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We're a new group playing DnD 5e. Three of us have no prior experience (and I'm one of them, never played the earlier editions) whilst two of us have some to good experience with other editions.

I'm DMing Rise of Tiamat and I'm really struggling with giving the players any kind of challenge. We've got a Paladin with Sentinel and a Halberd, almost stopping everything in its tracks when they attack, a Wizard with Fireball (he might have found a spellbook), Minor Illusion and the Tiny Hut spell (which really messes up any kind of surprises I have in store for the night), a Druid which doesn't do much and a Rogue which died last session because of PVP (he got the option to sacrifice one player by an evil fountain spewing blood, he took it - and it didn't pay off in the end).

Just a bit of context.

My question is this: our Wizard is because of his familiar (a rat which he has on the inside of his robe) constantly throwing advantage on all of his D20 rolls. I said I won't allow this in the future sessions because the familiar needs and initiative, and also needs to somehow confuse or do whatever with the mobs to allow advantage.

He does, however, claim that the familiar gives him an advantage on all skill checks as well, in and out of combat. Is this according to the rules?

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Not exactly. The rules on Working Together in order to give advantage are as follows:

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.

In other words, his familiar can only help him if the task is one that

a) The familiar is capable of accomplishing by itself, and

b) The task is one where the familiar's help would actually assist the character in completing the task.

It's up to you, of course, to decide if a given task satisfies these requirements. But you certainly shouldn't just let him gain advantage on every check automatically.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer; It appears OP is also granting advantage during combat -- Does your answer also apply to that part of the question? I seem to remember that the penalties for a familiar dying were so severe that I wouldn't want to risk it even if it could grant advantage, but it may have changed in 5e. \$\endgroup\$ – Gus Oct 6 '15 at 16:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ So in other words, the rat could help grant advantage by distracting the opponent during an attack roll, by biting or running up the opponents leg, but the rat would then also become a potential target on the opponents next turn. \$\endgroup\$ – Escoce Oct 6 '15 at 17:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Gus, Wizards can just cast a spell to get the familiar back, so it is not that complicated, however, it uses one 1st level slot or you have to cast it as a ritual which means spending more time. So the wizard may have to wait till night (next rest period, really) before getting a new familiar. \$\endgroup\$ – Alexis Wilke Oct 6 '15 at 17:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Of note, if the rat tries to offer help during combat, then run away, it provokes an attack of opportunity by the opponent. Of note, the Owl familiar can use its flyby skill to avoid provoking opportunity attacks. \$\endgroup\$ – Praxiteles Dec 2 '17 at 8:33
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Challenge the player to give an explanation for how the familiar is actually providing the help.

If a player gave me an explanation like "the rat runs up the orc and bites him in the earlobe, distracting him" then I'd grant advantage. Good narration should be rewarded. If a player said "I dunno, it just does" then I wouldn't grant it. If the rat does nothing except hide inside the wizard's robe then I certainly wouldn't grant any advantage.

Same for "the rat sticks its little nose inside the gap between the flagstones so it can see the trap mechanism and help me disarm it".

I'd also make the familiar a target some of the time. Not all of the time, because that would be mean.

There are some situations where a rat just couldn't help, for example knowledge and crafting rolls. A rat can't help you search a library for knowledge about the Evil Cult. A rat can't help a woodcarver or stonemason (except maybe by fetching tools but I don't think that's enough to grant advantage).

From a game balance point-of-view, the player is trying to use the familiar spell (a level 1 slot) to gain continual advantage. There are other 1st level spells and cantrips that grant advantage once only. Find familiar should be of a similar power.

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(edited to make a more complete answer, although these were pretty much already mentioned above)

Please note, regarding a familiar providing Attack Action assistance during combat - according to Wizards/D&D Sage Advice Monthly, September 2016, the familiar does not need to attack but must stay with in 5 foot of the creature you wish to attack and distract it. It also acts as an allied creature for those that have sneak attack abilities. However, staying this close to the enemy creature could be very detrimental to the familiars health - see note at the end about familiar death.

As mentioned above, a familiar also can assist with any action it could actually do competently itself. For example a cat familiar could walk ahead of a sneaking wizard indicating to him a path that traverses the area with least disturbance (sneak); or a raven may keep watch upon a wizards shoulder increasing the chances he may notice something (perception), however that raven will not be able to assist with extended underwater cavern diving (athletics), nor would the cat provide any additional information when trying to recollect if the clan guards man of your extreme youth had blue eyes or green (int check, maybe history if he was a hero or something), nor will a fish (quipper) enable you to scale a wall/pick a lock/woo a woman any better... unless you are very, very imaginative and that is some special fish. In either situation, it would have to be very well played out by the player and would only happen occasionally... if ever.

Finally, a further aside to help with a player over-zealously abusing an ability: I would like to add that if the familiar is "out" on the prime material plane all the time, it is possible to "kill" it (particularly if it's hanging out in close range of the enemy), at which point it is banished until the spell is cast again at the cost of 10 gold pieces of charcoal/incense/herbs over a short rest. This can get costly for low level characters and those herbs may be difficult to find. It's annoying for upper levels too as the wizard will have to wait until a short rest until they can perform the 1 hour ritual again, not to mention other party members continually having the wizard beg for short rests and then wait for the wizard to cast for an hour... pretty soon his party will sort him out if this happens frequently. If the wizard then keeps the familiar hidden away the pocket dimension (which he will do if you kill it enough), it takes an entire action to summon it forth, at which point the skill check may be moot. Coupled with restricting the familiar to assisting with only legal and intuitive actions, this should quickly put the kibosh on his auto-advantage abuses.

This is not to say he shouldn't get the benefit of his familiar, he definitely should, but you will find, when a character over abuses something, the DM will conveniently make that thing more difficult to pull off. Eventually players learn to use discretion and the value of that thing becomes more succinct, memorable and fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! This is an interesting bit of information, and a good interpretation of what may be an often overlooked rule. I'm not sure that this qualifies as a complete answer to the question however, and I would strongly suggest editing it to fully answer the question along the lines of this interpretation. Please take the tour of the site as well, to learn how we're different from other forums. \$\endgroup\$ – inthemanual Jan 9 '17 at 6:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Please note that OP asked explicitly about the familiar Working Together on skill checks, not so much attack rolls. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jan 9 '17 at 12:25
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An owl can grant Advantage / Help during a flyby in combat

The idea of using the owl has to do with feints / distraction to grant advantage on one attack.

You feint, distract the target, or in some other way team up to make your ally’s attack more effective. If your ally attacks the target before your next turn, the first attack roll is made with advantage. (Basic Rules, p. 75)

The owl familiar has an ability called flyby which allows it to move within reach (5') and them move away without drawing an attack of opportunity. It could thus distract/help during a combat round, or rounds if it survives, and have a good chance to survive since no OA comes as it flies off.

Flyby. The owl doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks when it flies out of an enemy’s reach. Basic Rules, p. 147

For other Help/Working together situations, that will depend on if the owl can help with a given task.

A character can only provide help if the task is one that he or she could attempt alone.

Perception at night while keeping watch? Sure.
Breaking down a door? No.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. The trait is simply called "Flyby", not "Flyby attack"; it's not clear what you mean by your last sentence: "This would be true with the help action as well as an actual attack (since it can't actually attack)." You're right that it can't actually attack (unless you're a Pact of the Chain warlock), so I'm not understanding what you mean by "This would be true with [...] an actual attack" when you explicitly say it can't attack. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 2 at 20:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I laid out some support and references in your answer with an edit to show you a way to support your answers in the future. If you don't like that edit, please revise it again until you like it better. Welcome, and happy gaming. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 2 at 20:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ That last link has a + instead of # for the page, but I can't correct it without changing more characters. Yay. \$\endgroup\$ – Davo Feb 4 at 12:27
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Sorcerers get the ability to Twin Spell, a free Mage Armor, extra HP, or the ability to randomly TPK your entire level 1 party because the wild surge table is BS.

Wizards get familiars. Unlike in past editions where losing your familiar was such a terrible thing that they were relegated to pure RP tools, wizards in 5e are meant to use their familiars and not worry too much if they die.

Familiars require a great deal of DM discretion to handle appropriately. At their most basic, a familiar grants advantage on one attack roll, once per turn, against an enemy within 5 feet of the wizard. This isn't OP, this is the most simple, basic thing that any familiar can and should be doing. IMO a DM shouldn't normally go out of their way to kill a familiar just granting advantage once per turn, but you do you.

If the wizard had the good sense to pick an Owl familiar, they grant advantage once per turn, to one attack roll, against any one enemy, to any one ally, and they stay safe while doing it. The Owl is indisputably the most mechanically strong familiar. Don't be salty, just run with it.

As useful as the Owl is in many situations, this is where sensible DMing comes in. An owl flying through a dungeon should attract some attention regardless of it's stealth stats. A rat should be able to sneak through virtually any urban environment, and many dungeons, without even needing to roll. A raven should be able to relay messages with its mimicry. A spider or lizard should be an absolute Boss at scouting dungeons. The Hawk can carry more than any other familiar due to its strength. You can milk a poisonous snake for doses of venom between adventures. Every familiar has different strengths, no single form wins in all situations.

When it comes to Ability checks, it definitely gets dicey. Familiars tend to be small, and that really limits what they can do. On the other hand, creativity goes a long ways. Their small size means virtually any familiar should be able to assist with Perception or Investigation. Performance is almost a given if you're doing a stage-show. Pecking the eyes of someone grappling you could give advantage on an Athletics or Acrobatics check to escape. Their extra-planar nature might let them help with Arcana, Nature, or Religion checks(infernal, fey, or celestial nature). A cat, rat, or owl could probably assist with Stealth. Many of them could help with Survival. And so on.

Or you could simply rule away all of that and not let them assist with ability checks because it's a pain in the butt and/or too powerful. Frankly, the concept of Familiars as independent creatures really isn't handled or addressed very well by the 5e rules, and they did it intentionally. You're the DM, you decide what they can do.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How does the Owl stay safe? It has to engage the target (be within 5') to take the Help action. I guess that you could still use the Owl's flyby to Help and get out of the way (seems RAW, but some DMs might disagree), but the Owl is still subject to a readied action to hit it as it gets close and is still a valid target for attacks and AoEs. With an AC of 11 and 1 HP, an Owl can be killed by almost any attack against it (and unlike 4e, attacks can do damage on a miss). \$\endgroup\$ – Nick Brown Feb 27 '18 at 21:56

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