Inspiration is a fantastic way for dungeon masters to reward quick thinking, heroism, or a moment of tender roleplaying. It’s a kind of meta-currency handed out in response to players doing something awesome.
Used correctly, it can really elevate your game, encouraging players to embody their characters to the hilt and embrace the kind of game you want to play.
In this guide, we’ll go over how Inspiration works, when and why you should award it, and how dungeon masters can use Inspiration to take their campaigns to the next level.
What Is Inspiration?
Inspiration is a rule the game master can use to reward players for a number of reasons ranging from roleplaying their character well, coming up with a clever idea, engaging with the genre tropes of the campaign, acts of heroism, or for overcoming a challenging obstacle.
Having Inspiration allows a player to gain advantage on one ability check, attack roll, or saving throw. A player can only have one Inspiration at a time, and players can give their inspiration to one another if they choose.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide describes Inspiration as “a spice that you can use to enhance your campaign.”
Some dungeon masters make Inspiration a core part of their game, dishing it out multiple times per session; some dungeon masters don’t use inspiration at all.
As with many such things, most groups tend to fall somewhere in the middle.
When Should I Award Inspiration?
As a DM, knowing when is the right time to award Inspiration can be tricky, especially as you’re already trying to run an adventure, track monster hit points, remember all your character voices, and choose an appropriate soundtrack.
I’ll admit that, in pretty much every game I’ve run, I forget to dish out any Inspiration at all – apart from at the beginning of each session, when I give one to the player who volunteers to do the recap of last session (while I frantically scroll through my own notes to figure out what’s going on).
Most of the time, my players never remember to use it anyway, but that’s also my fault I think. If I awarded Inspiration more often, my players would remember it exists. Oh well.
So, in the interest of doing as I say, not as I do, when is the right time to award inspiration?
Inspiration for Roleplaying
One of the most common times that DMs award Inspiration is when a player has a moment when they really embody their character.
They make a choice or have a conversation that perfectly expresses their character’s goals, flaws, bonds, or ideals, and the DM rewards them for it.
Awarding Inspiration for great roleplaying is a great way to remind your players that D&D is a game about shared storytelling.
Players who fully immerse themselves into the story you’re all telling together should be rewarded.
Who knows? It might encourage your resident moody murder hobo to open up and finally talk about their feelings.
Just remember that every player is different.
Some players (they tend to be theater majors, musicians, or the compare at the local burlesque night, in my experience) love to throw themselves into their role.
They slip in and out of a consistent character voice, address the players’ characters rather than the players, and generally prefer to act out scenes rather than describe them.
Some players find this daunting or a little exhausting, preferring instead to describe their actions in the third person, and lay out the gist of what they’re saying rather than do acting with a capital “A.”
Both of these approaches are totally valid.
If you decide to award Inspiration for inspired roleplaying, make sure you’re not inadvertently punishing one style of play over another. Anyone who’s getting into the spirit of the game should be rewarded for it.
Inspiration for Heroism
You can also use Inspiration to encourage your players to take bigger risks, try more dangerous plans, and generally ramp up the *jazz hands* Drama!
A fighter who leaps headfirst into a roomful of angry gnolls to rescue a hostage might definitely deserve Inspiration but so might a player who volunteers herself for a dangerous mission.
Even a player who bravely sparks up a torch to venture first into an unexplored dungeon is being heroic.
Inspiration for heroism works well in action-packed campaigns where you want to keep the momentum of your story high. It’s a great tool for giving overly cautious parties a little push in the direction of the adventure.
The reroll that Inspiration gives also creates a nice little safety net against the consequences of heroic actions. The fighter who’s now neck deep in angry gnolls is probably going to need to reroll a death save before long.
Inspiration for Genre Emulation
This option probably requires the most collaboration between players and DM.
If you’re playing in a campaign that has a very explicit tone, genre, or playstyle, then Inspiration can be a great way to reward players for playing along.
If you’re running a campaign centred around disreputable cutthroats and thieves pulling off heists, then a player whose character executes a well-timed betrayal or comes up with a cunning double cross could definitely be granted Inspiration.
If I were running a horror campaign like Curse of Strahd, any time a character wanders off alone or suggests the party splits up, I’d give them Inspiration.
It’s a bad idea, but it’s good roleplaying within the expected structure of tropes that make up this campaign.
Reward your players for understanding what a particular genre expects of them and leaning into those expectations.
Most players simply track inspiration on their character sheets or using an online character manager.
However, you can also use poker chips, small rocks, precious stones, coins, dice, ethically sourced bones from small animals, chunks of stale bread, cat treats, or anything else your group has to hand.
From personal experience, I’d recommend against using anything edible like MnMs – they tend to disappear.
How Do I Award Inspiration?
There are two main schools of thought for how to award Inspiration.
First, you can award it reactively; when a player does something cool, turn to them and say “You get inspiration for that.”
Second, you can offer Inspiration before the player rolls; say “If you do this, you’ll get inspiration.”
The first option is probably the easiest not to mess up.
Awarding Inspiration after the fact prevents disrupting the momentum of the scene, and some DMs feel like offering Inspiration has too much of a meta influence on the players’ decisions.
A Devil’s Bargain
I would fix this method by stealing the Devil’s Bargain mechanic from Blades in the Dark, an amazing Victorian horror heist RPG by Jonathan Harper.
In Blades, before a player makes a roll, they can ask the game master for a Devil’s Bargain.
The game master offers up a complication, setback, or added headache. If the player chooses to take the bargain, they gain a bonus to their roll, but they also incur the complication.
I would absolutely allow this as a way for players to ask for Inspiration in D&D 5e. Call it a Fiends Bargain.
Oh, you want to reroll that failed check to open the door? Sure. You can, but there’s also now a guard coming down the corridor toward you. Do you take it?
Letting Players Award Inspiration?
One way to handle awarding Inspiration is to let the players do it. Each player has one Inspiration per session that they can award to another player when they feel that player has earned it.
If you’re going to try this method, make sure you talk to your players beforehand about the kinds of things that deserve Inspiration, and remind them that you always have final say over whether or not something deserves it.
I mentioned before that, when I run games, my players tend to be about as good at remembering they have Inspiration as I am about awarding it – which is to say not very.
To shift the blame away from myself a little bit, I would argue that one of the reasons this is the case is that just rerolling a check, saving throw, or attack is a little boring. It’s just advantage, and players have all sorts of ways to get that.
One way to make your players care more about Inspiration is to give them more things they can do with that Inspiration.
Now, if you’re concerned about making Inspiration too powerful or imbalanced, some of these suggestions might make your head spin a bit. But bear with me.
I think they could do a lot to get a group of apathetic or forgetful players inspired by Inspiration again.
What if, instead of working like advantage, Inspiration worked like the Lucky Feat?
Not only do you get to reroll one of your own attacks, checks, or saving throws, but you can also use Inspiration to make someone else reroll an attack, check, or saving throw.
This is a little more extreme. Inspiration lets a player turn any attack that hits into a critical.
Note that this doesn’t count as a natural 20, so a player with a Vorpal Sword and Inspiration isn’t an instant kill machine, but otherwise I think this could be pretty powerful and great for a fight-winning blow when you need it most.
Alternatively, Inspiration could just mean you roll max damage on an attack.
The Free Action
Players can spend Inspiration to take one additional action on their turn.
This has precedent in the Fighter’s Action Surge ability and the Haste spell and still shouldn’t overcome limitations like casting two spells on one turn.
The Spell Slot
Inspiration allows a spellcaster to upcast one of their spells to the next highest slot for free.
Whether or not the caster needs to be able to cast those higher-level spell slots anyway is up to you.
The player who uses Inspiration gets a flash of, well, Inspiration.
The DM revealed a clue, a hidden door, an enemy’s weakness – some helpful piece of information they might not otherwise have missed. Perfect for parties who don’t have the time or energy for another gem and laser puzzle.
That’s it. That’s everything you need to use inspiration in your D&D 5e campaign.
Happy adventuring, folks.