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In most situations, spell effects of the same name do not stack, per the rule on combining game effects added in the errata for the DMG (p. 252):

[...] when two or more game features have the same name, only the effects of one of them—the most potent one—apply while the durations of the effects overlap. [...]

However, the death ward spell may be an exception to the intent of the rule. Death ward is unique compared to other durable buffs, because it both replaces its trigger and ends when it triggers (emphasis mine):

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.

I can see two possible interactions with multiple castings of death ward:

Scenario A

  1. Carl has two instances of death ward active on him. Only the most recent one applies.
  2. Carl takes a hit that would drop him to 0 hit points.
  3. The active instance of death ward triggers, dropping Carl to 1 hit point instead and ending that instance of death ward.
  4. Because Carl did not drop to 0 hit points, the inactive instance of death ward does not trigger.
  5. Carl now has a single instance of death ward active.

In this scenario, Carl effectively has two stacks of death ward.

Scenario B

  1. Carl has two instances of death ward active on him. Only the most recent one applies.
  2. Carl takes a hit that would drop him to 0 hit points.
  3. Both instances of death ward trigger. The activation of death ward causes Carl to drop to 1 hit point instead of 0 hit points.
  4. Carl has no instances of death ward active anymore.

In this scenario, the instances of death ward do not stack. Note that this scenario is identical to the ones described in this Q&A: What happens when identical overlapping effects have their end-condition met?

Which of these scenarios is correct?

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It seems like this answer is still the same as given here: What happens when identical overlapping effects have their end-condition met?

Because as they say, it's an ambiguity in the rules. You'll have to make a ruling.

Is the Death Ward case special? That depends entirely on what your ruling is.

If your ruling is "multiple triggered effects of the same type are resolved one by one, and only if their trigger is still valid after resolving the previous one", then yeah it's special and works differently.

If your ruling is "multiple triggered effects of the same type all trigger simultaneously", then it's not a special case and won't work differently.

Neither of these options seems more correct than the other, since the mechanics of the game are not this fine-grained. D&D is not a competitive game and there is no prize money on the line depending on how this interaction works out, so for the game it's fine to just "let the DM make a call" and either option will result in a working game, even if it's not a same at every table.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you know if apps like Roll20 account for this? Or in those apps, is it still the DMs job to figure that out? \$\endgroup\$
    – TKoL
    Jun 23 at 11:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TKoL I don't know, I don't use any of these apps. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Jun 23 at 12:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TKoL Roll20 does not account of any rules. You simply have a D&D5e sheet with pre-programmed rolls and macros (like a Halfling rolling for Perception with Expertise and Advantage will, with a single button, roll 2 d20s, add Wisdom modifier, add Proficiency modifier twice, and if a 1 is rolled, it gets rerolled). But the players have to do things with the numerical values they get (subtract HP, for example). Roll20 has no concept of applied buffs, or matching attacks against ACs or anything else \$\endgroup\$
    – BlueMoon93
    Jun 23 at 13:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BlueMoon93 thank you. For some reason I was under the impression Roll20 did a huge portion of this type of work for you. \$\endgroup\$
    – TKoL
    Jun 23 at 13:58
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Both castings of death ward end at once

From the spell description for death ward:

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.

The word "first" is the reason you can't have multiple death wards trigger in sequence. As soon as you drop to 0 HP after they are cast, it will be the "first" time you do so, thus all of them trigger simultaneously. If only one triggered, then next would trigger on the "second" time you drop to 0 HP.

I suspect this is by design. Otherwise, you could go into a fate-of-the-world battle with hundreds of scrolls of death ward and be very hard to take down, because each time you were KO'd, a death ward would just get you back to 1 HP. (Unless they got dispelled, of course.)

To requote the original poster:

[...] when two or more game features have the same name, only the effects of one of them—the most potent one—apply while the durations of the effects overlap. [...]

It doesn't say that features with the same name won't trigger when their condition is met, it says that only one applies for the duration. When a character hits 0 HP, every single death ward cast on them triggers at once. Since they are all features with the same name, only one of them actually restores the character to 1 HP. Since all of the death wards have triggered, all of them immediately expire.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It contradicts the rule about "Combining Game Effects", since it is explicitly stated that only one effect takes place. Or do you think that this is a case of "specific beats general"? \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Jun 23 at 6:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eddymage See my updated answer, the combining game effects rule doesn't do anything to change things. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 at 21:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I see your argument now, it seems indeed a reasonable interpretation, given the ambiguity of the rules. I anyway read the quoted rule as "only one of the spell is active and takes place" as in Joe's answer, and I do not see the problem you report in your answer (i.e. going into a battle with a lot of Death Ward scrolls) given the spell level. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Jun 24 at 7:31
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It looks to me as if your quote gives you the answer. (Short version: scenario 'A')

when two or more game features have the same name, only the effects of one of them—the most potent one—apply while the durations of the effects overlap.

Death Ward 'A' is cast on target. Death Ward 'B' is cast on target.

One of these is considered more potent (or at least has a longer duration). Let's presume that 'A' is more potent (or considered so since it was cast first).

As a result - based on the quote above, only 'A' effects apply while the durations overlap.

Target is hit, and would drop to 0 hit points. 'A' effects still only apply at this point, so 'A' fires and the target is set to 1 hp. 'A' now ends.

Since the duration for 'A' has expired (the spell has ended), now 'B' is in effect. The target is at 1 hit point, so 'B' does not fire, and is ready for the next blow.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour and visit the help center if you need any guidance in answering or posting questions! I completely agree with you, I just think that the Death Ward B applies first, since it is the more recent. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Jun 23 at 13:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ To continue off what Eddymage said, the rules on Combining Magical Effects state: "[...] The effects of the same spell cast multiple times don't combine, however. Instead, [...] the most recent effect applies if the castings are equally potent and their durations overlap. [...]" Though I do agree with your answer otherwise \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 at 13:44

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