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A human druid Wild Shapes into a spider and now has 1 maximum hit point. As a spider she gets bitten by a hungry lizard that deals 2 damage.

Does the druid die from Instant Death (PHB p. 197), or does she revert to her human form first (PHB pp. 66–7)?

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The relevant rules are Wild Shape on pages 66 - 67:

You automatically revert if you fall unconscious, drop to 0 hit points, or die.

...

If you revert as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to your normal form. For example, if you take 10 damage in animal form and have only 1 hit point left, you revert and take 9 damage. As long as the excess damage doesn't reduce your normal form to 0 hit points, you aren't knocked unconscious.

The other relevant bits are on 197:

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.

...

If she takes 18 damage from an attack, she is reduced to 0 hit points, but 12 damage remains. Because the remaining damage equals her hit point maximum, the cleric dies.

There are two ways to interpret the instant death rules:

  • Instant death is fundamentally, a single, atomic, operation. You apply the damage, and then under certain circumstances the target dies. Any sequencing in the description is purely to help understand the process.

  • Instant death is a series of steps. "Remains" implies a two phase process: apply the damage, and then check what's left. Nothing "remains" unless it is "remaining after" something else. The example is also done in very distinct steps: The cleric takes damage, is reduced to 0 hit points, then the remaining damage is checked, then the cleric dies.

If you subscribe to the first interpretation, then a spider-druid dies when they take 2 points of damage. They take the damage, it is instantly fatal, and they revert form. There is an explicit special case to prevent unconsciousness, but there isn't one to prevent death. The druid is dead.

If you subscribe to the second, then the spider-druid can take a normal amount of damage before dying. He reaches zero, reverts to druid, instant death is checked against his druid hit points, and the special-case against unconsciousness kicks in to keep him on his feet.

There is ultimately no way to resolve the atomicity of the instant death process, short of "Word of God" from a developer.

For my table, I like Druids to use their abilities as something other than a combat cooldown. But if turning into a sparrow to serenade the innkeeper's daughter means you instantly die when you fail the perception check to spot her cat Boots... Well, you aren't going to have many druids turning into things other than tigers or bears.

Therefore, I must rule for interpretation two. Because it's the only one that supports my playstyle. Your table may vary.

One final bit of food for thought:

The 4th-level spell Polymorph uses the same mechanics as the Druid's wildshape ability. So if you rule that instant-death is very fatal for shapeshifters, hope your players never realize that they can just start turning the bad guys into box turtles and stepping on them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nicely and informatively covers both readings without privileging one or the other before getting to table rulings. I don't think I have anything to add! I'll wait a while to accept to give the chance that someone gets the Word of Crawford on it, but this is good. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 19 '15 at 22:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Word of Crawford on a related issue with Disintegrate is that RAI bringing just the beast form to 0 hp doesn't disintegrate the druid. Not the same situation but still relevant to RAI here, I suppose. \$\endgroup\$ – Michał Politowski Oct 28 '15 at 11:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @thedark I think I'm still holding out for official word. This is good but I don't want to "close the book" on the question. (And leaving it with no accepted answer makes it more searchable as an open issue.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 28 '17 at 17:53
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AceCalhoon and anaximander have both provided some well thought out and thoroughly explained answers here already. Ace makes a case for both possibilities equally, and anax makes a case for instant death checking before reverting to normal form. I will make a case that instant death is checked after a reversion to normal form.

SO, for the third time here, let us look at the relevant Wild Shape text:

Wild Shape

  • You Automatically revert if you fall unconscious, drop to 0 hit points, or die.
  • When you transform, you assume the beast's hit points and Hit Dice. When you revert to your normal form, you return to the number of hit points you had before you transformed. However, if you revert as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to your normal form. For example, if you take 10 damage in animal form and have only 1 hit point left, you revert and take 9 damage. As long as the excess damage doesn't reduce your normal form to 0 hit points, you aren't knocked unconscious.

I would like to point out here and now what really sells me to my case:

For example, if you take 10 damage in animal form and have only 1 hit point left, you revert and take 9 damage.

From what I can tell, this reads like the following:

  1. The Druid is in animal form and has 1 hit point left.
  2. The Druid takes 10 damage while in animal form.
  3. The Druid is dropped to 0 from taking 1 of that damage, so they revert to their normal form, regaining their previous hit point total.
  4. The Druid is now in normal form, and must take the remaining 9 damage.
  5. If the Druid is reduced to 0 hit points in their normal form from this, Instant Death is checked here. (Supposing of course, that Instant Death is not checked immediately.)

Regarding AceCalhoon's own answer, this would be applying the second interpretation of the Instant Death rules. The reason that you would revert in step 3 is because you are taking enough damage to drop you to 0 hit points, at which point the hit point reduction is interrupted by the Druid reverting to their normal form, and then the hit point reduction can continue here.

So to spell it out clearly, and to answer the actual question, let us look at the actual scenario under these circumstances:

  1. The Druid is in animal form, and has 1 hit point, being a spider.
  2. The Druid is hit for 2 damage.
  3. The Druid is reduced to 0 hit points by taking 1 of that damage, and reverts to their normal form at their original hit points.
  4. The Druid takes the 1 remaining damage.
  5. The Druid would not die instantly. Even if they only had 1 hit point before Wild Shaping, they will not meet Instant Death requirements. (This is again supposing that Instant Death is not checked between step 2 and step 3.)

I will make note here that the entire case falls apart under the assumption that Instant Death is checked as soon as damage is calculated. By that I mean: 1. The Druid is in animal form with 1 hit point maximum. 2. The Druid takes 2 damage. 3. Instant Death is checked. The Druid would be reduced to 0, and the remaining damage is equal to their current Max Hit Points, so they die.

That is about how it'd play out under that assumption.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That’s a good point. It mentions that you have 1 HP left, and says you revert; it never says what your what your HP maximum in that form was or suggests that you check it before you revert. If you were supposed to die if your form had fewer max HP than the remaining damage, it seems like a check of that would be included in the example. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Feb 20 '15 at 19:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I think the problem we're trying to solve is effectively "When do the rules for Instant Death check MaxHP for a Polymorphed or Shape-shifted creature?" And the example at least seems to demonstrate that Instant Death is checked after reversion rather than before. \$\endgroup\$ – Javelin Feb 20 '15 at 20:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Javelin Precisely what the question is. However, since the example you're pointing at doesn't mention instant death, let alone when to check for it relative to reversion, it's not useful evidence for any claims about when to check for instant death relative to reversion. (What the text is saying is that the unconsciousness check happens after reversion, because that is a special rule about how Wild Shape works.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 20 '15 at 20:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I see your point here. I guess I could argue that if you check instant death at the start, my whole argument is irrelevant. It sort of hinges on the idea that instant death is checked when the character is at 0 hit points and is taking damage that would reduce them further. That might warrant asking Crawford, because I don't feel like we're equipped here on the exchange to answer that question. \$\endgroup\$ – Javelin Feb 20 '15 at 20:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan If the game were more precise and legalistic in its wording in general, I'd agree that's relevant circumstantial evidence, but it's the opposite, so I disagree. In any case, I've petitioned for the Word of Crawford regarding the atomicity of Instant Death. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 20 '15 at 21:08
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All of the other answers do a great job of answering the question, but I think the most important consideration for reversion from Wild Shape at zero HP isn't about checking for unconsciousness, it's about checking to see if the dropping to zero hit points rules apply (p197):

Dropping to 0 Hit Points

When you drop to 0 hit points, you either die outright or fall unconscious, as explained in the following sections.

I'll use the term "Dying" to refer to "you either die outright or fall unconscious." RAW have lumped them together when dropping to zero hit points and I don't think it's fair to separate them.

To make it easier to see why unconsciousness was mentioned in the Wild Shape rules, I've reproduced them without the bit about checking for unconsciousness at the end of the second paragraph.

Wild Shape

  • You automatically revert if you fall unconscious, drop to 0 hit points, or die.

  • When you transform, you assume the beast's hit points and Hit Dice. When you revert to your normal form, you return to the number of hit points you had before you transformed. However, if you revert as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to your normal form. For example, if you take 10 damage in animal form and have only 1 hit point left, you revert and take 9 damage.

Without the second paragraph, we would be unable to answer if a Wild Shaped druid would fall unconscious first, i.e. "Dying" applies when at zero hit points, or would revert first when at zero hit points. Since the second paragraph clarifies that reversion happens at zero hit points and the druid does not fall unconscious, the druid cannot be considered "Dying."

So, the question is, does an instant death effect apply when the character isn't dying?

For a similar conundrum, consider knocking someone unconscious through melee attacks (p198):

Knocking a Creature Out

Sometimes an attacker wants to incapacitate a foe, rather than deal a killing blow. When an attacker reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack, the attacker can knock the creature out. The attacker can make this choice the instant the damage is dealt. The creature falls unconscious and is stable.

Does this mean an attacker can knock a Wild Shaped druid unconscious when they would otherwise revert? RAW for Wild Shape states that the druid reverts before checking for the effects of "Dropping to 0 Hit Points" listed above, and I don't think only explicitly mentioning unconsciousness also excludes instant death.

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The Wild Shape rule says:

You automatically revert if you fall unconscious, drop to 0 hit points, or die. [...] If you revert as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to your normal form. For example, if you take 10 damage in animal form and have only 1 hit point left, you revert and take 9 damage. As long as the excess damage doesn't reduce your normal form to 0 hit points, you aren't knocked unconscious.

The rule on instant death says:

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.

Taken on its own, this seems pretty clear: after being bitten, your druid reaches 0 HP and has 1 damage remaining, which equals her current HP max, so she's dead. The fact that this dropping to 0 HP is about to cause her to revert is an extra.

Following on from this, the Wild Shape rule specifically mentions dying as causing you to revert. This implies that it is possible to die while Wild Shaped, or else there's real reason to mention it. If you always revert as soon as you hit 0 HP, and given that you can't Wild Shape while unconscious, there would be no way for you to be knocked down and still Wild Shaped. Thus, it's logical to assume that there's some way to get past 0 HP and all the way to "dead" while remaining Wild Shaped, or else the rule wouldn't have to mention it. This means that the sequence of actions cannot be like this:

Wild Shape -> take damage -> reach 0 HP -> revert -> compare to (normal form) max HP

because this would make the "or die" part of the rule unnecessary, as it describes something that could never come up. Instead, I think it's safe to assume, from the wording of the instant death rule, that you compare remaining damage to max HP immediately on reaching 0 HP, before anything else triggers. That means the sequence of actions looks like this:

Wild Shape -> take damage -> reach 0 HP -> compare to (Wild Shaped) max HP

Of course, in either case, what happens if the remaining damage is less than your max HP is the same: you revert, and tale the remaining damage in your normal form.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There are ways to die without taking HP damage. Thus your implication (“This implies that it is possible to die while Wild Shaped, or else there's real reason to mention it.”) is false. Thus all of your argumentation based on this false implication is invalid, being based on faulty premises. Moreover, it would be invalid to assume that every sentence in the rules is strictly necessary. Being designed by and for human beings, the rules in fact have a great deal of redundancy, because it helps human brains grasp and retain the rules. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Feb 20 '15 at 16:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah yes, I forgot about instant death effects... Still, I think the part in bold - the assumption that the instant death rules intend for you to compare remaining damage to max HP immediately - is probably valid. If that's the case, then the conclusion is the same. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Feb 20 '15 at 16:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ And the existing answer already covers that possibility quite well and addresses its implications fully, so far as I can tell. Just because you think that your assumption is “probably valid” is kind of meaningless, and adds nothing of value to the question. If you care to back up your claim that it is “probably valid,” that might be something, but there doesn’t appear to me to be enough information on which to base that claim. Personally, I strongly doubt that your bolded assumption was the intent. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Feb 20 '15 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ The uncertainty comes from ambiguity in "your hit point maximum." I read this as "the druid's hit point maximum" rather than "the Wild Shape's hit point maximum". It seems to me that the Wild Shape reversion is an interrupt, taking place upon hitting 0 hit points and replacing the normal rules for falling to 0 hit points, since it goes on to describe what happens if your normal form subsequently goes to 0. \$\endgroup\$ – Timbo Feb 20 '15 at 20:09
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The rules are pretty clear actually, from a rules lawyer point of view.

Wild Shape (PHB p.66):

You automatically revert if you fall unconscious, drop to 0 hit points, or die.

If you revert as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to your normal form.

The first rule says that the Druid can die in creature form, it is specifically listed as a possible event.

The second rule says that damage is carried over only if the Druid were put onto 0 hit points. There is no mention anything special happening if the Druid dies for any reason.

Therefore RAW the Druid will die if the instant death rules (PHB p.197) or any other reason (Power Word Kill) apply and kill them outright.

To go through a scenario:

  1. A druid Wild shapes into a creature with 1hp
  2. They take 10 hps damage
  3. This kills the creature form outright and so the druid dies
  4. They revert to human form
  5. As they are still dead (not just on 0 hps) as no damage carries over to apply to their normal form hit points, nor any other rule to specifically modify the "you are dead" rules.

The official ruling on Disintegrating a Wild Shaped druid supports this:

What happens if a druid using Wild Shape is reduced to 0 hit points by disintegrate? Does the druid simply leave beast form? The druid turns to dust, since the spell disintegrates you the instant you drop to 0 hit points.

i.e. the druid dies by being dropped to 0 hit points and is killed outright by being disintegrated. While working out the effects of the disintegration is multi step, it is actually a single event and cannot be interrupted unless a rule specifically says so, which is not the case here.

In the instant death from "massive" damage scenario the druid is dropped to 0 hps and is killed outright as their head is deemed to have been crushed in the jaws of the lizard (or whatever scenario is actually the case). It is a single event and follows the same pattern as the disintegrate scenario.

There are other ways the Wild Shaped PC could be killed outright (Wish, Power Word Kill and Vorpal Swords spring to mind) and in those cases they will dead too.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not part of the answer but I would like to support the fact that the RAW does not encourage use of wild shape and as a result of this question I am going to house rule in my game that if death is caused directly by hit point damage being inflicted and nothing else I would allow the damage past 0 hps to carry over to the reverted Druid form. Much better story lines than "Oh the moth gets squashed, you are dead". \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Nov 30 '17 at 11:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ The 2018 PHB errata changed disintegrate so it only disintegrates the target if it leaves the target with 0 HP, and the 2019 Sage Advice Compendium has been updated accordingly regarding Wild Shape. Now, the target wouldn't be disintegrated unless their original form's HP was reduced to 0 after they were reverted. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 30 at 19:44
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If you have 1 hp and take 2 damage, you are dropped to zero because you cannot go below 0. The wild shape rule says excess damage is applied to the druid hp. So if you check damage in animal form, there is no excess damage past being put to 0, as it is applied to the druid hp instead, not instantly killing the druid. Death can occur in other ways than damage such as levels of exhaustion or power word kill. Same applies to a polymorph spell. I fail to see the confusion because the rule for the wild shape prevents says how damage is directed. Also you cannot knock a druid unconscious by reducing his wild shape to 0 clearly because he instantly reverts and only takes any excess damage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The highest voted answer clearly explains why there is potential confusion even with the specific wild shape rules and why one might wish to rule a particular way, so if you "fail to see" this, perhaps you should read the other answers before posting another one. \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Nov 30 '17 at 6:28

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