D&D: Acting on Inspiration

It’s D&D game night, and the characters are trapped by their vile foes, thrown in irons, and imprisoned in the deepest dungeon.

“I want to break my chains!” says the player of the brawny fighter.

Having already made note of the “Manacles” section from chapter 5 of the Player’s Handbook, the DM says, “Roll a Strength check.”

… and the die comes up a 1.

Now what? Does Brawny Fighter get to try again? The section on “Ability Checks” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide—specifically “Multiple Ability Checks”—presents two options:

  1. If the character can try again, taking about ten times the usual time to do something ensures success. However, no amount of trying again allows a character to turn an impossible task into a successful one.
  2. In other cases, failing an ability check makes it impossible to make the same check to do the same thing again.

So, which is this? Neither option is particularly appealing: If the strong character can’t break his chains, he can never succeed? On the other hand, it’s a bit anticlimactic to say that just taking a minute (10 rounds) is enough for him to break the chains automatically. “You can try again later” is a perfectly valid answer from the Dungeon Master—who gets the decide when “later” is—but is there a game-system middle ground for this kind of situation? Turns out there is: inspiration.

Our Hero can’t try to break the chains, or figure out the maze, or overcome the obstacle without a breakthrough, without being inspired. Inspiration draws on your character’s personality traits, the things the character cares about. It represents when your character is truly motivated. It’s also a great benchmark for those times when your character has the gumption to try again, and succeed this time, since the added effect of inspiration is you can now make the roll with advantage!

In fact, you can even extend the idea of “acting on inspiration” to include all forms of advantage. Essentially, it’s the shift from being at a disadvantage, under normal conditions, or having advantage that opens up a new opportunity. So if a character who is at a disadvantage tries something and fails, the character can try again when no longer at a disadvantage. The situation has changed. Likewise, a character who fails under normal conditions, gets to try again upon gaining advantage, with a better chance of success. In this case, inspiration just represents one way of gaining advantage to change the conditions of the test and try again.

The best part of acting on inspiration is it is a matter of motivation. In order to get the needed inspiration, players need to look to their characters’ personality traits and play to them. What is going to motivate our brawny fighter to really try to escape? Is it a threat to a loved one, duty to a sword liege, revenge, or simply proving that nothing and no one can hold him prisoner? Likewise, going with advantage as an opportunity to try again encourages the players to pro-actively change the situation, rather than just waiting the appointed time to make another die-roll.

If at first you don’t succeed in your next D&D game, consider acting on inspiration.

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