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It's well documented that in 5e, you can deal 0 (but not negative) damage on an attack roll, usually if you have a negative ability modifier. The same, presumably, would apply to spell damage.

A 1st-level Cure Wounds restores 1d8+spell mod in hit points. What happens if I have a -2 modifier, and roll a 1? Would it heal 0 hit points? Would it stabilize a dying character?

Official sources (or tweets from Crawford) preferred.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ IIRC there's a question somewhere about what happens when you take zero or negative damage, and some of the arguments there might apply to zero/negative healing as well. I wasn't able to find it with a quick search, though. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10 at 16:59
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Designer's Intent

Mike Mearls tweeted that it should be a minimum of 1 point, but I can't find the same from Jermey Crawford. Mike Mearls talked about what was intended, but it isn't an official ruling:

no, should be minimum 1

Jeremy did weigh in about hit dice though:

You regain no hit points if you spend a Hit Die and your Constitution modifier reduces the total to 0 or lower. #DnD

If Mike is right about this spell, then the player becomes stable. If Jeremy's tweet about Hit Dice also apply to spells like cure wounds there would be no reason to assume that healing for 0 would stabilize someone, as the spell text doesn't say anything of the sort; but I think as a DM I'd let it.

Updated Text of Hit Dice and RAW

When the question was asked Jeremy's tweets were considered official rulings. Since then the text of regaining health from hit dice was edited in later editions since the question was asked to include:

The character regains hit points equal to the total (minimum of 0).

The text of the spell was not updated. So the only clues we have about cure wounds is the word "regain" in the spell, which implies it cant' be negative, and the intent text above. Unless a word has a special game meaning, the common definition applied. Oxford Languages Dictionary offers the following definition:

re·gain /rəˈɡān/ (verb) obtain possession or use of (something) again after losing it. "she died without regaining consciousness"

You can't obtain possession or use of negative hit points. Any argument must also use that common meaning standard. So when the rules say things like:

Healing

When a creature receives healing of any kind, hit points regained are added to its current hit points

It is telling you what to do, add them to your total, after you regain them. This doesn't change the meaning, define or redefine the word regain.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That was my intuition as well, in the same way a Medicine check stabilizes but doesn't grant any HP. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – wilcroft
    Nov 15 '17 at 22:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hey...I recognize that tweet! Who is that dashing Airatome fellow.....? No but, really, +1 for including both sides of a (backed up) argument. \$\endgroup\$
    – Airatome
    Nov 16 '17 at 8:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, it is still as clear as mud, as the designers posts conflict. At least we know that healing in either case won't hurt you, like it could on terrible rolls in previous editions. I remember healing an NPC to death. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16 '17 at 15:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer could be improved by addressing the rules, since these tweets are not official rulings. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10 at 1:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure I agree with your analysis of "add." We are told to "add" modifiers to attack rolls as well (PHB, p. 194), but I certainly would be surprised if someone claimed that those modifiers can also only increase the roll. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 14 at 23:27
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In that situation, cure wounds won't affect your hit points

Your spellcasting modifier is not prevented from being negative. Unlike some other spells and features, cure wounds doesn't specify that the spellcasting modifier is a bonus; rather, it is simply added. Thus, you are left with: what does it mean to "regain" -1 hit points?

D&D 5e uses natural language, not a computer algorithm1, to present spell descriptions. "Regain" means to get back something you lost, not simply to sum two numbers together. Consider this: what did a creature at maximum hit points lose in order to "regain" -1 hit points?

For more evidence, see the rules for Falling Unconscious:

If damage reduces you to 0 hit points and fails to kill you, you fall unconscious. This unconsciousness ends if you regain any hit points.

The rules clearly expect regaining hit points to cause you to have more than 0 hit points. The most logical conclusion is that nothing about your hit points changes, since regaining negative hit points is meaningless. This isn't a system where healing and damage are the same thing.

But would you become stable?

No, because you did not regain any hit points. This is also the case if an errata or house rule defines zero as the minimum amount of hit points regained. Regaining zero hit points is still not regaining "any hit points".


1 Be sure to cast magic circle before engaging in undefined behavior. Nasal demons are everywhere.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So to be clear, cure wounds with a total roll plus modifier of zero or less has no mechanical effect at all? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10 at 17:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ For negative results, yes. It's more like "the spell has an effect with no mechanical definition in this situation". You could house rule a definition, of course. Also, effects that trigger when you cast a spell (Order Domain's Voice of Authority), would naturally still apply. \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Oct 10 at 18:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you not regain -1 hit points in natural language? It seems odd to call that game term undefined, and then argue that the cure wounds spell doesn't state that you regain those -1 hp because regaining would have to imply that your hit point total has to change - that feels like a logical leap. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Oct 11 at 5:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu "Regain" isn't undefined, but what it means to regain -1 hit points is undefined. Regain means to get back something you lost, not simply to sum two numbers together. Consider this: what did a creature at maximum hit points lose in order to "regain" -1 hit points? \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Oct 11 at 15:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Especially when we consider the phrasing "any." \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Oct 11 at 17:26
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Spells do everything they say and no more, so purely by rules as written: no healing would be done. However, nowhere in the spell does it say anything about dealing damage, so it seems to me that the worst-case here is simply wasting a spell slot on receiving 0 healing. A spell that heals for -3, for example, would not deal damage if that is a concern.

There is precedent in a lot of spells and abilities saying "minimum of one," but as the text of cure wounds makes no mention of that, it can be safely assumed that a horrible modifier can nullify the healing. As it is the healing that makes a dying creature stable, it would not stabilize a creature.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Regaining any hp is what causes stabilising, not "healing." \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Oct 11 at 5:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Oct 11 at 16:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu Point of information: isn't a "stabilized" creature at zero hit points, but no longer making death saving throws? I don't think that "regaining hp" is one of the conditions that "causes stabilizing." \$\endgroup\$ Oct 13 at 20:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Gandalfmeansme that is a different state of stable - the one you are talking about is from the Stabilizing a Creature section, and in that regard you are entirely correct. For this state, see the Falling Unconscious section. Stabilising as an action is detached from regaining life due to healing spells. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Oct 13 at 20:59

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