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In my current campaign, a plot point is going to involve the PCs finding a dying man who has been kept prisoner and beaten repeatedly over a long period of time. He is able to give the party some important information before he expires. Classic trope, right? But I'm concerned that one or more of my PCs are going to start casting healing spells or feeding him potions in a heroic effort to stop him from dying.

I can, of course, just wave my DM fiat around and declare that he's just too far gone to be saved by magic due to a combination of injuries and exhaustion; that's what I have planned. But it feels a little weak to me, considering the kind of injuries PCs can bounce back from with a quick cure wounds spell. Is there a better explanation I can give based on the rules or existing lore as to why basic healing magic won't work in some cases?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What level are the PCs? This matters quite a bit because it affects what level of healing/restoration/resurrection spells they have access to. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 at 4:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, how bad would it be if this NPC failed to die tragically? In one of my games, we tried very hard to save an NPC who was "supposed" to die (up to casting Planar Ally from a necklace of prayer beads and offering the necklace itself as payment). The DM allowed us to succeed, which in turn allowed us to learn a bunch of information we were never "supposed" to know, thereby derailing the "intended" plot... and leading to an even more interesting alternative plot instead. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 at 5:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ The party is 6th level but might be 7th by the time they get to this bit. That said, I'm not really concerned about preventing the use of revivify/resurrection type magic after death. That's a different question entirely. And no, it wouldn't be game-breaking if they succeed at saving this guy -- but I don't want it to be as easy as casting a 1st level spell or handing over a healing potion. I'm less worried about the implications of his survival. I just don't want to get one line into his last words and get interrupted by "I cast cure wounds!" and have that save his life \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 at 13:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Be careful that you aren't straying into the realm of dictating a story to your group rather than creating a story together with your players. Perhaps ask yourself what you're trying to get out of staging the dying words scene. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 at 17:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LioElbammalf I should hope it's obvious that there's a great deal of difference between failing to create a collaborative story and asking how to avoid one obvious and common disruption to a very standard narrative element. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 at 18:52

9 Answers 9

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Exhaustion kills

The game has a mechanism for modeling exhaustion. It's the exhaustion condition, and it's 6th level has the rather simple effect: "Death". Not reduction to 0 hit points, just dead outright.

A creature with 5 levels of exhaustion can reasonably be called dead tired, with disadvantage on everything, halved max hit points, and a speed of 0. Exhaustion is given by the game most commonly for overlong days, and exerting oneself beyond a normal day (see marching for more than 8 hours in a day). Calling speaking despite their injuries such an exertion seems completely reasonable. And in my experience, giving players an explanation like "They died from Exhaustion, so were never making death saves" appeases players who wants NPCs to use the same mechanics as them.

There are of course still spells which would be able to save the NPC, but instead of cure wounds or potions, they'd need revivify (3rd level; 300 gp) or better, or a greater restoration (5th level; 200 gp) used before the NPC dies (excluding any exhaustion caused by lack of food or water).

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    \$\begingroup\$ 5 levels of exhaustion plus time pressure and an escape route that doesn't facilitate carrying a person would probably be sufficient. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 at 5:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ revivify required a willing soul. PC might want back in the game to get revenge or finish the quest but a peasant locked away and tortured would be reasonably happy in the afterlife and reject the spell. \$\endgroup\$
    – Skeith
    Feb 11 at 15:43
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D&D is best played without scripts

There are as many ways to play D&D as there are DMs. But I think your line of thinking doesn't lead anywhere good.

As DMs it's enticing to get ahead of ourselves and go from writing encounters to writing a book - "first the players go here then they see the NPC and talk to them and get the clue then the NPC dies then the players go over there ... etc"

But remember you are just 1 player at the table. The DM's job is to run the world and make rulings. That's really it. The players' job is to control their PC. If you start controlling PCs, the players are out of a job. They are reduced to passive spectators.

Respect player autonomy, don't try to force outcomes

In order to preserve player autonomy run the world realistically. What happened to this NPC? They were beaten, so they have some injuries. That's definitely within the realm of cure wounds.

If you want to make the character gain exhaustion (due to lack of food, water, sleep) then use the rules. But only do it if it makes sense, don't contrive something to force an outcome.

Instead, give your players choices

Accept that the party may well heal the NPC. But make sure it is a conscious choice. Healing is a resource, it should make them stop and think before using it. If your game is too easy, then resources are abundant and the party won't think - it's not a real choice. If that describes your game then consider increasing the difficulty.

Will your table's story be one of a party who conserves their heals to protect themselves, or one where the party put their own lives at risk for a stranger? Find out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a fair point! D&D is able to tell completely different stories from awesome movies and wonderful books. Partly, that's because the DM lets the party act as they will (mostly). Maybe "Don't be Darth Pseudonym railroading the characters, be Mustache-twirling Villain or Driftwood the Money-loving Wizard or the Arch-High-Priest of Pelor railroading the players" is another answer, too, because there's nothing wrong with NPCs who try to railroad (except when there is). \$\endgroup\$
    – Phoenices
    Feb 11 at 4:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, am totally with you on this one. Nothing more annoying than the GM gimping your powers because they are a wannabe novelist and want to get their railroad on. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 at 8:52
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They're dying of old age.

Repeated beatings, abuse, and just being old has meant that the person is dying prematurely. Their body is battered and abused so much that they are due to die regardless, and were only holding on via stubborn willpower. Ageing can't be cured without specific high level spells, and they can't be resurrected after death.

Dnd 5e doesn't have explicit ageing mechanics, so it's easy to say that they're just really old.

I'd also recommend rewarding them for healing, so they don't feel their actions are a waste. The NPC can point them to some extra treasure, adventures, or valued things if they relieve their pain for a bit, while noting that their body is too old now.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good last point, if the DM is suberting player agency (even if only perceived), this can be softened by making the actions - and resource expenditure - still count somehow \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 at 12:42
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He's already dead and leaves behind a diary

Well, can't heal him if he's already dead. The party looks around a little (no check needed) and discovers a crude diary hidden . It has a handful of entries with the details you want to give the party, as well as a few sentimental tropes about whatever you want.

Bonus points if they cast Speak with Dead.

I usually use this method for getting information out of enemies, but neutral NPCs works as well.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Aagh! How did I leave this out of my answer! I wrote down four ideas (poison, prison, guards, notes), went and finished lunch, and came back to write my answer, but didn't write the notes part for some reason. Good answer! \$\endgroup\$
    – Phoenices
    Feb 11 at 17:52
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Poison

Just have the Dying Wise Man poisoned! Not an implausible circumstance; maybe he was fed a standard poisoned meal and left to die once his usefulness was over. Maybe it's a weakened version of a Potion of Poison or Burnt Other Fumes and he's got 30 health; just assume he rolls a failed save every turn. That's mildly DM-fiaty, but it sounds reasonable. Maybe he's even Exhausted as Someone_Evil suggested! That way he has disadvantage on those saving throws, if you want to roll it out.

The PCs probably will heal him, delaying the inevitable; maybe he even gives a bit more information if he has another turn to live, instead of dying in the middle of a crucial sentence. They probably won't realize he's poisoned unless you signal clearly that he is. Even if they do, what's the chance the Cleric has Neutralize Poison prepared? If you know the Cleric always has that prepared, this may not be a good strategy.

Prison

I was going to say "This may be a bit of a stretch in some circumstances," but it looks like this guy was already kept prisoner! He's stuck in a prison cell with no easy way in. Obviously PCs are going to try and find workarounds - Misty Step is hard to counter, and I can't think how you'd beat potion of healing+Familiar trickery+misty step). It's easier if there's only a hole in the wall instead of PCs being able to see him.

This is far more sketchy than the poison route - there are so many ways it could go wrong. Misty Step, Healing Word, Gaseous Form, Dimension Door, Clairvoyance plus any of the above... some PCs may even have methods of destroying solid rock, like Fabricate.

Guards

All of the above solutions are sort of odd. Why would this guy die the moment the PCs find him? What's the chance of that? It's almost like a DM with a sense of drama set it up that way, and he would have waited to die if the PCs stopped for the night and then continued...

So add someone who kills him! The moment the PCs arrive, guards continue their patrol - if this is outside the prison, maybe they're patrolling the outskirts of their territory; if it's inside the base, maybe they're patrolling the prison. Maybe they're just attracted from the nearby watchpost by the sound of voices and the sight of PC lanterns that shouldn't be there. They burst onto the scene and start attacking the PCs - and one with a dagger runs over and silences the prisoner in the middle of him leaking crucial information.

This is about as likely to fail as a prison trick - there are ways to counter it, like a canny PC running in and dashing or flying off while cackling at the ruin of your plot.

Disappearance

Someone knows that the Dying Wise Man is very wise and has campaign secrets. The PCs rescue him successfully - good for them! They heal him and run back to camp, and he gets out a few choice morsels of knowledge before he falls asleep. He's horribly, terribly tired. He'll sleep for the next 20 hours, and if anyone takes their eyes off him for a second... he's gone!

Any proper jailor takes hair and blood samples of every prisoner, and puts them in little boxes. Then, when one inevitably escapes (or the Undertaker Ogre doesn't find a corpse where there should be one), you hire Driftwood the Money-loving Wizard to Scry with his crystal ball and a blood sample. Invisible assassins arrive in the night (or day when everyone's distracted) and run off with him, either to kill him or to interrogate him about what he gave up.

The clever ones will leave a decoy in his place to feed the PCs false information until they realize they sense illusion magic on him. That way, they even doubt what he said at the start!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not mentioned: some wise, powerful person wants to sneakily deliver info to the PCs, and pretends to be dying to do it. It's a usable method, but has a high chance of failure and I couldn't figure out a way to word it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Phoenices
    Feb 11 at 1:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like poison, players can still heal the NPC but they are still dying. There's a payoff to the players' choices but you still have the same outcome in the end. Good suggestion! \$\endgroup\$
    – user73918
    Feb 11 at 4:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Non-humanPerson Thank you! It's the best from a "accomplishes objective" standpoint, but the hardest to justify (not that that's always necessary, but usually a good practice). It would imply that these people have good access to a powerful poison (or it wouldn't be standard to poison prisoners), or that they have some kind of special reason to... not stab this dude ten times with spears and leave him to die? \$\endgroup\$
    – Phoenices
    Feb 11 at 4:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps as part of the torture they fed the NPC poison, then left them for dead (OP doesn't explain why the NPC was released or how they escaped)? \$\endgroup\$
    – user73918
    Feb 11 at 4:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ An alternative to poison would be some kind of addiction whose withdrawal side effects include death. Take the guy out, he quits getting his daily fix in his prison rations, he dies. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 at 17:35
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Healing magic heals HP loss*

(* exceptions apply)

Your NPC is dying. He is not suffering from HP loss.

Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill. Those with fewer hit points are more fragile.

Hit points don't represent how healthy you are, and regaining hit points does not automatically make you healthy.

In combat, PCs go into dying state when their HP drops to zero, at which point they still have a chance to pull through by themselves. Healing gives them the durability, will to live, and luck, to automatically succeed and get back on their feet. An NPC that is terminal, with no chance to survive, is not necessarily saved by a boost in durability, will, and luck.

To illustrate how limited healing magic actually is in terms of affecting a characters physical state, consider that it takes 7th level spell Regenerate to do something as simple as regenerate a lost finger.


I second what others have pointed out in previous answers, though: reward players for trying. A bit more will to live might allow the NPCs to draw a few more breaths and give out some extra information.

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A possibility that could work...

Anti-Magic Field

It makes a lot of sense, in a world where magic is common, for anyone with prisoners to consider having an anti-magic field over some of their cells, to prevent prisoners with magic from escaping.

This anti-magic field would make breaking into the cell more difficult, and would require the NPC to be removed from the cell before any healing could be attempted. And with that, it's easy enough to have the NPC die while the party is trying to find a way in, giving enough time for the NPC's death scene.

And to prevent them from getting in and taking the NPC's body to somewhere that Resurrection could be done, you could have the death be anticipated by whoever has them captive, and soon after the death, high-level guards might come to collect the body, thus requiring the party to leave or get into an unwinnable fight.

One Caveat

Note that any solution you come up with that isn't "because the DM says so" will risk the party coming up with an ingenious way around it. Any such solution that requires resources and would reasonably work should be rewarded, either by actual success (saving the NPC in some way), or with some alternative reward (the NPC dies anyway, but with their dying breath, which they got because of the party's actions, they were able to thank the party, and point them in the direction of their home, where they would find some useful item).

Of course, if their solution doesn't require resources, just handwave it by inventing a reason why it doesn't work.

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Make a custom lingering injury

There is a RAW precedent for injuries that aren't represented by hit points and can't be healed by an ordinary 1st level cure wounds: the lingering injuries described in DMG Chapter 9. Perhaps the repeated beatings have inflicted serious internal injuries, even damaged some vital organs, to the point where something like a regenerate spell would be required to heal them. Each lingering injury has a specific condition that will cure it, such as "Magical healing of 6th level or higher". None of the lingering injuries described quite match what you're going for, so you'll probably need to invent your own. You can reinforce the idea that this is not ordinary hit point damage by avoiding descriptions the NPC as visibly wounded in the way you'd typically describe battle injuries, but instead describe signs of the internal damage. (I'll let you come up with these on your own, since I don't fancy describing them here.)

Consider carefully whether you want this NPC to be save-able if the party tries hard enough, and set the cure requirements for your custom injury accordingly. In your example, you've stated that the party will likely be at 7th level when they encounter this NPC, which gives them access to 4th level spells. So obviously, if you require a 5th or higher level spell to save the NPC, your PCs will not be able to save them, unless you give them a scroll or something else that gives them access to more powerful magic. Requiring a 4th level spell means they can save the NPC, but at a fairly high cost. If they've just come out of a boss fight and are low on resources, they might not have a 4th level spell left over.

Allow the party healer to make a medicine check

If you want to make it clear that the spells the party has access to won't save this NPC (e.g. to prevent them from wasting spells that won't work), you can ask any PC with proficiency in medicine to make a medicine check as soon as they encounter the NPC and get a look at their injuries. Or if you don't want to spoil the pacing, ask for the check only once they start talking about healing spells. If they roll well enough, you can tell them how bad the injuries are and indicate what might be required to heal them, and what might not be sufficient.

Give the party a reason not to use resources

If this NPC encounter happens after the final boss battle of the dungeon, then the PCs will probably be willing to dump any spare healing spells and potions they have into this NPC to save them, since they aren't expecting to need them any time soon. On the other hand, if they encounter the NPC while sneaking around a dungeon still full of enemies, with a big boss battle looming in the future, they will need to be much more stingy with their healing magic, and they'll have to decide whether the trade-off is worth it.

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The NPC’s soul has already departed

You can avoid the players from feeling stymied by letting their attempts to heal the victim reveal cool information.

If a spellcaster wants to cast a cure spell, tell them:

As you ready your spell, you sense the person is not a valid target for it. Their soul and has already been embraced by [deity]. Through sheer force of will, the soul still clings to the body for some vital purpose, almost like a revenant.

In this way, the spellcaster has just discovered something interesting, which comes off very differently than just telling them the spell doesn’t work.

The reference to revenants provides a tie-in to the mechanics (since Cure Wounds has no effect on undead) so rules wonks can also be satisfied.

If someone tries to apply a potion, you’ll have to relay the above info a little differently, after the victim shuts their mouth tightly and shakes their head.

And don’t burn the parties resources in any failed healing attempt.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you suggesting this happens before the target is dead? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 12 at 17:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov, if you're asking about mechanics, sure, the target would be alive but have gained a condition that healing spells have no effect on it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim Grant
    Feb 13 at 15:48

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