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How do you play a LA+1 race at level 1?

I have a group starting, and want to keep things equal with the players. I have one player who would like to play a LA+1 race.
How do I balance all of this to make it fair with all the players?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This may very well depend upon the LA +1 race, as they are not all equally useful and balanced. What race, and what does the player plan to do with it (i.e. does the player have a build in mind or is the player simply enamored with the role-playing possibilities)? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 30, 2022 at 19:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is a good and valid question to ask in general—but encourage you to ask a separate follow-up question about balancing the particular LA +1 race your player is interested in. We can definitely help with that. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Mar 30, 2022 at 20:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ LA+1 is still more or less equal. Not much imbalance there. This person just won't get his first level-up at 1000 XP but at 3000 XP. I would even allow LA +2 or +3 race this way. They really aren't that strong. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nec Xelos
    Apr 11, 2022 at 2:48

2 Answers 2

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Officially, you cannot.

A 1st-level character of an LA +1 race is an ECL 2nd character—so in order to play one, you must be starting at 2nd level or higher.

There are official alternatives

Wizards of the Coast themselves recognized this flaw, and others, with the ECL system, and in later books introduced alternatives to mitigate some of the problems.

Monster Progressions

Savage Species debuted the concept of “monster progressions” instead of “just” starting with LA. A few other books also included some of these progressions, and there was also some follow-up material on their website with more progressions, including for templates rather than races.

These progressions effectively allow you to start from ECL 1st, and then build up the various benefits—and LA—of the race or template in question as you level-up. In this way, a more powerful race becomes more like a class than just a race—but a class you are obligated to continue taking until you complete it.

“Lesser” versions of races and templates

Monster and template progressions are still a poor system. LA is crippling, no matter how gradually you accrue it. Wizards of the Coast seemed to recognize this, too, printing a number of “lesser” versions of races and templates that provide less benefit, but also incur less LA. For instance, the core LA +3 half-dragon saw the LA +1 draconic in Draconomicon (which even got its own 5-level prestige class, the dragon devotee, that parallels the 10-level dragon disciple).

In the extreme, LA was avoided altogether—for example, all of the LA +0 “dragonblooded” races in Dragon Magic instead of even the LA +1 of draconic. Similarly, the dragonborn of Bahamut “template” (that’s more like a race) from Races of the Dragon. Player’s Guide to Faerûn offered “lesser” planetouched, which aren’t true outsiders but also have LA +0. Necropolitan is a weird case from Libris Mortis—it’s basically like an LA +1 template with free buy-off.

Negative level adjustment

Player’s Guide to Faerûn suggests that a “negative level adjustment” might apply LA −1 along with a −1 penalty to skill checks, ability checks, level checks, attacks, saves, saving throw DCs, and any AC bonuses from the race. Take as many as you need to reduce your LA to a point that the race is playable in the game, and then as you level-up, instead of actually gaining a level, just remove one of these negative LA.

I’ve never played with this variant, but my gut feeling is that it’s highly game-able. Creatures with LA have large ability score bonuses which can largely offset those penalties. In fact, since one of the few things that isn’t penalized is your hp, you’d almost certainly wish to keep your negative LA and get real levels rather than remove the negative LA.

Unrelated, but there is also a template with negative LA, the incarnate construct of Savage Species that removes the Construct type from a construct in exchange for reducing LA by 2. This is largely irrelevant since there are very few playable constructs to begin with, and the most playable one (warforged) doesn’t have any LA to reduce (and anyway the interactions between incarnate construct and the warforged’s living construct subtype are incredibly wonky, and even if you really want to go there, dragonborn of Bahamut is the better route).

LA Buyoff

One of the variants published in Unearthed Arcana was “LA Buyoff” rules that they published to allow characters to “undo” LA later on in their careers, effectively losing their LA (but also the level that went with it)—since this left them as a lower-level character, they should get more XP than their peers and thus begin to “catch up.”

Plus plenty of homebrew or fan options

I’ve seen games where one could replace the level adjustment of a race or class with a reduced point buy, or that characters of certain, weaker classes could use options that would otherwise require LA for free. So, for instance, a half-minotaur fighter might have lower point buy, or you could play a half-dragon monk but not a half-dragon wizard.

But these basically don’t work

Progressions solve the ECL 1st issue but nothing else. Even reduced amounts of LA are still too much; even LA +1 is near-crippling. Some of the no-LA options are good (dragonblood races, dragonborn, warforged), but others are overpowered (lesser planetouched, necropolitan), so that’s pretty hit-or-miss. And all of the above only apply to a select few races and templates that they bothered to do it for. Buyoff is more general and covers everything, but it only helps later on, and even when it’s in play it makes handing out XP so much more annoying for the DM and at best it results in “suffer early to be overpowered late” which is not exactly what I call “balance.”

The lower point buy, or LA restricted by the power of the class, are better ideas, but I’ve never really found a good one-size-fits-all approach that I think works well. The games I’ve been in that have used it, have felt much higher power as a result of it.

So for my own games, LA is banned. Any content with an LA that a player wants, I try to convert into a balanced LA +0 option. As I said, some of the official LA +0 versions of things are good; some are not. I try to make more that are good. For LA +1 things, this often just means toning down the ability score adjustments; sometimes it doesn’t even mean that—goliath and half-giant are fine as LA +0 even as-is, and blues aren’t even good enough for LA +0 as they are.

For stronger things, I either start just stripping features away, or sometimes I’ll split features of the LA +1 race across an LA +0 race and a mandatory 1st-level feat. But crucially, both the race and feat have to be balanced like an LA +0 race and like a feat. One of the big takeaways there is that feats don’t offer ability score bonuses—and LA +0 races always offset ability score bonuses with at least as much penalty, and almost never exceed +2 to any score. Ability score bonuses are a big part of the problem with LA’d options, and something I take pains to avoid.

If I cannot do come up with a fair 1st-level version of something, then the content is unavailable. Unfortunately, in my (strongly-held, expert) opinion, this is the only workable solution. LA is just that problematic.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any experience with playing the variant rule of paying off LA with experience points? \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael W.
    Mar 30, 2022 at 19:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelW. Oh, yeah, should address that. Verdict is “meh, not impressed.” Ultimately, it’s standard “suffer now to be overpowered later” nonsense, and it still causes all of the major DMing headaches that LA always does, and then some. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Mar 30, 2022 at 20:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelW.: I played a character with LA-buyoff once, on the condition that I would be handling the headache of XP as a river, instead of the DM. It's not super complicated, so long as you like maths. The real problem was my HD pool: at ECL 3 (Level 1 + 2 LA), I had only 1 HD. I was fortunate to play a crusader (tanky) with top constitution and even then went down a couple times: 1 HD is just little, 2 HD when the others have 4 is similarly small, etc... I wouldn't recommend LA buy-off for starting characters; it just amplifies the swingy & brittle nature of first levels. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 31, 2022 at 7:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ "How do you play a LA race?" "That's the neat thing: you don't" \$\endgroup\$ Mar 31, 2022 at 19:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Negative Level adjustment is a variant rule from Player's Guide to Faerun 190. It permits starting at 1st with some fairly heavy penalties that get replaced with the empty levels as the character gains levels. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chemus
    Apr 1, 2022 at 22:01
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The rules provide minimal useful guidance on this, with some exceptions for specific races.

You've identified a genuine problem with the Level Adjustment rules: LA provides a mechanism for estimating equivalent power at higher levels (e.g., a level 1 character with +1 LA and a level 2 character with +0 LA are both ECL 2 characters, which theoretically means they're equivalent in power), but there's no official way for a character to both have +1 LA and be equivalent in power to an ECL 1 character.

The closest the rules come to acknowledging this is some advice which is the opposite of useful. Races of Faerun (p. 6) says:

Characters with ECL modifiers of +1 or better should begin play equipped as characters of their effective character level, not their class level (refer to Table 2–24 in the DUNGEONMASTER’s Guide).

Obviously, letting your PC with +1 LA begin play with the equipment of a level 2 character will make them stronger, not weaker, so this is contrary to your goals.

Some races with LA have had "savage progressions" written for them (classes that gradually give you the benefits of a more powerful race). For instance, here is a WotC article that provides savage progressions for some planetouched races. If your player is playing such a race, you can use the savage progression to start them as a weaker version and then give them the full benefits of their race when the rest of the PCs hit level 2.

However, most races with LA never got savage progressions, so this will only help in a few specific cases.

The unofficial E6 ruleset suggests using point buy adjustments to balance this.

E6 (a popular variant ruleset where the maximum level for PCs is level 6) provides a suggested houserule to handle this problem: Give PCs with LA lower point buy totals when purchasing attributes at character creation.

There are multiple versions of the E6 rules (since it isn't really an official ruleset), but the original, most popular version of the ruleset provides the following adjustments for point buy:

LA Point Buy Allocation
+0 32
+1 25
+2 18
+3 10
+4 00

My estimation is that this is excessively harsh in penalizing LA - most LA +1 races provide less benefit over LA +0 races than 7 extra point buy points during character creation. Which brings us to what might be the most important point of all...

Most LA +1 races are weak enough that you can probably get away with not worrying about it.

The dirty little secret of the LA rules is that LA races are, frankly, almost never worth it. Being a level behind the rest of the party in class features, spell access, hit dice, saves, etc. is really really bad, and very few races or templates with LA +1 actually provide enough benefits to balance out this disadvantage. You can read more about this in various answers on this site (e.g., here, here, and here).

So, sure, a PC with a LA +1 race will have a bit of an advantage over other PCs at first level, when they're ECL 2 and everybody else is ECL 1. But starting at level 2, that will turn into a (much bigger) disadvantage, as everybody else gets a level worth of class features and they don't. Given how little time most campaigns spend at level 1, this probably works out to be net-negative for the PC with LA.

Note that, if you're using the optional LA buyoff rules, this changes (the PC with LA +1 would have an advantage at ECL 1, a disadvantage at ECL 2-4, and then an advantage again from ECL 5 onward). In this case, because they spend most of their career with an advantage, I'd consider using some sort of houserule like the point buy adjustment suggested in the E6 rules.

Final possibility: Find or homebrew a LA +0 option.

Because of all the balance issues and useless rules discussed above, you might want to ditch the whole LA mess entirely and just find a way to let the player play their desired race with LA +0. There are some official options for this (e.g., the lesser planetouched from Savage Species), but you can also just homebrew a slightly weaker version of whatever LA +1 race they want to play to avoid having to deal with confusing, difficult-to-balance ECL nonsense.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You misunderstand Races of Faerûn there—they’re saying a 1st-level, LA +1 character is—and is equipped like—a 2nd-level character. The rules are entirely clear about this. The official answer to playing an ECL 1st character with LA +1 is a very clear “No.” And while LA +1 races are not remotely worth a level, almost always, they usually are quite a bit stronger than LA +0 races, so just ignoring the difference is going to make anyone playing an LA +0 race feel quite left out. Plus there are some issues with some of the larger ability score bonuses. Not wild about that advice. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Mar 30, 2022 at 20:08

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