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A complete DnD death saves 5e rules guide

The funeral bells are chiming, so here’s a guide to D&D death saves that teaches you to roll for your Dungeons and Dragons character’s life.

DnD death saves 5e - Wizards of the Coast of a group casting a healing spell on a fallen man

Death saves – two words that strike fear in the hearts of Dungeons and Dragons players. These fateful dice rolls are the only thing standing between your character and a cold grave. This means it helps to know the rules of a DnD death save 5e.

Here you’ll find all the grim facts about 5e death saves. And if things go badly for your character, we’ve got a few guides that can help you keep playing. Now’s a great time to choose the next DnD classes, DnD races, and 5e backgrounds you might want to try.

Here’s everything you need to know about the death saves 5e rules:

DnD death saves 5e - Wizards of the Coast art of a dwarf cleric healing an elf

What is a death save?

‘Death save’ is a short and snappy nickname for the ominous death saving throw. This is a unique roll in D&D that only takes place when your character is on the brink of death. When the last of your hit points slip away, and you’re on the ground clinging to life, that’s when a death saving throw is rolled.

The official rules state that a death saving throw must be rolled if you start your turn with zero hit points. This means rolling a single d20, with no DnD stats modifiers added on top. As the Player’s Handbook puts it, “you are in the hands of fate now”.

If you roll a ten or higher, you’ve passed your first death save. Lower than a ten counts as a failure, but there’s still hope for your beloved D&D character at this stage.

You only die if you fail three death saves. On the other hand, three successful saving throws ‘stabilizes’ your character – they’re unconscious, but not in any immediate danger of dying. These don’t need to be rolled consecutively. As long as you rolled three successes, it doesn’t matter if you also rolled two failed death saves.

That’s the general gist of a death save, but there are even more details to learn. Here are a few FAQs: 

DnD death saves 5e - Wizards of the Coast art of a Bugbear about to strike an elf

Are DnD death saves affected by critical rolls?

Critical successes and failures do matter when rolling a death saving throw. A natural 20 automatically grants you two successes, while a nat one equals two failures. 

How do I stabilize a character rolling death saves?

You don’t have to wait until all three death saves are rolled – any party member can stabilize a friend before the Grim Reaper arrives. This can be done in a few ways:

  • Passing a DC10 Medicine check
  • Using a Healer’s Kit on the downed character
  • Using the DnD cantrip, Spare the Dying
  • Casting a leveled healing spell
  • Using a healing potion on the dying ally
  • Another healing ability, like the Peace Cleric 5e’s Balm of Peace

If you use a 5e spell or ability that restores hit points, the dying character regains the amount described. Other methods, like the Medicine check or the Healer’s Kit, don’t give a character any HP back – they remain at zero, unconscious rather than dying.

Once a stabilized character has at least one hit point, they can get back up. Stabilized characters regain one HP after 1d4 hours if no one intervenes before then. 

DnD death saves 5e - Wizards of the Coast art of a bar brawl

What happens if stabilized characters take damage?

Okay, you’ve spared your friend – but they’re not out of the woods yet. If a stabilized character takes any damage, they automatically fail a death save. And then they must start making death saves all over again. 

Do DnD death saves reset?

Any time a downed character is stabilized or gains hit points, the number of death saves rolled is reset to zero. This means, if you’re knocked down a second time, you start the process from the beginning. 

How does instant death work in D&D?

Sometimes, your poor character won’t even get a chance to roll death saves. If the amount of damage you take equals or exceeds your maximum HP, your character dies instantly. May they rest in peace. 

DnD death save 5e - Wizards of the Coast art of myconids

What happens when you die in DnD?

Death isn’t always the end for your character. An ally might use a resurrection spell like Revivify, Raise Dead, or Resurrection to restore you. The Dungeon Master might also invent a new quest so your party has a chance to restore their beloved pal.

If not, that’s the end of the line for your character. Time to mourn, grab a fresh DnD character sheet, and think about rolling up someone new to play. 

Do NPCs make death saving throws?

DnD monsters and other non-playable characters don’t generally make death saves. If they drop to zero HP, they’re goners.

The official rules of D&D do allow for exceptions, though. A DM might decide to spice things up by rolling death saves for the Big Bad Evil character in your DnD campaign, for example. 

DnD death saves 5e - Wizards of the Coast art of adventurers making a daring leap

Are death saves rolled publicly?

The rules-as-written don’t specify whether a death save is rolled in secret or not. We’d interpret that as public – after all, every other player roll is done so that everyone at the table can see the result.

Some tables prefer to keep death saves a secret, though. This adds suspense for the other players, and it means they can’t use the DnD dice results to strategize.

For example, let’s say a DnD Druid has two downed allies. They can only stabilize one of them on their turn. The Druid has seen every death saving throw, so they know that the DnD Barbarian has failed two saves, while the DnD Sorcerer hasn’t failed any. They might use this information and prioritize the Barbarian – but if the rolls were done in secret, this wouldn’t be possible.

If you’re a Dungeon Master who likes the sound of this take on death saves, be sure to talk to your players about it before enforcing the rule. Nobody likes a nasty surprise, especially if their character’s life is on the line. 

Are DnD death saves rolled if a character is knocked out?

Sometimes, a character making a melee attack will choose to knock their opponent unconscious rather than kill them outright. In this case, the downed individual doesn’t need to make any death saves.

For more tips on how to play Dungeons and Dragons, here’s how exhaustion 5e works. We can also teach you the ins and outs of a DnD grapple.