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Inspired by PJRZ's comment on this answer to this question:

What attacks actually exist that reduce someone's max HP, but do not specifically state what happens at max HP of 0?

As far as I am aware, all monster abilities that can reduce max HP to 0 state that the creature dies (and optionally may be brought back as some undead creature, depending on the exact creature/attack used to reduce the max HP to 0).

As an example of an attack that does state what happens, consider a Wraith's Life Drain attack (MM, pg. 302):

Life Drain. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 21 (4d8 + 3) necrotic damage. The target must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.

Are there any attacks or effect that reduce a creature's max HP to 0, but do not address whether or not the target dies?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question says "attacks or effects", where the description only talks about attacks. I'm aware of some effects that may apply, are you interested in them as well? \$\endgroup\$ Aug 9, 2018 at 8:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @IsaacReefman Yes, I'd say that if an effect that isn't strictly speaking an attack (like an aura or something) but can still reduce max HP, then it is still relevant regarding the other question/answer I've linked; ultimately my goal here is to see whether anything can reduce max HP to 0 without telling you what happens, since that greatly informs the other question (if it turns out that there is no such attack or effect, then that question might be answered by saying "no, because they're dead", with this question's answers as backup). \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Aug 9, 2018 at 8:13

2 Answers 2

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There was... (prior to the 2018 errata)

Jeremy Crawford's 2017 tweet

This question regarding "death by leveling" was inspired by Jeremy Crawford's tweet that you could take a hit to your Max HP when leveling up.

The fact that you're unlikely to take such a hit unless your constitution score is very low means you're likely to have a low Max HP to start with, and having it drop to 0 when leveling up becomes a real possibility if you roll for it.

For Example:

Jeremiah, a Sorcerer, rolled so many 3s at character creation that he decided to put one into Constitution. At level one, that's 6 + (-4) for a Max HP of 2.

If he doesn't roll for Max HP gains when he levels up, 4 - 4 will never give any net gains. If he chooses to gamble for an extra point or two, however, he could drop to 0 at the very first level!

This is the most extreme example of this effect I'm aware of RAW, but the same basic effect is possible with a constitution score of 4 or 5 too. In fact, any Constitution score below 8 could leave you with 0 Max HP with enough bad rolls in a row when leveling up. Start with 6-2=4 Max, roll 4 1s, there you are.

The question you linked was asked because this didn't seem to be directly addressed in the rules. However...

2018 Errata

In 2018 the Wizards of the Coast official Player's Handbook Errata adjusted the wording regarding leveling up on p.15 of the PHB to read:

Each time you gain a level, you gain 1 additional Hit Die. Roll that Hit Die, add your Constitution modifier to the roll, and add the total (minimum of 1) to your hit point maximum. - PHB p.15 with errata

I'd consider that where there are two official rulings that definitely contradict one another, the later ruling would supersede the earlier one. This means that Jeremiah can no longer lose hitpoints when he levels up.

An interesting follow on effect: It seems to me that the text regarding taking the fixed average (instead of rolling your hit die) that completes that paragraph does not change the "minimum of 1" that is applied to the total:

Alternatively, you can use the fixed value shown in your class entry, which is the average result of the die roll (rounded up) - PHB p.15

So there's not even that way to get a zero gain, but rolling, for Jeremiah, which used to carry the risk of death, now cannot be worse than taking the average - rolling: 1d6 + (-4) (minimum of 1) yields 1 or 2, but the average: 4 + (-4) (minimum of 1) always yields 1. Not a big difference, but it still means that what used to be a risky move becomes the obvious best and safest!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, this puts your comment in more context now. I think I missed that in your question (I've also only just noticed that the linked question is yours!). This certainly isn't an attack, but it's... an interesting way to achieve max HP of 0. Given that the answer I linked to the other question suggests using temp HP to get around it, does this mean Jeremiah the Sorcerer would have to live on temp hit points? What a frightening thought! \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Aug 9, 2018 at 8:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ That was exactly my thought! I wanted to know if such a thing were possible, as it would be an incredibly interesting story idea. Unfortunately it would seem from the answers on my question that such a thing is not possible RAW. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 9, 2018 at 8:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ In-universe this sounds like a character in incredibly poor health with a debilitating and progressive illness. They must maintain almost complete bed-rest (=not earning XP). Too much activity might kill them at any time (e.g. doing stuff = earning XP = levelling = death!). \$\endgroup\$
    – PJRZ
    Aug 9, 2018 at 8:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ The closest character-from-fiction equivalent I can think of is Moorcock’s Elric; if one were to be trying to replicate that character’s ill-health in-game it would certainly be interesting to see if there’s a RAW way of sustaining the character’s life with magic and/or potions. Otherwise it might have to be a homebrew solution. (In the books, of course, Elric is latterly sustained the artifact-level Stormbringer — but that option’s not going to be available to everyone). \$\endgroup\$
    – RickL
    Aug 10, 2018 at 5:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks @V2Blast - Makes an interesting situation where Crawford's initial ruling is overturned by a subsequent errata! \$\endgroup\$ Sep 22, 2020 at 1:15
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Yes (indirectly): clay golem + aid

The clay golem's slam attack (MM p. 168) has the following effect:

If the target is a creature, it must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or have its hit point maximum reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. The target dies if this attack reduces its hit point maximum to 0. The reduction lasts until removed by the greater restoration spell or other magic.

On its own, reducing a creature's hit point maximum to 0 with this attack would cause a creature to die. However, note that, unlike other effects, the condition is 'if the attack reduces...to 0', rather than the much more open-ended 'if this effect reduces...to 0'. We can therefore use the aid spell (PHB p. 211) to circumvent this condition:

Each target's hit point maximum and current hit points increase by 5 for the duration.

If a creature has the aid spell cast on it, then is hit by (and fails the save associated with) the slam of a clay golem, having its hit point maximum reduced to 5, and then the aid spell expires, the creature's hit point maximum—and current hit points—would be reduced to exactly 0 without triggering any condition that would instantly kill it. Additionally, since the creature didn't take damage when it dropped to 0 hit points, it is also unclear whether the creature falls unconscious, dies, or neither.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Seeems pretty clear what happens when you hit 0hp in this scenario - you're unconscious. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 16 at 19:00

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