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In this past weekend's session (near the end of Lost Mines), my fourth level Warlock took a critical hit from a Wraith.

I have maximum hit points 29, and was currently at 20 HP remaining; the double damage dice rolled as 27 points. As necrotic damage was explained to me (I don't have access to either a Monster Manual or DM's Guide for 5th Ed.), this cannot be healed in any way prior to a long rest, leaving me with a 2 HP maximum for the remainder of the adventuring day.

It occurred to me to wonder what would have happened if I'd taken a couple more points (the roll of 10d8 would be expected to average 45 points, after all) -- leaving me with maximum HP of 0 (since it can't be negative) until a long rest.

Can a character even benefit from a rest when unconscious due to wounds? If not, would that leave my character in a sort of "limbo" state, where I could only be healed by something I couldn't actually obtain/do?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Heavily related: Can a creature be brought to consciousness while they have a max HP of 0? \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Dec 9 '19 at 12:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Didn't you die anyway? You were at 20/29, took the damage from the wraith, and so your HP was -7/2? \$\endgroup\$ – McKay Dec 10 '19 at 19:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm. Should have, I guess. Better email the DM to check before next session (see if I need a new character). At session close, he was still down "unconscious" as far as I knew. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Dec 10 '19 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but there was still 7 damage to deal, which exceeds your maximum hp (by 5), so you're dead. \$\endgroup\$ – McKay Dec 10 '19 at 19:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes: Found a question, particularly about the wraith's max HP reduction: In what order should one apply max HP reduction and damage? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 11 '19 at 8:14
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If a Wraith reduces your maximum HP to zero, you die

The explanation you've been given seems to be a little mixed up - it's not that necrotic damage inherently cannot be healed, but that the Wraith's attack deals necrotic damage and also has a secondary effect which can reduce your HP maximum until your next long rest:

Life Drain. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 21 (4d8 + 3) necrotic damage. The target must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.

In fairness, lots of maximum-HP-reducing effects are associated with something that does necrotic damage, so a bit of mixup is understandable. However, most of the time necrotic damage has no special effect on your hit point maximum and can be healed like any other kind of damage - the particular type it is is usually only relevant for characters and creatures with immunity, resistance, or vulnerability to certain kinds of damage.

Most importantly for your question, you should note the final sentence of the attack's description - if the Wraith's attack would reduce your maximum HP to zero, you just die outright. It takes a bit more than a long rest to recover from that!

As far as I'm aware, all effects which reduce maximum HP in this way clarify that you die when reduced to zero HP max - and possibly something else dire happens, like then turning into an undead creature of some kind. But if you have taken some maximum HP reduction which hasn't killed you, either because it's not quite enough yet or it's specified to do something non-fatal when you reach zero - the spell Greater Restoration is capable of undoing the damage:

You can reduce the target's exhaustion level by one, or end one of the following effects on the target:

...

  • One effect reducing the target's hit point maximum
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not much use for a fourth-level party deep in a mine, though, is it... \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Dec 9 '19 at 13:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Them's the breaks. A wraith can be deadly for a low-level group. Who knew adventuring could be so dangerous! \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Dec 9 '19 at 13:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PJRZ Yeah, who knew. Certainly not the rogue who died last session, or the multiple characters who've been knocked unconsious and saved only because our cleric is quick with spare the dying. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Dec 9 '19 at 13:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, @GPPK I forgot to put a [sarcasm] label on my last comment. I've played D&D since before AD&D, before the Holmes books. Character death is not new to me. We did have a session 0, and I'm fully on board with the way the game is run. I skipped 2nd, 3rd, 3.5, and 4th, so necrotic damage is new to me, as is Life Drain reducing max HP instead of stealing levels (as it did when I last played before 5e). GM just didn't explain it well during the session. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Dec 10 '19 at 13:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ZeissIkon yeah, in the last couple of editions the game has moved away from mechanics which reduce a character's actual experience/level, I think largely because doing it correctly is a bookkeeping nightmare. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Dec 10 '19 at 14:29
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Necrotic damage does not reduce your max HP

You are confusing things. Necrotic damage is just a type of damage.

An axe deals slashing damage, a fireball deals fire damage and some things deal necrotic damage. None of these damage types do anything other than determine vulnerabilities, immunities and resistances.

What's special here is that your character was hit by a Wraith's special Life Drain ability:

Life Drain. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 21 (4d8 + 3) necrotic damage. The target must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.

As you can see in the ability, you would have died if your maximum had hit 0. That has nothing to do with Necrotic damage, however.

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The character would die when they hit max HP 0.

According to the Monster Manual entry for the Wraith, under its Life Drain action:

The target must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.

Other undead monsters such as Spectres, Vampires, and Vampire Spawns with similar abilities to drain maximum HP also kill their targets when their hit point maximum reaches 0.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer does a pretty poor job at explaining where the confusion stems from. OP seems to think this is a property of necrotic damage. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Dec 9 '19 at 12:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Might cite the section on the types of damage and their descriptions in the MM and PHB. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Dec 9 '19 at 13:34

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