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.