Initiative in Pathfinder RPG: Understanding & Optimizing Initiative


The iconic moment from westerns is a great example of Initiative in a fight.

Initiative decides who goes first and who gets left in the dust.

It’s a great deal more than just who can react quickly, but that is a very important part of it. It is also about identifying threats and knowing how to react to them. 

In Pathfinder, going first is very important.

There is a statement when it comes to most tabletop content, “He who strikes first, wins.

Though almost any war game player will tell you that isn’t completely true.

Unfortunately Initiative can be hard to parse. The rules can get somewhat complex, so let’s do some breakdown to see how this works.

Mechanics of Initiative

Both Pathfinder Editions use very different rules for Initiative.

Pathfinder First Edition

Pathfinder 1e has a specific statistic called Initiative for use in Initiative Checks.

Initiative Checks

At the start of a battle, each combatant makes an initiative check. An initiative check is a Dexterity check. Each character applies his or her Dexterity modifier to the roll, as well as other modifiers from feats, spells, and other effects. Characters act in order, counting down from the highest result to the lowest.

In every round that follows, the characters act in the same order (unless a character takes an action that results in his or her initiative changing; see Special Initiative Actions).

If two or more combatants have the same initiative check result, the combatants who are tied act in order of total initiative modifier (highest first). If there is still a tie, the tied characters should roll to determine which one of them goes before the other.


At the start of a battle, before you have had a chance to act (specifically, before your first regular turn in the initiative order), you are flat-footed. You can’t use your Dexterity bonus to AC (if any) while flat-footed. Barbarians and rogues of high enough level have the uncanny dodge extraordinary ability, which means that they cannot be caught flat-footed.

Characters with uncanny dodge retain their Dexterity bonus to their AC and can make attacks of opportunity before they have acted in the first round of combat. A flat-footed character can’t make attacks of opportunity, unless he has the Combat Reflexes feat.

So when combat starts, everyone rolls a d20 and adds their Initiative statistic. Most of the time the statistic is just going to be the Dexterity score, but there are some class abilities and feats that will boost it to a higher level. 

The rolls are then ranked from highest to lowest numerically, and whoever is highest takes their action first. Then the DM moves down the line until everyone has either taken an action, or the encounter is at the end.

If you haven’t gotten a chance to act yet, your characters are considered flat-footed, and haven’t gotten a chance to really react to what is happening yet. This means they are much easier to hit until you have a chance to truly react to what is happening around you.

There are conditions that also affect how initiative plays out in certain circumstances. The most often circumstance that comes up in battles is Surprise.


When a combat starts, if you are not aware of your opponents and they are aware of you, you’re surprised.

Determining Awareness

Sometimes all the combatants on a side are aware of their opponents, sometimes none are, and sometimes only some of them are. Sometimes a few combatants on each side are aware and the other combatants on each side are unaware.

Determining awareness may call for Perception checks or other checks.

The Surprise Round

If some but not all of the combatants are aware of their opponents, a surprise round happens before regular rounds begin. In initiative order (highest to lowest), combatants who started the battle aware of their opponents each take a standard or move action during the surprise round. You can also take free actions during the surprise round. If no one or everyone is surprised, no surprise round occurs.

Unaware Combatants

Combatants who are unaware at the start of battle don’t get to act in the surprise round. Unaware combatants are flat-footed because they have not acted yet, so they lose any Dexterity bonus to AC.

So if you aren’t aware of your opponents (or your opponents are not aware of you), they get a whole round all to themselves! This is why Ambushes are so powerful both in real life AND in game.

There are also some interesting side rules you can use for Initiative to make it more dynamic. Namely Delaying Actions or Readying Actions.


By choosing to delay, you take no action and then act normally on whatever initiative count you decide to act. When you delay, you voluntarily reduce your own initiative result for the rest of the combat.

When your new, lower initiative count comes up later in the same round, you can act normally. You can specify this new initiative result or just wait until some time later in the round and act then, thus fixing your new initiative count at that point.

You never get back the time you spend waiting to see what’s going to happen. You also can’t interrupt anyone else’s action (as you can with a readied action).

Initiative Consequences of Delaying

Your initiative result becomes the count on which you took the delayed action. If you come to your next action and have not yet performed an action, you don’t get to take a delayed action (though you can delay again).

If you take a delayed action in the next round, before your regular turn comes up, your initiative count rises to that new point in the order of battle, and you do not get your regular action that round.

The most common use for this tactic is for party members waiting for others. Maybe you as the melee fighter need to wait for the Cleric to buff you, or you want to wait for the Wizard’s Fireball to go off before you go charging in.

The Trade off of course being that you’ve lost some initiative already. Be sure you are okay with more people going before you when you delay.


The ready action lets you prepare to take an action later, after your turn is over but before your next one has begun. Readying is a standard action. It does not provoke an attack of opportunity (though the action that you ready might do so).

Readying an Action

You can ready a standard action, a move action, a swift action, or a free action. To do so, specify the action you will take and the conditions under which you will take it. Then, anytime before your next action, you may take the readied action in response to that condition.

The action occurs just before the action that triggers it. If the triggered action is part of another character’s activities, you interrupt the other character. Assuming he is still capable of doing so, he continues his actions once you complete your readied action.

Your initiative result changes. For the rest of the encounter, your initiative result is the count on which you took the readied action, and you act immediately ahead of the character whose action triggered your readied action.

You can take a 5-foot step as part of your readied action, but only if you don’t otherwise move any distance during the round.

Initiative Consequences of Readying

Your initiative result becomes the count on which you took the readied action. If you come to your next action and have not yet performed your readied action, you don’t get to take the readied action (though you can ready the same action again).

If you take your readied action in the next round, before your regular turn comes up, your initiative count rises to that new point in the order of battle, and you do not get your regular action that round.

Distracting Spellcasters

You can ready an attack against a spellcaster with the trigger “if she starts casting a spell.” If you damage the spellcaster, she may lose the spell she was trying to cast (as determined by her concentration check result).

Readying to Counterspell

You may ready a counterspell against a spellcaster (often with the trigger “if she starts casting a spell”). In this case, when the spellcaster starts a spell, you get a chance to identify it with a Spellcraft check (DC 15 + spell level). If you do, and if you can cast that same spell (and are able to cast it and have it prepared, if you prepare spells), you can cast the spell as a counterspell and automatically ruin the other spellcaster’s spell. Counterspelling works even if one spell is divine and the other arcane.

A spellcaster can use dispel magic to counterspell another spellcaster, but it doesn’t always work.

Readying a Weapon against a Charge

You can ready weapons with the brace feature, setting them to receive charges. A readied weapon of this type deals double damage if you score a hit with it against a charging character.

Readying Actions is where we can get into the weeds abit, but it is a powerful tool for your party. 

Readying comes in handy when you are getting an ambush prepared, or you know something is coming at you. It’s similar to delaying, but without sacrificing your position in the initiative queue. Thus again demonstrating why Ambushes are so effective.

Pathfinder Second Edition

Pathfinder 2e’s initiative is similar, but uses something very different. Situational Skills!


Transitioning from exploration to an encounter usually involves rolling for initiative. Call for initiative once a trap is triggered, as soon as two opposing groups come into contact, or when a creature on one side decides to take action against the other.

That word salad is somewhat on the confusing side, so let’s break it down more with some examples:

  • Two parties come upon each other, rounding a corner to meet each other in a darkened hallway. In a moment of surprise, they draw their weapons and get ready for battle. The GM calls for an initiative roll to see which one of them starts the fight! Usually for straight Combat scenarios, this will be a Perception check.
  • Someone in the party messes up and accidentally sets off a trap! This trap causes rocks to fall from the ceiling! The process has started and the GM needs to know individual actions as the rocks fall (you know, so everyone DOESN’T die). The GM calls for an Athletics roll as initiative to see how this goes.


In some cases, a trap or a foe has a reaction that tells you to roll initiative. For instance, a complex trap that’s triggered might make an attack with its reaction before the initiative order begins. In these cases, resolve all the results of the reaction before calling for initiative rolls.


When choosing what type of roll to use for initiative, lean toward the most obvious choice. The most common roll is Perception. The next most common skills to use are Stealth (for sneaking up) and Deception (for tricking opponents). For social contests, it’s common to use Deception, Diplomacy, Intimidation, Performance, or Society.

If you’re unsure what roll to call for, use Perception.

If a different type of roll could make sense for a character, you should usually offer the choice of that roll or Perception and let the player decide. Don’t do this if it’s absolutely clear another kind of check matters more sense than Perception, such as when the character is sneaking up on enemies and should definitely use Stealth.

You can allow a player to make a case that they should use a different skill than Perception, but only if they base it on something they’ve established beforehand. For example, if in the prelude to the attack, M-NAME’s player had said, “I’m going to dangle down off the chandelier to get the drop on them,” you could let them use Acrobatics for their initiative roll. If they just said, “Hey, I want to attack these guys. Can I use Acrobatics?” without having established a reason beforehand, you probably shouldn’t allow it.

So in essence the biggest thing to keep in mind when looking at the difference between Pathfinder 1e and 2e, is that Pathfinder doesn’t use a specific Initiative Statistic. It’s about whichever skill is most applicable to the given situation.

Pathfinder 2e also has Delaying Actions.


Source Core Rulebook pg. 470 2.0

Trigger Your turn begins.

You wait for the right moment to act. The rest of your turn doesn’t happen yet. Instead, you’re removed from the initiative order. You can return to the initiative order as a free action triggered by the end of any other creature’s turn. This permanently changes your initiative to the new position.

You can’t use reactions until you return to the initiative order. If you Delay an entire round without returning to the initiative order, the actions from the Delayed turn are lost, your initiative doesn’t change, and your next turn occurs at your original position in the initiative order.

When you Delay, any persistent damage or other negative effects that normally occur at the start or end of your turn occur immediately when you use the Delay action. Any beneficial effects that would end at any point during your turn also end.

The GM might determine that other effects end when you Delay as well. Essentially, you can’t Delay to avoid negative consequences that would happen on your turn or to extend beneficial effects that would end on your turn.

This works very similarly to the Delaying options from 1e Pathfinder. You can delay to take actions at a later point in the queue, but unfortunately it means you are stuck at that lower point until the encounter is over.

Boosting Initiative

Seeing as Initiative is so important for encounters in both games, it stands to reason that improving initiative would be an important point to invest in for all encounters.

Fortunately, there are ways of making you talk…I mean…ways of making you faster!

Pathfinder 1st Edition

Obviously the first contender for how to improve your initiative is the Improved Initiative feat. Kind of a no brainer on that one. There are a few other ways as well.

Such as the Trade Initiative (Teamwork) feat which allows you to trade your initiative place with another party member. 

Obviously improving your Dexterity is definitely the most sure fire way of making your Initiative better. Though that could take some investment as you need 2 bonuses to change your Dexterity Modifier.

Wizards with the specialization in the Divination school can also get a bonus to initiative with their Forewarned ability, which gives you a bonus to initiative equal to ½ your level.

Finally there are Dusty Rose Prism (Ioun Stone), which provide a +1 bonus to Initiative for each one in use. Also Dueling Weapons provide bonuses to initiative as well. 

Pathfinder 2nd Edition

Pathfinder 2e also has a few Initiative Feats. First of which is Incredible Initiative, but there are also options like Swaggering Initiative, Ambush Awareness, or Wilderness Spotter

Obviously, the best way to improve your initiative is to improve your skills overall, but that can spread you out pretty far. Perception would be the name of the game on this one overall.

Any way to improve your perception skill is going to make a real difference in the initiative in combat situations.