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Races of the Wild presents gnolls as an option for PC race. I find its description a bit confusing.

First, there are gnoll racial traits on page 99 pointing out that

  • A gnoll begins with two levels of humanoid, which provide 2d8 Hit Dice; a base attack bonus of +1; and base saving throw bonuses of Fort +3, Ref +0, and Will +0.
  • Level adjustment +1.

On page 102 there is gnoll monster class section, which has its own racial traits subsection. Among other differences, it does not mention neither LA +1 nor 2 humanoid levels. As I understand, gnoll character created using these rules has to take all 3 levels in gnoll monster class before taking levels in any other class.

I am not sure if I understand these character creation options correctly. Let's say I want to create gnoll barbarian. Do I have these 2 options:

  • Start as gnoll barbarian 1. My ECL is 4 from 1 level of barbarian, 2 levels of humanoid and LA +1. Therefore this option is only plausible when DM allows characters on 4th level (or higher).
  • Start as gnoll (monster class) gnoll 1. My ECL is 1, but before taking any level in barbarian class, I need to get all 3 levels in gnoll monster class. This option is plausible when allowed character starting level is 1.

Also, according to description, 2 humanoid levels give me 2d8 HD, 1 feat and 5 × (2 + Int modifier) skill points. Progression in gnoll monster class gives similar features. Does it mean that at 1st level in barbarian class I do not receive 1 feat and (4 + Int modifier) × 4 skill points? Does it mean I will not gain new feat until barbarian level 3, when other PCs will gain their (at least) 3rd feat and I will have less total skill points than, for example, dwarf barbarian at 6th level, with same Int score?

Centaurs have similar rules. They start with 4 levels of monstrous humanoid and LA +2, and their monster class has 6 levels.

So my question is basically to clarify gnoll character creation process. Is above reasoning correct? Is gnoll monster class only to provide option for players to create character with ECL 1 instead of ECL 4, or does it have any adventages/drawbacks over 2 humanoid levels + LA+1 option?

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Monster classes are indeed an adaptation of monsters allowing to get lower level monsters (and monster characters).

With regard to gaining skill points and feats, however, you should base yourself on hit dice:

  • you get the x4 multiplier on skill points for your first hit die
  • you get 1 feat for your first hit die and every 3 hit dice (plus whatever bonus feat you manage to scrounge)

So, looking at your two options for gnolls:

  • going with the base gnoll race (2 RHD, +1 LA): you start play as a 1st level Barbarian with 3 Hit Dice and an ECL 4 (check out Unearthed Arcana about LA buy-off), this gives you 5 x (2+Int) skill points from your race and 1 x (4+Int) skill point from your barbarian level as well as 2 feats (next feat in 3 levels)
  • going with the monster class: you start play as a 1st level Barbarian with 3 Hit Dice and an ECL 4, this gives you 5 x (2+Int) skill points from your monster class levels and 1 x (4+Int) skill point from your barbarian level, as well as 2 feats (next feat in 3 levels)

So indeed you gain less skill points and are delayed for feats (by 1 level). The penalty in skill points and feats is the price you pay to get the specific features that the monster race/class offers: if you feel those specific features are not worth it (they may very well not be), you may have to either rely on your DM's generosity or pick another class if it matters to you.

Note: in my opinion, the gnoll statistics are not that bad for a Barbarian, however the delay introduced in class levels and features for the small Strength boost might invalidate some builds... so it really depends where you want to take it from there.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To base skill points and feats on hit dices instead of ECL, actually helps to understand this. However, the table 4-2 on page 102, shows that 3rd level in gnoll monster class does not provide additional HD (it's 2d8 as on level 2) nor skill points. It means that at barbarian level 1 (either with or without monster class), I will have same amount of HD, skill points and feats (2 feats and next feat in 3 levels), does it? \$\endgroup\$ – dzielins42 Aug 14 '16 at 19:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @dzielins42: Ah, indeed (I should have checked the book). Let me fix this. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Aug 14 '16 at 20:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ The two gnolls given in your answer seem identical. \$\endgroup\$ – Angew Aug 15 '16 at 13:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Angew: Indeed, as if the monster class had been created so that this would happen! The main difference is that the monster class can be played from level 1 and LA can be bought off. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Aug 15 '16 at 14:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Angew The gnoll monster class can be played from level 1. However, a player can't go full gnoll (i.e. just opt to play a gnoll as written and straight from the book) unless the DM allows PCs to start play at level 3 or higher. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 15 '16 at 15:08

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