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Milestone vs. XP: Explaining D&D 5e’s Complicated Leveling System

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One of the best things that can happen for a player is to level up in D&D.

You can unlock new abilities and gain more HP. It’s just as awesome as your character.

…But it can be difficult for both players and DMs to get to the next level.

The problem is that the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s guide for Dungeons and Dragons 5,e provide a variety of ways for PCs (and sometimes NPCs) to level up. It can be hard for new DMs and DMs to decide which one is best for their table and their party.

There are two possible ways to level up, as described in the Rules as Written: Milestones and Experience Points.

Earn Experience Points

Players are awarded Experience Points (or XP) when they defeat a monster. Monster Manual monsters come with an XP amount that is split equally between the players and participating NPCs. The battle ends.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide notes that XP may be awarded for non-combat encounters such as successful negotiations and escape from a puzzle room or avoiding capture after a harrowing chase sequence.

It is up to the DM, however, to decide the difficulty of these encounters and how much XP each character should receive for their successful completion.

The Player’s Handbook chart shows how much XP is required to level up. Keep in mind that XP accumulates as you progress, so your level 2 level doesn’t reset to 0. You start at 300.


Milestone leveling is a subject that has caused some confusion within the D&D community. The term is used by most to refer to a system that doesn’t give out XP and allows DMs to level up their party when they feel they are worthy.

This could be at the end or in a thematically appropriate moment after a big fight. However, the confusion is that the Dungeon Master’s Guide links Milestones to XP. This allows characters to earn additional XP as they progress through the system.

You can also get additional benefits from the DMG once you reach milestones. For example, you may receive an instant short rest or a spell slot back. Or, you might regain the use of any magic items that were expended during the day.

Most people think of “Milestone” leveling, but in reality it’s “Level Advancement with XP without XP,” as described in the DMG.

You have the choice of Session Based Advancement or which ties leveling directly with the number of sessions a group has played together. This is independent of the content of the game or the position of the characters in the story.

The second is Story Based Advancement, which is when characters are able to level up after “achieving significant goals in the campaign.”

Which one should I use?

Milestone leveling is what I use — Story-based Advancement. This is mainly because I don’t have the time or inclination to research the XP values of all the monsters I send my way or to come up with an appropriate XP value for noncombat encounters and homebrew monsters.

It’s also nice to know that the victory of a difficult enemy, arrival in town following a tough survival sequence or the conclusion of a significant story arc can all be marked off by the announcement of a new Level — something you can’t do with XP leveling.

One caveat: XP allows characters level up at different rates. This means that PCs who attend every session will gain a few more levels than their chronically absent companions.

This can be both a good thing and a problem. The DMG states that “a gap of two to three levels between characters in the same party won’t ruin the game for anyone.” Some DMs offer XP in exchange for participation. This is why keeping up with the rest the party is a good incentive to players to attend as many sessions as possible.

It also stated that absent players can still be awarded XP, to keep the group at the same level.

Whatever leveling system you choose, it should be discussed in advance of the campaign.

We’d love to know which leveling system you use in games and why in the comments section below.

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