Against Milestone Leveling.


megablok-dragons-1536396Milestone leveling rubs me the wrong way. There’s something strange about the GM just deciding my character just levels up.  Sometimes a better a GM will at least create a series of paced plot links that, other GM’s seem to just do so on a whim which entirely screws up any sense of pacing or immersion. Although either method seems flawed.

It comes down to rewarding players.  The four main rewards I’ve seen players interested  roughly in order are.

  • Magic Items
  • Gold
  • Experience
  • Achievement of personal character goals and group goals.

Note this doesn’t include the reward of playing your epic story. Most players don’t actually seem to care much about that at all. The item of that list explicitly means goals that the players have come up with for themselves not one the GM has crafted for them.

Milestone leveling removes one of these reward centers and cuts into another if the GM is only using milestone leveling when players reach certain points in his plot then the goals they set for themselves don’t matter. This trickles down and affects large portion of the game as a result as players are only going to be completing tasks they have incentive to do.

Further to this milestone leveling discourage players from fighting threats beyond their level range and the potential reward and satisfaction that brings. Take the 5e Phandelver adventure, that’s the one with the freaking Green Dragon that  your level 1 characters could potentially go and fight.  If they don’t receive XP as a reward for killing VenomFang then there’s suddenly far less incentive to try and tackle him. He will have some treasure sure but that is about it. He’s not  linked to the main quest line of the module in any meaningful way and unless one of the characters decide his personal goal is killing a dragon it doesn’t tie into character motivations either.

If you are using XP and your party of 4 level 1 characters manage to take him out they’ll be rewarded with a massive boost to 3rd level.  Even a group more appropriately at 4th level fighting VenomFang will be about a quarter of the way closer to fifth level. Sure I guess you could hand out a milestone for killing him. But then do you do it again if they kill another high level threat ? And how do you judge how high a level is enough to warrant an entire level up? If only there was some system that calculated how much an encounter was worth and then rewarded that to the players and gave them a set number to reach to level up.  I think I would call it win points.

Milestone leveling heavily discourages the use of random encounters as without experience as a reward for them they become rather empty as they don’t often give away a lot of treasure.  Yet they are in my view a crucial part of the game. They are a balancing factor for one that stops the party simply resting after every single fight as they have to be wary of potential random encounters and they add some serious spice and variety to gameplay.   Likewise random encounters allow you to throw high level threats at the players if they get unlucky, or lucky, depending on your perspective and as noted above this

Milestones encourage a GM to write a linear story and squeeze the players in and such design is anathema to roleplaying and utterly boring for players to be railroaded through.  What happens if the players don’t reach the arbitrary milestone the GM sets? What if they want to do something else ? What if they’d rather do a series of small quests than focus on anything broad and overarching? What if they want to focus on personal goal? Do you level them up when they achieve one ? The whole party? just the player who achieved it? If only there was a way to reward a player individually by giving them a small number that would build towards their level. Milestones therefore destroy player agency in forcing them through the GM’s contrived plot.

Now you’re thinking but hey isn’t XP a metagamey gamist concept in the first place that has no place in my role play.  It’s certainly a disassociated mechanic in that your character can’t really explain in the game world what experience is but it’s a neccesary one as it provides a crucial player reward and feedback to how far the player is progressing as well as a hint towards the general power level of threat. Of course back in the day you’d have to return to town with your XP and your gold and spend the gold to train yourself and level up which added a degree of verisimilitude to the process but sadly that rule is gone and players seem adverse to it.  None the less it’s an incredibly important mechanic and to outright ignore it is to ignore player rewards, pacing and agency.

Milestone leveling perhaps could have its place in a more roleplay focussed game such as one that includes lots of noble intrigue, however I never saw the issue with handing out experience for overcoming roleplaying encounters and the CR system makes it fairly easily. If the players manage to talk their way past some low level guards you provide the appropriate XP for ‘defeating them’ If they manage to sweet talk a noble and get something they want out of him like information, you can grant them a higher amount of XP equivalent to the noble.

Overall milestone leveling just doesn’t make any sense to run , especially if you are running a freeform, sandbox style adventure.  They perhaps, but why in the world are you prepping a plot and trying to tell a story to your players? Cut it out and use experience points.


  1. I think this article shows you are not ready to modify the core rules. Using XP for rewarding characters is like following a recipe to exact detail. Milestones are more freeform and requires experimentation.

    I start the adventure with some key milestones but if the players are not interested in that story thread and want to do something else, I create new milestones based on where the party are headed. My old milestones don’t go away and as a GM it’s part of my job to get the party back to where my story is. But I do so in a natural manner.
    If I can tie a character goal even superficially into my main plot points then players are encouraged to focus on own goals and continue exploring the main plot. I will try 2 or 3 times to get the group interested in the plot point, if I can’t then I drop it and re-work the elements. If it’s critical to my overall story then I allow events to unfold without party inteference and they then have to deal with whatever events transpire because they ignored the problem.

    You can’t do this unless you are comfortable with being a GM and making stuff up on the fly.

    If you have never created your own monster, played with creating feats or new class options and have never played in a homebrew setting then milestones may not be for you just yet.


    • Thanks for your comment.

      That’s an interesting perspective. My article is actually arguing rather the opposite, that milestone leveling limits the ability to run a freeform game. It forces you, as you’ve said yourself , to continually create an endless series of arbitrary ‘plots’ for your party to follow which I feel hampers player agency and creative freeform gameplay.

      I run freeform games where any hooks I do place are more guidelines to get the party going and the onus is on the players to set their own goals and pacing. Experience points are a wonderful tool for this as they provide a clear goal and reward for the players and teach them early on that if they take on harder challenges they’ll reap greater rewards. On the other hand milestones force them to follow whatever ‘story’, or ‘stories” I’ve prepped which limits their agency.

      I don’t tell my story. I let the players create their story.

      Of course if milestones work for the type of game you’re running then by all means continue to run them. I’m not here to tell anybody bad wrong fun , but I’d offer you the challenge of playing without them and seeing where it leads you and your players when they’re not as constricted.

      As for your comments in regards to my inability to homebrew that’s an odd conclusion. , I’m currently running my game in a homebrew setting and of course have created house rules, custom monsters and so forth. In fact some of them are on this blog

      You’ve given me the idea to post more content like that though so that’s appreciated. 🙂

      All the best.


      • Thanks for the reply.
        I find that running with XP rewards, I get the opposite. My players just see NPCs and critters as XP machines. Personal goals fall to the wayside for the next big XP score. If something stands in the way it must be killed.
        Yes there are ways to plot around this but milestones guide the players where I need them to go. If they want a side quest I flag it as a milestone and move on. This way they know they will be rewarded if they go with my plot or make their own.
        I think it boils down to your players and how they want to play. Catering to them rather than dictating is the best way forward.
        If XP works for you, great. If milestones work for me, great.
        Happy gaming my friend.


  2. A possible fix for milestone leveling would be to have players list out some goals, you check over them so you’re sure that everything is works for your world and game (if you’re running a hexcrawl campaign, reach the fifth level of the dungeon isn’t an appropriate goal) and each time a goal is completed the players cross it off (not rub it out) and gain a level


    • Hi Stanley,

      Thanks for the comment.

      That’s a good suggestion, it means that you’re still encouraging players to be goal orientated. The strength of an XP system is that you can tailor it to encourage the type of gameplay you want within your game and certainly tying milestones to that is a good idea. The caveat would be no real way to scale the goals, you wouldn’t be able to really let players have small goals or leveling would be too easy. You could have tiers I suppose with 1/3 of a level being a small goal, 2/3 being a medium one and 3/3 being a large one. Kinda like Zelda hearts? But then you’re dangerously close to an XP system!

      Still good food for thought.


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