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In Defense of Milestone Leveling


As long as i get to be the frog
Actually, I feel pretty strongly that XP for fighting is the way that makes the most sense. Not that it's perfect, but I feel like it makes more sense than most of the alternatives, especially in 5E. The only real problem with it is that spellcasting also progresses through combat, and you'd think that spellcasting would be a broad enough ability that you don't need to fight in order to improve it - there should be some order of pacifist wizards out there, and they shouldn't be stuck at first level forever - but then I remember that the rules are only really meant to describe professional adventurers. Presumably, non-adventuring wizards can progress through study and practice, in the same way that NPC carpenters can improve their skills.

I could rationalize milestone levelling as something that makes sense within the world - that your abilities advance when the DM believes you have accomplished enough to have actually learned something - but I would rather not. In my experience, it doesn't make for fun or exciting gameplay. Fifth edition has already removed all of the danger from combat, since you regenerate completely overnight, so getting rid of the XP would make combat a huge waste of time. If combat isn't tense because it's dangerous, and it's not exciting because you get nothing out of it, then there's no reason to care about it at all. It becomes perfunctory, going through the motions because you feel obligated to, rather than because it's actually fun.

Doesn't leveling represent your character getting better at everything? Not just at combat? If so then why is combat the only thing that levels you? Even fighters and barbarians?

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Doesn't leveling represent your character getting better at everything? Not just at combat? If so then why is combat the only thing that levels you? Even fighters and barbarians?
In 5E, you get a lot better at combat before you get a little better at anything else. In the time it takes your Stealth bonus to increase by +1, you've gained 4d8 HP and +2d6 sneak attack damage.

The basic assumption behind levelling is that you're doing a lot of things over the course of the adventure, in roughly static proportions. You're going to use your Stealth and your Medicine skills from time to time, but most of what you do is going to be combat. They could ask you to track everything you do, and not let you level up until you've won so many combats and used all of your skills X times; but they save on bookkeeping by only asking you to track the combat, and just assuming that you're going to use the other things along the way.

Giving XP for skill usage has the possibility of leading to degenerate gameplay. The best way to get better at adventuring would be to not go on an adventure. It's a known issue with some games, like GURPS and Traveller, where you gain points primarily through downtime; you start playing the game, and then some players go out of their way to lock themself in a room with their study material, so they can advance as quickly as possible with no risk whatsoever. There's no reason to introduce that possibility into D&D.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I've tried a variety of experience and leveling systems since I started 5e. In my first homebrew game I used traditional XP but I saw XP as representing the level of the challenge. You could get XP by negotiating or avoiding, instead of fighting. You could get XP for disarming traps and meeting other challenges. There were also story based milestone XP rewards for completing certain quests or reaching certain locations. But I found it got to be overly complicated. Halfway through the campaign we went to pure session leveling. Everyone would level up almost every session.

In my Curse of Strahd Campaign I found that traditional XP leveling wouldn't work well without a lot of extra work on my part and session based leveling didn't seem to encourage the sandbox style of the adventure. On DM's Guild I found "A Structured Milestone System for Curse of Strahd: Milestones Made Easy" by R. Padron. It worked very well. You got one to eight XP per milestone. A milestone could be meeting one of the conditions of the Tarroka card reading, defeating major enemies, thwarting Strahd from meeting certain of his goals, "moving the story forward" (mainly completing various quests), exploring new areas, and finding magic items. XP was a party resource. It required a custom leveling table that would show how many XP the party needed before leveling up, based on the party size, but it was incredibly easy to use to run the game and gave players a sense that they had control over how they leveled up. Whether they liked to fight, or explore, stick to the main plot line, or engage in side quests, their were ways to be rewarded and to advance.

In my current campaign, which is centered around the mega dungeon Rappan Athuk, the players gain XP for GP extracted. What I love about this system, beside nolstalgia, is that it supports almost any play style except wealth hating. You like to be sneaky, avoiding combat and stealing? That is a great way to play. You like lots of magic and planning out how to overcome obstacles with strategic use of spells, that works. You like to kick in door and kill monsters? That works as well. Even better, a mix of all those approaches. Plus the in-game game of working around encumbrance. Getting the good and items of value out. Selling things to get gold (you don't get your XP until you sell it). I find that this game works best if players have a motivation to take the wealth. For some extracting valuable is all the motivation they need. But the paladin that just wants to smite evil, may want to see that the ill got games of the bad guys is put to good use. Also, it helps to have reasons to spend that gold. In my current campaign, we play once per month. Between that we use downtime activities as a mini game that we play by e-mail. I am also using Matt Coleville's Strongholds & Followers rules. Finally, leveling up requires spending gold.

I've enjoyed running, and my players have expressed that they've enjoyed playing, each of these campaigns. Each felt very different and how experience and leveling was handled played a big role in how each felt. I don't think that there is one perfect system. Determine the kind of game you want to play and use the XP system that best supports that. But I caution against making it too complicated. GM's have enough bookkeeping to do.


Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
When you say “Milestone XP,” do you mean the thing the DMG calls Milestone XP, where you award XP for completing various objectives, or do you mean the thing most people tend to call “Milestone XP,” that the DMG calls story-based advancement, where you award levels for completing certain objectives, in leu of XP? Or do you mean what the DMG calls session-based advancement, where you award levels after a certain number of sessions in leu of XP?

I think the defense, “Standard XP awards only incentivize violence” is a very strong argument in favor of true Milestone XP, as it gives you more tools to incentivize other things besides violence, and can be used alongside combat XP or without combat XP, depending on what you want to incentivize. I don’t think it is a very strong argument in favor of story-based advancement, which takes away your tools to incentivize anything beyond riding the plot train, or session-based advancement, which takes away your ability to incentivize anything at all.

So, in my opinion, true Milestone XP > or = combat XP (depending on the needs of your campaign) > “story-based advancement > session-based advancement.


While Milestone Leveling/XP are not my cup of tea, I have used them. I granted XP as normal, but the way the campaign was set, they needed to be at certain levels when they got to certain points. By awarding XP, the player could get ahead of the curve, depending on their actions. However, if they shortcuted their way past most of the XP, they would automatically level when they hit certain points. I only had to actually award 2 levels out of 14, so I considered it a success.

Oh, and I will admit for my current campaign, I redesigned how XP work. Monsters only provide half the normal XP, but I've given exploration and social encounters an XP value, plus I sometimes add in quest XP if the players continue to the end (usually when the players have the option to bail at some point or if it's a timed based adventure). This has worked out rather well, because players don't automatically want to jump into combat, because it's not worth as much XP as it used to, while rewarding other pillars of the game.


Limit Break Dancing (He/They)
Ideally, when I ask my players to roll initiative or make an ability check, the farthest thing from their minds will be "oh boy, here come some XP!"

I don't want XP to be a factor in decision making at all because it breaks immersion. And the only way to accomplish that, I think, is to just remove XP altogether. So in my next campaign, characters will gain levels when it makes sense for them to.

Now I haven't decided if I'm going to level-up everyone at the same time, or if certain characters will level up faster or slower than others at certain times of the story, for roleplaying reasons. That is definitely something I would need to clear with the players first, though...that kind of stunt can really feel like a punishment (or an insult) if I'm not careful.


Milestone leveling (or checkmark leveling, when you level upon gaining a certain number of checkmarks for accomplishing lesser and greater goals) works best if you're in a pre-determined campaign. For example, in Princes of the Apocalypse the adventure specifies points where leveling is appropriate (mostly after each sub-dungeon). The main advantages is that no-one has to keep track of XP, or worry whether avoiding an encounter and/or going on a side trek will mess things up.

However, one disadvantage is that it bypasses some of the thought given to the level/XP tables. Unlike 3e, the progression isn't as straight as it used to be - in 3e, the XP needed to level up was 13 1/3 times the XP you gained from an "average" encounter. In 5e, you need 4 hard* encounter to go from level 1 to 2, 4 more to go from 2 to 3, 8 more to hit level 4, and then 10 or just over it at each level from 5 to 10. Level 11 is a little slower at just over 11 encounters, and then it speeds up with between 6 and 7 encounters per level up to 20 (13 to 14 is a little faster for some reason).

Some of that is accounted for in the varying nature of the game - a high-level game would likely have more encounters with plenty of minions, and while having many opponents increases the XP for the purpose of calculating difficulty, it doesn't actually give more XP (for a group of 4 12th level PCs, a single CR 15 monster or four CR 5 monsters would both be "hard" encounters, but the CR 15 monster would give 13 000 XP while the CR 5 ones would give 7 200 XP). Another, related, issue is that by that level, encounters are likely to be more complex so you spend more time on any given encounter. But another part is that by that point, you've probably been running your campaign for about a year, and having things escalate in speed is probably a good thing.

So I'm thinking that for my next campaign, I'll probably implement a checkmark version of milestone leveling, and set the number of checkmarks to match the number of "hard" encounters you'd otherwise have.

* Using the official definition of "hard" which I know many people here would dispute, but I only use it as a baseline for comparison.


Like others, I just tell people to level up after X number of hours of play. We discuss this in our sesssion 0 and decide together how quickly we want to advance. It gets rid of grinding for XP (we just need 10 more orcs to level guys!) which is something that really pulls me out of the game. There's enough meta-game discussion and motivation the way it is, I'd rather keep that out of play time as much as possible.

As far as rewarding for specific milestones, I don't do that either. I have no desire to guide or encourage specific PC actions. I present the world, conflicts and challenges but what they do about it is up to them. Checkpoint leveling does make more sense in a prepublished module which has to railroad PCs to a certain degree if you want to run the module as written.

In addition, I look at my own career (I write software). I like to think my skills have progressed pretty significantly since my first programming concepts class in high school to where I am now. But that's not because I completed project X or finished project Y it's because I learned from working on project X and project Y. I've also read books and other training over the years to increase my skills which was rarely directly tied to a specific project. It's the same as a fighter going back home after almost getting his ass whooped and doubling down on a new sparring technique. There's no reason to play out or give XP for off-time training sessions, that's not the exciting part. People train so they can survive the exciting bits.

But I also run campaigns where in-game time can span years, if not decades. Much like The Dresden Files, I assume the adventurers are doing relatively boring stuff off screen slowly improving their skills with short intervals of the feces hitting the air movement device. Or think of professional sports. To me, XP would be like only rewarding the time spent that has spectators. The game is important and it's what's fun to watch but the real work is in the hours and hours of practice.


Magic Wordsmith
Ideally, when I ask my players to roll initiative or make an ability check, the farthest thing from their minds will be "oh boy, here come some XP!"

I don't want XP to be a factor in decision making at all because it breaks immersion.

What about when they make decisions to fight or retreat based on how many hit points they have remaining?

If you and they are able to justify why that doesn't "break immersion" (usually by giving a fictional justification), then the same is possible for making decisions based on the XP award.

Which is not an argument for using XP, mind you, just not eschewing XP because it might "break immersion."


I use experience points for participating. Participating can be earned from taking a plot hook to just sitting in the tavern interacting with whoever comes in and everything in between. I also reward bonus experience points for what could be considered mile stones for accomplishing or failing at story objectives. Story objectives tend to have a time limit with them.

I also award improvement points. One for each thousand experience points earned. For those familiar with Shadowrun they work like karma points. You can spend them to increase attributes, increase skills, learn new skills or acquire retainers.

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