Your character lies on the ground, dying. You don’t know how it got to this point. It was supposed to be an easy job. In and out.
"They’re just goblins," you thought when your party left town.
How did it come to this?
Let’s face it, death in Dungeons and Dragons is pretty common. Early level combat is brutal and often comes with a high body count.
But, the good news is Player Characters (and no one else because screw them) have a barrier to entry of the afterlife: death saving throws!
Maybe you’re new and don’t quite understand how 5e death saves work. Or, maybe you’ve come across an edge case in your game and need clarification.
In this post I’m going to break down what a death saving throw is for 5e D&D and how they work. I’ll also throw in a few other tips towards the end for good measure.
Let’s get to it, starting with defining 5e’s death saves.
What is a Death Saving Throw?
I’m going to be flippant for a second. A death save is a saving throw you make when your character is dying.
Alright, now that that’s out of the way. On to the full answer.
A death saving throw is a special kind of roll to see if your character dies. After your character reaches 0 hit points, they fall Unconscious, becoming Incapacitated. At this point, they start making death saves.
Let’s look at the definition on page 197 of the Player’s Handbook (or here on DnD 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 “saving throw” part. That’s important for later.
How Do You Make a Death Saving Throw in 5e?
Your character starts making death saving throws once they drop to zero hit points and doesn’t die outright. They become Unconscious until they gain at least one hit point. And, on each turn your character starts at zero hit points, you roll a 20-sided die (d20) for your death save against a Difficulty Class (DC) 10.
If you roll a 10 or higher, you succeed one death save (with the exception of a 20 which I’ll get to in a second). Now, of course if you roll less than 10 but not a one (2-9), you fail one.
The good news is you’re more likely to succeed than fail. You’re looking at a 55% chance to succeed on your death save.
Succeed three times, your character stabilizes. They’re still unconscious and at 0 hit points. But, they don’t need to roll any more death saves.
Fail three times…
…And they die.
But, guess what?
If you roll a natural 20, that is a 20 on the d20, your character stabilizes, gains 1 hit point, and regains consciousness!
The catch is, if you roll a natural 1, you automatically fail two death saves.
You fail two death saves on a natural 1 on the d20.
So, here’s a list of what each number means for a death saving throw in 5e for your reference:
- 1: Fail 2
- 2-9: Fail 1
- 10-19: Succeed 1
- 20: Gain 1 hit point & regain consciousness
Now, your successes and failures aren’t consecutive. Meaning, you just need to reach three in either way, over the course of at most five rolls.
At the end of the day, whether your character lives or dies is in the hands of fate (read; the Cleric) at this point.
How Many Death Saving Throws Do You Get?
You get at most five death saves in D&D 5e. Mathematically, this is the highest number a death saving throws a character can make before either failing or succeeding.
It’s actually relatively simple math to figure out.
If a creature fails three death saves, they die. Now, this could mean rolling 2-9 three times, rolling a 1 at least once, taking damage from regular hits (forces one fail), taking damage from a critical hit (forces two fails), or any combination of these.
Likewise, succeeding three death saves via rolling 10-19 on a d20 three times means that creature stabilizes.
So, assuming only actual rolling for death saves, 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)
Of course, if you roll a 1 on the d20, you fail two death saves. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you roll a 20, you gain one hit point and become conscious again.
So, the minimum number of death saves a creature can make is one (natural 20, no longer making death saves) and the maximum is five (3 / 2 split between successes and failures).
Short answer; no. 5e death saves are not ability checks.
Here’s the deal, in order to have an Ability Check, there needs to be an Ability to check against. In other words, you need to use one of your Ability Scores in the equation somewhere.
Regular saving throws use one of the six Ability Scores and their corresponding Modifiers.
Death saving throws do not use an Ability Score Modifier. Some newer players seem to think you add your Constitution modifier to them. I’ll admit, it makes sense to think that way. But, this isn’t the case.
Death saves do not use your Constitution modifier. They are flat d20 rolls against a DC 10.
So, 5e death saves are not ability checks. But, they are still considered a type of Saving Throw.
Death Saving Throws with Advantage & Disadvantage
Since they’re considered a type of saving throw, if some spell or other feature grants advantage or disadvantage on saving throws it also applies to your death saves.
Which makes sense since "saving throw" is right in the name. But, Jeremy Crawford confirmed that have advantage on saving throws applies to death saves back in 2016.
And, having advantage on your death saving throws is huge. While the chances of success start at 55%, with advantage, it jumps to 75%.
But remember, since death saves don’t have a corresponding Ability Score, having advantage on a certain type of saving throw or ability check won’t apply to them. You need to have advantage (or disadvantage) on saving throws as a blanket statement. Or, in some sort of very niche situation, have it for death saves specifically.
Is a Death Saving Throw an Action?
Again, no. 5e death saves are not an action.
Technically, they aren’t any kind of action.
Listen to this; when you fall unconscious due to reaching 0 hit points, your character is Incapacitated. This 5e condition states (PHB, p. 290):
"An incapacitated creature can’t take actions or reactions."
Weirdly, it doesn’t explicitly state you can’t use bonus actions. But, Jeremy Crawford cleared this up on his Twitter, pointing to a tiny section 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 death saving throws?
Well, it’s pretty clear at this point. Since you can’t take actions while Incapacitated, death saving throws are not an action.
If you have a feature that lets you take an extra action, it won’t work for death saves.
Do Death Saves Reset? (& When?)
Yes. 5e death saves reset.
Once your character stabilizes or regains any amount of hit points, excluding temporary hit points, your death save count resets.
So, be nice to your Clerics (and Bard, and Druids, and Rangers, and Paladins). Because they’re your "Get Out of Death Free" cards.
Now, you may be thinking, "do temporary hit points revive someone?"
And, no. Temporary hit points don’t stabilize a character at 0 hit points. They’re great for absorbing damage, but they can’t revive your friends. As such, they don’t reset your death save count.
5e Death Saves: Spells & Class Features
With all that out of the way, you might have a few ideas on reducing your chances of failing death saving throws.
And, yes. There are ways to improve your odds. Here are a few ideas you might’ve had.
Let’s get to it.
Does Spare the Dying Reset Death Saves?
Spare the Dying is a 5e Cleric cantrip that reads (PHB, p. 277):
"You touch a living creature that has 0 hit points. The creature becomes stable. This spell has no effect on undead or constructs."
I bolded the important part of the cantrip’s description; "The creature becomes stable."
Remember: once your character stabilizes, their death save count resets.
So, yes. Spare the Dying resets death saving throws.
So, play nice with your healer. They’re the one who’s gonna keep you alive.
Does Jack of All Trades Apply to Death Saves?
Jack of All Trades is a 2nd-level Bard feature. It states (PHB, p. 54):
"…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?
Again with the Bards.
In a nutshell, Bardic Inspiration grants an additional die (starting with a 6-sided die or d6) to yourself or another creature.
The important part is (PHB, p. 53):
"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."
Since death saves are a special form of saving throw, yes. You can use Bardic Inspiration on death saving throws.
Does Bane Affect Death Saving Throws?
Bane is a 1st-level spell that reads (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, since they are, in fact, saving throws, Bane does affect death saving throws.
Conversely, the same goes for the Bless spell. But, in the opposite.
The target creatures add a d4 to their attack rolls and saving throws.
Both spells require concentration. So, they’re only active so long as the spellcaster who applies them maintains concentration.
Does Lucky Work on Death Saves?
Lucky is a powerful feat you can take in D&D 5e. And, yes, it does work on death saving throws. From page 167 of the PHB:
"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 a nutshell, with Lucky, you’ll have a hard time failing a death save.
I hope this clears any questions you might’ve had on 5e’s death saving throws.
- Death saves are a special type of saving throw
- They aren’t an ability check as they don’t use an Ability Score Modifier
- They’re not an action
- They reset when your character stabilizes or regains hit points (but not temporary hit points)
- And, there are a myriad of ways to sway the odds in your favor (or disfavor)
Here’s the thing, death is a part of Dungeons and Dragons. Characters die. You’ll have a bad night rolling and can’t make death saves to…well, save your life.
Just remember it’s part of the game. And, it’s nothing to dwell on. In fact, a character dying often makes for a great story.
What are some stories of your characters and death saves? Have you had a heroic resurgence at a critical point in combat? Or, have you faced the crushing weight of watching that final failure roll across the table?
Let me know in the comments. We’ll swap stories.