Over the years I have played and/or ran a great number of games that use some form of out of game “currency” to allow players to manipulate things. Deadlands, Savage Worlds, Torg (and Torg Eternity), Marvel Super-Heroes, various 2d20 systems, FATE, D&D and the list goes on. There are tons of games that do this, many, many examples of how to do it well and yet Inspiration in 5E just fails to work. So this time let’s take a look at what a meta-currency should do, how Inspiration fails to do that, and how it can be fixed.
For me, any game with a meta-currency needs to do some things in order for it to be useful. So let’s look at some things I consider to be necessary to a functional system and how to use them for Inspiration.
Whenever a player or GM uses the game currency it needs to have a good chance of making a difference in the scene. Most importantly though the player needs to be able to make an informed decision as to whether or not spending the resource is worth it.
The best systems allow for the resource to be spent after the roll. Usually the caveat is after the roll but before the results are adjudicated. That allows players to make a more informed decision about spending a limited resource. In RAW D&D you need to spend Inspiration to get advantage on the roll (roll twice, take the best) and it’s frankly a pretty shitty payoff much of the time. It’s not horrible if you roll both dice at once but there’s nothing like the sinking feeling of seeing your first die come up good and knowing you still spent Inspiration. Moreso it has no impact when your Wizard rolls 18 damage on their fireball or the fighter’s critical hit comes up snake eyes.
There’s a couple of really easy ways to fix this issue.
The first, and most obvious, is to allow Inspiration to be used after the die roll as a reroll. Make this an optional rule because there are some (rogues) who may want to be able to spend for inspiration to trigger class abilities.
Secondly, allow that reroll to apply to any dice roll. Reroll damage or reroll a chart result. I do recommend that you apply the rule that any give die may only be rerolled once regardless of source of the reroll just so the game doesn’t get bogged down.
You may also decide to apply the reroll very broadly and allow it to affect other players or NPCs rolls. That’s a decision for the table though I’d likely allow letting another player reroll.
The meta-currency should never be stagnant. Players shouldn’t fear using it because they don’t know when they’ll get it back. We all know players like to horde things “just in case”. It’s why potions are such great treasures, the players will likely never use that potion of giant strength because they may need it later. Meta-currency easily falls into that if there’s no easy and objective way to generate it. Quick. Can someone say how to objectively, across the board, gain/regain Inspiration? Nope, because it’s not there. In theory you can get inspiration from playing your character’s Personality. It’s subjective though. Games that do this mechanic well, such as FATE or 2d20 do this objectively. Compel an Aspect – gain a Fate Point. Roll well – generate Momentum. If you want players to spend the points, then you need to provide an easy and concrete way for them to earn them/replenish them.
First off all get rid of the idea that playing your character is worth Inspiration. Not that playing your PC is a bad thing, but it’s subjective. Is the loud, brash player playing the loud and brash fighter really RP-ing better than the outgoing person playing a quiet character? Definitely not but the loud and brash one is more likely in most groups to be awarded Inspiration for playing their character. So keep it objective. Do X and get Inspiration. Maybe it’s defeat an enemy or maybe when you roll a natural 20 (which is less likely for spellcasters so think before implementing this) etc. Even if you decide to stick with playing your character find an objective way to adjudicate it. I’m a fan of “using your character traits, give yourself disadvantage on a test”. The character traits are the RP/narrative element, the disadvantage is the objective part. The player isn’t getting Inspiration because they are playing the fact that their character is greedy. They are getting inspiration because that greed means the character is at disadvantage on a task because of their greed.
GMs are players too and D&D tends to forget this when it comes to Inspiration. Players knowing that the GM has resources to spend to alter dice rolls brings a different dynamic to the table. Things are a little more tense, things are a little more dangerous. Depending on how the points are used it adds a new dimension to the game. In Conan, I tend to use Doom for big encounters and it ramps up the difficulty without me need to reconfigure the big bad’s stats. In Torg Eternity it can make the difference between an enemy going down quickly or hanging around for a few rounds.
It equalizes the playing field somewhat but more importantly using it well as a GM signals to the PCs the importance of the encounter.
Let the DM have Inspiration. If you’ve adapted an objective way for it to be gained, then let that apply as well. Let the DM spend it the same way the other players can. I’d also strongly suggest that the DM have a pool at the start rather than having it for each NPC or creature or whatever. I’ve found it many games that having 2 “resources” per player is a good starting place.
Caveat – when the GM has points to spend to modify things be very very clear that is is to make the game more fun and entertaining not more antagonistic. It can very, very easily be abused or seem unfair if you only use them against a certain player or only when the players look like they’re “getting away too easily”. These points are to enhance the game, not to punish your players. I’ve had games of Conan where my Doom pool sits untouched because they players were having a rough time anyway and using the pool would be kicking them while they’re down. It’s a tool and use it respectfully.