There are times when an Ask-The-GM’s question doesn’t inspire one of us, or is too attached to the mechanics of one specific game system, or doesn’t have enough depth to justify a full blog post, or has already been answered by one of our articles, or for some other reason simply doesn’t suit the approach that we’ve developed for responding to enquiries put to us. When that happens, we usually simply drop an email to the person who asked the question to offer a quick answer. Sometimes, by broadening the question or generalising the specific situation described in the enquiry, we can make our replies more generally useful. And sometimes, one of us will simply grab the ball and run with it.

Recently, Johnn and I were asked,

Ask the gamemastersHow do you go about leveling up a character that has a level adjustment of +1, when it comes to feats? Meaning, if a character his level 2 but has an ECL of 3, does he get his level 3 feat or does he have to wait till his levels equal 3?

This is obviously in relation to a d20 system of some kind, probably D&D 3.x. It’s a very specific question about a specific game system mechanic, which is something that we try to avoid in ATGM questions. Johnn and I both agreed that it fell outside the scope of ATGMs, but I felt that there was enough to be said on the broader subject that it would make a suitable blog post. So, with Johnn politely egging me on from behind the scenes (because he wants to hear what I have to say on the subject), let’s dig in.

This question relates to three different areas of game mechanics. One is levelling up, the second is the usage of a level adjustment, and the last is relative power levels and level adjustments in general. I intend to spend most of this blog post talking about the last of these, but let’s tackle them in order:

On Levelling Up

The first question I’ve already examined, at least so far as Prestige Classes is concerned, giving the best answer that I’ve found to date in an article entitled Shadow Levels. So let’s exclude them from the subject, at least for the moment, and talk about standard class levels, and the general process of levelling up.

I’ve run a number of different D&D games over the years, and each one has had a different approach to this question.

  1. My first campaign was a fairly straightforward AD&D dungeon-bash. Characters levelled up immediatly they got enough xp. This made the addition of a level seem trivial. This procedure was also used in most of the games I had played in prior to my assumption of the GM’s “hat”.
  2. My second campaign was another straightforward AD&D dungeon-bash. Characters had to level up by returning to town. This proved inconvenient during play. The few campaigns I had played in that didn’t follow the instant-power-up approach had used this method.
  3. My third AD&D campaign was so short-lived that no-one got to level up.
  4. My fourth AD&D campaign started off as a dungeon-bash but quickly grew to embrace a larger realm. It attempted to compromise between the two standard approaches by defining critical points in each character classes’ progression, when the character gained significant new capabilities; at such times, the character had to be trained appropriately by someone who already had mastered such abilities (defined as having had them for at least ten character levels) in order to acquire them for themselves. In the meantime, they got all the upgrades of the new level except those for which they specifically needed to be trained (you can see the first glimmerings of the Shadow Levels concept emerging here). This meant that at regular intervals, the party would have to locate suitable individuals for training, but most of the time gaining a level did not interrupt the adventure in progress. This worked well in general, but some characters were affected with a disproportionately high frequency.
  5. My fifth D&D campaign was the first Fumanor campaign. It was designed as an AD&D campaign, then became 2nd Ed before the start of play, and ultimately became D&D 3.0 after a brief interlude as Rolemaster. With spells from D&D 3.5. (And if that sounds complicated, it was!) Levels were acquired using the instant-power-up approach to enable the campaign plotline to proceed without interruption, but this was a source of constant aggravation to me because I later realised that the halt to acquisition of levels when a character maxes out his experience is supposed to be a game-levelling feature within the system*.
  6. My sixth D&D campaign took the system I had used in the fourth campaign and updated it to accommodate D&D 3.0 and 3.5. This system worked reasonably well.
  7. My seventh and eighth D&D campaigns are sequels to the first Fumanor campaign, and I’ve written about them many times before here at Campaign Mastery. They inherited the instant-power-up of the preceeding campaign, but with a modified system of dispensing XP, which I discussed in A Different Experience. The result has been a more reasonable rate of progression in levels, which has avoided the problems of the first campaign.
  8. My ninth campaign also uses the instant-power-up model coupled with the shadow levels idea and the amended XP procedure. Before the modified method of xp award calculations was introduced, it was suffering from the same problems as the first Fumanor campaign, but since this tweak was brought in, things have proceeded in a far more satisfactory and moderate manner.
  9. My next campaign is expected to to be primarily interdimensional in scope and will be an Epic-levels campaign. It will also be a sequel to the current Fumanor campaigns. For all of these reasons, it will follow the same methodology as seven and eight.
  10. The 11th campaign is still nothing more than a distant one-day-maybe. I have only vague notions of what might be in it. If it ever happens, it will take the model used for my sixth campaign and update it to incorporate the shadow levels and modified xp tables – in other words, all of the above tricks will be brought together to form what is hopefully my definitive approach to the problem.

*: A game-levelling feature is a rule or rules that are designed to keep character power levels from exploding too quickly. In this case, either you interrupt the scenario for characters to train, or they forego experience once they max out until they can break away from the scenario to do so. The problem is that players get unhappy if they can’t earn xp any more, and even more unhappy if they can’t get what they have ‘earned’ for umpteen weeks play, ie the Level. So you either push verisimilitude to the breaking point, or you give in and go for the computer-game-style “instant level gain”.

The Mechanics Of Level Adjustments

This is where I actually address the question that prompted this article in the first place – so heads up, Enquiring GM!

Level Adjustments are defined very poorly in the DMG (page 173). Instead, it dives straight into how to use them, and even then, it isn’t terribly clear. Hence, the question arises in the first place! Wizards Of The Coast do a little better (but only a little better) in their D&D 3.5 Glossary. The easiest way to handle level adjustments without confusion is to treat the level adjustment plus the number of hit dice as levels in “monster”, ie treat the character as multiclassing without penalty. For example, A Bugbear (3HD) has a level adjustement of +1, so a 1st-level Bugbear Cleric has levels “Bugbear 3+1 / Cleric 1” and is a fifth-level character. Note that I indicate the level adjustment seperately after the “+” sign for clarity.

For his three hit dice, plus 1 level adjustment, the character gets everything listed in the monster manual entry under “Bugbear”, plus the ability to take class levels. The first character level that he takes – “Cleric 1” in my example – shifts all his numbers on table 3-2 of the PHB, “Experience and Level-dependant Benefits” from 4th to 5th level – meaning that he has a maximum of 8 ranks in his class skills, 4 ranks in his cross-class skills, gets no feats or ability increases, and needs another 5,000 XP to progress to Cleric level 2.

When the character does so, he will become a 6th level character, and will gain an additional feat.

Skill Points: The unanswered question

Note that the character HAS no class skills until he takes the character class level, all his skill purchases are cross-classed. For his first three character levels he gets no skill points – or, more properly, his skill points are pre-allocated to the skills given in the monster manual.

A more troublesome question is whether or not the character should be given a set of skill points for the level adjustment. The DMG ignores the question, and even the Rules Compendium, which is so good at clarifying various aspects of the rules, is silent on the issue. This can be debated either way without coming to a satisfactory answer, subtly changing the meaning of a level adjustment within a campaign. (I tried to define the difference for this post but ended up tied in linguistic knots and using up more discussion space than the question warrants).

I resolve this question by looking at it from a metagame perspective: Is it possible that a player would feel hard done by if they were not to recieve the skill points? Yes. In the long run, will one level’s worth of skill points make that big a difference? No. Decision made.

In effect, this principle states that before the character takes his first class level, he has “Bugbear 3+1 / Cleric 0”, and that the “extra” skill points can be used to give the character a start in appropriate class skills for a cleric. This makes so much sense that (to me at least) it fully justifies the decision made.

The meaning of level adjustments

Having clarified exactly how level adjustments can be made to work sensibly, we can start to look behind the curtain and get a glimpse of just what they are intended to symbolise.

CR vs. Level Adjustments

In theory, you could backtrack from any creature in the Monster Manual as though each hit dice was a class level, determining how many feats the creature has, how many “psuedo-class abilities” they should have, what skill points they should have, and so on.

But, in practice, some creatures have more abilities or more effective combinations of abilities than others, which is why CR is not the same as Hit Dice. And when you backtrack through, you find that you need some extra “psuedo-levels” to contain these additional capabilties. The CR is set according to game balance and has been tweaked according to play-testing experience.

So why can’t you use the difference between CR and HD to determine the level adjustment? Or simply use the CR directly for the monster levels? Because it doesn’t work, that’s why (I know – it surprised me, too – before working up this post, I had been doing exactly that and assuming it was the right answer).

As I explained in A Different Experience, each +1 CR theoretically increases a creature’s power level by a factor of 1.414, the square root of 2. A Bugbear is light on special abilities, so it only has a CR of 2 – they’re tough creatures, but not as tough as a typical 3HD creature. A Coatl, by comparison, has 9 HD and a CR of 10 – but has a level adjustment of +7.

The numbers can’t be easily reconciled – they vary independantly of each other because they are measuring different aspects of the monster construction. The Coatl is a great example to look at more closely; it isn’t that much tougher than a ‘standard’ 9 HD creature, as shown by the CR of 10, but the abilities that it has make it comparable to a 16th-level character – hence the +7 level adjustment. Except that if you probe a few other entries, you soon find that this method doesn’t work consistantly either.
The bottom line is this: I don’t know HOW the authors came up with their level adjustment values – they might have been plucked from thin air, as a “this sounds about right,” for all I know. Perhaps the technique is correct but not all abilities are created equal – I suspect this is the right answer, but just don’t know (which irritates the heck out of me).

The same can’t be said for CR. The Monster’s Handbook by Fantasy Flight Games has a very detailed and cogent explanation of how to determine CR – and how to adjust it for additional abilities. Would that there was a similarly cogent analysis of how to determine a creature’s level adjustement somewhere!

So the key point is that the two are NOT the same thing. Not even close.

Working With Savage Species

Savage Species cover

Savage Species is a sourcebook from Wizards Of The Coast that at first glance is absolutely brilliant – and at second glance is totally redundant – and at third glance is abysmally confusing. If you look at the reviews at Amazon, you’ll find opinion similarly divided.

Here’s the basic premise: take a creature’s hit dice plus level adjustment, ie ECL, and divide everything about the creature – size, HD, abilities – up into proportional slices. So that if you looked up “Bugbear” in the book, you would find that a “4th level Bugbear” had everything that our 3+1 version using the core rulebooks have.

Then you extend those tables all the way up through the advancements shown in the Monster Manual for bigger, stronger creatures.

Sounds great, right? Except that the tables are all messed up. They didn’t stop there; they didn’t get the equity level right; and they inserted rules that require that you to advance all the way in a “monster class” before you can take a character level, and stuck absolutely no requirement for age onto things.

To make Savage Species the brilliant supplement that it should be, and a viable alternative to the method from the core rulebooks, you need to employ some house rules and a bit of research.

Start by relating the creature to a real-world creature. What you want is the growth and aging pattern of the creature. These can be radically different from one creature to another.

The next thing you need to do is decide on the typical lifespan of the D&D creature, and label the growth curve of the real-world creature appropriately. What this does is permit the determination of a required “age” (in game years) for the achievement of another level of monster “growth”.

Once you have that, you put in place a house rule that says that monster-characters must always take a character level except for the first level gained after crossing an age threshold, when they must take a monster level. Furthermore, you designate some of the growth levels as ‘optional’ so that you can have a variation in size for age. If you’re feeling generous, you might add additional rules permitting some monster levels to be brought forward or delayed, but that’s the general principle.

Typical Growth Charts

Here are eight typical growth charts. All of these have some foundation in the real world, but these were all drawn quickly using a vector graphics program, so don’t consider them gospel! These are a representative sample, not an exhaustive list – there are thousands of variations.

  1. shows a straightfoward linear growth.
  2. shows a species that grows quickly in its early years and then slows, having achieved 90% or so of its ultimate size.
  3. shows a species that grows very slowly for a long time before suddenly rocketing up in size.
  4. shows a more complex growth pattern in which an initial burst starts slow but gathers pace before the creature size stabalises for a period of time before resuming steady growth.
  5. shows a stepped growth pattern, where sudden spurts are seperated by regular periods of size stability.
  6. shows a slow growth followed by a spurt followed by more slow growth – this is not far off the typical human model.
  7. shows an early quick growth that slows before accellerating again.
  8. shows a steady, rapid growth, that abruptly slows to a different steady growth rate.

As stated above, there are many other patterns possible. The important thing is to get a reasonable graph and then relate it to the entries in a Savage Species table.

An example

Let’s look at an example (I’ll be making this up, as I don’t have a copy of this particular rulebook). Let’s say that we have a monster, the Kreetu, whose table is broken up into ten ‘monster levels’. The Kreetu will use chart F from the examples above:

The first step is to relate the growth pattern to information on the “Kreetu” table (if there were actually such a thing). This is charted on the vertical axis, assuming that the horizontal is used for age. It might be height**, or length**, or creature size**, or weight, but the simplest answer is simply to call it “monster levels”. Assuming an 18-year maturation, since the ‘Kreetu’ are supposed to have ten of them, we get this:

The next step is to drop vertical lines down the chart to determine the age at which the ‘Kreetu’ achieve each stage of their growth:

(This is a little overcomplicated, I’m afraid I got carried away). Anyway, from this, you can determine the following:

Lvl 1 = 1.8 years
Lvl 2 = 2.8 years
Lvl 3 = 3.5 years
Lvl 4 = 4 years
Lvl 5 = 4.2 years
Lvl 6 = 5 years
Lvl 7 = 6.2 years
Lvl 8 = 7.9 years
Lvl 9 = 13 years
Lvl 10 = 18 years

From this information, you can customise as necessary.

  • You could specify that a Kreetu is not mature enough to take a class skill until it reaches level 3 – that’s 3.5 years, and mandates that the character’s first three levels are in ‘Kreetu’.
  • Or you could look at these results and decide that the growth rate is much faster than it should be, and multiply the numbers by three – so that 3.5 years would become almost 10 years – which is roughly the age when humans were apprenticed in medieval society.
  • You could make the 3.5 year growth ‘optional’ so that at the 3.5 year mark, the character could choose to be a typical level 3 Kreetu or could take a class level and be smaller than the typical Kreetu – foregoing Kreetu levels 9 and 10. At the 4.2 year mark, this runt must take his third level of Kreetu, at age five he must take his 5th level, and so on. At the age of 13, he would achieve his full growth as an 8th-level Kreetu.
  • Or you could permit the Kreetu to take Level 6 at 4.5 years instead of 5 years to get one that matures early and is bigger than the average Kreetu.
  • Or you could simply give a Kreetu a six-month window, game time, in which to take the next monster level. That won’t make much difference to a youngster, but you can get a lot of adventuring done in six months of game time.
  • Or simply make all Kreetu levels optional after some minimum number.

You have a wealth of options that you can make available to the player regarding his character’s physical growth. But more importantly, you aren’t forcing 20 or 50 or 200 years of growth into 2 or 3 or 5 game years, and so are getting sensible answers.

That last point is the reason why I came up with these rules. I had a player in one of my campaigns who wanted to play a treant – actually a treant variation from the campaign called a Verdonne (smaller, faster, smarter). At the rate the party were earning levels at the time, I could see that he would become a 200′ tall 20-level creature in about 6 months of game time – something that should have taken a century or two. Applying this system made the character a sapling, just short of Medium height, with total levels equivalent to those of the party. He earned 2 character levels at the same rate that they did before achieving the right age to have the option of taking a monster level. He deferred for another character level before taking an additional level of Verdonne (he wanted the Medium size, having tired of the size penalty in combat), and the d10 hit die was not to be sneered at, either (his class levels were all d4 HP).

Some additional notes:

**: Height and length are amongst the most obvious choices, and the most difficult to use. This is because height/length doubles with every size category – so a straight line would actually represent explosive growth.

: The density of organic matter is pretty much constant, and presumably the same would be true of an elemental or a golem or whatever – only the amount would change. Therefore this is the same as the volume. To get a rough calculation of the volume of a humanoid body, it’s pi × s × s × h/4 where s is the distance from shoulder to shoulder and h is the height at the shoulders. Pi, of course, is 3.1415927.

With these changes in place, Savage Species represents a sensible extension to the method in the Core Rulebooks.


Once you wrap your head around what’s involved, the combination of character levels and non-humans expand your repetoire as a GM almost infinitely. There’s nothing to prevent our Bugbear Cleric from taking a prestige class to go with his Cleric levels, for example. GMs get far more use out of the potentials than any single player can, because species can be chosen that deliberately enhance the character class abilities, or which evade many or all of the vulnerabilities of the class, or that are just plain interesting.

However, the potentials are so vast that if the GM permits a PC to take such an option, he is practically mandated to take advantage of it himself, or he can find his opposition overwhelmed by a savvy combination.

Which reminds me – one of these days, I’ll have to tell you about the flaws in Dragons, and what I do about them… but that’s a subject for another Blog.

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