Rules FAQ How Do Death and Resurrection Work in D&D 5E?

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In D&D 5E, character death is a persistent threat, but it’s not nearly as punishing as it may initially seem. When your character’s current hit points are reduced to 0, your character becomes unconscious, meaning they immediately drop anything they’re holding and fall prone. This is a dangerous position to be in because of…

This is the part of a weekly series of articles by a team of designers answering D&D questions for beginners. Feel free to discuss the article and add your insights or comments!

Death Saving Throws​

When you start your turn at 0 hit points, you must roll a death saving throw, a d20 roll—the reaper doesn’t care how smart, buff, or charming you are, so no attribute applies, but any modifier to saving throws you may be able to apply, such as Bardic Inspiration or Aura of Protection, will apply if it’s still affecting you while you’re unconscious. Roll the die, and if the result is 10 or higher, mark a success on your Death Save tracker. If the result is 9 or lower, mark a failure. There are also two special results. On a natural 20 (that is, a 20 on the die before any modifiers), you immediately regain 1 hit point, become conscious, and can take your turn as normal. On a natural 1, you mark two failures instead of one
Why are we tracking all these successes and failures, though? Well, note that there’s three spaces for failures, and three spaces for successes.
  • If you mark three successes, you become stable (see below).
  • If you mark three failures, you are dead.
Death Saves.PNG


Additionally, if you take damage while at 0, you immediately suffer one death saving throw failure, or two death saving throw failures if the damage came from a critical hit. Bear in mind that, while unconscious, any attack that hits you from within 5 feet is a critical hit by default, so if an enemy decides to execute you, it’s gonna be a short trip to the other side!

Regardless of how they were gained, death save successes and failures are all removed when you stabilize, gain hit points, or die.

Stabilizing​

While at 0 hit points, there are three main ways you can become stable:
  • You mark three successful death saves.
  • Someone uses their action to attempt to stabilize you with a DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check, which they succeed on automatically if they use a healer’s kit.
  • Someone (probably a Cleric) casts spare the dying on you.
You become conscious again if you receive healing from any source. If no one heals you within 1d4 hours, you regain 1 hit point and awaken. If you take any damage, you start dying again, and must roll death saves normally.

Instant Death​

5e did away with many of the “instant death” in D&D, and for good reason. However, there are still ways you can end up dying without making death saving throws. First of all, if you take damage that reduces you to 0, and the residual damage from the hit after doing so is equal to or higher than your hit point maximum, you die instantly. This happens most often at low levels. For example, if Llewelyn the Sorcerer has a hit point maximum of 8 at 1st level, and an orc deals her a critical hit for 16 damage, then she takes the 8, reducing her to 0. There’s still 8 damage left over, which is equal to her hit point maximum, enough to kill her instantly. This is called “Massive Damage”, and represents physical trauma so severe that even heroes can’t survive it.

Other effects, most often spells, can cause instant death. For example, the disintegrate spell specifies that, if it reduces its target to 0 hit points, it kills them instantly. The spell power word kill doesn’t even deal damage, but kills the target if its current hit points are lower than 100. A creature also dies instantly if they suffer six levels of exhaustion. Fortunately, even these deaths are not the end, thanks to…

Resurrection Spells​

There are a number of ways that creatures can be brought back from the dead, all with varying costs, benefits, and downsides. The primary ones are listed below, but more powerful magics do exist, which greatly expand the potential scope of bringing back the dead.

Revivify (3rd-level)​

Listed first as it’s the first ability of its kind you’re likely to pick up, the revivify spell costs 300gp worth of diamonds. It’s very limited, in that you must cast it within 1 minute of their death while touching the creature, but as a quick “don’t die on me”, it’s unbeatable, taking only a single action and getting the creature up with 1 hit point and no other penalties. Just be careful you’re not in range of anyone who can counterspell when you cast it; nothing hurts more than losing the material component and losing your comrade-in-arms just because of some cruel wizard.

Raise Dead (5th-level)​

The bread-and-butter resurrection spell, this one clocks in at 500gp and takes a full hour to cast, meaning it’s out of the question in combat. However, as long as the body’s no more than 10 days dead, all the vital parts are there, and the soul is willing to return, you can bring them back. The toll is heavy on the body, though; the resurrected creature suffers -4 to attack rolls, saving throws, and ability checks, with the penalty being reduced by 1 each time they finish a long rest, to represent the stress of crossing over.

Reincarnate (5th-level)​

One of the only resurrection spells available to druids, reincarnate is costly at 1,000gp and like raise dead, takes a full hour to cast, but it has the perk of forming a new body for the creature, meaning you can reincarnate a creature from just a finger, or a lock of hair, so long as they’re no more than 10 days dead. The downside, however, is that what form they’re reincarnated into is decided by rolling on a d100 form, and racial traits are retroactively adjusted appropriately.
 
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Cassandra Macdonald

Cassandra Macdonald

Blue Orange

Gone to Texas
Thanks for explaining this! I had been a 1e person and annoyed my group by being very surprised when I didn't actually die after being reduced to 0.
 

MarkB

Legend

Raise Dead (5th-level)​

The bread-and-butter resurrection spell, this one clocks in at 500gp and takes a full hour to cast, meaning it’s out of the question in combat. However, as long as the body’s no more than 10 days dead, all the vital parts are there, and the soul is willing to return, you can bring them back.
Just as an additional note, the full text is "willing and at liberty to return". Certain effects, such as the magic jar spell or a night hag's Nightmare Haunting ability, can cause a soul to become trapped. On a more narrative level, this can be a good excuse for the DM to rule that an NPC (or, under special circumstances, even a PC) cannot be resurrected, as their soul has been bound in the afterlife in some fashion, perhaps by a devil seeking to use it as currency.
 

Shiroiken

Legend
I have to admit I hate Revivify. The limitation of 1 minute is practically useless, since very few combats ever come close to this timeframe. The closest I ever saw it come was 7 rounds, since it happened before combat began (the party had to open the secret door, initiate combat, and cross the area before time was up. Theoretically a trap or monsters could separate a character like this and kill it, but it's a rare event. Raise Dead has pretty much only been used on NPCs that have been dead for a while, or by an NPC on the person who normally casts it for the party (my group normally tries to have 2 casters with it, if possible). Because of all this, I've houseruled the Raise Dead penalty be applied to this as well. Dying should suck, even with Revivify.
 

I have to admit I hate Revivify. The limitation of 1 minute is practically useless, since very few combats ever come close to this timeframe.
We have the opposite. Most combats are long drawn out multi round affairs. Multiple times the cleric has had to spend actions moving to a dead PC to prevent a true death or raise an NPC. I am all for Revivify, but once they got Raise Dead it took some of the thrill out of combat.

For my next campaign I am going to house rule it out.
 


TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Resurrection (level 7), True Resurrection (level 9), and Wish (level 9) are probably the main "powerful magics" to restore life. And there is the strange case of Clone (level 8).
 

Rabulias

the Incomparably Shrewd and Clever
Will there be a sequel article to this covering the higher level options? It seems strange to have a section called "Resurrection Spells" that does not include the spell resurrection (or true resurrection, or the rod of resurrection).
 

Dragonsbane

Proud Grognard
One thing is for sure. D&D5 is a lot more forgiving than the days when I was trying to survive with my Level 1 Magic-User with just 1HP!
Absolutely. We have a few house rules to make things more deadly, and to prevent the wack-a-mole of a player dropping, gets back up with a few hp, drops, gets back up with a few hp... so silly.

We should be thankful the rules are not even less deadly, with some games now where "you cannot die, you are just out of the combat".... whew not my idea of fun, to each his own!
 

Oofta

Legend
I have to admit I hate Revivify. The limitation of 1 minute is practically useless, since very few combats ever come close to this timeframe. The closest I ever saw it come was 7 rounds, since it happened before combat began (the party had to open the secret door, initiate combat, and cross the area before time was up. Theoretically a trap or monsters could separate a character like this and kill it, but it's a rare event. Raise Dead has pretty much only been used on NPCs that have been dead for a while, or by an NPC on the person who normally casts it for the party (my group normally tries to have 2 casters with it, if possible). Because of all this, I've houseruled the Raise Dead penalty be applied to this as well. Dying should suck, even with Revivify.

That's why the body gets dragged off into the darkness. Makes predators scarier - they don't really care if they defeat the party, they're just after a quick meal of whichever PC looks the weakest. Grab a snack, disengage and run off! :devil:
 

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