by Mike Mearls
It’s pretty obvious that D&D began its life as a roleplaying game. It has grown to include toys, novels, comics, video games, and board games. At the core of D&D, though, rests an RPG.
So, if D&D is an RPG, what do the rules need to do to encourage you to roleplay your character? Like a lot of things relating to D&D rules design, the answer lies somewhere between providing no encouragement and demanding players to play act personalities that are distinct from their own.
To start with, I think that D&D is more fun when players adopt characters with distinct mannerisms, traits, and goals. As a DM, I love it when a player ties a character to the setting in a meaningful way.
For instance, in my current campaign, the rogue is a former member of the duke’s secret police. He turned in evidence of a plot that resulted in the execution of his former comrades for treason. One member of the secret police escaped arrest and has sworn to kill the rogue. That gives me a ready-made villain to throw into my campaign. It also means that when the player characters visit towns or villages where the secret police installed a reign of terror, he had best watch his back.
One of my current characters, the wizard Kel Kendeen, is fun because of his personality and mannerisms. His mechanics reflect his abilities as a wizard, and I love slinging fireball spells and using disguise self spells, but five years from now I’ll remember him more for his ardent dedication to anarchy, chaos, and freedom. He’s fun to play not because he can cast the disguise self spell. He’s fun to play because he’s a radical anarchist who uses that disguise self spell to mimic petty officials and undermine hierarchical organizations.
If the rules give us tools to use in a campaign, our character’s personalities tell us why and how to use those tools. Without that layer, D&D is no longer an RPG but simply a fantasy world simulator or a skirmish battle game. It doesn’t take much to make that work, but it’s a layer of play that brings the game to life in a way that no other type of game can match.
Of course, every group has different standards for roleplaying. Our goal is to give you guidance and ideas to inspire you to roleplay a character with a compelling backstory and provide you with mechanics that have a light touch in terms of helping you shape your game. We want to encourage you to roleplay your character without mandating it.
In the current draft of the game, as part of character creation, you also flesh out a few things beyond alignment. Your bonds are your character’s ties to the world, people, places, or things that are meaningful to your character in some way. Your flaws are your character’s weaknesses, while your ideals represent the things that keep your character going when things are at their worst.
In essence, these concepts flesh out the starting point provided by alignment. They translate those abstract ideals into actions, things, and beliefs that are tied to the campaign world.
To make things easier, our current draft of backgrounds includes tables you can use to flesh out your character’s bonds to the world. Additional tables use alignment as the starting point for ideals and flaws. For instance, as the member of a craft guild you might be intensely loyal to the patron noble house that sponsored your guild membership. On the flip side, you’ve made an enemy of the criminal cartel that wants to disrupt your guild. DMs with the time and inclination can fill out their own tables as starting points for characters. As usual, you can also choose to make stuff up if nothing on the tables is appealing, or simply roll on them and accept the results.
A final table provides your character with something that sparks the beginning of your adventuring career and gives your character a key problem or question that needs an immediate solution. Perhaps you left the guild because your master was murdered under circumstances that point to you as a suspect. You might have been sent as an undercover agent to infiltrate the cartel that is working to undermine the guild. Your DM could also give you ideas based on the campaign, or you could come up with something on your own.
Mechanically, we’re looking at a fairly simply system that we’re calling inspiration. When you have your character do something that reflects your character’s personality, goals, or beliefs, the DM can reward you with inspiration. The key lies in describing your action in an interesting way, acting out your character’s dialogue, or otherwise helping to bring the game to life by adding some panache to your play. By demonstrating that the events in the game are critical to your character’s goals and beliefs, you can allow your character to tap into reserves of energy and determination to carry the day.
You can spend inspiration to gain advantage on a check, saving throw, or attack attached to your action. Alternatively, you can bank it to use on a roll that happens during the current encounter or scene. Additionally, you can choose to pass the inspiration along to a different character during the scene. In this case, your character’s determination serves as an inspiration for the other party members. You can have only one inspiration at a time.
It’s up to the DM to reward inspiration, but as a rule of thumb, a player can gain it once per significant scene or important combat. Inspiration fades quickly, so you must spend it within a few minutes in game time before you lose it.
Just as a DM chooses when to reward inspiration, the DM also chooses why to award inspiration. You can use it as described above, or adapt it to other things that your group finds help bring the game to life, keep the action moving, or otherwise make the game more enjoyable for everyone.
Like many things in the DM’s hands, inspiration is a tool that requires more finesse and art rather than science to properly apply. A good DM uses inspiration to encourage play that makes the game better for everyone at the table. Think of it like a micro-reward, something short of experience but still a useful reward for good play.
The inspiration mechanic is a simple gateway to deeper rewards for roleplaying your character. Groups that want a more narrative game can reward inspiration freely or adapt it for other uses. You can even give players a pool of inspiration that they can spend only to reward other players for good roleplaying moments. By baking inspiration into the core of the game, we have the basic structure needed to provide for more in-depth rules modules.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.
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