This is part 19 of 23 of the series: Hacking New Rules

Let’s Fix Inspiration AGAIN! … But Not Really

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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.

52 thoughts on “Let’s Fix Inspiration AGAIN! … But Not Really

  1. Have you seen/read/played any Forged In The Dark games? They do pretty much what you end up suggesting with stress and turn it into an overarching mechanic; it’s the primary way PCs go above and beyond, mechanically speaking.

  2. I’d been noticing for quite a while in your articles that you’ve been influenced by JBP. I had the pleasure of seeing him speak twice in my hometown.

    Just don’t trying an all-beef diet any time soon. 😉

    • I’m not going to claim I haven’t been a Jordan Peterson fan. I love his work and his 12 Rules for Life was an amazing book that I really NEEDED this year. That said, he isn’t my only influence. I know he is the president and founder of the Carl Jung is Da Bomb Fan Club and a lot of his work is influenced by that, but he’s not the only one I’ve been reading. He was more of a gateway drug. Honestly, given that Mr. Everything is a Hero’s Journey Campbell was also heavily influenced by Jung, I figured it was time to go back to the source. Turns out, Jung’s writing is reasonably accessible, all things considered.

  3. Just as a minor side-note on the intro and Nazi iconography in Germany:

    While it is true that depiction and use is banned, you can still use it for art or education exactly so what happened will not be forgotten.

    School will again and again and again go over every detail of the nazis to really hammer home what happened and how it happened and why it came this far.

    • Yeah, several people have pointed that out. And I’m sorry I made those remarks. I was talking out of my ass based on third-hand “knowledge.” And while I was smart enough to even admit I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t smart enough to realize I shouldn’t be talking without confirming what I was saying. Sorry.

  4. With regards to building an arc into the mechanic, keys from the shadow of yesterday have something that works well, though in other ways they aren’t what you want. You pick a trait, like ‘key of the greedy’. Then you have 3 effects based on the key. A minor benefit, so you get 1 exp each time you are a bit greedy, a standard benefit, so you get 2 exp every time you are more greedy, then a major one for 5 exp when you are very greedy indeed. The triggers are usually more specific but you get the idea. So far this seems just like the standard reward for doing that thing you already do that Angry was criticising, and I think that’s a fair criticism. But the cool part is that there is also a thing called a buyoff. So for the greedy key for example the buyoff would be giving away a lot of wealth to help someone in need. Activate the requirements of the buyoff, and you are allowed to permanently remove the key for a one-time 10 exp bonus. Then you can buy a new key. So the way keys work encourages a character arc of repeatedly behaving a certain way until the consequences add up to a breaking point where you emphatically change in a moment and decide to become a different person.

    • I like this. Choose a flaw (greedy, bad back, meek, paranoid, shy, or whatever) and once per long rest you can role-play it where it works against your character. If the DM agrees it substantially worked against you, you earn XP (maybe 1/2 an Easy Encounter?) or possibly you reward with Inspiration…

      Then if you want to buy it off, you could make a magnanimous gesture of some kind and earn a one-time XP reward.

      I feel the stress pool is too much bother to deal with. I like the simple reward when it comes up and not having to track anything else.

  5. Once you get past the obligatory, “but you have to have an alignment/personality/etc. system”, having some character shaping rules that feed the story are nice to have for most players. Keeping it as an opt in feature sounds like the best course. I enjoy creating a character and not a stat block.
    I really like the idea of stress and payout to give some incentive to my players. I’m going to add this into my Genesys game and give it a try, since Genesys has a lackluster personality system. I was thinking of adding a small release valve to the core concept. Instead of a big scene at max stress, I was thinking of adding in small releases to drop a single point of stress. I hope this will simulate people that can manage their stresses without getting stressed out. Maybe having the full event gives a small window of stress free use to keep it interesting or that the small releases are less efficient. Looking forward to testing it either way.

    • “… are nice to have for most players.”

      Why? That’s my point. People say that. But, in some systems, most players don’t seem to engage with the system. In some systems, they do. And the pattern seems to be what the game is principally about at a fundemental level.

      So, no received truths now: WHY are they nice to have for most players? Particularly in a game with core engagements similar to those of D&D and Pathfinder?

      • I think you’ve pretty much identified what they are good for in D&DFinder style games. They let a player wave the personality flag to differentiate their character from everyone else in way that’s not “Well, I’m the fighter, so I do fighter things.”; They provide a tiny bit of true uniqueness to a character that makes them different from every other Level 5 Battlemaster Fighter. And that uniqueness is “real” because it is right there on the character sheet and they can pick up that flag and wave it around.

        As you say, if the game isn’t ABOUT the characters’ personalities (and D&D isn’t) then most players will not engage with the system. Except that that’s not a hard and fast will/won’t. Because if something is super easy, people will engage with it because it’s there and it’s easy, and if something is super annoying (like say, the published version of Inspiration) then even people who are interested in that thing may struggle to engage with it.

        So if you have a game with core engagements like D&DFinder, but which has a system like the one you outlined above, most people will engage with it. Even though it’s not really what the game is “about” because it’s easy to engage with, it loops back into the core engagement, and it adds a spark of uniqueness. Seems like a win all the way around.

      • I don’t know if they are nice for most players, but I think they serve a purpose when introducing *some* new players to RPGs. I think they can actively encourage new players to remember to incorporate character into their characters.

        It helped me bring more character and less mechanic out of some players, and I think it led them to be more character-driven in later games (even ones without a trait advantage system).

        YMMV. If that’s not a goal, it probably is a waste of pages. If you have the kind of group that already really brings character, it probably is a waste of pages. But if you want to actively encourage character, I think it helps.

        • I saw the same benefits with my group, switching from 3.5 to 5e. Characters are more grounded into the setting and has a stronger identity. Sure, some players do not engage with it as much as others. But for me who likes seeing others wave their personality flag, just having those things in place for their characters improves my experience. So for the people who engage with it, the benefit is not only that they have mechanics to use themselves, it’s also seeing that the other players have at least selected some bonds and backgrounds for their characters.

          I kind of see it as filling out a HSE checklist before you start working on a new project. You may not use it as a tool afterwards, but some times it’s just nice to have thought through things at least once.

      • the why is a. context and b. because different people have fun different ways and need different tools. Feats and multjclassing are optional rules in 5e, should they be mandatory or completely excluded? No, optional is a great place for them, they add to fun at some tables for some players, but add unwanted complexity and power creep for others. The person who has fun with feats isn’t doing 5e wrong and the person who bans them at their table isn’t doing fun wrong. Personality rules and Inspiration don’t need to be as central as skills and combat to be worthwhile.There is room for side orders and condiments on ths menu of an RPG.

        In terms of context, what I mean is that D&D is about overcoming challenges, but within the context of a narrative. It is not multiplayer sodoku. Within the narrative layer there exist obstacles and puzzles and those must be overcome too. When inspiration works for a player it is because they see how to use it in the context of setting up and overcoming puzzles. when it fails for other players it is because for them it is totally divorced from any form of obstacle that they recognize as D&D. The context matters.

        For use in story arcs and character development over time, look into how Dave Arneson used alignment when the rules were still being developed. In the first ever session when players showed up expecting a wargame and got a dungeon crawl, Dave observed how they acted in the session and defined their alignments in secret. The ultimate treasure was a magic sword of lawful alignment and as the players tried to claim it, ala King Arthur and the sword in the stone, each was shocked unconscious because they had behaved chaotically or neutrally so it wouldn’t accept them. The one guy who was lawful didn’t try, he wrapped it in cloth and took it out for the group to analyze together later. Ironically he was too lawful to claim it, preferring to win as a group rather than win alone. Now the players had no idea why the sword was shocking them, but they figured it out over time. Dave’s alignment played into many mechanics. But it was not a chlice at character creation, it was revealed in play as the character behaved. No one got penalized for acting out of alignment because it was a description not a restriction. Couldn’t your personality pairs be awarded like magic items as players earn them? Might this make them feel special, appropriate, and make players want to use them?

  6. I really like the idea of a player tracked “stress bar.” My 2c on that would be a rip from Darkest Dungeon.

    What if the use of certain traits caused stress for others?

    The gratuitous exercise of the bonus would have an effect on the others, perhaps leading to my character trying to stop your character from using that trait/taking that advantage. And your character doing it anyway, setting off the cooperative/non-confrontational druid in the party who starts crying, triggering the overly empathetic rogue, etc., ending in a group hug.

    I see problems with this. Like “characters not built to work well with others” and the “no PVP rule.”

    What events other than the coping mechanism could lower stress?

    I’m supposed to be at work now…

    • Definitely don’t write a rule that might encourage PvP or one player to screw the rest of the party.
      As for non-explosive stress releases, what do people do in real life? Maybe you could forego healing during a short rest to do some yoga or tai chi and remove a stress point that way. Or maybe remove two by taking a day off adventuring for a relaxing spa day. Or engage with the yet-unwritten social interaction system to get laid. As long as more stress costs more in time, penalties, resources, whatever to remove.

  7. I like your thoughts alot.
    I previously had been imagining a social interaction mechanic very similar to what is seen in your chase scene article, with the end result answering the dramatic question of the social encounter.

    To that note I arbitrarily decided that every social interaction is made up primarly of 3 things BROADLY – Relationship(s), Alignment (or Disalignment) of interests and Approach (Presentation).

    “What’s the difference between a villain and a super-villain? — PRESENTATION!”

    I didn’t want to throw much detail into a comment, but hopefully my ideas are helpfully thought-provoking.

  8. Thanks for the inspiring article, it helped me work some things out.

    I would personally want my fantasy RPG to focus on combat, exploration and narrative, and not emotions, personalities and internal conflict. It would be good to have as part of the overall narrative, but not as a focus. With choosing spells, skills, features, and play-style, you already have a foundation for the character’s traits and personality, without further focusing on it.

    What I would want is a better way to tie the character into a narrative.
    At the moment, I bombard my players with questions about their characters until I finally find something vaguely resembling a theme, motivation or ambition that I can use in the next adventure. Then I hope that the players are still interested in those things when the adventure starts.

    Couldn’t Karma, Honor, Fame, and Reputation be basically the same thing, mechanically? They could all be represented by numbers that go up, and could give mechanical benefits at certain thresholds. Heck, you could probably reskin it into things like crafting or building a base or community. Like classes of long-term ambitions (*cough*power fantasies*cough*).

    It’s a lot easier to create an adventure narrative for players who are specifically interested in increasing their fame and are looking for ingredients to craft an item, then it is to create an adventure based on the fact that the players have the fighter and a monk classes, are easily angered, and used to be farmers.

  9. I particularly appreciated this series of articles about the inspiration system. Especially for the general considerations about character personality definition and development, more than for the inspiration by itself. Thank you because your approach to the matter was illuminating for me in several ways.

  10. Mouse Guard. Check the traits out. There’s your small bonus giving the spotlight to the personality player every once in a while. And the two sides of every coin. Actually easier than your system. A trait is just a single word (though there’s a short text helping you understand the word if you need it) and you simply describe how the trait helps and hinders you. Lie Fate. But not.

    And read about the winter session. It’s perhaps not really an execution of a character arc, but it’s definitely a way to handle character growth.

  11. So the system could be:

    Start the game with a primary and secondary trait. These traits can be drawn upon in game to take a bonus to certain actions specified by your trait. (Primary traits give you a larger bonus?) After each trait is used add a level of stress to that trait. If a trait has been “overstressed” it can’t be drawn upon for its bonus until you clear your stress. The trait will tell you how to alleviate stress. Traits can be swapped out when appropriate to the pc/story.

    Also, have you ever played darkest dungeon? I bet you have.

    Thanks for making great stuff, glad you are using your anger for good and not evil. Can’t wait for the next megadungeon article!

  12. This article has been very helpful for something that I have been trying to figure out for my home game. I really like the idea of the seven deadly sins and their opposite the seven heavenly virtues and I have been struggling as to how to fully incorporate them into my games and make them meaningful themes for the players and the PCs.

    As I was reading this article it hit me that this is way of doing personality traits and inspiration will get me pretty close to what I am looking for. At first I was like yes I just need to have them pick a virtue and its associated vice and wallah done and done. But as I thought about it a bit more I felt like that did not really match up. If you are virtuous in one area you generally do not struggle with the opposite vice.

    I may go with the players picking a virtue and a vice and when they are over stressed from using the virtue they have to suffer the vice that they picked. Or I could come up with the negative to the virtue as too much charity can have its negative effects on a characters life and also try to come up with benefits to the vices.

    The virtues would then work as you have laid out above but the vices would be where the player takes a penalty to their roll to build up “stress” (basically they build up to the one time a vice actually benefits you) to get a huge bonus that the GM decides. This would work the same way with the players giving the GM a note with the benefit that they get and he decides when they get it.

    Great article.

    • If you want to put virtues into your game, I’d recommend something more like D&D’s existing Inspiration system rather than Angry’s personality traits. Those seem more like approaches – the character wants something and they use assertiveness (say) to get it. To me, virtues describe consequences – a charitable character (say) does something potentially costly where the result is a benefit to another. I like Angry’s rules for personality traits, but I think for virtues you want a long-term benefit. Virtues are types of actions which improve people as people, not actions which are easier because they are virtuous. When Luke lifted the X-Wing out of the swamp to go and rescue Leia, Luke wasn’t just suddenly able to lift his X-Wing because he was being self-sacrificing. Instead, Luke grew a bit as a person, and maybe became a bit better prepared to confront Han about the importance of taking risks to help others. Virtues have small ongoing effects on a person, not instantaneous ones.

      To model a virtue, ideally the DM would be able to apply a permanent small bonus or penalty that comes up reasonably often. A Karma system similar to Angry’s old article on honor systems might be appropriate, if you can find or hack some appropriate rolls governed by a person attaining of their own moral code. Otherwise, to really emphasise how virtues contribute to personal growth, give the players a small percentage increase or decrease to their maximum health. This would represent increased resolve and commitment to living and doing right, or alternatively guilt eating away at a person and making them that little bit slower to react to mitigate injury.

      I’m assuming if you want to make the virtues into themes, then you’re already planning to work hard on creating situations where the players have good reasons to accept the penalty and break their chosen virtues. For that kind of adventure, the DM would pretty much only have to think about the virtue system at those decision points. If the players want to ask for a bonus at other times, or if they decide to do something you want to penalise as evil or reward as virtuous, you can, but I’d see that as less important.

    • Have you checked out the Virtues/Vices of New World of Darkness?
      In 1e based explicitly on the 7 Deadly Sins / 7 Heavenly Virtues, but broadened to be more widely applicable to more situations.

      Mechanically, everyone picks one of each, and also has a pool of Willpower points that can be spent to grant bonuses to any roll.

      Indulging your Vice recovers one point of Willpower (once per scene), whereas reinforcing your Virtue recovers ALL of your Willpower (once per session).
      Giving in to temptation is easy, but standing by your convictions is a powerful accomplishment.
      If I recall, both aspects are supposed to require a downside or sacrifice of some kind to qualify mechanically.

      In 2e they removed the explicit Sins/Virtues lists and said to just pick whatever you feel is appropriate, and they added supernatural variants for inhuman characters.

  13. I imagine the inspiration system started as a way to justify the personality traits with a mechanical bonus, and that the personality traits were included as another way to “personalize” a character in a game that promises the ability to customize but doesn’t deliver. This is why it feels so clunky.

    How many meaningful choices do you get to make at character creation that don’t force your character into something that might not fit your concept? When you get down to it, 5e forces players into some pretty narrow archetypes. I’ll save my examples for later if anyone wants to argue about it.

    If I want to play a character who doesn’t conveniently fit into a predefined class I have to ignore quiet a lot, assuming I don’t want to reskin. I think the game designers might have sensed this and tried to put a band-aid on it to placate people like me. It didn’t work very well.

  14. (Long time fan, first time poster) Appreciate the ideas you put forth in the article. Tempted to incorporate a version in a city based campaign I’m running. The dungeon campaign though, even with more defined PC’s personalities, I just don’t see a big enough pay off.

    In either case, I’ve already claimed inspiration for another house rule. It’s an old idea. Each player votes for a memorable moment from the game. Their own PC can’t be the focus. Each vote gives the player one use of inspiration next game.

    I run a light hearted game, so most votes are comidic in nature. However, it provids a moment of reflection and camaraderie for the group no matter the mood of the game.

    Thought I’d share.

    Have a Merry Christmas Angry.

  15. Samalander, yes the Samalander. Coincidentally, I have been looking a lot at Morality systems myself lately. I am currently fascinated with the Hunger die and Humaity mechanics in Vampire the Masqurade, as well as the Morality/Conflict in Star Wars Force and Destiny. I think in games where the internal struggle is front and center it is great but D&D is not necessarily that game. The question is Should it be, and is the juice worth the squeeze to make it that way in a home game, or should you use a different system?

  16. I know you spoke quite a few times about creating your own game system. Have you given thought to adding this sort of mechanic to it? Just curious, thought I’d ask.

  17. I think personality mechanics, at least for a game like D&D, are an important but non-core game element, akin to mechanics for overland travel and exploration, or stronghold building, or seafaring, or intrigue. Basically, all the things that most groups don’t need, and thus half-engage with and eventually forget about or discard, because it’s not what their game is about—but if that IS what your game is about, then having those mechanics suddenly becomes essential. Not every game is going to be driven by character arcs, but some are, and for those games having personality mechanics helps the “role-playing” and the “game” support each other rather than play in parallel. So I think your question really is, “Is it worth including a mechanic in the game if only a minority of players will really benefit from it?” 5e answered “no” to that question, which is why it has a solid core system that somehow manages to fail to support almost every specific mode of fantasy gaming imaginable.

  18. The system you outline is similar to the social system of “intimacies” in Exalted 3e, but more streamlined. Social influence and even large parts of game mechanics at various levels of scaling tie into that system, and might make a good resource in your exploration of the topic if you weren’t already aware of it.

  19. I am going with “a personality based inspiration system is not worth having in an RPG unless your RPG is about or relies on mental characteristics for a major mechanic, like Call of Cthuhu or Champions.
    The personality based inspiration system is a set of clothes set over the mechanic of “player gets a bonus when they do this and then player takes a penalty here.” Instead of involving personality, let’s rename it Instant Karma: player may take a +2. If player does so then record a tally mark on the Instant Karma status track. On the third use of Instant Karma erase the tally marks and hand card to GM that says “Screw me on a roll of your choice, -6 penalty (we must have balance). The player may not use more Instant Karma bonuses until the penalty has been applied. One Instant Karma bonus per encounter. The GM chooses when to apply penalty at their discretion but should pick a worthy and critical moment.
    Now people who don’t want to have to act don’t have to, and the people that do can go on about their hangover (my head hurts so bad I can’t see straight but don’t give me a penalty). And we have a RPG mechanic that players won’t forget and can chose to use or not.

  20. Cool article, food for thought, at least the last section. For me personally, it’s worth it. Generally, know your target audience.

    Angry, I know you don’t like Torchbearer, is that due to or despite the personality stuff? I think it’s at least interesting to see how the Beliefs, Goals, Instincts and Traits there all tie together to mechanics. Using Traits negatively against yourself is fun, though it is a bit dissociated that it’s tied to getting resting benefits. Beliefs etc can be changed out, creating character archs, and spending rewards from playing to your personality is necessary for xp and leveling.

  21. Unfortunately I got sick so I didn’t write out the long explaination I got planned, but from the experiance of a group of friends that have always played rpgs, but only recently have tried D&D I can say that one of the things that we look for in games are mechanics that make our characters feel like individuals.

    In fact that is one reason we stayed away from D&D for so long. It seemed that you were just playing a class instead of building a character, and to a large extent that is true.

    I have also brought a new player into our group and he loved games that helped him flesh out his character and was a greag player, but D&D couldn’t hold his interest due to the lack of individual expression the game has as well as the focus on combat.

    I think these sorts of character expression mechanics are really good to have, but they should not be a burden on the GM, and they need to feel useful but not oberbearing to the players.

    In conclusion I think your on the right track Angry, and even if you think that it might be a waste of page space I think its worth putting in at least as an optional rule. You said RPGs should be tool kits. We have that in common. Less fluff and more mechanical options are always good. Any (good) mechanics that aid in character expression and give a tempting inventive to roleplay are also good in my book.

  22. I’m going with “Yes” to their importance because as you’ve said in other articles about gaming for fun(paraphrasing) the more types of player who enjoy your game the better. D&D is just bad at this – but so are a lot of other games. (Several of the “other things everyone gets wrong” are core to why you’re making your game.)

    A rule of thumb I think applies here. If the boss is checking it all the time, it’s important. If it’s just mentioned once or even at an annual review, it doesn’t. If an inspiration/personality rule is really going to be critical it needs to be something that applies a lot more often. However I think there’s nothing wrong with a two-step application for which the inspiration effect is the second step.

    If I were hacking 5e with this, I’d make them like feats. Take one of these from the list. Always increase this, sometimes lose that, and once in a while do something really special (the inspiration). Add the rules for what or how a major oops applies (from a major negative bonus to a major roleplaying catastrophe as the players wish). And add a mechanic for advancing the pseudo-feat based on things the player has done (both with the pseudo-feat and the story progression.)

    As you said above that’s an off-the-cuff application that needs polished and may need tossed. But after re-reading it a couple of times I think I’ll stand by it as a big enough and useful enough to include in the design.

  23. Thanks for the article, Angry!

    I am a big fan of JBP’s work, especially his Maps of Meaning stuff, so if you find Jung relatively accessible, then I would definitely recommend Maps of Meaning. He has lots of lectures about topics in the book, but the book goes into much more depth and is much better organized than his (often rambley) lectures.

    Also, I think you might be a bit off about what the shadow is. I’m no expert, but here is my understanding:

    You can’t understand the shadow without understanding the persona. The persona is the aspects of our personality that we manifest socially. The shadow is the aspects of our personality that we hide socially. Which aspects we manifest or hide depend on the social response we get. If we manifest a personality trait, and are generally socially rewarded for doing so, then that trait becomes a part of our persona. If we manifest a trait and are generally socially punished for doing so, then that trait becomes a part of our shadow.

    Much of the organization of our personality into persona and shadow happens during our upbringing, and most of it happens unconsciously. Much of the social rewards and punishments come from family members. The shadow and the persona are not necessarily made up of bad and good personality traits. For instance, particularly cruel abusive family members may punish an individual for manifesting a desirable trait, or reward them for manifesting an undesirable trait. Similarly, a culture may develop down an ultimately undesirable path and do the same, such as the culture that developed in the USSR. Even well-meaning people can cause negative developments in the persona and shadow. And people often have evil impulses that deserve to be in the shadow, at least until they can sublimate those impulses.

    Even if I’m not totally right, I hope this was useful!

  24. I have gone back and forth about personality mechanics over the years. At some points I have thought that they added a great deal, at others I thought of them as a straight-jacket, and at still other times I have thought of them as being basically useless. My much more enlightened opinion is that they are nice to have, especially in a game of archetypes.

    In games that use archetypes (DnD, Apocalypse World and their ilk, Forged in the Dark, etc.), archetypes tend to all feel the same after the first few times they’re played with. This is especially true for groups that play a lot of low-level characters. Adding a new dimension allows those characters to feel more distinct from others in the past. Am I a brash fighter, a timid fighter, a champion of justice, or a psychopath? Is the wizard a bookworm, a contemptuous asshole, or an aloof observer of human nature? These options let me feel different even if I play the same type.

    You might say that you can do all of that through just roleplaying. And that’s fair, but part of the sameness comes from using the same mechanics over and over again. I think that’s part of why we have arguably 5 core classes in DnD that are all variations on the fighter (Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger) and countless others from other source-books. Adding personality mechanics lets my Friendship and Happiness Barbarian try to give a plaque of peace to the orc warlord while your Friends are Bullshit Barbarian pisses on the mayor’s feet to make him miss the ceremony and they both get rewarded for it. I like your idea for a personality mechanic tied to stress and I think it does unlock a ton more options.

    What else causes stress? Is dropping to 1/4 HP a stressful event? What about encountering an aberration beyond comprehension? Getting lost in the wilderness? If you have a built-in explosion event for your stress (hand the GM your index card), you can make these other areas matter more. You also get to use your built-in coping mechanism. And those could get explored more as well.

  25. Hi Angry, thanks for another great article. I especially like the ideas of double-sided traits and taking the burden for handling the system off the DM.

    Making a better personality system is a worthwhile goal for a game. If nothing else, the game should give players some way to interact with NPCs other than just rolling charisma. With a system like the one you describe, the uncharismatic barbarian has a good reason to speak up when it is relevant to his personality. That sort of incentivization for everyone at the table to participate is something D&D is sorely missing.

    I do have a concern about the example you describe though. You say “Now, I can clear that stress at any time. All I have to do is actually lose my temper and take a penalty.” But surely the PC can’t loose their temper at ANY time of their choosing. Any savvy player would just choose to loose their temper when nothing is at stake, circumventing the downside of the system.

    You could just say “You can only lose your temper when the penalty would matter, as determined by the DM.” But with a system like that I feel like the default assumption would become “you can’t lose your temper unless the DM says it’s okay.” That would seem to defeat one of your design goals of allowing players to control how they use their personality without relying on DM arbitration.

    Do you think there can be a solution to that dilemma, or would that require some fundamental changes to your example or giving up on some of the design goals?

  26. That is a nice idea to represent personality, but in the end once you define rules like that for a RPG you make personality a stat. A button to push, a pool to spend points from. A game mechanic. I like mechanics, but a characters personality is not a stat. It is something that emerges through play, and is deeply linked to the player’s own personality. All fighters are the same? I never had that impression. The same stat block used by two different players can be interpreted radically different. And I have seen elven fighters, wizards and hunters that essentially were the same character, because the were played by the same person, and he used the same personality for every one of them. That is what role playing is for. If a player wants to explore personalities he can do so without a mechanic. If not, he doesn’t need a button to push.

    And personality will emerge.
    “I teleport away. You guys will be eaten by those spiders anyway” even sounds better than “I use my arrogance trait to clear my stress pool.”

  27. Even if inspiration was around and gave +6s, that wouldnt help me shape a goddamn personality for my character.

    It’s not as easy as just saying “Wait, my sheet says I should be rude to others, let me rephrase that”. Anyone can act guided by a bunch of tips, but the real gold is in doing so consistently.

    I think Inspiration suffers more from this inability of some players to effectively and comfortably roleplay their characters than any mechanical issues.

  28. For the limited benefit it provides, I feel a stress bar adds too many complications, as it has multiple stages that need to be tracked and rules to remember. I really like the idea of the shadow personality with two sides of the same coin. So my $.02 is why not use a physical coin or on/off toggle on the character sheet?

    In D&D terms it would function similarly the Wild Mage’s Tides of Chaos Feature, if that feature always worked and didn’t place an insurmountably annoying burden on the GM. If the toggle is on the “beneift” side, the player can, at any time, take advantage on a roll related to that specific personality feature. The toggle then goes to “penalty” and stays there until the player takes disadvantage on a roll related to the personality feature.

    Each time the player uses the toggle, they need to announce how it relates to their personality feature. I doubt it would be abused much, but if it were, the GM could enforce a more strict interpretation of how each action relates to the personality feature.

    • I like the simplicity, but I have a hard time identifying the opposite side of every coin. If I’m shy than the benefit is…? What’s the upside to being squeamish? How about gullible?

      • Upside to “gullible” could be a bonus to interaction with certain folk, perhaps exuding an “honest” vibe. Squeamish could have a bonus on perception in certain circumstances (always spotting the gross things), but a penalty in saves against stinking cloud effects? The flip side of things aren’t always direct. A shy, introverted character might have a benefit when focusing (e.g., spell concentration) or to certain types of investigation (when you hit the books, you hit them hard). I think the trick is not to find perfect opposites, but to pick two related traits that can balance each other.

  29. To replace inspiration with stress, how about this:
    Pick one from the skill pool you can buff in exchange for a stress point (tracked on death save failures), choose one or two possibly related skills you can debuff (erasing a death save), make up a name for the trait.

    Skill pool:
    -acrobatics & sleight of hand
    -arcana & history
    -nature & religion
    -animal handling & medicine

    Buff athletics and debuff arcana & history, maybe call that the “gym rat” trait. Buff perception debuff intimidation, call that “patient.” Buff persuasion debuff athletics, call that “you go first.” Buff performance debuff insight, call that “show-off.”

    The application: A progression of +2, +4, advantage on a skill check in exchange for 1,2, or 3 stress levels. Lowering stress requires taking a -2, -4, or disadvantage, depending on your current stress level.

    Coping mechanisms: Wipes out three levels of stress at a price.
    Escapism – incapacitated in next encounter, may only move.
    Numbing (alcohol/drug) – gain 1 level exhaustion and give up benefits of a long rest
    Compulsive risk taking – roll on carousing table and ignore any positive result or lose half wealth or gain disease or madness

  30. I have played a fair bit with something akin to your Inspiration rules revision. And for me and my players, the biggest advantage of having a “take a penalty for acting in character now and a bonus for acting in character later” is that they bring out negative aspects of their characters in high stakes situations and “waste actions” without anyone feeling like they’re selfish or sabotaging their game. It has also been a very powerful tool for players who like roleplaying but would not make unoptimal decisions for the sake of rping to sometimes get in trouble and not feel bad as they’re getting a metagame benefit from it.

  31. Whatever you decide, please do not forget “simple, but elegant” (I think that’s the phrase you used). When the game finally comes to market, this more than anything else is what I am hoping for. In the meantime, I will try to wait patiently…

  32. Interesting stuff here. Makes me wonder if there might be some sort of fundamental difference in the way players and DM’s approach the game. For me, the mechanics are just the way I bring my ideas to life in whatever game I’m playing. I might have the players run into a young human man on a quest to recover a family relic and restore the family fortune, for which I would come up with his personality first and then figure out what rules mechanics is the best match. Is he planning to confront and kill the person who has the relic? Maybe he is a fighter. Do I want to put the emphasis on the fact that he is on a quest? Maybe a paladin. Is he planning to sneak in and steal it back? Maybe some sort of rogue, or rogue/fighter combination. Is he going to reprogram the security system and send in a small drone to retrieve it? Maybe a hacker/tinker. The point is, I tend to think of character concepts first and then just use whatever rules mechanics are present that is the best match.

    I’ve never really put a lot of thought into it before, but I suspect that my players haven’t been doing this. If you look at the D&D 5E Player’s Handbook, creating a PC is a step-by-step process that starts with race, class, subclass, background, and finally, as an afterthought, some personality traits. I’ve seen a player roll randomly on those trait lists (because they are presented as tables that you can roll for) because he just didn’t care, and then proceeded to ignore the traits he rolled while actually playing. It was so alien to me at the time I couldn’t wrap my head around it, but obviously he was just interested in playing a magic-using sorcerer and put no more thought into it. Which makes sense based on the PHB, a character is just a list of rules mechanics with personality tacked on afterwards.

  33. Well I thought you were competent before. Now I’m certain. An unbelievably large number of people in this community don’t realize that we are playing a GAME. If you want to have a ‘collaborative storytelling experience’ you go right ahead and do whatever the f$%k that is. As for TTRPGs, there is no other genre of game in which it would be acceptable to spend pages and pages on tables of useless junk with NO IMPACT on the game. So if we want a personality mechanic, it should be part of the game. Or not at all.

    Don’t get me wrong — I love roleplay, character development, internal struggle, and all of the other buzzwords I could throw out. But ultimately, I have yet to see good roleplay come from inspiration or random Personality Trait tables or Aspects or whatever. It tends to come from the players, because an RPG like D&D is closer to a odd mesh of two “games” (storytelling and resource management/optimization) than one cohesive unit.

    Can we bridge that gap? Maybe. Do we need to and is it even that wide a division? I don’t know. But it is certainly food for thought, and a good lense through which to look at our hobby as a whole.

  34. I tend to see personality mechanics primarily as a tool to introduce players to the “role” aspect of role-playing games, without throwing the “game” aspect by the window. I’ve found “roleplaying” quite a tricky beast to handle has a player and a GM.

    On one side, it can be a thing most players, especially new ones, doesn’t feel comfortable to do. It’s not easy for everyone to get into character, and embrace more closely the game universe. On the other side, you have people (like me in my first years as player) who are really deep in acting in character, in a way they lose sight of the game aspect of rpg, or that is disruptive of other players fun (I doubt examples are required here). Worst, they give the impression that role-playing is only about acting: making a funny accent, doing absurd things because “that’s what my character would do”, which isn’t great to make role-playing approachable for new players.

    What well done personality mechanics should do is make role-playing easy to approach for players, and make it useful for the game. I think what you discuss here is quite promising in that aspect: such a system gives an in-game incentive to adopt in-character perspective, in a way such as the two won’t collide. And that’s a damn hard thing to understand as a player: those two things aren’t opposed, and they should not be.

    Sure, mechanics are a tool among others. GMs have a lot of them in order to make people think both has players and characters, and this blog is full of such tools. However, as you said, the mechanical aspect of it is often so poorly designed that most GMs will have to rely on purely narrative ones.

  35. I think you identified the main problem. All this work with inspiration and traits plays into role playing, while the main benefits are minor mechanical bonuses.

    As a role player, I want the big payoff. The Crowning Moment of Awesome, when my exhausted barbarian, out of rages for the day uses his inspiration against the main boss and tears him into threes, one to burn and join the ancestors in the sky, one to feed the fishes in the sea, and one to trample underfoot. Stuff like that, the big payoff in the spotlight, the character arc.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t hit D&D’s core motivation and requires more GM cooperation/planning which is on your list of no nos.

    I would love if the inspiration mechanics could be a partnership between GMs and a player or make them a little more customization. I don’t know if it would be too complicated to tie inspiration choices to class mechanics or giver permanent bonuses as well. Like a Scholar trait that gives a bonus to Concentration but a penalty to Diplomacy. Or making Barbarian rage tied to your trait. I know this is making things more complicated, but I feel the mechanic does need more to be meaningful. Its a nice little bonus to summon when you need it, but I think it needs to have an impact to feel meaningful. Could the bonus be tiered? So you can active a higher bonus at a higher cost if GM agrees the situation triggers one of your traits?

    Regardless, I definitely think some way of adding traits to characters having a character arc is important so I hope we don’t lose that.

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