Level adjustment, or equivalent character level, is a rule specific to Dungeons & Dragons third edition which allows players to play a more powerful race, such as a monster, by taking a penalty to their character level.
The equivalent character level system first appeared in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (3e) (2001).
The popularity of Drizzt Do'Urden, a drow character from a series of novels set in the Forgotten Realms, created demand for rules to play drow. However, D&D third edition's original Monster Manual (3.0) (2000) had already established drow as significantly more powerful than standard elves, requiring the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting to introduce new rules to balance.
Later rulebooks, such as the D&D 3.5 revision of the Monster Manual (3.5) (2003), made the level adjustment system part of the standard rules.
Certain powerful races start with a racial trait known as level adjustment. Simply put, this is the number of levels you are behind a normal character with the same amount of experience.
For example, a human fighter who gains 3,000 XP reaches third level, becoming a third level fighter. However, a tiefling fighter, who has a level adjustment of +1, only reaches second level at 3,000 XP, becoming a second level fighter.
Assuming the human and his tiefling party member always receive the same amount of XP, they will always level up at the same time, but the tiefling will always be one fighter level behind the human.
In effect, the character starts with one or more blank levels, which give absolutely no abilities (no hit dice, hit points, spells per day, skill points, base attack bonus, etc), except to increase his effective character level for the purposes of levelling up and (for new characters) how much treasure he starts with.
The subtle difference between terms related to level adjustment has confused many new players, and even official writers.
- Equivalent character level (ECL) is the level you are for the purposes of XP only. A human level 5 fighter, tiefling level 4 fighter, and drow level 3 fighter all have an ECL of 5, and will gain another level when they reach 15,000 XP.
- Level adjustment (LA) is the number of levels you are behind a human of the same XP. A tiefling has a level adjustment of +1, also called LA+1 or ECL+1.
- Challenge rating (CR) is used only to determine how much XP such a creature gives if the player characters defeat one in combat. It has no meaning to someone playing a character of that type.
- Hit dice: These are real levels for all intents and purposes, and are not included in the level adjustment. For example, the ogre (4 hit dice, +2 level adjustment) who takes one level of fighter has an ECL of 7. The exception is creatures with only 1 hit die (e.g. drow).
Following the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting's publication of level adjustments for planetouched and evil variants of standard races (aasimar, tiefling, genasi, drow, duergar and svirfneblin), level adjustments were eventually published for a wide variety of monsters.
In March 2002, Dragon Magazine #293's article Monsters with Class published level adjustments for over 365 monsters. This was followed by the sourcebook Savage Species (2003) and the D&D 3.5 revision of the Monster Manual gave level adjustments for many creatures, including dragons.
Savage Species presents several "level progressions", which divides races into levels. A series of web articles written by Sean Reynolds expands this to cover several acquired templates (e.g. lich, lycanthropes) and progressions such as from tiefling to half-fiend.
While many players used the level adjustment system, the level cost ultimately reduced the effectiveness of characters at high level, especially spellcasters, for whom a penalty of one or two levels can cost them the top level of their spells and severely impact their power. Races with high level adjustment, such as the vampire (+8) were frequently unplayably fragile.
Later editions of Dungeons & Dragons abandoned the level adjustment system. For example, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition simply reduced the power of tiefling and drow to be on par with standard races like human and elf.
Reducing level adjustments
Unearthed Arcana (3e) (2004) produced a variant allowing characters suffering from a level adjustment to buy off those levels by paying a flat XP cost. This reduces the level deficit as the character increases in level.
Level builds such as in Savage Species (2003) presented players with a way to take a monster class one level at a time, starting at level 1 with a fraction of the base creature's abilities. This concept actually dates back to Original D&D (1974), where Gygax writes:
- There is no reason that characters cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as, let us say, a "young" one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.
- — Gary Gygax, Men & Magic (1974), p.8.
A variant is to allow all players in a campaign to select a monster character, giving a certain amount of free level adjustment. This allows characters who are more powerful than standard, but solves the problem of balance within the party.
Reduced points buy
One variant allows player characters to play a race with level adjustment without taking a level penalty, but instead taking a penalty to the number of points used to select their character's ability scores in a points buy system.
- Reducing Level Adjustments, D20 SRD.