I Wanna Be a Monster When I Grow Up
So, after all that, you want to play a monster character? Those nice Hit Dice tempting you to be a Vrock, for example? Well, you've got a lot to learn. If you want to get a monster as a cohort via the Leadership feat then you also need to use this section. DMs should read this section too, since I'll be introducing concepts that are important to building monsters as a DM as well.
First, I'm going to note that almost none of this section applies to Pathfinder. Pathfinder is a newer version of 3.5 D&D with its own rules for playing monsters, described here.
If you want to play a monster, the first thing you need to understand is that level doesn't mean what you thought it meant.
The levels of Monsters are a difficult matter, it isn't just one of your Roleplaying Games. You may think at first I'm as mad as a Derro, when I tell you a Monster has Three Different Levels...
That's right, Three Different Levels! And to clear up a common misunderstanding, Level Adjustment is not a Level! It is, as the name should indicate, an adjustment to a level, much in the same way that an elf doesn't have 2 Dex, he or she has a Dex adjustment of +2. You have a Level Adjustment too: if your race is from the Player's Handbook, you have a +0 Level Adjustment. This is important because you can't play something if it doesn't have a level adjustment. Some monster entries say Level Adjustment: --. That means that that monster is not appropriate for players to play. Some other entries have a level adjustment, but say (cohort) in parentheses. That means that they are only appropriate as cohorts gained through the Leadership feat, and not as regular Player Characters.
Now to understand monsters as Player Characters, a good way to think about how they work is that Monster Characters are like Multiclass Characters. A Paladin 10/Fighter 9 is a multiclass character with 10 levels of Paladin and 9 levels of Fighter. Similarly, a Vrock Fighter 1 is a multiclass character with 10 "levels" of Vrock Racial Hit Dice and one level of Fighter. Racial Hit Dice are always a favored class, so characters never take multiclass XP penalties for their Racial Hit Dice.
The three different levels are:
- Effective Character Level: Effective Character Level, or ECL, is equal to your Racial Hit Dice, plus your Class Levels, plus your Level Adjustment. Put another way, Level Adjustment adjusts your ECL. As you may have noticed, a Vrock's ten Racial Hit Dice are way nicer than any ten levels of a Player's Handbook Class. The Level Adjustment serves to balance out how good these racial hit dice are, as well as the Vrock's many powerful traits and abilities. Effective Character Level is used to determine how much XP you have and who you should adventure with. Our example Vrock Fighter 1 has ten Racial Hit Dice, one Class Level, and a Level Adjustment of +8. Together, that means it has an ECL of 19, which means it should have more than 171,000 XP, and it will gain its next level when it reaches 190,000 XP. It should be adventuring with 19th level characters, so it is an appropriate party member for our Paladin 10/Fighter 9. Since it's adventuring with 19th level characters it is going to get treasure appropriate for a 19th level character. If your DM has been giving you the right amount of treasure (roughly that described on page 51 of the DMG), then at 19th level you should have total wealth around 580,000gp per person, as explained on page 135 of the DMG, so if you started out at 19th level this is an appropriate amount to start with.
- Character Level: Remember how your class levels in Fighter and the like were really Hit Dice? Well, your Character Level is your total Hit Dice, Racial Hit Dice plus Class Levels. The Vrock Fighter 1 has Character Level 10+1=11, while the Paladin 10/Fighter 9 has Character Level 19. Unless it's one of the exceptions I described above, whenever the rules refer to level and they don't specify a particular class they mean Character Level. For example, a spell that affects characters of 15th level or lower would hurt the Vrock, but it wouldn't hurt the Paladin.
- Class Level/Racial Hit Dice: As I've said before, Racial Hit Dice and Class Level are very similar. In particular, many abilities depend only on your level in your "monster class", just like many abilities of a multiclass character only depend on the level in one of the classes. Our Paladin 10/Fighter 9 adds 10 to damage with Smite Evil, not 19, because Smite Evil is based on Paladin Level. Similarly, if our Vrock leveled up to Fighter 2, it would have a Character Level of 12, but its Racial Hit Dice would still be 10, so when calculating save DCs for its abilities you use its Racial Hit Dice, so the save DCs are the same as before the Fighter levels.
So now that you know what your three levels are, how do you make a character? What do you get?
What you don't get: Word-for-word what's written in the monster's description.
What you do get: All the Racial Hit Dice, all the Features of the Racial Hit Dice, and all the Traits.
What you need to do: Use the Features and Traits to calculate your stats.
Every Monster Comes with its Racial Hit Dice. If you are a Vrock, you have 10 Outsider Hit Dice, and they have a list of Class Skills which has everything listed in the Vrock's Skills: section. However, it is up to you to decide how you wish to spend the Vrock's skill points, you don't have to make the same choices the Vrock in the Monster Manual did. Similarly, you get to choose which Feats you want, getting one at first level and one on every Character Level that's a multiple of three.
There is one exception to this. If the Monster starts out with only one Racial Hit Die then you may (as per Savage Species, Page 13) trade it out for a level in a character class. You then gain none of the Features, but you still gain the Traits. For example, you could play a Pixie Rogue 1, trading your Fey Hit Die for a level of Rogue, leaving you with ECL 1+4=5. This happens automatically for Humanoids, which is why all of the low level humanoids in the Monster Manual are presented as first level Warriors.
Player Character Monsters are Not Average. As a Player Character you start out with the maximum hit points at first level. The same is true for a Monster Player Character. As a Player Character your ability scores aren't just 10 or 11, you roll them or you use a point buy system. Player Character Monsters get to roll or use point buy as well, and add their racial ability modifiers on top, with the caveat that Ability Scores can never go below 1 due to racial penalties, and Intelligence can never go below 3. Beyond that, it's just like a normal character, but with bigger bonuses. For example, if our Vrock Fighter rolled 17, 15, 10, 8, 12, and 11, it could get a Strength of 17+12=29, a Con of 15+14=29, a Dex of 12+4=16, an Int of 10+4=14, a Wis of 11+6=17, and a Cha of 8+6=14.
Once you level up past your original Racial Hit Dice, your ability scores increase with Character Level just like an ordinary character's do. For example, if your Vrock reaches Fighter 2, it has a total of 12 Hit Dice. That's a multiple of 4, so the Vrock can raise one of its scores by 1. It will probably go with Strength, to get an impressive Strength of 30.
You do have to calculate things. You have to add up your total base attack bonus from all your classes, along with Strength modifier and anything else important, to find your bonus to melee attacks. You have to take half your racial hit dice and your new ability modifiers to determine your Save DCs for your Abilities. In short, you have some work to do.
To give you an idea of what you can do by applying yourself to monsters, poster SillySymphonies has graciously provided us with a list of "as characters" entries for all Monster Manual monsters with LA here.
Q: Is it worth it?
A: Ah, I thought you were going to ask that. You may have noticed that your ECL 19 Vrock Fighter 1 is only Character Level 11. It's got a total Base Attack Bonus of only +11, not much better than a Wizard, and Base Saving Throws of a tenth-level Monk are similarly not that impressive when your friends are level 19. Sure you can use greater teleport as many times per day as you like, but what do you do when you get there?
The sad truth of the matter is that sometimes playing a Monster simply isn't worth it.
Monster Myth #1: Savage Species Will Save the Day!
So maybe you've picked up a book called Savage Species. You've looked in the back, and you've seen the monster classes, and you thought, "Oh, cool! This lets me play monsters without all that pesky level adjustment."
The Monster Classes in Savage Species are designed to let lower level characters play monsters. However, they do not change what it means to play a monster. In particular,
A Character who reaches max level in a Savage Species Monster Class is exactly the same as a character who started as that monster, including Level Adjustment.
Note that the second column of every Savage Species class lists Hit Dice. Those are your total Hit Dice, not just those gained at that level. Notice that at many levels you don't gain Hit Dice. Those levels represent your Level Adjustment kicking in as you gain more powerful abilities. As you can see on the table, you only gain Skill Points and Feats when your Hit Dice say you would, independent of your Level in the Monster Class. For some classes (like those for templates), you never gain any hit dice at all.
Now let's look at the Vrock Monster Class, on page 203 of Savage Species. Its max level is 16, but a Vrock with no other class levels has an ECL of 18. What's going on?
Savage Species is from Edition 3.0. You play Edition 3.5. When Edition 3.0 was upgraded to Edition 3.5, many small changes were made. If you want to play a Monster Class from Savage Species, you need to change it to match the Monster's 3.5 stats. For example, Vrocks used to have 8 Racial Hit Dice, and now they have 10. You need to make a new balanced class with the right number of levels, which can be challenging if the monster has changed a lot.
So now that we know this, what are Savage Species Monster Classes good for?
Savage Species Monster Classes let you start the game as a monster. If your friends are at first level, then if you play a first level Vrock (adjusted for the change to 3.5 of course), you should fit right in. Remember though, that you must level up in the monster class all the way. If you start with a level in Vrock, you can't go away and take a level in Fighter. You have to get every single level of Vrock first, going from a fledgeling to a full-blown demon, before you can take a level of another class.
Savage Species Monster Classes might let you play things that aren't normally ok choices. While Savage Species is 3.0, some Monsters haven't changed very much. If you find one, and it doesn't have a Level Adjustment listed in the Monster Manual, you may be able to get your DM to let you play it using the Monster Class. For example, Elementals don't have a Level Adjustment in the Monster Manual, but Savage Species gives them one, so you might be able to play an Elemental.
Monster Myth #1 Corollary: Savage Progressions Will Save the Day!
This is sort of true, but distasteful. Savage Progressions come from a series of articles on the Wizards of the Coast Website (Wizards of the Coast are the guys who made D&D 3.5). The articles are archived here, and the first article, here explains how they work.
The important difference between Savage Progressions and Savage Species Monster Classes is that you don't have to take all the levels of a Savage Progression.
This means that you can just take one level, enough to feel like the monster you want to be, and then go take other levels in other things. You can be as monstery as you want.
Characters are not required to complete all the levels of a given template class in uninterrupted succession. For example, a character who takes a level of wereboar could then take a level of fighter and a level of rogue (or any other combination of other class levels) before taking another level of wereboar. A character must still take the first level of wereboar before taking the second, just as with a normal class.
The catch is that these Savage Progressions are somewhat poorly designed. Some give very good benefits at first level, others aren't worth taking any levels at all. Use them with caution.
Monster Myth(or Fact) #2: LA Buyoff Will Save the Day!
On page 18 of Unearthed Arcana is a rather popular variant system. It's listed under the header Reducing Level Adjustments, but most people just call it LA Buyoff, or LA Buyback. It's also available here.
LA Buyoff is built around the idea that a Level Adjustment is an important balancing factor at lower levels, but not so much of one at higher levels. At first level the Aasimar's +2 Wis, +2 Cha make it potentially better than any of the races in the Player's Handbook, but for a twentieth level character those bonuses are almost meaningless.
LA Buyoff works by letting you pay experience points to reduce your level adjustment. You pay experience points equal to (your current ECL-1)x1000, and your level adjustment goes down by one. When you can do this is restricted. In order to buy off a level adjustment you must have had that level adjustment for a number of levels equal to (level adjustment)x3, not including racial hit dice. For example, if you are a Gnoll, you have two racial hit dice and one point of level adjustment. 1x3=3, so you need three class levels before you can buy off that point of level adjustment, getting you to ECL 6 in total. Then you pay (6-1)x1000=5000 XP, and you lose your +1 level adjustment, dropping down to ECL 5.
Suppose instead you are a Svirfneblin with no racial hit dice and a level adjustment of +3. The first change you get to buy off level adjustment is when you have accumulated 3x3=9 class levels, so ECL 12. You pay (12-1)x1000=11,000 XP, and your level adjustment goes from +3 to +2, bringing you to ECL 11. Now that your level adjustment is +2, you need to wait 2x3=6 more levels to buy off your next point of level adjustment, so you won't get to do so until ECL 17. Then you pay (17-1)x1000=16,000 XP, dropping your level adjustment to +1 and your ECL to 16. Finally, you only need to gain 1x3=3 more levels to buy off the final +1 of level adjustment, so at level 19 you can pay (19-1)x1000=18,000 XP to get to level adjustment +0 and ECL 18.
As you can see, a character without too much level adjustment will eventually catch up to their fellows, but it's a long, hard road. Also, many DMs won't allow this since it's from a variant system. If your DM does allow it, it's a decent, but not amazing, way to make the game somewhat fairer.
Be careful to note these rules allow you to buy out Level Adjustment, not Racial Hit Dice. Getting rid of your racial hit dice is much harder, and requires cheesy tricks that go beyond the scope of this handbook.
So in conclusion: Playing a monster is hard. No matter what trick you use, you still will likely have trouble being as useful as someone who chose not to play a monster. If only there was a way to play monsters that mirrored the design of the better character classes, where you gain what you need to do your job and enough versatility to do other things as well. It would be a massive homebrew project, but wouldn't it be wonderful if someone was working on that?