In D&D 5E, the Help action is an ability all characters can use to aid their allies both in and out of combat.
If one player in the party is attempting a task then the DM might call for a dice roll to determine whether they succeed.
A second player can declare that they’re helping with the task. This grants the first player advantage on their roll.
If a player has advantage on a roll, that means they can roll two d20s instead of one and use the higher of the two results.
This sounds simple, but it has many intricacies and there are two entirely separate sets of rules for Help, in and out of combat.
But before we get started I wanted to include a list of the best uses for Help upfront. It’s something you can refer to going forward after you read the article.
Best Uses Of Help:
- Help from Familiars
- Help from a Mastermind rogue
- Help with ability checks, outside of combat
- Help with powerful attacks or spells, which deal more damage than multiple ordinary attacks
Help in combat
You can lend your aid to another creature in the completion of a task. When you take the Help action, the creature you aid gains advantage on the next ability check it makes to perform the task you are helping with, provided that it makes the check before the start of your next turn. Alternatively, you can aid a friendly creature in attacking a creature within 5 feet of you. 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.D&D Basic Rules P.75
Help With Attack Rolls
There’s often some confusion regarding the wording of Help here since its usage is incredibly specific.
On their turn in combat, a character can use their action to Help another character. That character can select a single ally to help with an attack against a single enemy.
The enemy must be within 5 feet of the character that is taking the help action, but the ally receiving help can be positioned anywhere.
This grants that ally advantage on their next attack roll, so long as that roll is taken before the start of the helper’s next turn. This will ordinarily be on that ally’s next turn, but could also be an attack of opportunity.
Help only gives advantage on one attack roll, even if the ally receiving Help can make multiple attacks on the same action.
Help is also not transferable to other allies, and cannot be used by other allies attacking the same enemy.
Help can add a lot of narrative flair to combat, and you can use it to characterize your party’s teamwork dynamics. Its utility, when used by PCs, is quite limited though.
It’s usually more powerful to make two attack rolls between two players than to make one attack roll with advantage.
Even at early levels, before PCs gain multi-attack, it’s still usually better to take the Attack action than to use your action to Help an ally with their attack.
Help With Ability Checks
Help with ability checks is much simpler. One character uses their action to Help an ally, and that ally gains advantage on their next ability check to complete a task.
Some DMs may also impose the additional restriction that a player has to narratively explain how their PC is helping with that particular ability check.
This has basis in the rules for Working Together out of combat (which we’ll discuss further down the page) but could be interpreted differently by different DMs.
The Find Familiar spell allows players to summon a spirit to act as their familiar. These can take several animal forms.
Familiars can’t attack in combat, but they can take any other action normally including Help. The biggest downside to using help is that it prevents you from attacking and this doesn’t apply to familiars.
This makes Help a fantastic use of your familiar’s action.
Especially for characters like Arcane Tricker rogues, who gain additional damage from Sneak Attack when attacking with advantage, Help from familiars can be an excellent way for PCs to grant advantage to themselves or their party members.
The biggest downside to using your familiar in this way is that Help can only be used from an enemy’s melee range and familiars have very low HP so they’re liable to die quite often.
Don’t despair, though! If your familiar takes the form of an owl, its Flyby ability allows it to leave melee range without provoking attacks of opportunity.
This means it can safely enter melee range, take the help action, and then leave melee range in the same turn.
Help As A Prepared Action
Because Help specifically applies to the next attack or ability check made by its recipient, it can be useful to prepare the action.
On their turn, a player can use the Ready action to prepare an action that will be taken as a reaction later in the turn order.
The player using the Ready action has to state, during their turn, what they plan to do and what will trigger them to do it. Then, if and when that trigger occurs, the player can choose whether or not to take that action.
As an example of how this would look with the Help action, Player 1 might say “When Player 2 tries to push over the rocks, I will help them.”
Then, when Player 2 tries to push over the rocks, Player 1 can choose whether or not to help with that ability check.
This has limited usefulness, but might be helpful if you specifically wanted to Help with the second or third attack by a PC that has multi-attack.
How Powerful Is Help?
Help works by granting advantage on rolls, so it’s best to first look at the power of advantage.
Advantage is a really big deal in D&D.
If a level 1 PC (player character) with a +4 bonus to hit attacks a goblin with 15 AC then, without advantage, that PC has a 50% chance of hitting their target.
If the same PC attacks the same goblin, except this time the PC has advantage, the PC has a 75% chance of hitting.
In this case, that’s equivalent to an additional +5 to hit (for a total of +9, including the existing +4 bonus). To contextualize that number, PCs don’t ordinarily receive +3 bonus weapons until they’re at tenth level or higher!
If that wasn’t enough, some classes have extra abilities they can use whenever they have advantage.
For example, rogue’s Sneak Attack ability allows them to add extra damage dice when they attack with advantage.
Help is limited in combat because it requires an action that could otherwise be used to attack. In the previous example, the level 1 PC’s chance to hit was increased from 50% to 75%.
This means that, on average, they will hit 1.5 times as often when they have advantage. If two identical PCs attacked each turn then, on average, they will hit twice as often as one.
Once martial PCs gain multi-attack, Help becomes even more suboptimal because a PC has to sacrifice multiple attacks to Help with just one.
Even without multi-attack though, two players attacking will result in more successful attacks than one player attacking and one helping.
There is one subclass that’s exempted from Help’s downsides. Mastermind rogues get the ability Master of Tactics at third level, which allows them to Help as a bonus action.
This means they can Help and attack on the same turn, which makes Help much more desirable.
Unfortunately, there are several downsides here.
A large part of rogues’ high damage comes from their ability to gain damage from Sneak Attack by attacking with advantage. Help can only be used on another creature so Mastermind rogues can’t use it to grant advantage to themselves.
Rogues’ Cunning Action allows them to Dash, Disengage or Hide as a bonus action and they rely heavily on these abilities.
Rogues have relatively low survivability in melee range and need to gain advantage on attacks to properly utilize Sneak Attack. Disengage allows them to leave melee range and Hide grants them advantage.
Multiple abilities are already competing for rogue’s bonus action, so Mastermind rogues are sacrificing a lot by using it to Help. The ability to Help using a bonus action is valuable but would be more powerful for other classes.
Working Together: Help Outside of Combat
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.D&D Basic Rules P.62
Help shines most outside of combat, when it’s not competing for an action with spells and attacks. In the rules as written, it can be used by a party of PCs to gain advantage on almost every ability check they make.
This is really scary to some DMs. Most players don’t use Help extensively, so DMs aren’t used to players gaining advantage on the majority of ability checks. This means that DMs will often try to limit Help in some way.
A DM who wants to limit Help might require the helper to be proficient in the skill that the help recipient is using for the roll. The helper might also be required to make a roll themselves, to determine if they successfully help with a task.
These limitations make Help less fun to use and can be a reflexive reaction by a surprised DM. If you plan to use Help extensively out of combat, it’s a good idea to communicate with your DM ahead of time so they can fully parse the relevant rules and make a considered decision on how Help works in their game.
Help In Your Game: DM Tips
Help provides a lot of great opportunities for you and your players to create narrative moments where characters interact with one another. It also allows a character to actively participate in an event without stealing the spotlight.
For these reasons, I’d caution against trying to limit Help’s power. Limiting Help’s power discourages your players from using it, and it can add a lot of narrative value to your game.
If you feel your players’ characters are too powerful, you always have the option to provide them with more difficult challenges.
Your bad guys can also use Help! Help may often be suboptimal in combat, but bad guys don’t always need to behave optimally. They might be trying to win, but they’re not all-knowing strategic geniuses like the DM is.
The Help action allows minions to shine a spotlight on your main bad guy. It can help characterize your bad guys and give your players insight into the bad guys’ internal hierarchies and relationships.
If Bad Guy 1 orders Bad Guy 2 to help him, that immediately gives your players a ton of information about both of your bad guys. Bad Guy 1 must have higher status and is probably more powerful.
Maybe Bad Guy 1 is the leader of all the enemies, or maybe he has ideas above his station. If Bad Guy 2 refuses to help, that will raise even more questions in your players’ minds.
Because it’s so often suboptimal, Help can also be a great way to adjust the difficulty of fights. It will usually result in your players taking less damage, and also taking damage in a way that’s more predictable.
One attack with advantage will fairly reliably deal one attack worth of damage. Two attacks taken without advantage might deal two attacks worth of damage, or they might deal no damage at all.
Predictable fight length and predictable damage to your players are both really useful to a DM. If you know the fight length then you can plan what your bad guys will do on each round.
This can make for more dynamic and narratively interesting combat.
If you know how much damage your players will take, you can more reliably deal enough damage to make a combat encounter feel dangerous without risking a TPK (total party kill).