So. There's a thing that happened on the stream.
The characters are Level 2 at the moment - very close to their next milestone - trudging through the sewer system under a reservoir, when they happened upon a dangerous creature.
This creature is pretty nasty, and going toe-to-toe with it in such a tight space proved to be devastating in regard to hit points, especially when it rolled a natural 20 and hit the mage for well over her maximum hit points...
The PHB is very clear on how instant death works, and I admit that in my 3+ years of professional DMing...it has NEVER come up. So of course, online, in front of a live audience, it does.
MY RULE for insta-death is as follows: a character is instantly killed is they are pushed to negative twice their maximum hit points in a single attack. This means that a character with 14 hit points as their maximum has to be hit into the negative by 28 or more hit points in order to die instantly. This ruling has always been there, but this was the first time it came into effect, and though it SAVED the mage, it still left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
The reason I altered things was to help safeguard early characters, but I try to balance it with my death DCs rising and requiring rolls and skill tests in order to resurrect a character (it gets harder every time). BUT maybe it was the live show that brought it all into perspective.
The player was alright with it (her dying, that is), but it was going against my original ruling - that no one was actually aware of in the first place. Revealing it looks like a cop-out, even though it's always been that way, but now that it's out there... I am taking a hard look at it.
I Reserve The Right To Change My Mind...But Not Fate, and Not Time
After contemplating and discussing this topic with several parties, and thinking on it myself - especially after learning so much about game systems over the last 7 years - I see no real need to hold onto that rule. So to be clear, this will be how I rule Instant Death, and how I always rule anything that resurrects characters.
Save DC Increase: Each time you die (three saves failed or instantly killed), and are successfully brought back to life, there is a consequence. This is represented by an increase in your Death Save DC. It increases by 1 every time you die and come back (this includes the spell Reincarnate, btw). So, a character that has been killed and brought back successfully must now roll an 11 or higher on their death saves for a success, as opposed to the standard 10 or higher. Die twice? 12 or higher. And so on. There is a consequence to you dying; it is now harder to cling to life.
Resurrection Skill Challenge: bringing a character's soul back to their body is an involved and powerful process. As such, I require a Skill Challenge for a Resurrection spell. The bigger the spell, the more involved the challenge. A spell like Revivify requires only one roll with a DC equal to the character's current Death DC.
A spell like Resurrection is an hour-long process with characters finding ways to pull their friend back to the land of the living. It's an opportunity to immerse yourself in the relationships in your party, and find meaning in bringing them back. I ask for three "offerings." These are creative interactions; whatever the player character deems as a way to usher the entity back to the land of the living. Players have prepared poems, potions, offered a childhood toy, grown a tree - whatever you like. How you present it can help a lot. Then I pick an appropriate attribute or skill and you roll against that same Death DC. A success brings down the final roll (me) DC by 1. A critical success drops it by 2. Conversely, failures and critical failures increase the DC by the same amounts. When all three offerings are finished, I do a straight roll against the adjusted DC (based on the offerings' successes or failures) and we see if the soul was ushered back to the body. So far, I have run 8 total rituals in this way, and 3 Revivify quick rolls. Only 1 has been unsuccessful, but 2 others were within 2 points of failure. It's great role-playing; and sometimes, creatures just die, and that's okay.
DEATH CAN COME AT ANY TIME
Moving forward, you're dead outright if you are pushed to negative your maximum hit points, just like in the PHB.
As for our little gnome friend in Cloudsinger...she's still alive. But her Death DC just went up by 1. That's the balance. :)
I'll see you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.