My Experiences With Milestone XP

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1105

A while ago I switched my campaigns to milestone XP. You can take this approach with non-D&D games too, if it’s not already baked in. And today I wanted to give you an update on how that’s going.

Whether you realize it or not, the reward systems you use have heavy impact on player and character behaviour.

That, in turn, has big impact on a session’s fun factor.

For example, let’s say you bought a cheap trophy at a used goods store, drop a d20 into the cup, and award it to the Best Roleplayer every session.

Near the end of each session, you send around an anonymous poll for everyone to vote. This one looks like it might be good. Set it up before the game, and then text it to all.

The winner gets to keep the trophy next session. And the d20, or whatever die you add, can be used as a bonus roll. When used, the die goes back into the cup for the next Best Roleplayer.

I guarantee that if you do this you’ll see better roleplaying from some, if not all your players.

Because you’re rewarding specific behaviour with social status and a mechanic.

We Reward By Accident, Reducing Potential Fun

We often don’t realize how we’re rewarding players.

Therefore, we do not understand or consciously employ this powerful technique to help everyone have more fun at every game.

For example, I’ve noticed some leaders tend to look to mostly their left or right when speaking at work. Maybe you do too.

This creates reward of attention for people sitting on that side.

Likewise, perhaps you favour certain players or characters just a wee bit more.

Maybe a player gives you great improv hooks. You can count on them to add to gameplay. Over time, without realizing it, that player gets more and more of your attention.

Most people don’t tune into this stuff. So, when we offer these rewards subconsciously, others might get upset or have hurt feelings, but no one recognizes what’s happening to provide healthy feedback.

I make this particular mistake, which is why I can cite it as a good example. When I’m busy behind the screen, I tend to overlook the quiet players. “No news is good news,” I guess.

To mitigate, I try to use initiative even when not in combat. I don’t roll, but I use special initiative cards I’ve made and cycle through them to give all players equal spotlight time.

You could also just rotate around the table. I like the cards because I can shuffle them for random order to keep folks on their toes and I write useful details about each character on them.

Game Rewards

Thrills of variable rewards and uncertainty offer great dopamine hits.

Randomizers like dice reward players for taking action, even if it results in a failure.

Instinctively, we know we can use die rolls to inject table energy when it flags or to get a bored player engaged.

But look at your system’s character sheet for a moment.

Highlight anything that can be improved.

That’s a whole reward ecosystem right there.

If a player can increase ability scores, that’s what they expect as rewards. If they track wounds, equipment, flaws, and boons, those all give you reward — and behaviour — levers.

So too it is with experience points, character points, and story points.

How we award these drives players to act in certain ways.

For example, if you reward for monsters killed, players are going to kill monsters. A lot of monsters.

Going Against the Grain

To veer away from your game’s built-in reward systems generates a disconnect that could cause a lot of table friction.

For example, I used to brag when we played a D&D session without rolling a single die.

This is fantastic once in a while to break things up, assuming it means juicy storytelling and lots of player and character choices and actions.

But built into D&D’s core engine are die rolls. To see if an attack succeeds, you gotta roll a d20. To circumvent that is to walk into a strong wind with that game. It would be like taking money out of Monopoly, or territories out of Risk.

Milestone Rewards

Rewarding for behaviour that keeps the plot moving forward means more story.

Killing monsters becomes a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

Redistributing treasure to NPCs and legendary places curtails the need to plunder at random and gives players clear targets.

Tying milestones to key plot points, whether planned or improvised, gets players thinking the game and playing it differently. There’s greater purpose and intention behind their Hoboing.

These have been my experiences for the last two years and three campaigns so far.

Move the carrot to the plot, and less session time gets sunk into meaningless combats. Negotiation and roleplay increases because it’s faster and easier to get closer to a milestone goal that way.

Combats become more strategic — and predictable, so easier planning — because they are mission-based.

We’ve also enjoyed the reduced accounting. Players would inevitably have different XP because of math errors or not paying attention. Every few sessions we’d waste time synching XP because some characters levelled up while others seemed to be short.

And the biggest win for me has been encounter creation. I no longer have XP budgets and targets to meet.

Better yet, when I modify monsters I no longer have to figure out their new XP value, which is more art than science.

Without having the bookkeeping, I feel a lot freer while planning and GMing.

What Hasn’t Worked

Players wanna have fun. That means they’ll trigger combat or encounters that don’t have impact on the plot.

I tend to run sandboxy games, though I’m leaning a bit away from that these days where my games are more like 50% planned adventures, 40% sandbox, and 10% hexcrawl.

In such games not everything should be tied to core goals. It creates a weird uncanny valley where everything you step in becomes significant.

Therefore, it’s tricky sometimes to balance game time with character advancement.

Each campaign plays once a month. I like to see a level up once every 3-4 sessions from a gamey standpoint. It’s a long time in the real world to not get cool new things on the charsheet.

Yet gameplay might not warrant a level-up at that time. Could be my fault for serving up unimportant hooks and encounters. Could be players choosing or creating situations not relevant to any milestone.

So that’s a point of friction.

By social contract, we also make a character disappear when their player can’t make a session.

If we can give the character a downtime activity, perfect. But in dungeons and similar circumstances where characters can’t logically break off and do something else, they get the “dungeon flu” and disappear.

With monster or treasure XP, this means missing characters would not get any rewards or advancements. But with milestone level-ups, characters gain a level even if missing for two or three sessions.

The tone of our games are friendly, and the style is more gamey than simulation or pure story, so this problem is small. But it’s there.


The main point here is to become observant of your reward systems.

What attention, motivation, and behaviour does your game system encourage because of rewards it provides?

What rewards do you give as GM that affect your players?

Milestone XP is working great for my D&D campaigns. But it’s not an absolute solution. When I GM other games, I’ll look at the system, type of campaign, and players, and then decide on XP or reward approach.

Some groups do very well with gold and monster XP. Some don’t.

So my caveat or tip here is to understand the reward systems and make informed decisions. You can have more fun every game when you can see behind the curtain in this way and change what’s not working, or working too well.