In our campaign, we have a Half-Orc Barbarian. Very original. We are going along this cliff-side fortress and are worried about falling off. The Half-Orc's player jokingly says that he'll be fine, due to his Relentless Endurance. But I was thinking about it, and it seems like he's right, but this seems excessive.

Could he really survive the fall? Or survive lava? Or anything else that should kill instantly?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you specifically asking about the fall? Or other instant-kill mechanics (i'm pretty sure we've got a question for some of those.) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 26 '20 at 16:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ The fall is what got me thinking, but I'm wondering if these things that would kill anyone else instantly would take a bit longer to kill him. For instance, if he fell from space, I think he could technically survive, but that seems excessive. \$\endgroup\$ – Wise Man Feb 26 '20 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok, I'd remove the last question (because there some specific mechanics around instant kill rather than just massive damage.) But it also may help to confirm that you use the capped falling damage rules and also provide the HP of your Barb. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 26 '20 at 16:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this your question and does it answer it for you? Is my half orc barbarian invulnerable to death by falling? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 26 '20 at 17:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ The main downside of relentless endurance is that it only works once. A reasonably sadistic DM might just put a small rickety ledge half-way down, so that you can hit that first before you continue to the bottom. Many environments that deal lethal amounts of damage are quite capable of doing so twice. \$\endgroup\$ – mlk Feb 27 '20 at 19:56

No, Relentless Endurance cannot save you from instant death

The half-orc feature specifically mentions this in the text of the Relentless Endurance racial feature (PHB, p. 41):

Relentless Endurance. When you are reduced to 0 hit points but are not killed outright, you can drop to 1 hit point instead. You can't use this feature again until you complete a long rest.

If you take enough falling damage such that the excess damage exceeds your hit point maximum, Relentless Endurance cannot save you. If you do not take quite enough damage to exceed your hit point maximum, it can save you and you drop to 1 hit point instead of being put on death saving throws.

For reference, the Instant Death rules:

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.

For example, a cleric with a maximum of 12 hit points currently has 6 hit points. If she takes 18 damage from an attack, she is reduced to 0 hit points, but 12 damage remains. Because the remaining damage equals her hit point maximum, the cleric dies.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells Not at all. You first have to fulfill the entire "if" before the "then" can apply. If you are hit for massive damage, you have fallen to 0 HP and been killed outright, which means none of the rest of the ability applies. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Feb 26 '20 at 21:56

No, explicitly not

The text of the Half-Orc's Relentless Endurance feature states that it only applies:

When you are reduced to 0 hit points but not killed outright

Which is to say that if you would be instantly killed by some effect, either because it simply automatically kills you, or it does so much damage that the instant death rule applies, this trait does not save you; it only applies if damage reduces you to 0HP without also causing immediate death. For example, the spell disintegrate vaporises the target if it reduces it to 0HP, so the Half-Orc could not use Relentless Endurance to recover from that.

However, it should be noted that D&D heroes are often capable of surviving effects which would realistically be instantly lethal, and that's part and parcel of being a mythical hero. For instance, falling damage caps at 20d6 so can deal a maximum of 120 points of damage, but a mid-level barbarian would most likely tank that fall and get up again afterwards; by level 11+ they probably have more than 120 hit points anyway, so couldn't possibly be instantly killed by a fall even if they only had 1 actual HP remaining (instant death requires the excess damage to be greater than the subject's maximum HP). Even at lower levels, the ability to enter a Rage and gain resistance to bludgeoning damage makes it easy to survive a long fall.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Especially if they are raging and have resistance bludgeoning damage. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 26 '20 at 17:19

In general, no, but massive damage is a weird undecidable case.

The rules support Relentless Endurance both applying and not applying in this case.

To die by massive damage, the damage must reduce you to zero hit points:

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.

(Separately, you can die by massive damage if you're at zero hit points already, but we're not considering that case.)

If you assume Relentless Endurance applies, it prevents you from being reduced to 0 hit points. You drop to 1 hit point instead of 0, which means the damage doesn't reduce you to 0 hit points, and we don't even check whether there's enough leftover damage to kill you outright. You aren't killed outright, so Relentless Endurance is indeed allowed to apply.

On the other hand, if you assume that Relentless Endurance doesn't apply, then you do drop to 0 hit points and are killed outright, and thus Relentless Endurance shouldn't apply.

(Even if Relentless Endurance does protect against this, there are causes of instant death that will get around it, such as power word: kill, getting Strength-drained by a Shadow, or having your maximum HP reduced to 0 by a Wraith. So neither ruling would completely negate any part of the rules.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ If there's a problem with the logic here, I'd be interested in hearing what it is. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Feb 26 '20 at 22:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's in the phrase "but not killed outright" in relentless endurance. That seems to be an exception for it and massive damage kills outright. Didn't downvote, though. I do get your logic that maasive damage seems to require the 0hp, which RW would then kick in. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 26 '20 at 22:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Yes, that's exactly why the tautology exists. Whether you're killed outright depends on whether you drop to 0 hp, and vice versa. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Feb 26 '20 at 22:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ What sticks out for me (though I also have not downvoted) is that, with this interpretation, that entire clause in Relentless Endurance is totally meaningless. Following this answer's logic, the circumstance of being reduced to zero hit points when RE is available would trigger RE, meaning that it's impossible to be killed outright. If there is evidence that 5e regularly engages in superfluous text, or an analogous case that has an accepted, similar resolution, that would help support this. Otherwise, I'm with Occam: the but not killed outright clause has some reason for inclusion. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Feb 26 '20 at 22:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ When damage reduces you to 0, you check whether the remaining dmg would kill you outright, if it doesn't then you go to 1hp. Note that the clause checks first whether you die outright, and if that doesn't apply, then instead of going to 0 you go to 1, you do not go from 0 to 1. \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Feb 27 '20 at 2:40

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