Your character is dead and lying on the ground. You don’t know how this happened. The job was meant to be easy. Come and go.
“They’re just goblins,” you thought when your party left town.
How did this happen?
Let’s face it: a lot of people die in Dungeons and Dragons. Early-level battles are often brutal and kill a lot of people.
But the good news is that player characters (and no one else, because screw them) have a way to keep from going to the afterlife: Death Saves Throw!
You might be new to 5e and not know how death saves work. Or, maybe you’ve reached a “corner case” in your game and need help understanding it.
In this post, I’ll explain what a death-saving throw is and how it works in 5e D&D. I’ll add a few more tips at the end, just for good measure.
Let’s get to it, starting with defining 5e’s death saves.
- What is a Death Saving Throw?
- How Do You Make a Death Saving Throw in 5e?
- How Many Death-Saving Throws Do You Get?
- Death Saving Throws with Advantages & Disadvantages
- Is a Death Saving Throw an Action?
- Do Death Saves Reset? (& When?)
- 5e Death Saves: Spells & Class Features
- Does Spare the Dying Reset Death Saves?
- Does Jack of All Trades Apply to Death Saves?
- Can You Use Bardic Inspiration on Death Saves?
- Does Bane Affect Death Saving Throws?
- Does Lucky Work on Death Saves?
What is a Death Saving Throw?
I’m going to say something silly. When your character is about to die, you make a saving throw called a “death save.”
Now that’s out of the way, let’s move on. Here’s the whole answer.
A death-saving throw is a special kind of roll that shows whether or not your character will die. When your character has no more hit points, they pass out and can’t do anything. They start making death saves at this point.
Let’s look at the definition on page 197 of the Player’s Handbook (or here on D&D Beyond):
“Whenever you start your turn with 0 hit points, you must make a special saving throw, call a death saving throw, to determine whether you creep closer to death or hand onto life.”
Remember the part about the “saving throw.” That will be useful in the future.
How Do You Make a Death Saving Throw in 5e?
When your character gets to 0 hit points and doesn’t die right away, they start making death-saving throws. They fall asleep until they get at least one hit point back. And every time your character starts a turn with no hit points, you roll a 20-sided die (d20) against a Difficulty Class (DC) of 10 to see if you can stay alive.
If you roll a 10 or higher, you pass one death save, except if you roll a 20, which I’ll talk about in a moment. Now, of course, you fail one if you roll less than 10 but not a one (2–9).
You’re more likely to succeed than to fail, which is good news. There is a 55% chance that your death save will work.
If your character succeeds three times, it becomes more stable. They are still out and have no health points. But they don’t have to roll death saves anymore.
…Then they die.
But what do you know?
If you roll a natural 20, which is a 20, on the d20, your character gets back to normal, gets one hit point, and wakes up!
The catch is that if you roll a 1, you fail two death saves automatically.
If you roll a 1 on a d20, you fail two death saves.
So, for your reference, here is a list of what each number means for a death-saving throw in 5e:
- 1: Fail 2
- 2-9: Fail 1
- 10-19: Succeed 1
- 20: Gain 1 hit point & regain consciousness
Now, you don’t have a string of successes and failures. That is, you only need to get to three in any way, in no more than five rolls.
At this point, whether or not your character lives or dies depends on fate (read: the Cleric).
How Many Death-Saving Throws Do You Get?
In D&D 5e, you can have up to five death saves. According to math, this is the most death-saving throws a character can make before failing or succeeding.
It’s actually pretty easy to figure out with math.
A creature dies if it fails three death saves. Now, this could mean rolling 2–9 three times, rolling a 1 at least once, taking damage from regular hits (which forces one fail), taking damage from a critical hit (which forces two fails), or any combination of these.
Also, a creature stabilizes if it passes three death saves by rolling 10–19 on a d20 three times.
So, if we assume that only real rolls for death saves are used, here’s an example:
- Turn 1: Rolls 3 – Fails 1 (1 Fail / 0 Success)
- Turn 2: Rolls 7 – Fails 1 (2 Fail / 0 Success)
- Turn 3: Rolls 13 – Succeeds 1 (2 Fail / 1 Success)
- Turn 4: Rolls 19 – Succeeds 1 (2 Fail / 2 Success)
- Turn 5: Rolls 6 – Fails 1 (3 Fail / 2 Success: Character dies)
Obviously, you fail two death saves if you roll a 1 on the d20. On the other end of the scale, if you roll a 20, you get one hit point back and wake up.
So, the lowest number of death saves a creature can make is one (if it rolls a natural 20, it can’t make any more death saves), and the most it can make is five (3 + 2 = 5).
In short, no. In 5e, death saves are not checks of skills.
Here’s the deal: you need an Ability to check against in order to have an Ability Check. That is, you have to use one of your Ability Scores somewhere in the equation.
For normal saving throws, you use one of your six Ability Scores and the modifier that goes with it.
Ability Score Modifiers are not used for Death Saving Throws. Some newer players seem to think that you add your Constitution modifier to them. It makes sense to think that way, I’ll give you that. But that’s not true.
When you make a Death save, your Constitution modifier is not used. They are simple d20 rolls against a DC 10.
So, death saves in 5e are not checks of skills. They are still a type of Saving Throw, though.
Death Saving Throws with Advantages & Disadvantages
Since death saves are a type of saving throw, any spell or other ability that gives you an advantage or disadvantage on saving throws also affects your death saves.
This makes sense since the name is “saving throw.” But Jeremy Crawford said back in 2016 that having an advantage on saving throws also works for death saves.
And having an advantage on your saves from death is a big deal. With an advantage, your chances of succeeding go from 55% to 75%.
But remember that death saves don’t have a matching Ability Score, so having an advantage on a certain type of saving throw or ability check won’t help.
As a general rule, you need to have the advantage (or disadvantage) of saving throws. Or, in a very specific situation, have it specifically for death saves.
Is a Death Saving Throw an Action?
No, death saves in 5e are not an action.
In a technical sense, they don’t do anything.
Listen up: When you reach 0 hit points and pass out from being hurt, your character is said to be incapacitated. On page 290 of the PHB, this 5e rule says:
“An incapacitated creature can’t take actions or reactions.”
Strangely, it doesn’t say right out that you can’t use bonus actions. But Jeremy Crawford set the record straight on Twitter by pointing to a tiny part of the PHB (p. 189):
“…anything that deprives you of your ability to take actions also prevents you from taking a bonus action.”
So, what does this mean for saving throws against death?
At this point, it’s pretty clear. Since you can’t take action when you’re incapacitated, death-saving throws are not an action.
If you have a feature that gives you an extra action, it won’t work for death saves.
Do Death Saves Reset? (& When?)
Yes. 5e death saves reset.
Your death saves count starts over when your character stabilizes or gets any amount of hit points back, except for temporary hit points.
You might be wondering, “Do temporary hit points bring someone back to life?”
And, no. Temporary hit points don’t keep a character stable when they have no hit points left.
They are good at taking damage, but they can’t bring your friends back to life. So, they don’t make you start over with your death saves.
5e Death Saves: Spells & Class Features
Now that you know all that, you might have some ideas about how to make it less likely that you will fail death-saving throws.
Certainly. There are ways to make your chances better. Here are some things you might have thought of.
Let’s get to it.
Does Spare the Dying Reset Death Saves?
Spare the Dying is a 5e Cleric cantrip that says on page 277 of the Player’s Handbook:
“You touch a living creature that has 0 hit points. The creature becomes stable. This spell has no effect on undead or constructs.”
I put “The creature becomes stable” in bold because it is the most important part of the cantrip’s description.
Remember that the death saves count resets once your character is stable.
So, yes. With Spare the Dying, death-saving throws are reset.
So, treat your healer well. They will be the ones to keep you alive.
Does Jack of All Trades Apply to Death Saves?
Jack of All Trades is a Bard feature for the second level. On page 54 of the PHB, it says:
“…you can add half your proficiency bonus, rounded down, to any ability check you make that doesn’t already include your proficiency bonus.”
Here’s the thing; since death-saving throws aren’t ability checks, you can’t use Jack of All Trades.
Can You Use Bardic Inspiration on Death Saves?
Once more, the Bards.
In a nutshell, Bardic Inspiration gives you or another creature an extra die, starting with a die with six sides (called a “d6”).
(PHB, p. 53) The important part is:
“Once within the next 10 minutes, the creature can roll the die and add the number rolled to one ability check, attack roll, or saving throw it makes.”
Yes, since death saves are a type of saving throw. Bardic Inspiration can be used on saves against death.
Does Bane Affect Death Saving Throws?
This is what the Bane spell says (PHB, p. 216):
“Whenever a target that fails [the save to resist this spell] makes an attack roll or a saving throw before the spell ends, the target must roll a d4 and subtract the number rolled from the attack roll or saving throw.”
Again, Bane does change death saving throws because they are, in fact, saving throws.
On the other hand, the Bless spell works the same way. But, on the other hand.
The creatures you choose get an extra d4 on their attack rolls and save rolls.
Both spells need you to focus. So, they only work as long as the person who casts the spell keeps concentrating.
Does Lucky Work on Death Saves?
In D&D 5e, you can take the powerful feat “Lucky.” And yes, it does help save you from death. From the PHB, page 167:
“Whenever you make an attack roll, an ability check, or a saving throw, you can spend one luck point to roll an additional d20.”
In short, if you have Lucky, it will be hard to fail a death save.
…Unless you’re as cool as Wil Wheaton.
I hope this answers any questions you had about death-saving throws in 5e.
- Death saves are a type of saving throw that is unique.
- They aren’t ability checks because they don’t use an Ability Score Modifier.
- They don’t do anything.
- They start over when your character gets back to normal or gets more hit points (but not temporary hit points)
- And there are many things you can do to improve your chances (or disfavor)
Here’s the thing: Dungeons and Dragons have death in them. Characters die. You’ll have a bad night rolling and won’t be able to use death saves to, well, save your life.
Just keep in mind that it’s a part of the game. And it’s not something to worry about. In fact, when a character dies, the story often gets better.
What are some stories about your characters being saved from death? Have you ever shown courage when it mattered most in battle? Or, have you felt the crushing weight of seeing that last failure roll across the table?