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Context

I'm DMing a Tomb of Annihilation-based campaign and we're using Meat Grinder Mode (DC for Death saves is 15).

In the answer to this question, the probabilities of survival are discussed.

This is all fine, however, I have a different problem. I want some monsters to attack downed unconscious party members (sometimes).

Background

As an example, in the last session, the party rogue moved 80 ft. away from the party after encountering a pack of deinonychus on the hunt and fought with two stragglers. They dropped her unconscious and I judged that they would start eating her, since the rest of the battle was far away. She failed a death save, and, since she was unconscious, the next attack* against her was an auto critical which resulted in her getting two death save failures and dying immediately.

*Initiative was such that it was dino (attacked the rogue, downed her), rogue (failed death save), dino (killed her with the auto crit).

Motivation

I understand that this is the 5e implementation of a coup de grace. However, I would like to give my players a bit more of a chance when downed and attacked, so the rest of the party can at least try to save their companion. But this only works if the player has a higher chance of being able to survive at least a single attack when downed.

I see two obvious solutions:

  1. Attacks vs downed creatures don't auto crit

  2. Players get more death saves (5?) (so they have a higher probability to survive the first auto-crit)

And there are probably better solutions that I didn't think of.

Question

What is the best mechanical solution to this problem with the constraints that:

  • Meat Grinder mode is active, so probabilities of dying without being attacked should be higher than 50% (but don't need to be exactly the same)
  • Least interference with other rules
  • Attacks vs downed are still very dangerous and a strong signal that the downed creatures needs to be saved right now by the party

A good answer should contain the exact mechanics to solve the problem and a short discussion of the probabilities involved. I am looking for mechanics for my perceived problem, not for a discussion focused on minutiae of the example situation. That is, the answer should focus on attacks during death saves, not on dinosaur behaviour or the rogue's tactical errors.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Apr 4 '18 at 23:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Use comments for requesting clarification, suggesting improvements, and minor moderation or meta matters. They're not for discussion or trying to solve the problem. If you have a tried and tested solution post it in an answer below. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 5 '18 at 11:06
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Allow a save on damage while dying

When the character takes damage while dying, allow them to make a standard death saving throw (DC 10) to avoid taking the additional failures. This will change the lethality of the event while preserving the same type of mechanic.

This let's your monsters target the fallen players occasionally since about half of the time the damage won't make the character any closer to death.


This doesn't interfere with any other mechanics and can easily be adjusted for its impact by changing the DC for this particular death saving throw.

You could also modify this to make the idea of melee attacks critting against unconscious characters more relevant by making 1 failure automatic on a critical hit and only the extra one subject to a death saving throw (thanks @DarthPseudonym in the comments).

Some numbers

With the DC 10 that I suggest you have a 55% of succeeding (with no other bonuses) meaning...

  • Melee hit while dying
    • Average of 1.1 failed saves
  • Ranged non-crit while dying
    • Average of 0.55 failed saves

If you modify this with Meat Grinder DCs (30% success) as well the numbers become:

  • Melee hit while dying
    • Average of 1.4 failed saves
  • Ranged non-crit while dying
    • Average of 0.7 failed saves

With Darth Pseudonyms variant of 1 automatic failure on a critical hit followed by a save for the other you get:

  • Melee hit while dying
    • Average of 1.7 failed saves
  • Ranged non-crit while dying
    • Average of 0.7 failed saves
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I might suggest that if you go with this, have damage trigger a death saving throw, and have a crit give 1 auto-failure plus an immediate death saving throw. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Apr 4 '18 at 17:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym good thought. I mentioned it \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Apr 4 '18 at 17:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you used this houserule in your games? How did it go? \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Apr 5 '18 at 5:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @daze413 I have not used this houserule, but I have used a very similar one. I had players that didn't like how one-sided Hold Person and similar spells were, so I allowed a Wisdom save (with disadvantage in my case) to cancel the critical hit, sort of a last stitch effort to relieve some of the effects of the spell. It was based off of a Charmed (TV show) mechanic, but it works in this system fine. It gave the players greater survivability in certain situations, and there is nothing wrong with that. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Apr 5 '18 at 12:01
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You are the DM: creatures don't have to attack characters at 0 HP

Unless you want them to. You control the lethality of that feature of the game by your choices as DM.

You can coach your players

  1. If there is a cleric in your party, the cleric can cast Sanctuary on a downed member. That spell does not require concentration, and it requires any monster attacking the downed player to first make a Wisdom saving throw or it can't attack.

    Sanctuary
    Casting Time: 1 bonus action Range: 30 feet > Duration: 1 minute
    Until the spell ends, any creature who targets the warded creature with an attack or a harmful spell must first make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, the creature must choose a new target or lose the attack or spell.

  2. Teach your players why you Don't Split The Party

    Once again, if there is a cleric in the party, a healing word cast once another party member goes down will bring them back to greater than 1 HP and the problem you cite is avoided. The party's challenge is to not get out of range of the cleric's spell, Healing Word.

    The same is true for Sanctuary, as noted above: if out of range, the player has nobody but themselves to blame for not being in range for another party member to help them.

    • If the rogue runs out of range of help, that isn't your fault as the DM. That is Player Agency at work: players make choices and the consequences of those choices are played out.

Know your setting

If you are running Tomb of Annihilation, with its attendant penalties on death and dying, and if you are running meat grinder (which gives an XP bonus to players in Adventurer's League play 1) then you have to accept that the risk of lethality -- a PC may die permanently -- has increased. If that is not acceptable to you, and to your gaming group, then you as the DM can make the choice to not have the monsters attack downed PC's in the interest of group fun/cohesion.


1From the Adventurers League(AL) ToA Primer (thank you @V2Blast):

"A character playing an adventure in meat grinder mode earns 10% more XP and gp. The character can potentially receive more than an adventure’s normal maximum reward. This option is available only while under the effects of the Death Curse..."

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  • \$\begingroup\$ RAW, Meat grinder mode doesn’t have any effect on XP. I know I don’t have to attack them when downed, but sometimes I want to. 2.) they learned now :). Still, this answer does not actually present mechanics to solve my issue... \$\endgroup\$ – Mala Apr 5 '18 at 4:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mala: "Meat grinder mode doesn’t have any effect on XP" - I think the confusion might be because this is true of the version described on p. 6-7 of the adventure book (i.e. it mentions nothing about XP), but it's not true for Adventurer's League play. From the AL ToA Primer: "A character playing an adventure in meat grinder mode earns 10% more XP and gp. The character can potentially receive more than an adventure’s normal maximum reward. This option is available only while under the effects of the Death Curse..." \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 5 '18 at 5:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Thanks for that, I had read the introductory parts of the book, to include meat grinder, and then had to put the book away to avoid spoilers when our group decided to play it. We were offered meat grinder by the DM (and the point about XP was raised during discussion) but as a group declined it as we were new as a team. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 5 '18 at 12:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mala I have added a footnote to clear that up; For some reason I was under the impression that meat grinder granted an XP boost as an embedded part of that option ... it's been some months since I read the introductory material... memory bad, see comment to V2Blast. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 5 '18 at 12:47
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Discuss with the Party for a possible solution.

This is what the Designers intended whenever a combination of rules and bad luck ruins the game experience for pretty-much everyone.

Based on the scenario, I will give you a few possible options for ways to "get around" situations like these when they arise, but you are not limited to these:

  • Introduce a "Mercy Period", such as between the start of the Adventure and when the Character reaches a predetermined level (agreed-upon by everyone), where Death Saving Throws are rolled on the Standard DC. You could even RP this as the are where the Characters are entering has an Illness or Curse that makes it harder for a Character to stabilize after they've been there for a certain amount of time.
  • If you decide to run a Meatgrinder/Hardcore Campaign, and the players agree, perhaps you can go ahead and give them each one Inspiration Point to be used however they wish, to prevent things from going completely wrong from the get-go.
  • For a more "one time occurrence" situation, a Retcon can be used. Use these Sparingly, as if you use them too-much, the Party will begin to feel entitled and the Meatgrinder Campaign will become pointless.
    • For example, explain to the Party that you misunderstood or misinterpreted the Pack Mentality of Dinosaurs*, and that you are willing to Retcon the situation so the Dinos never "tried to eat her" and instead went-off to go get the rest of the Pack for Dinner. This gives the Rogue back her 3 (or 2, depending on how you decide) Death Saves back and gives the Party some time to return. It also creates a time-crunch: If the Party doesn't get to the Rogue in-time, the whole Pack returns and it's too late for the Rogue.
    • As a Variant of the previous example, you can rule that the Dinos instead attempt to drag the unconscious Rogue to their pack, which brings them across the path of the Party. The Dinos, seeing a large group of armed Humans twice their size, drop the Rogue and run-off. You can use this to serve as a Warning instead of an immediate kill, as one of the players would undoubtedly chide the Rogue for running off on their own.

*= Typically, if a Pack Animal is lagging behind, after it has finished dealing with an attacker, it will return to the pack, either dragging prey with it or leaving it there. This is because they know innately that separation from the Pack means Death is very likely, as they can no longer effectively hunt large animals and they can no longer defend effectively against other predators or rival packs.

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