XP Versus Milestone Advancement—At Least We Can All Agree That Awarding XP Just for Combat Is Terrible

When Dungeons & Dragons arrived in 1974, players rated experience points (XP) as one of the game’s most irresistible features. Now, all of D&D’s official adventures ignore the experience point system, and the official Adventurers League campaign has dropped XP. See XP started as one of D&D’s breakthrough ideas. Now the designers don’t see the point.

In the place of experience, the official adventures and the league substitute what folks commonly call milestone advancement—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.261) calls this method story-based advancement.

“I have no quarrel with you sir, but I need the XP.”

Dungeon masters typically favor milestone advancement because it spares them the chore of planning and calculating XP awards. Instead, milestones give DMs lazy and total control over when characters advance.

While DMs dislike accounting for XP, adventure writers hate fitting XP in their designs. Organized play campaigns typically required designers to write their adventures around combat encounters that net a specific number of XP. Some authors met their XP quotas by adding bandit encounters until ambushed by thugs became a cliché of awkward design. Adventure paths pose an even bigger challenge. “Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace,” writes D&D head Mike Mearls. “Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot.” Designers who wanted fewer fights could add XP awards for accomplishing story goals, but these awards lead to the same outcome as just telling players to level up. Just telling players to take a level skips the math and planning.

Experience points come weighed with another negative: Everyone agrees that the XP system commonly used for D&D’s last 30 years is terrible. Those three decades began when D&D’s second edition stopped awarding experience for winning gold, leaving the notion that characters only gained XP for killing monsters. That has never been strictly true, but players, organized play, and designers most often treated XP-for-slaying as the rule.

D&D builds around three core activities: roleplaying interactions, exploration, and combat. Awarding XP just for monster slaying rewards just one of those pillars. This twisted incentive shapes play. For example, players in the third-edition Living Greyhawk campaign understood that their experience came from killing monsters, so many players felt resigned to solving every problem with violence. You might be able to succeed through stealth or diplomacy, but only battle guaranteed XP. “I once had a player tell me they were 40 XP short, so they wanted to go kill a few bears,” writes SwampRob. We’ve all known that player.

Erin Adams writes, “As a story-focused player, I’m not a huge fan of XP because it seems to skew the focus towards combat. I enjoy letting the DM decide when it’s time to level up because it often feels like a reward. Leveling after a tough social combat feels just as satisfying as leveling after a boss fight.”

When the Adventurers League stopped counting XP, the administrators cited a desire to support the roleplaying and exploration pillars.

DMs and adventure designers tend to dislike XP because milestones offer an easier route to the same bottom line. But computer games prove how compelling XP feel to players. With every battlefield victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards keeps gamers hooked. We all love stacking wins and watching our scores rise.

Fifth-edition D&D includes an excellent XP system that allows players to gain points for overcoming challenges and achieving their goals. Characters can gain levels without grinding through combat. But the system still requires some bookkeeping. Do XP feel compelling enough to tabletop players to merit the math? Many players say yes.

Players like how winning XP gives a sense of progress. Nicholas Qualls writes “I enjoy the wrap up at the end of the game to see how well we did, and actually seeing a quantifiable measurement of progress.” Players enjoy anticipating the next level.

Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm describes the positive feedback loop that experience points create. “Growing in power feels good. Making progress with your character feels good. Making progress in the game feels good. Winning feels good. And connecting the extrinsic rewards with the intrinsic good feelings makes everything feel even better.” Some players like to beat monsters, some like to achieve progress in the game, some like to gain power, and some like watching their score zoom higher. Most of us enjoy a mix. Experience points connects all those good feelings into a loop where one joy leads to another. “Everyone gets something out of it. And therefore everyone can celebrate together even if their motives are different.”

XP Gives players a measure of control, which encourages players to take risks that make the game more fun and exciting. Peter James Mann writes, “I find that XP makes everyone at the table gamble for higher rewards, and that end game tally can really be a nail-biter. Unfortunately, milestone advancement has felt a little anticlimactic over time.”

Tom Henderson writes, “It makes me feel like I am actively involved with leveling my character as opposed to having a GM decide when I get to advance.”

XP makes an especially good fit for more open campaigns where characters wander without an overriding narrative shaped by a hardcover or a DM’s plan.

In more story-driven campaigns, where hooks and clues lead players through an adventure, and where the DM adds achievement XP awards, the players’ control over their advancement looks more like an illusion. Nate Finch writes, “The GM always just chooses when you level up. It’s just less work if you don’t have to bean count.”

The players who preferred milestones all touted the freedom from bookkeeping. Instead of feeling distracted by the game of seeking XP, they felt focused on story and character.

Milestone advancement works best when players know what achievement will earn their next level. Adam N. Dobson writes, “My group unanimously prefer milestones. The goals are made clear and they pursue them without feeling that they have to kill everything. Milestones are more inventive, immersed, and versatile.”

“If a DM uses [milestones],” Graham Ward writes, “I like to have some information on what those are. Even the illusion of an objective measure makes a difference for me. I hate when DMs decide on the fly.”

Next: Doing experience points right and the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of giving XP for gold.

16 thoughts on “XP Versus Milestone Advancement—At Least We Can All Agree That Awarding XP Just for Combat Is Terrible

  1. Jonathan Woodward

    Not to mention the gray area of awarding XP for traps. Since the point of a trap is to carefully *avoid* it, should the PCs get XP if they’re so careful they never get close enough to detect it? If they get no XP for getting TPK’d by it, and full XP is they disarm it, do they get *some* XP if they trigger it in a controlled fashion that only hurts them a little?

    Reply
      1. TommyBahama

        I think Adventurers League allows leveling after every two hour session. It seems our Avernus group levels every six to nine hours which also seems too fast now we’re at Tier 2.

        There are other rewards besides XP or milestones. Magic items and treasure for example. But the Avernus campaign seems stingy with both.

        Reply
    1. PK

      See, this is actually a great example of why I like Gold for XP- it nicely sidesteps all these issues.

      I don’t have to care whether the party avoids the trap, never knows the trap is there, tanks the trap, sacrifices hirelings to the trap, or disarms the trap. If they get the gold on the other side of the trap, they get the XP.

      Reply
  2. Angantyr

    The XP system that Gygax devised makes sense if you consider his wargaming background. XP for monsters killed = enemy units destroyed while XP for gold = objectives conquered. Really not that bad, when looked at that way. The main change I would make is that I would give XP for monsters overcome/bypassed or otherwise dealt with (forcing them to retreat, for example, or even successfully parleying with them, etc.) and perhaps bonus XP if done in an especially clever way. A thief that successfully sneaks into a dragon’s lair, pilfers some choice items under the dragon’s nose, and gets away would, in my campaign, not only get XP for the value of the items stolen but some fraction of the dragon’s XP value, depending on the difficulty of sneaking in and taking the valuables.

    Reply
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  4. Lord Sengir

    Inspired by the 2 or 3 page list of experience awards from rolemaster. I give experience for characters and players doing what they do. Fight, cast spells, cool tactic, great roleplay, good intersctikn, creative skill use, overcome a task, tell a good joke, ask a good questikn, remember lore.

    They erase a lot but the game us awarded for playing in any way they do. 7 months 1 x a week and those who gave survived are 4th level and happy.

    Reply
    1. OnReflection

      > great roleplay, good intersctikn, creative skill use, overcome a task, tell a good joke, ask a good questikn, remember lore.

      With those metrics, *players* get XP, not characters, for making you laugh, meeting your definition of “creative,” or being more engaged with the game. If this system works for you and your players, great. But not everyone wants to play in a game where comedians have more powerful characters or you get rewarded for sucking up by asking the kind of questions the GM likes.

      Making XP a catch-all reward system that reinforces the GM’s rule-by-fiat prerogatives may suit a lot of GM’s and be accepted by a lot of players, but that doesn’t mean it’s robust design. Objective standards and metrics that don’t reward specific player personality types but do engage the fun anticipation on their part in advance of the actual reward are a more portable and fair design.

      Reply
  5. Ilbranteloth

    Our approach has evolved into something quite different over the last 40 years or so.

    First, we advance levels asymmetrically. Levels 1-3 are pretty quick, but then we sit at 4th level for a long time. Often years. It’s the first sweet spot we’ve found, and see little reason to go beyond it unless there’s a need. When we do, levels 5-7 are usually pretty quick, and then we stay at 8th level.

    Instead, we focus on the PCs, the goals, and their narratives. Much like a TV series, it’s all about the exploits of the PCs, not gaining levels. Instead, magic items (mostly consumable) replace the abilities that would be gained. This has a lot of benefits.

    PCs aren’t stuck with a fixed handful of abilities. Instead, their options are dependent upon what items they have at that point in time. It also sparks some creativity, and it largely eliminates the 5 minute workday. Since the items have a limited number of uses, their usage is more considered than just deciding when, before the next long or short rest, I’ll use this ability.

    As far as level advancement itself, we approach that as a collective decision, between the player and the DM. PCs don’t necessarily all level up at once, although sometimes I’ll decide it’s a good time for all of them to do so and do that. But most of the time, the players decide when it’s appropriate for their PC to gain a level, based on how much experience they think they’ve gained. We have guidelines, and can look to the official books too (from multiple editions), but it’s largely based on the narrative and what the player thinks.

    Another huge benefit is that it avoids the need for the DM to try to keep pace increasing the difficulty of encounters. Our approach is to populate the world intelligently, not catering to a specific level party. If things are too challenging, then they will often retreat and find alternative solutions, rather than waiting to gain levels. It also means that there are a lot of things that are more powerful than them – most of the time it takes more than just working through things through one combat after another. Which also makes for a more interesting game.

    Overall, I have less of an issue with XP than I do with where the design of character levels has gone over the years. Other than a few classes, most of the time in AD&D and earlier, gaining levels was beneficial but not dramatically game-changing. While spellcasters did get more powerful, the DM had control of that power by choosing what spells they found. With the current design, PCs get progressively more powerful, and it’s much more of what I’d consider a super-heroic game, despite many using the term “heroic” to describe PCs that have better stats and many more abilities than the average person. We prefer the classic definition of heroic, “an ordinary person doing extraordinary things.”

    Reply
  6. Patrick

    Having just finished running a campaign that used XP for the first time (previously used milestones), I can comfortably say that I don’t plan on doing it again. Every time I handed out the XP after an encounter, I felt obligated to add to it because my players tend to talk their way out of encounters rather than murder-hoboing. But the XP system doesn’t really account well for doing that.

    That said, I’m not a huge fan of the milestone system either. It’s certainly easier for the DM, but sometimes it makes the increases in level feel very arbitrary. In one campaign, reaching level 6 was complete slog through a swamp full of random encounters, raiders, and storming a castle. But then reaching level 7 involved knocking out a couple kitchen staff and a gargoyle, then having a chat with an enemy. It may have made sense in the grand scheme of the story, but as a player it felt like I was first cheated out of a level up and then rushed into a new one.

    The other gripe I have with milestones is that it doesn’t deal well with inconsistent players. I’ve played with some who have been flaky about attendance, but milestones push them along in leveling even if they don’t show up. It’s irritating to see as a consistent player, and frankly can result in the flaky player getting in over their head with abilities and mechanics they don’t fully understand.

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  7. prabe

    I don’t give XP for kills. I don’t use XP at all. The characters advance in level when they do what I feel is enough to advance the stories they’re pursuing. (I keep intending to make this more … methodical, or objective, but that keeps not happening, and I don’t share that with the players anyway …) Because so many class abilities are combat-oriented, I prefer to give them a chance to play with the shiny new before giving them more shinier newer, but that’s the closest I come to XP for kills.

    Reply
  8. Alamantra

    The problem with milestones is the same with solving a social or exploration conflict without XP reward: if the players know that solving that quest does not award a milestone then why to do it?

    Reply
  9. Tardigrade

    So, a few points here.

    1. I see this as an excellent case against “The Narrative”, story based d&d. The rules were changed to accommodate adventure writers who were trying to create a story, not because there was any problem with the game. According to chief corporate meathead, Mike Mearls, “Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot.” FFS. Plot. The root of all evil in d&d. Plot leads to railroads. Railroads lead to bad DM behavior. Bad DM behavior leads to unhappy players which leads to no more game.

    2. Giving xp for gold IS giving xp for accomplishments. It IS milestone xp

    3. “D&D builds around three core activities: roleplaying interactions, exploration, and combat”. Mmm, let’s define role playing though. Is it “fulfilling a specific and somewhat unique set of duties and actions on a team”? Such as “fighter” or “magic user”. Or is it amateur improv medieval theater? I tend to choose the former. People are different and not all players are outgoing and like “acting”. Those xp awards for the latter tend to go to the outgoing, egotistical attention seeking divas every game. I don’t think that’s right either.

    4. Who the flip is Erin Adams, what exactly does “story focused player” even mean and why do I give a rat’s butt what she has to say about anything? Just curious.

    5. The state of the game is in bad, bad shape.

    Reply
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  11. GriffonSpade

    The unmentioned middleground is to greatly reduce the granularity of XP. Drop the extra digits and individual monster tracking to simplify bookkeeping (and use a flatter XP scale). If players are getting just 1 XP at a time for most challenges or goals (and only a few XP most sessions), you’re not going to have problems with math.
    These are supposed to be heroes: Pay them in gold, not copper. And give them nothing if they haven’t done anything deserving of gold.

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