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Inspired by the efforts to kill a Vampire, the GM in me got in a fight with the engineer.

Per the text from Death Saves, taking damage while you have 0 hit points will cause a death saving throw failure (PHB, 197).

Of the first bullet, what qualifies as a source of damage? Specifically, how does evaluate an attack that has multiple components, such as:

  • An attack action that is able to take multiple attacks, each requiring an attack roll. Fighter
  • A spell that can produce multiple elements, each require an attack roll. Eldritch Blast, Scorching Ray

RAW, I expect each would be an independent source. As a GM, this seems overly brutal against the party, and a bit anti climatic against a non player character that has been raised to using death saves.

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Well, first up, we need to see what we're dealing with.

If you take any damage while you have 0 hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure.

Ok. Now let's look at Scorching Ray for an example.

Make a ranged spell attack for each ray. On a hit, the target takes 2d6 fire damage.

You suffer a death saving throw failure when you take damage, and you take damage each time a ray of Scorching Ray hits you. So if you're hit by 3 rays, you take 3 death saving throw failures. Eldritch Blast uses the same wording.

Now, Extra Attack. Extra Attack says:

Beginning at 5th level, you can attack twice, instead of once, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn.

So you can make two attacks, and that's all it means. When you make an attack:

  1. Choose a target. [...]
  2. Determine modifiers. [...]
  3. Resolve the attack. You make the attack roll. On a hit, you roll damage, unless the particular attack has rules that specify otherwise. Some attacks cause special effects in addition to or instead of damage.

Each time you make an attack, you roll damage. You don't, for example, make all of your attacks and then roll damage for them all cumulatively. If you use Extra Attack to hit an unconscious creature twice, it takes damage twice, and suffers 2 death saving throw failures.

As additional backup (thanks Adeptus), we have:

If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead.

A critical hit is something that happens to an individual attack, like one ray of Scorching Ray or one attack from Extra Attack, not to the whole of either of them.

As far as brutality is concerned, I would point out that there are good reasons not to attack unconscious creatures: Unconscious creatures aren't a threat. From the perspective of a monster, it would generally make more sense to deal with the adventurers who are still trying to kill them than wasting time finishing off the ones who are already out of the fight.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In terms of brutality, note that all attacks against an unconscious creature have advantage, and the melee attacks that hit are automatic crits (=2 failed death saves). A creature attacking an unconscious creature for whatever reason can take it from unconscious to dead pretty quickly. \$\endgroup\$ – PurpleVermont Jan 8 '16 at 18:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ If someone is making death saving throws and you want them dead, throw magic missile at them. Each magic missile will cause a death save fail, right? (correct me if I am wrong) \$\endgroup\$ – InfiniteDifferenceMethod Dec 10 '16 at 19:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @InfiniteDifferenceMethod You are right. Magic Missile is an instant-kill to unconscious creatures, as in this question linked in the related questions. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 3 '18 at 22:13

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