Goals & Inspiration for 5e Dungeons & Dragons

Goals & Inspiration for 5e Dungeons & Dragons

This doc will often refer to the “Player” and to a “Player Character”, “PC”, or just “Character”. The “Player” is just that, the human being who is your friend that is playing the game with you. The “Player Character/PC/Character” is the avatar that they control in the game. They are to be thought of as almost different entities while reading this doc.

What is a Goal?

A goal is belief, desire, or an action that a player states for their character at the beginning of a session of play. It is something that the player either wants to see their character accomplish in the session of play, or something that the “PC” in world wants to see accomplished.

A goal must be a task that has at least some chance of failure. Goals are things that invite challenge to the PC’s lives and therefore cannot be something mundane or fullproof. Examples of Goals are objectives like… 

“Slay the evil king who took my father's life!”

”Run out the neighboring goblin tribes that harass the local village.”

”Make peace with my estranged sister who I had to abandon in a time of great need.

”Spread a tale about how the local lord has relations with sheep.”

All of these examples have room for backfiring or failing, and they all drive the story forward in a way that failing these objectives will put the PC’s in trouble. The Evil king wins the day. The goblins bypass the heroes seeking revenge on the village. The sister pushes you away and won’t ever speak to you again. The local lord tracks down the slanderers and arrests them.

Goals are also an opportunity for the Players to insert themselves into your world. A Player making a goal about something they want for their character that you hadn’t planned can create some interesting improve at the table and keeps us the DM’s surprised and having fun! Let me explain what I mean here.The Player Jill makes 3 goals for her lizardfolk fighter Iziz today. 

Goal 1Iziz wants to hunt a majestic beast in the jungle the party is exploring today. (This gives you the signal that there should be something cool and nasty in the jungle to fight.)

Goal 2 – There are many dangers in the Jungle. Iziz wants to make sure the Party makes it to the Ruins before nightfall. (This is a more standard goal. Setting a time limit on this task makes it all the more challenging as well. You as the DM should try wasting their time as much as possible to make this task as easy or hard as you’d like.)

Goal 3 – My homelands are near this Jungle. I want to find signs of Lizardfolk tribes while we travel through the jungles. (This goal is magic right here. The Player has invited you to create an encounter with the party that involves the background of the PC and to do it on your own terms. They established that they are from this part of the world and that gives you the opportunity to use these homeland jungles as leverage to drive the PC if you put the jungle in danger.)

In goals #1 and #3 the PC has given you keys to their enjoyment for the afternoon. They have explicitly told you what they want to do, and what they think will be fun for the session. You don’t always have to follow up every major goal in a session, that’s a very difficult task for any DM. But plucking on those threads lets the Players know that their decisions and ambitions are being acknowledged. And that makes for a fun game.

Why use Goals?

You use goals if you want a character focused narrative where success and failure are constantly pushing the players and the PC’s forward towards action that they are in control of.

Goals are for DM’s that are comfortable letting the players grab ahold of their world and shaking it around and putting it into an armbar. If you want to be surprised by the action and be as much of a passenger on this journey as your players, Goals are for you.

Goals are NOT useful in every campaign however. I repeat. Goals are NOT useful in every campaign.

If you want to run a dungeon delving marathon, a heavy warfare & tactics driven game, or you’re following a pre-written module that is very linear then Goals WILL derail those games unless they are restricted in some way.

Goals also ask a lot from your players. They have to think about their PC’s in a way that normal D&D doesn’t ask of them. If you have a very casual group or a you are only able to meet and play infrequently then Goals will not be very helpful.

What make for the best Goals?

Making Goals can be tough. You’re being asked what your PC most wants in the world not once, but three times a session! I have some advice on what those goals can be about however. Make a Goal about…

The quest at hand, your background, another PC, a NPC, discovering new information about the world, politics or religion in the world, ect…

My favorite goals that PC’s make however are the ones where they insert an idea into the session like Jill in our examples above. 

Players, use this opportunity to insert things into the world that your character has NO knowledge about as well! Jill wants a The majestic beast in the jungle earlier right? Well how about instead of stating Jill wants Iziz to hunt a majestic beast in the jungle, Jill wants Iziz to hunt a T-rex! If there wasn’t a T-rex in the jungle before there can be now if your DM is comfortable with it. 

With goals like these, where the PC takes more of a directorial approach to writing goals make sure the conversation at the table is a civil and creative one. A back and forth on writing goals with your PC’s is encouraged and everyone should be present to hear them and make suggestions. This way Players can band together to tackle difficult goals and form a stronger bond in and out of character.

As stated at the beginning however. A goal MUST have a failure state in your mind as a DM. If there is no chance at failure then it cannot be a goal. Preferably the Goal must also have at least ONE die roll involved. This isn’t a hard or fast rule, but if we aren’t rolling dice we aren’t playing D&D.

Goals as XP

We’ve talked about Goals for awhile now but here is the meat of it all. Goals drive the action forward and inserts us, the GM into the campaign in a way that traditionally run games could not. They also make the players feel like they’re affected the world in a more deliberate and involved way. But other than that what is it all for?

To reward player behavior for things that are NOT monster killing.To invite a narrative that is more than slaying fiends and taking their stuff.

Now there is nothing wrong with a game run that way. I have played and am running games currently where that is the express goal of the campaign. But I would be lying if I said that every game I want to play in should be run in that style.

Goals as XP is just that. Players get XP at the end of every session for completing and working towards unfinished goals. Goals are assigned a difficulty by the DM, and when those goals are completed the Player is awarded XP adjusted by the difficulty of the Goal.

The Players and the DM work together to write out the three things that the PC’s want as goals for the session and the DM assigns a difficulty.

There are Easy, Medium, Hard, & Deadly thresholds for Goals. At the end of this doc is a table that I use to generate the value of XP adjusted by PC level and by difficulty. How do we determine the difficulty of a goal? Here are some guidelines that I use.

Easy – A task that has minor threat to the PC, usually accomplished in a single roll. Failing this goal will only become a small road bump in the long standing ambitions of the PC’s. 

Tasks like discovering mundane information about the world, learning backstory lore about a PC, traveling through safe regions, convincing or intimidating NPC’s clearly below the station of the PC’s ect…

Failing Easy Goals should almost never result in a character death or enemy factions gaining a powerful foothold over the PC’s

Medium – Most Goals will probably be of a medium difficulty. These kinds of goals should be able to be finished in one or two sessions of play and either gain the PC a moderate edge in a coming quest, forge a new powerful relationship, or set them back far enough that recovery is probably a new goal that has to be written for the next session.

Defeating factions and monsters of a similar power level to the PC’s, convincing an influential NPC to act in your best interest, finding lost treasure and relics, and making a difficult journey from one location to the next can all be Medium Goals.

Failure in a Medium Goal should hurt the PC’s but not in a permanent way. Resources consumed and the possibility of moderate damage to an NPC or faction the PC’s need are appropriate consequences. If by the end of an arc or campaign the PC is still feeling the effects of failure for one of these goals it should be a Hard Goal.

Hard – A truly difficult task needs to completed and the only way to do it is with smart play, powerful abilities and resources, or a moderate amount of luck. These kinds of goals are usually broken up into smaller goals but don’t need to be. Resolving these goals can take two, three, or maybe more sessions.

Defeating, tricking, or evading factions and monsters more powerful than the PC’s. Convincing or intimidating NPC’s that oppose the PC’s and are of equal or stronger power. Interrupting or disrupting the plans of a major bad guy, or learning about forbidden knowledge that changes the way the PC’s view the world. 

There needs to be more than 1 roll to resolve a Hard Goal. Exceptions can be made, but sparingly by the DM. Fate has to be on the side of the Player and the PC to complete one of these goals.

Failure here could result in a liked PC/NPC death, a major blow to a liked faction, loss of an important item or resource, or even the enemy gaining a major advantage on the PC’s.

Deadly – A task so insurmountable that the PC’s are near guaranteed to fail on the outset of writing this goal. The PC’s must use their abilities to their fullest extent and then some, have a massively sharp wit, expend unique/precious resources and be unbelievably lucky.

Defeating factions and foes miles above their power and altering the world in a significant enough way that the ripples of the action will be felt for the rest of the campaign are examples of deadly goals. There shouldn’t be many goals on this level in a campaign. Long term character arcs and stupidly bold tasks should be the only Deadly goals in a campaign. 

I would suggest that if there isn’t at least a half-dozen meaningful rolls during the progress of this goal then it probably isn’t Deadly

Failure of a deadly goal should result in one of a following things. If nothing of consequence on this scale occurs it probably should be a Hard goal.

A faction that the PC’s have formed or love dissolves, an NPC or PC that the players love dies and cannot be returned to play without great measures taken, the world is one step closer to calamity and ruin, or the big bad evil force of the game wins it all.

At the end of the session the GM will award XP for not just completed goals but also unfinished ones. Unfinished goals can only be awarded XP if the player made a roll or an action in service to that goal. If neither of those criteria are met then there is no awarded XP.

The awarded XP is 50 multiplied by the PC’s level.

Long-Term Goals

Making goals in session 1 of your campaign might result in a player stating that they want to be emperor of the all the world. Now, first of all, I like the bold attitude your player has. But let’s face it, that’s not getting done for dozen of sessions.

But if the player is eager to start the process early what we do is make a Long-Term Goal. We break up that big, bold mess of a goal and turn it into a few Hard Goals, or a lot of Medium Ones. This way the PC is always making progress towards this overarching achievement.

As an example. If the T-rex Jill wants Iziz to slay is miles and miles into the Jungle and she won't be able to complete the goal within a session or two she can instead make a goal towards tracking the T-rex, or finding its next instead. Breaking the task down into smaller, more achievable tasks will earn the PC’s more XP than working on, but not completing goals.

Variant Rules

  • Slim Goals

    • Starting a new campaign with a brand new PC, and coming up with the 3 most important things in that PC’s life without ever having played can be a daunting task to say the least. With Slim Goals you as a group just trim the number of goals down from three, to two or even, one.

    • Build yourselves up over a few sessions, and when it feels comfortable move up to three goals

  • Full Monster XP

    • Now in Goal XP land you don’t XP for killing monsters normally unless you wanna write a goal about it. If however you still wanna reward bloodlust in your game you can do both!

    • XP for killing monsters is only awarded for KILLING the monster however! If the PC’s want to trick, or sneak around the mortal terrors of the world they must make Goals about that. It also puts the fear of god into your players when monsters start running away and it's a race to kill them before the XP flies away.

    • Be warned, this will dramatically expedite the leveling process of your campaign. PC’s will level much more quickly if you are double dipping their XP. If however you want a faster, shorter campaign this might actually help you speed up the process.

  • ?  Monster XP

  • For the Group that wants to reward bloodlust, but doesn’t want to ruin the XP track the same way the full monster XP would.

  • XP for monster is totalled up in the same way as it is with the method above, but before dividing that number by the number of PC’s you divide it into a fourth of that value, and then cut it into shares for the party.

  • If ? value is too little for your liking you can use and value you like. The closer you get to full XP the faster the level track becomes.

  • You still have to kill the bastard monsters just like in the above ruling. Here it is copy and pasted for your convenience.

    • “XP for killing monsters is only awarded for KILLING the monster however! If the PC’s want to trick, or sneak around the mortal terrors of the world they must make Goals about that. It also puts the fear of god into your players when monsters start running away and it's a race to kill them before the XP flies away.”

  • Group Goals

    • Many times during Goal writing at the start of a session the PC’s all latch onto 1 goal that is important to the quest at hand. If you want to free up a Goal for the majority of the party then assigning a Group Goal that all the PC’s votee on for a handful or sessions or an Arc is a solution for you.

    • These Group Goals should not be able to completed within a session or two of play. They should either be attached to completing a long quest, or fulfilling a meaningful arc for the PC’s

    • The DM still assigns a difficulty for the PC’s, Usually this is a Hard or Deadly Goal. Anything easier is probably too mundane to be a quest or arc.

    • This group goal doesn’t earn XP for the PC’s until it is completed! The PC’s don't gain XP for working towards it like their personal goals.

    • The Goal here should be broad enough that it doesn't need to be rewritten every session. The only re-writes that should come are if the PC’s abandon the goal in favor of something very different. Or if the situation drastically changes due to the progress they have made towards the goal, at which time you as the DM may change the Difficulty.

    • Feel free to be tighter about XP rewards with this goal. Think of this almost like an additional quest reward. Failing at this Goal is possible and should be difficult.

  • DM inserted Goals

    • Sometimes during play spells like Charm Person, Dominate Person, or Geas are cast on the PC’s. If you want to try and get the Players to role play that loss of control to their best ability (cause lets face it, all your Players are cowards that will always wuss out on attacking their fellow players while dominated. You’ve seen it happen, I know you have.), Ask them which of their goals they would like replaced with a Goal that you as the DM write as the creature bestowing the Enchantment.

    • This gives the Player a reason to portray their PC in a fictionally appropriate way, and rewarding them for it without them feeling to badly for killing their friends cause they get XP!

    • Now be very generous with the XP you give the player for screwing over their friends, they deserve it if you feel they did the most in the their power to role play the circumstance

      • On the other hand. Be very clear what the intentions of the new Goal is. If the PC’s have a lawyer with them, they will try to wriggle out the XP for the least effort possible. DO NOT ALLOW THIS!

      • This XP is meant to spur fun, exciting, and CONSENSUAL manipulation without the DM having to take control from the PC.

      • The Player is allowed to opt out of this XP by not completing the Goal, but is still punished fictionally by failing the roll to protect them from the effects of a Geas or Charm. 

    • This is a fun narrative tool that, not for everybody. Lots of Players hate this kind of shit and should be respected if they want to opt out of it. BE A GOOD PERSON AND DON’T FORCE THE ISSUE!

Revised Inspiration!

What is Inspiration

Inspiration is a terrible, bad, lame rule in 5e Dungeons & Dragons, you can find it and laugh at it on page 118 of the PHB. We can do better than that. Inspiration is a resource that PC’s earn by following their Ideals, Bonds, & Flaws. They can spend inspiration to effect the d20 rolls made in the game (advantage on rolls, disadvantage on NPC rolls ect…). There might be other stuff you can do with it cause I know some certain players that will take a mile when given a yard of rope, so we will see.

How is Inspiration awarded?

At the end of the session, we go around an ask all the players how they did with their Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. Players ask themselves and others at the table to see what parts of their character they portrayed in play. If the PC’s make an important decision founded in their ideal, if a character revealed something about themself when their bond got involved, or the PC overcame or was crippled by their flaw inspiration is awarded. A player has the chance to collect 3 inspiration at the end of session, one for each ideal, bond or flaw.

The Players are the ultimate decision makers here. We let the players determine if they succeeded in showing off their character or not. This works way better than the DM handing it out. Players are usually way more critical on themselves when they have to decide whether they get inspiration or not. If a player is denied inspiration because they think the DM has it out for them it won’t make for a good time. The DM has input here of course, but let the players police themselves and hang by their own ropes.

Now if a player is being a douche about it the whole group is gonna know and at that point we all talk about it like adults. It won’t turn into a big deal if you do something about it early.

A PC can have as much Inspiration as they can hoard. I haven’t put a limit on it, but that’s something to maybe consider in the future. It’s all still being play tested out so if it breaks I’m sorry. 

Ideals

An Ideal is the thing that a PC believes in most strongly, a fundamental moral to the character, or an ethical principle that drives your character's actions. Ideals encompass everything from your life goals to your core belief system. Ideals might answer any of these questions: What are the principles that you will never betray? What would prompt you to make sacrifices? What drives you to act and guides your goals and ambitions? What is the single most important thing you strive for?

A good Ideal for a character should be something that comes up in most if not all the hard decisions for the PC. Something they should be thinking about. This trait more so than others probably dictates what a PC does day to day in a campaign.

We should strive to award inspiration to a player for playing to the strengths of their characters Ideals. But also consider this, a character that fails their ideal in pursuit of a thing they want can be rewarded too. If denying your character's Ideal creates drama, tension, and shifts the characters perspective forever then it should also be awarded. In cases like these the Ideal might have to be changed too. That or a possible redemption of the characters ethics.

“ Honesty, I will always present the truth in any situation, I will seek out lies and bring them to light.”

“Greed, I will do whatever it takes to become wealthy, especially if it’s a nefarious act.”

Bonds

Bonds represent a character’s connections to people, places, and events in the world. They tie you to things from your background. They might inspire you to heights of heroism, or lead you to act against your own best interests if they are threatened. They can work very much like ideals, driving a character’s motivations and goals. Bonds might answer any of these questions: Whom do you care most about? To what place do you feel a special connection? What is your most treasured possession?

A good bond should be something that comes up in play often. A bond about another PC is always a fantastic bond. Something about a characters heritage, allies, or related factions can all make for a good Bond.

“My homeland is strife with war. I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure peace wherever I walk.”

“My dog Barkspawn is always to be treated as one of the gang. I’ll make sure he gets the privileges that my other companions have earned.

Flaws

Finally, choose a flaw for your character. Your character’s flaw represents some vice, compulsion, fear, or weakness, in particular, anything that someone else could exploit to bring you to ruin or cause you to act against your best interests. More significant than

negative personality traits, a flaw might answer any of these questions: What enrages you? What’s the one person, concept, or event that you are terrified of? What are your vices?

A good Flaw should be something that rewards a player for making bad decisions on the behalf of their character. I can say personally that 4 amazing, perfect, flawless characters in a story is boring as all sin. Flaws give us a way to play our character in an imperfect way without making the game unfun, because at the end of it all, we are playing a game. Playing games sub-optimally can be frustrating sometimes so Inspiration can help band-aid that blow by encouraging us all to make rash and sometimes stupid calls for the sake of making a better narrative around the table.

“I drink, and drink, and drink. I will always pull from my flask when things get dicey. It makes me unreliable.”

“Orcs killed my family, I see any of there kind I lose any control of myself and start a fight before thinking of anything else.”

Why do we use Inspiration?

It's fun to roleplay characters, that's why we play games like D&D. But D&D doesn’t care, really, all it wants us to do is kill monsters. And that's great and all, but if we want that little something extra we have to have mechanisms that actually rewards Players outside of the song and dance for the DM so he’ll give me, the player a cookie.

This iteration of Inspiration mechanizes ideals, bonds, and flaws, in a way that gets the DM out of the way so they can focus on their own shit. But also gives players just that much more of a reason to play out a unique and interesting character. Some players already do this, so it's nothing new for them. But players that are new or play in more of a pawn stance style where the PC is a puppet for the players will might find this a helpful way to flesh out a character.

If you want to run a dungeon crawl, or a hack and slash these rules might be a little too heavy for those sorts of games. These rules work best in a narrative style of play and that’s the only place where I’ve tested them out.

Also the last bit of special sauce for you, this is just for the DM, so players go away… (They're still there but that’s fine they can peak this once.)

You as the DM can take these traits about the characters and abuse the hell out of them in game. If the party drunk is making a tough decision? Put a bottle of whiskey right there. The fledgling new paladin is making her first steps into this epic quest for a magical holy sword? There’s a bad guy with an ideal directly opposing hers now! That dog Beth likes to take everywhere and give table scapes? The lord nobles home they are visiting is a no dogs allowed zone. The PC is gonna have to convince or sneak their dog in that place creating a funny moment… Or turning the whole situation into a bloodbath. 

We have these Ideals, Bonds and Flaws to that we can poke and prod our players in play to make a more engaging session. 

What can Inspiration do?

This is by far the most WIP section of the guide. I’ll still be tweaking it as we go so if anyone other than me is using these guidelines feel free to improve off of them and try out your own stuff and get back to me. It would be much appreciated.

All uses of Inspiration must be declared before a roll is made. They cannot be spent after dice have been rolled. Feel free to be lenient at first while you get used to the system.

 Inspiration Cost / Effects

1

Advantage on ONE attack roll, ability check, or saving throw.

2

An NPC has Disadvantage on ONE attack roll, or ability check. 

3 – 4*

An NPC has Disadvantage on ONE saving throw. 

Creatures with Legendary Actions / Resistance cost 4 Inspiration rather than 3 to affect their saving throws.

5

I need an NPC. Work with the DM to create a helpful NPC that your character has ties with either in their backstory/background or even an NPC that you have met on your current adventures. Invoking a NPC that the GM feels in unavailable doesn’t mean the Inspiration is wasted, just that the NPC in question needs to be tweaked to fit the situation.

10**

I CRIT MOTHERFUCKER!!! Treat ONE d20 roll as a natural 20. 

* The 4 cost might go up, unsure. Want to make sure a Boss isn’t neutered by inspiration.

** I’m wary of where to put the price on this one. Crits are special in the game of chance that is D&D. It needs to be a heavy cost if you want to crit, so if anything this one might go up even more. IDK.

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