Milestone vs XP in D&D How to level your party.

Milestone vs XP goal!!

When you have a session 0 players will want to know, milestone vs XP in D&D. How are we leveling up? It is an important question and can have resounding repercussions. I myself have used both systems and have extensive knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. So which leveling system should you choose to use?

Milestone vs XP in D&D can be answered by How much control, tangible results, freedom, roleplay, and more that you and your players want in your game.


Now pretty much everyone is using milestone advancement, so you should use milestone advancement too right? Not necessarily. There are some giant reasons why you would want to use XP when you choose how your players will level.

Lets go over a few of these strengths.

More control

In a sense, XP gives you the dungeon master more control over your game. Yes, milestone lets the dungeon master decide exactly when to level the whole party, but XP is a direct influencer. Did you do a good job? Great you get XP! Did you do nothing? No? No XP because you did nothing!

This instantly informs the players what they can do better on a session by session basis. Giving constructive criticism is always good since it will help your players make the game more interesting.

On the flip side, your players who do nothing might feel cheated that they have not leveled after three or four sessions. Did they do anything worthy of leveling? No, nothing is still nothing. The only new thing with milestones is that the players cannot see that they did nothing.

People often don’t look at the big picture, and can ask to level up again after only two encounters. It just happened in my milestone leveling group, and I know with XP this sort of thing would not have happened. They killed 5 things and a boss. Only at level one would that get them close to leveling, and even then it would not do the trick.

More tangible results

We talked about how you can control your game by giving the players instant feedback on what they are doing, but this also takes form in tangible results. If the players see that killing a monster gives 50 XP and roleplaying gives 50XP they will want to do both equally.

This is great if you are trying to train new players. They are shown the value of everything they do and nothing is arbitrary.

If your players are power gamers, they will try to exploit the system. Tangible results are both a strength and a weakness. If you give 50 XP for killing monsters and 25 for roleplaying they will quickly decide that everything must die.

This is why you have to be extremely careful when you give your players tangible results in XP form. Make sure your numbers are equal and not disproportionate. If you do not make roleplay worth the same or more than monsters, the players will become murder hobos. Can you really blame them?

One last warning about tangible results is that you must be aware of the effort to gain XP. If a player has to spend little effort to get 50 XP, but has to spend a lot of effort to get 60 or even 70 XP, which do you think they will do? That is why you might want to give far more XP when players roleplay in order to encourage roleplay.


This was the first leveling system invented. That means that it has had more time to improve. People think of milestones as a great new leveling system, but there are flaws with it. The flaws with XP have been found out and worked with. Milestone is the new cool thing on the block, but it has not been tested. XP has.

Because XP has been tested and improved upon so much you can find ways to make your game accurately reflect the accomplishments of the players. Have fun doing that with milestones. You may think the players deserve to level now in milestone leveling, but XP is supported by math, the system, and the creators of the game. In addition to this, the players agreed to something that they know about. People are much happier if they agree to buy a product instead of a random mystery box that ends up not giving them what they want.

XP is more understood by the community and by the players. If there is an issue, you can find the answer somewhere online. If the players have an issue you can settle a dispute. This gave 50 XP and you need 900 more to level is an easily solvable dispute. If the players still have a problem with this, you can find how others have dealt with these situations in the past online.

XP is tried and tested with far more resources to help you as a dungeon master.

Not subjective

You may have caught on that the main strength that exp has over milestone leveling is that it is not subjective. If players have an issue, they can see the math. If players don’t level, they know why. Players now can feel like they are in charge and can take action. In milestone leveling, this power is taken away from them.

When the players don’t feel in control, they don’t know what is going on with leveling. Instead, the players feel like they are being forced and railroaded which is not good for any game. I stated above that my players are already asking for a level after two encounters. Two freaking encounters! That is ridiculous, and they obviously should not level. XP and math would tell them this, but milestone leveling does not.

If I did XP then I would not have to constantly explain to my players that leveling is based on story arc and progression. Both of these seem arbitrary and a player can feel like they have done so, but according to the plot and what they have minimally accomplished, the players shouldn’t level.


We talked about railroading earlier and players don’t like to be railroaded. What happens when your players completely shatter the plot? If you have a milestone system should they level? Should they not level since you told them leveling was based on a story arc? What if you count this as a story arc or end of progression?

Oh, I can tell you what will happen. Players will start to shatter every single plan you have as quickly as possible to level as quickly as possible. Once I counted them destroying the plot and ending the current arc as a milestone the players were encouraged to leave or get a resolution as quickly as possible in future scenarios. This happened even if the resolution was them running from town with their tail between their legs.

XP provides freedom for the players to do whatever they desire without trying to figure out the system and get the most out of the narrative experience.


Milestone leveling is awesome and easy. Everyone is doing it because we are lazy. Do you really want to keep track of paperwork and slow the game down? Do you want to do extra work? If not, milestone is for you my friend. This is a lazy reason, and I love it since I am a lazy person.

Why would I do extra work if I do not have to? Time and time again this is one of the main reasons why people want level using the milestone method. If you take a look at your life, laziness is all around us and it isn’t bad.

Are we lazy for using a microwave instead of starting a fire? Are we lazy for turning on the heater instead of making a fire and weaving new blankets every time that we are cold? No, we are not. We have just improved our daily lives. That is the best way to look at milestone leveling. Laziness is great!


One awesome thing that milestone leveling does is encourage your players to not just fight monsters, but instead play the game by roleplaying and doing other stuff.

On the other hand, milestone leveling encourages players to never fight monsters.

You want to be lazy and that is why you picked the milestone method, let’s be honest. I cannot fault you for this, but your players also want to be lazy and level as efficiently as possible. Let me put this into perspective.

Your party has decided that they want to resolve a quest. The quest is to take care of the mean old necromancer who has an undead army. Does the party want to fight all your cool monsters and traps? No way! The party instead wants to outsource their work to a local adventuring group or sect of knights to do the work. Problem solved, they get some money for doing nothing, and they should level because they accomplished something and progressed the story right?

You can prevent this scenario easily from happening, but what if they do something that just takes away all the fun and fights that you had planned? For example, they get gold and spend a few days crafting some things. You wonder what they are up to but approve some items since they seem harmless. The rogue is now quieter than any living being and has at least +20 to every roll. The rogue goes in the castle and assassinates the necromancer in his sleep. All your work is gone and the players say, ‘level please!’

This may be okay if you are fine with your players doing these kinds of things, but not every dungeon master is fine watching their work be thrown in the trash.


We mentioned that milestone leveling is lazy, but milestone leveling is also easier to plan for. Instead of constantly stressing when the party will find that next XP level and if players will be high enough to face the bad guy you have planned, just make them that level. Force the players to level at certain times or not level. It is all up to you anyway, and that idea of when you wanted them to level is now reality.

This can cause the players to feel like they have no power over when they level and everything is arbitrary. That’s because it is! The game is far easier to manage this way, and you can make sure that everything fits accordingly.

Having problems managing your experience? here is an excel sheet created by CausticMoose on reddit. An excel sheet is too much? Well here is another encounter calculator for you. The Kobold kind. Easy!

Better for roleplay

Players know that they get XP after killing monsters. This is how it has been for a long time and is still that way in almost every video game. Players know this, so even if you give players the same XP for roleplaying players tend to kill everything and desire murder more than talking.

Milestone leveling makes the players not care as much about murder since they know the rewards are the same as roleplaying.

In a weird way, milestone leveling makes the players less murder hungry by giving them less control or information.

Doing this makes your games more narrative and roleplay focused since players want to get to the next part of the story rather than beef up their own character. Is this a good thing? That depends on the campaign and the group. At the end of the day, Dungeons and Dragons is a glorified combat system. Whether you chose to use that strength or not is up to you.

Does not train players

This is a huge factor to consider when you make your games milestone vs XP in D&D for leveling. If your players are new, the whole concept of ‘do whatever you want’ is a bit overwhelming to most people. Add to that ‘do whatever you want and I am not going to teach you what is good or not’ throws off many players.

I have seen countless times new players come to a table, try to play and then feel left out because they do not know what to do. You as a dungeon master cannot always be there for them holding their hand and the other players are trying to play the game. If you do not show this is good or this is bad new players can be disheartened and lose the will to play since their efforts are either not rewarded or have to be given an explanation why this was good or bad making them feel like a child.

On the other hand, if you do not want to train players and they are experienced or are interested enough to get past those hurdles, this can be a good thing. Instead of saying killing is good or role play is good, you let the player decide. This make the player develop a playstyle that fits them and the group naturally making more interesting games.

Many people do not like this. Many people want direction and do not want to decide things for themselves. If you want to know more about why this is, check out the reason in this article about linear play.


One last and very important thing to cover with milestone leveling is modules. If you use modules, please dear entities above and below use milestone leveling. Nothing is worse than seeing your players be 3 levels ahead of where they should be, bored of the game, and everything is falling apart.

You can use XP in modules, but the module will need to be adjusted far more than normal and only extremely experienced dungeon masters can pull this off well.

Mixing the two

What if you can’t decide? Good news, you can use both! These methods were what lead to the concept of milestone leveling.

Some groups like adventurer’s league use session based advancement, and this is a viable alternative. You can plan out the XP that players get per session and make it so that in three sessions they level. You give the players the strengths of XP and the control from milestone this way to create a great mixture.

One other way to mix the two is giving enough XP to level at certain times. You may not be able to plan out every XP interaction, but you can give minor XP for fights/role play and give a ton for completing quests or advancing the story. Just make sure the players do not find out their extra actions didn’t amount to much XP.

Both are valid options and have strengths and weaknesses, but this just goes to show that you can blend milestone and XP systems together.


Both milestone vs XP in D&D leveling systems have strengths and balances, but you have to chose what is right for your game. You can mix the two, but I have two simple ways to help you choose what you should do for your game.

Chose XP If the players want to be rewarded and are more mechanically minded.

Chose milestone if the players care about role play, the narrative, and linear progress.

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1 Comment

  1. XP forever! I’m never going to do milestone again.

    See, the beauty of XP is that it’s a self-balancing system. Enemies too hard? They can go to an easier area until they’re stronger. Enemies too easy (i.e. give too little xp)? They can go to a harder area to get more challenging enemies (and higher xp payouts).

    All ya got to do is make sure that the module, or mashup of modules, have areas of varying difficulty. The encounter balance math in the DMG is notoriously useless and off… at balancing encounters compared to PCs. It’s not nearly as bad at balancing encounters compared to other encounters.

    I found that if you “serve up encounters” you become responsibe for the balance and you are tempted to adjust and tweak things on the fly to make things more or less challenging. But if the players choose freely where to go and what areas to brave, they become responsible and you just have to run things by the book and it becomes an amazing game with a tense edge and real danger. The occasional overly easy boss or the occasional TPK just adds to the overall addictive tension of the game.

    Buuut… when I did milestone, that self-balancing aspect of D&D broke. “Serving up levels” is just as bad as “serving up encounters”.

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