I have a love-hate relationship with D&D’s advantage-disadvantage mechanics. And so, I have a similar relationship to inspiration. Inspiration is more tolerate-hate. With that opinion, I don’t blame groups for ignoring the decidedly uninspired inspiration rules. However, I’m not one to wax negative about something in a game without suggesting fixes I’d use. That’s what this piece is about.
Back in the day, when we were working on D&D 5e, we went through iterations of trying to remove mathematical bonuses from the game. Those phases included various ways of using extra dice. The philosophy behind this design was that bonuses are easy to forget. Math with multiple modifiers is neither easy nor fun, and stacking rules make modifiers even more arcane. Additional dice, on the other hand, provide extra cues—the presence of the die, the tactile value, and the excitement of the more rolling. The products of the process can be seen in advantage and disadvantage in the game, as well as the effect of the 5e bless and bane spells.
Advantage and disadvantage can feel like all or nothing. The dice are fickle and can give bizarre outcomes. Results vary, and the effects on specific outcomes can be complicated. However, grossly simplified, the bonus on advantage bonus works out to about +4. Further, if you have five advantages, you have one. And if you have five advantages and one disadvantage, you have neither. The reverse is also true. They don’t stack and they cancel out quickly.
I know the rationale for this design. Those reasons were laid out in development meetings during the making of 5e. The rule is simple. You know very quickly whether you have advantage or its counterpart. Then, you roll an extra d20 and apply the rule in play. Take the highest of the two for advantage or the lowest for disadvantage. Done. Easy.
This design has a few glitches. One problem with the rule being this simple is that the circumstances that cause advantage and disadvantage can never combine to tell a complicated story. Once one instance of each has been considered, no further narrative needs to be created. The result is null. It’s not worth the mental labor for most. Another issue, which could admittedly be seen as a feature rather than a bug, is the add-on effect of advantage nearly doubling the chance for a critical hit with 2d20, and of disadvantage making the same all but impossible.
Shadow of the Demon Lord uses a system like one that was tried in D&D 5e’s development. Here’s a paraphrased version of the Demon Lord rule.
Circumstances can make d20 rolls easier or harder. Positive circumstances grant one or more boons, while negative circumstances impose one or more banes. Boons improve your d20 die rolls. Banes hinder your d20 die rolls. One or more of each might apply to a given roll, but boons and banes cancel each other out, one for one. If 2 boons and 1 bane apply to a d20 roll, you roll with 1 boon. For each boon, you roll a d6 and then add the highest number among all the boon dice to your d20 roll. For each bane, you roll a d6 and then subtract the highest number among all the bane dice from your d20 roll.
Frankly, I preferred this rule’s counterpart in 5e’s playtest. It’s apparent Rob Schwalb, Demon Lord’s creator, favored that design, too. This rule can account for narrative complexity but still results in only one type of modifying die being added to the roll. I’d use it as a house rule for my D&D game, calling boons advantage dice and banes disadvantage dice to keep familiar parlance. Maybe I’d use d4s to move closer to the +2 or so traditional in the previous two editions of the D&D game and to have an upper end closer to the advantage average. Perhaps d6s as d3s for smaller bonuses on a die that’s more accessible. That’s a matter of taste.
The complexity is slightly higher, true, but the effect on other rules is minor. Once you become used to the stacking effect, you can quickly stack up the circumstances to throw a couple advantage dice or disadvantage dice at a player. More complex yes; too much, no.
The rules change only a little. In 5e, having an advantage die on your roll is the same as having normal advantage, and a disadvantage die is the same as having disadvantage. A critical hit remains the same. Advantage no longer doubles the chance of having one, though, which isn’t a big loss. A natural 20 remains a critical hit despite disadvantage, provided the attack roll still hits after disadvantage is applied. You no longer have to worry about how to adjudicate rerolling d20s, since you roll only one. This option also makes the Pack Tactics monster trait and the optional flanking rule in the Dungeon Master’s Guide tamer.
This approach, at least in part, can be used in other d20 games that rely on numeric modifiers, too. That includes 3e, Pathfinder, Starfinder, and so on. Each temporary +2 equals a d4 modifier instead.
This way of playing can help inspiration, too.
During the development of 5e, I was excited when I heard decision-makers (which I was not) talking about taking lessons from other games, such as FATE. D&D and its derivatives could still learn a thing or two from modern designs. The possibility of players exerting narrative control in D&D inspired me.
The outcome of this talk, the inspiration rule, doesn’t. With this mechanic, players have a very minor influence on results in the game by granting themselves advantage on a roll. Inspiration is uninspired in its design, though.
My issue with inspiration comprises, well, all its mechanics. The only good part about it is that it’s better than nothing. That’s not saying much. And I’m including the expanded rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide here. They don’t make the mechanic better.
Inspiration exists as an on-the-spot reward for roleplaying and making the game more fun for your fellow players. But you can either have inspiration or not. If you already have it, by the rules, you can’t be further rewarded until you spend it. Couple this limitation with the tendency for players to cling to their inspiration, and the problem is obvious and compound.
Using inspiration is another problem. You can give yourself advantage on a roll, which means you can expend your inspiration when you might have succeeded anyway. The best use in this strict-rules case is canceling disadvantage you have. At least you’re assured of a positive effect if you do so.
Numerous games I’ve played in have a house rule of using inspiration to reroll a failure. This usage is marginally better. It allows you a chance to turn a bad situation around. It’s great for getting Sneak Attack.
Still, a better way exists.
Revamping inspiration requires using alternative advantage or something like it. After that, the fix is simple.
The DM can give inspiration whenever, and they should use it to reward roleplaying character traits and making the game more fun. Also, give everyone 1 inspiration to start the session. Heroes need fuel. Players can give theirs to other players, too. And players can use as much inspiration on one roll as they want. It’s theirs to spend. The returns are diminishing anyway, given the maximum bonus—using more than three at a time is likely to be a waste, especially with d4s. Spending a lot signifies a roll that’s important to the player, which is a signal to the DM, too. Inspiration is also still great for canceling disadvantage, and it’s still great for Sneak Attack.
The reroll house rule can be accommodated, too. Rerolling might cost one or, maybe, two inspiration dice, depending on how kind you are as a referee. You might restrict to one reroll on a given d20 roll to prevent a cascade… of disappointment.
To encourage players to expend their pools of inspiration, ask them to refresh the pool to 1 or 0 on a rest. Which rest also depends on your preferences (how nice you are). Using a short rest has the benefit of forcing the players to consider another resource—inspiration—when deciding when to take that break. You can also use this refresh each session, resetting each player to 1 or 0 at the start of game time. Employing these options prevents the inspiration pool from growing too large. It also takes the onus off the players for remembering this variable between sessions.
Using these optional rules won’t change your d20 game too much. And you can utilize these options in various d20 games, at least. The changes might just make your game more fun. They also open the door for something I’ll get into in my next article, which is something else I hoped was a possibility when I overheard talk of FATE among 5e decision-makers when the system was D&D Next. That something is a currency for narrative influence among all players in a D&D game.
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Most artwork is made of altered photos. Top photo by Ian Gonzalez, next image from D&D Next promo (Wizards of the Coast), then a photo by Yan Ming, next photo by Eva Blue, next by Ricardo Cruz, next by Jordon Conner, and final photo by Riho Kroll.