Friday, December 20, 2013

How to Top The Initiative Order (Almost) Every Time

When I first started this blog I asked the question "Who takes Improved Initiative?" I'm quoting the Gamers II, but it's a legitimate question. Many players are so concerned with having the highest strength, the deadliest weapon, or the most destructive spells that they forget one of the first rules of combat; the guy who throws the first punch is often the one who wins the fight.

Stop for a moment, and think about all of the times that going after the bad guy turned a challenging battle into an uphill slog through mud and blood. Sometimes it's a single spell, a single alchemical item, or a single sneak attack that can set the tone for a battle and completely change the tone of a fight. If the bad guy goes first it's a fireball, a color spray, a thunderstone, or any of a dozen other nasty surprises that can tilt a fight in the opponent's favor. The same rules apply to the party. Catching the villain flat-footed is a field day for rogues, spellcasters and gunslingers are more likely to hit, and it provides a peachy opportunity to move around as you please while the enemy can't take attacks of opportunity. Now that I've belabored the point about why Initiative is so important though, it's time for a laundry list for making your score the best it can be.

First man to go is often the last man standing.
Your initiative score starts with your dexterity modifier, but that doesn't mean that a low dex will doom you to always go last. Taking the right traits can give you a +2 straight out of the gate. While there are at least 4 traits that provide an initiative bonus, you can only use one of them; there's no trait stacking for a bigger bump. These traits are:

- Reactionary (Combat): You grew up bullied and constantly fighting: +2 initiative.
- Warrior of Old (Racial, Elf): You've been practicing war for more than some creatures' lifetimes: +2 initiative.
- Outlander (Rise of the Rune Lords, Exile Option): You were cast out of your homeland, and have been keeping one eye on your back trail ever since: +2 initiative.
- On Guard (Quadira, Gateway to the East): You are always ready. +1 initiative, and if you can act during the surprise round you may draw a weapon as a free action.

In addition to these traits, elves have an alternate racial trait they can take called Fleet-Footed. This takes away Keen Senses and Weapon Familiarity, but these elves gain Run as a feat, in addition to a racial +2 to initiative. Handy.

The Ifrit has a racial alternative that can help out as well. Wildfire Heart provides a +4 racial bonus to initiative, but it strips away the natural fire resistance that Ifrit receive. Tough choice.


There are not a lot of feats that deal with a character's Initiative, unfortunately. If there were then there would be a lot of players who always went first, regardless of what the rest of the party rolled. However, there are at least two feats those concerned with their standings in the initiative order should keep in mind.
Really, do you take black over white?
- Improved Initiative: The most common feat for those who want to go first, this feat gives the character a +4 bonus to all initiative checks (Core Rulebook 127).
- Noble Scion: Your character is a member of a proud, noble family. If you select Scion of War then you may use your charisma modifier instead of your dexterity modifier to determine your initiative (The Inner Sea World Guide 288).

Class Abilities

This is where the numbers start to really perk up for characters looking to go before anyone else. A number of classes provide initiative bonuses at fairly early levels, and that should be taken into consideration.
I'd do something quick, before it takes a deep breath.
Gunslinger Well-known for being fast on the draw, gunslingers get a +2 to their initiative at level 3, as long as they have at least 1 point of grit remaining. Just to add insult to injury, if the gunslinger in question also has Quick Draw and empty hands then the character may draw a weapon as part of the initiative check. Just picture how fast that is.

A particularly feared type of gunslinger is the Grand Marshal (Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Paths of Prestige). These law enforcement officers gain a number of abilities, but at second level they gain Danger Sense. Grand Marshals always act during the surprise round, and gain 1/2 their level as an initiative bonus.

Inquisitor No one knows the value of striking the first blow like the inquisitor. At second level these fanatics gain Cunning Initiative, adding their wisdom modifiers as a bonus to their initiatives. Additionally, with the feat Grant Initiative (Ultimate Magic 151) an Inquisitor may choose to transfer this bonus to an ally before initiative is rolled. An inquisitor's paranoia is infectious.

For those who take the Tactics Inquisition, 8th level is when you get the ability Grant the Initiative. This adds the inquisitor's wisdom modifier to all party members within 30 feet, as well as to the inquisitor. This effectively doubles the bonus received from Cunning Initiative.

Ranger Not to be outdone, the ranger has an initiative bonus as well. Provided, of course, that the ranger is within one of his or her favored terrains. A +2 bonus always applies due to the ranger's sheer familiarity with what the sights, sounds, and smells in an area should be, providing a nearly supernatural quickness when trouble breaks out.

Druid The druid World Walker (Ultimate Combat 43) gains the ranger ability mentioned above. Useful for those who are looking to get those terrain-altering spells off before the bad guys step out of the brush.

Duelist While a prestige class, the duelist gains Improved Reaction at level two. This ability provides a flat +2 initiative bonus, which increases to +4 at level 8. This is particularly helpful for these canny fighters, because going first allows them to set up a Parry, which is also gained at level two.

Wizard Wizards who specialize in the divination school gain the supernatural ability Forewarned. This allows them to always act in the surprise round. They also gain an initiative bonus equal to half their wizard level. At level 20 these wizards are considered to have always rolled a natural 20 on initiative.

Sohei A monk variant, the Sohei (Ultimate Combat 60) are soldiers and devoted horse masters. These characters may always act in the surprise round, and they gain a bonus to their initiative equal to half their character levels. At 20th level, every initiative check is considered a natural 20. This is the exact same ability that wizards who specialize as diviners get, but Sohei are much more martially inclined.

Cleric Some battle clerics specialize in planning and execution over magic. The Divine Strategist (Ultimate Combat 40) always acts in the surprise round, and gains an initiative bonus equal to half his or her cleric level. At level 20 the Divine Strategist is considered to have rolled a natural 20, but what's more allies who can see and hear the Divine Strategist gain a bonus on their initiative checks equal to 1/4 the strategist's cleric level. This replaces channel energy though, which is a hefty price to pay.

Fighter The battlefield is where most fighters feel at home, but some of them can always figure a way to turn terrain to their advantage. The Tactician variant (Ultimate Combat 47) exchanges Bravery for Tactical Awareness at level 2, gaining a +1 to Initiative instead of a bonus on saves against fear at second level and every four levels thereafter.

Oracle Oracles are one of the most variable classes, and their abilities manifest in a dozen different ways. Several types of oracles gain initiative bonuses via their mysteries.

Juju and nature oracles both get access to Natural Divination. This ability has multiple uses, but once every 24 hours it provides a +4 bonus on a single initiative check. Use of this bonus must be declared beforehand.

Battle oracles have access to the ability War Sight. These oracles always act in the surprise round, and may roll twice for initiative (three times at level 11) and take the best result. If these oracles fail to notice the ambush with the proper check though, they still go last in the surprise round regardless of their initiative checks.

Paladin Paladins are rarely shy about being the first into the fray, but the Sword of Valor (Inner Sea Magic) is renowned for her ability to always react first to ambushes. These characters gain the ability First Into Battle, which replaces Divine Grace. They add their charisma as a bonus on initiative checks, and for the cost of a single smite evil or lay on hands usage these paladins may act in the surprise round.

Witch Not to be left out, witches gain access to the compsognathus, which is a small dinosaur familiar. This familiar, in addition to its poisonous bite, grants its master a +4 initiative bonus.

Alchemist The mad scientist's mutagen provides a solid dexterity bonus, if one selects a dex-based formula. At lower levels it might not be feasible, but higher level alchemists have mutagens that can last for nearly an hour or more. That will keep you on your toes.

Magus The magus is everyone's favorite caster; one part wizard, one part fighter. The Kensai variant (Ultimate Combat 55) focuses more heavily on the fighter aspect, but it also provides some handy abilities. At 7th level the Kensai gains Iajutsu, which adds the magus's intelligence modifier to initiative as well as dexterity. The kensai may make attacks of opportunity while flat-footed, and may draw a weapon as part of taking an attack of opportunity. At 13th level the kensai may always act in the surprise round in addition to drawing a weapon as a swift action, and at 19th level is considered to have always rolled a natural 20 on initiative.

Rogue While rogues gain the most from taking actions while everyone else is flat footed, there are no abilities that allow them to take actions during the surprise round. The bandit archetype (Ultimate Combat 71) does allow 4th level rogues to take a full action during the surprise round, rather than a move or a standard action. That's a move, a standard, and a swift, which isn't too shabby when combined with other options.

Magic Bonuses

There's always a way to squeeze out another few points here or there when it comes to a score, and magic is traditionally the way that gets done in Pathfinder. For those who want to be absolutely sure their characters get to kick evil in the balls as soon as it finishes its monologue (if not before it starts) here are a few extra ideas.
And I'm taking my action before you do.
Dueling Weapons Dueling weapons, found in both the Advanced Players Guide and Ultimate Equipment, have a slew of abilities. One of them is providing a +4 bonus to initiative checks if the weapon, which must be something that can be used with the Weapon Finesse feat, is in hand. A cheap way to do this is to get a dueling spiked gauntlet or cestus, which can be worn and is considered drawn at all times.

Spells As with most other areas of the game, spells are a little light when it comes to initiative checks. However the first-level spell Anticipate Peril adds +1 per caster level to a maximum of +5 to the next initiative check someone has to make. The spell lasts for 1 minute per level though, so it's much better at higher levels. Less useful, though helpful all the same, is Cat's Grace. Providing a simple dexterity bonus for minutes per level can be very helpful right before kicking in the door, and it also ups one's finesse attacks and armor class at the same time. This won't stack with a stat-enhancing magic item though, so make sure you don't perform a convenient math error.

Making it All Make Sense

It's possible to tweak a character's initiative to ridiculous levels, particularly if a player takes one thing out of every category above and applies it all to a single person. It is then the player's job to explain to the DM, as well as to the rest of the party, where this ridiculous number came from.

This isn't as hard to do as many players think it is. For instance, a hunted gunslinger whose hands are faster than her mouth may have been looking over her shoulder for years. Perhaps she can't sleep peacefully, and even the slightest noises put iron in her hands. She might suffer from tics, or post-traumatic stress. Play that up. Alternatively say that an elven inquisitor is 400 years old, and he's fought in more wars than some families have generations. He's sensitive to the ebb and flow of body language, the movement of his opponents and the environment around him. Like any truly experienced professional he sees signs that most people miss, and he can prepare his reactions beforehand. If you know in your bones an ambush is coming, you can react much more quickly when it comes. Whatever your reason, don't just bulk up a stat and leave it sitting there like a massive elephant in the middle of the table that's blocking the map along with the Cheetos bowl.
Backstory is important. We aren't just going to roll with this.
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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Don't forget the +4 bonus to initiative that is received from a wizzard's scorpion familiar when its within a mile!

  3. For magic items, don't forget about the Dusty Rose Prism Ioun Stone (cracked). It gives a +1 competence bonus on initiative.