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From an optimization point of view, unless the race in question is remarkably broken, then common wisdom appears to be that:

  1. LA+1 can sometimes be justified, but it usually can't
  2. LA+2 requires extreme justification, but is often nonviable even if the buyoff rules are in play
  3. Anything beyond LA+2 can almost never be justified
  4. Nothing of the above applies to LA+0 because it disregards most if not all of the LA rules.

What has lead to this general sentiment? What about the mechanics of LA and buyoff make them so tough to justify from an optimization point of view? Is it that the LA races largely don't offer much? Or is LA in of itself, even with buyoff, too great of a cost?

Note: The LA rules, including buyoff, have been known to cause great confusion. Any answer that goes down the "LA is in of itself too great of a cost" route might benefit from giving a summary of how the rules work.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 16:06

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Just upfront, the reality is that the primary answer to this question is that almost everything in the game with LA has way too much LA. It seems that the designers balanced LA against pretty much the lowest common denominator of what HD might grant—assuming that they really tried to balance it at all. In a lot of cases, it seems more likely that they just eyeballed it and erred on the side of caution by putting more LA.

But that isn’t precisely what was asked: the question is more like, why is LA crippling even if you get a lot out of it?

Every HD comes with some basic things: hp, including the Con bonus, skill points and the increase in your maximum skill rank, and increases to base saving throw bonuses. On top of that we have feats, BAB, spellcasting, and so on that don’t necessarily happen every HD but are generally part of your HD progression. In short, nearly all forms of character growth.

LA means you don’t get any of that, and things that come with LA generally don’t replace any of that.

Whatever you get for LA, it probably isn’t going to be the kinds of things you’d get from HD. Even if you get really good stuff, it’s going to be good stuff that’s orthogonal to the above things that are, effectively, your growth potential. That is, LA is giving you some random thing that can’t and won’t grow, and in exchange it slows your growth. So even if it was a good trade at the time, it quickly becomes less of one—as noted by Unearthed Arcana when introducing the buy-off rules.

Also, not for nothing: those character growth stats that everyone gets from their HD are the primary things that numerically stand between you and death. Even with Con bonuses, LA’d characters often have very little hp, and poor saves. Fundamentally, even “good trades” in LA still cause enormous problems due to character skew—being too-good at some things and too-poor at others. This causes fundamental and often insurmountable difficulties in creating appropriate challenges for the whole party.

So does buy-off solve the problem? No, or at least not quickly, particularly at higher amounts of LA. LA +1 is bought off at 3rd, LA +2 is bought off at 6th and 9th, LA +3 is bought off at 9th, 15th, and 18th, and anything above that can’t be bought off entirely without going into epic (which Unearthed Arcana does not provide buy-off rules for). Importantly, even when you buy off an LA, nothing immediately changes—you are still without that level, because of the XP cost of the buy-off. You just start gaining more XP so that you can eventually catch up. So LA +1 costs 3,000 XP total, LA +2 costs 16.000 XP total, and LA +3 costs 45,000 XP total. That is a lot of XP, and while you will recoup those losses due to the greater XP you earn as a lower-level character, it won’t happen all that quickly. The 3,000 XP for LA +1 isn’t too bad, and you can start working your way back at 3rd, but you can’t actually start to catch up with your allies after paying off LA +2 until 9th (which may itself happen later for you than for your allies), and for LA +3 it’s 18th (and likewise that might itself be delayed). And again, this is something that is directly standing between you and the growth of some of the most significant numbers that are keeping you alive.

If you’re starting at 20th, then whatever. But most people don’t do that—and generally speaking, you shouldn’t, because D&D 3.5e is very-nearly guaranteed to be non-functional at that point. Holding out for that buy-off you’ll be able to do someday is not likely to be an enjoyable experience, because odds are good you’ll never get there (either cuz the character dies or the campaign does), and even if you eventually do it’ll be a slog to get there, and it’s just not worth it. Again, LA +1, not so bad, with buy-off, but it gets a lot worse as LA goes up.

But it has to be repeated that this argument is made much easier by the near-complete lack of compelling LA +2, LA +3 options that could maybe cause us to look at the drawbacks a little bit harder. As things stand, it’s easy to say the drawbacks are substantial (again, barring games started at very-high levels), and the benefits are mediocre, and be content to leave our analysis there. But I stand by the argument even for high-power templates like saint, again because of the skew that it creates in a character.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I tend to agree with this answer, but it doesn't look like it's backed up by the rules or experience. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 3:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot It can—and is—backed up by both of those things. Just looking for quotation marks or explicit anecdotes as a purity test is a toxic approach to ensuring that answers are backed up, and I’ll take no part. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 3:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like your answer, and I can understand your sentiment regarding citations and quotes. Giving an example of it working as you describe in play lets readers see specifics of the difficulties you describe, and for myself, I like to give citations to give others at least a start on replicating my path to understanding. Not trying to dogpile here. Sorry if it comes across that way. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chemus
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 5:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fundamentally, what this answer attempts to do is impart the experience that I have, optimizing characters and reading about others’ optimizations. This is not based on any one source but hundreds of individual things that I am synthesizing for the reader. There is no way in the space of a Stack answer to give you my years of experience, there just isn’t. At some point you either have to just trust me, or do it yourself. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ The end result works out that LA replaces your LAST levels, which are usually also the most powerful levels of a character. \$\endgroup\$
    – martixy
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 18:16

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