DMG’s variant rules: Combat Options: Initiative Variants

Initiative, organizing everyone’s 6 seconds of a combat round – so that everything doesn’t happen all at once.

Initiative can be very important, especially for the Rogue Assassin with their extra abilities that only work if they go before other combatants.
The Players Handbook lists the Initiative as a Dexterity check.

Initiative in Using Each Ability PHB page 177
At the beginning of every combat, you roll initiative by making a Dexterity check. Initiative determines the order of creatures’ turns in combat, as described in chapter 9. [below]


Initiative in The Order of Combat PHB page 189
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.

So what does this mean?

  • Bards add their Jack of All Trades (PHB 54) to their Initiative Dexterity Check
  • About the only things that change’s an initiative are: Additional combatants entering the fray and when mounted and switching between Independent and Controlling the mount.

Some things that Characters can get to affect their initiative:

Feat: Alert  (PHB 165)
Always on the lookout for danger, you gain the following benefits:
• You gain a +5 bonus to initiative.
• You can’t be surprised while you are conscious.
• Other creatures don’t gain advantage on attack rolls against you as a result of being hidden from you.

  • Bonus to initiative, which is always great to have!
  • Cannot be surprised!

Magic Item: Weapon of Warning

Requires Attunement.

This magic weapon warns you of danger. While the weapon is on your person, you have advantage on initiative rolls. In addition, you and any of your companions within 30 ft of you can’t be surprised, except when incapacitated by something other than nonmagical sleep. The weapon magically awakens you and your companions within range if any of you are sleeping naturally when combat begins.

I have a Paladin that without this item he would never be able to act first, and also has a magical weapon.

Now, everything previous is Dungeons and Dragons Adventure League (DDAL) legal. What follows cannot be used in DDAL.


The DMG lists 3 additional variant rules for the initiative along with whats in the PHB. Starting on page 270 of the DMG:

Initiative Variant: Initiative Score
With this optional rule, creature don’t roll initiative at the start of combat. Instead, each creature has an initiative score, which is a passive Dexterity check: 10 +Dexterity modifier.
By cutting down on die rolls, math done on the fly, and the process of asking for and recording totals, you can speed your game up considerably-at the cost of an initiative order that is often predictable.

This is by far my favourite and I use it to speed up combat, especially for something quick, or to order the players when not in combat but still requires some order of play. Also for surprise rounds. I don’t use it for everything because players like rolling dice :p

Initiative Variant: Side Initiative
Recording initiative for each PC and monster, arranging everyone in the correct order, and remembering where you are in the list can bog the game down. If you want quicker combats, at the risk of those combats becoming unbalanced, try using the side initiative rule.

Under this variant, the players roll a d20 for their initiative as a group, or side. You also roll a d20. Neither roll receives any modifiers. Whoever rolls highest wins initiative. In case of a tie, keep rerolling until the tie is broken.

When it’s a side’s turn, the members of that side can act in any order they choose. Once everyone on the side has taken a turn, the other side goes. A round ends when both sides have completed their turns. If more than two sides take part in a battle, each side rolls for initiative. Sides act from the highest roll to lowest. Combat continues in the initiative order until the battle is complete.

This variant encourages teamwork and makes your life as a DM easier, since you can more easily coordinate monsters. On the downside, the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and take them out before they have a chance to act.

I have only used this in non-combat situations like trying to spy on someone or get information from a source or when the party needs to deceive someone. I think a lot of DM’s automatically switch to something similar in non-combat situations when letting one side, and then the opposing side act, instead of in the random order of dice.

Initiative Variant: Speed Factor
Some DMs find the regular progression of initiative too predictable and prone to abuse. Players can use their knowledge of the initiative order to influence their decisions. For example, a badly wounded fighter might charge a troll because he knows that the cleric goes before the monster and can heal him.

Speed factor is an option for initiative that introduces more uncertainty into combat, at the cost of speed of play. Under this variant, the participants in a battle roll initiative each round. Before rolling, each character or monster must choose an action.

Initiative Modifiers. Modifiers might apply to a creature’s initiative depending on its size and the action it takes. For example, a creature that fights with a light weapon or casts a simple spell is more likely to act before a creature armed with a heavy or slow weapon.
Rolling Initiative. After deciding on an action, everyone rolls initiative and applies modifiers, keeping the result secret. You then announce an initiative number, starting with 30 and working down (it helps to call out ranges of numbers at the start). Break any ties by having the combatant with the highest Dexterity act first. Otherwise, roll to determine who goes first.
Turns. On its turn, a creature moves as normal but must take the action it selected or take no action at all.

Once everyone has acted, the process repeats. Everyone in the battle selects an action. rolls initiative, and takes turns in order.

This looks like it could be a very long process to get into. But there are two things I’ve seen (and used) repeatedly:

  • Calling Initiative every round. This makes more sense the first round and for a player to take over for letting people know what the order is after the first round.
  • Using Dexterity modifiers to break ties.

I like the idea of Speed Factor Initiative, but I don’t like anything that slows down combat.

My personal favoured Initiative tracking methods:

  • Having one of the players handle it (WAY Easier!)
  • Marking a square and writing peoples Initiative around the square in accordance with the players’ position around the table.
    I tend to do this on the erasable map surface. I’m also notorious for never erasing anything so there will be dozens of initiative boxes.

Initiative Applications

There are also a number of applications to track initiative and all kinds of things. I have a preference for Web-enabled apps (websites that have the application) so that I can have it on my smartphone or on a computer. Especially important if I can plan the combat beforehand and just load it up on my phone later.

OrcPub’s Combat Tracker



  • web-based
  • There are a few extras included HP tracker and timer


  • The interface is large isn’t easy to use or view on a phone
  • The interface isn’t very intuitive, and the buttons are rather small
  • the added features can’t NOT be used
  • Definitely in beta stage

Improved Initiative

Improved Initiative - Logo.JPG


  • web-based
  • There are a few extras included, many of which can be ignored
  • Can save multiple encounters
  • The entire things on GitHub so people can take the code and modify as they wish (someone please make an Undo action!!)


  • The interface is large isn’t easy to use or view on a phone
  • The interface isn’t very intuitive, and if you make a mistake you either live with it or remake the entire encounter

donjon D&D 5e Initiative Tracker



  • web-based
  • There are a few extras included, many of which can be ignored
  • Can save multiple encounters to there server, which just gives you a code so you can load saved encounters on any device
  • You can remove items if somethings a mistake
  • There’s a dice roller at the bottom of the list


  • The save code is rather long (5ab193f9-c635837c)
  • Is pretty much purely for Initiative, AC, saving throws, and HP tracking
  • There’s no way to track rounds (this is pretty minor)

Donjon’s is the best for simplicity in my opinion

Initiative Tracker


  • web-based
  • You can make notes on creature\players
  • Can save multiple encounters to there server
  • You can remove items if somethings a mistake


  • It’s not intuitive and the Help menu is lacking How-To
  • I wasn’t able to get the save and load feature to work in the time I played with the site


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