Project Update: Boundless Horizons (Monstrous Races)
Still hard at work on the alpha 2 release. Some pretty big stuff is being worked on and finalized: deities, magic items, and wealth by level. Other items are being reviewed and polished.

So, while all of that is going on, here's a look into how playing unusual races is made less taxing in Boundless Horizons:

Playing Unusual Races

The 3.5 system has a built-in bias toward humanoid adventurers, which is reasonable, as it is representative of the typical fantasy genre game. However, not all games are typical, and players may wish to take the roles of "monsters" as their choice of heroes and/or antiheroes.

The rules do, of course, allow for this in many cases, through the use of level-adjusted creatures. Any creature listing that includes a level adjustment (not "-") can be played as a player character, so all is well, right?

Well, no. Not really. Level adjustment is a pretty hefty cost, permanently putting the character levels behind his or her companions. On top of that, racial hit dice are problematic, because they rarely offer any benefits that are as good as class levels. Between the two, a good number of "interesting" creatures simply become too underpowered to play due to the costs.

So... how to fix this? The fact is, while the amount of level adjustment for a particular creature can be argued, the concept is generally sound. A level-adjusted creature has certain racial abilities that are, at least at lower levels, as good as average class abilities. Likewise, racial hit dice make sense in their own right, as the creature's abilities reflect a full-grown adult (in a typical case) of a member of its species.

So the key is not to replace these concepts, but to make them less penalizing.

Racial hit dice are the simplest to address. The "cost" of racial hit dice are attenuated in two ways in Boundless Horizons. First, any creature may trade 1 racial hit die (or its partial racial hit die, if it has less than 1 HD) for its first class level. Then, any remaining racial hit dice count toward the class feature level of the character's base classes, just as other base classes do.

For example, a bugbear has 3 racial hit dice and a +1 level adjustment. Starting play as an effective character level (ECL) of 4, a player wishes to play a bugbear rogue. The player exchanges 1 of the 3 racial hit dice for his first rogue level, and the remaining racial hit dice make his rogue class feature level 2. The character has base attack bonus, saves, skills, etc., from 2 humanoid hit dice plus 1 rogue class level, but has all of the racial abilities of a bugbear and the class abilities of a 2nd level rogue. The nomenclature used in Boundless Horizons for this would be:

Humanoid 2 / Rogue 1 (2) / LA +1 [ECL 4]

Level adjustment is another matter. Borrowing a page from Unearthed Arcana, the concept of "buy-off" makes sense, but it is too slow and inefficient to keep pace with higher level characters. (It also only works at all with very low level adjustments.) In Boundless Horizons, a system similar to buy-off is used, but it is quicker, automatic and does not have the hefty costs. For every three character levels, excluding those from racial hit dice, you reduce your level adjustment by one. This means that sometimes when you gain enough experience for a new level, you will increase your class level in one of your classes, but not your ECL. Since experience awarded is based on ECL, you will start leveling more quickly than non-level adjusted companions as your ECL starts to fall behind theirs, helping you catch up to them, at least somewhat.

The bugbear rogue above only has a character level of 3, but an ECL of 4, due to its level adjustment. After taking two more levels of rogue, he loses that level adjustment:

Humanoid 2 / Rogue 3 (4) [ECL 5]

The character has base attack bonus, saves, skills, etc., from 2 humanoid hit dice plus 3 rogue class levels, but has all of the racial abilities of a bugbear and the class abilities of a 4th level rogue. His ECL is 5, matching his character level, so he no earns experience more quickly than his peers, who are at ECL 6.

Similarly, characters with higher level adjustment also see it gradually reduced. A pixie (LA +4) sorcerer would start play at ECL 5 with a character level of 1.

Sorcerer 1 / LA +4 [ECL 5]

At character level 3, and every 3rd level thereafter through level 12, it's level adjustment drops:

Sorcerer 3 / LA +3 [ECL 6]
Sorcerer 6 / LA +2 [ECL 8]
Sorcerer 9 / LA +1 [ECL 10]
Sorcerer 12 [ECL 12]

At this point, the pixie no longer has any level adjustment and gains experience as any other 12th level character, although it is likely at a lower ECL than other party members who started with lower level adjustments.

For characters starting at higher levels, a chart is provided based on a simple formula that indicates the number of class levels and remaining level adjustment by starting party level and original level adjustment. In general, the idea is that the character will start 1/2 level behind the party for each level of level adjustment removed. (E.g., a player playing the pixie sorcerer, above, in a group starting at ECL 15 would actually start as a 13th level sorcerer with no remaining level adjustment. Being two levels behind the rest of the party, her experience gain rate will be roughly double that of her 15th level companions, allowing her to close the level gap somewhat over time.)
Boundless Horizons released for open alpha!
Boundless Horizons has now been released to the public for an open alpha test. Go here to download and provide feedback.