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There already exist a few questions asking similar things about such scenarios, like the following:

What I am wondering is whether the wording differences between all of the following features means anything; how should these wording differences be interpreted/used? In particular, some features use the phrase "when you would be reduced to 0 hit points" while others use the phrase "when you are reduced to 0 hit points".

The first link above currently has an answer stating that the wording difference is important, and that it does result in differences between the features and rulings regarding them. Below are some example features:

Barbarian's Relentless Rage feature:

If you drop to 0 hit points while you're raging and don't die outright, you can make a DC 10 Constitution saving throw. If you succeed, you drop to 1 hit point instead.

Undead Fortitude feature (Zombie):

If damage reduces the creature to 0 hit points, it must make a Constitution saving throw [...] On a success, the creature drops to 1 hit point instead.

Half-Orc's Relentless Endurance feature:

When you are reduced to 0 hit points but not killed outright, you can drop to 1 instead.

Druid's Wild Shape feature:

You automatically revert if you fall unconscious, drop to 0 hit points, or die.

Long Death Monk's Mastery of Death feature:

When you are reduced to 0 hit points, you can expend 1 ki point (no action required) to have 1 hit point instead.

Relentless Feature (Boar):

If the boar takes 7 damage or less that would reduce it to 0 hit points, it is reduced to 1 hit point instead.

Death ward spell:

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.

Only the last two features actually use the phrasing "would drop" and "would reduce" instead of simply "are dropped" and "are reduced" (or similar). Does this mean that death ward and the Relentless feature act differently in terms of rulings to be made?

Is there a difference between "when you are reduced to 0 hit points" and "when you would be reduced to 0 hit points?"


I would like answers to assume that the wording choice of "if" vs "when" is irrelevant. These words (at least to me) seem to be used interchangeably throughout the rules with no difference in meaning, so they can be ignored here. Alternatively, if you feel they are different, that should be a separate question of its own.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking about the grammatical difference between "would" and "are"? Past vs present tense? Or do you want an example of how the difference affects the game? \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Nov 20 at 4:09
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Grammatically speaking, there is a very important difference, and that is order of operations.

When you are reduced/drop to 0 hitpoints

The order of operations is as follows:

  1. You take damage
  2. You have 0 hit points
  3. The feature that activates when you are reduced to 0 HP kicks in
  4. You have 1 HP instead

When you would be reduced/drop to 0 hitpoints

The order of operations is as follows

  1. You take damage
  2. The damage would have reduced you to 0 hp
  3. You have 1 HP instead

Thus, the big difference here is that features that activate when you are reduced to 0 hitpoints mean you still had 0 hitpoints for a moment. On the other hand, features that activate when you would be reduced to 0 hitpoints activate before you hit 0 HP, so you never had 0 HP.

This is important for effects that immediately kill you if you hit 0 hitpoints. There is a slightly out-of-date sage advice comment to this effect:

If the damage from disintegrate reduces a half-orc to 0 hit points, can Relentless Endurance prevent the orc from turning to ash? If disintegrate reduces you to 0 hit points, you’re killed outright, as you turn to dust. If you’re a half-orc, Relentless Endurance can’t save you.

I will note (as an aside) that since this Sage Advice item was created, errata has altered the Disintegrate spell--which likely changes the outcome laid out for that specific spell. (That bit of Sage Advice is from 2016, the errata is 2018)

The target is disintegrated if this damage leaves it with 0 hit points.

Based off of this change in wording, effects that activate when you are reduced to 0 HP would still save you from Disintegrate because you are not left with 0 hit points. On the other hand, a Beholder's Death Ray...

The target dies if the ray reduces it to 0 hit points.

In this case, an effect that activates when you are reduced to 0 HP would not save you--because you were reduced to 0 HP before that feature activated, and thus died before the effect could activate. However, an effect that activates when you would be reduced to 0 HP can save you--because you were never actually reduced to 0 hp.

As a bit of non-official support, here's a comment from J. Crawford on Twitter...

Q: does death ward prevent disintegration?

A: Death ward works against any effect that would reduce you to 0 hp via damage or that would kill you instantly without dealing damage.

While Crawford's tweets are no longer considered official, it does offer perspective. Back when Disintegrate could kill you through Polymorph or Relentless Endurance, Death Ward could protect you from those before you never actually reached 0HP.

Order of Precedence

This is a bit of odd English to try to explain, but I'll do my best. The sequence in which the four terms used here would happen in goes like this:

  1. Would Be: This is future-facing and happens first, in anticipation of the event
  2. Reduces: Active Event, this occurs simultaneous to the triggering event
  3. Are Reduced: Reacts to the event, this occurs after the reduction has happened
  4. Leaves it with: Final state, occurs once all 'events' have ceased.

TL;DR:

A Half-Orc's Relentless Endurance would not save you from death via being reduced to 0 HP by a Beholder's Death Ray--while the spell Death Ward would. This is because Relentless Endurance activates after you have been reduced to 0 HP, while Death Ward happens before you would be reduced to 0 hp.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure I agree here. It's well established that effects can undo their triggers, with the classical example being Shield activating on a hit and turning it into a miss. It's the same here: the use of "instead" means that after the effect is resolved, you were never actually at zero HP even if the effect's trigger is "when you are reduced to zero HP". \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Nov 19 at 19:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanC.Thompson I'd say shield doesn't show that "effects can undo their triggers" so much as "sometimes the writers are imprecise about exactly what the trigger is". \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Nov 19 at 19:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think specifically the Relentless Endurance or Barbarian's Rage abilities wouldn't save you from a Beholder's Death Ray not because they're reduced to 0 hp, but because those two defensive abilities have the specific caveat of "and are not killed outright" - the Death Ray ability kills you if you are reduced to 0 hitpoints from it. It's not that the victim hit 0, but that the ability that did it also has an insta-death clause, which is a clause those two defensive abilities explicitly allow to overrule them. \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH Nov 20 at 15:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Disagree. I believe your reading is overly pedantic and not in keeping with the intent of the rule. If Y happens instead of X, that means X didn't actually happen. \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Nov 20 at 22:28
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There can be a difference

Starting with the semantic difference, something occurring "when you would be..." takes precedence over "when you are...", as the "would be" condition triggers before the actual state occurs. If the "would be" negates the triggering condition, such as actually reducing you to 1 hp instead of 0 hp, then the state of actually being at 0 hp never occurs, and those effects would be ignored.

When resolving things that occur when you are however, it gets more complex, since it means the condition is now presently met. If you subscribe to Xanathar's Guide to Everything's rule on Simultaneous Effects, then whoevers turn it is gets to resolve the order of effects in the event of a conflict.

If you don't use that ruling on simultaneous effects however, then it is up to DM adjudication, which often comes down to interpretation of specific over general. The inclusion of the rule in Xanathar's was to address this ambiguity, so apart from it (and the semantic difference outlined above), there is no comprehensive RAW ruling on the matter.

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That's the wrong place to draw the line.

The meaningful difference is between the following:

  1. When you are reduced to 0 hit points, X happens.

  2. When you (are / would be) reduced to 0 hit points, Y happens instead.

In #2, the word "instead" makes it clear that you are prevented from dropping to 0 hit points, regardless of which verb is used. (I'd argue that "are reduced to 0" is sloppy writing, since the effect is that you aren't reduced to 0, but the intent is clear. There's no reasonable way to read "instead" as meaning "the antecedent event still happens".)

All of the examples you give use "instead", except for reverting from Wild Shape.

A variation on that is for the last clause to be conditional: "if you do Z, then Y happens instead." In this form, if you don't do Z (such as making a saving throw), the "instead" doesn't happen and you do go to 0 HP.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Notably, many of the “are” cases also include an instead, but if so it’s always behind a check or choice that makes the instead optional or not guaranteed. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 19 at 17:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Noted. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Nov 19 at 21:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes! As a DM I would read the "x happens instead" as identical to "would reduce you to"; meaning you don't actually have 0 HP at any point. You don't go to zero and then come back up; you (for example) drop to 1 HP instead of dropping to zero. \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Nov 20 at 22:30
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"... drop to 1 hit point instead"

With the exception of the Wild Shape feature, all of these contain a variation of "... drop to 1 hit point instead". Instead means in place of someone or something else or rather than; as an alternative.

Therefore, dropping to 1 hit point happens instead of dropping to 0 hp.

It follows that the druid will remain in Wild Shape if it drops to 1hp instead of dropping to 0hp.

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Yes, but not practically

The difference is that if a game-entity tells you to do something when you would have something happen, it's letting you know that you are doing something else instead. This means that the thing that triggers the clause is going to no longer have happened retroactively, which means, for example, that if you are using Xanathar's Guide to Everything rules, only one such effect can ever happen with a single trigger.

Effects that happen when you do have something happen don't do that; that language is (mostly) used when an effect doesn't replace its trigger, so multiple of those sorts of effects can happen in sequence, even with Xanathar's rules.

The lack of practical difference is that the rules do not consistently use these terms in the above way; would... instead is consistent but sometimes the rules just say 'when Y, do X' in a manner that relies on that rule overriding the instruction to do Y. Consequently, the linguistic difference has effect only in sometimes making the text easier to read: you can trust would... instead to replace an effect, but you must still consider whether 'Do X when Y' replaces an effect on a case by case basis.

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Logically speaking

When you are reduced to 0 hit points = After your HP hits 0, X effect happens

When you would be reduced to 0 hit points = Before your HP hits 0, X effect happens

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There's a very simple and obvious difference:

In the last two examples the creature never actually drops to 0 hp. The effects occur when it would - but since they provide an "instead" clause, they never actually do drop to 0 hp.

Which means that none of the rules that apply to a creatures at 0 hp apply.

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