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Does Vecna’s Rotten Fate ability kill a player outright if it drops them to zero hit points? The ability states that the player will rise as a zombie on Vecna’s next turn, which implies that three rounds of death saving throws can’t happen. OTOH, I would expect the ability to say that character death happens immediately if that were the intent. This is from the Vecna stat block found in the Vecna Dossier and also in the Vecna: Eye of Ruin adventure. The ability in question is:

Rotten Fate. Vecna causes necrotic magic to engulf one creature he can see within 120 feet of himself. The target must make a DC 22 Constitution saving throw, taking 96 (8d8 + 60) necrotic damage on a failed save or half as much damage on a successful one. A Humanoid killed by this magic rises as a zombie at the start of Vecna's next turn and acts immediately after Vecna in the initiative order. The zombie is under Vecna's control.

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It is Vecna’s next turn after the humanoid dies, not Vecna’s next turn after using the ability.

A Humanoid killed by this magic rises as a zombie at the start of Vecna's next turn [after the humanoid dies] and acts immediately after Vecna in the initiative order.

The part of the ability that raises the dead humanoid as a zombie doesn’t occur until the humanoid dies. So “Vecna’s next turn” in the ability description is not “Vecna’s next turn [after Vecna uses this ability]”, but rather it is “Vecna’s next turn [after the humanoid dies]”. As there is nothing else in the description to indicate instant death or forgoing death saving throws, the creature becomes unconscious as usual after reaching 0 hit points and must make death saving throws, unless the humanoid is instantly killed per the massive damage rules:

Massive damage can kill you instantly. When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.

And finally, monster traits that do bypass death saves and kill player-characters immediately explain that in the trait description, such as the Reduced-Threat Wight’s Thrown Urn:

[…] If this damage reduces a creature to 0 hit points, the creature dies and turns to dust.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good point about massive damage, +1 \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 12 at 11:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for addressing the “rises on a zombie on Vecnas next turn” question! \$\endgroup\$
    – Trekkie
    Commented May 12 at 11:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ It also means that if you can't save the character from death for whatever reason, finishing them off yourself is a viable strategy to avoid having another zombie to deal with... \$\endgroup\$
    – Perkins
    Commented May 12 at 19:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Perkins That sort of tactic would likely require using metagame knowledge. I wouldn’t expect the characters to be able to work that out themselves. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 12 at 20:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user-63873687 now that's something new in this conversation. It seems that nobody has raised that point (that this ability only turns someone into zombie if it died outright, which for a PC can only happen via massive damage rule) yet, but that can also means that it seems obvious to everyone that the ability should mean "if the creature made to 0 HP and later died from failing the saving throws three times, it becomes a zombie". EDIT: But good point! I saw your discussion under Nobody's answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – justhalf
    Commented May 14 at 12:55
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The player character rises after dying, not after the ability damaged them

There is nothing in the ability description that would suggest that the PC dies immediately. It just deals damage on a failed save.

If the player dies from this by falling to 0, and suffering massive damage, he will rise as a Zombie at the start of Vecna's next turn after they died. If the damage fails to outright kill them through massive damage, then the character falls unconscious and starts making death saves.

Compare this for example with how disintegrate works:

If this damage reduces the target to 0 hit points, it is disintegrated.

Vecna’s ability, other than disintegrate, has no language that the target dies if the damage reduces it's hp to zero.

If they die after failing three death saves, it is a DM's call how to interpret what killed them: if they rule it was the damage, which us the ultimate cause of them having to make death saves in the first place. In that case, they turn into a Zombie at the beginning of Vecna's next turn after they failed the third save and died.

The rules state:

If damage reduces you to 0 hit points and fails to kill you, you fall unconscious.

If the DM rules that "fails to kill you" means the damage did not kill you in the end, even after it leads to your death via failed saves, is was the death save that killed you, then you will not turn into a zombie. This interpretation is supported by a tweet from Jeremy Crawford, the lead designer for 5e:

A spell kills you if its damage or other effects slay you. If it reduces to you 0 hit points but leaves you alive, it didn't kill you. #DnD

Note however that these are his personal views, and he has been known to be self-contradictory or just wrong in his rules posts on twitter. Only the rulings that are compiled into the Sage Advice Compendium are official rulings, and this one is not among them. So in the end it's up to the DM if they adopt this reading.

Ruling like Jeremy would create some weird effects, for example, the rules say that it is up to the DM if they want to have the monsters make death saves or not (p. 198 PH)

Most DMs have a monster die the instant it drops to 0 hit points, rather than having it fall unconscious and make death saving throws. Mighty villains and special nonplayer characters are common exceptions; the DM might have them fall unconscious and follow the same rules as player characters.

"Most DMs" let monsters die means, some DMs might not. Or maybe the DM decides only certain monsters will not. That could result in Vecna (or Finger of Death) being able to turn hobgoblins into Zombies, but not Bragg, Chieftain of the Bloody Fang tribe, unless he has been hurt before and suffers massive damage from the spell.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yep, the disintegrate point reminds me that unless otherwise stated, we should assume that the ability doesn’t work in a special way \$\endgroup\$
    – Trekkie
    Commented May 12 at 11:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you check the rules for Death Saves they state: "If damage reduces you to 0 hit points and fails to kill you, you fall unconscious" - the damage source only gets one chance to kill you, and if it fails it doesn't get another chance. Failing death saves happebs after the spell is done and dusted. I recommend you check my answer further down, someone else made the same mistake and I linked a bunch of Q&As, rules, and a JC quote which all day the same. Cheers \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13 at 6:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user-63873687 I think you actually have a reasonable point that at least needs discussion, even if I‘d not play it that way. I amended the answer to reflect that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13 at 7:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin personally I think RAW is very clear that "indirect kills" aren't a thing, I'm not sure it is the DMs call. Of course it's fine to play any way you want, I'm just talking in terms of interpreting RAW I don't see the basis of indirect kills. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13 at 7:23
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I think the point of confusion is thinking that "being reduced to 0 hit points" is the same as "being killed". Being reduced to 0 hit points is called "falling unconscious" - the rules explicitly state that this means the damage has "failed to kill you".

A spell kills you if it's damage or other effects slay you. If it reduces you to 0 hit points but leaves you alive, it didn't kill you.

If Rotten Fate reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining which equals or exceeds your hot point maximum, then you die (skipping death saves) and on Vecna's next turn you rise as a zombie.

If Rotten Fate reduces you to 0 hit points but doesn't otherwise kill you, then the zombie part doesn't happen.

I recommend checking the basic rules for Death Saves which clearly explains that being reduced to 0 to means you are not killed. Also search "JC sage advice finger of death zombie" and you will find the lead designer reiterating RAW - that if you're still alive, you haven't been killed!

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    \$\begingroup\$ "If Rotten Fate reduces you to 0 hit points but doesn't otherwise kill you, then the zombie part doesn't happen." [Citation Needed] - You might die after some death saves, and then the Rotten Fate still killed you \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented May 13 at 6:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Trish the effect only triggers if it kills the target: "A Humanoid killed by this magic..." - so if you're not killed, it doesn't trigger. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13 at 6:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Trish to address your edit, no, a spell kills you if it kills you, that's all! There's no hidden rules. Please see the following: \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13 at 6:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user-63873687 I think the answer is clear on unconscious being different from dead. The key point here is like you mentioned under Nobody's answer, everybody assumes if you fail 3 DST then you are killed by that damage which made you drop to 0. I can accept a discussion on this latter point, and you have a strong position RAW. This means the ability can only kill a PC via the massive damage rule. \$\endgroup\$
    – justhalf
    Commented May 14 at 12:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @justhalf A fireball reduces a PC to 0. Before the downed PC has made any death saves, an NPC enemy strikes the downed PC from within 5ft, making them fail two death saves. The PC then rolls and fails their last death save. What killed the PC? In another situation, a fireball reduces a PC to 0. The fails one death save. An NPC enemy strikes the downed PC from within 5ft, making them fail two death saves and killing them. What killed the PC? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 16 at 11:05

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