The Story IS the Experience (point)!
I was actually writing a response to a post by my friend (and my first DM) Christian, and realized my reply was getting far too long, so rather than make a post-length response on his feed, I opted to just write a post here (besides, it’s been months since I was able to sit down to write anything).
Christian’s post was about people’s personal preferences and gaming styles, and when he spoke about experience and leveling, it reminded me of why I run my games the way I do. I decided very early on (by which I mean straight away when I began DMing a year ago) that I would only use a milestone system for leveling characters. I still do note the XP value of monsters, but only to get a sense of ‘how tough’ they are and how much they should contribute to determining the ‘milestone’. I don’t want my party growing at different speeds, in part because I worry about competition, and because I feel players will then be more focused on levelling and ‘catching up’ or ‘staying on top of’ one another rather than on the game.
But there’s a bigger, more philosophical reason for me. Before playing D&D, I played in a text-based roleplaying community online (though we played in a virtual 3D environment, our play was all typed out). I was what is known as a “para RPer” — I took time to craft an entire paragraph for each interaction I had, because in this format, there is no DM, and the players must set their own scenes. So I described the environment, interacted with it, described my body language, etc., in addition to providing my dialogue. Now, there were many players in this community who were there purely because they wanted to fly the Vipers and Raptors, or shoot Cylons (it was a game set in the Battlestar: Galactica universe), and had very little interest in writing out elaborate RP descriptions. I found early on that I didn’t care for their style of play (and admit that I even considered their fun ‘wrong’, much to my shame now), because to my mind, it focused on the gaming elements of what we were doing, rather than on the story, which is what drew me there night after night. I often chided these players behind their backs, saying they were ‘gamers’, not roleplayers, and that they’d be better off playing C.O.D. than RPing. Yeah..I’m not proud of that.
I was wrong, because their fun wasn’t wrong, but my broader point is that these experiences taught me what draws me to roleplaying compared to other games. If all I want to do is kill things, I have many other options for that, with no shortage of video games, or even Warhammer, to sate those desires. I roleplay because I want to be immersed in a meaningful, engaging and communal storytelling experience. So for me, using milestones instead of XP facilitates that for myself and my players. There are plenty of DMs out there who firmly believe “this is a core feature of the game mechanics, and you cannot simply ignore it to suit your whim,” and I understand their convictions, but I would respond by saying we’re DMs: we’re literally the gods of our own worlds, and we can do literally anything we want within our games. My players enjoy the system I use, and I think the more important thing (indeed, perhaps THE most important thing/guideline for DMing) is to remain consistent within the confines of the game you’ve established.
Milestones, to my mind, help the players stay focused on driving the story forward, seeing what comes next, or really exploring the plot hooks I’ve set (or they’ve inspired) to their fullest, and I think that keeps them coming back every session.