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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

Delazar

Adventurer
By a strict reading, there's no way to refuse revivify - it just works. Only the higher-level spells have the clause about requiring a willing soul.

Revivify doesn't mention it, but on DMG page 24, under "Bringing Back the Dead", it states that you cannot bring back the soul of an unwilling creature:

"A soul can’t be returned to life if it doesn’t wish to be. A soul knows the name, alignment, and patron deity (if any) of the character attempting to revive it and might refuse to return on that basis. For example, if the honorable knight Sturm Brightblade is slain and a high priestess of Takhisis (god of evil dragons) grabs his body, Sturm might not wish to be raised from the dead by her. Any attempts she makes to revive him automatically fail. If the evil cleric wants to revive Sturm to interrogate him, she needs to find some way to trick his soul, such as duping a good cleric into raising him and then capturing him once he is alive again."
 

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MarkB

Legend
Revivify doesn't mention it, but on DMG page 24, under "Bringing Back the Dead", it states that you cannot bring back the soul of an unwilling creature:

"A soul can’t be returned to life if it doesn’t wish to be. A soul knows the name, alignment, and patron deity (if any) of the character attempting to revive it and might refuse to return on that basis. For example, if the honorable knight Sturm Brightblade is slain and a high priestess of Takhisis (god of evil dragons) grabs his body, Sturm might not wish to be raised from the dead by her. Any attempts she makes to revive him automatically fail. If the evil cleric wants to revive Sturm to interrogate him, she needs to find some way to trick his soul, such as duping a good cleric into raising him and then capturing him once he is alive again."
Thanks, good clarification. I hadn't come across that before in this edition.
 

TheIceQueer

Explorer
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).

By the time they come into play, you've probably been playing long enough that you're not reading articles on how death works.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
PS: I just remembered this crazy thing that used to happen 30 years ago, when we were playing BECMI DnD. I remember our cleric literally killing heavily wounded fellow PCs, because “it’s easier if I just ress you”, since healing required the use of multiple low level slots, and high level ressing brought you back at full health. Good times 😁
Did BECMI not have it that revival from death cost the target a point of Constitution, permanently? Normal healing doesn't.

Also, does BECMI not have a significant wealth cost for raise or resurrection? Again, normal healing doesn't.

Either one of these make healing a more attractive option than a death-revival cycle; both together make death-revival a non-starter where possible.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Revivify doesn't mention it, but on DMG page 24, under "Bringing Back the Dead", it states that you cannot bring back the soul of an unwilling creature:

"A soul can’t be returned to life if it doesn’t wish to be. A soul knows the name, alignment, and patron deity (if any) of the character attempting to revive it and might refuse to return on that basis. For example, if the honorable knight Sturm Brightblade is slain and a high priestess of Takhisis (god of evil dragons) grabs his body, Sturm might not wish to be raised from the dead by her. Any attempts she makes to revive him automatically fail. If the evil cleric wants to revive Sturm to interrogate him, she needs to find some way to trick his soul, such as duping a good cleric into raising him and then capturing him once he is alive again."
My own preference is that (to follow on with the example presented) sometimes Sturm might not get his way; and that instead of an absolute "this can't be done" I'd rather see Sturm get some sort of save, failure meaning he comes back to life against his wishes.

Also, I just read up on 5e's Speak With Dead and see it's specifically ruled in the spell write-up that a corpse can't learn new information after death. The bolded bit above seems to either contradict this outright or - if soul and corpse are to be treated differently - open up a very messy can o' worms around what else a soul can learn while dead, and how.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Technically, no longer being a diamond "worth at least 500 gp", it won't work for the purpose of Raise Dead. The Cleric spell will fail and Mammon, archdevil of Greed, laughs and marks one point in the great cosmic game.
Which is why you get the diamond for 500 GP and then fill in the rebate form. :)
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Did BECMI not have it that revival from death cost the target a point of Constitution, permanently? Normal healing doesn't.

Also, does BECMI not have a significant wealth cost for raise or resurrection? Again, normal healing doesn't.

Either one of these make healing a more attractive option than a death-revival cycle; both together make death-revival a non-starter where possible.
Unless you were raised multiple times though, it usually didn't matter much because of the way con worked IIRC. Or maybe we just ignored it. It's been ... a while.
 


MarkB

Legend
Also, I just read up on 5e's Speak With Dead and see it's specifically ruled in the spell write-up that a corpse can't learn new information after death. The bolded bit above seems to either contradict this outright or - if soul and corpse are to be treated differently - open up a very messy can o' worms around what else a soul can learn while dead, and how.
Speak with dead specifically says that it doesn't return the soul to the body, only its animating spirit (whatever that is), and that's the reason why it can't learn new information - so yes, it does treat soul and corpse differently.

The soul presumably goes to whatever afterlife it's destined for. Why would it not be able to learn new things once it was there?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Speak with dead specifically says that it doesn't return the soul to the body, only its animating spirit (whatever that is), and that's the reason why it can't learn new information - so yes, it does treat soul and corpse differently.

The soul presumably goes to whatever afterlife it's destined for. Why would it not be able to learn new things once it was there?
The question is not why could it not learn new things, it's why can it not remember those things if-when returned to life?

This is the messy can o' worms I was referring to earlier. Normally, when a character is revived from the dead it comes back with its usual memories of when it was alive but none from when it was dead - the death period is treated much as if the character had been asleep. This keeps it nice and simple, but has to assume that if the soul can learn new things that learning can in no way influence anything in the mortal realm including the character's memory - and thus by extension also including revival attempts.

But if the soul can learn and retain new things while dead, and bring that knowledge back with it on revival...now you're into messy. At a minimum, this means that if a character's dead for any longer than a day or two then on its revival the player and DM ought to sit down and figure out what new info - and there could be tons of it! - was learned while dead.

Allowing the soul to learn new things while dead is fine. Allowing that knowledge to conveniently affect some things in the mortal realm but not others seems a bit too much like trying to have and eat cake at the same time.
 

Delazar

Adventurer
Did BECMI not have it that revival from death cost the target a point of Constitution, permanently? Normal healing doesn't.

Also, does BECMI not have a significant wealth cost for raise or resurrection? Again, normal healing doesn't.

Either one of these make healing a more attractive option than a death-revival cycle; both together make death-revival a non-starter where possible.

You're probably thinking ADnD. BECMI had nothing of the sort, no expensive materials, no loss of Con.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
The Reincarnation spell is subpar, currently.

But if it became a level 1 spell instead, it becomes a fantastic and useful spell. If a level 1 character gets killed (which haæpens often enough), the level 1 Druid can bring them back as a different character, with memories intact.
 

TheIceQueer

Explorer
The Reincarnation spell is subpar, currently.

But if it became a level 1 spell instead, it becomes a fantastic and useful spell. If a level 1 character gets killed (which haæpens often enough), the level 1 Druid can bring them back as a different character, with memories intact.
Reincarnate can fully resurrect someone from a fingernail so I think it's doing ok at its current level.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Reincarnate can fully resurrect someone from a fingernail so I think it's doing ok at its current level.
I feel having Reincarnate at level 1 is balanced gamewise. Nothing breaks. It works fine at level 1.

Also, the spell "punishes" the player by forcing the player to come up with a new character concept. A new lineage. At a high level, after many gaming hours invested in a character, this change can be prohibitive. The player is more like to seek a different spell to truly resurrect. But at level 1, creating a new character after the death of a previous one, is somewhat expected. Then the Reincarnation spell at level 1 becomes a kind of consolation prize. There becomes a real connection between the new level 1 character and the previous level 1 character, even tho they are different characters.
 



ad_hoc

Hero
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.

Combats are designed to last 2-4 rounds with 3 on average so I think you're an extreme outlier here.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I feel having Reincarnate at level 1 is balanced gamewise. Nothing breaks. It works fine at level 1.

Also, the spell "punishes" the player by forcing the player to come up with a new character concept. A new lineage. At a high level, after many gaming hours invested in a character, this change can be prohibitive. The player is more like to seek a different spell to truly resurrect. But at level 1, creating a new character after the death of a previous one, is somewhat expected. Then the Reincarnation spell at level 1 becomes a kind of consolation prize. There becomes a real connection between the new level 1 character and the previous level 1 character, even tho they are different characters.
Your concept may... shift... if it's tightly tied to your previous physical form, but it isn't a complete change at all. But this underscores a difference in approaches to the game - the difference between someone heavily investing in a tightly controlled concept vs playing a bit more by the seat of their pants. Rolling a reincarnated body is seat of your pants play given the breadth of what you could come back as (even moreso in previous editions).
 

sevenbastard

Explorer
Combats are designed to last 2-4 rounds with 3 on average so I think you're an extreme outlier here.

Yeah I don't really build my encounters by the book. Lots of running battles, lair raids, reinforcements, and overwhelming odds. Less combats, but the combats that happen last longer.
 

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