Pathfinder Advice: Why I Love the Slow Advancement Track

My Borderland of Adventure campaign has been running since October 2012. In that time we’ve had about 80 sessions and played through over two action-packed years of game time. Of all the campaigns I’ve run in recent memory, I’ve enjoyed this one the most. The main difference between this campaign and others I’ve run is the slow advancement track.



The campaign itself links to my Kingmaker campaign (which began two game years previously and suffered a rather spectacular end in a certain ruined elven tower). In total, the extended campaign has been running for about four game years. The most played characters on the Borderland of Adventure have now achieved the dizzying heights of 6th-level. (Everyone has more than one character to facilitate multiple story arcs and give players a chance to take a different role in the party now and then).

In previous campaigns, I’d grown frustrated by the speed in which PCs seemed to level. In some cases, we were levelling every other week. It seemed our characters could go from 1st- to 20th-level in under a year of game time, which didn’t seem very particularly attractive (or dare I say it realistic). It made levelling mundane and reduced it to something akin to mere bookkeeping.

So we decided to try the slow advancement track for a change. I’ve been delighted with the results. To my mind, there are several main advantages to the slow advancement track.

  • Tell a Cogent Story with Slowly Scaling Challenges: The Borderland of Adventure campaign is set in a relatively small part of the World of Greyhawk. Because the PCs are progressing slowly it is possible to tell a tight, cogent story in which the villains make sense. With the slow advancement track, the PCs’ opponents (ostensibly orcs and their shadowy, unknown masters) still make sense. In a faster game, I would by now have had to come up with reasons why the orcs had been replaced by giants (or whatever) as the party’s main foes. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense given the region’s flavour. Because the PCs are slowly gaining in power, it is much easier to slowly scale the threat they face in a way that makes sense to the overarching story. This also means they get fewer sudden, fatal surprises as they slowly learn more about their capabilities (and their opponents’).
  • Get to know the PCs: With the slow advancement track, the PCs are not exactly rocketing up the levels. Because of this, the players get to know their PC’s capabilities very well. More importantly, they get to know the capabilities of their comrades, which means they act much better as a group. This has improved their survivability dramatically. To date, we’ve only had a handful of PC deaths – and I’m not exactly renown as an easy GM.
  • Players Are More Invested In Their Characters: The players are much more invested in their characters because they’ve been playing them longer and have grown to know them much better than a normal character. When you’ve played a character for 50 sessions you are careful with that character; losing one would be a real blow. Interestingly enough, the players also seem much more invested in other people’s characters – which is a very nice bonus – as they take risks to keep one another safe.
  • Sense of Achievement: The sense of achievement you feel when achieving something is directly related to how hard it was to achieve that goal. It takes time and effort to gain power in the slow advancement track. I’ve found that because of this the players really enjoy levelling and savour their achievements much more than if they level every session (or every other session). Reaching 3rd-level was a real achievement. Now some PCs are 6th-level, attainment of levels in prestige classes is now a real possibility. PCs entering such an august class have achieved something special – nay prestigious. Imagine how they’ll feel when they reach 9th-level!
  • Worldbuilding: I think the world makes much more sense, if you assume the slow advancement track. It means, NPCs over 5th-level are special and those over 9th-level are truly amazing. When the PCs reach 9th-level, they will be some of the most powerful folk in the nation. In normal games, you are barely getting going at 9th! It also means that qualifying for a prestige class is actually special. I feel prestige classes have lost their lustre a bit in recent years – they often seem to be taken for a couple of levels to get a cool ability and not for the kudos of actually belonging to the relevant organisation.
  • Low Fantasy: By its very nature, the slow advancement track naturally promotes a low fantasy campaign over its high fantasy counterparts. Think about it for a second. In a game where it takes longer to gain power, there are fewer higher level spellcasters in the campaign. This means there are fewer people capable of making magic items (particularly permanent ones). Thus, there are fewer magic items available. This makes magic items more special and far less mundane than they seem to have become in recent years.

In any event, as you can tell, I’m having some real fun with the slow advancement track. Have you tried it? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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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.

9 thoughts on “Pathfinder Advice: Why I Love the Slow Advancement Track”

  1. Very good article. I used to have the same approach, but players kept saying they didn’t feel a “sense of progression/accomplishment”. And since I never used XP, nowadays I just make the party level up each 3 sessions (yes, it is too fast…).

  2. I totally agree, it brings a much higher sense of accomplishment.

    Just started a 5e game, and I’m only giving about 30% xp and a small amount of bonus for good play. The characters are leveling much more slowly and actually have personality for them, instead of just numbers.

    1. One of the things I don’t like about 5e is the insanely fast progression at low levels. It’s even faster than the fast advancement track. (But then I’m weird; I prefer low-level play!)

      1. At the risk of necroing an old thread, I thought you might be interested to know: I’m running a campaign which commenced in around 1983and is being recommenced after a 10 year break. I used to award 10%xp as it was a low magic campaign and players did complain. Players who have played from the start have achieved 12th and 11th levels. Now that they have played in other games and had characters level quickly, they have asked how long I will DM for (I said till I got too old) and asked me to reduce xp or even not award it so they can keep playing these characters for the rest of their lives, all of whom have homes, families, etc. I”ll probably now be using the slowest Pathfinder system for 5e (unless its too fast).

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