As a child, I gravitated towards roleplaying games over games like Warhammer or D&D-esque video games because I wanted to tell stories, explore limitless worlds, and build characters who felt alive. I wanted them to act and the world they inhabited to be changed, something that video games of the time couldn’t achieve (and, to an extent, still can’t). Unfortunately, lots of my early games of D&D turned in to little more than a series of dungeon crawls occasionally interrupted by leveling up characters and picking proficiencies and skills that would make them more effective in combat. Roleplaying skills existed, and I chose them when I could, but I often found that they had very little effect on the game world.
When I first watched Critical Role – and was exposed to 5th edition for the first time – I immediately loved Scanlan’s use of Bardic Inspiration dice, and Matt Mercer’s use of Advantage and Disadvantage to reward smart thinking – both tactically in battle, and in the social situations that form some of the most memorable moments of Critical Role.
When I bought the 5th edition books, the first section I turned to was the part about Inspiration. I was surprised to find a whole system in place for rewarding players beyond the Inspiration dice provided by Bards, and I began to wonder why I hadn’t seen it used on Critical Role.
Now, obviously I can’t speak to the reasons why Mercer and co. don’t use the full Inspiration system, but I can certainly explain why I ultimately chose not to use it in my games despite being so excited by the idea initially.
The Problem with Inspiration
The biggest problem with the existing system, for me at least, is that the reward given isn’t really tied to the action that earned it. Sure, your Ideal may say you prefer to solve problems by talking rather than fighting, and your DM may throw you an Inspiration dice when you talk down the Kobold warchief rather than joining your party in wanton slaughter, but by the time you actually use the dice you’ve been given the encounter with the Kobolds may well have been forgotten. And if you choose to give that Inspiration die away rather than using it yourself? Well, that’s just a bonus for no reason for the other player. They didn’t do anything to earn it.
My other issue is the idea that Inspiration should only be given out once per player per session. From the viewpoint of game balance I can completely see why that limitation is in place, but if you’re going to reward players with bonuses that can be used at any point then you’re pretty much throwing balance out of the window anyway (and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, in all honesty).
The whole point of Inspiration is to reward good roleplaying; but, in an ideal world, players are going to be roleplaying well more than just once per session. Yet if you know that playing your character well means bonuses, you’re more likely to do it when the promise of the bonus is still on the table. Once it’s gone, the incentive goes with it. You also run the risk of players thinking they’re entitled to receive Inspiration once per session no matter what, and being disappointed or annoyed if they don’t get it. Rather than it becoming a reward for great roleplaying, it risks becoming a point of friction for those players who might not receive it.
I could go on about the other issues I have with the Inspiration system as it stands, but I don’t want to write a rant about a game I love and I don’t imagine anybody particularly wants to read that. I also don’t want to put anybody off using the system as it is; 5th edition was playtested extensively before its full release, so the fact that Inspiration exists as it does tells me that plenty of people like it just the way it is. That’s great.
So, instead of moaning, let’s have a look at ways you can reward your players without feeling obliged to give out bonus dice.
Ultimately, I want my players to play their characters as organically as possible, without thinking about whether the actions of the character are going to reward the player mechanically. To do this, I find ways to reward the character inside the world of the game, by allowing their actions to play out naturally and affect the world in some way. Wil Wheaton does something similar on Titansgrave – which you should also be watching – allowing actions to become legends when the dice fall well. What I do isn’t quite as world shaking – it’s smaller and more personal, but still makes for great moments,
As always, let’s fall back on an example from my game, because I never get tired of talking about my game.
During character creation Ash rolled for Manbearpig’s background, and we discovered that he was – literally – raised by wolves. That seemed like a fun piece of fluff that would never really come in to play in game terms. Then, in an early adventure, the party found themselves at the top of a bandit’s keep. Their foe had fled, but his wolf had been left behind as a guard, and he was spoiling for a fight.
Manbearpig kicked down the door to find the snarling beast waiting for him, and I got ready to call for initiative Then Ash surprised me completely.
“I was raised by wolves,” he said. “I probably know about pack mentality, asserting dominance, all that stuff that goes with being a wolf.” (He probably – in fact, definitely – didn’t say it exactly like that. I wasn’t keeping notes.) Instead of fighting, he stared deep in to the eyes of the spitting, snarling wolf – and roared in its face.
We laughed, and I called for an Intimidation check. I decided that a DC of 20 would make the wolf back down, but still be wary of the group. Failure meant the wolf attacked immediately.
What I didn’t expect – but what happened, what always happens when you least expect it – was for Ash to roll a natural 20. I firmly believe that critical rolls should always lead to awesome, memorable moments. A natural 20 combined with a great piece of roleplaying from a character who had so far smashed everything in his sight called for a resounding success. The wolf didn’t just back down – it submitted to Manbearpig completely.
Then Ash surprised me again. While the party ransacked the room and hunted for their prey, Manbearpig sat down in the corner and comforted the frightened wolf.
To cut a very long story short, the wolf – who Manbearpig named Nanook – led the party across the countryside to his master before being sealed underground by a cave-in caused by a Carrion Crawler. Ash surprised me again, by insisting that the party venture deeper underground to rescue Nanook before continuing with their quest.
At this point, it seems like the only fair reward for this awesome story arc Ash created almost entirely himself is for me to allow Nanook to accompany the party from now on (especially as I’ve been asking Ash to make Animal Handling rolls each day to keep Nanook with them, and he’s been acing them all). I don’t know how that will work from a rules standpoint yet, but I do know that if I’d simply awarded Ash an Inspiration dice back in the tower, none of this would have happened – and this kind of stuff is the reason I play D&D.
Ultimately, D&D is a game about telling stories. The rules-as-written exist solely to facilitate that; if they don’t work for your group, you’re absolutely free to tweak and change as you see fit. In a future post we’ll look at some things you need to consider when house-ruling or creating your own homebrew rules, but for now I’ll leave you with one question; are the rewards offered by the Inspiration system as it stands helping you to tell memorable stories? If so, then that’s fantastic, and you should keep doing what you’re doing. And if not, have a think about what you can do to reward and encourage those moments that really make your game special.
As always, let me know in the comments if there’s anything you think I’ve missed, and if you’ve got any awesome stories from your own games I’d love to hear them.