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In my new campaign I am using the Speed Factor variant for Initiative (DMG pp. 270-271). We like this a lot but it is confusing concerning unconscious PCs.

This question says that taking Actions while unconscious is impossible but rolling Initiative is unaffected. It is unclear, however, if you can declare an Action that you may or may not be able to take depending on whether you are still unconscious. And taking a Death Save is not an Action. The rules on DMG pp. 270-271 don't mention unconscious characters.

When should a character roll a Death Save in this system?

I could see:

  • Roll Initiative, potentially without declaring an Action, and roll a Death Save then?
  • Don't roll Initiative and simply roll a Death Save at start or end of turn?
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1 Answer 1

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At the start of your turn, as normal

Death saves are made at the start of your turn (when your Initiative comes up). This is not modified by the fact that you are using Speed Factor.

Whenever you start your turn with 0 hit points, you must make a special saving throw, called a death saving throw, to determine whether you creep closer to death or hang onto life.

Speed Factor might modify when your turn comes up. Normally you roll initiative at the start of the combat. With Speed Factor, you will be rolling at the start of each round (DMG 270):

Under this variant, the participants in a battle roll initiative each round. Before rolling, each character or monster must choose an action.

By the standard rules of Conditions, though, an unconscious character cannot take actions because:

An unconscious creature is incapacitated, can't move or speak, and is unaware of its surroundings.

and

An incapacitated creature can't take actions or reactions.

I think it is RAI to read "each character or monster must choose an action" as 'each character or monster must choose an action from among those possible for it to take'. That is, my non-Spellcasting Fighter can't choose the Cast A Spell Action just because we are using Speed Factor rules. Likewise, my unconscious character can't choose any action at all. Further, being "unaware of your surroundings" should severely limit your criteria for choosing actions. However, if you permit unconscious characters to choose potential actions assuming that they might soon be conscious, I don't think it disrupts the optional rule.

After actions are selected (271):

Rolling Initiative. After deciding on an action, everyone rolls initiative and applies modifiers, keeping the result secret.

If you can't choose an action while unconscious

No action selected would be no modifier to the Initiative roll, so their turn would come up as rolled. When their turn comes up, they make their Death Save.

On its turn, a creature moves as normal but must take the action it selected or take no action at all.

Thus if they are still unconscious, they obviously take no action. If they have become conscious by their turn, they have not selected an action, so they still cannot take an action. They can, however, move (although they will likely need to stand up or crawl).

If you permit an unconscious character to select an action

In this case, the unconscious character selects an action at the start of the round like everyone else, and applies the modifier to their Initiative, assuming that they will be able to take that action. If they are still unconscious when their initiative comes up, then obviously they can't act.

If someone has restored them to consciousness through healing before their turn, or if they got a 20N on their death save and restored themselves to consciousness at the start of their turn, they could now take their action (or if it was now impossible or undesirable, take no action at all).

Because of the nature of Declared actions, "must take the action it selected or take no action at all," I think RAI would be for characters to not be permitted to select an action while unconscious. However, given that Initiative order is secret, even knowing that someone intended to heal them would not mean that they could count on it happening. Thus, I don't think it would be disruptive for you to allow characters to select actions in the hope that they would be conscious by the start of their turn, it would just make the action selection and Initiative roll phase slightly longer.

To add more narrative impact to permitting this, you might allow it only for characters who had had martial training.1


1My father, who served in the USMC in the Vietnam era, told me that they were trained in Boot Camp that the only acceptable way to wake someone up was to touch their feet. If any other part of their body was touched as part of waking them up, they were expected to 'come up fighting'.

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