I'm currently running a campaign and I have two casters that can cast healing word. And whenever I had a big melee enemy reduce them to zero HP by pounding them into the ground, they bounce back up straight away with this spell. It feels like the spell is making it too easy for them to win battles with monsters that are of the melee type, and it makes the fights less exciting.

My issue is that the mechanics of health and combat in D&D 5th edition, allow for the Healing Word spell to be exploited in this way. This way, there are no negative side effects for being reduced to zero HP this way. No loss of actions for the healer or player that was reduced to zero hp.

A very good explanation about this exploit is given in the taking 20 channel.

So my question is:

since the combat and health mechanics are somewhat responsible for this exploit, how could these be changed to counter it?

I want having your character be reduced to zero HP to have an impact again. At least more than that can be countered by a first level bonus action spell. I'm not looking for changes in the spell (as is suggested in the taking 20 channel)

EDIT: Thanks for all the responses, But i would like to add that I'm not really discussing the spell, but rather the health and combat mechanics, and what kind of changes that could be done that could make encounters like these more challenging.

To clarify my issue with the healing word spell, I'll try to explain it with an example:

When I have a 50 hp fighter at 1 HP, and he gets hit by a enemy for 20 something damage, he is reduced to 0 HP. The giant effectively deals 1 damage. Next the healer casts as a bonus action the healing word, giving the fighter 1d4 hp. The healer only needs to be in 60' and be able to see the fighter to heal him. After the healing word, the healer still has his action and move available. He can cast a cantrip and move away. Then it's the fighter's turn. He gets up without any problem and attacks the enemy. This can repeat so long the healer has level 1 spell slots available. Effectively the enemy has downed a player, with his action, while the party loses no actions because healing word is a bonus action.

This would be less of a problem if there is only one healer with the healing word spell. The enemy could walk to the healer and start attacking him, if he manages to close the distance. But in my case the second healer can heal the first healer in a similar fashion, and I have two fighters in the group so the enemy needs to finish them both off before he goes after the healers. But they never go down for good, as they can always get up the next round. In effect the party can fight any single melee enemy this way with relative ease, with the use of just one first level spell. The link I provided gives a good explanation of how this work, and why it is can be problem.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you give a brief summary of the exploit? \$\endgroup\$
    – GcL
    Feb 21, 2019 at 16:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ For those answering, please remember to apply Good subjective answers involving your use of any methodologies that you recommend. If folks just keep posting ideas that are untested in actual gameplay, this question will likely garner close votes for opinion-based answers. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Feb 21, 2019 at 16:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Given that the answers are a pile of ideas (interspersed with “don’t do that”), this question, by some virtue of its content and/or wording, appears to naturally attract primarily opinions rather than expertise, references, or facts. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 21, 2019 at 16:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ IS this an exploit? That's probably the root cause of this being opinion-based. E.g. Personally, I don't see that it is. The spells are being used as intended; using them is using up player resources; and unless you, as a DM, are actively trying to kill the PCs....then I'm not really seeing it. Why do you feel this is making the fights less exciting? Are your players saying this? \$\endgroup\$
    – PJRZ
    Feb 21, 2019 at 17:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I think there is a good question here, but the problem lies in the first line in the last paragraph which is inviting all of the opinion based answers. I think if it was reframed using the answers to the clarifications asked by PJRZ above it would be suitable for the site. \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Feb 21, 2019 at 17:23

7 Answers 7


You don't need to nerf the spell, because

Spells are already limited by game mechanics and action economy.

There are already tradeoffs to casting Healing Word on a character with 0 HP.

  1. Casting the spell requires the caster to expend a spell slot. It's a limited resource with an opportunity cost; usually, casters cannot expend multiple spell slots on their turn. When they cast Healing Word, they lose the opportunity to cast another spell (other than cantrips) that turn.

  2. The caster only has one Bonus Action on their turn. Again, there's an opportunity cost. Casting Healing Word prevents any other Bonus Action options that turn.

  3. When a character reaches 0 HP, they typically fall prone. Even if they regain HP and stop dying, they still incur the penalties of the prone condition until they stand up; during this time, they are an easy target for melee enemies or harmful effects that involve Dexterity saving throws.

Also, you may want to think about what you're trying to accomplish here. Are you sure that keeping player characters at 0 HP would make combats more interesting? If a player character spends the entire combat making death saving rolls, they can't really participate; it's not interesting for them.

Instead of incapacitating the player characters (which prevents them from engaging the game), you may want to look into other methods for running more interesting combat scenarios.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't want to change the spell, but rather the mechanics surrounding health and combat. \$\endgroup\$
    – martijn
    Feb 21, 2019 at 20:48

Use the rules as written

This is commonly called the death yoyo, and it is mostly caused by DM's forgetting rules or not playing enemies intelligently. Altering the spell is unnecessary. One of the simplest ways to combat it is enemies that don't stop attacking the player just because they are unconscious, melee creatures actually work great for this since they often get multiple attacks. Each attack while the player is down is 1 additional failed death saving throws, 2 if you consider an attack against an unconscious character an auto-crit. So 2-3 attacks from any source while down is instant death (don't forget ongoing effects too). If they are down and take damage exceeding their hp maximum they die instantly, also with no save. The rules are not as forgiving as people think. They are prone so attacks against them have advantage so many classes can easily reach this damage threshold.

There is even plenty of reasons for the enemies to do this. Animalistic or undead monster may want to eat the player, while intelligent ones want to make sure they don't get up, they are as aware of the mechanic as the players characters after all.

I had a player tell the other "don't worry" when a bulette knocked them to zero becasue they knew the healers turn came next, boy were they surprised when the bulette dove back into its hole with his body to eat him. But that is what predators do, they don't stick around and fight the whole herd, once they have a meal they escape with it. He was dead 2 rounds later as the healer had neither line of sight nor range to heal him.

Damage at 0 Hit Points: If you take any damage while you have 0 Hit Points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you suffer Instant Death.

Also pay attention to the instant death rules, if the players with 14hp maximum is healed to to 5hp and they take 20pts of damage they die instantly, no saves are involved.

Instant Death: Massive damage can kill you instantly. When damage reduces you to 0 Hit Points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.

Also remember the rules for healing word, it requires line of sight and a verbal component, darkness or the spell silence negate it entirely, as does simple cover. Fight in knee deep water or brush and the healer can't see the downed player to heal them. there is the also the spell failure risk from combat, there is no aggro mechanic the healers is just as valid a target as the barbarian, more so since they can be taken out easier. So why isn't the healer in combat?


I wouldn't try to nerf the spell.

Reducing someone to zero hp is only as consequence-free as the DM makes it.

A zero hp character is unconscious, and only a few hits away from death. The unconcious condition states:

  • An unconscious creature is incapacitated (see the condition), can’t move or speak, and is unaware of its surroundings
  • The creature drops whatever it’s holding and falls prone.
  • The creature automatically fails Strength and Dexterity Saving Throws.
  • Attack rolls against the creature have advantage.
  • Any Attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature.

From the section on Death Saving Throws:

Damage at 0 Hit Points: If you take any damage while you have 0 Hit Points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you suffer Instant Death.

... On your third failure, you die.

After your clearly unconscious players spring back up a few times, have enemies keep hitting them when they're down. If you consistently don't have enough monsters to accomplish this, consider adding more. It's possible to kill your players in only two more attacks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't even wait for them to spring back, the enemy is as aware of the mechanic as the players characters \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Feb 21, 2019 at 16:22

I think the answer to this question is right in your question:

It feels like the spell is making it too easy for them to win battles with monsters that are of the melee type, and it makes the fights less exciting.

Solution: Use fewer melee monsters.

Or, have them do more damage. Massive damage can kill instantly, requiring the use of more expensive resurrection spells. Damage over time effects, such as fire, can also complicate the situation; if the party wants to keep their downed members alive, someone will have to spend an action to help them out. This doesn't have to come from a magical attack, either. A fire giant may punch an unlucky adventurer into lava, leading to a truly enormous amount of damage.

Alternatively, more minions or lair actions could break up initiative, doing some hefty pummeling to a downed adventurer before they get the chance to get up-- or even doing some pummeling of the casters, making them have to consider their own health as well.

Basically: hit them harder and more often.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 - Exactly the sort of answer I was considering writing. I would have also considering adding in spellcasting enemies who could counterspell Healing Word. That would get the players sweating. \$\endgroup\$
    – BradenA8
    Feb 21, 2019 at 16:01

Consider using the exhaustion mechanic.

I've played at tables that implement this rule: whenever you're reduced to 0 hit points, you gain a level of exhaustion.

This still allows healers to do their thing and get a downed character back into the fight, but introduces some consequences for allowing the character to go down in the first place. And if a character is brought down and back up repeatedly, they're going to start getting less and less effective, and eventually face the possibility of death at 6 levels of exhaustion.

This mechanic can help get rid of that attitude some players have that it's better to save the healing until after a character goes down.

This rule was well-received at the table I was playing at. Our group liked having a penalty for allowing someone to go down that wasn't necessarily going to get them killed. For us, it felt unrealistic that someone could be knocked unconscious repeatedly and spring back into battle without facing any consequences, and exhaustion was the solution we agreed on. It definitely added some extra tension to future battles, and we considered it a success.

That being said, this is a homebrewed rule with no basis in RAW. You'll probably want to confirm that it's ok with your players and make sure they know how exhaustion works before implementing it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How did the mechanic work for your table? Did the players enjoy it? Were there any known issues? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Feb 21, 2019 at 16:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ This sounds like a good posibility thanks \$\endgroup\$
    – martijn
    Feb 21, 2019 at 20:38

Assuming that your intent is to have players treat being as 0 hit points as a problem, without simply outright killing them, you have a few options.

First, ensure that it is possible for the unconscious player to lose their action(s) depending upon the initiative order. If their initiative comes up while unconscious, then they can't do anything that round. Depending upon your combats, that can be a serious drawback.

Since there is no Delay action in 5E to change your initiative, it's not possible for the healing character to set their initiative to immediately after the monsters, which increases the chance of action loss occurring.

Assuming that you're already doing the above, then, RAW, the best option to have players treat being at 0 hit points as a problem is to have the monsters attack unconscious characters. Attacks against unconscious characters have advantage and are automatically critical hits if they are done within 5' (PHB 292), and each damaging hit will cause at least one death saving throw failure (PHB 197):

Damage at 0 Hit Points. If you take any damage while you have O hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you suffer instant death.

Two melee or three ranged damaging hits to a character at 0 hit points will kill them. If there are a number of possible enemy attacks that can happen before another character can cast Healing Word, then letting someone drop to 0 intentionally introduces the possibility, but not the certainty, of death.

This does require that you be willing to do this, and it may be a change to the unwritten rules of engagement from the players' point of view. If this tactic represents a change from previous monster behavior, I would inform them before adopting this tactic.

Other options are more situational and monster-dependent. They may change behavior for a specific fight, but will not change it in general.

  • Have a magic-using enemy pre-emptively cast Silence on the Healing Word casters.

  • Have a magic-using enemy cast Counterspell against the Healing Word.

  • Have enemies who can use powerful attacks against incapacitated characters, such as a Vargouille's Kiss or an Intellect Devourer's Body Thief.

For a RAI solution, you could rule that an enemy could take an item from an unconscious character; see Can you pick up an object in another creatures space for free? for discussion on this, including Jeremy Crawford tweets.

If allowed, a character losing their weapon or spellcasting focus should start convincing them to not intentionally fall to 0 hit points.

For house rules, a common house rule is that falling to 0 hit points causes a level of exhaustion. However, depending upon your combats, this may excessively penalize martial classes (who are more likely to fall to 0 hit points).


Have smart enemies

Smart enemies in my games are those that either know how the party specifically fights or have enough experience that they know what the implications of "healers" are. These enemies can counter healing word in two ways.

1) gang up on the healers, because they can’t cast their healing spells if they’re unconscious. In multiple combats that I've run, the healer has shouted out "if you go down, I can heal you!" to the other PCs. The leader of the enemies promptly shot at the healer first for the rest of the fight.

2) when they drop someone to 0, they kill them by making attacks against their unconscious body. When the party doesn’t have healing magic, the smart thing to do is move on to the conscious foes, because the unconscious ones are out of the fight, but when healing word becomes a problem, outright killing the unconscious ones becomes the smart play. This is a ruthless tactic used by the big bads in particular in my games, after they see someone raised from unconsciousness. You should be careful when using this method against parties without revivify or similar magic.

That being said, not every enemy is smart, and in a lot of games, not every encounter is life threatening. So you don’t have to use this method all the time.

Additionally, if you’re okay with a little more bookkeeping, you can have your characters roll initiative each round, so maybe sometimes the fighter loses a turn cause he went first in the turn order after being knocked unconscious. This has worked at my tables in particularly tense fights to rack up the tension and make sure that the players are on-edge, because the big bad could move twice before the players get to move, so they need to be very careful.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Rolling rerolling initiative each turn breaks many spells though. If they last "until the start/end of your next turn", it becomes a gamble, how effective those spells are. \$\endgroup\$
    – fabian
    Feb 21, 2019 at 16:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @fabian I agree with “until the start”, but spells with “until the end” are usually built so that you as the caster can take advantage of them, like guiding bolt. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 21, 2019 at 16:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I don't typically separate it by INT. Usually it's those with higher rank or spellcasters, because they're the ones that have gotten reports of the PCs methods of fighting. I have used rerolling initiative, it worked out fairly well, there weren't any problems with spells like fabian brought up though. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 21, 2019 at 16:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Got it \$\endgroup\$ Feb 21, 2019 at 16:55

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