Last Updated on January 22, 2023
When words can’t solve the problem, it’s time for combat!
In D&D 5e, players determine their initiative to figure out the order that everyone takes their turns in. It’s during this time that players begin to assess the battlefield and figure out what moves will be the best to keep themselves alive.
One of the things that are important to know for rolling initiative is your initiative bonus.
What is this bonus, and what factors into your bonus? Are there ways to improve this bonus so you can more reliably go first?
Figuring out how this bonus works will help you get a better drop on your foes in the worlds of D&D.
What is an Initiative Bonus?
The initiative bonus is a bonus that you add to your d20 roll when determining initiative. Much like other rolls in D&D 5e, you’ll roll a d20 and add all your relevant bonuses to determine your initiative score. The scores are then ordered from highest to lowest, and the highest values will go first!
The point of an initiative bonus is the same as any other bonus in D&D. Bonuses are meant to represent the character’s abilities to succeed despite the randomness of the world and the difficulty of their circumstances.
By having a higher bonus, you increase the odds that you succeed at what you want, while a lower bonus represents your character needing the circumstances to work in their favor more often.
When it comes to your initiative bonus, this is your character’s ability to react quickly to the danger around them.
Whether you flavor it as their enhanced reflexes or quick thinking, a character’s initiative bonus is their ability to go fast when swords are drawn and spells are conjured.
How To Calculate Your Initiative Bonus and Initiative Score
Rolling for initiative is simple in 5e. Unlike previous editions that had built-in modifiers to initiative, 5e has the players and monsters make a Dexterity ability check.
Roll a d20 and add your Dexterity modifier to the die result, even if it’s negative. Other modifiers can affect your initiative, but most characters will be making a normal Dexterity ability check.
Once you have your die roll result, add all your relevant bonuses to initiative to determine your initiative score.
For example, a rogue character with a Dexterity of 16 rolls initiative against a goblin that spotted them sneaking around.
Both the rogue and the goblin roll initiative as they draw their respective weapons. Neither of them has any special bonuses to initiative, so they both roll a d20 and add their Dexterity bonuses.
The rogue rolls a 13, giving them a 16 total after their +3 Dexterity modifier. However, the goblin rolls a 15, adding their +2 Dexterity modifier to get a total of 17. Despite sneaking around, it seems the rogue wasn’t quite ready to be spotted!
There’s a dedicated space for your initiative bonus on the character sheet, so make sure you record it there!
You want your bonus ready and available when you need to get combat started. If you need a refresher on how to calculate your initiative or initiative bonus, then check out pg. 64 of the Basic Rules PDF, which goes over the rules for making a Dexterity check for initiative.
Ways to Boost Your Initiative Bonus
D&D 5e doesn’t overcomplicate the rules often, so most initiative rolls will be a straight Dexterity ability check. However, there are ways that you can boost your initiative bonus to go earlier in the initiative order more reliably.
Have a High Dexterity Modifier
Since initiative is a Dexterity ability check, characters that boost their Dexterity score will naturally increase their initiative bonus. Since your modifiers for an ability score go up as you increase the ability score itself, characters with a high Dexterity will go first more often.
This is great news for classes that tend to rely on Dexterity as their main ability score, such as fighters, monks, rogues, and rangers. These classes love to get their Dexterity score maxed out to make their finesse weapon and archery attack rolls as high as possible.
However, other classes like barbarian or paladin have a hard time increasing their Dexterity since they traditionally use Strength as their attack stat of choice.
The Alert Feat
The Alert feat offers one of the highest and most immediate boosts to your initiative bonus. In addition to keeping you from being surprised, the Alert feat also lets you add +5 to your initiative bonus.
If you have a capped Dexterity stat, that means you can get an initiative bonus of up to +10. That’s double the normal bonus you could normally get, all for one feat!
Certain Class Features
Some classes have a way to add bonuses or other tricks to affect their initiative bonuses.
Here are the class features that affect initiative in the Player’s Handbook:
- Feral Instinct: This seventh-level feature for barbarians lets them gain advantage on their initiative rolls, taking the higher result of two d20s when they roll initiative. While it’s not a direct bonus, it does increase their chances of rolling a higher value on the d20 compared to other characters.
- Jack of All Trades: At second level, all bards get access to this feature that lets them add half of their proficiency bonus to ability checks that they aren’t proficient in. While most players think of skill checks with this feature, it also applies to initiative rolls.
Choosing the Right Subclass
Your subclass can determine your initiative bonus, too. While there aren’t many subclasses that boost initiative in the Player’s Handbook, some options exist in other books to increase your initiative bonus:
- Champion Fighter: Just like barbarians, Champion fighters have a feature at level seven to boost their initiative. This feature, called Remarkable Athlete, lets you add half of your proficiency bonus to Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution ability checks you don’t already have proficiency in, including initiative.
- Gloomstalker Ranger: At level three, this subclass from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has a feature called Dread Ambusher. This feature lets you add your Wisdom modifier to your initiative bonus.
- Chronurgy or War Magic Wizard: These two wizard subclasses are from Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Both of these have a class feature at level two that lets you add your Intelligence modifier to your initiative bonus.
- Swashbuckler Rogue: Another option from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, this subclass has a feature called Rakish Audacity, letting you add your Charisma modifier to your initiative bonus.
Magic can help with your initiative bonus, as well. Certain spells, when cast, let you gain bonuses to your initiative:
- Enhance Ability: This second-level spell lets you give checks associated with one of the six ability scores advantage on all rolls for up to an hour. If you choose Dexterity and have the spell up when initiative is called, you can roll two d20s and choose the better result.
- Foresight: This ninth-level spell is the king of granting advantage. All ability checks, including initiative rolls, have advantage while under the effect of this spell for eight hours.
- Gift of Alacrity: A newer spell from Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, this spell lets the target add the result of a d8 to their initiative rolls for the next eight hours.
- Guidance: While just a humble cantrip, this spell lets you add a d4 to an ability check. Since initiative is a Dexterity ability check, Guidance applies to initiative rolls.
Keeping Track of Initiative Order
With all of these ways to boost initiative, players have plenty of ways to make sure that they can go sooner in the initiative order.
However, for the DMs out there, keeping track of the initiative order is a different challenge. Most DMs have a way they prefer to keep things moving along, but here are some of the ways we see come up most often:
Hidden vs. Visible Lists
On pg. 247 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there’s a section about keeping a hidden initiative order list from the players. When you use a hidden list, you write down everyone’s initiative scores and order it, but don’t let the players have constant access to that information.
That secrecy means the players have to figure out what the order is on their own.
This method is useful if you’re trying to sneak enemies into the initiative order. Maybe some stealthy creature is stalking the fringes of the combat, waiting for one side to falter before swooping in to finish the job.
There also could be traps or features of the room that activate on certain initiative counts, such as lair actions for legendary monsters.
Regardless of the reason why, this method adds some drama into the fights, but can also slow things down when players have to talk out their turn order while planning.
Index or Playing Cards
For groups that play at the table, writing things out on a list might not be easy. If you want to do something more visible for the party, then index or playing cards with numbers on them could help.
Have all the players and monsters roll initiative, and then pass out cards in initiative order. So, the creature with the highest bonus would go first, the second-highest would be second, and so on.
Do that until everyone has a card, and play the combat out from there.
With this method, there’s no doubt or secrecy about when a player or creature is going. Players can create tactics on the fly and coordinate much easier with the initiative order known. This can help turn the combat into something more like a puzzle than a chaotic scrum.
Virtual Tabletop Tools
Many players have turned to virtual tabletops (VTTs) to keep their games going or to expand the players they can meet and have fun with.
The nice thing about many VTTs is that they can automate a lot of the bookkeeping of D&D 5e for you, making it easier to keep track of your character’s capabilities. Your initiative bonus is one of those things.
For the DMs, many VTTs also have an initiative tracker built into them. Players will roll their initiative off of their character sheets and then have those totals added into the VTT’s initiative tracker.
You can sort most of these trackers from highest to lowest or vice versa. Some VTTs even offers alphabetical ordering for their trackers!
Many modern DMs will bring along a laptop or tablet with them to run their games at the table. That way, they can search their books and notes with software, rather than thumbing through the physical books for the right page.
If you use electronics to run your game, there are some websites out there that can track initiative for you. Once your players have rolled for initiative, you can add their names, initiative totals, and other needed info into the tracker. From there, you’ll be able to follow along with the order from that tab in your web browser.
If you want to make the list public for the players, you can attach your laptop or tablet to another screen or TV. From there, share that tab with them by putting only that browser tab on the new display. Just make sure to not accidentally share your notes with the players!
Initiative is a part of the rules of D&D that both players and DMs should understand well. It’s the way that we determine the order for combat turns and represents a creature’s reaction time. Overall, initiative will help ensure that you go earlier in the turn order and affect the battle in the way you want to.
There are lots of ways to boost your bonuses to initiative rolls, including class features and spells. Mixing these bonuses with an understanding of the rules and importance of initiative, and you can make sure your character is ready no matter what the dangers of the dungeon may bring to them!
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Rich is an avid D&D player and DM. He has been playing since the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st and 2nd editions. He has run campaigns of various editions with family and friends for over 20 years. Playing DnD 5th Edition in person at local game stores and online with VTT’s over the past 10 years has provided a consistent connection to how the game has grown. He strongly believes in understanding the source material, but catering the games to your individual players. Feel free to ask anything in the comments or drop him an email: [email protected].