So this came up recently, and maybe it's because this is my job, but I cannot shake my knee-jerk frustration stemming from arguing briefly with a player over the Help Action in combat. So instead of ranting about it, let's take a look at it. :)
The Help Action is a drastically under-utilized Action choice in and out of combat as its benefit is pretty amazing. Simple, but amazing.
It's free Advantage for an ally's next skill check or attack roll. That's it. Super helpful, but that's it.
From the Player's Handbook and SRD:
"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. 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."
Because timing is important, and the issue arose during combat...
From the Combat section: "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 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." Remember that a Grapple or Escaping a Grapple is considered a melee attack.
If you were, to say, attempt to break the grapple of an ally currently being grappled, you are indeed "helping" them, from a narrative sense, but you are not taking the Help Action - you are spending your Action to break a grapple, aka a type of attack. HOWEVER, in combat, I might rule that IF you taking the HELP ACTION, that ally can spend their Reaction to make the Escaping a Grapple check with Advantage. That way, the current player burns their Action, to take the Help Action, and the ally burns their Reaction to "work together."
There were really three options that could play out three different ways mechanically:
1) Take the Help Action = the ally has advantage on breaking their own grapple, on their upcoming turn, due to help. Yay. (PHB/SRD pure rules)
2) Take the Help Action (with "working together" interpretation, PHB/SRD + DM) = the ally spends their Reaction now to attempt to break their own grapple with advantage.
3) Take the Attack Action (not actually PHB rule, but nothing bars it from being ruled by the DM) = Attempt to break the ally's grapple yourself. -- Especially helpful for a physically stronger character to use that brute force to free a physically weaker character from bonds.
I'm not "ruling it differently," friends; that's what it says, that's what it means.
The difficulty in real time was a clarity of Action. It was not clear to the player or myself which would be more appropriate: Help Action or Action to break grapple, but the player insisted at the time that they were the same - they are not. In the future, I will endeavor to be more clear in communicating that difference, and offering up that "work together" ruling involving the other player in need of the "help," which is perhaps where the initial confusion was.
It was a small thing, a small moment, NOTHING that ruined anything. The evening freaking ROCKED.
It just bugged me. ;)
So I'm writing about it.
See you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.