Inspiration is one of the weakest as-written mechanics in fifth-edition D&D. The book is vague about when and how it should be awarded, and the bonus it imparts is pretty generic. In my experience the average GM uses inspiration as a tipping system for especially funny jokes, and players generally forget to use it altogether.
So how do we fix it? I have sourced a couple good homebrew ideas, and added a few of my own for flavor.
Use it or Lose it
Inspiration goes away at the end of a session. This is huge – it encourages players to use the inspiration they get rather than tucking it away on their character sheet, doomed to be forgotten. It also helps the GM to be more proactive about dishing it out to the players. Keeping track of who already had inspiration was a huge deterrent for me – there’s nothing more deflating than handing out a nigh-useless buff, only to find out that the player never got around to using the last one you gave them. Now at least I can start each session with the knowledge that an inspiration is going to actually reward a player I hand it to.
This “fleeting inspiration” has another secret benefit – now I don’t have to think too hard about whether a good deed is “worthy” or not – I can hand out inspiration frivolously, secure in the knowledge that the bonus I’m imparting is only good for what remains of the current session.
Making inspiration a temporary resource also means you get to hand it out more often, which means it can stay at the forefront of your GM to do list. These days I will usually set myself the goal of awarding at least 3 inspiration a game. Because of this I am always on the lookout for opportunities dish out the goods, which means I’m less likely to forget about inspiration entirely. If you play with experience points, you can use the extra variant of cashing in unused inspiration for a small xp bonus – this way players who forget their inspiration (or just don’t care to use it) still get to walk away with some kind of reward.
Upgrade Hits to Crits
Players make a lot of attack rolls and and still rarely use their inspiration on them. Why? Well for one an inspiration feels like it should be saved for a clutch moment, combat in 5e doesn’t always make it clear which rolls are the most deserving. Further, there are many effects in the game that already grant combat advantage more reliably, so players don’t often turn to their inspiration die for this. Because of this, inspiration also doesn’t help when any other effect is already granting advantage, since they don’t stack.
There is something players do crave, something that is much harder to come by. I’m talking about the love of the critical hit. Letting a player spend inspiration to turn a normal hit into a critical hit is just a little juicer and makes advantage a more powerful combat ability.
Disadvantage to Enemy Saves
Spellcasters don’t typically have a reason to use inspiration on their attacks, since a majority of spells require saves instead of attack rolls. Allowing inspiration to give enemies disadvantage on their saves only seems fair.
Use Physical Tokens
Again, a lot of my issues revolve around players (and DMs) not remembering that inspiration is a thing. If you have the luxury of gaming face-to-face, trading tokens that represent inspiration makes it much harder to forget. Bonus if the tokens are something fun to play with – poker chips, tiddly winks, or the classic – candy. (using candy offers yet another potential use for your inspiration!)
Clarify How to Get Inspiration
I think it’s important to be up front about what you award inspiration for. Do this with your group before playing, and maybe ask your players to remind you if they think they should be getting inspiration in a situation.
The book suggests that inspiration should be rewarded for playing to a character’s flaw – specifically to balance out a character weakness with a player advantage. I am all for this, but in some non-RP-focused groups, it doesn’t happen all too often. Other common uses for inspiration include: rewarding clever strategies, remembering the names and motivations of recurring NPCs, or placing your character in danger to help another PC.
It’s just as important to define what you won’t give inspiration for. I specifically try to avoid awarding inspiration for jokes or goofy situations, (this is my personal preference, and it has everything to do with the tone I try to set at the table).
I think as a guideline, you should try to use inspiration to reward behavior you’re looking for in the game. If your players have no problem cracking-wise and enjoying themselves above-the-board, then there’s no reason you need to encourage it with inspiration. On the other hand, if you have players who contribute very little or avoid putting their PCs in danger, then those activities are good candidates for handing out inspiration.
Regardless of why you decide to hand out inspiration, make sure you are clear and consistent. If you find that only one of your players is regularly receiving inspiration, or that you or your players are forgetting to use it entirely, then it may be time to revisit your criteria.
Inspiration is a very useful tool to bring to the table, and it’s a shame that as-written it has limited use. Beyond the gameplay impact, inspiration is also one of the few ways to publicly reward a player in the moment. Used wisely it can be a powerful tool to help encourage good play, and can also steer your game towards that ideal play style you are looking for.