Finding Inspiration: How We Approach the Inspiration Mechanic

Are you a fan of Inspiration in Dungeons and Dragons?

Mike Ellis

I love the concept of Inspiration, even if I find the rules-as-written application of it a little lackluster. I firmly believe in rewarding players for thinking, playing, and participating in my games in ways that not only fit them, the players, but fit my campaign, and can engender the kind of gameplay I want at my tabl

However, if I’m going to use Inspiration as a reward, I have got to ensure that Inspiration is in fact rewarding, and while, sure, free advantage at a critical moment, that rolls in favor of the players can certainly feel rewarding, on the whole, I find it often feels inconsequential and needs to be hoarded for just the right time, which isn’t the type of reliable positive reinforcement I’m after.

How do you hand out Inspiration in your games?

Mike Ellis

I want Inspiration to work as a tool to encourage creativity and fun in the game. This can shift slightly based on the type of campaign and its goals, but I like to go out of my way to really include Inspiration, and cultivate that expectation in my games.

In addition to handing out the standard advantage (or a d6) for inspiring moments of gameplay and roleplaying, I also make sure to lead the players in a recap or post-session debrief and reward inspiration. In these times, we take turns going around the room, talking about cool moments, surprises; things that really impacted the party, and anything else that might come up. This is also a great time to include the players in shaping the campaign. They may have had an entirely different outlook on a few moments that felt way more impactful to them than they did to me, and that should be rewarded, too. An example of this might be something as simple as a puzzle or mystery that’s a struggle for one particular player in the party. But once another player has a breakthrough, the previously baffled player realizes a solution and they complete it. That’s key gameplay, and I want to reward not only the ingenuity but the comfort in expressing thoughts and ideas with the rest of the party no matter how trivial.

Tom Moses

I’m a big fan of Inspiration as a reward mechanic, but in D&D 5e I do find the RAW version to be lacking, and it seems a missed opportunity. The idea of rewarding a player for something they do in a session that is slightly outside the game mechanics is something I’ve done as a DM for quite some time. But it can end up being more complex than I intended and eventually changes over time, which could make it feel more like a burden than a boon.  The idea of inspiration though: it’s simple, to the point, and can be immediately beneficial. And I love to use it as a focused reward towards roleplay, which is generally difficult to reward with XP (because I’m still one of those weirdos that use XP).

How can players earn Inspiration?

Mike Ellis

I’m extremely liberal with Inspiration and how players can earn it. Again, it’s positive reinforcement in my game.

Players can earn inspiration for something as simple as dropping a one-liner that was totally in character and had me or any one of the other players dying with laughter. They can earn inspiration for breaking a logjam in puzzles, making a really insightful moment of cutting through a plot or identifying an NPC character quirk. They can earn it for really cool moments of heroism, bravery, and even cowardice. Or for intense emotional moments, good or bad, that linger at the table. Also, as I mentioned before, I lead debriefs and recaps as bookends to sessions so that other players can talk about the moments that wowed them, and thus, earn players inspiration.

That’s quite a wide range of examples, and, frankly, a lot of times as a DM, your gut knows as well as your brain: “wow, that moment was really impactful; it needs to be noted and rewarded.” To me, that’s the crux of it. I don’t see the difference between a brief, in-character moment of perfection, or devising an ingenious way to fell the dungeon mid-boss, meaning the beleaguered party was kept out of harm’s way. The point is rewarding positive impact and fun.

I’ve seen some DMs assign different die values based on the impact of the moment, which, I think is a clever way of fixing the mechanic of Inspiration (and its lackluster feeling), but a terrible way to reward players. I want to encourage ALL play types and styles that go toward the goal of making the session, campaign, or story enjoyable and unique to the group. I don’t want to impress upon the players that any one thing is more important than another, and I definitely don’t want Inspiration to turn into glory-seeking.

Tom Moses

At my table, as long as the players agree during session zero, I treat inspiration as a point pool (I’ve been a sucker for point pools since the 3.5e Psion because I’m slightly insane) that the players can earn as a reward specifically for roleplay. This point pool is tracked on the campaign notebook that the players can always refer to so they’re aware of how many they have. And since we use DNDBeyond, I have a custom feat that I use to help the players track their points on their character sheets. It’s a little more work on my end, but so far it’s worked out pretty well.

Inspiration points help me incentivize roleplay and gives the players at the table a mechanical input to impact the story outside of what their characters can do. Beyond that, it’s also a great feedback tool. At character creation, I set everyone’s Inspiration to 4 points to account for their backstory, goals, and all those tidbits. Every other session the players can nominate one of them as the roleplaying MVP, or if I as the DM note that someone really went that extra mile, I’ll award them 1d4 inspiration points. They can spend these points to help enhance their stories at the table. To make it fair, a player cannot nominate themselves. There has also been a time or two where I just awarded inspiration to everyone at the table because the session was just that good and no single player could’ve pulled it off without the other.

I try to be fair about it, but if someone doesn’t stick out to me as the obvious choice, I leave it up to the players to provide that feedback.

What rewards do players receive for Inspiration?

Mike Ellis

How I implement Inspiration is not terribly beyond what the PHB suggests (beyond the fact that I hand it out more frequently), but the key difference in how I handle Inspiration is what it can do for the player.

Depending on the campaign, I might start with a d6 and scale the die value the same as Bardic Inspiration scales, but for the most part, Inspiration = 1 die.

However, the key to how I make Inspiration feel like a valuable reward is to let players accrue and hold as many Inspiration dice as they’d like. Sure, they can burn an Inspiration die on rolls just like the standard rules if they so choose, or they can pool these dice together for more impactful rewards.

Let’s say the party has a gruff, dwarf barbarian with low Charisma, and through roleplay, the dwarf not only comes up with an ingenious set of social skill ruses that are entertaining but uncharacteristically, saves the party’s bacon. In that case, I’ll reward Inspiration instantly, and then during debrief, I’ll tell the barbarian that there’s a chance for him to gain a permanent +1 to Charisma based on this one inspiring act. Now there’s a direct correlation between the player, their character, the moment, and possible progression. Then during the next session’s recap, I might present that player with the new goal: +1 Charisma bonus at the cost of 2-3 Inspiration dice. Should the player want to spend the dice on that reward at any point, they can. This also helps codify the moment into the lore of the party, and also perhaps, signal a new understanding of the character by the party and player. Positive reinforcement!

There are countless ways to implement this, too. Let’s say there’s a ranger that seems to always get the killing blow on creatures and has gained a reputation within the party for being the group’s punisher. That’s extremely memorable. Any time that a series of instances “stick” to a player, by its very definition, it’s inspirational and should be rewarded. So, perhaps I’ll note in a debrief that due to the knack for getting the final shot, the player has a potential reward of getting critical hits on a 19 and a 20 and set the goal at three Inspiration die.

These goals don’t have to be merely individual, either. Maybe the party is generally pretty valorous, but, having pressed their luck every other way and failed, one player resorts to a slightly underhanded act to succeed, and does so, resonating with the party during the debrief. I could see that, and offer a party goal of one free level of rogue for everyone in the party. Again, codifying that moment, and letting the party signal that this moment was so immense in magnitude that it actually shifted the way the entire party operates moving forward. For the recap, I’d give the party the goal of 7-8 Inspiration die that they could pool together to purchase the reward of one level of rogue.

I almost always run West Marches games. And given its “points of light” or “fog of war,” nature, I’ll let the party spend a wealth of Inspiration dice to reveal secrets not yet understood in the proverbial “dark” of the world or to gain exploration benefits. This is a core mechanical feature of a West Marches game that I’m allowing players to “shortcut,” so the cost might be really high (10+ inspiration die). But that cost doesn’t have to be permanent. Perhaps a really cinematic pitched battle happens on the outskirts of some of that “dark.” I might reward the players, not just with Inspiration (should they merit it), but drop the cost of the exploration reward by a die as a way of conveying some sort of character progression that doesn’t show on a character sheet. Ultimately there’s not much players love more than progression.

Often instead of a points of light campaign, I’ll do a “people of light” campaign, where instead of a map players are trying to reveal, they have an NPC community of quest givers with their own desires, interests, motivations, and boons that players are trying to uncover (I’ll be writing a whole article on that soon). I’d also let parties pool their Inspiration dice together to curry favor with one of these NPCs. Again, maybe the cost starts really high, but if they do exceptionally well on a mission for this NPC the cost lowers.

All this might seem potentially hazardous, as far as game balance is concerned, but the truth is for me, balance is far less important than excitement, fun, agency, and progression. I want to reward those things and if it makes balancing the game harder later on because a dwarven barbarian becomes slightly more charismatic, then I’ll take that hardship on every time.

Tom Moses

At the request of a few of my players, I built a small list of things they could do with their inspiration points. The options below aren’t hard limits of what the party can accomplish, but they are benefits that can be attained without stopping the narrative progress during the session. Many times they will fail a saving throw and they’ll just declare they’re adding an inspiration point or two to meet the DC in those clutch moments. One day it may save a character from failing that last death save.

  • Spend at least 1 point as a bonus to any of your D20 rolls (up to your point total).
  • Spend at least 1 point as a bonus to any HP recovered by spending Hit Die (up to your point total).
  • Spend at least 1 point to gain 1 gold piece for each point spent.
  • Spend at least 1 point to gain 1 temporary HP for each point spent.
  • Spend 3 points to grant yourself advantage
  • Spend 5 points to impose disadvantage to the DM
  • Spend 5 Points to succeed in a death save
  • Spend 7 points to reduce a critical hit to a normal hit
  • Spend 15 points to auto crit a turn
  • Spend 15 points to remove a level of exhaustion

Players may also come up with their own way to use their points, but that’s subject to approval at the table.

Any additional Inspiration embellishments?

Tom Moses

I also like the idea of using Inspiration as a means of origination for the “Plot Points” Optional rule in the Dungeon Master’s Workshop (DMG Chapter 9). The idea of giving the players a way to affect the setting in a meaningful way using a paywall of their inspiration points would open a few doors for the players to have a direct impact on the storytelling outside of their character’s abilities. I would require a high number of inspiration points for a single plot point. It’s something I’m still considering. This would definitely keep me on my toes as the DM and makes me wonder what sort of chaos would ensue if the right player banked up their inspiration to buy the right plot point.

If you’re unaware of this nifty little rule, the DMG states that each player gets a plot point per session. The player can spend that plot point in a few ways set up by the DM, giving the player the ability to say “Hey I found a trap door!” which could lead to some interesting areas. This could be somewhat destructive to the plot of the session, but then again, that open sort of storytelling is tempting to me a great deal!

Mike Ellis

My final little flourish for Inspiration is to mold details of the campaign so that it feels as integral as everything else I’m presenting. If I’m running a pirate campaign, instead of dice, I might use pearls to hand out Inspiration, and I might give little treasure chests to store them in. If I don’t have props that I love, I might just pick a specific color or type of die. In an Icewind Dale campaign, blue, sparkly dice might represent Inspiration, reflecting the cold, harshness of the setting.

There are mechanical tweaks, too. In a Victorian horror campaign, where the principal theme is testing how much players will sacrifice their “humanness” for power, I might impose a negative effect for spending a high amount of pooled dice. I might also allow the players in my pirate campaign to barter on the cost of rewards. Or if I’m running a high-risk campaign, instead of listing the cost in dice, it might be a DC like any other check. If they succeed, they get the reward, and if not… all that inspiration is lost forever.

My foremost piece of advice is this: if you do pick up these flourishes or change how the mechanics of Inspiration works, first make sure that the connection to the campaign is obvious and if it isn’t, state the correlation. Be very clear and concise with the rules, do not alter them, and do not be ambiguous. Inspiration is meant as a reward, and the second the players do not have a clear understanding of how to earn them, you may poison the whole effort.

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