A player character who is a Doppelganger has four levels of Monstrous Humanoid and LA +4:

Racial Hit Dice: A doppelganger begins with four levels of monstrous humanoid, which provide 4d8 Hit Dice, a base attack bonus of +4, and base saving throw bonuses of Fort +1, Ref +4, and Will +4.

Level adjustment: +4.

I would like to remove those four levels, so the character starts as a level 1 character as far as BaB, hit dice, saves and skills go.

Would that just work, leaving us with a (reasonably balanced) "only" LA +4 Doppelganger, ready to enter a character class at level 1 and ECL 5? Or should I make other adjustments, for balance?

How can I allow the player to be a non-druid shapechanger without getting stuck in the high-ECL trap?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Out of curiosity, why that way instead of keeping the racial Hit Dice and instead eliminating the LA? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 11, 2022 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Mostly so any attackers can be "equally deadly" to all level 1 characters, but also since I imagine the LA to be associated with the bonuses (boni?) of the race - abilities and stat adjustments, which are more or less the reason to take the race, fluff notwithstanding. \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Sep 11, 2022 at 18:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, it seems the Cabinet Trickster Prestige Class provides the Doppelganger qualities in five levels to a Changeling (LA +0) character. That will probably solve my use-case. Should I leave the question up or delete it? \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Sep 11, 2022 at 19:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @From Up to you, but for what it’s worth, I was in the middle of recommending a changeling cabinet trickster when I got this phone call. :P \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Sep 11, 2022 at 20:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ There have been many efforts to make unplayable monsters playable in the GitP forums. Including some of my own. You can generally find the LA assignment thread on the front page, and here is the index: forums.giantitp.com/showthread.php?624825 \$\endgroup\$
    – martixy
    Nov 21, 2022 at 19:49

1 Answer 1


In general, RHD are bad for you. Removing them makes you stronger. Thus, in theory, when you remove RHD, you should increase LA. Not at a 1:1 ratio (RHD are much, much better for you than LA, so trading RHD for LA is a terrible trade¹), but if something is balanced at x RHD and LA +y, it isn’t going to be balanced at 1 RHD and LA +y.

That’s the theory. The reality is that WotC did a terrible job assigning LA, and almost nothing² with LA is actually balanced at its published ECL—characters of such races are near-uniformly crippled by it.

So how does an ECL 5th doppelganger work out? Poorly, as you might expect.

Well, the most significant things are at-will change shape (Small or Medium humanoid) and detect thoughts, which are not readily replaced. But alter self and detect thoughts are common, low-level spells, so you could certainly have them easily, just not usually at-will. To get truly at-will versions, though, there are a few options.

  • You can get at-will change shape (any humanoid form³) as a 6th-level dragonfire adept with the humanoid shape lesser invocation (Dragon Magic). There is also the changeling race, descendants of doppelgangers and humans that get minor change shape at will—it’s purely cosmetic, and cannot go Small, but those are relatively minor much of the time. For anyone else, a dip in psion can get the same feature by specializing in Psychometabolism and trading your 1st-level bonus feat for it.⁴

  • At-will detect thoughts is harder—there’s an epic skill check for it, but you have to regularly hit a DC 100 Sense Motive check, so, ya know, good luck with that. A better answer—to the whole question, as we’ll get to—is the cabinet trickster prestige class, which gets at-will detect thoughts at 5th level.

Beyond that, we have ability score improvements—not easily achieved but no one needs bonuses to all 6 ability scores like that. And then we get some natural armor—yawn—and immunity to sleep and charm effects—nice enough, but nothing amazing. In the long run, obviated by mind blank.

So a 5th-level changeling sorcerer or wizard, or egoist of any race, can pretty much do everything a doppelganger does, albeit limited per day on some of it. In exchange, they get ~3× the hp, ~5× the BAB,⁵ ~2× the skill points (and 2× the skill rank maximum, which is more important), and 3× the feats (including feats the doppelganger can’t possibly qualify for due to the BAB, skill rank maximum, and so on). They also have 5th-level spellcasting or manifesting, which is better than anything a doppelganger gets, and is ready to progress from there as more levels are gained.

Note that these aren’t just problems for the player of a doppelganger—it’s a huge headache for the DM. I’ve banned LA options from my games because of the problems of trying to balance encounters when most of the party has ~40 hp and one person has ~10. Plus, while I’m generally happy to allow players to retire characters they aren’t enjoying, it is still a potential disruption, and in my experience, basically every player who tries to use LA winds up begging off because of the problems.

So much better to just play the changeling and take appropriate spells or whatever. There are even some highly-appropriate feats and prestige classes:

  • Complete Arcane has the mindbender, the 1st level of which grants constant telepathy to 100 feet. Combined with the Mindsight feat from Lords of Madness, and the character can easily have greater awareness of other minds than a doppelganger does, even if accessing the actual thoughts of those minds requires casting detect thoughts. Notably, dragonfire adepts can qualify for mindbender without shenanigans, since its requirements are written to allow the charm least invocation to qualify and dragonfire adepts can get that invocation, if having things at-will is crucial and minor change shape isn’t good enough.

  • Races of Eberron has the cabinet trickster, a prestige class that gradually adds doppelganger features to a changeling, in a way that is much more appropriate for typical gameplay. This way, you get doppelganger change shape and true at-will detect thoughts in five levels. Doesn’t progress spellcasting or manifesting, so entry is probably not egoist, sorcerer, or wizard, but it’s pretty wide open.

    On the other hand, be aware that cabinet trickster is a pretty weak prestige class. It does some neat things, but until 5th level, your detect thoughts is incredibly limited, and it’s required for most of the other things that the class does. It also requires 7th level to even start, so you’d be ECL 11th by the time you actually get there. I have played in a game with a character that was allowed to take cabinet trickster as a base class—and it was fine.

    If early access to detect thoughts is a concern—we were starting at 6th so it wasn’t relevant to us—I’d recommend using cabinet trickster as written except that the required ranks of Disguise are dropped to 5 instead of 9. That allows you to take your 1st level of cabinet trickster at ECL 3rd—the same level other classes first get access to detect thoughts—and finish the class at ECL 8th—the ECL of a regular doppelganger.

  1. Unless LA buy-off is in play and you get to buy off the level instead of having the RHD; that’s worthwhile. But that’s a corner case even in the campaigns that implement that variant rule.

  2. Half-ogre, probably. Saint, maybe? Feral, with a generous ruling, perhaps. Lolth-touched and mineral warrior also get mentioned sometimes. But that’s pretty much it. And those are all templates anyway.

  3. Humanoid shape is theoretically better than the doppelganger’s change shape since it doesn’t have the size restriction, though non-Small/Medium humanoids will be hard to find.

  4. The egoist ACF for minor change shape was from this Mind’s Eye article.

  5. Treating a 1st-level wizard as having BAB +½ and the 5th-level one BAB +2½, just so the +0 doesn’t turn the ratio infinite.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @From Updated with some thoughts on how you might want to reduce the ECL of cabinet trickster, too. I’ve even played alongside one with no prerequisites aside from being a changeling, and it was fine. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Sep 12, 2022 at 14:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ That makes sense to me, the skill ranking requirements have always felt a bit arbitrary. And as you point out, reaching equivalency with "real" Doppelgangers at their ECL can't be too unbalanced. Able Learner, 3 Levels of Factotum, Persona Immersion at Level 3, and Bob's your uncle. Or you're Bob, if that who you want to be today. ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Sep 12, 2022 at 19:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @From Well, that’s one more level of factotum than you need to qualify (5-rank req means ECL 3rd is your cabinet trickster 1st level), but brains over brawn is very nice, of course. The other thing that might make cabinet trickster a lot more playable is to just make it a 3-level class, going with 1st: detect thoughts 2/day, doppelganger insights, thought trick (disrupt); 2nd: detect thoughts 4/day, thought trick (daze), bonus feat; 3rd: detect thoughts at will, change shape, thought trick (confuse, stun), bonus feat. Kinda dense levels, but still well short of full spellcasting... \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Sep 12, 2022 at 20:02

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