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So, in our current game, the PCs are getting pwned by a couple of bad guys. We ended last session in the middle of combat and will pick up next session.

My wizard is already pretty seriously hurt and is really low on spell slots. I'm fairly likely to get dropped to 0 before my next turn. If I'm still conscious by then, I'm going to trigger my contingent spell, telekinesis, by using the previously programmed hand gesture, and try to restrain one of the baddies so the barb or the rogue can go to town on them.

Hopefully we'll survive this. If so, I'm going to rethink my contingent spell, and consider using false life, upcast to 5th. That would give me 1d4 + 24 hp, which in a similar situation might be enough to keep me vertical.

Only problem is, how to trigger it. I don't want make it contingent on losing consciousness, because then I'll lose any concentration spell being maintained, possibly even allowing some elemental to run amok or something.

Using the contingency spell, how can I describe the trigger so as to make false life contingent on taking damage that would otherwise render me unconscious?

The GM has indicated that a contingency trigger needs to be essentially in-character. There is a gray area between in-character/out-of-character and I want to stay on the in-character side as much as possible.

To be clear, I want the contingency to trigger when I take the damage. Contingency requires no action or reaction on my part, it can certainly trigger when you "fall into water" or when you take damage. I just want it to be damage that would otherwise drop me to 0.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Since temp HP are just as useful when you are at 100% as at 1%, why wait until you are about to take a blow which could kill you? That would be a good trigger for something like resilient sphere which absolutely will keep you alive, but less so for false life where you could still die \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 19:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri The point is to only trigger the spell when it's needed in order to avoid falling unconscious. Otherwise the spell might trigger when it's not actually needed (and then not be available later when it really is needed). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 19:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RyanC.Thompson I get it, just curious why false life is your solution here. If you are going to wait for a 'save my life' moment, there are spells which will more certainly save you. False life has the benefit of not needing to wait for the last moment. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 19:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Plus, using FL this way doesn't cost an action. I don't have to spend a precious turn in melee keeping myself upright. Although you're right SeriousBri, if this trigger works, other spells might be worth considering. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 19:45

4 Answers 4

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There's no consistent way to trigger the Contingency before the damage

The fundamental problem, as I'm sure you've recognized, is that Contingency says (emphasis added):

The contingent spell takes effect immediately after the circumstance is met for the first time, whether or not you want it to, and then contingency ends.

Some generous DMs may allow you to get away with describing "creative" circumstances like "when I'm targeted with an attack/spell" in order to get the contingent spell to take effect before the attack's effects, but in general you probably shouldn't expect this to be possible. If you make the spell contingent upon an attack or other damaging effect, the spell will take effect after the damage is applied, which doesn't really help you, since you stated that you don't want to be knocked unconscious even momentarily, and because the temporary HP of False Life are not very useful if you're already at 0 HP. Furthermore, for your specific goal of preventing dropping to zero HP, there's no way to know if a particular source of damage will do so until the damage is rolled, which is too late: anything that triggers at that point will happen after the damage. Fundamentally, there is no timing that is both after the damage is known and before it knocks you unconscious. (This is the same reason that casting Shield requires logical, if not literal, time travel in order to work.)

Probably the closest you can come to something like this is making the spell contingent on a "hand signal" as you describe in the question and than manually activating it on your turn when you think you are likely to take enough damage in the next round to reduce you to zero HP. Obviously this won't cover every case, such as when you are paralyzed, stunned, etc., but no Contingency can cover every possible danger that might be inflicted on you. And even if you miss your chance to activate the spell before getting knocked unconscious, chances are you still have the opportunity to activate it after being revived, so it won't go completely to waste.

Another potential option, inspired by the suggestion from curious_penguin, is to use a trigger of "when I take damage equal to or greater than half my current hit points". The logic here is that if an attack deals more than half your current hit points, then a second identical attack will drop you to zero hit points, so this serves as a decent approximation of "one hit away from being knocked out". Of course, your DM might not allow a circumstance phrased mathematically in terms of hit points, so you may need to think a bit to come up with an acceptable wording that does the same job. For example, your DM might accept "when I take damage that I couldn't withstand a second time without falling unconscious" as a valid trigger, since it's a fairly common trope for characters to say things like "one more hit like that, and he's a goner". One side benefit of this circumstance is that it works for any source of damage, not just attacks. On the other hand, if you're up against a group of foes with widely-varying damage output, you run the risk of taking a series of small hits that don't deal enough damage to trigger the spell followed by one big hit that drops you straight to zero hit points before it can activate.

Ask your DM if "half HP or below" is a valid trigger

In D&D 4e, there is a concept of being "bloodied", which simply means you are at or below half your maximum health. For example, if your maximum hit points are 50, then you become bloodied any time you drop to 25 or fewer hit points. While in general your DM may not allow "below X HP" as a triggering circumstance, they might be convinced to allow a spell to trigger when you become "bloodied", since triggering effects upon becoming bloodied was a common mechanic in 4e, and if I recall correctly, "bloodied" was even specifically described as an observable state, the threshold between just a little bit scratched up to visibly injured (hence the name). In fact, the concept of being "bloodied" at half hit points, and of "bloodied" being an observable state, is also described in the 5e DMG's section on tracking monster hit points in the chapter Running the Game, though unlike in 4e it isn't given any mechanical significance:

[...] if a monster is below half its hit point maximum, it’s fair to say that it has visible wounds and appears beaten down. You can describe a monster taken to half its hit points as bloodied [...]

If your DM lets you use "when I become bloodied" as a circumstance, then you don't have to worry about manually triggering the spell on your turn. However, it should be noted that this can fail to protect you from damage that takes you from over half HP to zero HP all at once.

Consider triggering it upon receiving healing

Depending on how your party healers handle healing spells, it might useful for you to specify "when I receive healing" as the triggering circumstance. This works best if your healers tend to hold on to their healing spells until their allies are at low enough HP to be in danger of being knocked unconscious in the next round, since that's pretty much the exact trigger you're looking for. In this case, your contingent False Life acts as a force multiplier for the existing healing. And if the healers can't get to you, you can still manually trigger the spell by drinking a healing potion. The combined healing of the potion plus the spell might be enough to be worth using your action.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually just manually activating it on a hand signal is a pretty good option, thanks! At least then I can use it to transfer yesterday's false life to today's wizard without the cost of an action. I think I'll contingently use that as my contingency trigger in case the GM won't let me use shenanigans as my trigger. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 20:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ The concept of half HP as "bloodied" loosely exists in 5e too. Specifically for monsters' hit points, the DMG says "Don't ever feel as though you need to reveal exact hit points, but if a monster is below half its hit point maximum, it's fair to say that it has visible wounds and appears beaten down. You can describe a monster taken to half its hit points as bloodied, giving the players a sense of progress in a fight against a tough opponent..." (DMG pg. 248) \$\endgroup\$
    – smbailey
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 18:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @smbailey I knew I remembered seeing a 5e quote like that somewhere. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 23:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another suggestion that very closely emulates the desired outcome is "When I take a hit that would drop me if I take another one like those". This would work on the premise that they may hit you with less damage from now on, but why risk it? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 14:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @curious_penguin That's a great suggestion if the DM allows it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 17:05
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This likely does not work due to trigger timing, but ask your DM

As discussed in this answer, it is up to the DM if you can describe circumstances that are about the near future. If you cannot, than whatever triggered the contingency would already have happend, and it would be too late: as there is no time between the attack and the damage, there is no time for your contingeny to kick in before you drop to zero or fall unconscious.

(For those who are wondering why it is an issue to drop to zero, temporary hit points state on page 198 PHB: If you have 0 hit points, receiving temporary hit points doesn’t restore you to consciousness or stabilize you.)

Those abilities that allow you to react a trigger and pre-empt it, like the shield spell, explicitly say so. Contingency does not have such language.

Other questions are if they allow framing criteria in game mechanics terms? Would they allow you to even know how much damage an attack deals to you before it happens? The rules cannot answer that, and the answer will depend on it.

If he says OK to your wording of "if an attack would knock me unconscious", then obviously it will work. But too much is not covered by the rather vague text of contingency conditions to give a rules-as-written based answer here.

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The trigger needs to specify the timing to work

There are arguments that in-game, concepts of HP and numeric values to stats are not tangible in game, so you can't set the trigger to be "when I hit 5 HP" but you can trigger on in-game states like conciousness "when I become unconscious" or "When I become charmed" or "When I am bloodied"

This state may be the closest you can use to time your contingency. I'd set the trigger to something to the tune of, "When I get hit (or when I am hit) after already being bloodied" which would trigger sometime after losing at least 50% of your HP first.

The trigger would occur as soon as you took the hit to give you a buffer to soak that incoming damage, but that's not going to prevent it from downing you if you take more damage than can be soaked up.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer! Yeah, I think you may be right that I might not be able to get a trigger to do exactly what I want. I could try a trigger like "if I think someone's attack might be able to kill me", but I'm a squishy wizard running around with barbs and locks and stuff fighting dragons, I think they're all gonna kill me every single time.... \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 15:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have the contingent spell activate upon taking damage will not cause it to soak up that damage. You would take the damage first and then gain temporary HP afterward. Are you saying that the trigger of taking damage after being bloodied is good because that particular instance of damage is not likely to bring you to zero hit points? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 23:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ The OP is asking for a way to trigger temp HP as close as possible to the moment they reach 0 HP. Since you can't target HP, being bloodied (an optional rule but listed) at least sets that time to occur after 50% of hp has already been lost. Looks like there's no way to get in between the hit occurring and damage being applied. It may be better not to wait to activate as a large hit could take you to zero anyway (and damage avoidance might be a better option instead), but that's not the question being asked by OP \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 13:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ "When I am about to fall unconscious from taking damage" - would not that work? I think your basic approach is on the right track. Not sure if that trigger would fit, though. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 14:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Negative, "When I fall unconscious from taking damage" or "when I take damage" would generally work, it's the "About to" portion would likely have issues depending on the DM. When does the "about to" portion trigger? Before the hit lands? After it lands but before the damage is dealt? While the attacker selects you as a target but before they move into position? Does is know if something is about to attack you from hiding? Can it see invisible attackers before contact is made? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 14:38
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I would suggest asking the DM if "my character thinks they're about to be knocked out" is a valid contingency. It requires you to make an estimate prior to the attack as to whether it's going to hit, and whether it's going to do enough damage, and is vulnerable to surprise attacks, but in-combat it would usually activate at about the right time. There doesn't seem to be any requirement that the contingency is based on an external stimulus, so your character's internal state could be used.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! You might want to take the tour. This isn't bad, but I can achieve the same effect by using a hand gesture as the trigger, as described in the question. Your solution has the pro of working if I were for some reason unable to make the gesture, though. Thanks for your answer! \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 9:50

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