traits about ourselves and then to describe situations in which they helped us, how we could have used them better, and then describe how they have hurt us, and how we could prevent that. I am very assertive. I stand up for myself and the people I love. I will put myself in danger to protect the people around me. More generally, I will not let people push me around or take advantage of me. And this has served me well in business and personal dealings. It makes me a good public speaker, it lets me control a room, it lets me control a game table when I was an accountant, it let me fight with the IRS and state agencies on behalf of my clients, and so on. It’s a part of me I’m happy to have. And the people I love are happy I have it too.
Do you see it yet?
Yeah. I didn’t. For a long time. Because I never enumerated my virtues and faults and put their good and bad effects side by side. My assertiveness is a virtue because it lets me stand up for myself and others and keeps me in control and I literally wouldn’t The Angry GM without it BUT it also leads me to down the dark path of seizing control and using any means at my disposal to keep that control and make things happen. It’s my bad temper. My bad temper is also my assertiveness and tenacity.
See, the idea isn’t to excise the shadow. You can’t, really. Because you have dark impulses. They are a part of you. You’re capable of doing bad things. If you weren’t, the choice to do good things wouldn’t mean anything. And that lesson has been around since the Bible got written. That’s what the concept of Biblical free will and Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge was all about. Once you hit a certain level of mental complexity and you’re working on something other than impulse and instinct, you don’t get to claim innocence. Your actions can be good or evil. And you have to choose. And you are accountable for that choice.
The point of personality development – or one of the points according to certain branches of clinical psychiatry – is to recognize that what you see as your dark side is a consequence of who you are as much as your light side is. They are two sides of the same coin. And you can’t get rid of the bad without getting rid of the good. So, you have to learn how to control the dark impulses, to be vigilant against your virtues turning to faults, and then you can be a good person. Mostly. Because everyone screws up. The bad temper I’ve been struggling to destroy? I can’t. That’ll never work. Because the temper isn’t the problem. The temper is just an unrestrained impulse wielding my assertiveness like a bludgeon.
What does this psychobabble have to do with Inspiration in D&D and other Personality Mechanics? Well, there’s a couple of things. But mostly, have you noticed that almost every game that has a Personality Mechanic asks you to pick some positive traits that give you a bonus and some negative flaws that give you a penalty? And the two aren’t related at all? So, your character becomes a pile of four to six traits that mostly don’t have anything to do with each other?
And that’s not even withstanding mistaking a coping mechanism for a personality flaw. But I’ll get to that. No, really, I will.
But all of this psychobabble isn’t just an indictment of personality systems, there’s also a really good idea about how to do a better one. NOW, we can talk about game mechanics.
The Problem with Inspiration… AGAIN
So, let’s once again talk about the failings of Inspiration in D&D. I’ll make this short because I’ve complained about all of this crap before.
First, Inspiration is a system whereby you choose a certain number of personality traits and flaws. Whenever you play your character consistently with one of those traits or flaws, you get Inspiration. Except you also start each level with Inspiration. Whenever you have Inspiration, you can spend it on any die roll to get a bonus.
Now, what’s wrong with that? Well, there’s no connection between the action that gets the bonus and the actual personality trait. It’s just a bonus you store up. And it is easily forgotten. Players forget to spend inspiration. GMs forget to dole out inspiration. It’s especially hard on GMs because they have to remember the six traits for each of the five players and constantly be looking out for them. And also, there’s the arbitrary nature of Inspiration as a little battery in your brain that charges you up for one and precisely one action. While flaws are recognized, they don’t have any different impact on gameplay from all of the other traits. So, there’s no reason to call them out. And the traits themselves are long and often overly specific. And with five or six traits, the players generally don’t remember them all. And because they have to be selected before gameplay starts whereas character personality actually tends to emerge gradually during play and very rarely does a player end up playing precisely the character they envisioned, they often end up not matching the character as they are played. Because personality in gameplay is a response to the interactions that happen in the game. And there’s no mechanism for these traits changing. So, there’s no possibility for character growth. Which means there’s no possibility for character arcs.
Phew. Okay. That’s everything. And I’ve been fixing these problems for the better part of two years in articles like 11 Ways to Take the Suck Out of Inspiration in D&D and Fix Yourself, Break the Game: Character Arcs in D&D. As to why I’m obsessed with fixing Inspiration? Well, I’m not. Not really. But I’ll get to that at the end.
Now we can add another problem to the list: the Jungian Shadow thingy. Flaws and traits should be related to each other. But you know what? Let’s not even talk about the problems. Because talking about the problems is part of the problem. Let’s come at this from another direction.
By the way, I will say FATE handles this Jungian Shadow Thingy very well. Because every trait you select – every aspect – can have both a positive and a negative impact on your character’s actions. So, virtues and flaws – or bonuses and penalties – are always two sides of the same coin. They are interrelated. The problem, of course, is that it’s FATE. And Aspects aren’t personality traits. They can be. Some are. But they also aren’t.
From the Ground Up
Let’s pretend, for one moment, that we wanted to actually just build a system from the game up. Like, instead of just trying to fix D&D’s Inspiration system or hack said system into Pathfinder or whatever, we were designing our own game and could make the system however we wanted. What would we want it to do? What would we want it to support?
If I were building a Personality Mechanic for a game like D&D, the first thing I’d do is remember that it’s frigging D&D and not the latest indie narrative piece of bullcrap. A Personality Mechanic in D&D exists to simply let a player personalize their character a little. The game is mainly about taking an archetype and making it your own. And the game is about dealing with obstacles, overcoming them, and accomplishing goals. That’s what all of the mechanics in the game are actually about. That’s why it’s encounter-based and class-based and anyone who tries to say “it’s a collaborative storytelling experience” is reading a completely game or projecting so hard they could show the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy on their living room wall. The EXTENDED Edition.
So, it needs to be a small, simple mechanic. Easy to engage with. And it really shouldn’t involve the GM much. And, honestly, because D&D isn’t really ABOUT that sort of crap, it should be easy to ignore. That is, if someone doesn’t use it, it shouldn’t break the game. It should have a minor impact. But the impact should be noticeable. The thing about the impact though is that the mechanics almost don’t matter. It doesn’t matter that the bonus or penalty is +2 or -4 or Advantage or whatever. What matters is the player saying “wait, I am going to claim a modifier to this roll because I’m the guy with the bad temper.” Basically, it’s personality flag waving. It’s the player announcing to the game that they fill a specific archetype.
D&D is a role-playing game. And that means that a certain part of it is about the narrative. There are narrative conventions built right into D&D. And the same things that make a good story also make a good game. Character growth is a part of the game. And that manifests in two ways. First, as you play the game, you learn more about your character. The character you generate is a starting point. Part of the journey inherent in the RPG is defining your character. So, any Personality Mechanic needs to allow for growth over time. Second, you also want the possibility of a character arc.
The Shadow Arc
I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I’ve already talked it to death in other articles. But I want to point out is that the whole Jungian Shadow Thingy – especially the part about integrating and accepting your shadow – is actually mirrored pretty precisely in most good character arcs. Take Star Wars, for example. Luke Skywalker was a good kid with an adventurous spirit. He was brave, he put others first, he was willing to help those in need. In short, he was a hero. He was willing to risk everything to do the right thing for other people. I mean, you could argue that his desire to help Princess Leia was all about his teenage libido and his willingness to join the Rebellion was all about his desire for excitement in his life, but that’s not the whole picture. The most telling scene is the scene in which Luke is disappointed in Han Solo’s choice to leave instead of helping the Rebels fight the Death Star. He spells out his real motives right there. Luke said the people needed his help; that it was the right thing to do. Han said it would get him killed. Luke was willing to accept that risk to do the right thing.
But Luke’s biggest flaw was his unwillingness to believe in, well, anything. Most important, his unwillingness to believe in himself. He didn’t believe in the Force and, even when shown proof that it existed, he didn’t believe he could do it. That was his journey throughout the whole movie.
Well, those two things are two sides of the same coin. Luke was humble. He believed in helping others, even risking himself because he believed in the greater good. And if he died in the service to the greater good, so be it. That’s humility. Luke was selfless because he was humble. But his lack of self-confidence was the other side of his humility. He didn’t believe he was capable of stuff because, well, he had no sense of pride. No sense of self-esteem. He believed other people were so much more important – so much better – than himself that he just couldn’t see his own worth. His own power. Basically, he believed in the greater good, but he didn’t believe he was good enough for the greater good to work for him.
When Luke finally accepts not just that the Force is real, but also that he might be worthy of it and capable of using it, he turns off his targeting computer and he wins. And his belief in others is also validated when Han Solo comes back. Later, on Dagobah, Luke still struggles with self-confidence. That’s why he keeps failing. And when his friends are in trouble, he can’t ignore that. He throws away his training to help them because, well, that’s what you do. You help people in need. And if that screws you over or gets you killed, so be it.
You can look at almost any good character arc in terms of the integration of the shadow. Eddie Frigging Valiant has his moment of growth when he stops drinking to cope with the loss of his brother. He doesn’t forget his brother’s death. Instead, it helps steel him. He draws on the memory of his brother to resolve himself to help those in need, rediscover his sense of humor, and even avenge his brother. But he stops wallowing in the loneliness. He doesn’t discard the death or excise the loss, he learns to incorporate that.
And do I even need to mention Inside Out? An entire movie whose point is that personality and emotion is complex and has good and bad components. Anger and disgust and sadness have their important roles to play and you can’t excise parts of your personal growth just because they come from perceived negative aspects of yourself.
So, this Jungian Shadow Crap is deeply tied to character arcs. Which are part of what makes a narrative so satisfying. So, that said…
Fixing Inspiration Again
Okay, now, I said we were going to pretend to build a new Personality Mechanic instead of just fixing D&D’s Inspiration system, right? Well, that’s just because it’s useful to spell out what you’re actually trying to accomplish before you start screwing with mechanics. The fact is, though, we don’t want to write an entire new system. We really do want to tweak an existing system. It’s just that, to fix the system, you need to focus on what the system SHOULD do, not what it’s DOING WRONG. Does that make sense?
So, here’s the deal. The idea of choosing personality traits for your character and getting a bonus to actions that somehow involve that personality trait? That’s a good idea. It’s a nice, simple mechanic. The idea of Inspiration as currency, though, that you can spend on a bonus? That’s a bad idea. It’s bad because it involves the GM too much and because it doesn’t really model what we’re trying to model. My Assertiveness doesn’t go away because I use it too many times. I’m Assertive. That’s a part of me. I should just be able to be Assertive.
But just offering a blanket bonus isn’t good either. Not because it’ll break the game to let every PC have a bonus to any action they can claim to be a part of a personality trait. I mean, who freaking cares. A +2 bonus or even Advantage on a certain subset of actions isn’t going to break anything and you need to stop taking game balance that freaking seriously. Trust me.
The reason why the blanket bonus doesn’t work is that the key element of the personality mechanic is that the person gets to stand up and wave their personality flag. “Hey, wait, I’m the Assertive guy! I’ll do the Intimidating right now! I’ve got this!” That’s what makes the mechanic shine.
So, it’s got to be something the player invokes. They have to actively use it. Unleash it, as it were. And for it to remain special, they can’t try to invoke it all the time. It should be something they can unleash freely, but something they only want to unleash when they need it. So, there has to be a cost or downside.
And there is. Because every personality trait has a downside. A flaw. A shadow. But we have to try to keep the GM out of the equation as much as possible. Or at least, make it really easy for the GM to get involved.
Okay, so what happens when I’m assertive too often? What happens on those days when I’ve spent the whole day pushing other people around and standing up for myself in normal, healthy ways? Well, I get stressed and worn out. And the more stressed and worn out I am, the more likely I am to lose my temper at an inappropriate time. And when I do, it’s going to cause me major problems. My assertiveness is like a time bomb.
So, every time I use my assertiveness to give me a bonus, I build up some stress. Say, I fill in a little bubble on my character sheet. I have a point of stress. Now, I can clear that stress at any time. All I have to do is actually lose my temper and take a penalty. I can decide, in any appropriate situation, that I lose my temper in a negative way. I take a penalty to whatever actions I take in that situation equal to the amount of stress I’ve accrued. Once the situation is over, the stress is cleared and I have to deal with the consequences. I blew my stack in combat and couldn’t fight effectively because I was blind with rage like Raphael. Or I ended up going on a rant in a social situation and the whole situation turned into a disaster and, before we can ever deal with that NPC again, I’m going to have to apologize.
Now, I can invoke my trait whenever I want and gain advantage on an action related to that trait or a +2 bonus or +4 or whatever. But whenever I do, I add a bubble of stress. But what happens if I never take the penalty voluntarily? Well, there’s a limit. Once I have three bubbles filled in or five bubbles or whatever, I’m overstressed. I can’t rely on that trait anymore. Anytime I try to assert myself, I’m going to blow. It’s like that day where you’ve been dealing with stupidity all day and you’ve held it together, but you know one more situation where you really have to push yourself and you’re going to blow.
At that point, I write the trait down on an index card and I hand it to the GM. I can’t use the trait anymore until I relieve my stress. But I don’t get to decide when the stress relief happens. At some point, in some awful situation, the GM will hand me back that card and I have to take the penalty for all the stress because, that’s it, I lost control. And then my stress is cleared.
Simple, right? And mostly managed by the player unless the player doesn’t handle their emotions properly. The GM doesn’t have to keep track of anything unless the player pushes their personality too far. And then, the player hands the GM a note that says, “screw me with this specific personality trait please.” That’s easy enough. GMs are good at screwing players. Plays right into their wheelhouse.
What about the traits themselves? Well, the traits should be actual traits. Not whole damned sentences of overly specific things. Honestly, two words are all you need, the trait and the negative expression of the said trait. Just find two traits you can squeeze together. “Assertiveness/Bad Temper,” or “Cooperation/Fear of Confrontation,” or “Courage/Foolhardiness,” or “Commanding/Stubborn,” or “Practical/Greedy,” or “Idealistic/The Ends Justify the Means.”
As for how many characters need? Well, you start with one. One pair. And you can add a new one – a new pair – every time you get an Attribute Increase. Roughly every four levels. And you can have a maximum of three. After that, to add a new one, you have to discard an old one. And when you add one or discard one, it should be inspired by the events of the game.
What about the players who don’t want to play? Well, they get to write down a trait and basically never use it. They never get that bonus, but they never deal with the stress either. It doesn’t affect the game. Or maybe they use it once or twice in their entire career because they really need the bonus and just carry the stress forever. That’s fine too. But I have this feeling it won’t be easy to ignore once people start using it. Especially if the bonus is on the order of +4 or Advantage.
Now, this just establishes a simple baseline mechanic. And, if you wanted to, you could add more to it. Here’s two very vague, general ideas. First, coping mechanisms. A coping mechanism is a bad habit, like alcoholism, that is used to deal with stress. It could work the same way as the negative trait itself. That is, you take a penalty to clear your stress. But the penalty is related to the coping mechanism rather than the trait. For example, if you Assertiveness/Bad Temper and Alcoholism, you could clear your stress by losing your temper and taking a penalty or you could clear your stress by going on a bender and taking a penalty to all of your actions the next day for the hangover. In fact, the coping mechanism could have a prescribed penalty instead of just a blanket penalty. E.g.: “Alcoholism – Start the day with a fatigue level to reflect a hangover and clear all stress from all traits except those that are overstressed.”
Second, character arcs. Near the end of a campaign, a GM could design specific situations and stories around good or bad traits. Again, I already wrote about this as a way of clearing flaws in preparation for the final battle. Well, in this system, resolving the character arc would allow a character to erase the negative half of their primary trait and, thereafter, no matter how much they use it, they never build up any stress. That would probably work best if you require the players to each designate one trait as their primary trait. Probably the one they start with at first level. Because that’s the one they want to resolve. In fact, if you want to build on that, differentiate between a character’s one primary trait and their secondary traits by making the bonus for secondary traits smaller but having the stress effects the same. Or maybe have one stress pool that all traits feed. And the player can use any of their negative traits to clear the stress pool. But if they go into overstress, then, their primary trait is the one that the GM imposes. I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud here. Well, not out loud. I’m just typing my thoughts.
Anyway, if this seems incomplete, that’s because it’s a half-hack. It’s just an idea. Unlike the previous things I’ve posted, I haven’t tried it out. I don’t know how it will work. But it seems like a good idea and I wanted to offer it up. But, frankly, I have to admit that my intention in working through this wasn’t really to fix D&D Inspiration again. I’ve been thinking about it for different reasons.
Are Personality Mechanics Worth a Damn?
Look, I no longer have to play coy and say things like “if I were designing an RPG” or “look, I’m not saying I’m working on an RPG, but IF I WERE…” We all know the score now. I can admit that I’m no longer looking at a lot of these questions from the standpoint of hacking D&D 5E. Well, I mean, I am still playing and running 5E and Pathfinder. So, I am still tinkering with them. But, there is also this big, looming project that keeps demanding attention with these big, weird questions inspired by random sources. And one of them is: are personality mechanics even worth a damn?
I mean, in some games, they are central to the experience. And they tie in deep, core parts of the gameplay. Like, in FATE, they are connected directly to action resolution and the conversation between GM and player that creates the game. Or, they are part of the character generation process and choosing traits and flaws lands you points that you can use on character generation. And, to be honest, alignment and karma are basically just personality mechanics. And in some systems, morality is pretty dang important. But in games like D&D and Pathfinder, well, they don’t seem to do a whole lot. Even the Bonds in Dungeon World seem to go 50-50. Some swear by them and say they change the game experience drastically. Others acknowledge them during character generation, but they get dumped or forgotten pretty soon. And that’s if it’s not just a one shot.
Now, believe it or not, I am not opposed to Personality Mechanics per se. But, if all they do is just provide a reward or incentive for people to play the character they’ve already designed according to a personality they write down beforehand, they are a waste of space and a load of crap. Seriously. I’m sorry. Inspiration is a waste of page space. And that’s why it’s so easily forgotten.
See, people who want to play their personality are going to. People who don’t want to aren’t going to. And it’s not central to the RPG experience to do play to personality to any great degree. And it’s not even something everyone is comfortable with. So, incentivizing it isn’t really a useful thing to do unless you plan to make it a core part of gameplay. And incentivizing it in a way that makes things harder or more complicated for the GM is actually bad for the game.
Alternatively, though, Inspiration does one useful thing. It lets the players who want to play that way wave their personality flag once in a while. “I’m the bad temper guy, look at me with my bad temper!” That’s good. That’s what personality players want. They want the spotlight and expression. Otherwise, they wouldn’t care about the mechanic. And that’s not all players. That’s why so many players forget about inspiration.
The point is, tinkering with Inspiration is just a fun little diversion. Inspiration is beyond saving because the motives behind the execution, the understanding of player engagement, and the execution of the mechanic are all totally misaligned. It really does seem to be designed first and foremost as a way of rewarding a player for playing to their character by burdening the GM with doling out a reward. While it does allow players to wave their personality flag, that doesn’t seem to be the PRIMARY intention. And the mechanic itself involves lines and lines of text – five traits for every party member and two or three lines of text for each – that have to be recorded and remembered. Each player has to know their own. And the GM has to know everyones.
But is that just D&D being bad at this? Or is it really just that Personality Mechanics just aren’t really worthwhile by themselves outside of character drama type games? I mean, if you can find a way to build character arcs into them, then they become part of the narrative structure instead of just Personality Mechanics. And if you can shave off all the rough edges, you can even create versatile tools for the GM and players to do other things with. Like, inside my super secret real Personality Mechanic notes, I have hooks for things like Fate, Karma, Honor, Fame, and Reputation systems and they can be engaged with on the individual player level or on the campaign level depending on whether a GM wants to make one of those mechanics a core part of the campaign experience. But I’m still worried that they are, ultimately, just a big waste of page space. Because even that crap isn’t enough.
And THAT is why this topic is such a big, burdensome one for me. Because I’m looking for something big enough and useful enough to make Personality Mechanics actually worth including a design. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of wasted pages in a Players Handbook and an easily forgotten bonus no one uses.
Meanwhile, though, maybe this crap will help you make something fun out of Inspiration. And if not, at least it was a fun thought experiment. And I got to offend a lot of people with that Long, Rambling Introduction™. So, you know. Good day.