"Today I want to discuss a little thing that I use in my current RPGs, and that's Inspiration Tokens. For those of you not familiar with Inspiration, it is essentially a reward that the GM will give a player for something that they've done well. Either for great role-playing, or for daring and a great idea, or really just giving the right joke at the right time. It's a nice positive reward for behaviour that the game master would like to encourage. Furthermore, players that have Inspiration can then gift that to other players, either because the other player needs it, or as a thank you, or really just a kudos as a job well done. What inspiration does is that it is a one-time bonus die that can be cashed in any time that the player wants."
I'm choosing to do a video from this fellow because he consistently gets an equal number of views per video to the number of subscribers he has, which is a pretty good sign that he's talking to a regular audience, within a couple of months. Compare that with the WOTC videos that will get 48,000 page views out of 1.6 million subscribers over a similar period.
I can't encourage watching the whole video above. Skorkowsky speaks in a shuffling high-school English drone, evident that he never, ever presses the ignore button when checking his writing's grammar, producing a grinding snore-fest even with the 3 minute and 30 second video shown. Anyway, let's talk inspirational tokens. I'll do the best I can to deconstruct this patiently.
Why This Seems Like a Good Idea
Games are about payoffs, or rewards, being elements that encourage player behaviour. For many DMs, the notion that the payoff for "role-playing" should be measured in soul-less numbers, or profits, seems adverse to the point of the activity. If we want to encourage players to role-play better (that being the interpretation of the game at work here), then we need a reward that applies to the players' behaviour as role-players and not coin & xp gatherers.
In effect, the extra die that can be used in more tactile game circumstances enables the players' behaviour, rather than the die roll, to influence luck and combat, or more precisely the increase in the players' chance of surviving whatever happens.
The DM, as well, experiences the pleasure of awarding the players immediately, in a positive fashion, apparently serving to create a mutual, friendly relationship between DM and players. Expectedly, knowing that good answers and responses will be rewarded, this will encourage the players to take the game more seriously, raise their involvement, interact more sincerely with the DM and other players and effectively improve the overall quality of the game.
What Actually Happens
Almost at once, rather than becoming more interactive, the players become more competitive for attention, doing their best to outshine their fellows in order to get the DM's gold star. While the reward exists to encourage behaviour, in fact it encourages a relatively small achievement - which for some players, naturally out-going and expressive, is no achievement at all.
In effect, rather than rewarding game play, we're actually rewarding a particular personality type, whose behaviour outside the game suits this particular recognition. Players who are less gregarious, who find it more difficult to express themselves, who aren't glib enough to produce the ready joke ahead of their peers, soon find themselves on the sidelines, watching more proficient players excel. It is elementary school, all over again.
And this is what school teachers have been noting for decades; and it is precisely the problem that "no child left behind" was intended to solve, which encouraged the creation of the participation ribbon (or the "good sport" ribbon, as it was called when I was a young boy). It was recognized that some children never get gold stars ... and that this, in turn, produces low self-esteem and resentment. Unfortunately, the response, to make sure that every child gets a gold star, regardless of achievement, has only served to cheapen the payoff and produce a different form of resentment. Gold stars, or ribbons, for having achieved nothing, only reinforces an awareness that some people have to be awarded for doing nothing because they're not good enough to do something.
Essentially, because the DM can give a reward for anything, the process is inconsistent and imbalanced ... and in turn, will seem to the players to be routinely unjust, even if the very human DM self-consciously believes in being as fair as possible. While one player begins to lose recognition because, "He's shown he can do a lot better than other players," another player feels personally that they're doing really well, but the DM hasn't noticed. With this, it's psychological fact that people will feel resistant to giving out rewards to behaviour that doesn't fit with their personal mores or judgement ... so I can be brilliant, but brilliant in a way that happens to offend a particular DM, or player, resulting in a lack of recognition.
All these conditions only serve to split the party on many points, encouraging feelings of envy, gloating, attention-seeking and favoritism, all in ways that are less easy to achieve with a die-roll (outside the hidden, fudged die, which can effectively produce the same results).
On many levels, I do not consider this a very strong post about bad advice ... mostly because, for me, it is hard to understand why these reward systems continue to be implemented.
When I was in school, it was staggeringly easy for me to break the curve ~ so easy, in fact, that I did not give a shit. While I could spend a lot of my time working on a 500-word paper to get an A, what I usually did was spend half-an-hour on a 500-word paper, without research, in order to get a C. Either way I passed, and I wasn't any dumber, so I couldn't see a reward in working harder on something I didn't care about, at the expense of my time, which I would use to work very hard on something I did care about, but for which there were no marks given. I only wanted to write and study numbers and mapmaking (and later D&D, but that was High School and later). I did not give a damn about the troubles of native children being forced to learn English in the 19th century (though I did get around to studying that later). For me, then, all reward systems implied authoritarian control. They were all built in order to produce an enslaving behaviour at the consequence of my losing my freedom to read or study whatever I wanted, or the time to do so.
One can imagine how this frustrated the ever-loving shit out of my teachers. If something I cared about happened to juxtapose itself with school, I would consistently destroy all competition. And the rest of the time, I was the equivalent of the jock who sits at the back of the class, ignoring the teacher. I remember a math class I wanted to drop in High School, only to be told that I would not be allowed to drop it and that attendance was mandatory. I didn't need the class credit to graduate, so I ended up going to every class and working on some project of my own, turning in blank sheets for pop quizzes and exams, not giving a good goddamn what was happening on the blackboard. The gold star was in my head, at the end of my pen, and not in the math teacher's pocket (though I did explain my intentions to Mr. Pollock after they told me I wouldn't be allowed to drop the course, and we agreed to ignore each other).
As a player, I would never countenance my performance being graded by a DM. The notion is ridiculous. As an actor, I expect the audience to grade my performance: they paid to get their seats and, in turn, I'm being paid with money and experience to excel. But in a game, where's my reward? The proof that another human approves of me? Fuck that noise. I expect everyone at the table to approve of every one else at the table on principle, else people can start packing.
Moreover, good role-playing, good play, ought to be its own reward. The look on the faces of other people, the enjoyment of it, the laughs all around, the DM's good-natured screwing up or vindictiveness, these are all pleasantries that we enjoy, without the necessity of one DM's quest to adjust behaviour by approval. The notion is so loathsome it is difficult not to go right off the chain.
Rewards for play enjoy the benefit of exploiting the low self-esteem of players who need recognition because they are not getting enough of it from others or from themselves. The gold star was invented to encourage self-esteem; which in turn presupposes you don't have it. Perhaps I am unwarranted here, but the time and the place to deal with these issues is not the D&D game. I'm not advocating a reactionary dismissal of feelings or the personal needs of participants, but I do expect people to hold themselves together long enough that they don't need a pat on the head from me for attending, trying to play and occasionally doing it well.
That's not what I'm here for.