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The rules for Death Saving Throws seem clear to me, except for one important thing: when does the person rolling for death or stabilization get to make their saving throw?

Issue came up last weekend: one character got punched and kicked down to -9 hit points, failed twice... then he failed a third and fatal time, at which point the Cleric stopped play, and pointed out we were doing it wrong: PHB 197 says you roll against death "whenever you start YOUR turn at 0 hp" -- which conveniently gave the cleric extra time to heal the dying character before the third fail and "undo" the death.

This got me to thinking, it's not like you roll initiative when you're unconscious, so when is it you turn? When the heck does a character make their death rolls in 5e? I've looked through the PHB and various online resources, and found nothin'!

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    \$\begingroup\$ At your table, when do you typically roll for initiative? \$\endgroup\$ – indigochild Nov 27 '18 at 6:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm voting to put this on hold as unclear until a few things are cleared up. Are you asking about a combat scenario? If not please do clarify that but if so what do you mean by "it's not like you roll initiative when you're unconscious"? As indigo has already asked, when do you typically roll for initiative and what initiative rules are you using? There's also no concept of negative HP in 5e so are you using homebrew rules there? This really seems like it's answered by the exact rules you've quoted so I'm finding it really hard to understand where the confusion stems from as written. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Nov 27 '18 at 6:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Purple Monkey, yeah it is unclear because it was a house rule (round-by-round initiative) that had been used so often it became ingrained as RAW. That explains why I wasn't able to find any reference for this online. Eric below cleared it up perfectly for me, however. Sorry for the confusion :) \$\endgroup\$ – Blarghasto Nov 27 '18 at 6:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you please edit those clarifications into the question. Comments are only temporary. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Nov 27 '18 at 7:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yep yep. Done. Hope that clears things up! \$\endgroup\$ – Blarghasto Nov 27 '18 at 7:20
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Generally speaking, you drop to 0 HP while already in combat, so you just maintain your original initiative and take your turn at the same point you'd normally do it.

In the rare cases where you suddenly drop to 0 HP without having rolled initiative, all characters in the area should probably roll initiative at that point (including the unconscious one) and then start playing in rounds. (Although generally speaking, if you drop to 0 HP with no threats around, there's no real risk and you'll just be stabilized or healed easily).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a small and very speedy/organized group, so we've been doing round-by-round initiative -- I actually forgot we were using a house rule when posting the question lol. Your response shows the convenience of keeping things static, though! Thanks for the answer :) \$\endgroup\$ – Blarghasto Nov 27 '18 at 6:29
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Your turn begins when it is your turn in initiative order.

As soon as the character was punched, combat began and everyone should have rolled initiative. If this was a surprise attack then the enemy gets the one free punch and combat continues according to the rolled initiative.

Order of Combat:

  1. Determine Surprise. The GM determines whether anyone involved in the combat encounter is surprised.
  2. Establish positions: The GM decides where all the characters and Monsters are located. Given the adventurers’ Marching Order or their stated positions in the room or other location, the GM figures out where the adversaries are̶how far away and in what direction.
  3. Roll initiative: Everyone involved in the combat encounter rolls initiative, determining the order of combatants’ turns.
  4. Take turns. Each participant in the battle takes a turn in initiative order.
  5. Begin the next round. When everyone involved in the combat has had a turn, the round ends. Repeat step 4 until the fighting stops. roll20srd

Initiative (emphasis mine):

Initiative determines the order of turns during combat. When combat starts, every participant makes a Dexterity check to determine their place in the initiative order. roll20srd

"Every participant" includes the character that was punched and dropped to 0 HP.

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While the RAW answer is to roll death saves in initiative order, the fact you're playing per-round initiative means you've already deviated from rules as written, and there is strong precedent to continue deviating from them here.

RAW, 5e combat plays like a board game. Once you've established player order through rolling initiative there's no real meaning to the "beginning" or "end" of a round, turns just move in a circle indefinitely. This is reflected in the design of spells and abilities. Nothing happens at the beginning or end of a round (even lair actions are pinned to an initiative number), everything is tied to either the beginning or ending of somebody's turn.

If you mess with this design, you also mess with this turn-to-turn timing. A simple example is the Monk's Stunning Strike ability, which if successful lasts until the Monk's next turn. With cyclical combat, this means the target will miss exactly one turn. With variable initiative it means they'll miss somewhere between zero and two turns (making the Monk want to roll their next initiative badly after stunning someone!).

Describing his own per-round initiative house rule, 5e designer Mike Mearls specifically mentions moving end-of-turn triggers to end-of-round to avoid these kinds of timing problems.

This leaves you with two broad options as DM:

  1. Continue to have the player roll initiative, and make death saves on what would be their turn. This adds more tension and danger to being unconscious, because once you reach two failed saves you are at the mercy of the dice as to whether your healer will have time to stabilise you in time for the third.
  2. Move death saves to the end of the round. This will give players more predictability, because they're already at the mercy of the death-save dice, and adding another one to the mix might be annoying.

I would go with the second one. Dying is already an unpleasant experience, and putting players in a situation where they suddenly want to roll badly, and that feat that gave them +5 initiative ends up killing them, just makes it feel even more unfair.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's funny, this group has been playing off and on for at least 2 years now; I halfway suspect we've never even done it the "right way."That looks like a cool resource, thanks for your input! \$\endgroup\$ – Blarghasto Nov 27 '18 at 7:44

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