In case you don’t know there are two ways to deal with levels in Dungeons & Dragons: Milestone and XP. Milestone refers to players gaining a level after completing a distinct plot point in an adventure. XP refers to adding up Experience Points from successfully winning combats and completing challenges, until the amount of XP reaches the next level. They may seem similar, both compel players to play smart, stay alive and beat their challenges, but their differences result in gameplay variations. How can you know which one is the right choice for your campaign? Well that’s what we’re here for.
Milestone Level Progression Pros
Milestone to me has always felt like it gave the DM more control and leeway. When you’re designing a game it’s easy to see the plot points and where your players will level up as they hit them. Milestone allows you to plan levels in advance if you want, and it works especially well when you get your players deeply involved with the plot. It also gives you control in the day-to-day. Say your party detours for a couple of sessions and grinds out a fetch quest for a magical item. With XP level systems this may result in an early level up which means you have to rebalance or reskin enemies. With Milestone you can just not give them the level, because it was not a milestone they had been working towards. The opposite could also be true. If the party pulls off something super cool which wouldn’t have given them a level under XP you can award it to them because they pulled it off. The other advantage to Milestone is that it can be used as a tool to promote the story. If your players are easily distracted or are constantly sidetracking, offering levels at the important plot points will keep them focused on what they should be doing. I will say though not to overuse this method. D&D is a group game and shoehorning your party into a story that you’ve prewritten often has more failures than successes. That being said, used sparingly it can be a great way to remind PCs what their goals are.
Milestone Level Progression Cons
When you drop into your first sessions changes always have to be made, players don’t go the way you expect, their motivations are not the same as the ones in their backstories, and so on and so forth. The result is that your players might not care one whit for your story. This makes milestone progression hard, since it oftentimes has to do with plot points. Level ups may begin feeling shoehorned if you’re granting them after the party completes random actions, or simply at the end of sessions. Grinding enemies or adventuring sometimes begin to feel pointless because there’s no clear path to the next level, and so the players may stagnate. Of course, this is based around the assumption that PCs have not bit on any plot hooks and also don’t care about the simple joy of adventuring, but it can happen nonetheless.
XP Level Progression Pros
The XP system is very clear cut, which makes it easy to run and keep track of. Each monster or enemy has an amount of XP awarded, and after defeating that enemy players receive the XP. Once they have enough XP to achieve the next level, they level up. It promotes the players taking on challenges, and ensures they have a way to gain levels no matter where they are or what they’re doing in your world. It also becomes clear what kind of difficulty levels the PCs will be coming up against as they progress through the world because they’ve felt themselves get stronger with each enemy. You don’t have to stress about players following any sort of plot, it leaves you free to change and adapt as you see fit, worrying only about individual encounters and challenges. You also won’t have to worry about pacing, since balancing encounters will provide predictable timing for when players will gain their next level.
XP Level Progression Cons
The biggest challenge of XP level progression is the fact that often adventures don’t provide XP amounts for challenges that are not monsters. If a player successfully cons a shopkeeper or lies their way into the castle or pickpockets a noble, how do you award XP for that? Add on the fact that most dungeons include traps and challenges that are not monsters and it seems unfair that there is no XP reward for that. It can also sometimes mean players don’t have to worry about whatever story you’re trying to tell. Sometimes that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since D&D is a collaborative story, but what you want to avoid is confusion as to what’s important. Also, it can become tough to keep track of who is what level. The other challenge is class-based. A cleric may barely participate in the actual combat of an encounter because they are busy running around healing everybody, do they get the same amount of XP as the one who dealt the killing blow? Or do they get more because they’re the only reason the party survived? What about someone who deals and takes no damage? Is it fair that they get the same XP? Generally these questions are easy to answer in the moment, but it becomes an extra consideration that you must make as a DM.
So which is best for me?
First and foremost, as in any relationship, be honest and forthright with your players. Their wants and opinions may change as you progress through a campaign, and as the DM it’ll be more fun for both you as well as them to take their needs into consideration. That being said, the choice of which progression system to begin with should be decided in Session 0 while talking with your players. This doesn’t mean you should go in without a suggestion, just that you should be sure your players will be okay to accept whichever you believe is right.
In general, if you’re planning a story based campaign with set plot points and a climax, give Milestone a go. If you think your players will favor combat, exploring the world and grinding for the sake of levels, go with XP. These are just rough suggestions, and you should in no way feel like deciding on one system means you can’t change it should you feel the need to. It’s tough getting the timing of levels right. No matter how fast you’re giving them, players will always want to level up faster, but give them out too fast and suddenly enemies will cease to be challenging. You’ll have to rebalance encounters or rush them through to the next portion of the adventure. Give levels too slow and players will be frustrated and stagnant. It’s a tightrope that only the bravest dare walk, but then again only the most worthy even consider taking up the mantle of DM in the first place, so you’re already the right person for the job.