I’ll come right out and say it: Level Adjustments in D&D suck. The rules as they stand penalize the poor hapless player, just because she wants to play something out of the ordinary. That +2 LA race might have Really Cool Abilities ™, but who in their right mind would play one if it means you’re only 1st level while everyone else is stomping around as 3rd level characters? If just ain’t fair. It gets worse at higher levels when the rest of the party is 20th level and you are back at 18th, 40,000 experience points away. That oh-so-cool race is now nothing more than a chain around your neck, and has been for some time.
The problem is that Level Adjustments take too much away from the character, and don’t give much back in return. It’s just not a good deal at all for the poor schmuck. Let’s consider the Gnoll as an example. They take a +1 LA hit in return for their stat bonuses, +1 natural armour and Darkvision. This is after their already sub-optimal Humanoid 2 racial Hit Dice.
That +1 LA has ‘cost’ them BAB, skills, class special abilities and hit points. A Gnoll 1st-level Fighter is supposedly equal to a 4th-level Human Fighter. Put the two head-to-head and you’ll see that this clearly isn’t the case. Same goes for any Level Adjusted race.
There is a fix though, and thankfully it’s an easy one. Here’s my House Rule:
- Each “Level Adjustment” costs the PC one of their free feats. So, a +1 LA race doesn’t get a feat at first level; a +2 LA race doesn’t get feats at 1st or 3rd. Level Adjustment has no other effect whatsoever. It doesn’t count toward your levels, doesn’t affect your XP or anything else at all. Racial Hit Dice apply as normal.
In other words, your +1 LA hobgoblin 1st level Fighter is still Level 1, just with one less Feat than normal. That’s a fair exchange – just enough to make the alternative races tempting to play, but not enough to overbalance the game either way. There’s none of this ECL crap to worry about. Your level is your level is your level. End of.
If you’re starting at 1st level, a +2 LA might be a little overpowered, but not enough to throw the game. At 3rd level when everyone else gets their bonus feat and their Drow doesn’t, it all balances out again.
I don’t recommend going above +2 LA simply because the deferred penalty of losing the bonus feat at 6th level is too great. If your starting level is 6th or above though, there shouldn’t be any problem – they just get 3 fewer feats than normal.
This could be used to beef up otherwise weak races too – making the Kobold -1 LA would mean they get an extra feat at 1st level (like humans, but without the extra skill points). This makes them a far more tempting option for players!