Inspiration in D&D 5e

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (Wizards of the Coast, 2014) has this thing called Inspiration. At page 125 it reads:

Inspiration

Inspiration is a rule the Dungeon Master can use to reward you for playing your character in a way that’s true to his or her personality traits, ideal, bond, and flaw. By using inspiration, you can draw on your personality trait of compassion for the downtrodden to give you an edge in negotiating with the Beggar Prince. Or inspiration can let you call on your bond to the defense of your home village to push past the effect of a spell that has been laid on you.

Gaining Inspiration

Your DM can choose to give you inspiration for a variety of reasons. Typically, DMs award it when you play out your personality traits, give in to the drawbacks presented by a flaw or bond, and otherwise portray your character in a compelling way. Your DM will tell you how you can earn inspiration in the game.You either have inspiration or you don’t—you can’t stockpile multiple “inspirations” for later use.

Using Inspiration

If you have inspiration, you can expend it when you make an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check. Spending your inspiration gives you advantage on that roll.Additionally, if you have inspiration, you can reward another player for good roleplaying, clever thinking, or simply doing something exciting in the game.When another player character does something that really contributes to the story in a fun and interesting way, you can give up your inspiration to give that character inspiration.

Gaining inspiration is usually about roleplaying, the vanilla ruling on that giving players very new to roleplaying some guidance and incentive on engaging with that aspect of the game and play out their character. I personally just find it awkward to break the flow of a session to give my friends rewards for being good boys and girls, whether it’s in the form of Bennies in Savage Worlds (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 2012) or the various implementations of D&D’s Inspiration. It can also have bad effects in incentivizing certain types of characters (e.g. if acting on your flaw gives inspiration, you’re incentivized to have a trivial, shallow flaw that can come up often, which may make for a worse character). If I wanted to use inspiration at this point, I’d come up with more concrete requirements that don’t rely primarily on game master fiat, but then it competes with experience points which is already a meta-currency reward for following the intended playstyle (Dungeon World (LaTorra and Koebel, 2012) is great at this with the end of session questions). This article more-so concerns the other side of the coin though: using inspiration.

Ways of Using Inspiration

Matt Colville (2019) recently released a video on the topic where he goes over a few different additional ways to spend this resource, and I see that as a good opportunity to analyze probability and evaluating the balancing of these houserules. And boy, they are some iffy houserules – at least on a mechanical level. Most players won’t play optimally, many will even deliberately play sub-optimally in pursuit of fluff, so this isn’t a concern for all groups, but there are also players who would take advantage of these alterations with bad results and as a designer I don’t enjoy broken systems even if the brokenness happens to be left alone by the players.

Disadvantage on enemy saves

Spells are a resource so letting a player make their one daily 6th level spell be 50% more impactful is a bigger deal than making an attack you can do all day every day 50% more effective. It also represents a larger advantage in turn economy, as you get 150% of a 6th level spell in a single turn, a huge pacing advantage that could snowball an encounter into a win on its own. However, while saving throws usually belong to more impactful abilities, there are plenty of impactful resources that don’t rely on a save. Paladins can get advantage on an attack using their highest slot smite for example. I think this is ok, and probably wasn’t part of the vanilla rule mainly because it doesn’t fit in fluff – you being inspired doesn’t seem like it would make enemies slower or weaker. If you can justify it, it’s not the worst inclusion, but with full casters benefiting from this the most and those being the most powerful classes in the game already, I don’t think it’s particularly good.

Turn hit into crit

This would mostly replace advantage I think. You already use inspiration on attacks most of the time since it’s generally your most impactful roll. Getting advantage means that on a 50% hit rate attack, it now has 75% chance to hit instead – a 50% increase in attack impact. This varies by AC, but it will be extremely rare for it to double the impact of your attack on average. To turn a hit into a crit is triggered when you’ve already hit, meaning you don’t have a decent chance of the bonus to do nothing since you already hit/crit (inspiration is pretty rare, so being unable to trigger it every turn doesn’t really matter), and when used it gives about 70% damage increase (impact depends on class but is usually the same as damage, some classes have on-hit effects where a crit is no better than a hit). +50% to an attack is currently what inspiration does most of the time, while with this rule it would be overshadowed by the +~70% damage that isn’t very situational to make up for this (with smite or sneak attack, or on a high level barbarian, it comes closer to +100%).

On top of this, it makes combat a lot more swingy (players do less damage if they would miss, and much more damage if they would hit), which isn’t usually desirable for the game master nor the players. There’s also the previous point of making better use of resources, vanilla inspiration is already better for some classes than others, and this would increase how variable it is for that – your paladin can now low key crit at will with their highest level smite.

Gain extra attack

Worse than crit a lot of the time, but better than advantage – strictly so in almost all circumstances. Similar to crits, it also makes things more swingy – instead of going from 50% to 75% hit rate and 50% to 25% miss rate, you get the same 25% chance to miss, with 50% chance to hit and 25% chance to hit twice. In other words, you get +100% damage (another whole attack, so on-hit effects or the ratio of dice damage vs modifier damage doesn’t matter) 25% of the time, so it’s 25% extra damage on top of the vanilla advantage inspiration giving 25% – i.e., it’s twice as good.

This is really poorly considered honestly, it’s well known that having two attacks is generally a good bit better than advantage on a single attack, and the only reason I can think of to use this is rule of cool. Yet, it’s not very cool to rob players that get this as a class ability of that spotlight and uniqueness, and to completely overshadow advantage on any roll with this overpowered thing also makes inspiration a lot less interesting as the vanilla rule can be reasonably spent on a lot of different things even if most will tend to use it on an attack – saving throws against powerful effects are a great use of it for example, and making inspiration used on attacks be so much more effective disincentivizes that.

Gain extra reaction

This does synergize with certain builds, like polearm master, where it works similarly to gaining an extra attack – but even there, it is situational and doesn’t overshadow using it to gain advantage reliably on the attacks you know will happen. You could also use the Shield spell twice in a turn for +10 AC (and AC bonuses are more effective the higher your AC goes) but that is very situational and uses a resource. Not too powerful, no specific interactions I can think of that break it, just a clean and cool extra option that I’d use myself.

Then he also covers a freeform use related to fictional positioning and skill checks, which is pretty reliant on game master fiat but not in an over-the-top way where the players have no ability to predict how it will work, more just as a final judge. It’s a clever way of making out-of-combat skill checks more viable to use inspiration on, as you would rarely use it on those by the vanilla rules. Narratively it works really well too, as you automatically succeed and can take ownership of the fiction without being beholden to rolls. Buffing in-combat usage with extra attacks or on-command crits would overshadow this buff and set you back to square one, however. And that’s about it, conclusion being that you can add some breadth to the mechanic and make it more interesting by allowing it to be exchanged to take an extra reaction or to dictate the fiction, but attempts to have it buff generic combat actions in more ways than it already does are likely to interfere with the existing options and the deliberate balance of the mechanic.

References

COLVILLE, M. (2019). Inspiration: Running the Game #85. Accessed at 22.11.2019 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGyYxE5moA8.

LATORRA, S., & KOEBEL, A. (2012). Dungeon World. Sage Kobold Productions, RNDM Games.

PINNACLE ENTERTAINMENT GROUP. (2012). Savage Worlds Deluxe: Explorer’s Edition.

WIZARDS OF THE COAST. (2014). Player’s Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons).


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