A Guide on How Initiative Works in 5e, Warrior with an axe on a boat approaching flying dragons

A Complete Guide on How to Calculate Initiative in 5e

You’ve probably heard the phrase "roll for initiative" tossed around even if you’re not fully into D&D quite yet. When it comes to comes to starting a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition game with new players, it can be overwhelming to keep track of all the various rules and mechanics. A crucial mechanic to running smooth combat encounters is tracking initiative order and understanding how initiative works.
What does "initiative" mean in D&D 5e? How does it work? And, how do you calculate it?
This guide goes over everything you need to know about the rules for initiative in 5th Edition D&D.

First off, let’s go over the rules-as-written for initiative in the Player’s Handbook.

What Is Initiative in D&D 5e?

Initiative in 5e is a mechanic for establishing turn order between player and non-player characters. Whenever you begin a combat encounter, and sometimes during other situations at the Game Master’s discretion, all players and the GM make an initiative roll to determine turn order.

At its most basic, initiative in 5e determines turn order for creatures during an encounter. Usually, this applies to combats as the rules for initiative actually comes from Chapter 9: Combat in the Player’s Handbook:

Initiative determines the order of turns during combat. When combat starts, every participant makes a Dexterity check to determine their place in the initiative order. The DM makes one roll for an entire group of identical creatures, so each member of the group acts at the same time.
The DM ranks the combatants in order from the one with the highest Dexterity check total to the one with the lowest. This is the order (called the initiative order) in which they act during each round. The initiative order remains the same from round to round.
If a tie occurs, the DM decides the order among tied DM-controlled creatures, and the players decide the order among their tied characters. The DM can decide the order if the tie is between a monster and a player character. Optionally, the DM can have the tied characters and monsters each roll a d20 to determine the order, highest roll going first.

Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules – Chapter 9: Combat

So, initiative order is simply a descending turn order for creatures during a combat encounter. That said, the rules state each individual creature has its own place in initiative order, but many Game Masters, myself included, tend to group like-monsters together while the player characters each get their own place.

For example, a party of 4 player characters engage in combat with a gang of 5 goblins headed by a goblin boss. The initiative order may end up looking something like this:

  1. Player character 1: Init. 19
  2. Goblin boss: Init. 17
  3. Player character 2: Init. 16
  4. Goblins (all): Init. 11
  5. Player character 3: Init. 9
  6. Player character 4: Init. 4

If each regular goblin had its own place in the initiative order, it becomes much harder to track. Yes, it might have less variety, but it’s much easier to track.

Is Initiative an Ability Check?

Rolling for initiative in D&D 5e counts as a Dexterity Ability Check. So, abilities which influence Ability Checks also affect initiative rolls.

The rules for initiative outright state "every participant makes a Dexterity check," so it counts as an ability check for the purpose of class features, spells, feats, and other abilities. As such, you’re technically making a Dexterity Ability Check at the start of an encounter.

How Do You Roll for Initiative?

To roll for initiative in D&D 5e, simply roll a 20-sided die (d20) and add your initiative modifier. Usually, this means adding your Dexterity Ability Score modifier but some features, spells, and other abilities can alter these rolls further.

Rolling for initiative in 5e isn’t any different from any other Dexterity Ability Check. The steps are all the same:

  1. Roll a 20-sided die
  2. Add your initiative bonus / Dexterity modifier to your roll
  3. Add any other modifiers
  4. The total equals your initiative roll

The difference between other Dexterity checks and initiative rolls is the former have a Difficulty Class to beat while the latter are comparative amongst all participants in an encounter.

How to Track Initiative in 5e

Group of warriors about to enter combat

The traditional method for tracking initiative in 5e is to follow a descending turn order. You can do this through a variety of methods either on paper, with clips, or digital tools.

Generally and by default, the Game Master tracks initiative from highest total to lowest across either all creatures involved or by groups of creatures and the player characters. The highest roll indicates a creature most prepared to act during an encounter, so they take their turn first, then the next and so on. After the creature or creatures with the lowest initiative finishes their turn, the next round starts at the top of initiative (back to the highest initiative roll) and proceeds back down the list.

Some ways for tracking initiative in 5e include:

  • By hand in a written list
  • Homemade trackers (clothespins, poker chips, etc)
  • Online tools (like this one by kastark)
  • Third-party, physical trackers

Now, one trick I’ve learned as a Game Master is to have one of your players track initiative. You should choose someone who can keep track of the list easily, but it helps in engaging at least 1 player for the encounter. Honestly, giving your players little jobs across the table helps keep them engaged in the game in general, so look for other opportunities like tracking initiative.

How to Calculate Initiative in 5e

To calculate a creature’s base initiative modifier in 5e, simply use their Dexterity Ability Score modifier. However, be sure to include any other modifiers or abilities which may apply on a case-by-case basis.

Determining your initiative bonus is actually super easy for D&D 5e. Generally, it’s equal to your Dexterity modifier, so that’s all you need to add to your d20 roll when you enter an encounter.

Here’s the formula for calculating your initiative bonus in 5e:

1d20 Roll + Dexterity Ability Score Modifier + Other Modifiers

We’ll get into other modifiers later as they play a part in increasing your initiative bonus.

When to Roll for Initiative in 5e

2 warriors ambushed by wolves in a forest

Generally, you’ll roll for initiative at the start of a combat encounter. However, you can use the rules for initiative in 5e to add structures to other encounters throughout your game.

While the rules for initiative are meant for combat, you can use initiative for almost any type of encounter. When you roll depends on the type of encounter. That said, you can use the rules for initiative for any of the following types of encounters:

  • Combat
  • Exploration
  • Social
  • Chases


Combat is the most common situation in which you make an initiative roll. In fact, the rules for initiative come from the rules for combat in the Player’s Handbook.

The rules for initiative in 5e come from the chapter for running combat encounters. As such, you’ll probably mostly use the rules for initiative for fights.

Essentially, this means rolling for initiative once a combat encounter starts and following the order as player characters, monsters, and NPCs attack each other until either side isn’t standing anymore or a specific goal is achieved.

This is the most basic way to use initiative in 5e. Everyone rolls for initiative and each creature takes their turn in order until the combat ends.

Some common times when to roll for initiative to start a combat encounter include:

  • Attacking another creature
  • Casting a spell which affects a potentially hostile creature
  • Insulting an aggressive non-player character
  • Making a surprise attack
  • Agreeing to a fight
  • Drawing a weapon during a tense conversation
  • Walking into an ambush

Of course, this isn’t exhaustive. Any form of aggression could result in a combat encounter, which means rolling for initiative can happen during almost any tense situation.


You can use initiative if you want to ensure all player characters can act while exploring an area. This may make exploration take longer, but it prevents player characters from rushing ahead or bogarting the session by doing everything themselves.

Using initiative during exploration helps ensure 1 player isn’t wandering off on their own or inserting themselves into every event that happens. What’s more, it means the player characters can actually engage with the dungeon on their own terms.

Some instances when you can use an initiative order during an exploration sequence in your D&D game include:

  • Dungeon crawls
  • Forest paths
  • Building investigations

Now, I will way, using initiative to explore makes these encounters take much longer than running them freely. Additionally, it can get a bit boring when the characters are simply moving from area to area.

An added bonus to running exploration during exploration is you have a pre-established combat initiative when the player characters finally run into hostile creatures. As a Game Master, all you have to do is work the enemies into the initiative order to start the combat.

Personally, I’ve used initiative to add structure to dungeon crawls, but I understand it’s not for every table. I like the additional structure, but the wandering portions can be difficult to manage. My suggestion is to make sure something is either coming up or currently happening to keep the session going. Wandering monsters is a great way to make sure exploration doesn’t get too boring, but traps, ominous noises, or a time limit like flooding all add urgency to exploration especially if you’re running it in initiative.


Using initiative for social encounters is more uncommon, but if you want to treat a social encounter more like a battle, you can use the rules for initiative to add some structure to important conversations.

This is a weird use for initiative in 5e. Social encounters tend to be free-flowing with the characters and NPCs going back-and-forth in their conversation or discussion.

However, you can treat a social encounter like a combat encounter where, instead of attacks, the player characters engage in a structured conversation. Now, "structured" is a loose descriptor here. Not every social encounter is a debate, but any time a character wants to deceive, intimidate, or persuade an NPC, that can be treated as their action or bonus action for their turn. Likewise, any spells or class features which influence another creature for the benefit of a social encounter have a better established time limit.

Spells intended for social encounters often have a specified duration. But, even as a GM, I’ve found keeping that time limit in mind is difficult at best. Establishing and running a social encounter with initiative gives you a better idea for how long any given effect lasts.


Chases are a special type of encounter which generally benefit from using initiative. During a chase, the turn order helps determine what creatures do to either extend their lead or advance more quickly on their target.

Now, chases are essentially a special type of combat encounter. The differences is the goal is usually to stop a hostile creature from getting away for whatever reason. Aside from that, initiative works the exact same way for a chase as a traditional fight; all participants roll to determine their place in initiative order and the chase proceeds round-by-round with each creature taking their turn in succession.

Like creating engaging combat encounters, these encounters give GMs an opportunity to add obstacles to make chases more interesting. Generally, these obstacles would happen at certain points along the chase, but you can also use specific initiative counts to introduce an obstacle the player characters must overcome to maintain their distance to their target.

How to Increase Your Character’s Initiative Bonus

Players have a variety of options for improving their characters’ initiative bonuses.

Increasing your character’s initiative bonus works much like any other improvement for their Ability Checks. Of course, D&D 5e has features and abilities which directly improve or buff a creature’s initiative bonus, but many methods for improving it are more indirect; buffing ability checks in general or their Dexterity alone.

Here are some of the ways players may increase their character’s initiative bonus:

  1. Increase your Dexterity modifier
  2. Select a class with a feature which benefits your initiative
  3. Prepare spells which buff ability checks
  4. Choose certain feats to boost your Dexterity or buff ability checks
  5. Search for certain magic items

Let’s go over each of these starting with the most direct way for improving your initiative rolls: increase your Dexterity Ability Score modifier.

Ability Score Improvements Into Dexterity

The most direct way to improve your character’s initiative bonus is to improve their Dexterity Ability Score. Your initiative bonus uses your Dexterity modifier as the default, so increasing your score to even numbers means adding another +1 to your initiative.

Since your character’s initiative bonus is directly tied to their Dexterity modifier, increasing your Dexterity Ability Score to even numbers also improves your initiative. Of course, this means either building a character with a high Dexterity score during character creation or using your regular Ability Score Improvements to increase it. Otherwise, certain feats or magic items could also add a buff to your Dexterity and, likewise, your initiative.

As a reminder, here’s a list showing when an Ability Score’s modifier increases so you can know when your initiative bonus would go up:

  1. Ability Score 1: -5
  2. Ability Score 2-3: -4
  3. Ability Score 4-5: -3
  4. Ability Score 6-7: -2
  5. Ability Score 8-9: -1
  6. Ability Score 10-11: +0
  7. Ability Score 12-13: +1
  8. Ability Score 14-15: +2
  9. Ability Score 16-17: +3
  10. Ability Score 18-19: +4
  11. Ability Score 20: +5

For example, your base initiative bonus with a Dexterity of 10 would be +0 but +3 if you have a 17 in it instead.

Racial Traits

D&D 5e has a few races which offer innate traits which benefit your character’s initiative bonus.

Now, there aren’t that many racial traits for buffing your character’s initiative rolls. What’s more, there’s only one which directly does so. Also, I’m not counting the default Ability Score Increases since, with the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, your character’s race or lineage doesn’t dictate these bonuses anymore.

It’s important to note; if you’re going to build a character with a good initiative bonus or to buff initiative rolls, you have to make this decision at character creation. Unlike a lot of other ways for improving your initiative rolls, you can’t modify your racial traits over the course of the game (unless your GM lets you change your race at some point). So, this is decision you make before the game.

With that out of the way, here are the racial traits which improve your character’s initiative rolls in 5e:

  • Autognome: Built for Success – Add 1d4 to an ability check
  • Dhampir: Vampiric Bite – Add a flat bonus to next ability check equal to bite damage
  • Halfling: Lucky – Reroll 1s on ability checks
  • Harengon: Hare-Trigger – Add proficiency bonus to initiative rolls

Class Features

Some classes grant a direct bonus to your character’s initiative bonus. Building your character with one of these classes can give you an edge on acting earlier in the turn order.

As it turns out, every class has some way for buffing your character’s initiative rolls. That said, the trick is these buffs are only available to certain subclasses. So, if you’re building a character with an inordinately good initiative bonus or rolls, you’ll have to build them according to those subclasses.

Here are the class features which improve your character’s initiative bonus or rolls:

  • Artificer: Artificer Infusions (Helm of Awareness): – Advantage on initiative rolls
  • Artificer: Flash of Genius – Add Intelligence modifier to ability check
  • Barbarian: Feral Instinct – Advantage on initiative rolls
  • Barbarian (Path of Wild Magic): Bolstering Magic – Add 1d3 to ability check
  • Bard: Bardic Inspiration – Add Bardic Inspiration die to ability check
  • Bard (College of Creation): Note of Potential – Can reroll Bardic Inspiration die for ability check
  • Bard (College of Lore): Peerless Skill – Can add Bardic Inspiration die to ability check
  • Cleric (Peace Domain): Emboldening Bond – Add 1d4 to ability check if close to bonded creature
  • Cleric (Twilight Domain): Vigliant Blessing – Advantage on initiative next initiative roll
  • Druid (Circle of Starts): Cosmic Omen (Weal) – Add 1d6 to ability check
  • Fighter (Battle Master Archetype): Battle Master Maneuvers (Ambush) – Add 1 superiority die to initiative roll
  • Fighter (Champion Archetype): Remarkable Athlete – Add half proficiency bonus to Dexterity checks that don’t already use proficiency bonus
  • Fighter (Rune Knight Archetype): Rune Carver (Storm Rune) – Advantage on an ability check as a reacion
  • Monk (Way of the Drunken Master): Drunkard’s Luck – Negate disadvantage on an ability check
  • Paladin (Oath of the Watchers): Aura of the Sentinel – Add proficiency bonus to initiative bonus
  • Ranger (Gloom Stalker Conclave): Dread Ambusher – Add Wisdom modifier to initiative bonus
  • Rogue: Reliable Talent – If you can add proficiency to an ability check, treat a 9 or lower on a d20 roll as a 10
  • Rogue (Scout Archetype): Ambush Master – Advantage on initiative rolls
  • Rogue (Swashbuckler Archetype): Rakish Audacity – Add Charisma modifier to initiative bonus
  • Sorcerer (Clockwork Soul Origin): Trance of Order – Treat ability check rolls of 9 or lower on a d20 as 10
  • Sorcerer (Wild Magic Origin): Tides of Chaos – Advantage on one ability check
  • Sorcerer (Wild Magic Origin): Bend Luck – Add 1d4 to one ability check
  • Warlock (Fiend Patron): Dark One’s Own Luck – Add 1d10 to one ability check
  • Wizard (Chronurgy Magic): Chronal Shift – Force a creature to reroll an ability check
  • Wizard (Chronurgy Magic): Temporal Awareness – Add Intelligence modifier to initiative bonus
  • Wizard (School of Divination): Portent – Can use a higher d20 roll for an ability check determined at the end of a long rest
  • Wizard (War Magic): Tactical Wit – Add Intelligence modifier to initiative bonus


D&D 5e has a variety of spells for improving ability checks, so these spells can also improve your character’s or your allies’ initiative rolls.

There actually aren’t that many spells which improve your character’s initiative rolls. A surprisingly few spells buff ability checks in any way, so your options as a spellcaster are limited. But, that isn’t to say you have no options.

Here are the spells you can cast in 5e for buffing either your or an ally character’s initiative rolls:

  • Guidance (cantrip): – Add 1d4 to next ability check
  • Gift of Alacrity (1st-level): – Add 1d8 to initiative rolls
  • Enhance Ability (Cat’s Grace) (2nd-level): – Advantage on Dexterity ability checks
  • Foresight (9th-level): – Advantage on all ability checks


There are few feats which directly improve your initiative rolls. However, any of the half-feats which grant a bonus to your character’s Dexterity can also help.

Honestly, the Alert feat is the best option for increasing your character’s initiative bonus. It’s the only feat which explicitly improves a character’s initiative rolls, but you have other options which indirectly help.

Here is a list of feats you can give your character in 5e to help improve their initiative rolls:

  • Adept of the Red Robes: Treat ability check rolls of 9 or lower on a d20 as 10
  • Alert: +5 to initiative bonus
  • Athlete: Option to add +1 to Dexterity
  • Gunner: +1 to Dexterity
  • Knight of the Crown: Option to add +1 to Dexterity
  • Lightly Armored: Option to add +1 to Dexterity
  • Lucky: Can roll an additional d20 on an ability check and choose which die to use
  • Moderately Armored: Option to add +1 to Dexterity
  • Piercer: Option to add +1 to Dexterity
  • Resilient: Option to add +1 to Dexterity
  • Skill Expert: Option to add +1 to Dexterity
  • Slasher: Option to add +1 to Dexterity
  • Weapon Master: Option to add +1 to Dexterity

Remember; a good number of these feats (a vast majority, in fact) don’t directly improve a character’s initiative bonus or rolls. Instead, they can improve initiative rolls by increasing a character’s Dexterity Ability Score modifier, as mentioned earlier.

Magic Items

Any magic items which buff your ability checks are good for improving your initiative rolls. Of course, whether these items are available or not is entirely up to the Game Master.

Magic items are the least reliable way for improving your character’s initiative rolls. You have to rely on the adventure you’re playing through to even have the opportunity to get them. Even then, you have to contend with the other player characters to determine who gets what.

Of course, as a player, you can ask your Game Master to feature any of these specific magic items if you really want to find one for your character. Likewise, as a GM, you can have the power to add any of these magic items to your campaign wherever you want.

Anyway, here’s a list of magic items which can improve a player character’s initiative rolls in 5e:

  • Blackrazor: Advantage on ability checks with temporary hit points
  • Candle of Invocation: Advantage on ability checks if creature matches candle’s alignment
  • Dragon-Touched Focus: Advantage on initiative rolls
  • Harkon’s Bite: +1 bonus to ability checks
  • Ioun Stone (Agility): +2 to Dexterity score
  • Manual of Quickness of Action: +2 to Dexterity score
  • Order of the Silver Dragon Shield: +2 bonus to initiatve rolls
  • Peregrine Mask: Advantage on initiative rolls
  • Potion of Advantage: Advantage on an ability check
  • Rod of Alterness: Advantage on initiative rolls
  • Scorpion Armor: +5 bonus to initiative rolls
  • Sentinel Shield: Advantage on initiative rolls
  • Stone of Good Luck (Luckstone): +1 bonus to ability checks
  • Sword of Kas: Add 1d10 to initiaitive rolls
  • Wave: Advantage on initiative rolls
  • Weapon of Warning: Advantage on initiative rolls

Alternatives to Standard Initiative

2 fencers squaring off before a duel

There are a variety of alternatives to traditional initiative tracking in D&D 5e. Bear in mind, these are all homebrew alternatives, so your usage may vary depending on your players.

The standard way for progressing through initiative is all participants roll, take turns in descending order, and once everyone has taken a turn, initiative starts over from the top with the highest roll. This works fairly well on its own, but many Game Masters have their own preferences and alternatives for initiative in 5e.

Some of alternatives to 5e’s initiative include:

  • Use a passive initiative score instead of rolling
  • Run initiative according to "sides"
  • Let creatures involved in a combat choose the next creature to take a turn
  • Roll initiative after every round instead of once at the start of an encounter
  • Proceed in descending order, then by ascending order, and so on

Of course, these are the only alternatives to initiative in 5e. There are as many variants as there are GMs who don’t like using standard initiative. So, this isn’t an exhaustive list.

Anyway, let’s go over these initiative variants so you get an idea of how they work.

Passive Initiative Score

Instead of rolling for initiative in 5e, you can use a passive initiative score. This score usually equals 10 + a creature’s initiative bonus which means creatures that are naturally more agile or have additional bonuses get to act earlier more consistently.

This alternative caters more to players who prioritize going early in combat. Essentially, instead of rolling for initiative, every creature has a static passive initiative score. This passive score usually equals 10 + a creature’s Dexterity modifier + any other modifiers, so creatures with a higher Dexterity will tend to go first.

You may want to play around with this method of determining initiative as it validates characters who do prioritize going first or earlier in combat by letting take their turns quicker, more consistently. Even creature’s with a good initiative bonus can roll poorly, making their usual tactics in combat encounters less effective. Using passive initiative scores addresses these concerns and rewards players for their specific builds.

Side Initiative

Rather than each creature acting in order of initiative, the player characters and their allies and Game Master-controlled hostile creatures each count as a "side," The side with the highest number goes first and then each creature on that side goes in order of their individual initiative rolls.

Side initiative works in much the same way as standard initiative. The difference is, after all participants in an encounter roll for initiative, the creatures involved get divided into "sides" or teams, usually this means the player characters and their allies on one side and all hostile creatures on the other. The side with the highest initiative roll goes first and then initiative progress in descending order on that side first. Once the first side finishes taking their turns, the other side then takes turns in descending order.

While side initiative usually only features 2 teams, you could introduce others if you have multiple factions involved in an encounter.

Honestly, this variant for running initiative in 5e is wildly chaotic. Effectively, the side that goes first has a big advantage over the other. If the player characters go first, there’s a good chance they’ll take out all enemies fairly quickly. On the other hand, if the hostile creatures go first, a couple player characters may get knocked out.

"Popcorn" Initiative

Popcorn initiative is a unique way to run an encounter as there is no "initiative order." Instead, the creature that rolled the highest initiative goes first and then chooses which creature goes after their turn. That creature then chooses the next creature and so on until all creatures in the encounter take a turn.

This is one of the weirder initiative alternatives in 5e. Basically, you start an encounter as normal with all involved participants rolling for initiative. But, you don’t actually track initiative in any order. Instead, the creature that rolls the highest initiative takes their turn and then chooses the next creature to take a turn. That creature then chooses the next and so on until all creatures have taken a turn. Once all creatures have taken a turn, the last creature then chooses who starts the next round and they can choose themselves.

Effectively, popcorn initiative can help player characters establish and actually execute plans without the chance of those plans not working due to shifting battlefield states. Likewise, Game Masters can use their own strategies and tactics for hostile creatures. The end result is a potentially more fulfilling encounter with less administration through tracking a numerical order.

Round-Based Initiative

For round-based initiative, instead of making one initiative roll at the start of the encounter, creatures roll for initiative at the start of each round. This makes the encounter more dynamic as the turn order changes from round-to-round depending on the rolls.

Round-based initiative works like standard initiative at the start but differs in subsequent rounds. When an encounter begins, all participants roll initiative and take turns in descending order as normal. But, once the next round begins, all creature’s involved roll initiative again for the new round and follow that order. This process repeats until the encounter ends.

This initiative alternative makes encounters a bit more dynamic as the order player characters and NPCs take turns in can vary round-to-round. But, since it otherwise follows the typical methods for tracking initiative, it may be easier for your table to understand.

Yo-Yo Initiative

Yo-yo initiative starts as standard initiative. However, after the last creature in the order takes their turn, the next round starts at the bottom of the initiative order and proceeds in ascending order.

Basically, all yo-yo initiative does is follow the regular rules for rolling initiative, going in descending order for the first round of an encounter, then going in ascending order for the next round. So, for all odd-numbered rounds, creatures take their turns from highest initiative roll to lowest. But, for all even-numbered rounds, they take turns from lowest to highest.

Let’s look at an example with 4 player characters and a gang of goblins (grouped together in initiative) headed by a Goblin Boss:

  1. Round 1
    1. Player character 1
    2. Player character 2
    3. Goblin Boss
    4. Player character 3
    5. Goblins
    6. Player character 4
  2. Round 2
    1. Player character 4
    2. Goblins
    3. Player character 3
    4. Goblin Boss
    5. Player character 2
    6. Player character 1
  3. Round 3
    1. Player character 1
    2. Player character 2
    3. Goblin Boss
    4. Player character 3
    5. Goblins
    6. Player character 4

Of course, Round 4 would then reverse the order again and so on and so forth until the encounter ends.

This variant for initiative in 5e doesn’t really have much of a basis other than leveling the turn orders over the course of lengthy encounters. If effectively makes everyone’s initiative roll equal in a certain sense since rolling lower means going later in odd-numbered rounds but earlier in even-numbered ones. That said, it gives way to interesting tactical choices for both the players and Game Master.

Initiative 5e FAQ

Is Initiative Only for Combat?

Initiative in 5e is primarily used for combat encounters, but you can use it for other situations when you want a bit more structure.

The rules for initiative in D&D 5e are written for combat encounters. However, as with many aspects of Dungeons & Dragons, you can use those rules for other encounters if you want
more structure.

Exploration may take a bit longer if taken in initiative order, but it allows each player character to interact with the environment without fear of one player rushing ahead or hogging the limelight. Likewise, you may want to use initiative during social encounters to for debates or other conversations as those involved go back-and-forth conversing with each other, perhaps attempting to deceive or intimidate the other. What’s more, you can use initiative to determine a creature’s readiness; for example, if 2 creature’s a grappling with each other and lunge for a fallen sword, maybe they need to roll for initiative to see who makes it to the weapon first.

What Does "Initiative Count 20" Mean in D&D?

"Initiative count 20" simply means the effect happens as if it rolled a 20 for initiative.

Whenever an ability or effect states it takes place on "initiative count 20," or any other number, it simply means that effect happens as if it rolled a 20 for its initiative roll.

Here’s an example of how the initiative order would look during an encounter with 4 player characters and an aboleth that has lair actions on initiative count 20:

  1. Player character 1: 22
  2. Aboleth Lair Action: 20
  3. Player character 2: 19
  4. Aboleth: 16
  5. Player character 3: 11
  6. Player character 4:: 7

In this example, Player character 1 takes their turn and then the aboleth can take a lair action. The aboleth doesn’t roll initiative for its lair actions because its stat block specifically states they happen on initiative count 20.

Is Initiative a Skill in 5e?

Initiative is not a skill in 5e. Skills are the specific things creatures can do like Athletics or Perception. However, initiative does count as an Ability Check.

It’s as simple as that. Initiative does not count as a skill in D&D 5e since those are their own specific mechanic. So, abilities and effects which affect skills won’t affect initiative rolls.

Can You Use Inspiration for Initiative?

Yes, you can use your Inspiration die for initiative in 5e. The rules for Inspiration let you use the die for Ability Checks, which means they can get used for an initiative roll.

Inspiration’s rules explicitly allow a player character to use the granted d20 for an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check. Since initiative counts as an ability check, you can use an Inspiration die for it.

What Happens If You Tie in Initiative in 5e?

If 2 creatures tie in initiative in 5e, the way for dealing with it depends on which creature’s tied. For monsters and hostile creatures, the Game Master determines which creature or creatures go first. Players can decide who goes first if their characters tie in initiative. If a player character and GM-controlled creature tie, the Game Master can decide or have the tied creatures roll to see who goes first.

Basically, there are 3 situations for ties in initiative in 5e:

  • Between hostile creatures & NPCs
  • Between player characters
  • Between hostile creatures and player characters

Each works in basically the same way with slight differences between them.

Initiative Tie Between Hostile Creatures & NPCs
The Game Master decides which hostile creatures go ahead of the others.
Initiative Tie Between Player Characters
The players decide who’s character goes first in initiative.
Initiative Tie Between Hostile Creatures & Player Characters
The Game Master decides who goes first between the tied NPCs and player characters.

This all said, it’s just as common for Game Masters to determine who goes first between initiative ties with a d20 roll. Whoever rolls highest, with or without modifiers, goes first.


Summary of Initiative in 5e

That about covers everything you should need to know about running initiative in D&D 5e.

Initiative is a ruleset for tracking player and non-player character turns. Usually, you’ll use this mechanic during combat encounters but it can get used to add more structure to others.
Players have a variety of options at their disposal for improving their character’s initiative bonus and Game Masters have a number of alternatives if the standard method doesn’t work exactly how they want.

How do you run initiative; do you use the standard method or an alternative? If you’ve used a variant; how did your players like it? Leave a comment below to help out your fellow Game Master’s and players!

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