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Orcus's "Voice" lair action is casting the spell Power Word Kill. If he were to use it on a PC, would they drop to death saving throws or instantly die?

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Spells do exactly what they say, whether cast on PCs or other monsters.

Power Word Kill says a creature with 100 hit points or fewer dies. PCs are not exempt from this as they are also creatures and thus are perfectly valid targets for the spell. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not make a saving throw vs the effect, do not drop to 0 HP and start making death saving throws. They just die like any other creature targeted by the spell.

Note that this is a 9th level spell so it's meant to be powerful.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is one of the simplest ways to kill a level 20 Moon Druid as well... you turned into a sparrow? You are now dead... @PurpleMonkey you might want to add that very pertinent stipulation that you don't even get to zero hit points... you simply go straight to being dead. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Dec 2 '16 at 19:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like if that first sentence were really true, this site would have a lot less of a purpose... \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Dec 2 '16 at 23:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Joe it's when what spells say make no sense or is really obscure that the questions arise. Unfortunately, the D&D authors were never famous for being good at writing things that could not be interpreted in multiple ways. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Dec 3 '16 at 16:44
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Power Word Kill does kill a PC with fewer than 100 hit points without a save. However, a quick calculation shows that there would be many high level PCs that have more than 100 hit points at full health. For example, a level 18 paladin with CON 10 would have an average of 103 hit points.

Additionally, this spell is actually a bit on the weak side for a 9th level spell. If a monster cast Meteor Swarm on a party of PCs, they could take 40d6 damage each--a situation that could be just as (or even more) problematic as the instant death of a single party member.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 10 CON seems a little unreasonable for a level 18 Paladin though. \$\endgroup\$ – Olorun Dec 3 '16 at 16:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Olorun, that's the point; 100HP is not difficult to hit for many classes at high levels. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Dec 3 '16 at 17:53
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They would instantly die, with no saving throws. However, at this level, players are assumed to have access to means of resurrection, so this isn't as devastating as it would be at earlier levels.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also access to counterspells, death wards etc. Death Ward (lvl 4) actually protects against one casting of Power Word Kill. \$\endgroup\$ – Neil Slater Dec 2 '16 at 17:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NeilSlater- Right. I think a lot of players might be thinking about this the wrong way. At any level where a player could reasonably encounter Power Word: Kill, the party Arcana expert should be able to succeed on a check to be aware of its existence. And then it’s up to them to counter it. You don’t jump off a cliff without a parachute. You don’t ride a bike without a helmet. You don’t do a spacewalk without a space suit, you don’t walk into a fire without a gas mask, and you don’t go outside in Antarctica without bundling up. \$\endgroup\$ – Obie 2.0 Nov 4 '17 at 9:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ In other words, in real life, there are plenty of situations that can easily kill one “with no save,” but people still deal with them. They just make absolutely sure that they’re protected. If players approach this from an “in-universe” perspective, there’s no way that they’re not casting protective spells if there’s the slightest chance they’re dealing with something (a Lich, say) that can easily kill them - but conversely, there’s nothing odd about the fact that some things are instantly lethal without common-sense preparation. \$\endgroup\$ – Obie 2.0 Nov 4 '17 at 9:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Obie2.0 : You are assuming that the game has no long story arcs. In our campaign some of the bad manage to escape. Then they can simply disguise themselves, come and PWK, then teleport away. \$\endgroup\$ – ZwiQ Dec 24 '17 at 20:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Obie2.0 "You don't jump off a cliff without a parachute" Unless you are Keyleth from Vox Machina of course... \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH Mar 26 '18 at 15:57

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