Milestone 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
- 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.