In a recent comment chain, I asserted that a character who had 6 class levels and 2 non-class hit dice would be a level 8 character; this was based on my recollection that "character level" and "total hit dice" are used synonymously in 3.5. However, fectin disagreed, and looking into the rules on the matter, it's much less clear-cut than I thought I remembered.

Here's what I've found:

The Player's Handbook glossary (p. 306) says "character level" means:

A character’s total level. For a character with levels in only one class, class level and character level are the same thing.

This definition doesn't seem to address the possibility that a character could have hit dice from a non-class source. However, the same glossary's entry for "Hit Die/Dice" (p. 309) says hit dice are (emphasis mine):

In the plural form, a measure of relative power that is synonymous with character level for the sake of spells, magic items, and magical effects that affect a certain number of Hit Dice of creatures.

An entry in the D&D 3.5 FAQ says character level is:

The total number of class levels you have in all your classes, plus any racial Hit Dice you have. A human 5th-level fighter/5th-level wizard has 10 character levels. An ogre 5th-level fighter/5th-level wizard has 14 character levels (because it has 4 racial Hit Dice). Character levels determine when you gain feats and ability score increases (see Table 3–2: Experience and Level-Dependent Benefits in the PH). Any feat you get by virtue of your character level is in addition to any bonus feats from your class levels.

This adds racial hit dice to what should be included in "character level," but doesn't address whether you should include hit dice from other sources, like those gained by a Windrider's mount (Masters of the Wild, p. 77), or a Bard's Inspire Greatness ability. Also, the FAQ is generally not trustworthy.

The SRD's section on improving monsters (also found in the Monster Manual) suggests that you treat total Hit Dice and "character level" identically for various purposes. For instance:

Treat monster Hit Dice the same as character level for determining ability score increases.


The creature’s Hit Dice equal the number of class levels it has plus its racial Hit Dice.

However, it's unclear whether these rules apply to PCs.

There may well be other places in the rules that address this issue; the above are just what I've found so far.

Does a PC's character level include:

  • Only their total class levels?
  • Their class levels plus any racial hit dice they have, but not any other type of non-level hit dice?
  • All of their hit dice?
  • Something else?

(Note: I am asking about character level, not effective character level, which is something else).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you cite some effects or situations where character level but not ECL might apply? \$\endgroup\$
    – nijineko
    Aug 23, 2019 at 18:59
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ @nijineko Determining your BAB when you cast Tenser's Transformation or Divine Power; the rate at which you heal damage from resting (PHB p. 146); determining when you gain feats or ability score increases when leveling up (PHB p. 87); determining maximum skill ranks (PHB p. 62). \$\endgroup\$
    – A_S00
    Aug 23, 2019 at 19:21

1 Answer 1


It's all bad.

You have found and cited plenty of sources already.

The least broken and most logical answer is to add up all levels and HD, call that character level, and treat bonus HD as their own thing floating on top. Kind of like temporary hit points or a stat bonus.

The alternative is to say that character level includes bonus hit dice. That's permanently unbalancing. For example, feats: assume you go through the appropriate gyrations to be the chosen mount of a 4th level Windrider at first level. You are now a level 5 character. After gaining a bunch of XP, you level up to character level 6 (15k xp) and select a feat. Your Windrider buddy chooses another mount. You are now 2nd level, so level up and select a feat. Your buddy retrains you, and starts carrying an evil arrow (- 1 level for him, which drops to 2 bonus dice for you. You level up from 5 to 6 and select a feat. He drops the arrow, and you adventure for a while, and eventually level from 8 to 9 (gain a feat). Etc.

If you really feel cheesy, lose the levels afterwards to lose one feat every three levels, then lather, rinse, and repeat to regain one per level.

Treating bonus HD as a special case has its own problems (see e.g. the answer which prompted this question). But it avoids the worst excesses and difference-engine exploits.

However, the foregoing is not really a rules argument, it's just handwringing about consequences. As you point out, there's not a lot of definition on what "bonus HD" mean, especially for a character that advances by XP.


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