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The section of the rules on food and water states that exhaustion resulting from starvation or dehydration cannot be cured until the cause has been eliminated (emphasis added):

Characters who don't eat or drink suffer the effects of exhaustion. Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can't be removed until the character eats and drinks the full required amount.

Suppose a creature is denied food and/or water for long enough that they suffer 6 levels of exhaustion all caused by starvation and/or dehydration, and the creature dies as a result. Normally, a creature's exhaustion level is reduced by 1 when they are raised from the dead, which allows creatures who died of exhaustion to be revived. However, this dead creature cannot eat or drink, and none of their levels of exhaustion can be removed until they do so. So, is there any way to revive this unfortunate creature, or are they doomed for all eternity because they starved to death?

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6 Answers 6

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Per PHB errata, raising from the dead cures 1 level of exhaustion:

Appendix A: Conditions

Exhaustion (p. 291). The following sentence is appended to the last paragraph: “Also, being raised from the dead reduces a creature’s exhaustion level by 1.”


EDIT:

I would argue that a rule regarding moving between the states of dead and not dead, and more specifically when the death is caused by exhaustion, is more specific than rules regarding moving between the 7 states of exhaustion (including 0 exhaustion).

Per the basic rules,

Remember this: If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins.

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    \$\begingroup\$ But it cannot remove level of exhaustion caused by starvation/dehydration because of specific starvation/dehydration rules. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 20:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see all of your points, but which rule is more specific is up for debate. Since the rule re: starvation/dehydration applies to moving between several different states of exhaustion and "raising from the dead" applies to moving between one terminal state and another, I'd argue that rule meets the specificity criteria to apply. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ned
    Mar 9 at 21:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Exempt-Medic "If raising from the dead removed starvation/dehydration exhaustion, there'd be no reason for this sentence" I think we agree that a dead creature can't eat or drink, right? So I think we can conclude that this sentence was NOT intended to be about reviving people from the dead. Logically this sentence is about spells such as greater restoration, and resting, which both remove exhaustion while the character is in a state where they can indeed eat and drink. I think the intent is "sleeping doesn't save you from dying of thirst" not "pour water into a corpse's mouth before revival" \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 23:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer, but we should acknowledge that this is one of multiple possible interpretations. This is the one that obviously makes narrative sense, i.e. that most tables want. So yes, this is a good argument that the interpretation we want is compatible with the rules, not that it's the only interpretation. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10 at 12:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ There is no hierarchy of specificity. There's no meaningful way to judge which of two exceptions is "more specific" than the other. When one exception says "you can't" and another exception says "you must", there isn't a rules-based way to figure that out. It's down to the DM and the narrative to decide. When you have two possible interpretations and one results in a bad outcome and the other makes the game more fun, the bad outcome is probably the wrong interpretation, but that's what the DM is for. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10 at 14:45
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Dead as a doornail

Well, as you quote yourself, rules as written there is a specific rule for dying of starvation on page 185 of the PHB that says

Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can't be removed until the character eats and drinks the full required amount.

Since the dead creature cannot eat nor drink, and it cannot regain a level of exhaustion on being revived by the various spells that could resurrect it, when you resurrect it it will have six levels of exhaustion and die instantly. So, technically it cannot be revived.

Dale's answer already mentions Wish: you could wish for an off-label effect of the restriction being lifted prior to reviving the creature, and the DM surely could allow that. I do not think that Greater Restoration can work, as the corpse is an object, not a creature. Divine Intervention could work as it says

The DM chooses the nature of the intervention; the effect of any cleric spell or cleric domain spell would be appropriate.

and the DM might chose it to work, but they might be well in their right to decline -- none of the cleric spells are likely to do the trick. I think if Reincarnation would work is likely a case of DM ruling, as the exhaustion is attached to the character, and it is not clear if that means the body or the soul or both.

Common sense

As one can see from many of the other answers, the strong instinct is that it should not be impossible. After all, the character just died of normal starvation, a mundane effect.

There is a Jeremy Crawford tweet

everyday things—walls, gravity, bread, laughter—work the way we expect them to, except for when the rules say otherwise.

This is normally useful to avoid nonsensical technical artifacts, but is of no help here, as the rules unfortunately do say otherwise. I think this still would be a good situation for the DM to ignore the rule, for common sense reasons:

The creature died of a physical, normal effect, starvation. This clearly is something that is not attached to the soul or spirit of the creature, it is the lack of sustenance for the body. With this logic, the effect should be attached to the physical body.

Spells that do not require the body to resurrect, and that create a new body that logically can not be suffering from starvation therefore should be able to revive the character. Take True Resurrection for example:

You touch a creature that has been dead for no longer than 200 years and that died for any reason except old age. If the creature's soul is free and willing, the creature is restored to life with all its hit points. (...) The spell can even provide a new body if the original no longer exists

The lack of a physical body is a much more severe physical handicap than a lack of sustenance. If you are able to come back from this, you should be able to come back from starvation. (If you wanted to be technical, you could disintegrate the corpse first, to then create a new body.)

However, this interpretation would require the DM to override rules as written.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is a character at less than 0 exhaustion when dead. If not, then raise dead reduces exhaustion level by 1, at which point the character can eat or drink, restoring an exhaustion level. So the infinite loop glitch that you point out is not feasible unless death by exhaustion/dehydration takes a character below 0, which does not appear to be the rule.1 \$\endgroup\$
    – Ken Ingram
    Mar 10 at 19:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KenIngram, assuming you mean above five instead below 0 (0 means you are perfectly fit, no exhaustion at all), yes this is the argument of the top voted answer. It depends if you think the rule to remove one level upon being revived is more specific, or the rule about exhaustion from starvation. My answer assumes the latter but you are right, one can argue either way \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10 at 19:07
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Once they are dead, they eat and drink the required amount

Once you are dead, your food and drink requirements are nil. You consume that by default.

Or, more likely - ignore the rule altogether and stop looking for ways around things like this

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that ignoring this weird edge case is probably reasonable, but I'd still like to know what the RAW interpretation actually is so I can make an informed decision about what I'm ignoring. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 22:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this as a proof by contradiction. If you don't say that dead characters require no food or water, then they'd still be building exhaustion while dead (the rules say "character", not "creature", and they're still characters), making it impossible to raise anyone dead for 4 or more days (one exhaustion level for water loss on day 1, two more for each subsequent day, maxing out by day 4 at the latest). Since that's a clearly insane reading of the rules (several spells work longer than that), logically, dead characters must be getting their required food/water. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10 at 15:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ShadowRanger you are the only one! Thank you :) \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Mar 10 at 15:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ I suppose an alternate interpretation leading to the same logic is that a dead creature is no longer a creature and is therefore no longer subject to the the rules for creatures, including those for food and drink. (I realize that the creature-ness of a dead creature is somewhat ambiguous though.) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 12 at 11:56
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Without a wish or divine/DM intervention, they are gone for good

First, some background...

Exhaustion levels are a bucket, not LIFO1

Here is what we know about Exhaustion:

Some special abilities and environmental hazards, such as starvation and the long-term effects of freezing or scorching temperatures, can lead to a special condition called exhaustion. Exhaustion is measured in six levels. An effect can give a creature one or more levels of exhaustion, as specified in the effect's description.

If an already exhausted creature suffers another effect that causes exhaustion, its current level of exhaustion increases by the amount specified in the effect's description.

A creature suffers the effect of its current level of exhaustion as well as all lower levels. For example, a creature suffering level 2 exhaustion has its speed halved and has disadvantage on ability checks.

An effect that removes exhaustion reduces its level as specified in the effect's description, with all exhaustion effects ending if a creature's exhaustion level is reduced below 1.

Finishing a long rest reduces a creature's exhaustion level by 1, provided that the creature has also ingested some food and drink. Also, being raised from the dead reduces a creature’s exhaustion level by 1.

And finally, as noted in the question, "Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can't be removed until the character eats and drinks the full required amount."

How that works

When you cure a level of exhaustion, no where does it say you have to cure the last thing that gave you exhaustion.

As an example; The character goes for a forced march AND they don't eat so they starve. Each gives a level of exhaustion. So at the end of the day, they have two levels of exhaustion. They then camp for the night and eat and drink normally. This would reduce one level of exhaustion... But which one?

It doesn't matter! It just lowers the level by one. The character now has one level.

And because they ate and drank their normal fill, it removed the "can't be removed" stipulation. But what if they just used greater restoration? They could still lose one level of exhaustion, but they cannot remove that final level until they eat and drink.

With that said, your six-day-starved character is most likely perma-dead

In your specific example, the creature suffered from all six levels as starvation. So there is no level they can remove without somehow eating and drinking; a very hard task to do when dead. In which case, they are out of luck as the stipulation would stack across all six levels.

Here is were DM intervention/allowances comes in

Once dead, someone can cast animate dead on the character to bring them back. The spellcaster will then command the zombie to eat and drink a days rations2. Then someone needs to kill the character again. Per this question, you can use at least true resurrection (if not other resurrection spells) to bring them back as a non-undead creature.

Technically, they will have eaten/drank enough to be able to remove at least one of the eat/drink stipulation so when the resurrection is applied, it will also remove one level of exhaustion bringing them to level 5. Now with five more days of normal eating, drinking, and bed rest your character is back to normal.

Just realize this is well into the realm of DM fiat...

But in most all other situations, there is still a reasonable chance

If a character dies from starvation, as in, it added the sixth level, there is now a stipulation on their recovery; they have to eat and drink their fill at least once to remove one of the levels of exhaustion. But it doesn't have to be the FIRST level removed.

Someone can cast raise dead and now the character has five levels. The now alive character can now receive four greater restoration spells and be brought up to only one level; but they cannot remove that final level until "the character eats and drinks the full required amount."


1 Last In, First Out

2 Undead creatures say, "doesn't require air, food, drink, or sleep." They don't require eating, but it doesn't stop them from going through the motions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Exempt-Medic Which I address in my last paragraph \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Mar 9 at 22:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question specifically asks about the case where all six levels are from starvation. Your whole answer is about having other sources of starvation, that is not what the question is asking, wether you acknowledge it in your last paragraph or not. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10 at 6:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin, my whole answer is explaining exhaustion and how starvation works within the rules. Basically, given any other circumstances, starving once or even 5 times, you would have a chance of bringing the character back. But since every level was earned through starvation, they're SOL. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Mar 10 at 7:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ yes, and that is all great, but that seems clear to the querant, otherwise he would not have stated all six levels are from starvation. You are spending the bulk of the answer exlaining something not asked for. Maybe it would help if you put your conclusion at the top, then would go on to explain how it works in other cases if you feel this is valuable information to share (which it well may be)? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10 at 7:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin, I rearranged some of the text, including a initial conclusion statement at the top. I also added a possible work around (since I was redoing the answer anyways). \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Mar 10 at 18:46
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Reincarnate

Raise Dead and Resurrection do not cure exhaustion. Neither does Reincarnate but, if exhaustion is physical (which is a reasonable interpretation but not a given, your DM needs to rule), it shouldn’t affect the new body.

Not only do you feel like a new person, you are a new person.

Wish

Because Wish can do anything your DM allows.

Divine Intervention

Because ditto.

Greater Restoration

Can cure 1 level of exhaustion and then follow up with the return to life method of your choice.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The PHB Errata states that being raised from the dead cures one level of exhaustion so your point for raise dead and reincarnate isn't quite right. The problem is, the rules for starvation specifically states that exhaustion levels caused in that way can only be removed by eating and drinking. That's a specific rule which overrides other, general, rules. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ The greater restoration spell only targets creatures, so it won't help with a corpse \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 20:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ The corpse isn't a creature issue is kind of a sticking point in the rules as raise dead targets a "dead creature". So if a corpse isn't a creature, then the spell can never be used. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 20:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AllanMills why do you think the one rule is more specific than the other? They are both special cases. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Mar 9 at 22:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AllanMills A "dead creature" is not a "creature". The qualifier "dead" modifies the noun "creature" producing an object in 5e game terms. We can say in general that resurrection spells target objects, but more specifically their valid targets are objects that were formerly creatures which died. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 23:46
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Which Is More Specific?

The rules for food and water, or the rules for the exhaustion?

The Exhaustion rules, after the November 2018 errata, end with the text:

Also, being raised from the dead reduces a creature’s exhaustion level by 1

The Food and Drink rules contain the text:

Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can't be removed until the character eats and drinks the full required amount.

The question assumes that the later is more specific than the former. I am not convinced this is so-- Neither seems like a special case of the other, specifically. They just seem like special cases of the exhaustion rules and so, on theoretically even footing.

But that said, being raised from the dead after starving to death is certainly a more rare occurrence than just starving to death and in that sense is "more special." That would cause me to consider the raise dead as the operating rule.

I think the question rests on an unsound premise.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I wonder if there's a meaningful distinction between "removing" a level of exhaustion and "reducing" a creature's exhaustion level. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 22:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RyanC.Thompson I wouldn't think so. I could be convinced otherwise, but in general I don't think 5e uses language that precisely or with so much forethought. I think those are just two poorly thought out rules in different sections of the book that weren't intended to be in opposition, but are. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Mar 9 at 22:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ As I stated in another answer, given the two cases, the "raised from the dead" applies to all forms dying from exhaustion which makes it pretty general. There are numerous ways to gain exhaustion; forced march, hypothermia, some monster attacks, Berserker rage, etc). But the other case, "can only remove starvation by eating and drinking" it a pretty specific ruling. So the whole general vs specific would favor that starvation wins. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Mar 10 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MivaScott I am not saying this to convince you that you're wrong and I'm wright, only to stress that I don't think this is obvious or clear-cut: Why isn't the rule for raising the dead (which specifies that a very specific thing happens to exhaustion when it is cast) not just considered a narrow exception to the more general rule about how to recover from starvation exhaustion? \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Mar 10 at 20:08

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