Why Milestones is Best for Role-Playing

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Doling out experience points (xp) is often quoted as the best part of an RPG session. It’s exciting to see that number rise and the abilities that are soon to come! It’s a way to gauge the progress of the character, and easily keep track of when to expect change. In games where combat is dominant, there is no need to change this. Your game might entirely rest on how many enemies you have killed, and your characters develop as their kill counts rise. For many other gamers, however, they want to see progress in their character’s personal development, not their combat prowess. They have spent hours thinking about who this adventurer is, their backstory, ideals, bonds, and flaws. This gamer will want to explore those facets of their character. This is where milestones can be a better choice for leveling, but the scope of the concept can be intimidating.

Transitioning to Milestone XP from Combat XP

With experience points, there is a tangible number, and you know that you progress by taking certain combat actions. Because of this, it is very tempting at first to try and grant xp based based on choices and clever problem solving. If you do this, you will quickly run into the problem of trying to quantify a qualification: you’re trying to assign numbers to something arbitrary, something that cannot be counted. How do you gauge one thing as more clever than another? What makes one action more rewarding than another? Do you break it down to variables and compare their complexity? This middle ground is tempting, but is muddied with difficulty, and ultimately takes away from your original intention: to focus on the role play of character growth.

Instead, look to how you role play your character. You make decisions based upon their background, personality, and weaknesses. These drive you to make decisions on what their goals and actions are. The same should be said for when to level up. As you play the character, you will be able to make more choices as them. In this process you will understand your character more. You’ll know when it is right to level up because you will be better able to identify that they have accomplished something. At the same time, there is some pacing to be mindful of.

Ground Rules

First and foremost, you need to talk to your group. This kind of game is collaborative, and it is up to both the DM and PCs to make it work. As the player, you’ll want to talk about how your character will develop by discussing things that they have to learn, choices to make, or weaknesses to overcome. As the DM, you can’t expect players to suddenly know when they should level up.

“..why are you adventurers?”

The most immediate thing to agree upon is that some characters will level up before others. As long as each player gets their turn, this discrepancy should not last long. Ideally, you would take turns in scenario to focus on a character’s story, which can increase their level. At the same time, you want to ensure that all players agree to pursue these goals, even if a story line doesn’t directly affect them! After all, why are you adventurers? What is the motivation driving you?

Goals – When to Level Up?

The term milestone comes from ancient use, where stones would be laid miles out from Rome’s center. On the stones, you could find details about where other cities were, how far away from these cities you were, and more. It was also a way of marking an accomplishment. “We will travel up to the 9th milestone” or “I’ll accompany you to the 3rd milestone” are examples of how they could be referred to. It has become a simple way of describing a goal, because once you got to a milestone, you might take a rest and reflect on the journey you’ve taken so far. You might even turn back!

To best see when a character should level up, you would have to be able to agree that your character has met a milestone, in that they have accomplished some sort of goal. The degree of this accomplishment can vary from character to character, but the basic principle is that they have done something important for them.

“arbitrarily” isn’t a dirty word;

For some, you could combine the perk from leveling up into the story, such as learning a new spell after getting close to a mentor figure . For others, you really don’t have to make a concentrated effort to try and contrive some story reason why you are suddenly gaining abilities (“Hey guys! I just had the best sleep of my life. I feel so good – like I’m stronger or something” – STR went up from ability score improvement). Or maybe the party just completed a big plot point, and they can all level up together. It is ultimately a game, and keeping pace with others might be more valuable at times than the progress of your character. Thankfully, this can be rather fun to play out. The heart of an RPG is arbitrarily deciding how to play your character, and “arbitrarily” isn’t a dirty word; the point of role playing is to act in respect of the situation, context, game, and story. Instead of trying to keep track of your xp, you can carefully think about whether or not your character is in a place to level up. On the meta-level of gaming, you can also think if your skill level should be matching your table-mates. Do what feels right for your character in the party’s context.

Milestones For Players

In taking a milestone approach to leveling up, the player can concentrate more on digging deeper in to their character. Rather than worrying about how to maximize your damage output and minimize your damage taken, you can focus on what makes your character who they are. Characters might have goals that they seek, but they also have needs, desires, and weaknesses. Using the milestones approach, you can explore these characteristics to a greater extent.  

As the player, you are taking the role of the character and deciding how to best act as them. You’re deciding how they would attack and defend, but you’re also deciding how they live and socialize! A character is defined by more than their combat decisions, so it makes all the more sense that you would also decide when the character has accomplished something important to them. This could happen on or off the battlefield – the point is that it’s personal to your character

The character sheet includes an area for ideals, bonds, and flaws. While the background might give some mechanical benefit to your game, the other three are entirely geared towards what makes your character unique. The milestones approach can be used to better focus on these three character aspects.. These characterizations should change over time! Just as your spells and skills change, so should your ideals, bonds, and flaws.

That being said, the game does still have a system to keep pace. There will be a balance to maintain between your character’s progress, and keeping pace with the rest of the table. The best part about the milestone approach is that you are rewarded for character moments, so the more you play, the more you learn about your character and who they are. Thus, it becomes more comfortable to decide when they would progress or not.

When it feels right, just announce to the table, “I think my character would level up from that.” See if the table then agrees, especially the DM. They might disagree, and that’s ok, because they should some times. There will be times where the DM simply wants to pace your abilities for the scenario. There might be other plans in store for your new found abilities. It is a collaborative game, and part of that requires mutual trust and communication.

Milestones For The DM

The milestones approach can feel the most daunting for the DM. Players focus on  choices, backgrounds, ideals, bonds, and flaws for just one character. As the DM, you have to help be the judge of all the players, and all of their character’s aspects. It may feel overwhelming to consider this new xp system, but there are ways to keep it in check.

You do not need to throw out combat design. While the milestones is approach is good for role-playing, empowering your arbitration of your characters progress, it is not something you do with combat. There is a system of rules and mechanics in place to help guide the combat and gameplay. Each RPG has a system to help decide ideal challenges at each level for combat (and even social) encounters. You should still use the system to help guide your technical decisions. You could even keep track of the combat xp to help guide your leveling at first. When you would normally level up from combat xp, just indicate to the party that “it’s time”.

Past that, the milestone approach will take a lot off your plate. You no longer have to decide an arbitrary amount of xp to grant per action, social decision, problem solving, or literally anything. It is now all about when it makes sense to the character. Because of this, you can now focus more on what can make the story more interesting. You can explore different types of storytelling, plot structure, and conflicts. Here are a few things to ask yourself, as the DM:

  • Why are the characters doing their quest?
  • What characters can be used from the PC’s past?
  • Who is the antagonist to the PCs? What is their motivation?
  • How will the world respond to the parties decisions?
  • What is the theme or moral?  

The Next Milestone

If your party has agreed to take the milestone approach, then you’ve decided to take a much more concentrated effort to storytelling and character development. As the player, you can explore the intricacies of three dimensional characters, their needs, desires, and weaknesses. As the DM, you can explore the many different ways to prepare and guide the story of the game. In later articles, we can explore those ideas, but most importantly, it is up to you decide.


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