Whether you’re brand new to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) or you’ve been playing for years, you’ve probably thought about it: how do characters level up? Leveling up – or progression – is an important part of every game, from TTRPGs to video games.
In D&D there are two common ways that Dungeon Masters (DMs) can decide to let players level up: using Experience Points (XP) or by achieving certain Milestones. As a DM myself, I know there are pros and cons to both methods; that’s what I’ll be covering in this post about XP vs milestone progression.
So whether you’ve always run campaigns by tracking the XP of every encounter or you create milestones that make sense for when your players might suddenly have new abilities (by leveling up), this post will tell you all you need to know about both common D&D progression options – plus a third one that you can try if you’re looking for something new.
🎲 Make an Insight Check: This resource is written for DMs; if you’re a player curious about the differences between XP and milestone progression, just read this post imagining yourself as the DM.
XP vs Milestone Progression Explained
XP progression is a more traditional way of advancing characters in RPGs, where players earn experience points for defeating enemies, completing quests, and overcoming challenges. As the character earns more experience points, they progress through levels and gain new abilities, spells, and other benefits. XP progression in D&D is based on the total amount of XP the character has earned over time, and the DM typically determines how much XP each challenge or encounter is worth.
Milestone progression, on the other hand, is a simpler and more streamlined way of advancing characters. Instead of tracking individual XP, players level up when they reach certain milestones or story points in the game, such as completing a major quest, defeating a major boss, or reaching a certain location. Milestone progression allows the DM to control the pacing of the game and ensures that all players are at the same level without having to worry about XP discrepancies.
In summary, while XP progression tracks a character’s advancement based on the XP they’ve earned, milestone progression focuses on significant events in the game’s story to advance characters to higher levels.
Considerations of Using XP Progression
If you’re sold on the idea of using XP to help your characters progress and level up, there are some things to keep in mind; as with basically all game mechanics in D&D, there are advantages and disadvantages to using XP progression.
Advantages of XP Progression
- Provides a clear sense of character advancement: As players earn experience points for defeating enemies, completing quests, and overcoming challenges, they can see their character’s progress and growth over time.
- Encourages players to engage with the game world: XP progression can motivate players to explore the game world, take on challenging encounters, and try out new tactics and strategies to earn more XP.
- Allows for fine-grained control of character advancement: With XP progression, you can determine exactly how much XP each challenge or encounter is worth, which allows for more fine-grained control of character advancement and a more tailored experience.
Disadvantages of XP Progression
- Can lead to uneven character advancement: Depending on your XP calculations, some players may end up earning more XP than others, which can lead to uneven character advancement and imbalance in the party.
- Can be time-consuming: Tracking XP for every encounter and challenge can be time-consuming and may slow down the pace of the game.
- Can incentivize certain play styles: Players may prioritize combat encounters or XP-generating activities over other aspects of the game, such as role-playing or exploration.
Overall, XP progression can provide a sense of character advancement and encourage players to engage with the game world, but it may also lead to uneven character advancement and incentivize certain play styles.
I ran my first campaign with XP progression, and I actually really liked it: it made it clear to understand exactly how much my players had “learned” from each encounter, and it was easy to see what level different players should be at based on who was able to make sessions and who missed them (check out my D&D scheduling tips if you too have a hard time getting everyone to the table).
The XP Level Progression Chart
As you’re considering XP progression, you might wonder if there’s a standard method for tracking XP to determine player levels. Short answer: yes! Below you’ll find a breakdown of how much XP players need to reach each level; you (and your players) can all track this so they know when they’re close to reaching the next level.
|Cumulative XP||Level||Cumulative XP||Level|
Considerations of Using Milestone Progression
As you might be able to guess, there are also advantages and disadvantages for using milestone progression in your campaign. Below are some of the ones most commonly encountered by DMs using this method for progressing characters in D&D.
Advantages of Milestone Progression
- Simpler and easier to track: Unlike XP progression, which requires tracking XP for every encounter and challenge, milestone progression only requires you to determine when significant story points have been reached, making it simpler and easier to track.
- Encourages story-focused gameplay: With milestone progression, the focus is on reaching significant story points, which can incentivize players to engage with the game world in a more story-focused way and prioritize role-playing and exploration.
- Promotes party balance: Because all players level up at the same time when a milestone is reached, milestone progression can promote party balance and ensure that all players are at the same level.
Disadvantages of Milestone Progression
- Less control over character advancement: Milestone progression means that character advancement is tied to story progress rather than individual challenges or encounters, which can make it harder for you to tailor the experience to individual players.
- Less motivation for players to engage in combat: Because milestone progression is not tied to combat encounters or other specific challenges, players may be less motivated to engage in combat or other XP-generating activities.
- Requires careful pacing: Milestone progression requires you to carefully pace the story so that significant story points are reached at appropriate intervals, which can be challenging to do. (To be honest, this was one of the most frustrating parts of Campaign 1 of my favorite D&D podcast, Tales from the Stinky Dragon – they often double-leveled up and it made for very weird pacing as a listener.)
Overall, milestone progression can be simpler to track, encourage story-focused gameplay, and promote party balance, but it may also provide less control over character advancement, provide less motivation for players to engage in combat, and require careful pacing by you.
I prefer milestone progression; it’s one less stat for players to track and is easier if you have players that miss some sessions. – Garrett,
The first DM I played under, Randy, also prefers milestone progression because it makes more sense in the story and it’s a lot easier to understand especially if you’re homebrewing your own campaign.
Door #3: Training-Based Progression
Speaking of Randy, he and I were recently talking about XP vs milestone progression (since I use one and he uses the other, and our players are the same group of people). He proposed a third option for D&D character progression that I really like: training-based progression.
Here’s how he defines it: “with training-based progression, players will earn experience points, but they can’t level up until they receive training.”
The way to think of it is as a blend of XP and milestone progression: your players do earn the XP for each encounter, but they don’t level up until you reach the milestone of training to actually learn the new spells or attacks their characters gain for that leveling. It’s a good way to add more roleplaying and storytelling to the XP progression model.
It honestly just makes more sense to me than someone waking up one day and suddenly knowing new combat maneuvers or they can produce psychic blades or whatever they may have received from leveling up. – Randy,
While training-based progression isn’t a standard model, Randy isn’t alone in using it: legendary DM Matt Mercer uses it to progress the character of Beau in Critical Role Campaign 2, The Mighty Nein.
Which Progression Method is Best?
There is no one “best” progression method in D&D; both XP and milestone progression have their advantages and disadvantages and can be effective depending on your preferences and the needs of the players. Training-based progression is a nice blend, but it’s also not a standard way of progressing characters and puts a lot more on both you as the DM and your players to do the work to actually level up.
Ultimately, your progression method will depend on your preferences and how you want to play; while this might be something you ask your players, it’s your call at the end of the day. In the end, the most important thing is to choose a progression method that works well for your campaign and helps create an enjoyable and engaging game experience. As a DM, I’m confident that’s your top goal, so give it some thought and choose the progression you prefer – you can always switch it later if you want!
Have any other questions about XP vs Milestone progression for D&D campaigns? Let me know in the comments below!