Today I’d like to talk about a specific house rule at my table… the dying condition.
In D&D 5e when a character falls to zero hit points they fall unconscious, which is a named condition that is exactly what it sounds like. The character blacks out and the player just starts rolling death saving throws. Playing an unconscious character is pretty boring stuff. Worse yet, if their character does end up dying on the battlefield three turns after the killing blow, it is an anti-climactic moment to say the least. To be clear, I have no problem with the death save mechanic itself (I know some players don’t like it). I just think that the process of rolling them is boring.
Enter my house rule and a new condition called dying. Instead of dropping unconscious, when a character drops to zero hit points, they enter the dying condition.
This is nearly identical to the unconscious condition but for the two bullets in bold. First, a dying creature is still awake and able to speak.
- A dying creature is incapacitated (see the condition) but is still aware of its surroundings and can speak.
Just like Rules As Written, the creature has lost their ability to take actions or move so attacks and spells are impossible but, because the character is still conscious, they can still turn the tide of battle from the sidelines:
“Tossed aside by the fearsome yeti, Kyrill can feel the warmth of his own blood trickling down the back of his neck but it is his cry of alarm that warns his sister Kayla of the winter wolf hiding in the tangled thicket on the other side of the clearing.”
“Maklak knows that he is close to death. He can feel it in his bones. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, but he knows that his life is inconsequential compared to the disaster that will befall his family if the orcs get through this pass. With a smile he shouts “hey you! yeah, I’m talking to you… come here and let me spit on you!”
Now the player has a reason to stay engaged. The ability to shout out a warning or even a cry for help seems a small change but has fun implications. A dying character’s time is short as each failed death saving throw moves them closer to death. They should have every opportunity to make the most of it.
If they do fail that last save, I don’t want to miss that opportunity for role-playing either. So let’s make those final moments more exciting by giving the character a dying action.
- When a dying character fails their third death saving throw, they can immediately take any single action except the Dash action.
Just like in the movies, I want our heroes to have one last shot at a glorious ending. At a minimum they can speak a few last words… a bit of role-playing that may bring the character to a more meaningful end. By giving the player the option to take a dying action, they also have a chance to go out with a bang. No, casting a healing spell on yourself at this point does not stop you from dying. Similarly, using your dying action to misty step into a fountain of healing might teleport the character but they are dead on arrival. The dying action is a reaction to failing that last save and cannot alter its result. The DM may even rule that the character is dead before they see the result of their dying action.
As the dying character crosses death’s door, they can’t change the inevitable or run across the room, but they can go out in one last burst of glory.
“Hillibrand the Wise had a bad feeling about this trip and for once it seems his premonition was true… there were just too many of them. Vile creatures these gnolls, but if there are any survivors they will pay a heavy price for messing with Hillibrand today. He still has just enough energy for one spell and Hillibrand has been holding onto a particularly nasty incantation all day…”
“Corelios watched as his comrades stood against the onslaught of undead. He would likely soon stand among the unholy horde, but while there was still light in his world he would do what good he could. Extending his arm as far as he could he touched the shoulder of the fallen knight by his side and channeled into him what lifeforce he had left.”
“Markus only had the energy to draw his bowstring one last time and so he knocked the Arrow of Bh’agulzar that had been buzzing at him since he found it. The old hag had warned him against ever using it, but he knew it was now or never. The darkness took him as he let loose the bowstring and the shaft found its mark, banishing the dark druid forever.”
At my table, the dying condition gives players a bit more to do while they make death saving throws on their already short turn. Players can sway the course of battle by calling out but caution is advised as some enemies may choose to finish off the overly talkative wounded. While every player is hoping for that natural 20 that will get them back into the fight, they also have three rounds to consider how to make their character’s death a memorable one. Could this house rule radically change the outcome of a battle? Yes, and your players will remember it forever!
Have fun out there.