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Consider this improbable yet possible scenario (which nonetheless came up at our table last night):

A PC is unconscious and currently making Death Saving Throws. A weak (8 Strength) and hostile NPC tries to punch the PC to kill it for good.

Attack rolls against an Unconscious character have advantage and any attack that hits the character is a Critical Hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the character

The NPC rolls with advantage and beats the PC's AC. It is therefore a critical hit.

If an Unconscious character takes damage while at 0 HP, they automatically fail one death saving throw, or 2 death saves if the damage is from a critical hit. Massive Damage can still outright kill the character so damage should still be rolled and if it equals or exceeds their max HP then they die

Ok, so that's 2 failed Death Saving Throws for the PC! Let's calculate the damage, just in case...

Instead of using a weapon to make a melee weapon attack, you can use an unarmed strike: a punch, kick, head--butt, or similar forceful blow (none of which count as weapons). On a hit, an unarmed strike deals bludgeoning damage equal to 1 + your Strength modifier. You are proficient with your unarmed strikes.

Here, 1 + STR = 0. The hit deals 0 damage. Does that even count as damage then?

Does the attack actually provoke failed Death Saving Throws? If so, how many? Can an unarmed strike even crit if there are no dice being thrown?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your primary question has been answered. Your secondary question is a duplicate: (rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/57051/…). Consider removing. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Jan 24 '18 at 16:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron the question you linked asks if damage from unarmed strike is doubled on a critical (it does not). It does not inform me on whether or not the attack is considered a critical for the purpose of causing 2 failed Death Saving Throws. One could ask if a critical unarmed strike that does damage actually provoke 2 failed Death Saving Throws, if the damage is the same as not having a critical. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Millette Jan 24 '18 at 17:36
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Unarmed attacks can crit, but do not do double damage

  • Can an unarmed strike crit? - Yes

    If you roll a 20 on an unarmed strike, it is considered a critical hit.

    This means that it will automatically hit regardless of the opponent's AC and has the potential to cause 2 failed death saving throws from a creature at 0 HP.

    However, a critical hit does not get to increase its damage from a critical hit.

  • Do unarmed strikes get double damage on a critical hit? - No

    Critical hits only double damage that you roll. Unarmed strikes do not have any damage rolled. So, RAW, critical hits do not increase the damage of unarmed strikes. See this Q&A for further discussion of this.

    Jeremy Crawford agrees and has (unofficially) clarified:

    An unarmed strike deals 1 + Str. modifier damage, even on a critical hit.

    This ruling, besides being in line with the literal reading of the RAW, is likely made to keep the rules of what damage to multiply from a critical (only rolled damage) consistent. If you have to start carving out exceptions for every static damage effect that doesn't roll damage but you think might kind of be like a roll, applying the critical hit rule could get complicated and cumbersome. Thus the simple, easy-to-apply ruling we get here.1

Does the described attack cause failed Death Saving Throws? - No

  • It is possible for an attack to do 0 damage

    Jeremy Crawford has (unofficially) clarified:

    There is not a damage minimum of 1, so it is possible to deal 0 damage with an attack.

    So you are indeed calculated the damage for that attack correctly.

  • 0 damage does not count as damage

    Jeremy Crawford has (unofficially) clarified:

    Taking 0 damage is the same as taking no damage.

  • No damage means no failed death saving throws

    If an Unconscious character takes damage while at 0 HP, they automatically fail one death saving throw, or 2 death saves if the damage is from a critical hit.

    If a creature takes damage while at 0 hp, then they will fail one saving throw (or two for a crit). If no damage is taken then no death saving throws are failed. The critical does not change this because damage is a prerequisite in order for any death saving throws to be failed in this way.

So the character in this case does not fail any death saving throws as a result of the attack


1 - Note that I've played in and run games where I've allowed unarmed strikes to double damage as a house rule, and it seems to have had only positive effects (if any, since it came up extremely rarely). But it was always made very clear that this exception was being made for only this one thing. If you did so at your table, I'd guess you wouldn't have any issues either. The only thing to watch out for is confusion I'd say, because the rule that only rolled damage is rerolled is a handy one, and breaking that for unarmed strikes might undermine that. I've only done this house rule with experienced players, so keep that in mind.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If there's no minimum damage, then is it possible to deal negative damage? If so, does that mean you effectively can heal someone by punching them if your Str mod is low enough? Say I have 4 Str and punch an unconscious character. Damage = 1 + (-3) = -2. Did I just heal them for 2hp and wake them up? \$\endgroup\$ – Doc Feb 19 at 21:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Doc it doesn't say that there is no minimum damage, it says 1 is not the minimum. Logically healing is not damage so I think the negative damage idea wouldn't reall pan out with 5e's plain language setup. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 19 at 21:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Doc Related question: Is there an official rule that the minimum damage can't be negative? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 19 at 22:03
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Jeremy Crawford clarified this here:

Taking 0 damage is the same as taking no damage.

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I think the calculation of damage in this particular case was not correct. In calculating the damage as "1 + your Strength modifier", the "1" is effectively the die roll. It is in exactly the same place and serves the same function. So on a critical, it actually would be some damage -- double the "die" = 2, subtract the modifier once, as you do with criticals, and that leaves 1 point of actual damage, done by a critical, and thus two failed death saves.

I agree that if the hit had not been a critical, and thus did no damage, or if the strength modifier had been -2, thus doing no damage, then no failed death saves would apply.

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    \$\begingroup\$ well, he's wrong. ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Phil Boncer Jan 24 '18 at 18:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ Weirdly, this answer makes a lot of sense. The \$1\$-damage specification seems to serve in the stead of a hypothetical d1 die. Since a d1 would always return the same result, there's no sense in actually having such a die, however that seems to be more of a simplification than something that should modify the behavior of a critical hit. So, it makes sense to regard that \$1\$ damage as resulting from a hypothetical die. \$\endgroup\$ – Nat Jan 25 '18 at 4:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well it wouldn't make sense for a punch to do as much maximum damage as, say, a pool cue (improvised weapon), so a d4 is out of the question. You can go with a d1 or a d2, but 5e philosophy is to prevent this kind of complexity, so I can see why they would choose to use a flat 1. And from there, the problem seen here is only a result of playing purely by the RAW. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Millette Jan 25 '18 at 13:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have no problem with the "die" being always a 1. But that does not have to mean you can't double that 1 on a critical. That's just silly, and nonsensical. \$\endgroup\$ – Phil Boncer Jan 25 '18 at 18:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ It would have made sense (and be a good house rule) for unarmed damage to be 1d1, but RAW that's not the case. If you want to rephrase your answer to acknowledge that RAW is clear but silly, and suggest your method as a house rule, then I'd upvote it. (And wearing metal gauntlets should be at least 1d2, IMO. Bare fists can hurt your hand, especially against a hard target, and maybe that's how they justify such crap damage.) \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Dec 14 '18 at 4:09

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