A Divine Soul sorcerer in our group is quite fond of using polymorph to change herself into a giant ape (MM, p. 323). At one point in our game last night she managed to grapple a Bheur (Winter Hag) that was riding a Nightmare (flying evil Pegasus). And during the fight, the mount was killed, sending them all into a 1200-ft. nose dive. The fall did 120d6 damage (specifically, 311 damage) to her polymorphed Ape form, which was it turned out exactly 3 points from killing her instantly with the massive damage rule (PHB, p. 197).

An argument about the damage rule ensued, which I felt was squared away with simple math, but it then led directly to another argument over the fact that she got to remain in her Giant Ape form because she still had the spell death ward active on her sheet. This might have just been simple confusion over how much time had passed after their long rest, as in her case she had death ward active for 16 total hours, rather than the normal 8 hours, because of the sorcerer's "Extended Spell" Metamagic option (PHB, p. 102).

The argument then continued, to the entire table's near complete exasperation, as it became a debate over whether or not she should be reverted back to her original sorcerer form because she hit 0 HP (which triggered the death ward), or if she never actually hit 0 HP because death ward keeps you at 1 HP... (Ugh.)

I made a ruling at the table that yes, she's going to continue on as a giant ape at 1 HP despite taking over 300 damage, regardless of how "ridiculous" the other players found it to be, because those are the rules (and also "Because: MAGIC"). But the question of how it works by RAW is now eating at me...

When the death ward spell is triggered by damage, do you first technically hit 0 HP and then go back up to 1 HP? Or do you effectively just never go below 1 HP?


5 Answers 5


The Sorcerer retains their Giant Ape form with 1 HP

The death ward spell description specifies the following (emphasis mine):

The first time the target would drop to 0 hit points as a result of taking damage, the target instead drops to 1 hit point, and the spell ends.

The Sorcerer was the target of the spell. Their hit points were replaced with that of their new form when polymorph was cast; however, polymorph does not remove benefits of spells cast on the previous form.

This means their new hit point pool never drops to 0 hit points.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ You should probably mention the necessary concentration saving throw with an average DC of 35... \$\endgroup\$ Dec 4, 2020 at 18:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov: What do you mean "an average DC of 35"? \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Dec 5, 2020 at 0:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Max fall damage is 20d6, for an expected value of 70 damage, and the DC for a concentration save is half the damage taken, so the expected value of a concentration save DC from maximum fall damage is 35. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 5, 2020 at 0:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov: Ah, you're saying the average DC based on the actual limit on fall damage, not the uncapped roll/number given in the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Dec 5, 2020 at 0:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Right, the DC for the incorrectly calculated damage in the OP would be 155. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 5, 2020 at 0:49

The sorcerer remains in giant ape form at 1 HP

Death ward is still in effect

Since the giant ape is still a valid target for death ward, the spell is still in effect. If the ape were not a valid target for death ward, it would be suppressed.

"Would Drop"

The description of the death ward spell says:

The first time the target would drop to 0 hit points as a result of taking damage, the target instead drops to 1 hit point, and the spell ends.

"Would" is the operative word here. The meaning is expressing the future tense - specifically, in the future where the damage drops the target to 0 hp. This spell prevents that future entirely as is indicated by "instead."

Restating this for this case: "If the damage would drop the ape to 0 HP, the ape instead drops to 1 HP and the spell ends."

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think "would" is technically future tense; it's the subjunctive form of "will", indicating a hypothetical or counterfactual situation in the clause that follows it. (The other use of "would" is as a past-tense form of "will", e.g. "I knew I would find you here.") But that's an English.SE matter, not an RPG.SE one :P \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Dec 5, 2020 at 0:27

Death Ward would prevent dropping to 0 HP

Death ward (PHB, pg. 230) says:

The first time the target would drop to 0 hit points as a result of taking damage, the target instead drops to 1 hit point and the spell ends.

Therefore, since the Giant Ape form of the Sorceress never hit 0 HP, I would understand that to mean that the polymorph spell does not end since that form never hit 0 HP.


Death ward saves the polymorph form, but polymorph ends anyway.

The player takes massive fall damage, let's say they take 120 points of fall damage.

This damage exceeds the maximum health of the polymorph form. Death ward kicks in and prevents the polymorph form from ending, since instead of going to 0, it goes to 1 hit point. Death ward has now been used, and is gone.

Now the player must make a concentration check, since polymorph is a concentration spell. The DC is half the damage taken. Assuming the player does not have a way to auto succeed on Con saving throws (concentration checks), they must now make a DC 60 (half of 120) Con save. This is pretty much impossible. The polymorph spell ends.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point about the Concentration check! \$\endgroup\$ Dec 5, 2020 at 16:55

since the Spell discription states "if it WOULD X it INSTEAD Y" i would say she never actually drops to 0.

"The first time the target would drop to 0 hit points as a result of taking damage, the target instead drops to 1 hit point, and the spell ends."

One might Argue though that loosing Polymorph does not qualify as dying even if she ""would drop to 0 hp""


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