Six months since I last wrestled with the death & dying rules in D&D 5e, having played some 5e and some LotFP in the meantime, the time has come to start yet another 5e campaign. Which means I am once again wrestling in my mind with the death & dying rules, probably my least favourite part of 5e.
My previous attempts to solve the problem are unsatisfactory, and that is even more clear looking back at them through the separation of time. To be totally honest, none of the rule variants have been playtested. Part of the reason for founding this blog was to have a place to write down these ideas for potential solutions to problems, in a cleanly edited format. This allows getting them off my mind, taking a step back to judge them and possibly getting some external feedback, and only then iterate, playtest, and iterate.
The problems with the variants that I can see are complexity, and difficulty of balancing. A good rule shouldn’t take a dozen or more bullet points to lay out. And the knockout table, while tense and fun, is impossible to balance. A random table with not only many different kinds of consequences with variable probabilities, but also with a dynamic probability that scales with the amount of damage taken? That is an equation with far too many variables.
So while I think those ideas did solve the problems I set out to solve, they didn’t satisfy the criteria of simplicity and balance. And thus, I’m attempting to solve the same problem once again. I was inspired by this post by Eric Diaz at Methods & Madness. He suggests a system where you have three boxes to tick representing three different status effects, ticking one at a time, and a character being dead when all three boxes are ticked. However, the rules presented are undeveloped. I present my own adaptation of the idea for 5e below.
Variant death rules for 5e: Three Strikes
When you are reduced to 0 hit points, you fall prone, lose concentration, and you must make a death saving throw (10+ is a success, 1 and 20 are not special). On a failure, you suffer one of the following conditions of your choice that you are not already suffering from: bleeding out, weakened, or knocked out. If you take any damage while at 0 hit points, you automatically suffer the effects of a failed death saving throw.
Bleeding out. You must make a death saving throw at the start of each of your turns.
Weakened. You have disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks. If you cast a spell, you must make a death saving throw after casting it.
Knocked out. You are unconscious (see PHB p. 292). This condition ends after 1 hour.
Death. If you have all three conditions at the same time, you die. You also die instantly if excess damage at 0 hit points equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.
Healing at 0 hit points. If an effect would heal you or otherwise stabilize you, remove one of these conditions at a time with the following priority: first bleeding out, then weakened, then knocked out. You cannot gain hit points until all of these conditions have been removed.
RationaleYou will notice the rules are relatively lenient. You get a save at 0 HP before suffering any conditions, and you only suffer one failure from taking a hit, even critical hits. This is intended, in order to solve one of the original problems in 5e: you’re unconscious a lot (not fun), but you almost never die (not tense). Here, those probabilities are pushed in the opposite directions.
Although you're less likely to become unconscious or start dying, it is far more difficult to stop the process in the middle of battle: instead of a single heal getting you up and running as usual, each heal now just removes one failure-tick. Emergency room-style situations where you're racing with death to resuscitate someone should happen more often now. Even after removing all ticks and bringing you to consciousness, you are at 0 hit points, so taking damage means an automatic death save failure. After all, one of the goals with these houserules was to make retreats more of a consideration, instead of every battle being one to the bitter end. Thus, these rules are more fitting for a sandboxy campaign where getting out of there and going somewhere else instead is an option. If you are playing a plot-based railroad where every encounter is mandatory, these may not work for you.
The element of player choice introduces some strategy. Do you take a hit to your combat capability and attempt to flee? Do you grit your teeth and keep fighting at full strength through the pain, but risk dying - going down in a blaze of glory to save your comrades? Or do you fall unconscious on the ground? Well, the last one of these is clearly the worst option. However, consider that different enemies behave differently. Some intelligent foes may always prioritize the greatest threat, thus leaving you alone when you’re lying motionless. Some, like zombies, may keep clawing at the closest fleshy thing. And some animals looking for a meal may just try to drag you back to their lair and avoid the other threats. A good DM should always roleplay the enemy’s tactics, and you should take that into consideration when choosing how you go down.
These houserules have not been playtested, but will be in the coming weeks. If it is found that they are too lenient and no one ever (almost) dies, the difficulty will be tuned upwards by making automatic failures more common, or by increasing the target number of death saves, or adding critical death save failures. Or maybe it would be fun if dashing while weakened would cause you to fall prone at the end of your move - a bit of risk-and-reward for chase situations? We shall see.