I've been running a D&D 5e campaign where the levelling up has been done at certain landmark points or milestones. Regardless of your opinion on that specific system, it's reached a point where all my players asked each other, "What's your goal?"

And each of them basically said "I don't know... Get stronger?". So they decided to go to the wilderness to level up more. Now I have no problem with this, but I said to them:

"Look, if levelling up is the landmark, then we need to switch to XP levelling up, because you're literally trying to XP-farm when there's no 'landmark achievements' to even consider noteworthy enough to level you all up."

They said no, and that I should be able to feel-out when it's been enough time for them to level up (which sounds like me just keeping track of their XP secretly).

But they really want landmark levelling. But they refuse to do anything that might spark a story, because they need to level up first... But they really don't want XP-based levelling... The issue is circular.

Basically: I want to force them to either (1) actually try to make their own story, and therefore keep landmark-levelling, or (2) commit to just finding stuff to kill in the wilderness, and therefore warrant XP-levelling - but my players want both and neither at the same time.

What do I do?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    May 22, 2019 at 1:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ What level are the PCs? Where do they live? \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2019 at 12:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ For those answering, please remember that even in these questions answers should be supported and backed up. If you're recommending a table play option, you should support it with table play experience on how it went and what positives/negatives were. Just throwing ideas up is idea-generation - and that's not what we do here. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 22, 2019 at 13:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pogo what they really want is to reduce the difficulty level and play on Easy Mode... \$\endgroup\$
    – Bernat
    May 23, 2019 at 9:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I really appreciate how you include in the question that you've already had the conversation suggesting the "obvious" solution with your players. It would probably help to know more about why your players don't want to follow either of your desired methods, and it may be that you've inadvertently mischonstrued their desires, but overall I think this is a great question. \$\endgroup\$ May 23, 2019 at 18:51

14 Answers 14


Let me summarize: You have a group that prefers Milestone XP, but isn't interested in creating any new stories. And you don't seem interested in making a story of your own unrelated to the characters.

The out-of-game options

Your players appear to be afraid that they will not be strong enough for the challenge you have prepared.

There are a few reason why they may think this way:

  • They have experiences with GMs who did not scale the content. In which case, tell them directly that you prepare the challenges for their level and their strength. All they can do is trust you on this.
  • They want to have certain features that will come with level. This one is actually a valid reason to want to grind, but you can still reassure them that they will get to their level before the end. Or let them hunt monsters and gain level.
    • Or just level them up outright. This is an option if you, as a GM, don't want to play out the grinding part, either because it doesn't interest you or because your play time is limited. My group meets once every 2 weeks and I find myself reorganizing the way I planned my campaign for this reason : I don't want to spend 2 months of playtime just to get from one kingdom to another.
  • They feel that the game is too hard. That you challenge them too much. In which case, you may be able to reassure your players that the danger is not as high as they feel it. That maybe you can teach them to play better and adjust to your level of play. But chances are that you will have to change the way you balance your encounter. Even if they spend months getting stronger, it will be useless if you adjust the balance for it.
  • They don't feel it's "right" that adventurers of their level could take on what you foreshadowed. In this case I'm not quite sure how to address it, but you should either change their perception of the story (or your own perception of the story) or simply allow them to get stronger in a way that satisfies both of you.

Either way, I suggest you warn them, out of game, that the game is not a videogame and that taking time to get stronger will have consequence on the world around. This will prevent resentment from growing if they don't expect the world to work this way.

The Session 0 option

If you think there is a major disconnect between the way you envision the game working and how you player do, either about the mechanical or the game difficulty or the fiction of adventurers of their power level taking on the challenges you have prepared.

The best option might be to go back to a session 0 and tell them "Why do you want to play? I don't want to make up a story unrelated to your characters, I'd rather it come from one of you. You can roll new characters if the current ones don't inspire you".

Maybe they will tell you they want to start fresh with a new kind of story, maybe they'll say they want to go along with what you have to tell. Either way, it's your turn to see if you want to GM for that game. Either way, letting someone else GM for a while is an option. So is just dropping the group (But it usually is the least happy one).

Or, why not roll with their idea?

They said their goal is to get stronger. Make them work for it, literally. Since you run Milestone, they litterally can't argue that they want to farm easy fights for experience. So they have no choice but to chase bigger and bigger beast.

You asked: "So what now?"

They answered: "We don't know... Get stronger?"

Ask them: "Since the wildlife here is not challenge for you, where do you go looking for trouble?"

Let them be monster slayers, wandering the land in search of bigger and bigger game. Solving problems because they happen to want to kill the source of the problem. You seem to have the perfect group for it. If you want to tell a more classic story as the GM, let the environment and the NPC's action tell it. Maybe one of your player will catch on to it and change the story again.

If you want to push the strategic game further. Or if you want to push the storytelling aspect of fighting epic monsters. Or if you were looking for a way to use the bigger monsters in the book: the Elder Red Dragons, the ArchDemilich or the godlike monsters at the end of the Monster Manual.

You have the perfect opportunity.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I do like this idea, but their goal is specifically to get stronger to go back and complete a plot point. They don't want any story in the meantime, they just want to "get enough experience" without actually keeping track of experience points. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pogo
    May 22, 2019 at 8:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pogo Just curious....why do they think that plot point will still be there, or be the same, after they've wandered off into the wilderness to randomly kill things for a week or two. This isn't a video game with static level markers on quests that never change. It's entirely possible that another group of adventurers would resolve the problem, or that the problem will get worse while they slack off...and, if there is a 'quest giver' for that plot point, I'd imagine they will be rather upset that the players just decided to wander away and let the problem fester while they killed random bears. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2019 at 15:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ I concur with @guildsbounty. In this situation I would let them wander off and grind, but the rest of the world will move on without them. You can make the plot point get stronger alongside them (although it's a little railroady) or you could have something like they come back to the old plot point to discover that the village they were previously staying in has been burned down in their absence. They've achieved their goal of leveling up and will likely defeat the plot point easily, but they'll also witness the fact that their choices have consequences. \$\endgroup\$
    – Steve-O
    May 22, 2019 at 19:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Steve-O i would probably warn them first that the world will move. But I was thinking of adding this to the answer \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    May 22, 2019 at 19:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, a warning is only fair, if this fact hasn't been established and agreed to as part of a session zero. \$\endgroup\$
    – Steve-O
    May 22, 2019 at 19:22

Why do they think they need to be stronger to complete a plot point?

This is based on your comment:

... their goal is specifically to get stronger to go back and complete a plot point. They don't want any story in the meantime, they just want to "get enough experience" without actually keeping track of experience points.

This is the crux of my answer; if their reason for wanting to get stronger is because they don't feel they are able to complete the story at their current level of strength, then I don't think this is actually a problem with XP levelling vs. milestone levelling, or them not being interested in the story they are currently half-way through.

This seems to be an issue of trust.

They don't seem to believe that they can survive the next chunk of story you have prepared for them. In which case, during the second session 0 that other answers are suggesting (which I agree with), it might be worth mentioning to them that you want them to succeed and that you aren't putting story challenges in front of them that they can't complete yet.

Of course, this is me making a lot of assumptions; I don't know what you've told them is coming next, I don't know if you actually do want them to succeed, and I don't know whether or not you are actually tailoring the next section of story to match their current level.

But my understanding of milestone levelling is that the challenges presented in the story will scale to the party, so if they think they need to be stronger (i.e. gain another level), then the challenges will get harder to compensate, so I don't think they'll be achieving the easier time that they think they will.

There is also an expectation mismatch here. "Let's go into the wilderness to grind XP" sounds like MMORPG mentality to me. This is not an MMORPG, and I can tell because you're using milestone levelling. They need to embrace the story, sure, but they also need to trust that you are making the challenges in the story scale to their level to still actually challenge them but at the same time not wipe them out, and that "power levelling" isn't going to work to allow them to dodge or survive the challenges (depending on what their motivation is).

Those are just my thoughts on this, anyway...

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    \$\begingroup\$ Another option is just to give them some confidence, a magic dumbo feather in the shape of an NPC, this npc talks the talk but hides under the table once combat starts, forcing them to do it themselves and showing it can be done. \$\endgroup\$
    – WendyG
    May 22, 2019 at 15:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WendyG Nice idea. One other way (more direct, less subtle) to push them to try to solve it is to set a time limit to the problem, the more they wait to deal with it, the more problems it creates. If it's a group of monsters, then they attack more and more villages, if it's a villain kidnapping people to sell them as slaves, more and more commoners disappears. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zoma
    May 23, 2019 at 7:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, it may be possible that they just want to be so strong that the story no longer challenges them. This sounds a bit boring to me, but if that's what they want, it sounds like something that could be agreed upon in a 0 session. \$\endgroup\$ May 23, 2019 at 18:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kyle Yes, exactly that. This is what I was trying to allude to with "dogde ... the challenges", but I like how you put it. \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    May 23, 2019 at 21:18

There is a simple solution for this:

enter image description here

Yup. Old-school MMO quest givers.

Hear me out.

Your players want both to grind and to level up at landmarks. They want you to simultaneously pace their leveling experience while letting them kill a bunch of weak mobs over, and over and over, or sometimes some larger mobs that need some brain, or sometimes a boss battle that gives a buttload of XP but needs some preparation to do.

They want to play a tabletop version of a modern MMO - which is pretty fine, honestly. I had a bunch of fun with those games, and I don't see why you can't, too.

When my players visit a city, the first thing they usually do is to visit the Town Hall. There, they usually find an adventure board with all sorts of requests for adventurers. At this point, I hand my players a small list of quests - with rewards, difficulty measured in "stars", and a very brief description of it on small hand-out cards:

enter image description here

With some pens, you can make them a little bit fancier:

enter image description here

I then let them pick whatever they want. Every star on the quest difficulty scale gives them a point when they complete it, and when they stack five points, they level up.

By making the quests brief and their descriptions very vague, I can amp or lower the difficulty as needed, and as such they are never really too easy or too hard - maybe the swamp lords have the nasty habit of blowing up entirely when killed, making hard for the players to get their proof-of-kill, or maybe the direwolf that was eating the farmers isn't a wolf at all, but a very, very pissed off druid that is fed up with people destroying her woods.

Those simple starting points can quickly become far more complex quests, and.. as it often happens on MMOs, what starts as picking mushrooms on the Monday may very well turn into beating up eldritch gods by Thursday.

And then back again to picking up mushrooms the very next day.

For anyone interested in making those cards - I make then with hard paper, usually pre-cut. I pay around a buck for 20 units. Once they are written down, I cover then with transparent Contact paper and store then away on a card holder, for re-use later on with different groups.

Personally, I like the "homemade" look of the hand-draw ones, but you can always print them out instead.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent suggestions and good job backing them up with your own table experience. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 22, 2019 at 13:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Except in an MMO, if you fight too far below level, you get no XP at all. (Well, in WoW you get 0 for killing a mob, and like 1/20 of normal XP for completing quests. It's rather steep. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2019 at 18:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Harper That's why I only give a brief description of the quest. They group may think they are going to kill a couple goblins, but they may end up having to fight for their lives when they discover said goblins had a pet ogre with them. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    May 22, 2019 at 18:52

Killing things in the wilderness is one milestone

tl;dr Set the expectation for how milestones will be used and support your players with more plot hook to drive the story.

Using milestones

I recommend reading my answer to a related question on how to use milestones leveling. In it I explain how I use it in my games to prevent situations like this.

Basically I require each milestone to be larger and more impressive than the previous one. If the players choose to spend the entire campaign hunting in the wilderness, then I hope they enjoy being at level 2. From my other answer:

At each level the size and difficulty of the achievement required increases. By doing this my players feel rewarded for accomplishing major goals. It also encourages them to take on bigger and more dangerous adventures. By requiring each achievement to be bigger than the last the players can't spend months going around completing side quests in order to out-level the main campaign. Saving a small town was a level 2 quest, it is no longer a big enough achievement to gain advancement.

Set expectations

You need to make it clear to your players that you don't count killing random creatures as a significant milestone. Instead encourage them to seek out bigger adventures, and more meaningful combats.

Possibly you need to go back and have another session 0 and reset the campaign expectations. How leveling works and the style of the campaign should be discussed there. I find the session 0 checklist and the same page tool very useful for doing this.

Provide more story hooks

It seems like your players aren't the kind to drive an exciting adventure all on their own. You can help them out by providing more story hooks. Instead of having unlimited open-ended options the party can choose between a set of discrete quests. Having too many options may mean they feel like they have no direction.

A sandbox game doesn't mean that you don't have quest lines, it just means that the players are free to pick and choose which ones they want to deal with at any given time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree fully with the idea that achievements must be larger than the previous ones. Spending 12 years doing the first grade over and over will not earn a high school diploma. \$\endgroup\$
    – krb
    May 22, 2019 at 8:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Basically I require each milestone to be larger and more impressive than the previous one. If the players choose to spend the entire campaign hunting in the wilderness, then I hope they enjoy being at level 2.". This is the point of the question though. They want to hunt for the entire campaign in the wilderness AND level up AND keep landmark levelling. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pogo
    May 22, 2019 at 9:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pogo Could you not, as the DM, entirely subvert that premise? Make their expedition into the wilderness a sideplot worthy of being 'landmark' all on its own? \$\endgroup\$
    – Onyz
    May 22, 2019 at 11:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pogo basically I am advocating for sticking to your guns. They hunted stuff in this area of wilderness. Make it clear that they have already achieved the hunting landmark for this area. If they want to get another they need to up the stakes. Start hunting with a purpose or find an area with bigger things to hunt. If you want them to drive the plot, don't give them a choice to not drive it. Doing nothing is getting them stuff, take away that option by not giving them that stuff. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    May 22, 2019 at 13:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Resource depletion and consequences to actions: "While visiting the local town for supplies, a poster catches your eye: something or someone has been killing and scaring away all of the local wildlife, and the residents are starting to run low on food to eat. A hefty reward is offered for solving the mystery" + "You spend the day hunting, but there is nothing to find" \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2019 at 13:31

Ask more questions to figure out where to put landmarks

It sounds like your players are having trouble communicating to you the kind of game they want to play (or they don't understand it, themselves). That makes your job harder, but it's not an impossible problem.

The trick is to ask questions to find out their real motivations.

Start with "Why do you want to get stronger?"

A good answer would be something like, "We want to get stronger because a demon razed our village and we want revenge." They probably won't give you an answer like that right away - but you might be able to tease it out of them from what they do give you. If you get to that point, write your campaign around that reason, with "getting stronger" as the first step in the journey.

If they can't (or give you only circular answers), move on to the next question.

Then "How do you want to get stronger?"

Keep them in-character here. Their characters know nothing about levels or experience points, which will force them to be creative about what sorts of training regimens they're going to have. Are they looking for mentors? Going on a vision quest to the wilderness? Joining the town guard?

Then, if all else fails, make up your own answers based on what they've given you.

Write their own backstories if you have to.

"Get stronger" as a motivation sounds to me like a coming-of-age story.

So you all come from a village where children of a certain age are expected to have started their careers. All of you, for your whole life, have been saying that when you want to be adventurers. In fact, you made a promise when you were very little that you would one day all become an adventuring party, together. Well, the day has come, and all the village elders are very worried that you still haven't picked out a "real" career. No one is taking you seriously when you say you're going to be adventurers because you're all too weak - so one night, you all decide to sneak out and prove it. You're going to become adventurers, whether they believe in you or not.

Start them in their village. Have someone see them trying to sneak out and have them have to explain themselves, or this person will wake the grown-ups to come wrangle them. Give them a milestone for successfully running away from home.

Your next few milestones would then revolve around things like, "Get paid for killing a monster for the first time," "Find food in the wilderness for the first time," or "Clear out a den of monsters, for the first time" etc. Cap off their "firsts" with them killing their first dragon.

Once they've got a few levels under their belt, you can tie things back - winning their village elders' approval. Rubbing their childhood bullies' faces in their success. Maybe even put their village on the path of a band of gnolls or something and make them save it.

Then ask them what their new goal is.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately I was met with shrugs the whole way through while asking these questions - I was asking very leading questions like the ones you suggested, but they were adamant that levelling up was the goal. Which is fine with me, I don't mind them farming for the sake of farming, but like I said they also don't want to do any of the legwork that comes with farming (keeping track of character XP). \$\endgroup\$
    – Pogo
    May 22, 2019 at 8:44

Put milestone-worthy scenarios in the wilderness

The simple solution is that if you level up on milestones, and the players decide to adventure in the forest, put a major questline out in the forest. It may relate to the existing plot, or uncover a new front which will have relevance to the main story later on.

For example, in a campaign of mine, the players were en route to a city and stopped in a cave to rest. They decided to explore the cave, something which I hadn't prepared, but was able to invent on the fly. After one session of this I was able to prepare something more detailed for the rest of the cave adventure next week. The adventure unveiled a new threat which tied into the campaign's main storyline.

I simply placed new adventures wherever the party went. This gives them freedom while retaining the need for coherent adventures. It also creates a sense that your campaign world is full of remarkable and wondrous places and things.

If you're able to invent on the fly, this is fine, but it may be that you need to prepare adventures in advance. If that's the case, the real problem is that your players want freedom, while you write fixed adventures in advance, and these are the only way to level up since you're using milestone advancement. Your players may feel railroaded.

If you continue using milestone advancement, and you're unable to place additional milestone-worthy scenarios in the wilderness, your players need to know up-front that their wilderness rambles won't bring them any reward and your pre-planned adventures are the only things on the menu. There is no XP and they can't grind. Your players are thinking like a videogame where a quest has a fixed level and grinding off-screen will reduce their chance of failure. Fundamentally, you need to divest them of that notion.

It may help to have a few ideas planned for when the players go off-road, in order to steer them back on track. A few monster encounters, NPCs, clues, and so on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The attitude just seems to be "eh, DM will do the leg work, and we can just go through the motions and we'll level up at the end of it". I enjoy prepping adventures, but it just comes down to me thinking they should take some initiative in their characters' growth (either tracking their own XP, or taking the initiative in deciding to go anywhere for an actual reason) \$\endgroup\$
    – Pogo
    May 22, 2019 at 0:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pogo Your players did decide to go somewhere—the wilderness—and for an actual reason—they assume (probably correctly) that whatever is out there, it's dangerous and worthy of achievement. \$\endgroup\$ May 23, 2019 at 13:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice addition of your table experience - thank you! \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 23, 2019 at 13:44

Either consider resetting expectations or make time a variable

Session Zero and game expectations

Based on your question, there seems to be a mismatch in expectations for what folks are looking for out of the game. It's unclear if you had a session zero where the game was discussed and agreed on, but if you haven't, I recommend looking into that and getting an idea of how to run it successfully.

It's never too late to get everyone on the same page - but be aware that it may end up that the players want one thing and you want another. If you can't reconcile, then it may be time to find a new group or them a new DM. And that's okay! The goal here is to have fun and enjoy the table experience.

I've run a session zero before we started and then another a few sessions in because it seemed like we weren't on the same page. And you know what? We've had another session and I'm still not sure. I'm going to continue to try and solve the table issues, but I'm also aware that the group just may not be the right fit.

Moving forward - actions have consequences

Let's say that everyone generally agrees - but there is still a bit of a disconnect between desire for side-quests/XP-farming and following the milestone story.

One thing that I've employed is explaining at Session Zero (or reminding at the table), that time continuously flows. The world doesn't stop just because the main story lines aren't being pursued. If they delay on a storyline by travelling around doing their own thing, they can still gain experience, but they may make things much harder on themselves.

As an example, I've had the BBEG build up strongholds, increase their army size, have lookouts finding and harassing the players, etc.

In addition, the world also responds to the PCs. Maybe killing off what they thought were just 'beasts' were actually someone's pets? Or those animals had an important role in the ecosystem? Or it's as simple as the players tried to rob/investigate a wagon that wasn't theirs right in front of town guards. Yes, they can choose to do those things. And yes, the world will react appropriately.

Actions have consequences, and if they see that what they do, or when they do it, will impact the world around them and the story, they may alter how they approach things.

Of course, they may not alter their actions

And then you're back at a Session Zero or trying to decide if the group/DM dynamics and desires mesh.


TLDR: Give them something to care about. Even their means to do that is going in the wilderness and bashing things.

So your players want to mindlessly kill things, and get milestone progress. Tricky situation.

So, since some people have addressed the options where you sit down and have a family talk with the PCs I am going to try to help you from a sole narrative standpoint.

Refusal of the call

Taking a page from the hero journey

Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or 'culture,' the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved.

Now players need not to feel punished. Imagine your world as something alive, independent from players.

Whoever they are after in the plot line will continue to pursue their agenda. From their point of view this just might mean monsters are getting stronger, might seem you're only playing along their idea at first, but things will get out of hand.

They are all merry while hunting giant frogs but OH SHIT WHAT IS * THAT * DOING IN THESE LANDS ?

They level up upon fighting the big enemy, but some social damage was already done. This gives the players a sense of advancement while at the same time a sense or urgency. What will the next level up cost the kingdom ?

My campaigns usually start out with some public event where all characters have personal interest. Then something bad happens during the event and they get thrown into the adventure, classic call to the adventure, depending how many sessions you guys have played out you might want to revisit the main plot motivation.

I never had players explicitly ask for grind the closer I can relate to this is once a player liked a wizard guild so much he did not wanted to leave it.

He insisted in interacting with aspects of the guild and brought the main plot to a halt, for 2 sessions they did was side-quests related to it.

So the guild archmage revealed to him he was entitled to a seat in a secret group because his father was in it, and because he had proven his worhty ( with all the side-quests ). They got some information on the campaign nemesis, and the archmage went away to buy time against the growing danger.

I gave the PC a seat in the counsel table and he realised he had take care of the guild by going for the big-picture. So darkness grew, players became more aware of the dangers, felt rewarded but now the guild has gone a bit haywire from the archmage absence, this great NPC said some words in a farewell tone and suddenly, fetching magical components seems a rather minor task.

I believe its important to point out, that to the best of my knowledge, players did not felt strongarmed into moving along, there was actually plenty to do at the counsel.

The Drill Monkey

Another way to go about this, or maybe even foreshadow the plots going on is make them learn how to properly do combat. Do they just stick to wizards in the back, swingers in the front idea ? Set some situations you would like them to learn how to deal with.

  • Surrounded, wolves in a pack get them by surprise;
  • Divided, a bear trap stops a stranded player, make them deal with friendly fire, unconventional team pairs or conflicting combat decisions;
  • Out of range, enemy does hit and run, make them deal with faster enemies;

Each situation can be scaled throughout 1-2 sessions, up to you, starting with simple versions of the issue like surrounded in a circle of creatures, up to a ambush where they get stuck inside a fire circle with arrows flying in. Make them prepare, rather than just roll dices.

When they can successfully answer to these situations, consider it a milestone.

These combat situations might come in play further down the line, making it a somewhat useful part of their background.

I have a PC that is more often than not on my campaigns, he's about conflict, he'll do some interaction, but more than 2-3 scenes without a fight and he will start looking for trouble.

I more often than not bait him into a fight and let everyone deal with the aftermath, usually he gets stranded and a big fight comes out, other players get to coordinate and he gets to either smash things in a corner fighting multiple foes or help the party from an advantage position after solving what got him stranded in the first place.

Once he dueled a orc in beer drinking. But it turned out orc beer duel was a thing, and you don't take a pint, you take a whole barrel every turn. He got drunk as f*ck and the king army came to the village looking for them, he was far too drunk to fight, but he made orcs friends while at it, and with some role play got help from everyone at the tavern. Not a drill per se my point here is, make players solve things differently while still feeling in character.

They need not know that they will get rewarded by doing some tactics, you can design it, but make them feel like its their idea. I never planned him to duel a orc on beer, it was just a move-through village. Players created a confrat situation, and I gave them the chance to make it feel like it was worthwhile.

Way too powerful Already

Since you haven't told us how strong they are already, if they are actually fairly strong and maybe are just pursuing more power, give them some responsibilities. They might come into the graces of the people for clearing the woods of nasty animals, give them rule over some land and throw landlords issues upon them.

Milestones here could become

  • Land expansions where they need to fight creatures or wage war with a neighboring society;
  • Getting through a famine where their hunting efforts directly impact upon the people;

These were about the level of decicions my PC had at the counsel, of course he was moderated by other 3 NPCs, having responsibility over something he cared about propelled his character forwards.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to rpg.se! Take the tour and visit the help center for additional guidance. You have some good ideas here, have you tried any of them yourself? How did they work out for you? Adding experience based evidence can make the difference between an ok answer and a great one. Thanks for participating and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    May 23, 2019 at 0:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin To be fair, it's the difference between an unsupported answer (downvote worthy) and a supported answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 23, 2019 at 13:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch true, but I try to put a more positive spin on it for new users. Nothing they said was bad just lacking support. I don't generally downvote good but unsupported advice, but I don't upvote it either. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    May 23, 2019 at 14:27
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @ArielNessi And honestly, that's a problem. They shouldn't be, but the only way to bring change is to try. And thank you!! \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 23, 2019 at 16:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Good job adding evidence to your answer. That's the sort of thing we love to see. Again welcome to the site and hope you stick around. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    May 23, 2019 at 23:20

I would suggest you make some heavy plothooks. I realize you want them to take initiative, but it sounds like they're not there yet

This could be because:

  • They're new.
  • They're simply not that type of player/person.
  • They're a little confused about the campaign and not sure where it will go.
  • They're unsure where to start everything off

I'd suggest simply pushing them out into an adventure and see what it does to the game and their attitude. I've had players who had so much initiative that they I didn't plan too much ahead, because I knew they'd go their own way. I've also had players who really just wanted a "Theme park adventure" where different fun quests were presented to them and they pick the one that sounded the most fun. Both are valid play styles and you shouldn't try to combat it.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to rpg.se! Take the tour and visit the help center when you get a chance. This is a pretty good first answer. How do you address the fact that the players say they want a sandbox adventure but then you give them a railroad? Thanks for participating and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    May 22, 2019 at 6:08
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ They are new yes, but we've been playing for about 3 months straight now, at least once a week. I know it's not terribly much, but I've also been making points to straight-up tell them "you can point the story in any way you want, and I'll make it related to the plot". But I also told them that halting the story in order to level up is an entirely different beast, and that it would warrant keeping track of XP. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pogo
    May 22, 2019 at 8:51
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ 3 months isn't all that long. I personally took longer than that before i started maturing as a role player. I very much suggest hand holding them and giving them some super interesting plot hooks, to get them into the story. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2019 at 9:29

It sounds like your players don't know what they want, and my advice is going to reflect that. In brief, use your pull as Dungeon Master and switch to the XP model, at least as a trial basis to get some buy-in.

There is a reason XP is built into the RAW.

I'm going to be controversial and say that Milestone Advancement is not good for a game. Sure, it's simple and easy, but it comes with a host of other non-obvious problems, such as what you're coming across here.

Advantages of XP

  • XP tells your players what the game is about. You can award more XP for obstacles handled diplomatically and less for murderhobo solutions if you want to focus on an intrigue campaign. Wandering monsters can be worth less XP if you want to encourage purposeful dungeon exploration. You can award XP for discovering new or significant locations in an exploration heavy campaign.
  • It paces the game. The D&D design team put quite a bit of thought into play experience, learning what your character (or players, if you're behind the screen) can do, and how often you should be able to get new abilities without overwhelming you. That's all built into the XP system.
  • It give concrete advancement security to you and your players. Both you and your players know that whenever they see the XP tracker tick up enough, they'll be next level start of the next session. This means that storyteller GMs can't screw their players out of an honestly earned level, the GM doesn't have to worry about defining landmarks events every other adventuring day, and the GM has time to prepare for slightly more powerful players the next session.

Disadvantages of XP

  • You have to write down the XP earned after every encounter, total it up for you players at the end of the session, and tell them how much XP they earned overall.

For good measure, here's a link to The Angry GM and his thoughts on XP. Warning, much anger and swearing: https://theangrygm.com/how-to-xp-good/

Response to comments: I'm not going to defend my policy of owning the table as DM. I'm not a tyrant at the table, I have never been accused of being overbearing as a DM, nor do I defend those who abuse the DM's screen to exercise power over others.

I'm saying it is the DM's job to step up and act for the good of the game. Based on the problem as stated, the players of the OP don't know what they want, haven't put any serious though into what they want or the consequences thereof, and they're leaving their DM to deal with the consequences.

  • In matters of play, give your players as much leeway as possible;

  • In matters of game administration, it's your job as DM to captain the ship.

It's not different than being an umpire or referee; sometimes you're going to make an unpopular call, but its the one that needs to be made for the good of the game.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; it seemed to me that the commentary was not prompting OP to make any changes to their post, so I've moved this conversation to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    May 22, 2019 at 19:38

If we look at the Dungeon Master’s Guide page 261, it has this to say:

You can do away with experience points entirely and control the rate of character advancement. Advance characters based on how many sessions they play, or when they accomplish significant story goals in the campaign. In either case, you tell the players when their characters gain a level. This method of level advancement can be particularly helpful if your campaign doesn't include much combat, or includes so much combat that tracking XP becomes tiresome.

As your players want to level up but do not want to track experience points, they are essentially describing this system. The DMG details two methods of levelling without using experience:

Session-based Advancement

A good rate of session-based advancement is to have characters reach 2nd level after the first session of play, 3rd level after another session, and 4th level after two more sessions. Then spend two or three sessions for each subsequent level. This rate mirrors the standard rate of advancement, assuming sessions are about four hours long.

Using this method, you can simply state that, after X amount of sessions, the players level up. This way allows you to get past the circular argument and simply state that “okay, its been enough time, you’ve levelled up”.

This may be a better method as, by levelling players up based on how many sessions they’ve been playing for, you allow for the game to flow easier. Your players no longer would need to feel they have to grind XP to be able to advance to the next stage, they would know that next session, they are guaranteed to level up. This may encourage them to do something else to advance the story as it is clear that nothing will allow them to advance, beyond waiting a week to play again. Rather than wasting several hours, your players may instead try to advance the story despite feeling under-levelled, simply because there would be nothing else for them to do for the next few hours if they did not try and advance the plot or find something else to do.

Personally, i wouldn’t recommend you use this method as it seems that you want them to move on as quickly as possible, not spend several sessions killing monsters to fulfil the required number of sessions to level. Instead, i would recommend using the method below:

Story-based Advancement

When you let the story of the campaign drive advancement, you award levels when adventurers accomplish significant goals in the campaign.

Whilst this explanation is very brief, it offers you the possibility of levelling up the players as the story demands it. Your players will not leave until they have gained a level, so simply give them a level. This allows you to progress and continue your story, rather than getting bogged down with the players grinding for experience points that don’t exist. For example, you could state that:

“after days of slaughtering the denizens of the forrest, your characters feel more experienced and confident that they can face more dangerous challenges - you have gained a level”.

To put this into movie terms, what you have done is described a training montage. Rather than showing every fight and acting it out, you have simply stated that “X has happened, now we’re at this point”. This is similar to a travel montage in how, rather than describing every hour in excruciating detail, potentially grinding the game to a halt, you have shortened the sequences down to keep to momentum and flow of the game going.

To prevent this from being abused, such as the players saying “do a montage until we reach level 20”, you could again use the story-based levelling system to your advantage. “After a while you find that the creatures no longer pose a threat to you and simply flee rather than attempting to fight - you do not level up”. There was no story-based reason for them to gain a level so they have not gained one, they did not try to earn it and wanted to instead skip to it.


Whilst you mentioned milestones, I believe what you’ve actually described is Levelling Without Experience. My interpretation of Milestones is that they are like XP rewards for completing a quest objective. So, for example, by “obtaining the sword of Rafaam”, in whatever way you chose, be it through combat, social encounters or exploration, you have completed that objective and are rewarded with XP. This is as opposed to only gaining experience for killing monsters and no XP is granted for avoiding them or dealing with then in a non-combat way.

Using milestones, in the way I interpret the rules, players could gain a large chunk of experience for completing the objective “slay the monsters of the forrest to hone your skills”, allowing them to level up (or get closer to levelling up). This would help you to advance the story as players know they don’t need to always accomplish great feats in order to gain a level, smaller successes build up and eventually lead to gaining a level, though this is a much different style of gaining experience than what your players may be familiar with.

Your players may be more willing to accept this type of gaining experience as it focuses on the completion of objectives, which is what they seem to want, but it also allows you as the DM to give them smaller level-based rewards, rather than giving them an entire level each time and trying to come up with a plausible scenario or reason for them to gain a level. Additionally, your players may be more familiar with this style of gaining experience as this is what many games employ. One example being The Witcher 3, when you complete a quest or a contract, you are given a large chunk of experience points. This rewards you for completing the objectives of a quest and seeing a quest line through to its completion.

My interpretation of milestones, detailed above, seems to be in the minority. It appears that most people interpret the rule to be very similar to Story-based Advancement - I however see the two as distinctly different methods. However, you could combine the two methods to create Story-Based Milestones:

Story-based Milestones

This method combines my interpretation of milestones with the idea of story-based levelling. Rather than gaining experience points at each milestone, players gain a tally mark. Minor milestones would only give 1 tally mark, major milestones might give 5 (or you as the DM might state how many tally marks a quest is worth). You might need, for example, 30 tally marks to get a new level, which is equivalent to 30 minor milestones or 6 major milestones.

A major milestone could be awarded for finishing a main quest objective, such as “slay the dragon”, “remove the archmage’s power”, “obtain the magical artefact” etc. A minor milestone might awarded for completing side quests or optional objectives or even completing main objectives using out-of-the-box thinking, for example “this cave entrance is littered with traps, the kobolds can’t possibly use this passage everyday, there must be another way in”.

This way, players might try and complete objectives which grant them many minor milestones, allowing them to get the “XP grinding” aspect they’re after, but it retains the idea of completing objectives to level up. Additionally, they might feel more compelled to complete main quest objectives as they allow them to level up faster, allowing them to get stronger which was their initial aim.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I believe you have just described milestone leveling, which may not be named explicitly. This doesn't seem to solve OP's issue. \$\endgroup\$
    – Weasemunk
    May 22, 2019 at 19:07
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Weasemunk No, i explicitly stated that i was describing Levelling Without Experience. Milestone leveling involves giving players a certain amount of XP when they complete certain objectives, such as “obtain the Sword of Rafaam”. LWE does not involve experience at all, characters simply level up when the DM says they level up. This answers the question in that, rather than having the players be stuck in their loop, the OP, as the DM, can state that the characters simply level up and describing a training montage, allowing the story to progress, which is what the OP is trying to achieve. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2019 at 19:14
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ As @NautArch mentioned, I think most people assume milestone leveling is equivalent to what you describe as story-based advancement. I think this is what OP is doing, as he has indicated he's not using XP. I would prefer an answer that offers session-based advancement as an alternative with a rationale for why it might be better in addition to an explanation of how he can adapt his story-based advancement to fit player needs. That will get my vote \$\endgroup\$
    – Weasemunk
    May 22, 2019 at 19:23
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Correct, I don't believe it is. In fact, I'm currently running a campaign that says "If you're using milestone advancement, characters become Xth level." Based on @NautArch's comment and others' posts, I believe they are making the same assumption. \$\endgroup\$
    – Weasemunk
    May 22, 2019 at 19:33
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Weasemunk In that case, i am happy to be in the minority. I believe my interpretation is correct and stand by it, or its at least as equally correct as the majority’s interpretation. That being said though, i will edit my answer, taking on board your criticisms and state my interpretation of the milestones rule. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2019 at 19:43

Switch to party XP

How I currently run D&D is to give players XP at the end of each session, and all players in the group will always have the same XP total. This reduces the paperwork relative to normal XP.

The principle is that nobody gets left behind, so there's only ever one number to calculate from. If a player character dies, their new character rejoins at the same XP total. Absent characters still get XP. XP awards are divided based on the number of characters present.

Fundamentally, the DM when preparing his adventure simply needs to assign an XP value to each encounter and write that down somewhere when the encounter is defeated. At the end of the session, bring out a calculator, add the values and divide that by the number of players, then add to the running total like so:

The session ends. The DM's notes for the session show that the players defeated encounters giving 400, 300, 350 and 350 XP respectively. He adds them to get 1,400, and divides by four players.

DM: Each of you gain 350 XP for the session.

Player 1: Do we level up?

DM: I don't know. Do you?

At least one player, who knows the party's running total and the value for the next level, eagerly adds it because he wants to level up.

Player 2: We're only 200 XP away from next level. We'll level up next session.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is how all my tables work. It only gets funky if someone misses a session and the DM isn't willing to not have the session. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 23, 2019 at 14:04

There’s a few options that I can think of that you have for this:

  1. Invent a reason for them to go into the forest. Maybe the baron’s posted a bounty on bandits, maybe they’re noblemen going hunting for fun, maybe they heard about the Haunted Cave of Zillyhoo and they decided to go check it out.

  2. PCs just wanna go innawoods? Adventure finds them, and they wind up stumbling across a secret cult, a criminal organisation, or a rebellious teenage princess who ran away from her parents’ castle because she doesn’t want to go through with an arranged marriage.

  3. The ground collapses underneath them, and they’re stuck in a dungeon that they need to escape, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan-style.

So, either force them to make their own story, or punish them if they don't.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ You make a few suggestions, but you don't really explain how they solve the OP's problem. The question asks "Basically: I want to force them to either (1) actually try to make their own story, and therefore keep landmark-levelling, or (2) commit to just finding stuff to kill in the wilderness, and therefore warrant XP-levelling - but my PCs want both and neither at the same time. What should I do?" - but you don't really directly address this question. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    May 22, 2019 at 3:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ I do? Invent a reason for them to go into the forest, force them to find an adventure if they go out there for no reason, or punish them by locking them in a dungeon and forcing them to find a way out. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    May 22, 2019 at 4:07
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ What V2 is saying is you need to address how doing this will solve the problem. OP can do this but then what? Explain why these suggestions will help. If you have experience using them yourself give examples of how it worked out. "Things I can think of" is less useful than "Things I have used to solve this and how they worked out" \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    May 22, 2019 at 6:11
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I have a particular issue with your solution to the players wanting to go into the forest being the passive-aggressive motion where the ground collapses beneath them and them getting thrust into an adventure they have no previous interest in. \$\endgroup\$
    – kviiri
    May 22, 2019 at 7:46
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @kviiri As I recall, that is how the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan adventure module starts. :) \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2019 at 17:17

I would suggest that you let them do that and make the monster killing the landmark. Start small and let them kill a couple of small monsters. Then present something bigger like a hive of goblins, something moderately hard. Cap it of by presenting some truly worth adversary lurking out in the wilderness. Be it the dragon of the swamps or something more level appropriate. Try to balance the final fight so that they when they win they will be wounded exhausted and have very depleted resources including broken equipment. This last thing to force them back to town to resupply. At this point give them one level.

If they do the same thing again do not let them advance, you could for example ask them how long they plan on being in the wilderness killing monsters and then simply narrate that they do that and time-skip the following excursions, dropping plot hooks of a growing danger along the way.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Why the down votes? \$\endgroup\$
    – lijat
    May 22, 2019 at 17:22
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Folks don't need to explain downvotes, but mine was because you are purely generating ideas here. You haven't backed up your recommendations by either rules citations or tableplay experience. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 22, 2019 at 18:38
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch thanks for the explanation \$\endgroup\$
    – lijat
    May 22, 2019 at 23:07
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    May 23, 2019 at 2:18

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