Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons 3e and 3.5e (and Pathfinder)


The first version of Dungeons & Dragons created by Wizards of the Coast after they purchased Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) on April 10, 1997, 18 years after Gagy Gygax left the company. TSR was failing financially at the time.

TSR was the company that Gary Gygax and his friend Don Kaye founded in 1973. The company produced Chainmail, a wargame, and The Strategic Review, which was a magizine about wargames. The following year, he wrote Dungeons & Dragons with Dave Arneson. The company sold out the first 1,000 copies in less than a year. Around that time he converted his magazine into The Dragon to support their new game, which it definitely did greatly by including new classes, monsters, campaigns, player's suggestions, Dungeon Master help sheets, etc.

At the time Wizards of the Coast purchased the company, it had D&D, AD&D, and AD&D 2e. AD&D included many rule books and supplements:

  • Monster Manual
  • Players Handbook
  • Dungeons Master Guide
  • Dieties & Demigods
  • Fiend Folio
  • Monster Manual II
  • Oriental Adventures
  • Unearth Arcana
  • Dungeoner's Survival Guide
  • Manual of the Planes

AD&D 2e also included many extensions for players: one per class and one per race.

When Wizards of the Coast created 3e, a revision of AD&D 2e, they created a similar list of books as in AD&D 1e and 2e. Very quickly, they wrote a revision: version 3.5, the first version that was under the Open Game License, which means that people could share the rules freely. They also extended the number of monster manuals (Five in all!); had the Manual of the Planes; a Player's Handbook II; Extended books about races, Dungeons, Weapons; you name it! An incredible wealth of documents and rules.

Picture of the hardcover of Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook, 3.5 Edition

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Combat Rules Improved Again

Just like AD&D 2e enhanced the rules of AD&D 1e, the thrid edition of Dungeons & Dragons improved the previous version by clearly spelling out everything that it possibly could spell out.

In regard to combats, it redefined the term Turn. We now have a round and each creature participating in the combat has a turn. The order, who has a turn first, second, third, etc. is determined by rolling initiative.

A round is still considered to be about 6 seconds. If you have 20 creatures in a combat, you will have 20 turns within one round.

They also introduced some funny terms. For example, they describe your Hit Point as «[...] how much punishment you can take [...]». Funny, but I'm not too sure that is appropriate in a Core Rule Book (personal point of view, D&D is suppose to be fun anyway... but I guess I'm a bit of a purist at times.)

As with AD&D 2e, they clearly defines actions that you can take within a combat. There are many more actions too, making sure that many cases are covered making it easier for Dungeon Masters to resolve issues seemlessly.

They also introduced actions that can take more than one round to complete. Something that was either not clearly defined in AD&D 1e and 2e except for spells that took multiple rounds to cast.

In combat they added the attack of opportunity which we did not really have before. It was somewhat mentioned in previous versions as a possibility but not clearly defined (i.e. the Dungeon Master could allow the characters to do some free attacks which would be an equivalent to an attack of opportunity.)

They also introduce two new concepts, which I review in details below since they affect the initiative order.

Table 8—2 of Actions in Combat

Combat are now very well organized in a set of actions.

There are different types of actions. In most cases you can do one Standard Action along a Move Action, but not a Full Action, there are also Free Action as already found in 2e, and a special entry called No Action (automatic actions) and a few others that are of various specia types.

Standard Actions

Standard Actions allow for a normal Move Action.

Standard Action Attack of
Attack (melee) No
Attack (ranged) Yes
Attack (unarmed) Yes
Activate a magic item other than a potion or oil No
Aid another Maybe
Bull rush No
Cast a spell (1 standard action casting time) Yes
Concentrate to maintain an active spell No
Dismiss a spell No
Draw a hidden weapon (see Sleight of Hands) No
Drink a potion or apply an oil Yes
Escape a grapple No
Feint No
Light a torchwith a tindertwig Yes
Lower spell resistance No
Make a dying friend stable (see Heal) Yes
Overrun No
Read a scroll Yes
Ready (triggers a standard action) No
Sunder a weapon (attack) Yes
Sunder an object (attack) Maybe
Total defense No
Turn or rebuke undead No
Use extraordinady ability No
Use skill that takes 1 action Usually
Use spell-like ability Yes
Use supernatural ability No

Here we find the first special Action, which affects the Initiative order: The Ready Action.

Move Actions

A Move Action can be perform along a Standard Action.

Move Action Attack of
Move Yes
Control a frightened mount Yes
Direct or redirect an active spell No
Draw a weapon No
Load a hand crossbow or light crossbow Yes
Open or close a door No
Mount a horse or dismount No
Move a heavy object Yes
Pick up an item Yes
Sheath a weapon Yes
Stand up from prone Yes
Ready or loose a shield No
Retrieve a stored item Yes

Full-Round Actions

Contrary to a Standard Action, the Full-Round Actions prevent you from moving more than 5 feet in a round. Also it has to be in link with your Full-Round Action, such as moving toward an enemy.

Full-Round Action Attack of
Full attack No
Charge No
Deliver coup de grace Yes
Escape from a net Yes
Extinguish flames No
Light a torch Yes
Load a heavy or repeating crossbow Yes
Lock or unlock weapon in locked gauntlet Yes
Prepare to throw splash weapon Yes
Run Yes
Use skill that takes 1 round Usually
Use touch spell on up to six friends Yes
Withdraw No

Free Actions

One of the Free Actions can be performed along another action. This is like a small bonus.

This includes speaking with your cohort, although that one is rarely exercised in real play (i.e. who prevents his players from talking at the table?!)

Free Action Attack of
Cast a quickened spell No
Cease concentration on a spell No
Drop an item No
Drop to the floor No
Prepare spell components to cast a spell No
Speak No

No Action

This version of Dungeons & Dragons introduced a No Action concept. Something that does not take any time so it does not even count as an action.

The rules only lists two, they could have included Saving Throws, which are very similar to non-action, you are just protected in some natural way.

No Action Attack of
Delay No
5-foot step No

Here we find the second action that modifies the initiative of the user: Delay.

Various Action Types

This version introduces a few actions that are their own type because they are so specific.

Action Type Varies Attack of
Disarm Yes
Grapple Yes
Trip an opponent No
Use feat Varies

As we can see, Dungeons & Dragon Third Edition introduced Feats. Special actions one can perform, in combat or not, that are learned as one gains experience and levels up. A player gets a first feat at level 1, gains a new feat at level 3 and then every 3 level. Humans actually get two feats at first level. Most of the feats have requirements, minimum level, ability scores, classes, etc.

I think this is one of the best things that was added since AD&D 1e. People like to have very special abilities and before characters were limited to race abilities and magical items they would find, they also gained a very few over time in their class, but not much in comparison to this new system. Especially since feats do apply to humans now. It was somewhat boring to play a human before, except maybe for the limit in the number of levels you could have because of your race. Althought those limits were also removed in Third Edition.

Special Initiative Action: Ready

One of the new actions in Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition is the Ready Action.

This action can be used by a character to act in case a certain event occurs or do nothing otherwise. When a player chooses this action, he does not need to act his turn when it first happens. Instead, he does so at the time the trigger he defines happens. After that, his turn happens at that location in the initiative order. In other words, the Initiative order can change as a result.

If the trigger does not happen until the next time this user's turn comes up, then his action is lost and the turn remains at the same position in the Initiative Order.

The trigger can actually be something you cannot otherwise do, which is an interesting way of making the Ready Action useful. The main one, I think, is to attack counter a spell. This is actually an interesting feature although you can counter a spell only if you have the same spell memorized right now, so it's quite limited. Still, there was no way to prevent a spell from happening once cast in the old days.

Obviously, an unconscious Character can't Ready an Action. See the note in the Delay Action for an important side effect and the importance of the Initiative Order in this situation.

Special Initiative Action: Delay

The other special action that affects your position in the initiative order is the Delay Action.

When using this special action, it does not take any time in itself, contrary to the Ready Action which forces you to get ready in some way (i.e. draw your weapon, put an arrow on your bow, hold your shield in a specific way, etc.)

In most cases, this action is used to wait for another character player to act before you or to let an opponent strike first for some reason. Really there can be so many different reasons one can come up with to delay their action.

You actually do not need to specify exactly how long you want to delay for up front. You can restart at the time you want, although it should be before what would be your next turn otherwise you'll just lose a whole turn!

Note that while Unconscious a Character can't change his initiative order and thus will never Delay. This is one case where Players can't be allowed to chose in which order they go even if they first roll the same initiative (and thus the importance of resolving ties because that Lay on Hands or Healing Spell may arrive one split of a second too late.)

Casting a Spell

The casting of a spell that takes one round is started on the caster's turn and effective just before the caster's next turn.

This gives all the other creatures a chance to break the spellcaster concentration by attacking and inflicting damage or distracting the spellcasting in some other way.

The spell just fizzles and thus nothing really happens outside of the fact that the spell is lost.

Combat Round

As mentioned earlier, there are now just two phases:

a) you roll initiative which defines the order in which combattants perform their actions;

b) each combattant gets a turn; once all turns are completed, you enter a new round

This looks very much simplified from previous versions, in part because we roll initiative only once. Although all parties involved make a roll. I like that idea because that means each party makes their roll with the correct modifier and not a possible group modifier which most often would not apply because all characters would not have the necessary abilities.

Also this mechanism makes it possible to treat casting a spell taking a round possible since when that spellcaster new turn arrives is when the spell actually happens.

Surprise Round

As in previous versions, a surprise round occurs when an opponent surprises another because it was not aware of the other one.

Contrary to previous versions, though, any of the combatants on either side can be surprised on the first round. That is, either party can get surprised in all sorts of way. For example, both sides could have an assassin as one of their party members and these two could stay hidden and attack by surprise at some point in the combat.

Note that you can only perform a standard action and a free action during a surprise round. So for example that means you cannot perform a multi-attack if you are a fighter since that requires a Full Action.

Combatants that are unaware of an attack (get surprised) lose their Dexterity Score modifier to their AC on such an attack. Since they are unaware, they are flat-footed and cannot avoid the attack using their normal Dexterity reflexes.

If no one or everyone is surprised, then no surprise round occurs.


Contrary to the previous version, you perform all your attacks on your turn. You do not have to wait the end of the round to perform additional attacks anymore.

The one drawback in using your multiple attacks in D&D 3e is that you have to take a Full Action, which means that you cannot use a Move Action. You may still move 5 feet, once, though.

The multi-attack does not require you to determine which opponents you want to fight ahead of time. You can perform your first attack and then decide what you want to do next after you know of the outcome of that first attack.

Now there is still one cool feature offered: the player can choose to switch from a Multi-attack to a standard attack after learning of the outcome of the first hit. So say you're a fighter and you just killed your opponent with your first hit, you may now want to position yourself behind another opponent which is 15 feet away. You can switch to a normal Attack and forfeit your other attacks. A really good trade off compared to Second Edition.

Note that Barbarians and Rogues do not ever get flat footed so they do not lose their AC bonus. Although they still cannot respond on the surprise round. Various Monsters certain have the same ability.

Rolling Initiative

Rolling initiative is done by rolling a 1d20, which is how D&D 3.5e was given its alias its alias: d20 System.

The combatant that gets the highest score on the d20 gets the first turn. Combatants get sorted by their roll from highest to smallest.

The Initiative roll takes the Dexterity Modifier in account. 3.5e describes the initiative as a Dexterity Check. So you roll your 1d20, add your modifier, and that's your resulting Initiative roll.

Dungeon Master Rolls for Monsters

The Dungeon Master rolls Initiative for all the monsters.

To make it fast, the DM is allowed to roll one 1d20 for all the monsters.

If the group is composed of multiple types of Monsters, then the DM may roll a 1d20 per group.

Also, if the DM prefers, he can roll the d20 for each single monster. This is how Turn Watcher actually works. It makes it more interesting since each single monster will have a different turn in the round. Now, without a software to track such, it makes it a bit complicated...

My Thought on the Initiative in 3.5e

Here I have to say that the Initiative was finally perfectioned in this version.

They made it so the odds would be better than those odds we'd get in the original version and AD&D 1e by using a 1d20.

They eliminated the very large number of modifiers added in AD&D 2e.

They re-introduced Dexterity as a way to increase your chances to win initiative (or reduce it, but who would get such a low Dexterity? Maybe a Cleric Gnome...)

I actually wrote a page about the effect of bonuses on the Initiative Roll. Interestingly enough, the very first +1 has the largest impact on your rolls.

Breaking Initiative Ties

When two opponents roll the same number, after applying their respective Dexterity Modifier, you first check thoe Dexterity Modifiers of those two opponents. The one with the highest modifier wins Initiative.

If both opponents have the same Initiative Modifier, then you re-roll the dice until one or the other has a higher score than the other.

Resolving Identical Initiative Rolls Between Player Characters

Note that in case of player characters, if a re-roll is required, I prefer to give the players the choise to choose who goes first. Frankly, they could use the Delay Action to change their position anyway, on each round! So wasting time re-rolling would not really serve much of a purpose.

Note that the same problem happens between Monsters. As a Dungeons Master you can just choose who goes first, the Wizard or its cohort of Minor Daemons...

No Special Case for Ambushes

The strange idea of adding an Ambush round in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition disappeared in 3e.

If you successfully Ambush opponents, you get a surprise round and don't use anything more than that. This is just like it was in earlier versions. No special case.

Initiative in Pathfinder

Initiative handling in Pathfinder has not changed from 3e and 3.5e, except for modifers.

The Pathfinder rules simplify various combat rules, spell handling, and made many classes and races better. However, it did not really change the concept of Initiative which is still using the Dexterity Check.

However, in Pathfinder, they clearly mentioned the possibility that all sorts of modifiers apply to the Dexterity Check (beyond your Dexterity Score Modifier.) For example, an entangled character gets a –4 on his Dexterity checks and this applies to his Initiative. These additional bonuses do not applied in 3.5e.

So we get modifiers like with the Initiative in AD&D 2e and the Initiative in D&D 4e.

Pathfinder also kept the special Initiative Actions: Inaction, Ready, and Delay.

Surprise Round in Pathfinder

The surprise round in Pathfinder is the same as in 3e and 3.5e. Combatants who are not aware of the enemies have to roll a Percention Check. If they fail their Perception Check, they are caught Flat-Footed and cannot act on their first round.

Note that like in 3e and 3.5e, the Pathfinder Initiative Order does not change because of the surprise round. It just prevents some combatants from taking a Full Action.

Compatibility with Turn Watcher™

Turn Watcher™, our initiative tracker for 3.5e, 4e, and 5e, was first created by Doug Barbieri, my partner at Made to Order Software Corp, for the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition. So it is one to one compatible with 3.5e!

Turn Watcher™ also works with Pathfinder since it has the same Initiative System as 3e and 3.5e. Just make sure your players know their character Dexterity Check Modifiers and you're ready to go. So in other words, Turn Wathcer is also a Pathfinder Initiative Tracker.

There are also a few more options that allows the software to be compatible with newer versions and various ways of using Initiative. For example, we have Dungeons Masters who like to continue to use Ultra Initiative to spice up their rounds.

By the way, d20 and 3.5e came with adventures in other worlds such as Star War and Modern. Turn Watcher is a Modern Initiative Tracker as much as a Dungeons & Dragons Initiative Tracker. Traveller and Spycraft Masters also benefit from the Turn Watcher capabilities.

We are also preparing a newer version that will work online, offline, and on Smartphones. Especially, we want to include a feature allowing the Dungeon Master to allow his players to see what is happening. Especially so the users can know when it is their turn. Also it can include pictures of monsters given an even better role play (well... unless you have miniatures for all those monsters.)

Hopefully this will happen fairly quickly.

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