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If someone dies because of a Finger of death, can he be brought back with one of Raise death/Resurrect/Reincarnate? In all spells it is said that

"A creature that has been turned into an undead creature or killed by a death effect can't be returned to life by this spell."

Is Finger of death a death effect?

And more generally: what is a death effect? I searched for a description, but I didn't find anything...

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3 Answers 3

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The spell finger of death is a death effect. That means that no, they can't be brought back by raise dead or reincarnate if they fail their fortitude save. However, once one gets to the spell resurrection (and later, true resurrection) death effects/attacks aren't an issue for re-raising.

In most cases, a death attack allows the victim a Fortitude save to avoid the affect, but if the save fails, the character dies instantly.

  • Raise dead doesn’t work on someone killed by a death attack.
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Finger of Death is a [Death] effect

Note the brackets: what I’m getting at is that you know whether or not something is a Death effect by whether or not it has that [Death] descriptor:

Finger of Death

Necromancy [Death]

Not everything that kills is a Death effect. If it’s a spell that doesn’t have the [Death] descriptor, or a non-spell that doesn’t state that it is a Death effect (for example, the Assassin’s Death Attack does not and is not a Death effect [edit: but see @Ernir’s answer for some problems with that]). This is very important for things like raise dead and death ward.

Unfortunately, Wizards wasn’t always super-careful about stating that things that kill are Death effects, which means that some things that probably should be don’t actually have it (but some things that don’t really aren’t supposed to have it). You may have to rule on the fly about such things (such as in the case of Death Attack itself, per @Ernir's answer). Generally speaking, the more descriptors a thing has, the more likely a creature is to have resistance or immunity to it; being able to kill without the Death descriptor is great because then it ignores death ward and the like. Sometimes that advantage is an intended part of a power; other times, it’s not and the lack of descriptor is an oversight. It is hard to say for sure in most cases.

Finger of Death doesn’t have anything to do with the Undead

Just because it’s in the Necromancy school doesn’t mean that it causes undeath or has anything to do with them. Most Sorcerer/Wizard necromancy spells actually don’t; they favor curses and debuffs over animation.

Resurrection doesn’t care about Death effects

Just to note, the resurrection spell (and, by extension, true resurrection) doesn’t care if the target was killed with a Death effect.

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To answer your more general question:

Death Attacks are defined in the rules under Special Abilities, but whether a given spell, attack, or ability constitutes a Death Attack is sometimes nebulous. Further, the terms "Death Attack" and "Death Effect" seem to be used interchangeably throughout the rules.

The guidelines I use to determine whether a given effect is a death attack are:

  • A spell is a death attack if and only if it carries the [Death] descriptor. This would make Finger of Death a death attack, but not Implosion.
  • A non-spell special ability is a death attack only if it says it is. This makes a Death domain Cleric's granted power a death attack, but not the Evil Eye of the Sea Hag.
  • Some are on the fence, and have to be judged individually. The Assassin's Death Attack comes to mind - the name of the ability is quite literally "Death Attack", but it doesn't explicitly say that the ability is a death attack.
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