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Part of the Troll's Regeneration feature says:

The troll dies only if it starts its turn with 0 hit points and doesn't regenerate.

Does this case beat instant kill effects, such as Divine Word or Power Word Kill?

Divine Word says:

[...] On a failed save, a creature suffers an effect based on its current hit points.

[...]

  • 20 hit points or fewer: killed instantly

And Power Word Kill says:

If the creature you chose has 100 hit points or fewer, it dies. Otherwise, the spell has no effect.

In addition to such spells, there are more general effects that cause death, mainly massive damage and failing three death saves (if the DM actually rolls death saves for the troll).

It seems like the Regeneration trait enumerates the only case where a Troll can "die". But is Regeneration specific enough that it beats all other death effects?


I am looking for a RAW interpretation. Were I running a game and someone Power Word Killed a troll, I would have it die - but I'm not convinced that outcome is RAW.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What about Disintegrate? If that drops a Troll to 0 Hit Points, does it disintegrate them to ash? -- I think you should add this to your question. \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath Sep 30 '18 at 4:25

11 Answers 11

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The rules as written are ambiguous - and so it's up to the DM's ruling (and designer clarification has gone both ways)

Unfortunately, it's not clear exactly how these rules interact. The troll has an ability which apparently specifies the only circumstances in which a troll dies, and these spells can cause creatures to die instantly; both are exceptions to the normal rules about how things can die, so the principle that "specific beats general" guides us in trying to resolve the conflict, but judging which of the two features is more specific seems subjective and ambiguous.

If you interpret the spell's rules as being more specific than troll regeneration, the troll dies; and since it is dead, regeneration becomes meaningless. If you interpret the troll's regeneration as being more specific than the spell, it precludes the death from happening despite the spell's effect.

Purely RAW ruling, on specific-beats-general principles, I would personally read the troll's ability as more specific than the spell; the spells can, after all, be used on many different kinds of creatures by many different casters, but a troll's regeneration is only ever about trolls, so it is necessarily much more limited in scope and therefore takes precedence over the rules of the spells.

JC says the troll dies

Official D&D 5e rules guru Jeremy Crawford weighed in when Rubiksmoose asked him about this issue on twitter:

Rubiksmoose: Trolls say that they die "only if it starts its turn with 0 hit points and doesn't regenerate". Does that mean they cannot be killed by power word kill/divine word? How about Disintegration?

Jeremy Crawford: If you're affected by the power word kill spell, it doesn't reduce your hit points to 0. It kills you. It thereby bypasses features that rely on you having 0 hit points. The disintegrate spell does reduce hit points, but if it reduces you to 0, you're dusted.

In this case he's just repeated previously given clarification that effects which state creatures are killed or die do not function by reducing the target's HP to 0, they just kill the target directly. This fails to address the actual cause of the ambiguity, so we can't really take it as a clarification of the rules as written.

The response in context implies that Crawford believed that this aspect of the troll's regeneration ability is only meant to stop the troll dying due to normal hit point damage (as a "feature that relies on you having 0 hit points"), not prevent any other effect which reasonably causes death.

And then JC says the troll doesn't die

When asked a very similar question on a later podcast, about whether or not the instant death (massive damage) rule could kill a troll, he suggested that it should not:

Jeremy Crawford: So if we're gonna use the troll as the example, here's what we're told: the troll regains 10 hit points at the start of its turn; if the troll takes acid or fire damage this trait doesn't function at the start of the troll's next turn; the troll dies only if it starts its turn with zero hit points and doesn't regenerate.

So in D&D the specific beats the general, and the massive damage rule is a general rule, and here we have the specific troll. But let's also look at the massive damage rule, because sometimes a general rule in the way we might think it does if we're just going off our memory of it...

[... looks up rules, reminisces about killing player characters ...]

So looking again at the instant death rule, the troll's exception overrides the general rule.

Bart Carroll: So it'll be smushed, but it will reform...

JC: It'll regenerate, yep, and that is part of the horror of the troll.

Instant death by massive damage doesn't kill you by dropping your hit points to zero; it just says you die. Dropping your HP to zero is a necessary precondition for this rule to apply, but the statement that "you die" isn't any more qualified than the effect of Power Word Kill. Coming back to it later, JC seems to have taken a more literal reading of the troll's regeneration ability and ruled that it really does only die if it meets the requirements specified by its regeneration ability.

It seems plausible that if he'd been asked specifically about trolls and Power Word Kill again, he might have ruled differently, depending on whether he thought the spell was more specific than the troll's trait. He does preface the judgement by explaining how loathe he is to make rulings about general hypotheticals, because D&D isn't a coherent rules system, and would probably argue if challenged that this ruling was specifically about instant death and trolls, whereas the previous was about Power Word Kill/Disintegrate and trolls, so they don't conflict at all.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Besides the rules as written, what could be said about the conflict from a flavor perspective that might influence a DM's decision? \$\endgroup\$ – Vaelus Sep 27 '18 at 17:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think that from a narrative perspective, rather than mechanical (rules) perspective, that "specific beats general" becomes "rare beats common". A very high level spell like "power word kill" is rarer and thus more narratively impactful than the more common troll. \$\endgroup\$ – J Kimball Sep 27 '18 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately the correct answers are downvoted - while there is a slight ambiguity, it is very clear that once dead you do not have a turn to regenerate on (the troll wording itself even states that death happens, and no more turns after that) - if you are dead you have no turn. The spell happens between potential turns, and by the time the next turn would turn up it is already dead so does not get a turn to begin with. The only potential ambiguity comes in the troll wording which can mean that turning it into a pile of ash with no body left does not actually kill it if it can regenerate... \$\endgroup\$ – Rycochet Sep 27 '18 at 21:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rycochet sure, once a creature is dead it's dead. The whole point of the question is that the troll has an ability that says it can only die in a specific way (which spells like this do not satisfy), and whether or not it becomes dead in the first place is the crux of the matter. There is no argument made that a dead creature can regenerate. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Sep 27 '18 at 22:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question has now been clarified by JC here: twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/1047626065194012672 \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Oct 3 '18 at 23:44
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The spell is more specific, so the troll dies

The troll's regeneration ability is a specific rule that overrides the general rule, which is that monsters die immediately upon dropping to 0 HP. It's telling you that simply dropping the troll to 0 HP does not kill it, and dealing damage to the troll while it is at 0 HP also does not kill it (since the troll has no death saves to fail unless the DM decides otherwise). In essence, the ability modifies the normal rules for monster death. The troll's death from being at 0 HP is delayed until after the start of its next turn.

Spells like power word kill bypass the normal rules for creature death entirely, so they also bypass the modified death rules given in the regeneration feature. Power word kill kills any creature at 50 HP even though creatures do not normally die until they reach 0 HP, because the spell says it does. Power word kill also kills a troll at 50 HP (or 0 HP, etc.) for the same reason.

In summary, instant death effects bypass normal rules for death entirely, which means the modifications to the normal death rules in the regeneration feature are rendered moot.

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    \$\begingroup\$ By the rules, monsters do have death saves at the GM's discretion. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Sep 28 '18 at 4:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm strongly inclined to suspect that this is the regeneration ability as intended, but it is not the way it is written. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Sep 28 '18 at 8:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Carcer I think my answer is a valid interpretation of the rules as written. For another plain english example, imagine if I said "One glass of water isn't enough; my thirst will only be quenched by two glasses or water." The use of "only" is clearly not intended to suggest that water is the only drink in existence capable of quenching my thirst. Rather, it is specifying the minimum amount of water that will quench my thirst. Similarly, the rule is saying that being at 0 HP isn't enough to kill the troll. It only dies if it reaches 0 HP and then fails to regenerate. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Sep 28 '18 at 13:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Carcer I don't think "strictly literal reading" means "ignore all context". I agree that the single quoted sentence, if it appeared by itself, would contradict my answer. But I don't agree that the exact same sentence, taken in context, does so. Specifically, I'm claiming that my answer is correct even with the "rules-as-written" tag, unless "rules as written" means that every sentence must be read in complete isolation, divorced from any relevant context. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Sep 28 '18 at 13:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ While I agree with the overall logic in this answer, do you have any references to back that up? \$\endgroup\$ – Polygnome Sep 29 '18 at 13:16
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It's unclear which is more specific

This is a case where it's not clear which specific rule beats the general rule, since it's not clear which rule is "more specific". In this case the rules are:

  • The normal general rules by which a creature dies;
  • The specific rules by which the troll dies;
  • The specific spell's rules that override how a creature dies;

Clearly the least specific answer is at the top, but which of the next two rules takes precedence?

Therefore, you could either treat the last one as more specific, in which case when divine word says "killed instantly", or power word kill says "it dies", then the troll dies, regardless of how it would die during "normal" combat (i.e. not when subjected to high level spells that bypass the usual means of killing). Or you could treat the monster ability as more specific, in which case the troll does not die.


The Specific Beats General section from the PHB, pg. 7, states:

[M]any racial traits, class features, spells, magic items, monster abilities, and other game elements break the general rules in some way, creating an exception to how the rest of the game works. Remember this: If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins.

...

Magic accounts for most of the major exceptions to the rules.

This shows that both spells and monster ability could be thought of as being more specific, and doesn't really help us to adjudicate which is more specific in this example.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It seems we had the same conclusion, then. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Sep 27 '18 at 12:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Carcer Yeah, I got there eventually :S \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Sep 27 '18 at 13:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Jeremy Crawford confirms in the 1/29/19 Dragon+ episode (around 42 minutes in) that even the Instant Death rule (reduce it to 0 HP, with leftover damage equal to its max HP) won't kill it; the troll's Regeneration trait is more specific than the Instant Death rule. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 8 at 2:01
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A very dead troll

Jeremy Crawford says:

If you have 100 hp or fewer, power word kill causes you to die. Notice that it doesn't say you drop to 0 hp.

Beast form ends if the druid dies; things like power word kill can end you without reducing hit points.

The wording for the Divine Word spell also says nothing about reducing hit points simply that it kills anything with 20 or less.

The troll is does not start it's turn at 0 Hit Points; Regeneration does not apply.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The problem is that the wording of the troll's regeneration is not "if the troll starts its turn with 0 hit points, it only dies if it doesn't regenerate"; it is "the troll dies only if..." \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Sep 27 '18 at 12:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ "The troll is does[sic] not start it's turn at 0 Hit Points; Regeneration does not apply." <- Regeneration says the troll only dies if it has zero hit points (and doesn't regenerate). I don't see how it doesn't apply. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Sep 27 '18 at 12:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth the troll has a feature which says that it only dies if it starts its turn with 0 hp and doesn't manage to regenerate. On the face of it, that precludes any other manner of dying, including from effects which say "this thing dies". \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Sep 27 '18 at 12:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth It says the troll dies, and the troll's rule says it doesn't. You're just arbitrarily picking which rule you're following, and you shouldn't do that. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Sep 27 '18 at 12:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth You've got it backwards. The troll's rule says that it dies only if it starts its turn with 0 hp and without regenerating. The spell does neither of those. So how do you argue it bypasses the "ONLY IF" part? \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Sep 27 '18 at 12:50
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Regeneration protects the troll from instant death

This is because of several properties of the second part of Regeneration:

The troll dies only if it starts its turn with 0 hit points and doesn't regenerate.

First, Regeneration cannot be restricted to the start of the troll's turn, or the feature would not behave in the intended manner.

If the "only dies" part were restricted to the start of the troll's turn, then it could still die by dropping to 0 hp during another creatures turn. Thus we must assume that Regeneration is protecting the troll at all times.

Next, some clarification on the use of "only if" in logical statements.

P only if Q

is the same as

If P then Q

Now look at the structure of the second part of the Regeneration feature.

The troll dies only if it starts its turn with 0 hit points and doesn't regenerate.

This is the same as

If the troll dies, it has started its turn with 0 hit points and didn't regenerate.

The troll starting its turn with 0 hit points and not regenerating is thus a necessary condition for the troll to die.

This is in contrast to the effects that cause instant death, which as far as I can find are all sufficient but not necessary conditions for death since they are structured as "If X, then the creature dies".

Power Word Kill:

If the creature you chose has 100 Hit Points or fewer, it dies

The creature having 100 hit points or fewer is a sufficient condition for it dying. But in the case of the troll, Regeneration produces an extra necessary condition that must be satisfied before it can die. The same can be applied for Divine Word:

On a failed save, a creature suffers an effect based on its current hit points: [...] 20 hit points or fewer: killed instantly

The creature failing it's charisma saving throw and having less than 20 hit points is a sufficient condition for death.

If Power Word Kill's effect is transposed, we have:

The create has 100 hit points or fewer only if it dies.

This imposes another necessary condition: The creature dying is a necessary condition for it to have 100 hit points or fewer.

We have two conditions that must be satisfied: The creature dying is a necessary condition for it to have 100 hit points or fewer, and the troll starting its turn at 0 hit points and not regenerating is a necessary condition for it to die. This is the crux of the problem.

Since neither of the necessary conditions can be satisfied without the other being violated, we have to determine that one of the necessary conditions has higher priority than the other.

Specific Beats General

From the Basic Rules:

If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins.

Because of this, we can conclude immediately that Regeneration prevents the troll from dying to massive damage and death saves, because those are general rules, and Regeneration is specific. The protection from massive damage has been confirmed in the 1/29/19 Dragon+ episode (around 42 minutes in)

But Power Word Kill and Divine Word are specific cases. So we don't have specific versus general, we have specific versus specific. Unfortunately, the examples provided from the Specific Versus General section do not exemplify these types of conflicts, so we must look at other cases that are comparable.

In order for a spell to produce it's effect absolutely and without contest, it must explicitly invalidate all things that would prevent that effect. An example would be the Create Homunculus spell from XGE:

You cut yourself with a jewel-encrusted dagger, taking 2d4 piercing damage that can't be reduced in any way[...]

This spell explicitly states the damage cannot be reduced, which allows it to beat cases that say otherwise, such as resistance or immunity to piercing damage. Unless a spell has this specific type of wording, it cannot override other protective effects. If Power Word Kill were allowed to override a monster-specific trait just because it's a spell, then by the same logic, True Polymorph could transform a Stone Golem, even though Golems are immune to having their form altered by the Immutable Form trait.

By not explicitly nullifying protections, Divine Word and Power Word Kill do not provide a specific enough case to kill the troll.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the application of logic there. However, looking at the context appears to do the opposite: Regeneration is an ability that can undo physical damage done. Both spells do not, however, cause damage. Note that their effect is stated as instant death, not "reduced to 0 HP and thus killed". Since they do not describe what happens if a creature somehow does not die (e.g. are they then at 0 HP or not?), the intent of the spell clearly is that it is death, period. \$\endgroup\$ – Tom Sep 29 '18 at 17:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Tom Many spells do not describe what happens if their stated effects do not occur. Fireball says that creatures in the effected area take fire damage, so what happens to a creature hit by Fireball that is immune to fire? Fireball provides no information on what happens when the target is immune to fire. Spells are not obligated to explain what happens if their desired effects cannot occur, the effect simply doesn't happen. \$\endgroup\$ – Deltatheduck Sep 29 '18 at 18:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ The transposition of "If Then"/"Only If" cuts both ways. This answer would be vastly improved by applying that transposition to the Power Word Kill rules. This improvement may take the form of a drastic reduction in your level of certainty. Down voting until that analysis is included. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Sep 29 '18 at 21:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Deltatheduck - your example: The creature is immune from fire, so it does not take damage from fire. The spell effect specifically says that creatures take fire damage. No fire, no damage. Very simple. The troll description does not specifically say that the troll is immune to death or to instant death effects. It says that when reduced to 0 HP it does not die, but can regenerate. But neither of the spells reduced anyone to 0 HP as a means of killing in the way fireball does damage by means of fire. \$\endgroup\$ – Tom Sep 30 '18 at 6:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Jeremy Crawford confirms in the 1/29/19 Dragon+ episode (around 42 minutes in) that even the Instant Death rule (reduce it to 0 HP, with leftover damage equal to its max HP) won't kill it; the troll's Regeneration trait is more specific than the Instant Death rule. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 8 at 2:02
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I would argue that instant-kill spells act as "Fulfill Death Requirements" functions. They don't act on HP. I think that this is justified in RAW.

From the spell description of Power Word Kill in 5E:

You utter a word of power that can compel one creature you can see within range to die instantly. If the creature you choose has 100 hit points or fewer, it dies. Otherwise, the spell has no effect.

You are compelling the troll to die. It is foregoing any possible regeneration.

It does come down to DM's discretion, but I would kill the troll.

I originally said this, after further research I no longer believe it comes down to DM's discretion, I think 100% RAW the troll dies.

This is supported by these answers:

Functionally, how does Power Word Kill work?

Power Word Kill works just like it says it does. The spell's description is complete and exact. If the target has less than 100 hit points, they die. Specifically:

There is no saving throw.

The spell doesn't do damage. It just kills the target. Damage resistance or immunity has no effect. Nor does any condition immunity.

There are no special targeting restrictions; the caster only needs to be able to pronounce the verbal component, and see the target in range (60 feet). The target doesn't need to see or hear the caster.

Since there is no save, magic resistance short of outright immunity to spells doesn't help against this spell. Likewise, Legendary Resistance doesn't help. A counterspell cast at 9th level, or with a successful DC19 spellcasting ability check, will still stop it.

Usually a spellcaster doesn't know how many hit points a creature has. So there's theoretically some risk of the spell "fizzling".

It's an enchantment, which means that if the caster has the Split Enchantment class feature from the wizard School of Enchantment, they can affect two targets instead of one.

Likewise, it's a spell with a single target so a sorcerer with the Twinned Spell metamagic option can affect a second target by spending nine sorcery points.

This is, of course, a 9th level spell, and is appropriately powerful; only a character with 17 levels in Bard, Cleric, Sorcerer, Warlock or Wizard can learn it. So in terms of balance it needs to be weighed against other capabilities and threats at that level.

Does Power Word Kill instantly kill PCs?

Spells do exactly what they say, whether cast on PCs or other monsters.

Power Word Kill says a creature with 100 hit points or fewer dies. PCs are not exempt from this as they are also creatures and thus are perfectly valid targets for the spell. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not make a saving throw vs the effect, do not drop to 0 HP and start making death saving throws. They just die like any other creature targeted by the spell.

Note that this is a 9th level spell so it's meant to be powerful.

The consensus was that the spell does exactly what it says it does. Trolls are not specified to be immune to instant-death effects.

I would also argue that a spell like Divine Word would absolutely kill the troll instantly.

You utter a divine word, imbued with the power that shaped the world at the dawn of creation. Choose any number of creatures you can see within range. Each creature that can hear you must make a Charisma saving throw. On a failed save, a creature suffers an effect based on its current hit points: 50 hit points or fewer: deafened for 1 minute 40 hit points or fewer: deafened and blinded for 10 minutes 30 hit points or fewer: blinded, deafened, and stunned for 1 hour 20 hit points or fewer: killed instantly Regardless of its current hit points, a celestial, an elemental, a fey, or a fiend that fails its save is forced back to its plane of origin (if it isn’t there already) and can’t return to your current plane for 24 hours by any means short of a wish spell.

These two bolded sentences should give you a sense of exactly how powerful a spell like Divine Word is meant to be. A troll on the other hand is a relatively low-powered enemy. It's regeneration can be stopped by something as simple as fire, or acid.

Now let's break down the Troll's Regeneration ability, and how it functions, logically. To start as a given, Troll's can have two main states: Alive, or Dead. From the Troll’s description:

https://roll20.net/compendium/dnd5e/Troll#content

Regeneration. The troll regains 10 hit points at the start of its turn. If the troll takes acid or fire damage, this trait doesn't function at the start of the troll's next turn. The troll dies only if it starts its turn with 0 hit points and doesn't regenerate.

So, we know that this regeneration ability only applies to live Trolls. A dead Troll can't regenerate because it's already dead.

So we can get this:

Troll = Alive
While Troll == Alive:
    Try:
        Regenerate() #At TurnStart HP = HP + 10
    Except:
        if HP == 0 and RegenerateError
            Troll = Dead

What spells like Divine Word, or Power Word Kill do, is set the Troll = Alive at the top, to Troll = Dead, instantly. It bypasses the entire regeneration trait.

From The Man Himself

And finally, most likely as a result of this post, Jeremy Crawford has answered this question: https://twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/1047626065194012672

If you're affected by the power word kill spell, it doesn't reduce your hit points to 0. It kills you. It thereby bypasses features that rely on you having 0 hit points.

The disintegrate spell does reduce hit points, but if it reduces you to 0, you're dusted. #DnD

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    \$\begingroup\$ You assume that the Troll is not specified to be immune to instant-death effects, but that is exactly what this question is asking. \$\endgroup\$ – Deltatheduck Sep 28 '18 at 14:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Deltatheduck And what I'm saying is that spells like Power Word Kill or Divine Word set the status of the troll to "Dead" immediately, with no saving throw and no caveats at all. I'll edit my answer now with support for that statement. \$\endgroup\$ – Schrodinger'sStat Sep 28 '18 at 16:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cubic No. The way that these spells work is that they set the target creature to "Dead" instantly. They bypass any trait, saving throw, ability, or magic item that doesn't explicitly save them from a spell of this type. They bypass the entire "Dying" of the creature. It's instantly dead. \$\endgroup\$ – Schrodinger'sStat Sep 28 '18 at 19:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cubic I’d argue that RAW Power Word Kill and Divine Word pretty explicitly say that the troll dies, and to argue it shouldn’t is RAI. “The Troll dies only if” is a Death Requirement. Power Word Kill, when the enemy has less than 100HP, just changes that status to “Dead” immediately. Yes, live trolls can only die if they start their turn with 0HP and can’t regenerate. Power Word Kill and Divine Word just set the Troll to “Dead” immediately this is RAW. Same turn. It’s no longer a Troll in combat, it’s functionally the same as walking by an already dead Troll corpse. \$\endgroup\$ – Schrodinger'sStat Sep 29 '18 at 15:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ There is now a JC tweet that agrees with you here: twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/1047626065194012672 \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Oct 3 '18 at 23:46
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Troll is dead. Regenerate only works if the troll starts its turn with 0 hit points. Since it is already dead, it does not 'start its turn' at all and so remains dead. Also, a spell is more specific than an ability like Regenerate, regardless of wording.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure where you get either the dead assertion or the spell being more specific. Specifically the last one, can you quote the source? \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Sep 27 '18 at 14:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please elaborate your reasoning. \$\endgroup\$ – Trish Sep 27 '18 at 14:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Regenerate only works if the troll starts its turn with 0 hit points" based on what rule, exactly? \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Sep 27 '18 at 21:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkTO Users are required to communicate without using insults. (In fact, the bar to clear is to communicate respectfully.) I know downvotes can be frustrating, but please resist urges to call voters names. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 4 '18 at 19:22
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The Troll Dies

I think it helps to look at a few other Regenerate effects for comparison. Fortunately, there's only 2 others in the SRD, so that's relatively easy:

Vampire

The vampire regains 20 hit points at the start of its turn if it has at least 1 hit point and isn’t in sunlight or running water. If the vampire takes radiant damage or damage from holy water, this trait doesn’t function at the start of the vampire’s next turn.

Shield Guardian

The shield guardian regains 10 hit points at the start of its turn if it has at least 1 hit point.

Were either of these creatures subjected to the instant kill effects, they would die. It's worth noting that vampires have special ways to kill them, but those methods are irrelevant because the vampire was subjected to an instant kill effect.

The reason for their death would have less to do with their current or resultant hit points, and everything to do with that the effect statement of the spell says the creature dies.

So although the troll has special means to kill them, that does not preclude the fact that they are still subjected to an effect that has caused instant death. The effect did not cause their hit points to fall to 0, the effect just killed them.

Another way to look at it is to consider the Shield Guardian's Bound feature, which binds them to an owner and let's them share damage:

If the guardian is within 60 feet of the amulet’s wearer, half of any damage the wearer takes (rounded up) is transferred to the guardian.

If the shield guardian's master had 90 hit points and was subjected to an instant kill effect, they would simply die. No damage split would occur between the the guardian and the master because the instant kill effect doesn't deal damage, it's just a switch for 'yes you're dead' or 'no you're not'.

Related:

Does dying cause a creature explicitly to drop to zero hit points?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer doesn't seem to address the question. The trolls ability that the troll only dies if it starts its turn with 0 hp and can't regenerate. An instant kill effect tries to make the troll die without reducing its HP to 0 and preventing it from regenerating. The spell says the troll dies. The troll says it doesn't (because his ability says he doesn't). You've not provided a reasoning why an instant kill effect would be allowed to ignore the 'only' clause. \$\endgroup\$ – Cubic Sep 27 '18 at 13:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Cubic the troll's turn doesn't start. It's dead by virtue of the spell's effect. Similar to how a vampire would be dead even though it was not staked or exposed to the sun. There are standard criteria for death of certain creatures and that's fine, but that those criteria do not make a specific exception for instant death effects and thus the creature dies. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Sep 28 '18 at 14:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're still missing the point. The question isn't whether or not the troll can regenerate after being killed by power word: kill. The question is whether or not the troll can be killed by Power Word: Kill in the first place, which a RAW reading of last sentence of the regeneration ability suggests it can't. RAI is almost certainly that this only applies to them dying by damage, but this question is about RAW. \$\endgroup\$ – Cubic Sep 28 '18 at 14:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ FYI the reason why neither the vampire nor the shield guardian are valid counterexamples is because neither has a clause restricting the ways in which they can be killed. Vampire has a replacement ability for what happens if it drops to 0 HP (note that it doesn't say that's the only way it can be killed), whereas the guardian doesn't have an ability relating to death at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Cubic Sep 28 '18 at 14:54
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From the PHB page 76:

Most DMs have a monster die the instant it drops to 0 hit points, rather than having it fall unconscious and make death saving throws. Mighty villains and special nonplayer characters are common exceptions; the DM might have them fall unconscious and follow the same rules as player characters.

Due to this rule a monster dying when it hits 0 hp is down to the DM. The DM will be killing most monsters when they hit 0 hp. However, in the case of the troll during normal combat, most DMs will follow the troll's special trait and keep it alive at 0hp until its next turn when it regenerates. However Power word kill doesn't reduce the monster to 0 hp, it kills the monster. So the DM doesn't really have the discretion to keep the troll alive and at 0 hp until it's next turn. So once again I have to conclude that power word kill, kills the troll dead!

Example

Normal Battle

  1. PC hits troll with normal damage reducing it to 0hp.
  2. GM checks p76 of PHB, decides troll counts as "special NPC" due to it's regenerative abilities.
  3. GM keeps troll at 0 hp until it's next turn.
  4. Troll starts it's turn on 0 not having taken fire or acid damage. Therefore troll regenerates, living to fight a second time.

Power Word Kill Battle

  1. PC casts power word kill on troll and it succeed.
  2. The GM consults the power word kill spell. It says the creature dies, not "the creature is reduced to 0 hp".
  3. the GM then consults PHB p76. Even though the Troll is a special NPC due to it's regenerative ability the GM isn't allowed to keep the troll alive in accordance with PHB p76 because PHB p76 only applies to creatures at 0 hp, not dead creatures which is what the spell did.
  4. unable to keep the troll alive until it's next turn the troll cannot start it's next turn with 0 hp because it is dead.
  5. the troll therefore cannot regenerate.

Relevant Rules

Regeneration. The troll regains 10 hit points at the start of its turn. If the troll takes acid or fire damage, this trait doesn't function at the start of the troll's next turn. The troll dies only if it starts its turn with 0 hit points and doesn't regenerate.

The text saying the troll only dies if it starts it's turn with 0 hit points is contained in the "regeneration" special trait.

The regeneration special trait takes place at the start of the trolls turn.

Power word kill, does not say "reduce the troll's hitpoints to zero." It says "kill the troll". This happens before the start of the troll's next turn.

The troll does not get a next turn due to being dead and therefore doesn't get the opportunity to enact the regeneration special feature. Even though the regeneration special feature contains the word only the "only" is still part of the special feature, and not part of a troll as a whole.

For the troll to be immune to effects such as power word kill, RAW would need to include its immunity to death as part of a separate special feature. The regeneration special feature only takes place on the start of the troll's turn so the only wording of that special feature does not expand out to cover the troll's entire existence.

At least that's how I read it, I can see why there is a little ambiguity. In the end the GM should reward clever thinking like this, by allowing the players to kill the troll.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If the "only" wording is specific to the start of the troll's turn, then Regeneration could never bring a Troll back from 0 hp. It could die from normal combat damage, since it is not the start of the trolls turn, and monsters generally die when they drop to 0 hp. \$\endgroup\$ – Deltatheduck Sep 28 '18 at 10:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ From the PHB page 76: "Most DMs have a monster die the instant it drops to 0 hit points, rather than having it fall unconscious and make death saving throws. Mighty villains and special nonplayer characters are common exceptions; the DM might have them fall unconscious and follow the same rules as player characters." \$\endgroup\$ – MooseBoost Sep 28 '18 at 10:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MooseBoost The troll's ability says the troll can't die if it isn't dropped to 0 hit points. If anything, the fact that it's instant death and not reduction to 0 hit points speaks against the troll dying. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Sep 28 '18 at 13:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MooseBoost The troll's ability says the troll only dies if it is at zero hit points and doesn't regenerate. That means that a troll that isn't at zero hit points can't die (unless you rule that the spell is more specific, which is a separate discussion). \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Sep 28 '18 at 15:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MooseBoost Overall, you are using the same circular argument we went through with Slagmoth in this chat. If you want to debate it further, check in there, see what has been said and continue if you wish. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Sep 28 '18 at 15:43
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Surely regeneration only applies if the Troll takes enough damage to render it unconscious? An instant death effect would kill it (i.e. remove the life force) and make it incapable of regeneration.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't realise people were looking for that much detail before I responded. I don't really mind it getting removed if that's the case :) \$\endgroup\$ – Ash Sep 29 '18 at 11:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ you can delete your answer yourself. \$\endgroup\$ – Trish Sep 30 '18 at 9:34
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I think that while the letter-by-letter interpretation of the troll's description may lend to think it wouldn't die, the intended wording is very obviously much more like:

The troll regains 10 hit points at the start of its turn. If the troll takes acid or fire damage, this trait doesn't function at the start of the troll's next turn. The troll dies only from hit point depletion if it starts its turn with 0 hit points and doesn't regenerate.

Why am I saying this? First of all, the spell descriptions explicitly state "killed instantly" or "creature dies". It doesn't say any such thing as "causes X points of damage" or "reduces hit points to zero". It says "dies". So, by consequence, anything that can die (arguably, Power Word Kill wouldn't work for e.g. a construct because it isn't alive at all) will die.

That's consistent with e.g. Disintegrate which says "target takes 10d6 + 40 force damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 hit points, it is disintegrated". Now think about it. A troll can regenerate damage, fine. But if you disintegrate it, what's going to regenerate?
It doesn't matter how awesome the troll's regeneration powers are. The troll is gone, there's no such thing as a wounded or dying creature or even a corpse, it was wiped from existence. Disintegration very clearly isn't "fire or acid". But surely you wouldn't expect a successfully disintegrated troll to pop into existence again the next turn as today's special surprise menu, would you?

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    \$\begingroup\$ we don't deal in "intended" when the tag rules-as-written is attatched to the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Trish Sep 30 '18 at 9:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Trish actually this is incorrect. The tag changes nothing about how a question can be answered. Tags only reflect what the content of the question is and that tag was added since this is a very strict rules interaction, not to restrict the answers. The real thing that should clue you in is that OP says in the question "I am looking for a RAW interpretation". \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Sep 30 '18 at 21:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose in either case: including assumed intent makes this not an answer to a RAW question. \$\endgroup\$ – Trish Sep 30 '18 at 21:39

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