Updated: Oct 25
There are debates everywhere online regarding experience points (XP) or milestone levelling Dungeons and Dragons. Which is easier for a Dungeon Master? What do players prefer? Is one superior to the other?
Well, you better keep reading if you’d like the answer!
The Origins of Experience Points (XP) & Milestone
(D&D) is a role-playing game that has been enjoyed by millions of people around the world for decades.
One of the key mechanics in D&D is the concept of "experience points" (XP), which are used to determine when characters level up and become more powerful. However, there is another way to level up in D&D called "milestone levelling" which is gaining popularity among players and dungeon masters.
In traditional and in older editions of D&D, characters earn XP by defeating monsters, completing quests, and overcoming challenges. As they earn more XP, they will eventually reach a certain threshold and level up. This allows them to increase their abilities, learn new skills, access feats, more powerful spells and so on.
Milestone levelling, on the other hand, does away with the traditional XP system altogether. Instead, characters level up at certain points - or Milestones - in the campaign, regardless of how much XP they have earned.
Milestones can be based on the number of sessions played, the completion of specific story arcs, or other criteria determined by the Dungeon Master (DM).
There are Pros and Cons to Both Approaches to Levelling Up
Experience points allow for a more granular progression system, as characters can earn XP at a faster or slower rate depending on their actions and the challenges they face. This can create a sense of accomplishment as characters see their progress reflected in their level.
On the other hand, milestone levelling allows for a more narrative-focused campaign, as the DM can tailor the pacing of the story and character progression to fit the needs of the group.
Most of the time, the choice between experience points and milestone levelling comes down to the Dungeon Master’s personal preference. Some DM’s or players enjoy the more traditional XP system, while others prefer the freedom and flexibility of milestone levelling.
Ultimately, it's up to the DM and the group to decide which approach works best for their campaign. Either way, the chosen system should be mentioned in Session 0 or in a supplied handout.
Below, I’ve highlighted some of the pros and cons of using Experience Points (XP) and of the Milestone levelling system.
Using Experience Points (XP) Pros & Cons Chart
XP allows for a more granular progression system: Characters can earn XP at a faster or slower rate depending on their actions and the challenges they face. This can create a sense of accomplishment as characters see their progress reflected in their level.
XP encourages players to engage with the game world and take on challenges: As characters earn XP by defeating monsters, completing quests, and overcoming obstacles, they are incentivized to seek out these experiences in order to advance their characters.
XP can be customized by the Dungeon Master (DM): The DM can adjust the amount of XP awarded for different actions and challenges, allowing them to tailor the progression rate to the needs and desires of the group.
XP can be time-consuming to track: The DM must keep track of the XP earned by each character and make sure they are levelling up at the appropriate rate. This can be a lot of work, especially in larger groups.
XP can create imbalances between characters: If one character is consistently earning more XP than the others, they may end up significantly more powerful than their counterparts. This can lead to resentment and frustration within the group.
XP can detract from the narrative of the game: If players are focused on earning XP rather than role-playing and immersing themselves in the story, it can take away from the overall enjoyment of the game.
Using Milestone Levelling Pros & Cons
Pros of Milestone
Allows for a more narrative-focused campaign: The Dungeon Master (DM) can tailor the pacing of the story and character progression to fit the needs of the group, rather than being tied to a specific XP threshold.
Simplifies character progression: Rather than keeping track of XP and levelling up at specific thresholds, characters simply level up at predetermined points in the campaign. This can be a lot less work for the DM and the players.
Can create a more cohesive group dynamic: If all characters are levelling up at the same pace, it can help to keep the group balanced and prevent any one character from becoming significantly more or less powerful than the others.
Cons of Milestone
Milestone levelling can be less satisfying for players: Without the sense of accomplishment that comes from earning XP and levelling up through their own actions, some players may feel like they are not making progress or contributing to the game.
Milestone levelling can be less flexible: If the DM has set certain milestones for levelling up, it may be difficult to adjust the pace of character progression if the group is progressing faster or slower than expected. Milestones may have to be “readjusted” based on actual gameplay.
Milestone levelling can be less immersive: Without the mechanics of earning XP and levelling up, some players may feel less invested in the game world and their characters.
Final Thoughts on Experience Points vs Milestone Levelling in D&D
No one system is inherently better than the other.
Although the XP system is older - and maybe considered dated for some - it certainly still has its place. Milestone levelling, as simple as it is, can be difficult when predicted milestones are either met too quickly or slowly.
I’ve used both experience points and milestone levelling in Pathfinder, D&D 3.5 and D&D 5e. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re in a combat-heavy or older edition D&D game, experience points (XP) may be slightly better than milestones. Here’s my personal opinion on which one to choose based on how my friends and I play.
I prefer using milestone levelling over XP. If you’re wondering why, here are a few of the reasons I've listed. It may be the right decision for your group if you have a similar table and playstyle.
I don’t want anyone under-levelled: My own group has busy individuals who I don’t want to “penalize” for not being able to attend a few sessions because of legitimate reasons (work, emergencies, life events etc).
We all prefer narrative gameplay: We do enjoy a good mix of encounters, but overall, we spend a lot of time exploring and roleplaying. My players prefer shorter sessions and we almost never have more than 2 combats per session.
Adjusting Milestones is still easier than tracking XP: Just my opinion here: I think it’s easier to adjust milestones every now and again than it is to add up experience points every session: especially for encounters like traps, or NPC encounters which may/may not reward experience points.
Here are some tips for your table: To pick experience points or milestone levelling, ensure you reflect upon what kind of D&D game you’re playing, how much bookkeeping you’re willing to do as a DM and listen to what your players prefer. In your session 0 (or pre-game session), ensure to tell your players what you've decided in terms of levelling and leave yourself open to feedback.
What type of system do you play with or prefer? Do you use milestone or XP but are thinking of switching? Maybe you have an entirely different take than I do. If so, please leave a friendly comment below.
Consider becoming a Patron to support my ongoing quest to create amazing D&D content for your games.