The more I play Shadow of the Demon Lord the more I enjoy the system. I feel like a broken record saying that, but it’s seriously been an enormous influence on how I play and write about RPGs as of late. For example, it’s completely changed my opinion on milestone leveling.
I’ve always gravitated towards awarding experience (EXP) in my D&D 5e games. Generally, this has been for two reasons: a) it gives the players a way to see tangible growth in their characters, and b) I’ve always played that way.
My one gripe with milestone leveling was always that it was difficult for me to wrap my head around how I can use it in a way that makes sense. Like, how long is “too long” for the players to be level X? There’s no way for the players to see their progress or judge when they’ll get their next level up.
This is part of the reason why it’s beneficial to play and/or read other game systems, even if you have a favorite. You learn about new mechanics and are forced out of your comfort zone. If you end up enjoying these new mechanics or techniques you can oftentimes add them to your favorite game system!
Shadow of the Demon Lord handles leveling by flat-out telling everyone at the table that once you complete an adventure, you level. An adventure, in this case, is just an involved quest, so not fetching something or killing a couple of bandits in 15 min (though it could still be depending on the context).
Let’s talk a bit about what I’ve learned about milestone leveling, and why I’ll be using it in the future.
The Benefits of Milestone Leveling
There are plenty of benefits that milestone leveling brings to the table. One of the most enticing benefits, of course, is that it can lessen the amount of prep that the GM does when designing future adventures.
Easier Adventure Planning
Milestone leveling gives the GM considerably more control over the campaign concerning the party’s overall power and capabilities. Let’s be honest, those of us that have used EXP for our games certainly have experienced their party gaining a level in the middle of an adventure. These unexpected levels can put a wrench into your carefully balanced dungeon.
In this scenario, the GM needs to make a call. Do you re-balance the adventure for the party’s newfound abilities, or do you simply go with the flow and give the party less of a challenge as part of the reward for their increased strength?
There are no wrong answers for that scenario though, in my opinion. However, it’s one more item to add to the prep work for the next session.
Milestone leveling ensures that you, the GM, know exactly when the party gains a level. Therefore, you’ll never need to retool or rebalance an adventure or dungeon unless you want to!
Less Bookkeeping for the Players
In some scenarios, tedious circumstances can lead to a challenge or are part of the experience of the adventure or game.
However, tediousness can lend to frustration or annoyances and don’t add much to the experience. For instance, there are a few small rules and mechanics that I’ll ignore or use magical items to mitigate the parts that my table finds unfun.
I don’t think keeping track of EXP is a problem or an extremely tedious activity, but it does add a bit more work to the game. For example, in D&D 5e I have to calculate the EXP the party gains based on the challenges they complete, then the party needs to tally everything up and ensure they’re all on the same page.
One less thing to keep tabs on is beneficial in my opinion. Especially in games like D&D 5e where we’re dealing with tons of different numbers. It’s not difficult to do any of these calculations, it’s just tedious.
I will admit though, one thing I will miss about EXP is that somehow my group of engineers and IT professionals each come up with different amounts of total EXP.
Better Control of the Pace of the Game
As the GM there are a plethora of ways that you have control over the game. Just one example of this is by starting the party at a higher level because you want to get into confronting the big bad lich sooner.
Milestone leveling gives you even more control over the game, especially the pacing of it. While the level of the party doesn’t have to translate into the party confronting more desperate and difficult villains, it typically does.
Sometimes, though, you as the GM or the table as a whole have some specific plot points, character arcs, or story elements that work best at certain levels. Using milestone leveling you can ensure that all of these aspects will be addressed at an appropriate level rather than having to circle back and rebalance these events.
The GM has much more freedom to have the system fit the game’s story. You can keep the party at certain levels for longer than usual if that suits your needs, or you can power your party through the levels as you see fit.
The Downside of Milestone Leveling
It was difficult to come up with downsides for milestone leveling. Part of the reason for this is that I think it is an exceptional way to handle leveling.
However, keep in mind that I haven’t had much experience with it either. There’s certainly a chance that I may find more flaws with this system as I use it more frequently.
In my opinion, the downside of milestone leveling is that it needs to be done right. Except, in this case, the correct way is completely subjective.
Everyone Needs to be Onboard With the Pace
I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager that the primary reason a group has fun playing an RPG is that they trust their GM. The GM must be someone that you can trust to make sure that you’re comfortable and enjoying the game.
The pace of the game, while a minor aspect compared to being comfortable with the group, is still a major factor in how enjoyable the game is for the players. The level and power of their characters have a major influence as to what the characters can do and accomplish in the game.
Therefore, everyone needs to be on the same page and trust that the GM is using milestone leveling in a way that the group finds fun for that campaign.
Some groups may enjoy a shorter campaign with frequent level-ups. Others prefer long campaigns that take years to complete. This can even change based on the game system or the overarching plot of the game dictates.
This is why it’s an excellent idea to hold a session 0 before you start a campaign. Especially if you’re using milestone leveling. Give the party an idea as to how you’ll handle leveling and see what they think. Keep in mind that this is a topic that the group can always revisit if they feel their opinions have changed.
Establishing trust is important. Be upfront with your ideas and expectations and stick by what your group has agreed upon. This downside to milestone leveling will be completely negated so long as everyone trusts the GM.
I’ve changed my mind about milestone leveling once I had a chance to use it first-hand. Shadow of the Demon Lord was helpful in that it provided a concrete expectation as to how it works. Both the players and the GM know when a level up is going to be awarded which makes everything quick and easy.
My initial issue with it was that EXP gives the players a way to see their characters’ growth. However, there are a plethora of more interesting ways that you can track character advancement outside of awarding EXP. For instance, New abilities, better equipment, shaking hands with important people, etc.
This isn’t to say that I think that using EXP is a bad way to go about the leveling experience. It’s just that I think it’s run its course for me, at least for the time being. Though I do admit that there are systems out there that require it so your mileage may vary with this advice.
Milestone leveling gives your group the freedom to move through a game at whatever pace you so choose. I think this is an excellent perk with very few downsides to consider.