Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons 4e


Cover of Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook by Wizard of the CoastThe Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out in 2007-2008 (various books came out one after another, the first of the Players' Hand, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual were released in June 2008).

It was 8 years after the introduction of Third Edition, so probably about time for a new release and additional corrections (although they already published a revised version of Third Edition as 3.5e in 2003, which was also released under the Open Game License, a first of its kind for a Role Playing Game!)

A strange idea, in this version the usual core rules were broken up in multiple books. Three Player's Hand Books, Two Dungeons Master's Guide, and Four Monsters Manuals if I'm not mistaken... That last one, I can understand, though. Most Dungeons Masters like to use new/different monsters in their campaign. Having to fight the same Goblin over and over again gets boring after a while.

The combat sequences remains about the same as we found it in 3e. You have rounds of combat and each creature involved in the combat gets a turn. Who strikes first is determine by rolling Initiative.

Also they change some terminology for some of the actions, similar actions are available. Fourth Edition defines Standard, Move, Minor, Free actions.

The Seven Steps of Combat

The Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition introduced a simple seven step system for starting a new combat.

Step 1. Surprise

As in previous editions, it is possible to surprise your enemy or be surprised. As usual, a surprise round gives the surprisers a free turn.

In Step 1 the Dungeon Master is expected to determine who got surprised and who was aware of their enemies and write that down.

Step 2. Establish Positions

Interestingly enough, positions are established at this point. In my games I have my players choose their positions in their ranks pretty much at all time.

At least they say that the Dungeon Master will be the one positioning the miniatures. I guess that way there will be less arguing at the table. I still think you should instead have your player characters (PCs) in place early on when they walk that trail in the forest or that tunnel in the Goblin's lair.

Step 3. Roll Initiative

At that point all the players and the Dungeon Master for the monsters roll initiative.

This is done at that point because as we see in the next step Fourth Edition expects surprisers and surprised combatants to possibly be on both sides and thus the Initiative Order will already be important to resolve the Surprise Round.

I talk further about the rolls and bonuses offered on the roll below.

Step 4. Take Surprise Round Actions

Now we are ready to have the Surprisers take their Surprise Round action.

As I just mentioned in Step 3. the Initiative Order will be used to know who moves and strikes first.

The Surprise Round allows the Surpriser to take a single action, contrary to regular rounds that allow you to take diverse actions of different types.

Step 5. Take Turns

Once the Surprise Turn is over, we start the normal combat turns. Again, these happen in Initiative Order.

The actions one can take are defined below. There are very similar to what one has in 3.5e. There are a total of six types of actions grouped in main and triggered actions.

In most cases you will perform one or more Main Actions.

Step 6. Begin the Next Round

Once all the combatants had a turn, start the new round using the Initiative Roll order.

Note that the Ready an Action will change the Initiative Order permantely. The way this point is phrased in the Core book sounds like you would reset the order back to what it was when first rolled in Step 3.

So just like in Third Edition, the current order is kept round after round and modified by the Ready an Action whenever someone uses that option.

Step 7. End the Encounter

Repeat steps 5 and 6 until the combat ends one way or the other (i.e. one side fled, was made prisoners, were all killed or at least made unconscious...)

Interestingly enough, they say that the combat really ends only once the winning combatants take a rest. I guess that if they decide to pursue, they would not have ended the combat. But the rest could be skipped and our players could put the dead paladin on his horse and they ride their own horse back to the city to ressurect the paladin (which will cost them, but at least they'll have their fighter again.)

Actions Available in 4e

Forth Edition defines six types of actions. Further it defines how many of each action you can take on your turn (or more precisely, which combos you can choose from—they offer five combos!) and for actions you can take on someone else turn.

If you'd like my point of view on this: it's way too much work to track all of those possibilities. That's too many types of actions, too many triggers, too many out of turn possible actions...

1. Main Action: Standard

The most common action is the standard action. This is the one that allows you to strike once, drink a potion, cast a spell...

This is pretty much what we had in the old days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragon 1e.

2. Main Action: Move Action

During your turn you can also move. This can be used to go toward an enemy to attempt to cut it in half.

There is no limit to the number of moves, only how far you can go as per your race and magic enhancements.

3. Main Action: Minor Action

These actions do not require much preparation and can be done quickly. For example you can pick an item from the floor in your space or a close by empty space; or you could get a potion out of a pocket in your backpack (assuming it's accessible without having to open the backpack.)

In general you can execute one minor action along the standard action and your movement.

4. Main Action: Free Action

As in Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, you have free actions such as talking, drop an item, and letting go of a grappeled opponent.

The number of free actions you can perform on your turn or someone else turn is not limited by the rules. It is unlikely that you would need to do perform that many free actions anyway.

That being said, the Dungeon Master has the right to stop you from doing too many Free Actions within the round.

5. Triggered Action: Opportunity Action

This is a new way to define the Attack of Opportunity. Before this was a free action that you could take at any time, but still only once per round.

Now in Dungeons & Dragons 4e, you can take one action per opponent's turn. So if you have 8 opponents around you and they all attempt to hit you then run away, you can take one action against each one of them, one after another. So your own action on your turn plus 8 for all your opponents, that 9 possible actions per turn! (although as the Dungeon Master you may want to consider that someone behind the character is not in much danger of retaliation.)

The cool thing, though is that this gives you a standard action, not just an attack opportunity. So if you want to do something else than an attack, you can. Maybe you just want to trip that monster or grapple him...

Taking this action prevents the action that the opponent was going to take. So an opponent that was trying to escape ends up staying right with you and that means on your turn you'll be able to hit it again. In effect, escaping is likely to cost a creature a full standard action. This is a strange idea, though. I would think that you should not be able to stop movement if you attemp an attack and miss that enemy!

6. Triggered Action: Immediate Action

There are two possible resolutions for Immediate Actions: Interruption and Reaction. You can choose one or the other whenever the Immediate Action happens.


Each character and monster may have powers or magic that allows them to take immediate actions on a specific trigger. One of these Powers is the Ready an Action which everyone has. If you played 3.5e, then you already know of the Ready Action in  that version. Now this is called an Immediate Action and the "Ready an Action" is the trigger.

Immediate actions are taken only when the trigger happens.

The number of immediate action you can take is limited to one per round. It can be either an Interrupt or a Reaction.

While it is your own turn, you cannot trigger an immediate action at that time. Anyway, an immediate action is very much like a free action unless you use the Ready an Action standard action.


The Interrupt type of action lets you act just before the effect of the trigger happens.

For example, it could allow you to jump out of trouble when an enemy is trying to hit you with his Great Axe. That enemy loses the attack whatever his roll.


Reacting to an action means taking an action just after something has happened.

There are two exceptions:

a. If the trigger happens when another creature moves past you, you may be able stop the movement of that creature in that square (depending on the power/magic that allows you to react to that trigger.) This is true even if the creature was not planning to stop next to you.

b. If your reaction is to give you a free attack at your enemy when you get hit by her, then you can perform that free attack immediately, even when that enemy has multiple attacks. This gives you a chance to kill your enemy before she can attack you again with her next attack.

Handling of Your Actions on Your Turn

I won't go in details about that one since I think I'm already someone out of scope here. Knowing of the actions tells you of who does what in a round. Handling of your actions happens interleaved with Immediate Actions since your actions may offer opportunities to your enemies to react in various ways as described earlier.

The good thing that was added is the fact that you can take your actions in any order you wish. So if you choose Two Moves and a Minor Action to go grab an item on the floor that a friend just threw there, you can move, grab the object, move again. That will be your turn. The object better be important! Note that moving without using a standard action to prevent an attack of opportunity may not be wise either.

Action Points

One new feature in Forth Edition is called Action Points. This allows you to take one extra action on your turn. You can use only one Action Point at a time.

Effects Timing and Saving Throws

I like the fact that this version clearly defines how to handle effects that are currently affecting you.

An effect that generates damage is going to inflict that damage at the beginning of your turn.

If you are lucky, the effect then ends at the beginning of your turn. Some effects, though, will end at the end of your turn. In other words, you will be affected while performing your actions.

Some other effect last, though, although some may allow for a Saving Throw. You can roll for your saving throw at the end of your turn. That is, if the damage did not already kill you...

This also clear means that if you're currently paralyzed, say by a spider's poison, then you cannot take any action until the end of your turn when you can roll your Saving Throw.

This is the only version where I have seen such a great detailed definition of how/when effects happen. It's somewhat problematic in regard to Saving Throws, though. In all the other versions (including Fifth Edition), you generally get affected at the time the effect happens and roll your saving throw then. On the turn of the creature that generated that effect is when you would get damages again and a chance to roll your Saving Throw again. I think this other way makes more sense. That being said, I like the precision on how to handle all of these things.

Casting a Spell

Here we have something a bit peculiar...

You do not have arcane spells like in other versions. Instead, the ability to cast a spell is a power. Spells are cast instantly so you cannot make a spellcaster lose concentration while casting the spell. Well... except you can use a trigger and an Immediate Action to interrupt the casting of the spell. This means you can prevent a spell from happening if the caster is close to you. Since casters generally stay behind their friendly fighters, you are likely to not be able to prevent casters from using their power.

That being said, all classes have powers, even plain old fighters. So in effect, you are likely to often end up stopping the casting of a spell.

One or Two Attacks

Contrary to previous versions, you get two attacks only if you have a corresponding power. Since you get the power at a certain level, it is similar, it just doesn't look the same.

You can make the first attack on one foe and the second on another during your turn. You do not have to wait the end of everyone else turn to handle your second attack.

Having two weapons, one in each hand, does not give you the ability to attack twice until you have that special power. You can, however, choose which weapon to yield on each one of your attacks.

So Multi-Attacks do not change the Initiative Order as it was in AD&D 2e.

Rolling Initiative

Fourth Edition kept the use of the 1d20 to roll initiative. It is actually clearly called a Dexterity Check.

The roll gets bonuses, so the sequence goes as follow:

  • Roll 1d20
  • Add your Dexterity Bonus
  • Add your level divided by two
  • Add other bonuses

The other bonuses come from various powers, feats, magical items. For example, you get the Quick Draw feat to gain a +2 bonus on your initiative.

Remember, from my calculation of Initiative and Bonuses, the first few additional bonuses are those that give you a real advantage compared to a foe with an otherwise similar Initiative Roll (about the same Dexterity, same level, etc.) So a feat such as a Quick Draw to gain +2 is quite an incredible bonus (i.e. it gives you an additional 9.95% chance over your enemy to win the Initiative Roll.)

The combatant with the highest Initiative Roll goes first. Each go in turn, until the one combatant with the smallest Initiative Roll gets his turn.

Effects of Ready an Action on the Initiative Order

Just like in Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, the Ready an Action feature in 4e changes the Initiative Order if a combatant chooses to wait on a trigger and that trigger actually happens. The combatant will end up just before the turn of the combatant that generates the trigger.

If they want to, friendly foes can use the Delay Action to swap their turns once in a while.

My Personal Thought on Bonuses & Initiative

Contrary to Third Edition that only allowed for the Dexterity modifier, this version re-introduced all sorts of modifiers.

As mentioned in my talk about Bonuses and Initiative, I think that it's not a good idea. The Dexterity Bonus, sure, but many others seems to detract the Initiative System.

Breaking a Tie on an Initiative Roll

When two combatants get equal Initiative Rolls, they have to break the tie.

Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition continues with using the total bonus as the first tie breaker. So the combatant who has the highest bonus automatically wins the tie.

When two or more combatants roll an equal Initiative Roll and both have the same total in bonuses, then you roll an extra die (or flip a coin?! Yes! The rules gives you that choice!)

In this case, though, you roll ONE DIE. In other words, you do not break the tie by re-rolling and the largest wins. Instead you roll a die that gives you the order in which the combatants will go. Now that's easy for two combatants (i.e. roll a 1d6 and if you do 1, 2, or 3 combatant A goes first, otherwise combatant B goes first.) However, if you have 3 combatants, you get 3! (i.e. 3 factorial) 6 possibilities. So you can still roll a 1d6 but I dare you declare what the order is going to be on the fly... Oh and with 4! you get 24 possibilities...

Yeah! I think a re-roll is more likely a better solution if you have more than 2 combatant with an equal Initiative Roll. I know, it does not happen very often at all. But when it does, you're going to be in trouble!

Faster Way (usually) of Breaking Ties Between Players

Obviously, as the Dungeon Master, you can decide who goes first between your monsters.

When two of your players get the same Initiative Roll, you can just let them choose who goes first. If they want to roll dice again, they can do that too.

Note that as mentioned earlier they could use the Ready on Action feature to swap their turn once the round started so it does not really matter who goes first between friendly combatants as long as they go one after the other.

Initiative Variant for Beginners

Forth Edition offers an Initiative Variant to use with beginners and ease the DM's work in running combat just because there's goingto be a lot more to track with beginners. Many things that usually would be tracked by the players will fallback on the DM.

The idea comes from regular board games such as monopoly:

1. All the players roll a 1d20

2. The Dungeon Master rolls 1d20

3. The player with the highest roll starts first unless the DM rolled even higher

4. If two people rolled the same higest number, then these few re-roll and the one with the highest number starts first

5. Then each players get their turn going clockwise around the table.

This is really very much like playing a board game such as Monopoly. In Monopoly each player rolls a 1d6 and the one with the highest roll starts first, then the next player is the one on his left (clockwise as if you had a clock facing up on the table).

On the DM's turn (when the player on his right is done with his turn), the DM plays all the monsters.

Obviously, this is very similar to using the AD&D Initiative: both sides roll one die and the highest go first, except that in this case all the players may not go before the monsters.

This certainly helps beginners, but I think that at the same time it won't help them learn of the ways of RPGs... and the chaos of D&D battles. That being said, there are so many things to learn about D&D that simplifications like these can help getting started, at least.

Compatibility with Turn Watcher™

The Initiative Order and system of combat in link with the Initiative Order is very similar to the implementation in 3.5e therefore Turn Watcher™ will work well for Dungeons & Dragons 4e and will track your initiative and hit points for all the combatants.

The one thing that it won't do to the letter is handling the effects either at the beginning or the end of a turn, however, I think that as a Dungeon Master, you most certainly can handle that part as expected.

Turn Watcher also handles the Ready Action and the Delay Action of 3e which work the same way in 4e.

The main feature of Turn Watcher is to handle a list of Characters and Monsters so you can run a combat smoothly and it will still do that with this version.

Turn Watcher does not have any support for Bruce's initiative concept. Actually, using Turn Watcher makes combat initiative a lot easier to handle and kind of makes Bruce's concept obsolete all by itself.

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