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C Series • #14

In my last piece, I spoke of death and dying in earlier versions of D&D, from the original version of the game through the 2nd Edition of AD&D. The trend of forgiveness with death continued in 3rd and later editions, though the deadliness of adventuring life did return, somewhat, in the 5th edition of the game.

3rd Edition D&D

The 3rd edition of D&D officially ruled that death occurred at -10 hit points instead of that being an optional as 2nd Edition had it. If it wasn’t clear from my last article, death at zero hit points was the standard rule in AD&D 2nd edition. I used the Dungeon Master’s Guide option of “Death’s Door,” which opted for death at -10 instead. If a PC dropped to anywhere between 0 and -9, they would begin “dying” and lose one hit point per round until they reached -10, at which point the PC was dead. This gave the other party members a chance to save the dying PC. Anecdotally, many seemed to use this option, so it becoming the standard was not that big a transition for most with the arrival of 3rd Edition. The main difference here was that, in 3rd Edition, a PC was still allowed an action at 0 hit points. That action, however, would result in them losing a hit point and the death rules would start to apply.

3rd Edition also introduced the death saving throw, in a manner of speaking. This “proto-death saving throw” was the stabilization check. This was a 10% chance to automatically stabilize (stop losing hit points) every round, thus fending off death. The character’s hit point total would remain wherever it was they stabilized and they were relatively safe from death, unless the character suffered more damage. The check would then change to a once an hour stabilization roll with the same chance and result for failure but a success would result in the PC regaining consciousness. This rule gave plenty of time for party members to save a dying comrade, whether in the heat of battle or afterwards. I can’t remember how many times I heard players say, “Oh, he’s at -4 hit points, we’ve got plenty of time to finish this combat!”

Spells and effects which suddenly could end life were still around. The death from massive damage rule (50 or more points from a single source) was prevalent and could be a real threat at higher levels as the damage output of foes increased. Save or die spells were still sprinkled throughout the Player’s Handbook, too; spells such as slay living, disintegrate, and finger of death could kill on a failed save. Spells such as sleep and hold person remained popular as quasi-save or die spells; magic that, if the target failed their save, could leave them as good as dead. A few spells which could kill (or close enough to it) with no save still existed, such as power word stun and power word kill, but at least these were rarer and relegated to higher levels.

Poison effects were different in 3rd Edition, too. Few, if any, killed outright, unlike in previous editions. Where 2nd and earlier editions had a fatal potential, now most of them drained ability scores. Of course, if certain ability scores were dropped to zero (such as Constitution), death occurred.

4th Edition D&D

I was not a player of this edition, but I have some requisite knowledge of the version of the game and enough that I feel is sufficient for discussion here.

In 4th Edition, as I understand it, PCs reduced below zero hit points are considered dying. They are not dead, however, until their hit points reach a negative number determined by their “bloodied” value, which is half of their total hit points. If a fighter has 50 hit points, his bloodied value is 25 so when he reaches -25, he would be dead. The character can suffer damage which would reduce their total further, bringing them ever closer to that negative bloodied value.

4th does officially introduce the death saving throw. This is a DC 10 check which, if failed three times, will kill you. A roll of 20 will allow a character a chance to use a healing surge (more on that coming up) and bring the character back to consciousness. A PC who could not use this power will still be, technically, dying but this result would not count as one of the three aforementioned failures. A comrade can stabilize a dying PC, which ceases the necessity of the death saving throw but does not change the hit point total of the character. It is important to note that in 4th Edition any healing brings a dying PC’s hit point tally to 0, regardless of where it was when the PC receives the healing effect. And as soon as a PC has positive hit points, he or she is conscious and may act normally.

4th Edition has something called healing surges which allow a PC to recover a quarter of their hit points per use. Every class has a certain number of these to use and every character could use one, once per encounter, due to a “second wind” mechanic. This resets with a short rest and all the healing surges replenish on an extended, or long, rest. Also, on a short rest, a PC can use as many surges as they would like to recover hit points, similar to the hit die mechanic that would come in 5th Edition D&D.

This edition was very forgiving and lenient where death and dying was concerned, in my opinion. The negative bloodied value was low at early levels, but even this was mitigated by the inflated number of hit points a character started with (most fighters had more than 25 hit points at 1st level!). A dying PC did not have to worry about an ever-decreasing hit point drop leading to death, and the death saving throw was only concerning after two failures. Hit points could be recovered at 25% of one’s total maximum amount and even with the once-per-combat limitation of the second wind, special effects existed that allowed PCs to use more. The death from massive damage rule was gone, as were most save or die effects. Even spells like sleep were changed drastically to avoid the quasi-save or die; targets became slowed at first and only fell unconscious when a saving throw failed. Poisons no longer killed either, neither directly (like early versions) nor indirectly through the loss of ability score points (such as in 3rd edition). Most caused damage, however, and would continue to do so every round until a saving throw was made. So, death could result, but the consensus (again, an anecdotal one) was that poisons were more of an inconvenience and not much to be feared.

5th Edition D&D

5th edition tweaked some of the concepts introduced in 4th edition, namely the death saving throw and death at a negative number tied to a PC’s hit points. Before we examine these, there has to be an understanding about how one gets into the “dying” state. Any damage that would reduce a character to -1 or fewer hit points means the character is dying. Reducing a character to exactly zero, though rare, only renders the character unconscious and they are not dying (though additional damage will change the character to a dying, or dead, state). So, what happens when one is dying?

Contrary to my above statement about death at a negative number, 5th Edition removes the concept of negative hit points, and instead alters 4th Edition’s idea of death at the negative bloodied total. In 5th Edition, a character’s hit points never go below zero. However, there is an amount of damage past zero hit points that a character can take that will kill them instantly. If the amount of damage past 0 hit points is equal to or greater than a character’s total hit points, the PC is dead. For example, if a PC’s maximum hit point total is 26 and they are currently at 7, and then take 35 points of damage (leaving 28 over what would bring them to zero, which is also greater than the maximum of 26), then PC dies. This can be quite possible at lower levels.

Most of the time, a PC will not suffer that much damage. More often, a character will take enough damage to reduce them past zero but not all the way to an amount equal to their maximum total. In this case, the PC will have to make death saving throws. The standard of being stabilized by a comrade also still exists. Otherwise, the life and death of a dying PC will fall to the death saving throw. Like 4th Edition, a DC 10 check needs to be made while dying, with three failures resulting in death. Unlike 4th Edition, three successes result in auto-stabilization: you stay at zero hit points but are in no further danger of dying. To spice things up a bit, 5th Edition also utilizes the two extreme values of the check — a natural 1 counts as two failures, while a natural 20 results in the character regaining consciousness with 1 hit point! Also, any attack the dying character suffers equates to a failed death saving throw, and a critical hit is considered two failed death saving throws. This can be particularly nasty, if the DM plays monsters “smart” so they don’t just pack up and leave the PC once he or she falls.

Massive damage rules that left after 3rd Edition are still gone. Most fatal poisons are gone, too, and even the ongoing damage of poison introduced in 4th Edition D&D is no more. Instead, most poison effects in 5th Edition consist of an amount of damage (depending on the severity of the poison) and/or the application of the “poisoned” condition, which gives a PC disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks. Most save or die spells are gone with the main mechanic of these formerly formidable spells now being damage dealt to the target. Finger of death, for example, necessitates a constitution saving throw, or the target suffers 7d8 + 30 points of damage. Even power word kill only will kill a target if it has 100 of fewer hit points … but there is no save! Ability score damage, in almost every way, shape, and form is gone. Spells like ray of enfeeblement, which once drained Strength from a target, now only reduces weapon damage of the creature affected. Critical hits remain in the game but fumbles (which I believe were also absent in 4th Edition D&D) are gone in 5th.

Continuing the 4th Edition tradition, healing is quite prevalent. There are “healing surges” in the form of the hit die mechanic, which allow characters to expend or roll a number of dice equal to their level and based on their class (d10 for fighters, for example) to regain hit points during a short rest. Half of a character’s total hit dice are replenished on a long rest. Also, like 4th Edition, all hit point loss is recovered on a long rest.

This isn’t to say that 5th Edition is not deadly. It can be very deadly in the right circumstances and with the right DM. This is especially true at low levels of the game (levels 1 and 2) where foes are particularly nasty. A critical hit at these levels can easily send a PC to the ground, and possibly kill them outright. Low level foes are rife with special and/or tactical abilities that can be quite harsh; wolves or kobolds (with pack tactics), bears (multi-attack), spiders (poison), and zombies (undead fortitude) can wreck a low-level party. PCs start coming into their own beginning around level 3, and their survivability increases (once again, anecdotally). Crafty DMs can still make death and dying a credible threat … but that’s another discussion for another time!

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