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My group just started playing 5th last night, and we immediately ran into issues with the 'Working Together'/'Skill Assist'/'Skill Help' rules. By the rules it seems like nearly every single skill roll should be made with advantage, but logically that doesn't seem right.

The rules about working together and skill assists seem pretty light, and we couldn't find any extra information. This is the entirety of the assistance/help rules for skill checks:

Working Together

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). 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.

From this description, it seems like anyone can help anyone else with nearly anything, as long as each person could technically attempt the task (not necessarily ever succeed), and two people could reasonably be productive at the task. To us, it was difficult to find tasks at which two players could not be at least a little bit more productive when working together. Even discounting some of the more obtuse approaches to assisting (like coaching someone on stealth or encouraging someone to be a better liar), many of the core skills seem like they would always fit in this:

  1. Perception - Having two people looking around is always going to be better than one. Maybe I can't see as well as the elf (maybe my perception skill is -3 and I have sand in my eyes), but I can look around and report what I do see.
  2. Investigate - if you can read, you should be able to at least help someone pour through reference material. I'm not an expert at ancient dwarven civilization, but I can look through this book about them and tell you what I find.
  3. Arcana - It's DnD. Magic is everywhere. Everyone should be able to assist everyone else at least a little bit in magic. Maybe I don't know how to cast that fireball spell, but someone shot a fireball at me once, so I'm at least aware of its existence and properties.
  4. History - We all know some history. I might not know the specific battle you're talking about, but I know that the victorious general eventually became the emperor.
  5. Insight - Unless you're dealing with a specific example that only the person making the skill check would know, then other people can at least offer some insight. I may not have a lot of insight into which painting would be the most valuable, but I know that bigger is usually more expensive.

Keep in mind that the rules never state how proficient or good with the skill you have to be to assist. You could conceivably have the worst perception in the entire universe, but still assist a world class perceptor because a) you could attempt the perception on your own, and b) two sets of eyes are better than one.

In out game, it ended up that every time someone made a skill check of any kind, they just announced it and waited for someone else to say 'I'll assist.'

Wizard: "I want to look at this spell and see if I know where it's from"
Fighter: "I'll assist"
Wizard rolls with advantage

Rogue: "I'll look out this window to assess any threats"
Warlock: "I'll assist"
Rogue rolls with advantage

Bard: "I want to use insight to determine how this magical cloak is built"
Silence due to other players not paying attention
Bard: "Ahem..."
Monk: "Oh right, sorry, I assist."
Bard rolls with advantage

Given the 'Working Together' rules, I can't see how any of these situations would be invalid. It seems like as long as there is at least one other person in the room, regardless of their skill level or knowledge or experience, you should always be rolling skill checks with advantage. This sounds incorrect, but we couldn't find any rules against it.

Question:

Is this how skill assists are supposed to work? And if not, where in the rule book does it explain the nuances of the assist action?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless the fighter has any kind of skill or background in spellcasting, he's not going to be a terribly useful assist. \$\endgroup\$ – Shadur Jan 18 at 11:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I very much doubt your fighter is proficient in arcana. Proficiency has a specific meaning in 5e. Also Insight is about assessing someone's motives, how is that giong to tell you how a magical item is made? \$\endgroup\$ – John Jan 19 at 14:18
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This is how skills are supposed to work!

If you are in a situation where there is only one person doing something, and they are rolling a single skill check, then yes, this is how it's supposed to work. Giving help is a natural thing and should be used in situations like this. There is no reason to prevent it unless the task is clearly something that's not going to benefit from someone else giving you assistance. There are some things you can do to limit it.

It's also worth noting that helping can often save you some table time. As a AceCalhoun points out in the comments, in many cases what happens if you don't help is that everyone in the party tries their hand at the task. This behaves very much like advantage, but with a slightly lower overall modifier (because most likely you'll have one character who is good at a task and the rest that are lower). So Working together only raises the change of success slightly and consumes less table time in these cases.

  • Be a bit more stringent about what you allow for assistance. Is coaching stealth really all that helpful? do you really want someone looking/talking over your shoulder while you're picking that lock? Evaluate situations where characters attempt to aid more carefully.

  • Have more than one thing going on at once. If all the characters need to be stealthy, they can't be helping each other. And if you need two arcane characters working on the sigils on opposite sides of the room, maybe they have to choose which one gets help from the third (or don't have anyone to help at all).

  • Make things take multiple rolls and limit helping on all of them. Maybe the first roll the wizard can be helped, but after that he's on the other side of the trap, or arm deep in the sigil or something to where additional assistance isn't going to help him.

  • Figure out how to inflict disadvantage for the task. Maybe there are mitigating circumstances.

  • Create a distraction. A rogue can't help the wizard if he's busy fighting baddies. Make some skill checks happen in an occupied room. Make completing the skill checks the win condition rather than defeating the enemies.

The basic crux of all of this is that helping is supposed to a mundane task that provides advantage. Yes, that's a huge deal, but it also doesn't stack with other things that give you advantage and it can be easily cancelled by disadvantage.

So get creative! Build some situations into your adventures that prevent your heroes from helping each other (or make the opportunity cost higher). But don't do it all the time, that might get tiresome. Adventurers like to help each other out, let them, but don't make it easy all the time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Worth noting that the alternative to assistance is usually everyone just making an attempt. Which is not quite advantage (they may have lower modifiers), but pretty close. \$\endgroup\$ – AceCalhoon Jan 29 '15 at 15:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Percival Jumping across a ravine, the party all gets together and helps the armoured dwarf make it across. Running back the other way pursued by goblins, that's when the decision to help or not has real consequences as it slows the party down to make sure one gets across... \$\endgroup\$ – Tim B Jan 30 '15 at 13:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimB you're gonna have to toss me! \$\endgroup\$ – hobbs Jan 30 '15 at 22:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Samthere Interesting observation. I ran some tests in AnyDice to check it. Using modifiers of +6/+3/+0/+0 and a DC of 15, I get 84% for everyone rolls, and 79% for advantage. Everyone rolls is noticeably better, but not by a huge margin. \$\endgroup\$ – AceCalhoon Aug 8 '17 at 1:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AceCalhoon This probably reflects that most of my play has been done at lower levels. At higher levels, a discrepancy of 6 or greater is more likely. As you get more players with a spread of values, multiple rolls will do better, but with fewer players and a larger skill difference the assisted roll will improve. The difficulty of the check probably has an impact, too. \$\endgroup\$ – Samthere Aug 8 '17 at 11:51
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TL;DR: Try basing the advantage described for assistance on what the character does without allowing the generic of "I assist" to work.

Overall, yes, people can assist with many things. I would say some things do need a modicum of training, and that should be based on personal experience.

If something is completely based on perception, then assistance really doesn't help much unless the person assisting already notices it. They can search different areas, thus isolating a perception check, thus granting advantage, but then they've limited the range of each of their vision ranges, and only one person in the group is likely to actually see any benefit from the advantage. (Using a sector of fire/perception concept works really well in this case, realistically.)

One thing that is definitely reasonable is to require your players to actually think about how they are assisting and have them describe it. This gives you more latitude to give out advantage based on the true circumstances, enhances the storytelling, and makes the act of assisting truly meaningful.

You are the adjudicator, and it is up to you when a person can be helpful when they try to. The ability to freely gain advantage is intentional, but does take someone's action to do it, thus preventing them from doing other things. The idea is to promote teamwork, but if the party is deciding that team work is simply stating "I assist" then they aren't truly understanding the point of assisting each other.

You are creating a story together, have them appropriately write their roles in it.

Post Script:

My house-ruled interpretation:

If the character isn't able to succeed without an exceedingly high roll, you may not want to allow him to assist in the task due to his own inefficiency. With low enough capability it is likely he would get in the way. I would look at how useful one person is likely to be at the situation. A barbarian with an 8 intelligence is more likely going to get in the way of a wizard trying to quickly identify a spell (possibly even causing disadvantage) unless they have a very creative way to help them identify it (running in to an invisible wall, for example.)

I know this isn't rules as written, but it is a reasonable way to look at the rules for slightly more realism.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Aviose, thanks for the suggestion. We're a pretty pragmatic group, in the beginning we were coming up with specific ways to help, but eventually everyone got the picture. I think the issue with your barbarian example is that the book has no mention of the likelihood of success. It states that it only has to be something that the user could 'attempt alone'. Not even potentially succeed at, just attempt. To us, that means as long as you can possibly even try, you should be able to assist. It seems unfair to tell the barb that they can't help when the rules state that they can. \$\endgroup\$ – Percival Jan 29 '15 at 17:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ I suppose that is more a personal decision, so I'll edit the answer to reflect that. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Jan 29 '15 at 18:07
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Group Checks for the Win

As DM, you may choose to apply group checks in some of the instances that seem like they might be frivolous assist checks. Group checks are described as a sub-header under "Working Together" on page 174 of the PHB. Here is the relevant text:

When a number of individuals are trying to accomplish as a group, the DM might ask for a group 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.

The rules as written go on to describe that group checks are not as common as individual checks, and gives examples of situations that they might be useful.

One situation which I consider appropriate for group checks is stealth. The party moves together down the passageway as quietly as possible. In this situation, you call for stealth checks from everybody. If more than half of them pass, all of them pass.

You may consider other everybody-is-doing-it situations as appropriate for group checks as well.

A Few Specifics

Now, with group checks in mind, it is fitting to reconsider the five scenarios you proposed for discussion.

  1. Perception. It may be acceptable to call for a group check if the entire party is simultaneously acting as lookout, although that may be pushing it in my mind. It might be argued, for example, that another person cannot reasonably assist me to see better and hear more clearly. If you did this, it would be probably be better for the party to choose a dedicated lookout with proficiency in perception rather than have everyone look.
  2. Investigate. I consider this an excellent choice for working together with advantage. In your example of doing book research, so long as I can read I should be of assistance to the primary researcher. Similarly, when investigating traps, two heads are better than one. Frankly, as DM, I crave having my players pass investigation checks, as I can then give them more information. It's no fun sitting on all the secrets all the time.
  3. Arcana. This ability check measures how much you can recall about things related to spells and planes. As well-intentioned as my friends might be, they cannot really affect what I recall. This check, in my opinion, is not a good candidate for working together.
  4. History. Like Arcana, this ability check measures what I can recall about history. Also like Arcana, I consider this an ability check that is, for the most part, unfit for working together.
  5. Insight. This Wisdom-based skill determines your ability to "determine the true intentions of a creature." So consider a social encounter with a shady NPC. Should you make a group Insight check to determine if he is trustworthy, or make individual checks and only reveal the truth to the PCs who pass? I consider either approach appropriate; however, neither is a good candidate for making the check with advantage. Friends don't especially make me more insightful just because they are suspicious of the NPC too, you see.

A Cautionary Note:

Group checks are to be used with some degree of caution. The rules say they are less common than other checks, and I suspect the reason for that is that they are slower to adjudicate.

There are plenty of situations for which making assisted skill checks with advantage makes for a better choice than group checks or individual checks made by everyone. It can be nice to roll the dice twice and call it good, rather than have everyone roll the dice and probably arrive at similar results anyway.

Making skill checks with advantage is also statistically not far off of the old 3.5e way of doing things, where the assistant would make a trivially-easy skill check and add +2 to the primary character's skill check.

So my advice, DM to DM, is that you carefully consider each situation that your players choose to assist each other. Is the situation suitable for teamwork? Is it best suited for a group check? Is it best suited for an advantaged check? Is it best suited for individual checks and the best one wins? On these questions, the rules as written give us the tools and some examples, but we make the decisions for which to apply and at which times.

Cheers!

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I feel like some of your examples are reasonable, but others are not. It seems like you're interpreting

a character can help only when two or more individuals working together would actually be productive

very broadly. In a case where you're granting advantage, you're saying that the result of the two working together is better than what they could each accomplish working separately (because you're letting the person with the higher skill/bonuses roll twice, rather than doing two checks, one for each character).

Possibly the quintessential example here is a Strength check to lift or bend or move something. If the object you're trying to move is something that two people can get leverage on, then working together giving advantage to the stronger character makes sense. If the fighter can lift 380 pounds, and the wizard can only lift 100, then working together they can definitely lift something heavier than the fighter could lift alone.

On the other hand, Perception seems very different to me. I can't help someone see or listen better. At best I can look/listen as well, and see if I notice something they missed. That's a case where making separate checks makes better sense.

Similarly, if a check is strongly influenced by a particular Skill, then it doesn't make much sense to allow a character without the relevant Skill to assist, unless their relevant attribute is very high. Arcana, for example, is an Intelligence check. If two Wizards want to work together to figure out something about a magical item, then it makes sense that they can build off of bits of lore that they've each picked up that turn out to be related to each other. On the other hand, if the Fighter tries to help, he's most likely not going to be able to contribute much, beyond a rumor he heard over drinks at an Inn. So, no assist in that case.

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Perception - Having two people looking around is always going to be better than one.

Yes. But mathematically, are your odds better doing it the traditional way "everyone roll perception!" or to do it this new way "Jim, you're in the lead, roll perception. Everyone else counts as an assist"?

The assist rules make more sense: they give the person who's primary skillset is the perception (the thief) the responsibility for checking for traps, and you don't have to have the whole party line up and each one in turn check each section of each wall and floor for secret doors and traps. It means they get to help, but the thief gets to make the discovery, rather than the barbarian: the thief gets to do the thing he designed his character for, rather than have his limelight stolen more than half the time just because there's only one of him and many others in the party are rolling.

Arcana - It's DnD. Magic is everywhere. Everyone should be able to assist everyone else at least a little bit in magic.

Absolutely not. You can't assist someone in casting a spell if you can't cast it yourself, no matter HOW many fireballs you've been hit by, because you cannot perform the task on your own.

So, for those skills where the whole party would normally have been rolling individually, the assist is a helpful and useful rules simplification.

If the whole party would NOT have been able to individually roll for it, then how on earth to they think they can assist, when the rule says that they must be able to perform the act on their own?

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.

The bit you did not bold is the interesting bit here. My interpretation of the rules, if this sentence did not exist, would be that you could not provide an assist in something you were not able to simultaneously perform yourself. So, since you couldn't fit two lockpicks in the same lock and achieve anything useful, I'd have ruled against it. But there it is, permitted in black and white. You can say "here, try this ball-rake pick I picked up in a little backstreet in Klatch, it's worked wonders on those slant-pin jobbies before"...

There's an argument to be made that, if they had no picks of their own, they could not make the roll, so they could not just say "Ooh, if I'm not mistaken, that one looks like it's made by the eastern dwarves. Their mechanisms tend turn the key clockwise as you insert, to get the teeth past the pick-catcher..." - I feel this argument also fails for the same reason: they can share picks, so as long as the team has the tools to accomplish the task, and everyone involved is skilled in their use.

But, as you rightly pointed out, for something like stealth or lying, yyy...no. Unless they can explain exactly how the process of helping someone will make them more, rather than less effective, those two cases would probably get a penalty for people trying to help :P

[Edit: From a comment that I've not enough rep to respond to:

It states that it only has to be something that the user could 'attempt alone'. Not even potentially succeed at, just attempt. To us, that means as long as you can possibly even try, you should be able to assist.

In D&D, "attempt" has a clear but different meaning to normal life: it means "make a roll for". You don't get to attempt something you are incapable of doing: you can only try and fail at that thing. You don't roll the dice, you just say your character will try it, and the GM tells you the outcome of your inevitable failure.

That this meaning of "attempt" is intended is made clear in the sentence about lockpicking: anyone on the planet can try to pick a lock, but without knowing anything about locks, tumblers, wards, pins, etc, they won't even stand a 1 in 20 chance, and so couldn't even roll.

When the fighter assisted the wizard with looking into the spell, how would he have rolled against Arcana if he were doing it alone? Did both bard and monk have the Insight skill? These both sound like things that would be ineligible under the rule as written.]

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It's really up to your DM — the 5th edition rules leave a lot of interpretation up to the DM.

But as DM, I wouldn't let the "I assist" lazy answer ever work. Roleplaying is fundamentally the creation of shared story, and it doesn't work if you play the rules rather than playing the game. We can see this in your initial question, where you've become disillusioned with the "every skill roll gets advantage" result.

Fundamentally, the reason this doesn't feel satisfying is that the advantage isn't being paid for — with narration, roleplay, and addition to the story. The player describing the skill attempt has added to the story, saying stuff like "I look through the books, searching for references to the third dynasty" — so someone attempting to assist needs to add their part too.

Rules as Written is, in fact, to only allow assistance from someone who could, given time, complete the task on their own, but in my opinion, just as it works better when you require that all assistance include description, it also works better if you allow any assistance that the assisting player is competent at and that would plausibly make the task easier. Sure, the wizard isn't competent with a lockpicking kit — but maybe burning a Grease spell will make the tumblers spin much more smoothly. Sure, that Thief isn't competent at Investigate — but surely given someone (like the wizard) who is adept at Investigate, having an assistant with an excellent perception will make the task much easier and faster.

Ultimately, you want to use an interpretation of the rules that works for your group — based on your description, it seems like you've managed to evolve a house set that isn't actually that satisfying — so you might want to change it up a bit. But if it actually works for you (and for the DM), you're probably doing fine.

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So in the PHB and DMG (I believe) it clearly states to use common sense. Although the other guys did do a great job of explaining the technicals, 5e isn't meant to be a technical game. So use common sense, in that to exemplify with your Arcana-fireball check: obviously it's a big ball of fire, but the check is someone that is evaluating the magic itself. This means anything that you could say "no durr, Sherlock!" to likely won't be beneficial at all. It would be the equivalent of assisting the rogue by telling him if he jams his pins, they will break. Or telling the ranger that the grass seems to be dying for no reason over on those hills, to help the Nature check.

Cases like Perception or survival, yes. Everyone should always help perceiving or gathering things to live. Assuming said things aren't detrimental to either's health.

5e is a re-imagination of 1st and 2nd in that it calls back to being more than vague for the DM to fill in the gaps and the players to really RP their sessions, so do just that. Have the player actually state either in or out of character how they plan to assist and determine it from there.

If you or the players aren't comfortable with that then, and don't take this harshly, look into a more structured version like 3.5 or 4e. From experience, 3.5 is vague enough to bend the rules but literal enough to have a definite answer. Never played 4e but I've been told it's very rule heavy and combat orient.

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As far as assisting on a deception check, two people independently supporting a statement usually makes it more believable:

"Yeah, I was at the party, wasn't I, Mark?"

"Oh, yeah, we were chatting about your Half-Elf bard character! You should see his idea for his instrument!"

I've done something similar IRL. Usually just to mess with someone. In this case, though, both people need to actually be skilled at deception in order for it to work. Otherwise you get:

"Yeah, I was at the party, wasn't I, Mark?"

"Oh, um, yeah. Totally. We were, uh, like, talking. And stuff. All night. Yeah."

So, I would rule one character can assist another with deception, but only if they're proficient.

As far as stealth is concerned... If you're setting up a hiding place, someone else could definitely help you find a good hiding spot, check if you're completely covered, move some stuff into place, etc. Helping you whilst you're actually sneaking might be a bit trickier... It feels like someone more sneaky could definitely help someone who's less sneaky (by telling them when to stop, or pulling them away from the light or whatever). In this case, I'd probably not have the second character roll, but just have the more experienced character roll with disadvantage.

Personally, I think a good way to go about it is to only allow one character to assist another if they either both have proficiency or if neither has proficiency (unless there's some reason a proficient character would want to allow a non-proficient character to make the check...). Though in some cases specific circumstances would allow something else (one person proficient in deception aiding another with a persuasion or slight of hand check seems plausible, for example).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this, and it puts the adjudication back where it belongs: Not in page 157 or whatever, but on the GM's lap. I could help with an Arcana roll despite not being trained... If it's something like researching in a library, where I can bookmark every page with a certain sigil or name so the Warlock doesn't have to do that crap himself. But I can't really help an Arcana check for analyzing what the Wizard sees with Detect Magic except in some really weird edge cases. \$\endgroup\$ – Nanban Jim Jul 27 '15 at 14:24
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You are playing it RAW. It's up to the DM to assess each situation. Compare it to the similar "Help" action in combat that grants ADV to another player (PHB 192). Of course in combat there is pressure to manage actions efficiently, something that may not exist when characters are lounging back at the inn deciding who to help. Then you have to either accept that characters will assist each other or create some sort of time economy so they can't all get help all the time.

Alternatively if you want a homebrew suggestion on how to create a bottom threshold for who can weigh in on an "I assist" situation consider looking at the passive skill score for each character and compare it to the DC of the task. If it is, for example, more than 5 below the DC (since presumably if their passive score was equal to or higher than the DC they would just automatically succeed) then they can't assist. This is a way to cull out fairly unqualified assistants without having to spend a lot of time calculating specific acitve and passive DCs for things (some published adventures have different DCs for traps, for example).

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