On Inspiration

Left Oblique and I go back and forth a lot on what systems, players, DMs, and gaming in general are and should be. A lot of it comes down to simulationism versus narrativism, but it’s not always that clear-cut. One conversation we had recently was about what a system allows players to do versus what it encourages players to do. There are bits and pieces of my side of the discussion all over the blog, and the most relevant post from LO’s side is here: Why system matters (a brief example)

There’s a particular section I find somewhat prophetic:

The key is deciding first what kind of experience you want to have at the table, and creating rules that support that…instead of saying, “We need to discard D&D and make something new that encourages role-playing”, all [the designers] need to do is decide on what they want the core of the RP experience to be and add sufficient rules to support it. Consider the “bonds” system from Dungeon World, for example. You could lay this over the top of any edition of D&D to give the players incentive to have their characters interact in complex ways, without otherwise changing the rules.

Compare that to last week’s Legends and Lore, where Mike Mearls brings up a system called “inspiration”. In short, inspiration is binary: you either have it or you don’t. When you role-play, the DM can grant you inspiration, which you can use for a +2 to some roll that is related to your role-play (or isn’t; it’s a little vague).

Inspiration fades quickly (“Don’t I know it” says my inner writer), so the incentive isn’t to sit on it until a crucial moment. The most mechanically advantageous use of inspiration seems to be getting it and using it as rapidly as possible, which means acting in character as often and as thoroughly as possible. Alternatively, you can get inspiration by “bringing the game to life, keeping the action moving, or otherwise making the game more enjoyable for everyone.” It’s not just a bonus for roleplay, it’s a bonus for being a good person at the table.

And that’s kind of my problem with it, and with LO’s stance on it as well. The system itself is fine and does the job it’s designed to do (I imagine). My concern is that we live in a world where it’s necessary.

I’ve played with and DMed for plenty of people in my career. I’ve seen players who treat their characters as faceless bundles of stats, players who run roughshod through games unaware of or unsympathetic toward the way they affect the game for other people, and players who actively cheat for reasons I haven’t been able to understand. I’ve also seen players who treat their characters as living, breathing people, players who sacrifice their own experience for others, and players with respect for the game and the people who play it beyond a simple “we’re on the same team” aesthetic. And I’ve seen a startling number who combine both, like players focused entirely on the stats, ignoring any opportunity for in-character actions or growth, who are still a joy to have at the table. Similarly, I’ve seen players fully immersed in their characters who were still unlikeable drags. The point is that players are a disparate group hard to categorize into any meaningful bundles.

But one of the most common attempts is to put players on an axis of stats versus…well, versus not-stats. I’ve seen this described as role-play versus roll-play, talking versus combat, acting versus numbers, and any number of definitions that don’t fully explain each side or accept the possibility that somebody can do both at once. My personal favorite, perhaps because it’s the most pithy, is quiche versus cheese. But in order to use the least loaded words we can, let’s take a page from Dice of Doom and call them “left” and “right”.

The far left doesn’t need an inspiration mechanic to encourage them to participate in the role-playing aspect of a role-playing game. They do it because it’s entertaining or fulfilling. Good role-play, like good play in general, is in the short term its own reward. In the long term it connects the player to others with the same ideals, which leads to a better time all around. That’s not to say that this mechanic isn’t for the left as part of 5E’s “something for everyone” high concept, but I can’t see inspiration pulling somebody over the fence. It’s not for them.

Which makes it easy to say that the inspiration mechanic is for the far right, to encourage role-play by giving it a tangible reward, but I don’t see that either. The right will find a way to use or abuse any and all systems available regardless of their intent. If acting in-character gives mechanical benefits, fine. But it doesn’t change that we’re still dealing with players who only have respect for role-play when it gives them numbers.

As I see it, inspiration is for the people in the middle. These are the players who either don’t have a strong opinion on this scale or who actively try to stay between extremes. Many of these players are new, or at least that’s the explicit intention behind 5E. Inspiration is there to push these players toward the left, because the designers know that the books themselves have a focus on rules that leans to the right.

My argument is that the focus on rules isn’t a bad thing. The deep, heart-of-hearts core of a role-playing system is only to provide a method for conflict resolution; beyond that it’s all people sitting around a table and playing make-believe within the restrictions of that method. D&D has lots of ways to resolve lots of conflicts, usually using dice, and that’s what the rules do. But it’s up to the DM and the players to decide what conflicts are worth resolving, often using methods beyond the rules, and that’s role-play. I don’t see how adding rules for non-rules enhances the non-rules.

Say that I have a fighter. He has a bond with the cleric, and he gets a +2 whenever he’s doing something to help the cleric. This will encourage him to help the cleric, yes. To an outside observer, it’s more clear that the fighter is protecting the cleric. But a player on the left will help the cleric regardless of whether there’s an incentive. A player on the right will do it only because of the incentive. Everybody is still acting the way they always were. We’ve added something to the system to encourage role-play, and nothing has actually changed.

All that’s happened is that we now have a “reminder” for people in the middle. It tells the player “Ah, I’ve decided that my character should act this way, and there’s an opportunity to act this way.” It’s no different from dedicating a section of the character sheet to bonds or goals or allegiances. The rules benefit is completely ancillary to the aim of the mechanic, which is to encourage role-play. But role-play for the sake of stats isn’t role-play at all, or at least it’s not a role-play I want to see encouraged. It’s just a means to an end, and that end is exactly what role-play isn’t.

So we are teaching some role-play to players who are new to the game or don’t have a strong opinion. But we’re teaching them to expect a reward for it. When that happens, there’s a chance that we’ll instill a love of role-play, but there’s a greater chance that they’ll see role-play without rewards as something not worth the effort. I don’t want to see role-play become just another feat choice or optional system to be ignored, and presenting it that way isn’t doing anyone any favors.

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3 Responses to On Inspiration

  1. Dave says:

    You know, having now read the post at the Wizards site, I think I agree with you.

    The thing I liked most about their post was how they now have Burning Wheel-style beliefs and traits and Sorcerer-style kickers as part of character creation. I’ve advocated players and DMs doing that on their own as a way to improve the quality of the story and role-playing in their games.

    The thing I liked least was the inspiration system. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You can give players the tools they need and the concepts they have to think about in order to play deep, interesting characters, but you can’t force them to actually do it. And the opportunity for an occasional +2 bonus isn’t enough to incentivize players that aren’t interested in that kind of role-playing.

    Burning Wheel and Dungeon World both reward characters playing towards their goals, beliefs, bonds, etc. but both games are designed around that and expect player buy-in from the start. To bring D&D Next to the same level, you’d have to have serious rewards systems and mechanics tied in, not just a chance to earn a +2 once per scene.

  2. Blake says:

    I’d like to take the opportunity to play the devils advocate here and stick up for the inspiration system. Remember that some pretty smart people who get paid six digits to do what we’re doing here for free seem to think it’s worth a road-test.

    Rules are a container and creativity is a liquid. For some players, the creativity spills over or bursts the container, so their fun in the game is essentially unrestricted. But other people need the book to tell them what they can do: omission is as good as forbiddance to them. I question that dangling a carrot to lead a horse to water teaches the horse that water isn’t worth drinking other than to wash down a carrot. DMwC’s position -as I understand it- is that some horses don’t want this water and mixing in the water they like to incentivize them to drink it is clock-work-orange-style behavioral engineering. But I’d suggest that dragging a player to every corner of the RPG tapestry informs their decision on what they really enjoy about the game. Something for everyone isn’t worth much if not everyone notices the thing that’s for them.

    I compare it to the old +2 circumstance bonus -a mechanic I’ve never heard a DM or player complain about that has been in D&D since at least 3rd Ed. (For those who are new, the mechanic is literally: “If a player is making a check and for some reason has an extra advantage, the DM may want to give them a +2 circumstance bonus to the check.”) This seems like kind of a re-tread of it, but substituting Rube Goldberg with Buddha. Instead of shining light in an enemy’s eyes, you remember how Lothar named his puppy after you. Don’t I deserve a +2 inspiration bonus for that!? Lothar loves that puppy! Just another tool in the DM’s toolbox to enhance the immersion. Do all DMs need it? Nope. Will all players use it as intended? Nope. Some people will have more fun because of this and I’m not convinced anybody will have less fun because of it.

    • Dave says:

      That’s a pretty good argument for it, and I am usually on the side of “create mechanics to make the things you want to have happen in the game”. +2 once per scene/encounter does seem a bit weak sauce, but maybe that’s just enough to encourage players to engage the system.

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