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The death saving throw is, as both the name implies and explicitly defined in the rules, a saving throw. It also has the particular rule...

Rolling 1 or 20. When you make a death saving throw and roll a 1 on the d20, it counts as two failures. If you roll a 20 on the d20, you regain 1 hit point.

But notably... that does not say the 1 or 20 automatically succeed or fail, the way it does for attack rolls and critical hits. So let's consider...

Roll a d20. If the roll is 10 or higher, you succeed

But looking at these two, there can be a strange interaction - what happens if I have a total bonus to all saving throws of +9 or more, and I roll a 1?

And before somebody says a +9 is unreasonable, consider a mixture of the following:

  • A nearby Paladin's Aura of Protection.
  • The bless spell.
  • An Artificer using flash of genius to advise me how not to die.
  • Being a monk with the Diamond Soul feature which gives proficiency in all saving throws.
  • Magic items such as the cloak of protection or ring of protection or stone of good luck.
  • A Peace Domain Cleric's Emboldening Bond.
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1 Answer 1

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It counts as two failures.

On page 197 of the PHB, death saving throws are at first indeed described as:

Roll a d20. If the roll is 10 or higher, you succeed. Otherwise, you fail.

This is the general rule for death saving throws. Under this paragraph there is a bolded and italicized section Rolling 1 or 20 which reads:

When you make a death saving throw and roll a 1 on the d20, it counts as two failures. If you roll a 20 on the d20, you regain 1 hit point.

This is a specific rule for the situation. When rules collide specific rules have precedence over general rules (see page 7 of the PHB) and thus rolling a 1 is considered two failures regardless of your modifiers.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is there any rule that would preclude counting such a roll as two fails AND one success? \$\endgroup\$
    – ATCOlogy
    Apr 4 at 11:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ATCOlogy If that was the case, rolling a 1 should count as a total of 3 failures (1+2), killing you instantly. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 4 at 11:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ATCOlogy Although the terms "success" and "failure" are used a lot I don't believe the rules have a specific definition for them. As such they have their plain English meaning and you can not simultaneously both succeed and fail. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pepijn
    Apr 4 at 11:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pepijn You also cannot fail a task twice at the same time according to the plain English meaning. It seems plain to me that for the purpose of death saves, "success" and "failure" have very specific meanings, in this case, are just used as discrete counters for triggering certain events. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 4 at 11:56

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