All About Effort



We often see a lot of posts about Effort. How does it work? Why does it exist? And most importantly, when should I use it in a game or make a call for it as a DM?

Here’s my standard spiel on Effort. It’s a great tool, but like any good tool, it’s only the right tool when you need that tool. If you’re trying to drive a nail with a screwdriver, you might be able to do it, but a hammer will be so much more efficient. Likewise, you can’t bust out the hammer for every job.

What folks seem to forget is that Effort is a temporal tool. It’s primary use is elongating time: when you want to force a player to take extra turns accomplishing a task. In the normal course of play, that’s a terrible tool. If nothing is pressing the players, do not use Effort. In fact, if the players aren’t in any danger, maybe you don’t even require a binary check; just let the task succeed. For example, why even have a locked door or chest if players have all the time in the world to address the problem? If you require Effort for no reason, that elongation of the game is just going to bog everything down and piss off your players.

On the other hand, if players are stuck between a rock and a hard place, then requiring Effort might be your best tool for heightening danger and drama. The example I always use is the tin man chopping down a door in the witch’s castle. If nothing is pressing him, it would be silly to require Effort; the tin man is a woodsman who can easily chop down a door with his axe under normal circumstances. But if the room is on fire, and he and Dorothy are going to succumb to the flames in D4 rounds, now he has a little time pressure to get the door open, and that’s the perfect time to require effort. If you just have him roll a check, well, it will be anti-climactic if he rolls an 18, and they both pop out into the hallway. Instead, now is the perfect time to force the tin man to have to hack the door down to save their lives. The flames are rising! You will both die in D4 rounds!! The door has one heart of Effort to get through!!! Now, it’s a race, and it’s up to the dice whether Dorothy and the tin man live. When you force him to elongate time with that task, it heightens the drama and makes the game exciting. If adding Effort doesn’t do that, then don’t require it.

Other good examples for when Effort is the right tool include: the hallway is caving in! Use your lockpicks to get the door open or we all die!; the lava is rising!; the ritual is about to complete!; the hostages are being killed; the horde is coming, wave after wave of enemies!; we have to bend these bars and the guards are coming!; etc. See how a lot of these are used in conjunction with a timer and time pressure? Whenever you have a task like that, consider using a temporal tool like Effort to slow your players down and challenge them.

Sometimes, when you require Effort, you can have players make the initial Attempt roll and roll their Effort, but then on successive turns, you can have the players skip the Attempt roll and go straight to rolling Effort. I use this mechanic sometimes when I have required Effort for a task, but miraculously, the players have somehow negated the time pressure, so it’s time to move on, OR sometimes when I only want to slow the players a little (maybe to give time for a wave of enemies to crash into them), then I’ll require an Attempt but no successive Attempt rolls — only the straight Effort each turn. In these scenarios, part of when to use the tool and when to use the stripped down tool comes with a little DM experience. Usually, I’ll let the events and the moment in the fiction decide which tool is right.

On this last point, don’t be afraid to experiment. I have used Effort in the wrong spot and had play slow down for no reason. I think that’s a bit of a DM’s badge you earn, but the key is to learn from that mistake and try to remember to use Effort only when it’s necessary.

Mastering the Master Edition (and some general GM advice asks)

The combo of attempts + effort is great, and your examples are spot-on.

I’ve also used effort without attempts. It’s a no brainer that you’re going to hit the door in front of you, so just roll effort. You need to clear 1 heart worth of rubble to save the trapped NPC, so just roll effort. I could make you roll at attempt to actually hit the door, or pick up rubble, but that seems extremely counterintuitive for many situations. The time dilation from effort alone is enough, and can really make a player feel good about adding points to the relevant effort die, too.


Agreed. Anymore, we just use straight Effort rolls for some tasks (eliminating the success roll altogether) or sometimes we use straight Effort after the first successful attempt. ie, make your Attempt roll, and then just roll Effort every round thereafter.


Someone recently hit me up asking if I would start at the beginning and explain Effort at a basic, introductory level. Hey! Sure thing! Here’s the concept soup to nuts:

Effort is simply just assigning a measure of progress to tasks. The easiest form of Effort, and the way to get your head around it, is to first think of damage. Damage is a type of effort, for example.

So, in a normal game, a player makes a roll to hit, to determine success, and if the roll is successful, he or she rolls damage to determine whether a foe is hurt. So, I roll a D20, I add my bonus to hit, and I meet or beat a 12 target. Once I hit the goblin, then I roll a D6 for the weapon effort/damage to take its hit points down. The more damage (effort) I do, the more progress I make in terms of killing the goblin.

But you can damage inanimate objects too. So now, imagine chopping down a door. Maybe the DM doesn’t make me roll to hit (it’s a stationary door, after all), so now I can roll damage against the door. So, I roll my D6 weapon effort die to determine how much damage/effort I do to the door. If I get a 4, and the door has 10 hit points, then I will still need to do 6 more hit points of effort in a successive turn to chop down the door.

Okay, hopefully that makes sense. Because now, ICRPG takes that concept and applies it to other tasks. So, imagine your thief is trying to pick a lock on a door before the guards arrive. The DM says to get all the pins in the lock set, it will take 10 effort to get the job done. So now, just like attacking a monster, I make an attempt — a roll to hit — in this case dex, and I see if I can even make the attempt. If I meet or beat that 12 target, success! Then I make my effort roll to see much progress I make on this difficult lock. So, I roll my D6 weapon/tool die, because I am using picks to attack the lock, and the result will tell me how much progress I make on the lock. If I roll a 6 (woot!), then I only need to do 4 more effort in a successive turn to get the lock open.

Once you understand this concept, you can apply effort to all sorts of tasks as a DM. Interrogating a subject might require 10 effort of persuading to get the right information. Bending bars wide enough to step through might be 20 effort. Attuning a magic weapon might require 10 effort. Crafting a major weapon might require 30 effort. And so on. And there are all kinds of tasks that might require effort. Disarming a trap. Chopping down a tree. Opening a locked chest or door. Aligning the uplink dish. Taming an animal. Cheating at cards. Crafting a bow. Fixing a wagon. Turning off an alarm. Hacking a database. Convincing a reluctant NPC to help you. If you don’t want success to be instant, then consider requiring effort.

But beware. Just know that when you assign effort on a task, you are choosing to slow your players down with that obstacle. So, don’t require effort for some simple task, or when you aren’t trying to put time pressure on a player. If a player wants to craft a bomb in the middle of a fight, that’s a good time to force a player to spend a few turns putting in the effort to make the bomb. The payoff, several turns later, will be epic.

Okay, now let’s add another concept: effort dice. ICRPG uses easy categories of dice to keep things simple. If you’re using your fists for damage, or if you don’t have a tool to help you get a task done, you roll BASIC d4 effort. Note, a d4 will barely chip away at a task. That’s why it’s basic effort.

But if you have the right weapon or tool — say lock picks for the door — then you can roll D6 WEAPON/TOOL Effort.

If you have a gun, you can blow the lock off (or shoot a goblin, for D8 GUN Effort.

If you have a mage or a flaming magic sword, you can melt the lock off for D10 MAGIC Effort.

And if you roll a critical hit, add a D12, ULTIMATE die to the task!

Note, the categories of dice do not change.

Finally, ICRPG groups every 10 hit points a thing has into “hearts.” There’s nothing earth shattering about that concept, except that on the DM side, thinking in groups of 10 like that really makes your life easier: this monster has two hearts (20
HP). This lock is a one heart challenge (requires 10 effort to bypass). This challenge is a three heart challenge (requires 30 hit points of effort and a long amount of time).

If all that makes sense, now go back and read the initial post above about when to use effort from the DM perspective.

Mastering the Master Edition (and some general GM advice asks)

I also try to think about “will it be interesting if this takes time to accomplish.”

I have found that, rather than think in black and white, “Effort for this kind of thing and not for that kind of thing,” it works better for me to stay flexible and think about what will make for fun play and exciting pacing.

Scaling a wall might require effort in one context but not in another. For instance, use effort when we want to spend time with the heroes as they scramble up the wall, or the wall itself is the Location/Goal/Obstacle (Think Jon Snow and Yggritte climbing The Wall in Game of Thrones). In another context, we might climb the wall just as a pass/fail or even as normal movement on the way to what’s more interesting in an encounter (Spiderman doesn’t need effort to climb walls in the battle with Mysterio in Far From Home).

For what it’s worth, I was deep into some Blades in the Dark at the same time I was getting into ICRPG. I think that influenced my understanding of how to use effort. Effort reminds me a bit of progress clocks in Blades.


In addition to everything great written in this thread, I sometimes require multiple successful attempts without any effort rolled at all.

This is very similar to D&D 4E skill challenges but simpler, as in “this task needs 2 successful attempts to be completed”. Failures are not counted.

Alternatively, you can use the inverted version too, as in “this task will take 3 rounds but you can only fail once”. Use this version sparingly and only for important and dangerous tasks to create drama.

Why attempts instead of effort?
When success or failure is not instant, but also don’t need the complication of effort, i.e. tasks which only need a little bit of time.

As an added bonus, switching between using stats and effort for task resolution will make different characters shine in different circumstances.


What folks seem to forget is that Effort is a temporal tool. It’s primary use is elongating time: when you want to force a player to take extra turns accomplishing a task.

This right here helped me wrap my head around Effort. Turns only matter if something or someone else is acting on their own turn. Otherwise PC’s are just playing out the motions with no consequence for the amount of time they’re using up.

So thank you @Alex for breaking down this concept. Much appreciated!


Hey @Cynistar, thanks for letting me know! I am glad that nugget proved useful.

Yeah, to me, basic binary checks are always the way to go. Most things can get resolved in an easy pass/fail, and there’s nothing worse than spending turn after turn trying to whittle down a thing when there is nothing else happening. But in the right scenario, when you need to force players to slow down (usually while something awful is happening to them, lol), effort on a task can really shine.


I had a really good example of this last week when I ran some players through DOOMVAULT.

It was the final scene, they had stopped the ritual and the tentacles were pulling back, but had set the cave to collapse. A Timer of 4 was rolled. In 4 rounds the cave would collapse and they would die heroes. Their options included running back the way they came and trying to find a way out there, but it would take too long. They could jump into the pit the tentacles appeared from and hope it led somewhere good. Or there was a metal grate in the floor that running water was rushing through.

They didn’t trust following the tentacles down into the pit so they opted to try and pry the metal grate out of the floor and make their escape. But it was a 1 HEART challenge. They needed one person to successfully make a STR attempt to pry the metal grate loose and then everyone could apply their effort rolls towards it.

Over the course of the 4 rounds, they had to deal with the remaining Ogdru Cultists, falling rocks, and a few players dropping. The STR roll was made with 2 rounds remaining and they chipped into together to pull back the grate. One of the players even used their staff to bump their effort die to a d6 instead of the basic effort they’d all been rolling previously. They completed the HEART of EFFORT on the last round and dove into the tunnel as the cave collapsed around them.

Limited time and growing pressure made those effort rolls way more exciting and finished the adventure on a high note rather than a slog.


Perfect example @KaneDriscol.


I tried searching through this thread for keywords but failed. In Master Edition, it refers sometimes to a type of effort that pertains to our 6 Abilities (STR, DEX, etc). Like “INT EFFORT”. Is that a D4+Ability when it comes to Effort? How do you make specifically that roll? Does it fall under Basic effort?


So, when you see this type of notation:

“… it takes one heart of CHA effort to convince her….” p. 314.

Then, you read it like this:

First, make an attempt roll using your charisma stat bonus. If your d20 roll plus your charisma stat bonus equals or exceed the target, then you have to do one heart of effort to chip away at the task (in this case, convincing). If you have a tool that can help you, then you roll a d6 weapon/tool effort against the one heart (10 points you have to chip away). If you don’t have a tool to help you (in this case, for persuasion, probably not), then just roll a d4 basic effort die. In subsequent turns, you keep rolling to try to chip away at the 10 you need to succeed.