The Problem With Assisting

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on July 7, 2010

Cruven – I use Arcana to investigate the origins of the portal in order to learn how we might vanquish the elder evil that has attacked the realm.

DM – Will anyone assist Cruven? The DC to assist is 17.

Dox – 29. I assist.

Jacinth – 25. I assist.

Luk – 17. I assist.

Josey – 18. I assist

Cruven – Ok, with four assists that’s +8 to my roll. My base is a 17, so I’m rolling on a 25. Here goes…

DM – Don’t bother. The DC is only 23 so with the assists you can’t fail this check.

How often has this happened at your gaming table? Assisting is a great way to help a PC out with a check that they might not make on their own. It’s a potentially game breaking mechanic if a PC is already highly proficient at a given skill. As the DM, how do you prevent reckless assist roles?

PCs shouldn’t be assisting just because the rules let them. While the spirit of 4e encourages us to say yes, sometimes doing so ruins or breaks the experience. Should a Rogue raised in the back alleys of a large city, who has never travelled beyond its borders be assisting the Bard with a History check about an ancient civilization that hasn’t existed for well over 1,000 years?

There is certainly an argument to say yes and allow the assist. The Rogue could have obtained this information from any number of sources. Saying yes allows the game to flow uninterrupted, everyone gets to participate. Rather than say no to the request, as a DM be proactive and set your expectations on assisting before the campaign starts.

Assisting Takes An Action

The easy way to eliminate spontaneous assisting during every players’ action is to require that the assist be the players action for that turn. One or two players might still opt to assist on certain checks, but most players will not – preferring to take a full action on their own turn.

This option makes sense to me. Assisting takes time, often just as much time as the action you are helping with. It’s only reasonable then that the assist take as much time and that the player sacrifice their turn to help. After all if assisting is an action worth taking, then it should trump any other action the PC might want to take on their turn.

Training Required

In order to assist with a task some basic knowledge is required. Another way DMs can keep the entire party from spontaneously assisting is requiring PCs to be trained in the appropriate skill they wish to assist. How else are you going to assist with an arcane ritual or lie convincingly to a master spy?

This option is a little heavy-handed as some classes only have a few trained skills. Certain martial classes receive training in only physical skills. Limiting the ability to assist with only trained skills means these characters may not be able to fully participate in social skill challenges. As a result I would recommend instituting this limitation on assisting sparingly.

The Evil Eye

Perhaps my favourite convention to dissuade PCs from arbitrarily assisting is a technique I like to call the evil eye. The evil eye requires some work to institute, but once done it can be very effective.

The PCs are required to a have a long term nemesis, which isn’t usually very difficult in most D&D campaigns. This opponent or nemesis has access to magic or the ability to curse the PCs. During a combat encounter, which the nemesis escapes, a hex is placed on each of the PCs. The only way to end the hex, is to defeat or kill the villain.

The mechanics of the hex are simple. Each PC rolls a d20 after every extended rest. Anytime before the next extended rest that this number is rolled the enemy becomes aware of the PCs and his eye is drawn towards them. Imagine this being similar to Frodo putting on the one ring and drawing the attention of Sauron and the Nazgul. The result is the enemy knows the physical location of the PC and until the next short rest that PC suffers a -1 to all ability, skill and attack rolls.

The fear of this consequence will keep PCs from making any arbitrary d20 rolls. It also adds an interesting dynamic to the game that will keep the PCs motivated towards eliminating this foe.

Additional Resources

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at ways to improve assisting. In our article Skill Focus: Assisting (Part 2), we discuss these topics which you may also find useful at your gaming table.

  • Assist with Other Skills
  • Add Value
  • Play To Your Strengths

How have you dealt with every PC at the table deciding that they would like to assist during every skill check being made? Have your efforts been successful or met with further frustration?

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1 Lahrs July 7, 2010 at 10:23 am

I had this problem as well, and I came down heavy handed on it on some tasks and let it be on others. On a heal check, one person may assist and they must have heal trained, or two may assist without heal trained, but in both cases only a +2 is applied.

In your example with the portal, I would allow a +2 from another who is trained in arcana, but I think I would allow a +4 if the person assisting was trained in both arcana and history. This gives a potential of +4, but only if the right circumstances are involved.

I combine a lot of skills in this way to get a potential +4. At first, there was quite an argument in my group, and I understand their point of view (I trained it, therefore the rules say I get it), but it didn’t always make sense in story. After a few sessions and my group began to see how it worked, they completely support it and get that extra “I’m awesome” moment when their character meets both requirements and has eliminated the +8 on every single assist check.

2 WolfSamurai July 7, 2010 at 10:40 am

I take care of the assisting mostly by virtue of limiting the number of people who can assist on any check at one time. Too many cooks spoil the pot. 4 people crowding around is not going to make a Heal check any easier, for example. So on most rolls, I usually allow 2 people to assist. Other rolls I might drop the number or not allow assisting at all. I rarely allow assisting on social rolls, for instance, and when I do it’s only 1 person allowed to help. Some rolls I might allow more, but that’s not common for the reasons already posted. If 4 people are assisting, it makes most rolls trivial and I don’t want that.

3 Adam Dray July 7, 2010 at 10:41 am

In a skill challenge, instead of N successes before 3 failures, try N successes in 3 rounds (and require an action or round to assist). Then if people give up their own rolls to assist, it has a real impact.

Or make the first assist +2, the second +1, and ignore subsequence assistance. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Or let everyone freely assist, and offer a bonus when players manage to roll +20 over the DC. So if the DC was 23, and with assists the player was rolling d20+25, they are guaranteed to succeed (except on a 1, right?) and if they roll an 18 or better (25+18=43) then that’s +20 over the 23 and they get a bonus–perhaps two successes. That way they can still get their “I’m awesome” moments.

4 Stephen July 7, 2010 at 11:25 am

This is pretty uninformed advice, having never DMed. But it seems like you could institute a cooks in the kitchen rule. The more cooks there are in the kitchen, the more difficult it is to get anything done. Either you could strictly limit the number of helpers on a given task, or you could raise the DC after the first 1 or 2 assist checks (and not just successful checks). That way the PCs would have to decide who they want to try to assist. So with the numbers you give above, the last two players would end up failing the assist check.

To me, this seems like a reasonable way of dealing with this, since the more people you have trying to do something, the more likely it is to get confused, or to have misinformation included, or to loose track of who is doing what, or whatever.

5 chronosome July 7, 2010 at 11:53 am


(Found your post via @4eblogs.)

The most recent errata from Wizards helps curb the dogpile the assist. Here’s how AID ANOTHER looks now:

Action: Standard action. When a creature takes this action, it chooses a target adjacent to it.
DC: The creature makes a skill check or an ability check with a DC equal to 10 + one-half the creature’s level.
Success: The target gains a +2 bonus to the next check using the same skill or ability before the end of the assisting creature’s next turn.
Failure: The target takes a -1 penalty to the next check using the same skill or ability before the end of the assisting creature’s next turn. This penalty represents the distraction or interference caused by the failed assistance.

A creature can affect a particular check only once using the aid another action. However, up to four creatures can use aid another to affect a single check, for a maximum bonus of +8 or a maximum penalty of -4.
In certain circumstances, the DM might decide that only one, two, or three creatures can try to aid a check. For example, it is unlikely that four creatures can assist in picking a lock.”

No one in my group has failed an assist yet, so that -1 penalty hasn’t come into play, but the fact that aiding another costs a standard action has. Another suggestion: If skill challenges are written and expected to have a limitation on the number of times a skill can be used, why not assists? I like your “trained only” house rule to help accomplish to help justify that. I’ve done it myself.

6 Neuroglyph July 7, 2010 at 12:17 pm

@Chronosome – I hadn’t seen that errata, but I’m glad it’s there now. I had actually created a house rule that was far more draconian to keep the mad rush of “helpers” from rolling away. I decided quite a while ago that if a successful check at a lower DC grants a +2 if successful, then a failure should impose a -2 DC. I like that WotC errata’d the assist rule and might just fall back on using it rather than my own house rule. But I can assure you that the threat of a skill check penalty kept most would-be assistors away unless they had training and felt they had a very good chance of making the assist check.

7 Ameron July 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Thanks for posting the new assisting rules.

Although Wimwick wrote this article, I added my 2 cents before it was published. He was unaware that the assisting rules were recently errataed so I had to tweak the numbers in the example at the beginning (the party is level 14 which is why a DC 17 is required to assist).

Regarding the recent changes to assisting I must say that I was glad Wizards FINALLY addressed the problem. We proposed scaling the DC to assist way back in February 2009 (see Skill Focus: Assisting part 1).

Generally I limit assists to a maximum of two PCs unless the circumstances demand everyone help out. Our party is so skills-focused that they rarely fail checks anyway so nobody even offers to assist in most cases. The exception is when failing the check means taking damage (like an exploding trap, for example). Then I have to crack down. “Sorry, guys, with the Rogue in front of the door there’s only enough room for helpers on his right and left. Everyone else, stand back.”

8 Wimwick July 7, 2010 at 3:30 pm

@ Lahrs
Using multi skill assists as well as this keeps things fresh and encourages players to be creative in how they use certain skills. It also allows players who aren’t trained in the primary skills of the challenge to still be useful.

@ WolfSamurai
Another solid tactic. The motivation for this post was a conversation Ameron and I had about DMs at LFR games who don’t do what you suggested and just allow PCs to assist at their leisure.

@ Adam Dray
Great suggestion. Not only does it get players from just assisting, it adds tension to the challenge by adding a time sensitive element.

@ Stephen
Another way to combat this is make the original check more difficult because the other PCs are getting in the way. This negates their check or actually imposes a penalty to the roll.

@ chronosome
Thanks for providing the errata. The problem with erratta is not everyone reads it. As I mentioned in a comment above the inspiration for the post were DMs at LFR games who didn’t use the errata.

@ Ameron
Thanks for jumping in.

9 Kenneth McNay July 7, 2010 at 3:46 pm

I’ve taken to simply asking a specific PC(s) and only a specific PC(s) to make a skill check for a given reason, or requiring the player to declare the action and I’ll rule if it requires a skill check or not. If another player hear’s what the ally is doing and decides to help, I’ll rule if the assist is warranted and roll required, ro whether the assist is simply a narrative assist and roll is not required.

this can drop the superfluous aiding and gives focused reasons as to why a given PC(s) are being invovled in actively using a skill. However, I alos make extensive use of passive skills; because, I keep aware of what those numbers are for the PC(s) at my table. Sometimes, forcing a roll over something I’m going to be giving them is silly.

I will still require a roll for skills which might have an impact if failed despite how easily it could be accomplished. For example, a level 1 wizard might have low STR and untrained athletics, but if they entire team is climbing he’ll have to roll athletics. That might be very hard to succeed. Later, that wizard might be level 10, is still untrained in athletics, but has a few tools to aid his athletics. The DC might be the same and be easier. His goliath barbarian ally might be a high STR and athletically trained character that will meet and exceed the DC by simply rolling, but rolling a natural 1 remains a failure in my rulings. Therefore, even if the DC is low enough that the character need only roll 2 or greater, if I’ve required the roll, then the player needs to just not roll a natural 1.

10 Kenneth McNay July 7, 2010 at 3:56 pm

had a sudden other thgouht related to the rogue at the door with room for only two allies aside….

rogue rolls the DC -4–failure right? well, not if you tell the rogue, that he’s nearly got the trap mechanism worked out and simply needs a few extra hands to help out with a few side items. He should call over an ally to help him by holding a gear or wire. That calls for an assist from one ally and that ally only needs to meet the assist DC.

okay, progress, the rogue now has the trap mechanism and an extra pair of hands close at work, but sees another reason that he needs an ally to help. this calls for another assist with the same DC.

great, now, maybe both have helped him to get the trap worked out, or maybe they didn’t and it is failure after all. but, by bringing it all together by story elements rather than announcing the skill and DC ahead of time, the party succeeds or fails together and gets to roleplay the scene.

in a way, it all begins to look like a skill challenge.

11 Ryven Cedrylle July 7, 2010 at 10:54 pm

I’ve all but eliminated skill assists in my game for this reason and much of it comes down the word of D. Vincent Baker – “Say Yes Or Roll Dice.” Most skill checks go through this process:

1) Is this information I want the PCs to have? Are they making a decision I want to see happen? Then no roll – you just get it. If I don’t want it then I set a DC in my mind and tell the player there’s a roll involved but still no DC stated out loud.

2) If more PCs chime in to assist, I reevaluate my initial decision because clearly there’s player buy-in for the idea and I don’t want to squelch that. Usually this is a good spot to do what I call a Dr. Seuss (“while that goes on there, look at this go on here”) which is also a “yes, but..” While the PCs are all focused on whatever they’re doing, a twist appears elsewhere and ups the stakes of the situation.

3) Finally once all the auto-checks and twists come out, they’re usually left with one or two really dramatic rolls with crazy high DCs that need those assists and then it all makes sense.

I’m also a big fan of group checks (if half succeed, the party succeeds). Train your players to do this and it will prevent a lot of assist-stacking without houserules.

12 Mbeacom July 7, 2010 at 11:53 pm

I like the idea of only being able to assist with skills you’re trained in. It only makes sense.

Also, depending on the circumstance I think it often doesn’t make sense for more than 1 or 2 assists.

I was actually about the mention a way to limit assists would be to penalize failed assists as being distracting to the person with the main check whose concentration would be needlessly interupted. The errata has done exactly what I would do.

But lastly, in my case, any time a player wants to assist, I make them tell me HOW they plan to assist, what skill they want to use and WHY it would be helpful. If they can give me a reasonable justification, then forget it. I’m not going to just ask, “anyone want to assist” when of course they will say yes. I ask, “Does anyone have anything to offer that might help this guy pull this off?” If anyone answers, they know they need to bring a good example of why their skills would be helpful. It inspires creativity at the table and creates a good opportunity for roleplay character development.

13 Sandman July 27, 2010 at 4:08 pm

I use the same kind of house rule as Neuroglyph does.

Success in aiding another grants a +2 bonus to the ally, but failure means you give him/her a -2 penalty.

If you think about it, not only it makes sense to be able to complicate things more when you were just trying to help your ally (sh*t happens after all), but it also takes into account the fact of being trained or not in a skill. A trained character won’t fail as much as an untrained one, meaning that an unfamiliar field of knowledge (an untrained skill) will probably be harder to understand/master, and helping with that skill will be more difficult.

It also has the advantage of being a balanced house rule (+2 vs -2) and an easy one to remember too.

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