Published on June 6, 2023, Last modified on July 25th, 2023
Master the art of Initiative in D&D 5e. Learn how to calculate, increase and tactically use initiative to gain the upper hand in combat.
Willian Murai - - Inspired Charge
Table of Contents
Initiative and Combat in 5e
In the fevered dance of combat, where steel meets steel and spells crackle through the air, the order of events can mean the difference between glorious victory and ignominious defeat. That’s where initiative, the heartbeat of every battle in D&D 5e, steps into the limelight, dictating the rhythm of each encounter and setting the tempo for your heroes’ actions.
Defining Initiative in 5e
At the heart of every thrilling combat scenario in D&D is the initiative system, which dictates the order of turns during a skirmish. When combat begins, everyone from goblins to wizards rolls their initiative. This roll is a Dexterity check, which means rolling a 20-sided die (d20) and adding your character’s Dexterity modifier. The higher the result, the sooner your character takes their turn.
How to Calculate Initiative in D&D 5E
Calculating initiative in D&D 5e is straightforward but critical for the order of actions in a combat encounter. Below is a step-by-step breakdown of the process:
1. Roll a D20:
When combat begins and the Dungeon Master (DM) calls for initiative to be rolled, you’ll roll a 20-sided die (d20). This roll is crucial as it adds a level of chance and unpredictability to the turn order.
Let’s say for this instance, you get a 12.
2. Determine and Apply Your Dexterity Modifier:
The first thing you need is your Dexterity modifier. Your character’s Dexterity score will have an associated modifier according to the game’s rules. For instance, a Dexterity score of 14 or 15 would equate to a +2 modifier, while a score of 16 or 17 equals a +3 modifier. You can find the correlation between scores and their modifiers on the Ability Scores and Modifiers table.
Add this modifier to your d20 roll from the previous step. So, if you have a Dexterity score of 14, you would get +2 to your 12 and have the result of 14.
3. Include Any Additional Modifiers:
Some characters might have additional bonuses to their initiative due to class features, feats, or spells. For instance, if you have the Alert feat, you would add a +5 bonus to your initiative roll. If you’re a bard using the Jack of All Trades feature, you would add half your proficiency bonus (rounded down) to your initiative. These bonuses are added to your total initiative score in the same way as your Dexterity modifier.
If you want more ideas on improving your initiative rolls, check out the Ways to Increase Initiative section of this article.
Once all the creatures in the initative have determined their order, combat begins. For this example, if your rogue party member got a 16, and your fighter party member got a 3, and the goblins you’re facing got a 12, you’d go second with your 14.
Diving into the Strategy
Initiative in D&D 5e operates on a simple premise, but there’s a lot of strategy that can be garnered by properly planning your moves. Characters who act first have the advantage of reacting to the situation, potentially changing the tide before their foes can respond.
However, going first isn’t always the best strategy. Sometimes, waiting to see how your enemies move or how the battle unfolds before acting can provide tactical advantages.
Here are some ways to use initiative in 5e to your advantage:
- Control the Battlefield: Characters with high initiative can control the battlefield early. Spellcasters can use crowd control spells like entangle or web to hinder enemies, or defensive spells like mage armor or shield of faith to protect yourself and allies.
- Focus Fire: Characters who act early in the turn order can focus their attacks on a particularly dangerous enemy. If several characters manage to deal nova damage to a ‘boss’ enemy before it can act, they may be able to eliminate it before it becomes a threat.
- Strategic Positioning: High initiative allows characters to move to strategic positions on the battlefield. This could mean a rogue getting into position for a Sneak Attack, a spellcaster moving out of melee range, or a tank placing themselves between enemies and more vulnerable party members.
- Readying Actions: If you’re unsure of how the battle will unfold, consider readying an action. This allows you to set a specific trigger for your action, such as “I attack the first enemy that comes within my reach” or “I attack the creature that Fighter McFighty approaches.” This way, even though you’re acting early in the initiative order, you can respond to events later in the round.
Ways to Increase Initiative
In Dungeons & Dragons 5e, there are several features from classes, races, spells, and feats that can increase your character’s initiative. Here’s an overview of these features:
- Bard’s Jack of All Trades: This feature allows bards at 2nd level to add half of their proficiency bonus (rounded down) to any ability check they make that doesn’t already include their proficiency bonus. This includes their initiative rolls.
- Fighter’s Remarkable Athlete: Starting at 7th level, fighters with the Champion archetype can add half their proficiency bonus (rounded up) to any Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution check they make that doesn’t already use their proficiency bonus. This includes their initiative rolls.
- Barbarian’s Feral Instinct: At 7th level, barbarians gain advantage on initiative rolls. Having advantage means that you roll a d20 twice and take the higher of the two results.
- Twilight Cleric’s Vigilent Blessing: At 1st level, Twilight clerics can give a party member advantage on initiative checks.
- Gloom Stalker Ranger’s Dread Ambusher: At 3rd level, Gloom Stalker rangers gain a bonus to initiative rolls equal to their Wisdom modifier.
- Wild Magic Sorcerer’s Tides of Chaos and Bend Luck: Wild Magic sorcerers get access to Tides of Chaos, which allows them gain advantage on an ability check, which includes initiative because they are Dexterity checks. They also gain Bend Luck, which allows them to add a 1d4 to any ability check at the cost of 2 sorcery points and a reaction.
- School of Divination Wizard’s Portent: At 2nd level, Divination wizards roll two d20s at the end of a long rest, which they can use in place of any attack roll, saving throw, or ability check made by themselves or a creature they can see. This includes their initiative roll.
- Harengon: Harengon have the Hare-Trigger feature, which allows them to add their proficiency bonus to initiative rolls.
- Variant Human: As part of the Variant Human’s optional feat at 1st level, a player can choose the Alert feat, which adds a +5 bonus to initiative.
- Alert: The Alert feat grants a +5 bonus to initiative, among others benefits described in out Alert Guide.
- Guidance (Artificer, Cleric, Druid): The guidance cantrip allows you to add a d4 to an ability check of your choice, which can be your initiative roll. However, it requires concentration and only lasts a minut, thus needs to be cast at the right time to be useful.
- Enhance Ability (Artificer, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer): The spell gives advantage on checks for a chosen ability. If you choose Dexterity (Cat’s Grace), it can be applied to the Dexterity checks made for initiative.
Running Initiative as a DM
Running initiative in Dungeons & Dragons 5e as a Dungeon Master (DM) is an integral part of managing combat scenarios. As a new DM, you may find it daunting initially, but with practice, it becomes second nature. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to run initiative:
1. Establish Combat Situation:
First, define the combat scenario. Your party may want to have a discussion with their foe before combat begins. Once tensions reach a breaking point, it’s time to roll initiative.
2. Call for Initiative:
As soon as the threat of combat emerges, ask your players to roll for initiative. Each player rolls a d20 and adds their character’s Dexterity modifier. Certain abilities or spells might allow them to add additional bonuses (as described above).
3. Record the Results:
Write down each player’s total initiative roll. Don’t forget to roll initiative for your NPCs and monsters, too. Some DMs like to group similar monsters together, so there’s less bookkeeping to keep track of.
4. Arrange in Order:
Order all characters (including NPCs and monsters) from highest to lowest initiative score. This will be the sequence of turns for the entire combat encounter.
5. Commence Combat Rounds:
Each round of combat starts with the character with the highest initiative and proceeds down the list. Each character gets a turn in a round, and a new round begins again with the character with the highest initiative.
6. Describe Actions and Consequences:
As DM, it’s your job to narrate the battle. Describe the actions and their effects, adding flair and drama to engage your players. Be clear about the consequences of each action, so the players understand the situation when their turns come.
7. End Combat:
Combat ends when all enemies are defeated, when the enemies have fled, or when the players have otherwise removed the threat. After combat ends, characters are no longer bound by the initiative order.
- Keep Things Moving: Try to maintain a brisk pace during combat to keep the game exciting and engaging. Encourage your players to think about their actions ahead of time.
- Use Tools: Use digital tools or physical initiative trackers to keep track of initiative order. They can be as simple as a list of names or as complex as a magnetic board with nameplates.
Remember, the aim is to create a fun and engaging gaming experience. With each session, you’ll become more comfortable with running initiative and managing combat in D&D 5e.
Initiative 5e FAQs
What happens in the case of a tie in initiative?
If two players tie for initiative, the player with the higher Dexterity modifier goes first. If the Dexterity modifiers are also the same, the DM may decide that the players roll another d20 to break the tie, or the players can decide among themselves who goes first.
Can you delay your turn or change the initiative order?
In D&D 5e, you cannot delay your turn to change the initiative order. However, you can choose to take the "Ready" action on your turn, which allows you to react to a specific trigger.
Do spells or conditions affect initiative?
Yes, certain spells, abilities, and conditions can affect a character's initiative. For instance, the 'Guidance' cantrip can add a d4 to an initiative roll, and the 'Slow' spell can force a target to subtract 2 from its initiative.
What happens when new combatants join the fight mid-encounter?
If new combatants join an ongoing fight, they should roll for initiative at that time and be added to the existing order.
Can you choose to roll low on initiative?
A player cannot choose to roll low, but they can choose to act in a way that effectively puts them later in the turn order by using the "Ready" action. However, this uses their reaction and sets a specific trigger for their readied action.
How does surprise affect initiative?
In D&D 5e, if a character is surprised, they still roll initiative and have a turn in the first round of combat but can't move or take an action. A surprised character also can't take a reaction until after their first turn in combat.
The Initiative mechanic in D&D 5e, while straightforward on the surface, offers a wealth of strategic depth and forms the backbone of the game’s combat encounters. Whether you’re a dashing rogue with a natural edge in Dexterity or a calculating wizard seeking to shape the course of events, understanding the intricacies of initiative can significantly enhance your gameplay.