Avoiding Death (Part 2)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 24, 2009

In Avoiding Death, Part 1 we covered these five recommendations for how to avoid needless character death.

  1. Don’t chase monsters
  2. Know you character
  3. Check for traps every time
  4. Take a short break
  5. Pay attention

Now we’re going to add five more ideas to the list. Most of these tips rely on you keeping your cool and not doing anything stupid. Sometimes that can be harder than you think.

Here are five more ways to avoid character death.

  1. Be quiet.

  2. The party quietly crept through the castle hallway. They knew the king’s private bedchamber was just around the next corner. With any luck they could catch him unaware and he wouldn’t have time to prepare adequate defenses. As Ethan the Rogue is about to turn the corner he hears “Get ready, men. They’ll be here any second.” “Damn, how did they know we were coming?” Ethan thought momentarily as he eyed his companions in plate, scale, and chain armor. “Noisy clods!”

    Wearing big, bulky armor and carrying a shield gives you a great AC, but the check penalty really kills your Stealth score. Even so, Stealth should not be automatically ruled out. The Fighter, Paladin and Cleric may not be suitable for silent movement but most other classes are. Anyone with a reasonable Dexterity and no armor check penalty can be sneaky. Let them scout ahead before the guy in armor announces your presence. Knowing what lies around the next corner (before it knows you’re there) lets you devise a quick strategy before combat begins.

  3. Move strategically.

  4. Sterling the Warlord observes the battlefield and directs his companions. “Braddoc, you and I will move up together with you in the lead and fight the first monster. Ethan, try to get around them and flank with Braddoc.” Ethan sneaks behind the monster and is ready to move in for the kill. Sterling and Braddoc begin moving, but Braddoc suddenly takes a turn to the right and charges a different foe. “Braddoc, where are you going?” Sterling asks. “The big one is going down,” Braddoc says as he charges through the battlefield.

    Your movement should make sense. Do you have a power that will benefit an ally adjacent to you or adjacent to the target? Do you get any bonuses (like sneak dice) against an opponent granting combat advantage? Then move to flank. If you can move and gain combat advantage, why wouldn’t you? Take the +2 to hit! Or move so that the party striker can flank more easily. Moving into the right square can make a huge difference to you, the party and the outcome of combat. Try to anticipate where your allies are going to move or just ask them. Work together. Haphazard movement makes things more difficult for everyone, combat takes longer and characters die.

  5. Try diplomacy.

  6. As the giant flying monster lands in front of the party, claws raised and razor sharp teeth ready to bite, it speaks. “This is my forest. Why should I forgive such trespass?” “Charge!” cries Braddoc the Fighter as he runs forth. “I’ll earn lots of XP for this kill,” he thinks as he charges into combat.

    Every character has Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate on their character sheet. Combat is not your only option! Many monsters are highly intelligent. Try talking your way out of a problem rather than rushing headlong into combat. A successfully parley will often yield just as much XP as killing the creature.

  7. Work together.

  8. Dire wolves circle the party, outnumbering the PCs 2-to-1. Each PC moves to attack the nearest wolf. Many wolves are wounded, but none are killed. Now the wolf pack, still boasting its superior numbers moves in for a coordinated attack, killing Nenia the Wizard and Merric the Cleric.

    How often does your party split up and take on multiple threats simultaneously rather than focus all your efforts on just one target? As long as a monster has 1 hp it can still attack you, so softening up three at once isn’t as useful as working together to kill one in the first round. Talk to each other and describe what you want to do on your turn so others can go with it. Designate a combat leader and let them direct the party. One vision yields higher efficiency and saves lives.

  9. Get out of the way.

  10. The kobold horde hesitates before attacking with their superior numbers and overwhelming the PCs. That hesitation is all Braddoc needs. He charges into the mass of kobolds and starts swinging his mighty Battle Axe. “Get out of the way, Braddoc” yells Nenia. “I’m going to drop a fireball on the entire horde.” Braddoc ignores the advice of his companion and keeps swinging away as the kobolds swarm him. “Oh well, I warned him,” Nenia says as she casts Fireball engulfing 10 kobolds and Braddoc.

    If your party has ranged attacks or large area spells, then make sure you don’t hinder you party’s ability to use them. Don’t rush needlessly in between two monsters. Tell the party where you’re planning to move and if the Wizard says to wait one round then listen to him. The alternative is that you end up being subjected to the spell just like the monsters.

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1 skallawag February 26, 2009 at 10:26 am

6. Stop rolling 1’s or 2’s on your D20.

2 Chase Dagger March 30, 2009 at 9:49 pm

First of all I really like the site; I’ve posted once before but want to switch over to a more online name from here on in. 🙂

I’m new to D&D and I don’t fully understand dying, I’d like to clarify a few things if possible. My general understanding is that once below zero there are two ways to die: Fail 3 saving throws, or your HP is reduced to your negative bloody score.

My questions are:
If you take so much damage that you are reduced to a negative bloody state from an above zero HP value, do you instantly die without a death saving throw opportunity?

When you fail a death saving throw do you loose any more HP, or if you loose more HP does it affect the saving throws in anyway? (Are they related in anyway?)

This part of the PH really bugs me (quote): ’20 or higher: Spend a healing surge. When you do so, you are considered to have 0 hit points, and then your healing surge restores hit points as normal.’

(Quote question #1)
If you are reduced to exactly zero HP and you roll a 20 on your saving throw, and spend a healing surge do you just remain at zero (this is technically how it’s written, but seems odd considering rolling 10-19 means no change)?

(Quote question #2)
The part where it says ‘…then your healing surge restores hit points as normal.’ What do they mean: The same healing surge just spent then restores you as normal? (I feel that wouldn’t make sense, but the wording implies it’s the same healing surge.)

Assuming the answer to quote question #2 is something like, “No it’s not the same healing surge; they mean the next healing surge you use on your next turn”: Do you have to do yet another saving throw on that “next turn” before you are allowed it use the “next healing surge?” (I feel this is odd too, but technically you are still categorized as ‘Dying’)

Yep, I’ve definitely over complicated this, but I’d rather just know exactly how it works.
Any help would be appreciated.

3 Ameron March 31, 2009 at 12:32 pm

@Chase Dagger

Thanks for posting again. We’re always glad to hear from our readers. Let me see if I can answer your questions. I’ve talked with Wimwik and here’s how we interpret this situation.

For purposes of this example lets assume your character has 40 hit points.

Scenario 1
If you take enough damage to reduce you to -21 hit point or less then your character is dead. Period. He’s fallen below his bloodied value expressed as a negative number. No save. He’s dead.

Scenario 2
If you take enough damage to reduce you to anywhere between 0 and -20 hit points your character isn’t dead yet. But he is dying. He needs to make a death saving throw each round on his turn until he recovers or dies. He won’t loose any additional hit points unless he’s attacked or has ongoing damage. Your save is not affected in any way by your current hit points.

What happens next will depend on what you roll and whether or not anyone comes to your aid.

See page 295 PHB > Death and Dying > Death Saving Throw

  • Lower than 10: You slip one step closer to death. If you get this result three times before you take a rest, you die.
  • 10–19: No change.
  • 20 or higher: Spend a healing surge. When you do so, you are considered to have 0 hit points, and then your healing surge restores hit points as normal. You are no longer dying, and you are conscious but still prone. If you roll 20 or higher but have no healing surges left expressed as a negative number, your condition doesn’t change.

In other words…

  • Every time you roll 1-10 you get 1 strike. If you accumulate 3 strikes you’re dead. Stop rolling saving throws and roll up a new character.
  • If you roll between 11-19 then nothing changes. You don’t get any better and you don’t get any worse (unless you’re attacked or have ongoing damage).
  • If you roll a 20 then you’re back in the game. You get to spend a healing surge and are no longer unconscious.

Remember that in 4e D&D any time you’re below 0 hit points and you receive healing, no matter the source, you always start counting from 0. So if the abovementioned character has -17 hit points and rols a 20 on his death saving throw he gets to spend a healing surge. His surge value is 10 hit pints (1/4 of his 40 maximum). So he’d wake up and have 10 hit points (since he started counting from 0). The fact that he was at -17 doesn’t matter.

There are powers, feats and items that provide modifiers on saving throws (like the Human Perseverance feat). This is added to the d20 roll. That is why the Death Saving Throw chart says 20 or higher.

Read the Heal skill on page 185 of the PHB. A PC can help an ally by using First Aid as a Standard action.

  • A DC 10 Heal check allows an adjacent character to use his or her second wind without the character having to spend an action.
  • If the dying character has already used his second wind then a DC 15 Heal check allows an adjacent ally to immediately make a saving throw.
  • If you’ve already got 2 strikes and don’t want to risk death by failing another roll, a DC 15 Heal check can stabilize an adjacent dying character. If you succeed, the character can stop making death saving throws until he or she takes damage.

I know this is a lot to take in, but I hope this helped. Post again if you have more questions. Or feel free to email us. Our contact information is on the About page.

4 Chase Dagger April 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm


Thank you; your post was perfect, it answers all my questions. I never knew about the rule “you start counting from zero no matter what your negative score is.” That really changes how I read the whole death and dying section.

Thanks again this place rocks!

5 meg May 6, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Question: If my party was in combat and the last enemy was slain as I lay on the floor unconscious and two failed saving-throws down… do I have to keep throwing until I’m healed by a party member or until I roll a 20? Or does the combat encounter and the saving-throw-rolling end and a rest can immediately begin without an unnerving die throw?

6 Ameron May 7, 2009 at 9:33 am

Great question. My feeling is that as soon as the danger has passed an ally would rush to your aide and ensure you’re ok. So my ruling would be that you can stop making death saves when the final round of the initiative reaches the last PC.

However, I can see how some DMs may want you to keep rolling until another PC actually makes a heal check or uses magic to revive you. This could be especially important if there is another encounter just around the corner.

7 meg May 9, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Yeah, it’s a tough call and not specifically addressed anywhere. Turns out it didn’t matter much because our DM killed our group the next time out. :/ Thanks for the insight and the quick reply.

8 Zrog September 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm

I still cannot believe how many players will not focus fire EVEN WHEN they know it’s the right thing to do. I think the reason is that so many players don’t want to “waste” their damage on an already-damaged target – they all want to do big damage to their own target and see how fast it goes down.

I once played Forgotten Realms Live, and our level spread was rather large, so my piddly L3 rogue wasn’t really all that useful most of the time. However, there was ONE time when we severely-damaged the BBEG in round one, and he was going to flee, but my little rogue shot him with a Natural 20, doing 1 point of damage, and killed him. This saved us from having to pursue the big baddie down through his labyrith, yadda yadda. So… even a single point of damage can make a BIG difference!

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