Let’s face it, death in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is pretty common. Early level combat is brutal and often comes with a high body count. But, the good news is player characters have a barrier to entry of the afterlife: death saving throws.
But, what is a death saving throw? And, how do death saves work in 5e?
This article breaks down what death saving throws are for 5e D&D, how they work, and other elements to explain how you can use or affect them in your game.
What This Article Covers:
Let’s get to it, starting with defining 5e’s death saves according to the rules as written.
What is a Death Saving Throw?
Death saves in 5e are a special type of saving throw. When a creature, usually a player character or important NPC, reaches 0 hit points, they start making death saving throws on their turn; 10 or higher succeeds while 9 or lower fails. These rolls are made without modifiers. 3 successes means a creature stabilizes and is not longer dying, 3 failures and that creature dies.
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.
14 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Know About D&D 5e Death Saves”
“Now, your successes and failures aren’t consecutive. Meaning, you just need to reach three in either way, over the course of at most six rolls.”
The most rolls you can do in a death save will be 5 as you will either stabilize or die
S, F, S, F, S = success
F, S, F, S, F = fail
Oh, you’re right. I miscounted haha
No worries, i thought i was going mad 🙂
But anyway this is a great, easy to understand and well laid out! Thank you very much! i will be redirecting my players to use this as a reference if they get stuck!
Thank you so much! Glad to be of help.
Like another commenter, I’m a more old school player. Been playing since 77, fell in love with 2nd Ed. An I’ve played and enjoyed all of the editions, except 4th.
So here’s the question, what happens if the PC takes additional damage while incapacitated? Be it directly or indirectly?
There are a couple things to consider when it comes to taking damage while incapacitated.
On its own, it doesn’t really have additional effects. Certain magical effects may cause a creature to become incapacitated.
But, when a player character (or other creature) becomes incapacitated due to going unconscious, either through dropping to zero hit points or otherwise, that’s when things become dicey. First off, an unconscious creature fails all Strength and Dexterity saving throws they become subject to. Second, all attack rolls have advantage against them. And lastly, any attack that hits an unconscious creature counts as a critical if the attacker is within five feet of the unconscious creature.
Which then leads into the real kicker; if your character has zero hit points and is making death saves, you automatically fail a death saving throw whenever you take damage and you fail two if you take damage from a critical hit. Since failing three death saves means a character dies, things get real brutal if they start taking more damage.
Wow! I didn’t know spare the dying makes the target into a TABLE! 🙂 But seriously, this was an amazing guide to death saves. Thank you.
Whoops, missed that one haha
Thanks, glad you liked it!
I have an idea to pitch regarding death saves…
Why is it that, regardless of what’s going on around them in a pitched battle, successfully making three death rolls saves a character? Even the odds are in favor of the player (10 or higher is actually a 55% chance of success). How can they automatically stabilize after taking theoretically a tone of damage?
So, here’s my modification…
1. Rolls are as before, but the player has to continue making them until either s/he fails or someone actually intervenes to save them.
2. Death occurs with 3 failed rolls, +/- the players Con modifier. So a player with a 14 Con could handle a total of 5 failed saves, but one with an 8 Con could only handle 2.
3. Healing stops the rolls.
4. Another player could bind the wounds to stop the rolls with a successful Medicine check.
Other thoughts? I think this is less arbitrary and more realistic.
I think it leans into the more heroic idea for D&D 5e PCs. They have a better than 50% chance of surviving their death saves because they’re the heroes.
I think those rules could work. It definitely makes stabilizing a downed character more pressing as there’s no natural way (sans maybe rolling nat 20) of recovering.
Okay, I started playing in 1st edition. Which obviously had diferent checks on death. In 1st and 2nd, my favorite and most played edition. In those we had mechnical as well as magical means of death. Mechanical methods were quite simple. You had a -10 counter as soon as you went down. If you were able bandage or magicaly heal your wounds it before your counter reached -10 hit points, you servived. So what I’m asking is this. Is bandaging wounds/basic 1st aid, a viable way to stabilize and reset the death roll process.
There is a non-magical way, yeah. And, I’m realizing I should’ve added this to the post itself.
As an action, another creature may make a DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check to stabilize an unconscious creature. And, when you regain any hit points or become stable your death saving throw rolls reset. So, assuming your character hasn’t failed three death saves, both their failures and successes reset if another character succeeds on their Wisdom (Medicine) check.