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…
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Death Saving ThrowsWhen 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.
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.
StabilizingWhile 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.
Instant Death5e 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 SpellsThere 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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