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I am curious about ways of using Death Ward and wondered what happens if you cast Death Ward on yourself and then throw yourself off a great height.

For example, would it be possible to cast Death Ward and jump off a very high cliff (enough to kill the PC), fall and hit the ground, where the outcome is that she/he ends up with 1 HP instead of being dead?

This question provides an answer to dying as a result of a spell like Disintegrate, "Is there a difference between “When you are reduced to 0 hit points” and “when you would be reduced to 0 hit points”?", but, I would like a specific answer to how Death Ward interacts with damage done from falling from a great height.

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3 Answers 3

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Yep, this works

This is pretty simple and straight forward...when you fall:

A fall from a great height is one of the most common hazards facing an adventurer. At the end of a fall, a creature takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage for every 10 feet it fell, to a maximum of 20d6. The creature lands prone, unless it avoids taking damage from the fall.

You just take bludgeoning damage on impact. Nothing fancy about it--it's no different than getting hurt by a trap or by someone hitting you with a mace.

Death Ward simply says

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.

So, you took damage from the fall. The damage was great enough that you would have 0 HP. Death Ward activates, and you have 1 HP.

The snarl that comes up in the difference between "are reduced" and "would be reduced" only (potentially) matters for effects that do something special when you hit 0HP (like Disintegrate turning you to dust). Falling damage doesn't do anything special to you when you hit 0HP...it just damages you like any other ordinary source of damage.

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I don't see the source of doubt.

Death Ward is pretty clear:

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.

If the fall does enough damage to reduce the character to 0 hit points, they have 1 hit point instead.

Is there a difference between “When you are reduced to 0 hit points” and “when you would be reduced to 0 hit points”? is an issue because of multiple triggers. It's essentially asking "What happens if two effects trigger when you reach 0 hit points? Which one comes first?" I'm not going to dissect that post in this one, but some of those issues have been addressed in errata and the Sage Advice Compendium.

This is not an issue in your falling scenario. It's pretty cut and dry - the character takes damage, and Death Ward triggers. There's nothing to complicate it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks @T.J.L I like cut-and-dry answers I guess it is because different DMs do not always interpret things in the same way, so it helps with clarification. Thanks :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Thank-Glob
    Feb 12, 2020 at 21:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Orc'sPlunder Check out the SAC and the errata. The disintegrate issue has been explicitly addressed. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Feb 12, 2020 at 21:09
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While the other two current answers here are correct, I believe that they do the OP a disservice by stating that the matter is simple and not complicated. At least for me, the timing of Death Ward vs. massive damage introduces a non-intuitive level of complication.

Death Ward will save you

but there may be a complicated timing issue

You specified that you are casting Death Ward on yourself, so the least maximum hp you could have would be as a 7th level cleric; a higher level cleric, or any paladin, would have more hp.

Realistically as a cleric you likely have a +2 hp / level from Con at seventh level, so around 52 hp (more with a higher Con or a racial bonus, fewer with a lower Con).

The average of 20d6 (maximum fall damage from a great height) is 70hp, but within the distribution you could receive more than 104 points of damage. Or, you could start the fall wounded, or with a lower hp maximum than 52. The point is that it is entirely possible for the fall damage to exceed the sum of (your current hp + your maximum hp).

Let's say you are at 52 hp and you take 70hp of damage from the fall. You can't be at negative hp, so you would go to zero, but then the death ward is triggered and you go to 1hp instead. Death Ward has saved you! You are conscious, no death saves are needed, end of story. This is the simple case.

But suppose you are at 52hp and the fall damage is 104hp or more. Now, the fall damage would take you to 0hp, but you have to worry about two triggers - both the death ward, and the "massive damage" rule which states

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.

Since you were at 52 hp when you took 104 hp of damage, you would be at 0hp with 52hp of damage "remaining" - this could trigger instant death by massive damage. The death ward would not protect you from this death, because it only protects from instant deaths that kill you without doing damage:

If the spell is still in effect when the target is subjected to an effect that would kill it instantaneously without dealing damage, that effect is instead negated against the target, and the spell ends.

However, the death ward could protect you by making sure your hp are never at 0, since the trigger for the massive damage - instant death rule is "when damage reduces you to 0hp".

Thus, the question becomes one of what happens first - when your hit points become 0 from the fall, does the death ward reset them to 1 and thus protect you from death by massive damage before it can trigger, or does the massive damage kill you in a way that the death ward cannot prevent before your hp are reset?

As it turns out, death ward goes first because of the way it is worded. As this answer to this question explains, the order of precedence is such that "would be" effects trigger before "reduces" effects. Death ward specifically says

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.

while the massive damage rule says

When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining

Because the death ward triggers first, you are never actually at 0 hp, you become 1hp after the fall but before the massive damage rule can apply. Since you are never at 0hp, massive damage cannot trigger.

As the other answers have said, death ward will protect you - but unlike them, I believe it is in a complicated way that depends on the timing of effects.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Consider how the rule about simultaneous effects on p. 77 of XGE might resolve this issue: if the damage is 'stopped' by the first effect of death ward and you drop to 1 HP instead, then the rule about massive damage doesn't apply. (^: \$\endgroup\$
    – Fie
    Mar 8 at 0:57

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