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In the section Working Together, the basic rules state:

Sometimes two or more characters team up to attempt a task. The character who's leading the effort — or the one with the highest ability modifier — can make an ability check with advantage, reflecting the help provided by the other characters. In combat, this requires the Help action (see chapter 9, “Combat”).

A character can only provide help if the task is one that he or she could attempt alone. For example, trying to open a lock requires proficiency with thieves' tools, so a character who lacks that proficiency can't help another character in that task. Moreover, a character can help only when two or more individuals working together would actually be productive. Some tasks, such as threading a needle, are no easier with help.

I understand that this happens when the group can, and will work together to do something, but I'm wondering about the limitations of these definitions.

For instance, in a game, our characters had to climb horizontally a porous wall for ~150 feet. Below that wall, 100 feet of void then the sea. Some characters were reluctant doing this as their athletics skill is the lowest, going in the negatives. The other characters convinced them to do it anyway, arguing they'd help. So the characters all attached themselves to a rope and started the climb. The help promised by the other characters was under the form "put your foot here", "put your hands there", "pull your weight in your hands" and other advises like that. Individual tests were used all the time. After 50 feet, the whole party was swimming in the sea.

After the session, I was wondering whether I should have asked the DM if a group check should have been done. Our DM never ever uses group checks as defined in the quoted part, and I'm wondering whether he knows about them. Given that we've had one such situation roughly every two sessions (we always failed those situations), that's definitely something I'll ask him about.

But nonetheless, I feel this is a thin line as no explanation exist about what help is (instructions, physical help, etc.). If more able characters provide instructions, are those help? How is help defined, and when does an individual ability check become a group ability check?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Did the help that they gave give any bonuses to the individual tests or was it purely cosmetic help? \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 May 11 at 12:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 The DM asked how the help was provided, so that's what the players with the most proficient characters provided instructions on the go, but in the end no bonus was ever given to anyone. \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire May 11 at 12:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ How many checks did you each have to make to complete this one task of 'cross the wall'? If it was more than one per person, then I suspect this DM of "rolling to failure" -- i.e. if you keep demanding more and more rolls to complete a single task, eventually everyone will fail it. ( thealexandrian.net/wordpress/38798/roleplaying-games/… ) The better solution is "let it ride" -- the successful roll holds until something in the situation seriously changes things, like coming under attack or finishing that leg of the ascent and setting a new base camp. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym May 11 at 14:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym Technically, it was like: "Roll for Athletics" / 2 failures out of 5 / "The two failures fall, but since you have ropes, the ones still on the wall make STR saving throw to see if you can hold the weight." / 3 successes / "Now test if you can pull with Athletics" / 2 successes, 1 failure. / "One cannot, that one makes a STR saving throw to see if they can hold the weight or fall" / 1 failure / "2 out of 5 are holding, that's too few, you all fall" \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire May 11 at 15:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay, well, the group as a whole, on average, succeeded the initial climb, and I can see a save to keep the folks who failed their initial checks, but you got success there, and that should've been the end of the scenario. Calling for another athletics roll and ANOTHER save is exactly what "rolling to failure" means. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym May 11 at 20:17
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Use group checks when an individual failure would mean the group fails.

First, the rules for group checks:

When a number of individuals are trying to accomplish something as a group, the DM might ask for a group ability check. In such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren't.

To make a group ability check, everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds.

Otherwise, the group fails. Group checks don't come up very often, and they're most useful when all the characters succeed or fail as a group.

It is important to understand the purpose of group checks. Group checks are called for when a single individual failure would normally mean the whole group fails. This is what "succeed or fail as a group" means. This is exactly the situation you described: if we run each character's checks individually, a single failure means that character falls off the cliff. This is a failure for the whole group. When one character falls off the cliff, it derails the entire party. Now the character that fails has to be rescued, the whole party has to descend the cliff, the entire task has been successfully failed by everyone.

Using individual checks when a group check should be used almost guarantees failure.

Using group checks serves to make the laws of probability less punishing. When you have a party of six trying to scale the cliff, individual checks means you have to have six out of six successes, else the whole group fails. Group checks means you only need three out of six successes. Individual checks, when a group check should be used, almost guarantees failure, as you have observed.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "Group checks are called for when a single individual failure would normally mean the whole group fails." This is probably the best paraphrasing I could ask for. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire May 11 at 12:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ The scale the cliff example / laws of probability is prefectly illustrated by our first 5e party (in 2015) descending an underbround cliff into the Underdark. Each PC had to roll a check, and the bard fell to his death. 20d6 will do that ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 11 at 13:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast That bard got what he deserved for not taking feather fall. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov May 11 at 13:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ cackle Yeah, I guess. 😊 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 11 at 13:02

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