How to Use the Help Action in D&D 5e
The Help action in D&D 5e is one of the most dynamic actions any character can use. In fact, it should be the default action you should use when you can’t think of anything to use your action on in combat. What’s a better way to spend your turn than helping out your allies?
In my previous D&D 5e mechanic examination article, I mentioned that you can use the Help action as a Ready action. Surprisingly, that part of the article got a few responses from people saying that they always forget about the Help action.
The Help action isn’t a glamorous display of strength. It’s not the most exciting action you could take in combat. However, it’s an excellent strategic maneuver when used in the right situation.
My favorite thing about the Help action is that it has two completely different uses. Its first use is for a creature to aid another creature in accomplishing a task. The secondary use is to distract a nearby creature to help an ally strike the distracted creature.
There are so many potential use-cases for the Help action which is why I call it one of the most dynamic actions in 5e.
Using the Help Action for Ability Checks
I’d wager that the most common usage of the Help action is to assist an ally in an ability check. Essentially, a creature can use their action to give an ally advantage on an ability check. This can also be used outside of combat which makes it an amazing tool for ability checks.
“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”. – Player’s Handbook (PHB) pg 192
Essentially, the assisting creature or player needs to state what task they are helping which ally with. They will grant advantage on the roll as long as the ally follows through and continues focusing on the task at hand.
In practice, I find that this use of the Help action opens up a ton of new role-playing possibilities. For example, during a difficult Persuasion check, the less charismatic fighter may pipe up with an excellent point to help the bard negotiate. It gives everyone a reason to give input during these situations.
Homebrew Rule: You Can Only Help if You Have Proficiency
One issue that I hear a lot of DMs have with the Help action is that it practically allows the party to give each other permanent advantage on any ability check. This certainly could be an issue and can be a gateway towards the DM scaling ability checks to an unreasonable difficulty.
A common fix I’ve heard is that a creature can only assist another creature with an ability check if they are proficient in the check themselves. Admittedly, this is a solid solution to the issue. It limits the number of people who can grant each other advantage, and it does make sense.
Someone assisting the wizard with an Arcana check should have some specialized knowledge in the arcane, right? Not necessarily! A famous method of debugging code called rubber duck debugging shows that explaining yourself to even an inanimate object can be extremely helpful in solving complicated issues!
Think about it, you’ve bounced ideas off of friends, family, or coworkers when you’re an expert in the subject. Their input may be basic or non-existent, but sometimes hearing a different point of view or just hearing your thought process out loud is helpful in it of itself.
That being said, if you find your group does have an issue with too many people granting each other advantage on checks this is a pretty reasonable homebrew rule.
Using the Help Action in Combat
The lesser-used part of the Help action is by far the combat portion. It’s admittedly a little tricky to navigate, so let’s break it down to see why it’s such an awesome tactic.
“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 before your next turn, the first attack roll is made with advantage.”-PHB 192
Basically, you can use an action to distract a target creature that’s within 5 ft. of you. You could feint an attack, yell loudly at it, or any other type of distracting behavior. Regardless, the creature is now less focused on the ally you’re aiding who can make an attack against the creature at advantage.
The ally doesn’t have to stay within 5 ft. of the creature, though. That’s the big mistake myself and others have made when initially reading through the description. A player can move within 5 ft. of a creature and ally of choice, use the Help action, and then move away. You may provoke an opportunity attack in doing so, but it could potentially be worthwhile.
Essentially, once a creature has been distracted via a Help action, they’re distracted for the round. That being said, part of the Help action is to choose a specific ally that you’re helping so this does not give advantage to the rest of the party as well. One person gets the advantage of striking one specific creature.
Keep in mind that only the first attack your ally rolls against this target is at advantage.
The Help action is by far one of the best ways to use your familiar when they’re not assisting you with spells that require Touch Attacks. Your familiar cannot attack by themselves, it’s true, but they can float around a front-line character and grant them advantage on an attack each turn!
The only risk in using your familiar in this manner is that it paints them as a target for the enemy. Objectively speaking, this is not a big deal as the punishment for a familiar dying is only 10gp in 5th edition. In past editions, this could be a detrimental risk to the caster.
This doesn’t take away from the caster’s action economy either as familiars act independently. So, with only a 10gp loss on the line, you may as well try to help out your allies with your familiar if you’ve got nothing better for them to do.
You’re Always Useful
This is still a niche maneuver. In general, it’s best for a character or a creature to simply attack, cast spells, or take one of the other actions in lieu of a Help action. That being said, there are times where your character is simply not as effective as they generally are. I’ll give you an example.
I was playing an arcane archer a while ago and we got ambushed by a group of werewolves in melee range. This was before I had Magic Arrow and I had used up my Arcane Shots. I didn’t have silvered ammunition so I wasn’t useful during the fight.
So, instead, I got into melee range with our Paladin who had a silvered longsword, and used the Help action to grant them advantage.
Like I said, a very niche situation because if my character was a level or 2 higher they’d have been slinging magic arrows at the werebeasts without hesitation. Regardless, this was much more satisfying to do than simply doing nothing throughout the combat. I was still contributing!
There’s always something to do in combat in D&D 5e. The Help action, among others, gives you tools to be creative and assist your party even if you’re not currently effective!
The Help action is a great tool to keep in your back pocket. Use it whenever a creature or your PC isn’t effective in their own right and help boost your nearby allies. That being said, I’d still call the Help action a niche action in combat situations. It’s useful in a very limited number of scenarios.
The Help action truly shines when used to assist allies with ability checks. If the party is creative enough they can find ways to regularly give each other advantage on difficult checks.
In theory, this sounds like most parties will be able to weasel their way into constantly getting advantage. In practice, I don’t find this to be the case. Generally, I’ve found that players will come up with a reasonable way to assist an ally and suggest it to you.
If they don’t do this already, consider asking them to! I find that it helps everyone understand both the mechanics and the narrative of the Help action anyways. It’s also a way to weed-out situations when receiving assistance from an ally doesn’t make much sense.