Pathfinder Advice: How to Use the Slow Advancement Track in Your Campaign

I recently blogged about how much I enjoy using the slow advancement track in my Borderland of Adventure campaign. However, using the slow advancement track (sadly) is not as simple as just plugging it into a normal campaign…

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


A slow advancement campaign is a different kind of beast to a normal campaign. Using the slow advancement track alters the playing experience in several fundamental ways.  Diving into a slow advancement campaign without recognising and planning for this is a recipe for disaster. The GM should:

  • Set Expectations: Your players are likely used to levelling pretty fast – perhaps every 2-3 sessions. With the slow advancement track, fast levelling is a thing of the past. You need to explain this to the players so they are ready for the experience. Depending on how long your campaign runs, the players may never reach 10th-level (or even 5th). Many players like to plan their characters out in advance. With this in mind, discuss how long the campaign will likely last and what level you see the PCs reaching before it ends. After all, a PC’s build may differ radically if the campaign is destined to never reach high levels.
  • Focus on the Story: The PCs will not be advancing mechanically – levelling – as often. It’s therefore important they progress in other areas, so they have a sense of achievement and accomplishment.  The overall story arc of the campaign is an excellent way of giving your players that sense of achievement. Defeating the kobolds threatening the nearby mine, thwarting an attempt to burn down a village or gaining a clue regarding the PCs’ shadowy enemy all provide a sense of real achievement. This is particularly true if the players can see how their actions and choices affect the overall campaign.
  • Make the PCs Feel Special in Other Ways:  Gold, XP and magic are only three kinds of reward you can bestow upon the PCs. Fame, recognition, titles, land or favours are all excellent rewards.
  • Provide Special Items: Instead of having tons of magic items, perhaps one or more of the PCs gain certain weapons or items that are famous in their own right. Anyone can wield a +1 longsword, but only one person can wield Arnual’s Bane. Running a slow advancement campaign is a great excuse to design more unique treasures for your PCs.

Final Note

The slow advancement track doesn’t suit everyone or every kind of game. It’s wildly unsuitable for short campaigns featuring only a few modules or one-shot adventures. It’s best suited for stable groups intent on long-term games ripe with story and character development. (For example, at the time of writing we’ve just completed our 80th session of the Borderland of Adventure campaign).

Help Fellow Gamers!

Have you any suggestions, hints or tips about how to use the slow advancement track? Let us know in the comments below and help your fellow GMs run a better campaign today!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

8 thoughts on “Pathfinder Advice: How to Use the Slow Advancement Track in Your Campaign”

  1. I have a problem with this one:

    I run games with normal and even fast advancement. But STILL do whatever you are doing. And something more: I make the players feel that they are becoming a force to be reckoned.

    After hitting Lvl-9, after they killed their first dragon, and were called “The Dragonslayers” the players (Of my Fast Advancement Game) were deemed “Stronger than a dragon”, and they were TREATED as such.
    They have power, and I make them to feel the weight of their power. Of course, unleashing Empowered Fireballs is fun, but they FEEL that is something that they shouldn’t do.

    Thus, the game is AWESOME, because they have the power, the legend of any item they carry, and the weight of the responsability: Should one of them die, and it’s not a Lvl-11 character who has died, but a loved hero and a source of inspiration. Should they start a bar brawl… and they will be the unstoppable force that a DragonSlayer is. And the people will react accordinly.

    Turning off the tap doesn’t make the game awesome.
    Being a good NARRATOR, it IS what does make the game awesome.

    1. I completely agree with your end comment that being a good narrator is what makes the game awesome. However, I like the slow burn of the slow advancement track–a bit like why I loved The Wire or the West Wind. Part of the fun of the game is getting to know the PCs over a long period of time. Like an excellent, malt whiskey I don’t want to rush it!

  2. I’m actually using slow advancement in my current megadungeon game. I think it encourages the players to slow down a bit themselves and explore the dungeon rather than try to blaze through and reach the lowest level and face the dungeon boss, or whatever.

    Also, the dungeon I’m using was originally written for OSR play, then adapted for Pathfinder, so it’s not as “balanced” for medium or fast advancement as it might be. I think characters who level faster would find themselves under-geared. I actually worry a little bit that my own players are under-geared, with some having reached level 4, but I don’t think anyone has found a +1 anything yet. I’ve been trying to push the party wizard to make magic items to maybe correct this.

  3. I find that giving campaign specific traits as a reward works, it can also boost the P.C.’s reputation or even selected skills the D.M. may need to boost – from my games:
    Friend of the Emperor: +2 Diplomacy when in the city of Tamavar;
    Raised in the Ice City: +1 Knowledge Local (Ice City) and Knowledge Local is a class skill;
    Fey Slayer: +1 to confirm criticals against Fey.

  4. I like slower advancement but I find that most players get bored with it. It takes a special kind of player and GM to put character advancement aside for development of story. I’ve argued in the past that slow advancement makes leveling your character even more special and engaging but it usually falls on deaf ears.

    Pro tip: If your running Pathfinder, the Pathfinder Unchained book has an alternate rule for leveling in which you slowly accrue the character’s leveling benefits. It breaks each level’s XP into thirds, and when a player reaches each third, he or she receives some of the benefits of leveling. I don’t have the rules in front of me now, but it works something like this:
    -At one third of the XP needed to level, the character gets skill points and half hit points.
    -At two thirds XP they get any save bonuses and BAB increases.
    -At the full leveling XP total, they get the rest of their benefits: the rest of their HP and any feats or class abilities they might gain.

    This method works because characters are getting smaller rewards more frequently during the admittedly slow crawl towards advancement. It still leaves room for development of story, but it definitely makes the gaining of character power seem more organic and gradual, without putting off the power bump that players enjoy through leveling off for too long.

  5. Having different forms of rewards is a particularly good approach, since it gives more than one track for the PCs to measure their progress by. Things like the Reputation & Fame system allows the PCs to earn Prestige Points on gaining a new class skill or similar small mechanical benefit… without the overall upgrade a level-up would be. Downtime system means the PCs can work towards improving their stronghold and gaining something from it, even if they’re not levelling up. Receiving bonus traits for special training could be another neat reward. Using the Retraining rules to gain extra HP can help.

    And they’re also subtle ways the PCs are better than standard characters of the same class and level, which can go towards them feeling special.

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