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.
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?