Initiative Doesn't Matter (Except When It Does)

March 29, 2019

Roll Initiative! This is an exhilarating moment for any table. Battle is almost always a memorable moment at every session. However, memorable doesn’t always mean important. In previous editions of DnD, a high initiative could turn a difficult fray into an easy skirmish with a poor roll against Hold Person and other effect spells. With the simplified ruleset and easy of play changes, many spell effects don’t hold the same weight as past editions. However, manipulating initiative and optimizing it to best suit your needs can take your party from a bunch of hacking and slashing individuals to a well-oiled machine capable of taking on anything.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e is the preferred ruleset around Ink and Lyre. It’s also what we use in our home game. Let me preface everything with a simple statement: Every party is different, every situation is unique, and my experience with these strategies may or may not be right for your group. Also, only one of these strategies involves rolling as high as possible, all of these strategies involve rolling relative to others in your party or the enemy.

  1. Wizards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks should always go first. If you have chosen to know more than anyone else, been born with powers no one else has, or literally sold your soul to obtain powers from the beyond, you are likely passionate about being better than everyone else. Your preferred initiative reflects that. Without the ability to heal anyone, the versatility to buff your friends (Haste), hamper you foe (Hex), or toss a fireball before your Barbarian charges in, there are very few situations where a lower initiative would be valuable for you.
  2. Barbarians, Monks, Paladins or Melee Fighters; Don’t worry about rolling high. Worry about out-rolling the big bad. Specifically, getting the opportunity to move first is what’s actually paramount. One of two advantages are yours if you attack first. You either get to define where the battle will take place or if they run, they trigger an attack of opportunity. This allows for an extra attack in the action economy.
  3. Bards, Druids, Rangers, or ranged Fighters, your place in the initiative order is irrelevant. Your sole purpose in battle is to do massive amounts of damage to as many enemies as possible. It doesn’t matter when that happens. Many of the buff spells that would help you should have already been cast. You can effectively utilize your skill set no matter where you are. So, don’t sweat it!
  4. Rogues, dead last ideally. Sneak Attack is the most powerful weapon in a Rogue’s arsenal. It often takes help from your friends to use. You benefit from letting everyone else run in first, distracting the enemy, or letting that Warlock cast Blindness while waiting in the shadows for the opportune time to strike. Either start the fighting by attacking first with surprise. You could also hide or roll a natural one and bring major pain to the big bad.
  5. Clerics and EMT’s should go immediately following the biggest enemy. Of all the party roles, the initiative your healer has can seriously change how the battle unfolds against deadlier opponents. For instance, let’s say the Cleric rolls a 15 and the Big Bad rolled a 14. As the battle progresses and the Big Bad begins knocking friends, everyone has to go before the healer can bring them back up. So, they make death saving throws, or worse, automatically fail when a minion or legendary action strikes them. All of this before you can do anything, and worse, they lose their action by being unconscious. However, if the opposite initiative is true, your unconscious player is a healing word away from standing to fire an arrow and drink a potion while you run to another and raise them with Cure Wounds. All of a sudden, that Fire Giant who keeps pummeling your party seems a little less frightening.

What did we learn from all this? The quality of your initiative roll is judged by your role in the party and how you rolled in relation to the enemies. You might be saying to yourself “All of this is great information but the roll is still random, what can I do to change it?” I’m glad you asked. As a player, your initiative modifier is born from you dexterity. So, if you want to roll higher increase that. Also, the Alert feat allows a character to immediately gain a +5 so it might not be the first feat you think of for your Wizard but could be an effective one. Some class features, like Feral Instinct for Barbarians, give advantage on initiative. The Rod of Alertness, Sentinel Shield, or Weapon of Warding are examples of magic items that give an advantage as well. As a dungeon master, consider implementing a simple homebrew rule that allows players to add OR subtract their initiative modifier. This could really add some tactical thought to an otherwise random event at the beginning of battle.