During our last D&D 5e session, one of the player characters went down. As the healer was a bit too far away, another PC tried to stabilize the other PC with a Medicine check.

Unfortunately, they failed the check, and our DM ruled that this check could only be performed once (just like most checks). The failed check meant that the wounds were just too severe and your medicine knowledge wasn’t good enough to stop the PC from dying.

I don’t fully agree with this because while they are not dead yet, you can still try to bind their wounds even if you don’t succeed immediately.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find any rulings about this and was wondering if there are other arguments for or against making the check multiple times.

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up vote 14 down vote accepted

The rules don’t specifically tell a DM when a check can be retried or not. In the Ability Checks rules (Chapter 7 of the Basic Rules or Player’s Handbook), when describing the results of a check, the rules say:

If the total [of the roll] equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success--the creature overcomes the challenge at hand. Otherwise, it's a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.

Chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide goes into more detail under “Multiple Ability Checks”:

Sometimes a character fails an ability check and wants to try again. In some cases a character is free to do so; [...] In other cases, failing an ability check makes it impossible to make the same check to do the same thing again.

So the DM is free to rule that the character has merely failed to stabilise their companion, and can try again, or that they have done something wrong, making it impossible for them to do so, at least for the length of the combat.

Personally, though, I think this is a harsh call. Simply failing the roll is no reason to stop a character from continuing to attempt to stabilise someone; the consequences for failure are possibly permanent, and I would never want to discourage a player from trying to save a friend, especially if the party doesn’t have access to magical healing and they’re willing to give up their action each turn to try again.

From a narrative perspective, stabilising someone is effectively applying first aid, and you should be able to continue trying to stop the bleeding or restart their heart or whatever else is involved. Perhaps ask your DM outside of play - before your next session perhaps - why they’re making this call.

It’s also worth noting that Medicine is a Wisdom-based skill, not an Intelligence-based one, which suggests failure is more about you not finding and addressing the worst wounds, rather than that you don’t know what to do - unless there’s something special about these wounds? The section on "Intelligence check vs Wisdom check", also in Chapter 8 of the DMG, says:

Wisdom checks allow characters to perceive what is around them (the wall is clean here), while Intelligence checks answer why things are that way (there’s probably a secret door).

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    It might be worth noting that another consequence of failure is that the player has used their action that turn, so they are still giving up something in order to try. – GPPK Oct 22 at 15:13
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    As @GPPK said, it takes an action to stabilize, so that's the price for trying a second time. Since skill checks are a standard action they have to wait for the next round before they try again, even if it's out of combat it matters since the dying PC has to make another death save – wiredniko Oct 22 at 16:10
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    Your Wis vs. Int remark is very important. If you don't know you don't know, but for perceiving you can always "squint a bit". I think retries are also dramatic and should be allowed. – Mindwin Oct 22 at 16:11
  • The other aspect could be "You failed the check so badly and made it worse", "You failed your check and you've spent X amount of time trying and doing nothing" – Selkie Oct 22 at 18:15
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    Thanks for the elaborate answer. You make a good point that this is a Wisdom check and not a Intelligence check. After the next session I will bring this up with the DM. I also found it a bit harsh but could partly follow the idea behind it. Now luckily the PC didn't die, after 2 failed death-saves and 1 successful one the healer arrived and patched him up. We were only a level 1 party so we didn't have any healer kit or healing potions available. – BramV Oct 23 at 7:24

There are five basic ways for a fallen character to stabilize:

  • three successful death saves
  • a successful Medicine check
  • one use of a Healer's Kit (no check required)
  • a clerical cantrip (spare the dying)
  • any amount of magical healing (including potions, spells, and other abilities)

There are a couple of other ways that are specific to certain magic items or character classes, but those are the usual ones that are available to most groups.

The latter four of those represent actions by allies to help a dying character, but only one of them, the Medicine check, has any chance of failure, while the other three require resources (in the form of using up an item or spell slot, or in the cantrip's case, the opportunity cost of the character not taking a different cantrip).

In the Dungeon Master's Guide (p.237), it discusses when a roll should be able to be tried again, and when it shouldn't, but the example of a non-retry roll is getting caught in a lie, where that lie is just dead and the person being lied to is unlikely to buy any further stories.

Given all that, there seems to be no good reason to say the Medicine check is a one-try roll. There is a cost to failure even if you allow repeated attempts; if you have to spend an action every round to attempt a stabilization check, each failure means the dying character has to make another death saving throw -- and remember that on a 1, they take two failures, which may lead to a sudden death when you thought they were basically safe for now.

(...but seriously, just have a couple healing kits on hand, they're the perfect fallback when you can't use magic.)

Yes, it can be repeated

By RAW there is no reason you can't attempt the Medicine check once on each turn. It only takes an actions and nothing says that you can't reattempt it.

Stabilizing a Creature

The best way to save a creature with 0 hit points is to heal it. If healing is unavailable, the creature can at least be stabilized so that it isn’t killed by a failed death saving throw.

You can use your action to administer first aid to an unconscious creature and attempt to stabilize it, which requires a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check.

And the medicine rules give no indication of if the check can be repeated of not.

A Wisdom (Medicine) check lets you try to stabilize a dying companion or diagnose an illness.

And the DMG (p. 237) leaves the feasibility of repeated ability checks to DM discretion:

Sometimes a character fails an ability check and wants to try again. In some cases a character is free to do so; [...] In other cases, failing an ability check makes it impossible to make the same check to do the same thing again.

How I would rule it

I would rule that each character can only attempt it once. Which agrees with your reason:

your medicine knowledge wasn’t good enough to stop the PC from dying

Another character could make additional attempts however with their own action.

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