Playing Advantage and Inspiration 1

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.

Advantage Accounting

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.

Seven years since Next!

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.

Alternative Advantage

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.

Ineffective Inspiration

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’s back there, somewhere.

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.

Inspiration Innovation

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.

dicepoolThe 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.

Change Compelled

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.

Support me on Patreon or Ko-fi if you like what I’ve done here or my other work and publications. Support allows me to keep working on essays such as this one, along with other side projects you can access on Patreon.

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.

4 thoughts on “Playing Advantage and Inspiration 1

  1. You really nailed my issues with advantage/disadvantage, that I’ve never put my finger on. It is many people’s favorite 5e mechanic, but I honestly would have preferred modifiers. I really like the idea of adding 1 or more d6s to the roll, and I’m wondering what the outcome would be if a roll of 6 equals 5+1d6 (exploding dice of sorts).

    That said, I still can’t get behind inspiration. Something about getting a mechanical reward for good (or exceptional) role-playing never sat well with me. And I don’t like players hemming and hawing about whether they should use their inspiration in the middle of combat.

    What I try to do is reward exceptional role playing with personal opportunities within the game, similar to PCs with backstories that have use plot hooks. It could be a personally meaningful encounter, or an individually beneficial magic item. Obviously I’m not giving this stuff out that liberally.

    Looking forward to reading part 2.


  2. I like this stuff. I think it could make the leap to 5e. I also like the idea, at least, that inspiration can be a reward. It doesn’t surprise me that it has been done. The key is using it as currency, which I’ll get into in part 2. I’ll mention what you say here.


  3. I completely agree. Inspiration is really hard to use. At tables I visit at cons, it almost never shows up. Almost every player at a con wants to use it as a reroll. Players hoard them, seldom using them (except for those rerolls). DMs forget about them. The concept of tying these to character personality traits (goals/ideals, etc.) are super hard for DMs to use.

    I worked hard during my last 2-year home campaign to use Inspiration. Each player had a table tent, and the back side reminded them to use them. House rules allowed greater utility (including a reroll, but then the DM gets Inspiration to use for monsters). I still saw very little Inspiration used.

    In contrast, games like Fate, TimeWatch, and Shadowrun Anarchy all see these types of bennies handed out and get used often. 5E clearly misses the mark here. And, I would say these modern games also make better use of character traits. 13th Age with “one unique thing” is a far better mechanic than the convoluted 5E background system, far simpler, far more memorable at the table for everyone.

    I like Shadow of the Demon Lord, though i don’t love it when lots of boons and banes get thrown around. It feels cumbersome, even if it isn’t… if that makes sens? If I had to pick a system, I would go with Spycraft d20. The Action Dice system gave you a number of dice that changed in number and size (d4, d6, etc.) according to your level. You could spend 1 (only) on a roll to add that die to the roll. It was part of the tension. You make a roll, you get an okay total, and before the result is known, the DM might say, “are you happy with that?” And it was time to toss in an action die.

    You could also add it to your Defense, use it for healing outside of combat, and more. A really cool thing is that these dice could explode! Roll that d4, get a 4, and you get to roll again!

    Some cool uses included activating a crit success or fail (in Spycraft, a 20 meant you could have a spectacular result, IF you activated it). And, of course, your GM was encouraged to award you action dice for doing cool tricks, narrating your moves, good RP, and so on. You also gained a bit of XP at the same time!

    The key to the system was that when the GM awards Action Dice, they also get one. And they get a few based on the type of game. This allowed GMs to make bosses into real threats, or to heighten the tension. It was a great part of the game.

    Liked by 1 person

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