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Initiative in 5e DnD – How to Calculate + Bonuses & Tracking!

Did the Barbarian really just make that hand gesture while you’re trying to calm down the horde of angry Kobolds?! Oh boy, roll for initiative!

Your initiative determines when it’s your turn to act during combat. In this article, we cover everything about initiative in 5e DnD – rolling, bonuses, tracking, and more so you can be prepared to take action when the Gray Ooze hits the fan!

Dungeons and dragons 5th edition character with d20 dice representing rolling initiative

What is Initiative in D&D 5e?

Initiative determines the order of turns in a combat.

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Pretty much the first thing you’ll do when a fight starts is roll for initiative to see who goes first, second etc. Initiative allows the DM to keep track of each round so that the world does not devolve into chaos and willy-nilly LARPing!

To clarify, there are two ways of talking about initiative that can get confused:

  1. You (the player) have your initiative in an encounter. That’s the number you roll plus your Dex modifier and any bonuses you have.
  2. Then there’s the initiative order. That’s the order that everyone involved in the combat gets to take their turn. All the players, monsters, and other NPCs.

How Do You Roll for Initiative?

Even in a party full of smooth operators and diplomats you’re bound to roll for initiative quite a lot, so read on to see how it’s done.

Standard Way to Roll Initiative

As a player, the standard way to roll for initiative looks like this:

  1. Make a Dexterity check by rolling 1d20 and adding your Dexterity modifier from the first page of your character sheet.
  2. Remember your total, or write it down.
  3. Wait for everyone else to do the same.
  4. Tell your DM the total. (Keep it classy: wait until you’re asked, don’t just yell it out!)

For DMs, this process gets a bit more complex:

  1. Make Dexterity checks for any monsters or NPCs (groups of the same monster can get one blanket initiative roll).
  2. Solicit initiative rolls from your players.
  3. Note everyone’s initiative totals and rank them from highest to lowest.
  4. Make decisions on any ties.
  5. Present the initiative order to your players.

Consider designating one other person to help collect and organize initiative, as it can become overwhelming at a big table. Later, we’ll get into more tips on how to keep track of initiative order without wanting to pull your hair out!

Other Ways to Roll Initiative

The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a few alternatives to the classic roll for initiative.

Initiative Score

The initiative score method is a static number that you use for every combat. Some DMs just use the character’s Dex score, some use 10 + Dexterity modifier (like a passive initiative score). This method has the bonus of allowing you to sit in order for easy turn taking!

However, this flat score method means if you have low Dexterity you will pretty much always go last. Sorry, big ol tank buddy!

Side Initiative

Side initiative is another simplified system. Players and monsters each comprise a “side,” and roll one dice against each other. Whichever side gets the highest number goes first.

After that, it’s easy: order shifts back and forth between players and monsters. That means all players go one after another, then all monsters, then all players… and so on.

Homebrew Ways to Roll Initiative

Want to remove some of the random chance, the 1s, and hair-tearing? Some gamers have taken the initiative (heh) to homebrew their own method for combat order.

Popcorn Initiative

One of the more creative and complex methods is popcorn initiative. Starts the usual way by having everyone roll a Dexterity check. The highest number goes first, then they choose who goes next. And then that person (or DM) chooses the next, and so on until everyone gets a turn.

You can pick your party members or monsters, so if you try this way out try getting creative:

  • If a spellcaster gets to go first, consider using a spell that lasts until the end of your next turn. Then let them go last/late in the next round and you can get nearly two full rounds of that spell – serious bang for your buck!
  • Choose to let your healer go before any unconscious allies. That way the Cleric can get you back up on your feet, and ready to go without wasting your turn.
  • Let monsters go first if they aren’t ranged or don’t have a good line of sight on the party. The baddies won’t have many good options: either run in close and leave themselves in melee range, or waste time readying actions.
  • Wait til the end for your DPS (damage per second) character to act, then have her pick herself to go first in the next round. With this back-to-back turn strategy and a little luck, you can take out the biggest issue real quick. Wham bam, thank you ma’am!

More Homebrew Initiative Systems

Here are a few more of our favorite homebrew initiative methods from around the internet:

  • Drawing names from a hat. True randomization!
  • Use your Wisdom modifier rather than Dexterity for calculating initiative. The flavor here is that those with the quickest minds will act earlier, rather than the quickest hands.
  • Roll initiative every single round. This adds a little more randomization, but also more organizing for the DM. But hey, more dice rolling = more fun!

When to Roll Initiative?

You roll for initiative when combat starts. It will start when you do things like:

  • Charge at another creature
  • Cast a spell
  • Draw a weapon during negotiations
  • Surprise an unaware foe
  • Say something grating about that drunk Half-Orc across the bar’s mother

Regardless of how it starts, initiative order must be determined before any combat actions are taken.

Think twice before you start waving that greataxe around, because everyone in an encounter rolls to be in initiative order. Yup. Even close bystanders, unconscious party members, and the Paladin who really just wants to talk things out!

How Do You Calculate Initiative in 5e?

Since initiative rolls are simply Dexterity checks, calculating initiative in 5e looks like this:

1d20 + Dex modifier + relevant bonuses = your initiative

How is Initiative Bonus Calculated?

Calculating your initiative bonus will be different for each character and may change as you level up.

Maybe you’ve got a class feature like the Swashbuckler Rogue’s Rakish Audacity, which allows you to add an ability modifier to rolls for initiative. Or, perhaps you picked the Alert feat which gives a +5 bonus to initiative.

It’s up to you to make note of any bonuses to initiative your character may have, but there is a handy spot on your character sheet to note it. It’s on the first sheet, right between Armor Class and Speed.

Initiative bonus box on the Dungeons & Dragons 5e character sheet
Initiative bonus box on the Dungeons & Dragons 5e character sheet

How to Increase Initiative in 5e

Like being in control, don’t like surprises? A high initiative bonus can give you the edge. So, let’s jump right into all the ways you can increase your chances of getting to act first and fast!

Build Your Character for High Initiative

Folks who know they want a high initiative from the get-go will need to focus on one ability for the maximum boost: Dexterity! The higher your initial Dex score, the beefier your modifier, the better chance you have at a high initiative roll.

Races that give a bonus to Dexterity:

  • Elf (+2)
  • Gnome (Forest +1)
  • Half-Elf (+1)
  • Halfling (+2)
  • Human (+1)

Class Features that Increase Initiative in 5e

Lots of classes have features that either directly add to a character’s initiative, or simply give bonuses to Dexterity checks – especially if your DM lets you get into all the fancy subclasses in the later core rule books!

Here’s a table of all the classes that get bonuses to their initiative:

Class / SubclassFeatureLevelAffectSource Book
BarbarianFeral Instinct7advantage on initiative rollsPlayer’s Handbook
BardJack of All Trades2+ half proficiency bonus (rounded down) to ability checksPlayer’s Handbook
Fighter / ChampionRemarkable Athlete7+ half proficiency bonus (rounded up) to Str, Con, and Dex checksPlayer’s Handbook
Ranger / GloomstalkerDread Ambusher3+ Wis mod to initiativeXanathar’s Guide to Everything
Rogue / SwashbucklerRakish Audacity3+ Cha mod to initiativeXanathar’s Guide to Everything
Sorcerer / Wild MagicTides of Chaos1advantage on one ability check per long restPlayer’s Handbook
Warlock / Fiend PatronDark One’s Own Luck6+1d10 to one ability check per short or long restPlayer’s Handbook
Wizard / DivinationPortent / Greater Portent2/14roll two d20s after long rest, can replace 2 ability check rolls with them (increases to 3d20 at lvl 14)Player’s Handbook
Wizard / ChronurgyTemporal Awareness2+ Int mod to initiativeXanathar’s Guide to Everything
Wizard / War MagicTactile Wit2+ Int mod to initiativeXanathar’s Guide to Everything
class initiative bonuses dnd 5e

Feats That Increase Initiative in 5e

Some builds allow you to choose feats during character creation or level up. To our knowledge, there’s only one feat that gives you an initiative bonus.

Alert

Alert

Always on the lookout for danger, you gain the following benefits:
– You gain a +5 bonus to initiative.
– You can’t be surprised while you are conscious.
– Other creatures don’t gain advantage on attack rolls against you as a result of being hidden from you.

Page 165, Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook 5th edition.

Spells That Can Increase Initiative in 5e

Foresight

High-level Bards, Druids, Warlocks, and Wizards can cast Foresight. Since this spell lasts for 8 hours (wow!) it’s endlessly useful for initiative.

Foresight
9th level divination

You touch a willing creature and bestow a limited ability to see into the immediate future. For the duration, the target can’t be surprised and has advantage on attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws. Additionally, other creatures have disadvantage on attack rolls against the target for the duration.

Page 244, Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbooks 5th edition.

Guidance

Perhaps you have the non-magical foresight to see that your party member is about to start something. If you’re a Cleric or a Druid you can pop off a quick Guidance spell.

Guidance
Divination cantrip

You touch one willing creature. Once before the spell ends, the target can roll a d4 and add the number rolled to one ability check of its choice. It can roll the die before or after making the ability check.

Page 248, Dungeon & Dragons Players Handbook 5th edition.

Handy! However, Guidance requires a bit of planning to be used for initiative because it only lasts for up to a minute and cannot be used as a reaction.

Items That Increase Initiative in 5e

In the core rule books, there’s a small number of items that can influence your initiative rolls in your favor. Here are all the ones we know of:

ItemAffectRaritySource Book
Artifact with Guardian minor property+2 to initiativeVariesDungeon Master’s Guide
Rod of Alertnessadvantage on initiative rollsVery RareDungeon Master’s Guide
Sentinel Shieldadvantage on initiative rolls + Wis checksUncommonDungeon Master’s Guide
Sword of Kas+1d10 to initiativeWondrous ItemDungeon Master’s Guide
Weapon of Warningadvantage on initiative rollsUncommonDungeon Master’s Guide
initiative bonus items dnd 5e

How to Track Initiative Order?

Initiative order is an easy concept to grasp, but the nitty gritty part comes in when you have to actually do it! It can be a seamless part of the game with a little help though.

Personalized Initiative Trackers

If you play D&D with minis and a DM screen, then personalized initiative trackers for your group are a must-have! They help the DM to manage turn order effectively and provide a really useful visual cue for everyone around the table. No need to scribble down initiative order on a notepad anymore!

D&D Initiative Tracker stand. Image: Conjurer Co Shop on Etsy.
D&D Initiative Tracker stand. Image: Conjurer Co Shop on Etsy.

This D&D initiative tracker stand on Etsy fits in perfectly with the Dungeons & Dragons world aesthetic. The signs can be used with dry-wipe markers so can be adjusted easily. When a character has taken their turn, just flip their sign to the other side of the tracker so you can keep track of the turns. Easy and pretty!

DM screen initiative trackers. Image: Wildbot3d on Etsy.
DM screen initiative trackers. Image: Wildbot3d on Etsy.

Another handy initiative tracker system is these player and NPC markers from Etsy that sit over the top of the DM screen. On one side, players can choose the avatar they want to represent their character. On the other side, the DM can see the names of the characters. When a character has taken their turn, slide their marker to one side to keep track.

Physical Initiative Tracking Methods

These classic initiative tracking methods may appeal:

  • Good ol’ fashioned pen and paper really is the easiest
  • A whiteboard with dry-erase markers
  • Clear page protector and dry erase markers
  • Designate one Initiative Goblin every session: a player who keeps track of the party’s initiative and turn order so the DM can focus on the 7 different character voices they’re testing out!

Digital Initiative Tracking Methods

Or, take the technopagan route and go digital for your organizational needs:

  • Roll20.net provides a wide array of features that make in-person or online gaming a bit easier – scope out their program and start testing it out for free on their site here
  • Improved Initiative provides an options-packed, in-browser combat tracker where DMs can build encounters and invite players
  • Don Farland has full-service combat applications for DMs and players – check out the full spread of tech on his website here!
  • Apple users can use apps like Encounter+ over on the Mac App Store to track initiative, health, status effects, and more

FAQs About Initiative in D&D 5e

Who goes first in a tie?

The DM decides how to break an initiative tie between players and monsters. They can simply make the call themselves, or have the player and monster “roll off” to see who goes first.

Furthermore, for ties among groups:

If a tie occurs, the DM decides the order among tied DM-controlled creatures, and the players decide the order among their tied characters.

Page 189, Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook 5th edition.

Is initiative an ability check 5e?

An initiative roll is an ability check; specifically, a Dexterity check.

Dispel confusion over lingo with this clarification: You the player are “rolling for initiative,” while your character makes a Dexterity check to determine their place in initiative order.

Does the Bard’s Jack of All Trades ability give them higher initiative?

Initiative rolls are just Dexterity checks, so the Jack of All Trades does increase initiative.

Here’s the full rules text on the feature:

Starting at 2nd level, you can add half your proficiency bonus, rounded down, to any ability check you make that doesn’t already include your proficiency bonus.

Page 54, Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook 5th edition.

Conclusion: Initiative 5e – How to Calculate + Bonuses & Tracking!

Never get caught with your breeches down again – get you a high initiative! Whether you’re blasting spells, swinging a hammer, or setting off arrows, a high initiative is always a good thing in the thick of it.

And now that you’ve got all the basics under your belt you’re ready to build a character that can get the drop on any bad guy.

Some of our favorite D&D player accessories will make you feel even more epic as you play! Happy rolling!

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Emily
Hi, I’m Emily, the tabletop gamer behind My Kind of Meeple. If this article helped you, I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.

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