Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons 5e


D&D Player's Handbook Cover picture--a female magicien is casting a spell against a fire giant; giant which takes most of the space on the coverDungeons & Dragons 5e is yet another big change.

The main one is the Return to the Source. Especially, it walked away from D&D 4e which transformed how spells and feats (Powers) worked. Being of the old school, I think this was the best move that Wizards of the Coast could have done with Dungeons & Dragons. Actually, maybe 4e should be called something else than D&D... (just my personal rant!)

This means how the combat is run changed more or less back to what it was in 3e with some streamlining to the naming conventions.

However, Initiative Rolls are still somewhat different from all previous versions, making this version yet again unique in term of Initiative Rolls.

Dungeons & Dragons—Dungeon Master's Guide Fifth Edition

Dungeon Master's Guide (5e)

(click image to find the book on

Combat Rules in 5e

In a way, the rules in 5e were changed back to 3.5e plus some ameliorations. I'm thinking that many people talked about 4e as not really being a D&D game. (Especially if you ask me, I'm impressed by the heavy changes going away from the old standard versions of D&D.)

The combat still includes opponents who swing weapons, feint, parry, do exceptional footwork, and for some cast spells.

Same definition as in 3.5e and 4e, a combat is a series of rounds which last about 6 seconds. Within a round, each player take a turn. As before, the determination of who goes first is defined by using the Initiative Roll.

Rounds go on until one side surrenders, runs away, or is defeated (everyone is dead or unconscious.)

Version 5e has a similar description of each step of combat as found in 4e.

1. Determine Surprise

The Dungeon Master (DM) decides whether anyone involved in the combat encounter is surprised. Mainly, if a creature can sneak on the character players or the characters try to silently approach some foe just before attacking them, the other side may be surprised.

2. Establish Position

D&D Monster Manual (5e)In this version, contrary to version 4e, the paragraph about the DM choosing where each combatant is includes a sentence implying that the characters marching order was known before the combat begins.

In other words, the DM is responsible for placing monsters around (and in between) the characters.

So I like this description. Now we know that the players should decide on their formation before they start playing in a location where they are not unlikely to be attacked. Although note that a good DM will always ask their players to decide on their position to no give away that this travel is going to be monster free (yet again...)

3. Roll Initiative

Now it is time to determine the initiative order by Rolling Initiative. As in the 3e and 4e editions, this roll requires a 1d20.

This establish the order in which all combatants go.

4. Take Turns

Each participant takes a turn. There are also a few actions one can take outside of their turn if they still have a bonus action.

The surprise rounds means that only the combatants that surprised another combatant plays.

5. Begin the Next Round

The round ends once all the everyone involved in a combat gets a turn. Of course, the turn for someone who is paralyzed or petrified is not much.

Then you can repeat step 4 until combat ends.


In most cases, a surprise round occurs when one side does a sneak attack on the other side.

For example, a gelatinous cube is gliding down a corridor. Since it is mostly invisible a player character may only have 30% change to see it. Everyone in the PC party rolls a Wisdom DC Check to see whether they detected something (not surprised) or not (surprised!)

Important Note: the Wisdom DC Check is like a saving throw, it is automatic. A player does not have to say that he is applying his chance of seeing the monster. It will happen no matter what. Not only that, it is an automatic DC. That is, the user does not actually roll any dice. They have a DC defined as 8 + their Proficiency Bonus (the Proficiency Bonus can be calculated from the character level by dividing the level by 4, rounded up, plus 1), plus their Wisdom modifier.

D&D 5e includes quite a few passive checks. That is, it offers various players and non-player characters the ability to foresee a surprise attack, to find a trap, to detect someone following them, all of which without having to roll any dice.

The combatants that are hiding must roll a Stealth Check (1d20 + Dexterity Bonuses). If they succeed their Stealth Check and the combatants on the opposite side fail their Wisdom Check, then there is surprise.

You can use one action in a surprise round. There is no specific limit defined, although you are limited to actions that take 1 round or less.

Note that each combatant is checked to determine whether it is surprised or not. So in effect a specific set of players and monsters can end up surprised and not the others. The surprised players and monsters won't be able to take an action or a reaction during the surprise round.

There are various monsters that never get surprised. Various races and monsters have a heighten awareness, i.e. harder to get surprised, it is called Having Proficiency in D&D 5e. All Elves are proficient at Perception, meaning that they are harder to surprise than the other races.

The Foresight 9th level spell also gives the target of the spell the ability to never be surprised since it sees everything that will happen in the near future.

Rogue classes also gain various advantages at Stealth Rolls, as they learn how to hide themselves well. Wood Elves can easily hide in the wild as they are proficient at that specific skill.

Type of Actions in Dungeons & Dragons 5e

Again the naming convention changed, so here we want to make sure know what we are talking about.

While running a combat, you can take actions. There are three types now:

[Standard] Actions

Standard actions are just called Actions. This is what most everyone does when it is their turn to act.

The Standard Actions, for example, include the Attack Action. This is when you roll your attack rolls and damage rolls when you hit your opponent.

You have only one standard action per turn.

Bonus Action

Everyone has one bonus action per round. The bonus action can be used during one's turn or at another time when a bonus action is allowed (each special case is spelled out through the books.)

Nearly the same types of actions can be taken during a bonus action, except a multi-attack.

You have only one bonus action per round.

A bonus action can happen on someone else turn.


In most cases, a Reaction is taken when a foe tries to walk away from you while in combat and without taking the Withdraw standard action.

This is the same as the «Attack of Opportunity» in the previous two versions of D&D.

Note that to my point of view it is worded in such way that it makes it sound like you have an infinite number of Reactions. The truth is you have just one Reaction per round, even though it happens on someone else turn.

There are several types of triggers, other than the «Attack of Opportunity». For example, a Sorcerer can react to various spells and reuse their energy to cast another spell right back at the caster.

Other Activities on Your Turn (the Free Action)

The authors of Dungeons & Dragons 5e decided to rename the Free Action. I'm thinking that some people may have abused the Free Action and thus renaming that specific type of actions was probably wise.

Although they use the term Free Action in the description of the Other Activities, they also clearly describe the type of so called Free Actions you can take. For example, you can interact with 1 object or talk briefly.

So there are clear limitations.

Again, I never prevent my players from talking  and often they spend minutes talking about their next move in a combat as if they could do that in an actual real combat... Oh well! But I'd rather let them have fun and find ways to resolve their bad situation rather than follow the rules to the letter.


The Movement action changed dramatically.

In Fifth Edition you can move up to your speed on each one of your turns. That movement can be consumed before or after your other Actions and it does not need to be any particular amount before and after the other actions.

Special Initiative Action: Ready

The Ready Action from 3e and 4e was kept in D&D 5e. The Delay, however, is not present. Note that it is not called an Initiative Action, just an Action.

The Ready Action in 5e is the same as in previous editions (3.5e and 4e). You define a trigger and when it happens, you execute your ready action.

As a result of using a Ready action, your position in the Initiative Order is changed to that position at which you executed your Ready Action.

Note that the Ready Action is actually a Reaction. This means you are limited as per the type of action you can execute during a Reaction (i.e. no multi-attacks).

Although you will be ready to act when the trigger happens, it is not mandatory to act on it. You can just drop it.

For Spells, this action requires concentration. That means if you were concentrating on another spell, such as Web, when taking a Ready Action means losing the spell you were previously concentrating on. Also, if you get hit between your turn and the trigger, you may lose your spell if you fail the Concentration Check. In other words, for spellcasters who want to cast a spell on that action, it is not too practical. Finally, if you decide not to use the spell once ready, you can just drop it, it will just fizzle and have no effect.

Casting a Spell

A spell that takes 1 action is cast immediately and there is no stopping it unless you have a special ability or feat that gives you a Reaction.

However, many spells, such as the Web spell, require the caster to concentrate on the spell. The caster can still cast other spells, but she can't have more than one spell she concentrates on. Casting a new spell that requires concentration (or selection the Ready Action and Readying a Spell) will break the previous spell immediately.

Avoiding a Spell

Some powerful creatures can ignore spells cast at them. For example, Ancient Dragons or the Tiamat can ignore a certain number of spells per day. From the rules, it is not abundantly clear whether the creature knows what spell was cast at them. It  seems, though, that at a minimum they know the type of spell (Evocation, Divination, Transmutation, etc.)

Various Spell Immunity

Some monsters have total immunity to spells under a certain level. For example, the Rakshasa is immune to all spells level 1 to 6 (although they can choose to be affected).

The Elves also have immunity to the Sleep spell. They just can't be put to sleep.

Undead are immune to all the Enchantment spells.


As mentioned above, a Multi-Attack can only occur in a Standard Action. All attacks are played all at once.

You may use your bonus action to do a second attack if you have two weapons. In that case that second attack is made with disadvantage (unless you have a special ability that allows you to use that second weapon without disadvantage.)

Rolling Initiative

To determine the Initiative Order, all the parties will roll a 1d20 and they add their Dexterity Modifier and their Proficiency.

The combatants are then sorted from the one that rolled the highest Initiative to the lowest. This is called the Initiative Order.

As indicated above, the proficiency is calculated1 as:

Proficiency = Character Level ÷ 4 rounded up + 1

And so the Initiative total is:

1d20 + Dexterity Modifier + Proficiency

As we can see, we add bonuses to the 1d20 roll. Just like in 4e, this can be problematic if you want to give a chance to monsters with low dexterity or proficiency. See my Initiative & Bonuses for more info about this problem.

Although I guess it makes sense that the higher you are in levels, the more likely you should be to win the first  turn. However, just lie in 3.5e and 4e, you roll initiative once at the beginning of combat and thus the effect of the bonuses wanes on the second round.

Monster Initiative: Individual or Grouped

The Dungeon Master may roll 1d20 per monster or group monsters of the same kind together and roll just 1d20 for each group.

I think that it is best to create two or more groups if the monsters are scattered around. For example, if there is a ledge and attackers are up there behind the characters and there is another group of monsters in front of them, each group should have its own initiative.

Note that creating more groups may add some fairness. Otherwise the characters end up being attacked by all the bad guys all at once. It sure simplifies your work as a DM, but it is not unlikely to cause a lot of kill of Player Characters (PCs), which as a DM is not what you want.

Initiative Roll and Ready Action

Another reason to roll initiative specifically for a monster is to allow for Ready Actions on individual monsters. If you don't think you will use that action (I haven't used it much at all,) then it probably isn't too important. It will anyway work either way, one monster can break free of the initiative order on its own, only when that happens it is obvious that the monster is up to something.

Breaking Initiative Ties

The Dungeons & Dragons 5e version has yet a different method to resolve ties. However, it does not allow for simultaneous combat.

First, the DM is to choose whether monster A goes before or after monster B when two monsters got a tie. In most cases this should be easy enough.

Second, the Players can choose who goes first when there is a tie between two players. As we have seen in 3.5e and 4e, the use of the Ready Action or the Delay Action is enough to change the order between players, so you shouldn't sweat it.

Third, a tie between a monster and a player is resolved in one of two methods:

1. The Dungeons Master decides who goes first, maybe he wants to give the characters a better chance to win (especially at lower level.)

2. The DM and Player roll the 1d20 again. The side that gets the highest score goes first. The Core Rules do not specify that this second 1d20 roll gets adjusted with your and the monster's bonuses. However, we have played it that way: we added the bonus for each roll.

Additional Initiative Handling in the Dungeon Master's Guide

In the Combat Option of the Dungeon Master's Guide, there a few variants to the initiative roll.

Initiative Score

To avoid the rolling of dice to determine the Initiative Order, you can use the Initiative Score instead. This is a passive check as you use when characters are walking by something or other that they could detect, their Passive Perception Score is used. We apply the same rule for the Initiative.

This Score is calculated as a Dexterity DC which is calculated as:

Initiative Score = 10 + Dexterity Modifier

With a basic Initiative Score, the order of combat is likely going to remain similar. For example, if you are attacked by Goblins, then their Initiative Score of 12 will be the same every time. This means the Goblins will always attack right after Arthas who are a score of 14 and before Gruutor who has an Initiative Score of 10.

Remember that there is a way to determine passive checks with advantage (+5) and disadvantage (-5) in case that would be necessary for Initiative. Although the only disadvantage I know of would be a Surprise round, which prevents the surprised party from doing anything during the first round anyway.

That being said, you could use the advantage/disadvantage to make the Initiative Score a little less predictable. Maybe creatures high up get advantage. Creature on difficult terrain like mud would get disadvantage. Etc.

Side Initiative

This is nearly going back to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and rolling one die per side (i.e. similar to playing a wargame, even, so like the D&D of 1974 or even Chainmail!)

In this case, one player rolls 1d20 for all the characters and the Dungeon Master rolls 1d20 for all the monsters. The highest number on the dice wins.

No Bonuses

Since it would make it way too complicated, the Side Initiative method does not take any modifiers in account. A pure random 1d20 roll!

Ties Resolution

Although similar to the old versions, ties in Side Initiative have to be resolved by re-rolling until both dice come out with different numbers. No simultaneous fight allowed.

Unbalance Fire Power

One major problem with this method (which was there in the old days) is the rather unbalanced Initiative Order. Either side can end up with a large fire power which eliminates many of the characters (or monsters, but that's less important) before the characters have a chance to reduce the number of monsters.

This method allows the characters to play in any order they want, like in the good old days. So you could let all the fighters do their work first and if some monsters are still standing, spell casters can take their turn an eliminate the crumbs, or maybe put all their power and attack that evil spellcaster in the back... because he looks dangerous.


Although the game allows for extraordinary fire power to be used all at once, it also strengthen Teamwork.

Say your wizard wants to cast a Fireball. It may be wise to let that happen first then the fighters can go after the remaining still standing foes. After all, it would be a waste to slash a few times at a foe here or a foe there and then inflict enough damage with a Fireball to kill those foe, whether the fighters had inflicted any damage beforehand.

Discussions about what will be best can more easily ensue with this method.

More than two sides

It is possible to handle more than two sides. Say for example that your players are attacking Troglodytes in a tunnel. The Wizard uses Thunderwave and kills one of the Troglodytes, but as a side effect, it opens a crack in the ceiling of the cave you're in. From that crack falls a couple of giant ants that start attacking. These ants are probably considered to be on a third side since they are probably not friends with the Troglodytes even though they are also monsters... (i.e. they could end up attacking the Troglodytes so you need them to appear in a different place in the Initiative Order.)

Speed Factor (or Ultra Initiative)

In the Original Dungeons & Dragons, 1e, and 2e, Initiative was rolled on each round. In Turn Watcher™ we called this Ultra Initiative.

The problem with a static initiative is that the players know the order in which each combatant is going to proceed. In other words, the Wizard may go right before the Sorcerer, then that spider, and finally the fighter. This gives you invaluable information on what the characters and monsters can do in the combat that would not be happening in a real life fight.

Simple Ultra Initiative

To at least resolve part of the problem, we can ask everyone to roll Initiative on each round. So once a round ends, you first roll initiative, then sort the characters and monsters, then start the new combat round. This means you cannot just expect to be just before or after this or that guy and thus plan ahead of what will be the most effective action when your turn comes.

Advanced Ultra Initiative (or Speed Factor)

The Dungeon Master's Guide book actually adds one additional rule: They ask for the character players to decide of their action ahead of time, before they actually roll initiative. Personally, I find that cumbersome. It's just too difficult to predict what will happen. Obviously, if the players have to do it, the DM has to do it for his minions too. Otherwise the DM would end up cheating, wouldn't he?!

Personally, I see a big problem with this one: it will be pretty much impossible to use your bonus action in the best most optimized way. Although this could be argued as using the Ready Action along this feature makes a lot more sense.

Additional Initiative Modifiers


In this case, they re-introduced the AD&D 2e size modifiers. A very large creature is going to be slower at hitting a smaller creature (because it is so heavy.) Medium creatures have no bonus or penalties. Small creatures have a bonus. Large creatures have a penalty.


Similarly, they re-introduced weapon modifiers. Light weapons go faster, regular weapons have no effect, and heavy weapons go slower. Range weapons give you an even larger penalty (-5!) I suppose this is due to having to aim at your target.


Finally, they also re-introduced delays for casting spells. The penalty is equal to the spell level. So if you want to cast a Wish, you subtract 9 to your Initiative Roll, making sure, pretty much, that you end up last!?


At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my Initiative & Bonuses explains why having bonuses and penalties to the Initiative roll has a dramatic effect which is probably not exactly what was expected when the game was designed (who draws graphs of die rolls while playing D&D?!)

Plus here we again have 3 additional cases. It's rather heavy.

Oh and actually the proposed table is not the limit. The Dungeon Master is free to look into determining bonuses and penalties on a per situation basis. Since the players write down their action before the round goes on, the DM has a chance to look at those actions and decide for additional changes to the Initiative Roll. Something that would likely take quite a bit of time such attempting to open a rusted gate that's locked should generate a penalty. On the other hand, something very simple such as kicking a bucket could give the character a bonus. Yeah. You're not going to go through those combats quickly!

Secret Initiative Rolls

In this case, the players first write down what they want to do on that round, once all are done, they share it. This gives the DM a chance to review the actions and assign additional bonuses and penalties.

With these in hand, each player rolls a 1d20 called the Secret Initiative Roll. Yes. They have to keep that roll secret. Just that, I think, is going to be complicated 99% of the time at my table. But well... that's an interesting concept none the less, especially because when the rolls are done by computer, this method works great (except for the exceptions to bonuses and penalties imposed by the DM which need to be entered manually each time!)

Once everyone has rolled their die and written down the total of their die roll and bonuses/penalties, the DM calls out each number in decreasing number starting at 30. If someone has that number, it is their turn.

Side Note: you better believe that your players are trustworthy and won't add a +5 bonus each time...

If two people have a tie, then break the tie by allowing the person with the highest Dexterity modifier to go first. If both have the same Dexterity, re-roll the dice and the highest go first.

This allows for much less side effects between character actions since the action is decided in secret by each character ahead of time. But I'm not so sure that really makes sense. Especially, I think that if you get two fighters who slash at the same skeleton, if the first fighter kills the skeleton, it does not really make sense to expect that the second fighter would just sit there and do nothing.

Oh! I'm stunned! You kill that monster before I could act!

I guess I'd have to have a try one day.

My Feelings About This Secret Initiative

I have not tried this version of the game. I think that the players should work as a team and not be all secretive about what they want to do. Frankly, I had players who talk to each others a lot and come up with great plans, and I had others who just have fun doing whatever they want to do in total chaos. Both methods are great but as far as a Role Playing Game goes, I think teaming up with your partners is more valuable and gives you better lessons on what's to do and not to do in various situations.

This is because teamwork can results in much greater power. For example, my players took about 1 hour to discuss how to get some mommy samples and nearly got killed... but they did team work, those who could still move saved the others from certain death (actual death, not just unconsciousness, which they already attained.) Although they could have taken down the Mummy Lord by attacking it directly in its sarcophagus, they had oil and fireballs, so between that, a surpsie attack, all hitting a non-moving enemy, it would have been kill in 2 rounds!

All that said, having such a system computer aided might very well work. First of all, the computer can keep the order secret (at least for the player characters) and you can be sure that the 1d20 roll was not tempered with. The only drawback is that you cannot really ensure that all the bonuses and penalty were properly taken in account unless you learn (as the DM) of all the actions the players are going to take on that round before the computer calculates the next round Initiative Order. But then that means the actions don't remain secret.

Special Case: Rogue 17th Level

There is a special case for Rogues that reach 17th level. Unless surprised they get a second full turn on the first round and the position of the second turn is his original initiative minus 10.

I have more info about this one on the page.

Compatibility with Turn Watcher™

The Initiative Order and system of combat is similar enough to 3.5e for Turn Watcher™ to work well with D&D 5e.

Turn Watcher does not support the special initiatives:

  • Initiative Score—if you are going to use the Initiative Score then you probably don't even need Turn Watcher since the order won't change much for you... (only when a creature decides to Ready an action.)
  • Side Initiative—this one too, if you are going to use the good old way of Original Dungeons & Dragons, then you probably don't need Turn Watcher; this is simple enough, both team roll a 1d20 and the one with the highest plays first, there is nothing to track really... the Ready action is probably not useful in this case, though.
  • Speed Factor—the basics of this special Initiative Roll are encompassed in the Ultra Initiative of Turn Watcher. We do not directly support the bonuses although it would be relatively easy to move a few characters and monsters to adjust the order, it would be tedious if you have to do it on each round! But if you're okay to ignore the bonuses, Turn Watcher will work as is for you.
  • Rogue Initiative—not supported at all, you will have to pay attention on where the Rogue will act the second time... it's only for the first round, so it should not be too hard!

A small graphic marking the end of the paragraph

  • 1. The Dungeon Master's Guide offers an option to make the Proficiency less predictable: use a 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12. In that case, your Initiative Roll would be rolling the 1d20 + proficiency die + 1.