“I Assist” Isn’t an Improved Guidance Cantrip that Anyone Can Cast

In episode 124 of the Down with D&D podcast, hosts Shawn Merwin and Chris Sniezak discussed a scene that reoccurs at my tables too. “In a lot of games that I’ve run, everyone is always assisting every check they possibly can,” Shawn explains. “Someone tries to do something, and someone will just pipe up, ‘I assist.’”

This pattern brings advantage to every check, trivializing the game’s challenges. Because no one needs to engage with the game world to gain an edge, routine assistance discourages ingenuity.

Chris Sniezak offers a potential remedy: “When someone says that they want to help, the first question that the dungeon master should ask is, ‘How do you help?’”

Ask players to describe how they assist, and then grant—or deny—advantage based on whether the assistance could help. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “You decide whether a circumstance influences a roll in one direction or another, and you grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result.” Rather than making “I assist” a real-world incantation that grants advantage, judge assistance as a circumstance that might merit advantage.

Photo by Mykola Swarnyk

If a character tries to climb from a frozen river onto the ice, a hand up will probably help. Encouragement shouted from the shore probably won’t.

Describing the assistance immerses players in the game world and helps the story come alive.

Specific actions to assist might expose a helper to danger. Offering a hand out of that river would mean crawling onto the cracking ice. Often, assistance means coming in range of a potential trap.

Unlike past Dungeons & Dragons rules, fifth edition lets characters assist without a required check. Nonetheless, the actions made to assist might require a check. Suppose a helper chooses not to risk the thin ice and opts to throw a rope instead. Casting a rope to a sinking character’s flailing hands might require a dexterity check.

In an ideal game, players describe their actions and DMs respond by calling for ability checks. This protocol extends to assisting. The player describes how they help, and then the DM grants advantage. Typically, I don’t insist on this order, so I happily ask players how they help. But during role-playing interaction, I stick to the protocol.

After a player acts in character to persuade a non-player character, I don’t let bystanders volunteer to assist the check. Only characters with speaking parts—the characters who contributed to a scene—get to assist. When two or more characters contribute to an interaction, I typically grant advantage without a player request. Sometimes I accept a reminder.

The D&D rules offer two alternatives to assistance.

Group checks come when everyone might need to make at a check. The rule assumes skilled characters assist the rest, so only half the group needs to succeed.

The second alternative is letting everyone make an attempt. After all, helping someone search a room amounts to two separate searches. Rolling two separate lockpicking attempts makes more sense than letting one character assist by encircling the rogue from behind to guide her hand like a creepy golf instructor.

Unless time, skill, or other circumstances limit an attempt to a couple of party members, separate roles usually offer better odds. But consider this: If everyone in the party enjoys time to make a check in safety, why even bother making the check? Do you just want to give everyone a chance to roll?

Sometimes I do that. Everyone likes to roll. I wonder how many players liked the old assistance rules better just because the helper gets to roll?

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6 Responses to “I Assist” Isn’t an Improved Guidance Cantrip that Anyone Can Cast

  1. alphastream says:

    I do periodically let everyone roll, particularly for noticing something that I basically expect someone to notice. Depending on how many people roll well and how high the results are, I decide how much to describe about the particular thing in question. In a home campaign I might not even have a DC in mind, just a rough notion and I’m using this all more for narrative purposes, with some engagement via the die rolling.

    For assisting, I often find players will test out a DM the first time. With a new table I’ll usually look for them to give me a reason for why they are offering help. If it’s just another set of eyes, I’ll say that in this situation additional persons won’t provide advantage. After that, it’s easier to involve them and not have it become an assumption. And, I think that the more players assume it will usually be just an individual, the more that individuals are getting the spotlight. Otherwise, it can feel like everyone is always jumping on top of the person who proposed doing something and taking away the spotlight. A common example is where someone says, “does this look magical,” and another player yells, “I’ll make an Arcana check.” That’s a prime case where I’ll say to the second person, “Hold on, the first player is already doing that.” Over time, the table learns that they don’t have to jump onto someone else’s idea… they will get their own time to shine later if they stay engaged.

    Something I’ll often do when a second player wants to help is ask them how they are doing so, and then have both players roll. I’Il take the highest die roll, but the primary player is making the check – basically rolling with advantage but the helping player is rolling the second die. It lets more people roll and gives that feeling of helping.

  2. The sad version of this story is where I keep having to remind my players that they can help each other, and they keep forgetting despite kinda needing it.

  3. I do require a roll for Assists. Succeed, and the player gets a +2 on the roll, fail and it’s a -2.

  4. Pingback: Rules vs. Immersion, Assistance, Aurania and More From the Comment Section | DMDavid

  5. Ilbranteloth says:

    So this is a good example of why I prefer fewer “hard” rules and more adjudication.

    The question of “how do you help” is the start. But there’s a second part that’s necessary – the DM’s adjudication.

    5e has simplified many modifiers to advantage/disadvantage. This addresses several things, but one of the things it addresses is that if whatever you’re doing isn’t altering the probabilities by up to 25%, then it probably isn’t worth considering.

    Not all help will meet that threshold, so not all help will warrant granting advantage.

    For example, when others want to assist, then in many cases it’s just a part of the action itself. They are involved. If something happens, or something goes wrong, there’s somebody else to help prevent it from going very wrong. Sometimes it’s just being friendly.

    Consider carrying a 50 lb. bag of cement. Most people can do it by themselves, and having assistance isn’t going to increase your “success” at carrying the bag. It does reduce your load, so you won’t become fatigued as quickly if you have to move a lot of them. If you address things like fatigue in your game like I do, then it gives you something to work with.

    But if you trip, and might drop the bag in the freshly finished sidewalk next to you, that extra helper might just be able to help prevent that.

    So instead of giving advantage on the skill check (which would have been passive since it was well within your capabilities), I would probably say the extra help will grant advantage on your Dexterity save to avoid falling when you trip.

    So it’s not just a question of “how do you help.” It’s also a question of whether “helping” has a measurable impact. A lot of players won’t help if there isn’t a mechanical benefit, but I think that’s a mistake. It’s really more of a question as to whether there’s a potential benefit, even one of goodwill, building relationships, etc.

  6. Interesting. I hadn’t kept up with D&D. Have elaborate rules for helping in my home brew, but the last assist I recall in D&D was the roles for 3.5 where it just didn’t seem to help much. Glad to see a more robust mechanic.

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