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Rules FAQ How do Temporary Hit Points Work in D&D 5E?

On their face, temporary hit points are simple enough: they’re hit points that stack on top of your “normal” hit points, and go away first when you take damage, serving as a buffer against harm. However, they can create some confusion due to how they interact with a few other mechanics. Here’s a few of these specific interactions:

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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!

  • First of all, temporary hit points can exceed your hit point maximum. For example, let’s say you’re a 3rd-level sorcerer with a hit point maximum of 12, and 10 hit points currently. Your bard buddy casts heroism on you, which grants you 3 temporary hit points at the start of each of your turns. You would have 10 hit points, and 3 temporary hit points, giving you, effectively, 13 hit points.
  • Secondly, temporary hit points are lost after accounting for resistances and immunities. Taking our previous example, let’s say a fight breaks out, and you cast blade ward to protect you from a foe who’s levelled a crossbow against you. They take their shot, hit, and deal 5 piercing damage to you. First, that 5 damage is reduced by half, thanks to your resistance to piercing damage, turning it into 2 damage. It knocks off 2 of your temporary hit points, leaving you with 10 hit points, and 1 temporary hit point. As you haven’t lost any “real” hit points, you’re effectively unharmed by the attack!
  • Third, temporary hit points never stack with other temporary hit points; you decide which source to keep. So, at the start of your next turn, you have 1 temporary hit point, and gain 3 temporary hit points from heroism. You, obviously, choose to take the 3 temporary hit points, discarding the 1. The only time you wouldn’t choose to take the higher of the two is if the lower source of temporary hit points has a longer duration, such as the spell armor of Agathys, which lasts 1 hour.
  • Finally, temporary hit points will not stand you up from unconsciousness. The only benefit to temporary hit points while unconscious is that, if you take a hit while downed, and it doesn’t exceed your temporary hit points (i.e. you don’t take “real” damage), you don’t mark a death saving throw. Let’s say, after your next turn, a foe’s lucky crit hits you for 15 damage, dropping you to 0 hit points. At the start of your turn, heroism grants you another 3 temporary hit points. However, you don’t wake up from this—only real healing, not temporary hit points, will stabilize you. Roll that death save, spell-slinger!
A few more rules apply when using temporary hit points; one noteworthy element is that, if a source of temporary hit points doesn’t specify a duration, it lasts until the hit points are depleted or you finish a long rest. A notable example of this is the Inspiring Leader feature, which specifies no duration.

Additionally, temporary hit points, though they can be treated like hit points for the sake of easier math, are still tracked separately. This is most important in the case of power word kill, which instantly kills the target if it has fewer than 100 hit points. Even if the target creature has 99 hit points and 15 temporary hit points, they would be killed by power word kill, as temporary hit points are explicitly not hit points.
 
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Cassandra Macdonald

Cassandra Macdonald

Temp hp works very similarly in 3rd Edition, and you'd THINK that after almost four years of campaigning my players would've learned to track them separately (same goes for nonlethal damage).
 


Zero Cochrane

Explorer
One additional good piece of advice comes from Sage advice -- temporary hit points do not affect the DC of the concentration check you may have to make when you take damage while concentrating on a spell.
A direct quote follows:

Q. "If I have 10 temporary hit points and I take 30 damage
from an attack while concentrating on a spell, what is
the DC of the Constitution save to maintain my concentration? "

A. "The DC is 15 in that case. When temporary hit
points absorb damage for you, you’re still taking damage,
just not to your real hit points.
In contrast, a feature like the wizard’s Arcane Ward can
take damage for you, potentially eliminating the need to
make a Constitution saving throw or, at least, lowering the
DC of that save."
 

MarkB

Legend
One more interaction worth pointing out is healing and temporary hit points. As I understand it:

Just as temporary hit points can exceed your maximum when first administered, they can also do so if you are healed up. So, taking the example of the creature who has a maximum of 12 hit points, and currently has 10 hit points and 3 temporary hit points, if that creature were given a healing word granting it 2 or more points of healing, it would heal up to its maximum of 12 hit points, while still retaining the additional 3 temporary hit points on top of that.
 

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