I see this question a lot: does your RPG group use experience or milestones for leveling? Traditionally, characters in role-playing games would level up by amassing experience from killing monsters or successfully navigating tense social situations. More recently however, an alternative system has been rising in popularity wherein groups eschew experience in favor of what is known as “milestone leveling”, wherein characters automatically level up at set points in a story. In other words, after specific “milestones”. Both of these systems have their merits, however I feel the most rewarding leveling system comes not from choosing one or the other, but from using what’s best from both!
In Dungeons & Dragons the “traditional” method of leveling up consists of amassing experience until you reach a number that constitutes enough experience to “level up” with this number (usually) increasing with each level. Here’s a graph of the Fifth Edition experience curve:
The constantly increasing required amount of experience serves 2 major purposes: it provides a growing sense of accomplishment while incentivizing players to seek out bigger and more dangerous challenges (which, of course, provide more experience than those kobolds you mercilessly slaughtered at level 2 because they dared rest next to the road on which you were traveling. Monsters.) Furthermore, from a DM standpoint it also helps determine how many monsters are appropriate to throw at the players at once as encounters are built around “xp budgets”.
It makes winning feel GOOD. Like really good. Like I just murdered a literal demon from hell and get to add 4800 experience to my character sheet good. It also puts weight behind each individual triumph, be it combat or social (assuming you give experience for social encounters).
It incentivizes grinding over storytelling. When faced with situation in which combat is an option, combat is then often chosen for that sweet, sweet experience. This leads to the infamous “murder hobo” gameplay style of attack first and ask questions later. The increasing experience requirement also introduces unnecessary extra number crunch as experience granted per encounter goes up in roughly equal measure making the extra experience required each level more or less a wash. Also, leveling is more volatile and it can be harder to prepare content more than a session or two out as the DM cannot be sure what level the PCs will be when they reach that content.
First introduced (to the best of my knowledge) in the Curse of Strahd campaign book, milestone leveling takes a polar opposite approach to experience leveling. Milestone leveling completely throws experience out the window and instead has the PCs leveling up at very specific moments in the story. This style makes storytelling much more central to the game as the only way to level up is by progressing through the story.
It directly subverts the “murder hobo” style of play. Whether the players killed a dozen orcs to save the farmer’s kidnapped daughter or successfully snuck into the camp in the middle of the night and spirited her away, the players get the same amount of reward. Some players and groups may also like having one less thing to track on their character sheet (experience). Finally, it gives the DM complete control over when the party levels up, which allows for much more planning and preparation as you know what the power of the PCs is going to look like when they get to any of your challenges.
Milestone leveling can feel very arbitrary. If one of your game’s milestones is safely returning a farmer’s kidnapped daughter from a nearby orc camp, your Level 2 party may go, save her, then walk into town and suddenly be Level 3. Meanwhile, last session your same group fought through an entire cave of kobolds at Level 2 and was still Level 2 when they came out. This can also make some levels feel “unearned” as you could be Level 3 now and the milestone to reach level 4 is to brave the Dark Forest and come out the other side alive so you trek through the forest just to come out the other side having either accidentally or masterfully avoided every hazard therein. Now you’re Level 4 and have literally done nothing since before you were Level 3. Basically, it can outright trivialize each individual victory or triumph in the story. This method also can be a bit wonky if your party consists of characters of different levels.
Basic XP emphasizes what works about both Experience and Milestone leveling while minimizing their weaknesses. Using Basic XP, each level costs 10xp and experience is granted on a sliding scale for all activities. For example, 1-3 xp is earned per encounter (combat or otherwise), generally depending on difficulty (1=easy, 2=average, 3=hard). Milestones are still used, but instead of a flat level up they grant 5-10 xp depending on how big of a milestone was reached. Finally, players can earn 1xp at any time just for being awesome.
Benefits for Players
Using this system every accomplishment is rewarded. Killing a bunch of orcs to save someone they kidnapped grants you 3xp, Sneaking into a camp of orcs in the middle of the night to save someone they kidnapped grants you 3xp. Successfully impersonating an orc after accidentally waking one so that you don’t alarm the whole camp grants your Bard 1xp. Being a Bard grants you 1xp. Then you go back to town and earn 5xp for returning the girl. Now your Bard has gained a level, knowing they earned it and the rest of the party is 80% of the way to the next level as well!
Benefits for DMs
While the Basic XP system provides progress for everything the characters do, it also provides flexibility for the DM to still have the players level predictably. In the above example for players, the party earned 3xp for sneaking and 5xp for returning the kidnappee, while the bard earned all of that plus 1xp for keeping the party safe by doing Bard-y things and 1xp for being a Bard (do not actually grant your players xp just for being a Bard. I mean, or do. It’s your game and Bards are awesome.) This leaves the Bard a level higher than the rest of the group. If you want everyone to level together, just grant everyone 7xp for returning the girl safely. The Bard still has 2 extra xp, but everyone has gone up a level!
Alternatively, it can also be used to build tension in a story by withholding experience. Let’s say the party needs 3 xp to level up and they just fought a really hard battle against a boss. You can grant them 2 xp for the fight despite it being hard because it is more advantageous to the story when they unlock the door to the BBEG treasure room to find not only loot, but 1 xp and a new level!