Recently, I came across a short video of celebrity Dungeon Master Brennan Lee Mulligan. He was speaking into a microphone, clearly on a podcast of some kind, and talking about the leveling systems that he uses when he runs his games.
Leveling your characters by combat experience points, he was saying, is the inferior leveling system. He joked about it, saying that if characters level by combat in your world, every wizarding academy should be taking their students out to kill goblins instead of studying and tests. It’s ridiculous, he implied through his tone of voice. The other presenters on the podcast laughed, the person sharing the video clip chimed in with their agreement, and I was left irritated and bewildered.
Quite frankly, I disagree.
XP vs. Milestone Leveling (How Each One Works)
In Dungeons and Dragons, your character becomes more powerful by leveling up, gaining new abilities, more health, and greater power each time. This in turn allows your players to take on more powerful enemies, and just to have the satisfaction of a more powerful, more actualized character. When characters gain a new level is generally the purview of the Dungeon Master (the DM), who can do so in a couple of different ways, the most common of which are XP and Milestone leveling.
In XP leveling (the style which the aforementioned DM so disdained), characters gain a certain amount of Experience Points (XP) every time they achieve something. This is often from finishing combat encounters (killing monsters, defeating bosses, etc.), but also from solving puzzles, passing checks, and clearing social, environmental, or tactical encounters as well (negotiating with an enemy, finding a riddle’s solution, etc.),
Milestone leveling, on the other hand, forgoes giving out XP. Instead, the characters level at story milestones that are predetermined by the DM. This is generally after they defeat a boss, reach a certain twist in the tale, or have managed to create an impactful character moment.
Which Leveling System is Better?
Like most things in DnD, there is no ‘better’ system. Each on has their own pros and cons, and fit better or worse in different styles of play.
Milestone leveling is best for more narrative-led, roleplay-focused games. It ensures that your characters are always at the power level that the narrative is best served by and requires them to move through the plot in order to reach the next one. It’s also great for games in which your characters might choose to forgo combat, saving the DM the effort of working out XP amounts for social and environmental encounters (which do not have the handy XP charts that you can use for combat ones).
XP leveling, I find, is more natural for more strategic, problem-solving, or dungeon-crawl style games. It makes sense from an in-world perspective (which I’ll explain momentarily), and also allows the players themselves more control over the game. If they feel they aren’t powerful enough to execute a particular plan, then they can “grind” their characters, seeking out combat to level themselves high enough.
The "Problem with Combat XP", and Why it Doesn’t Hold Up
If both leveling systems work equally well, why was such a popular DM convinced that it didn’t make any sense? And why did that annoy me so much?
First of all, celebrity DMs approach the game from a very particular perspective, and not one that is actually relatable to those of us who DM for our friends and family. They’re livestreaming their games as a form of media and entertainment. They’re not just DMing for their players – they’re writing for an audience. And that requires a through-plot, with narrative hooks and character growth on a fairly comprehensible schedule, in order to keep viewers entertained when they aren’t getting the satisfaction that you would get from just playing the game. And for that, a narrative-style game is required. Milestone leveling is required. Of course he’d prefer milestone leveling, it’s the kind best suited for the games he runs for a living. For him, and his players, Milestone Leveling is best.
What annoyed me so much was the vehement insistence that XP leveling doesn’t make sense. Not just for his games, but on a worldbuilding level. Mainly because, well, he’s wrong. And his own example proves it.
The Flaws in the "Wizard Academy" Example Specifically
The example used was that if you need XP to level up, wizarding academies should all be taking their students out to kill goblins instead of studying. The implication is that it’s internally inconsistent that a wizard might study for years, but since they aren’t killing things, they aren’t getting more powerful, and that doesn’t make sense.
This doesn’t really hold up.
For one thing, that scenario assumes that every character in a world “levels up” in the same way that player characters do. They don’t need to. Even powerful NPCs who might fall under a player-class archetype. Player characters gain levels as a mechanic to give the characters a sense of evolution through the game, and to provide incentive for them to explore and engage more with what the DM is presenting to them. NPCs don’t need that – they don’t need levels at all, they can simply be as powerful as they need to be, with whatever abilities the DM chooses. No leveling of any kind applies to any character except the players’, be it Milestone or XP.
For another thing, not every character in the world is going to be an adventurer. There’s no reason for a school that, in-world, is going to graduate a bunch of academics and civil servants, to provide the training to make the dungeon-delving, spell-slinging combat casters that the Wizard Class builds to.
I could make a reverse argument about Milestone leveling using the Fighter Class. If you only level through Milestones, in-world military academies should never have their students physically train. After all, it doesn’t make sense that you would risk injuring your soldiers when they can become more powerful combatants by simply undergoing emotional growth, or finding an important task to be involved in, and avoiding danger altogether, does it?
That argument doesn’t hold a lot of water, but it does hold more than the Wizard-Academy one.
The Final Case for Combat XP
Ultimately, XP is a mechanical representation of the characters’ accumulation of adventuring knowledge. When you fight more monsters, face more challenges, and slay more foes, you’re learning how to fight as a team, stretching your abilities, and slowly improving your powers. And these are exactly what Class Features are improving upon (since DnD is an adventuring and combat oriented game). It also allows players greater control over the gameplay than Milestone Leveling, although it doesn’t fit so easily into the story-arc style that livestreamed games rely upon.
XP Leveling makes perfect sense to, and for, thousands of players. It works. It doesn’t have strange effects on the worldbuilding, or create plot holes, unless you go out of your way to make a world in which it does. And that can be fun, but it’s not a given. Don’t let anybody, no matter how revered in the DnD community, tell you otherwise.