A Rasp Of Sand Speedrun

I am going to be running a one-day A Rasp Of Sand (by Dave Cox) speedrun this Saturday. I'd been meaning to write a play review of A Rasp Of Sand since we finished our campaign a while ago. Since then, I've had the chance to give my input to a friend writing a review so not going to worry about the details there. I will note that I love this game a ton, only made very slight tweaks, and it does what it says on the tin really well.

For context in terms of this post however the general outline of our campaign was:

Duration: ~5-6 months, roughly weekly sessions of ~2h length
Playspace: Maps, characters, and notes in roll20, jitsi for video/voice
Generations: 4
Extent Reached: end of level 1 (Gen 1), died first room (Gen 2), past the reef gate (Gen 3), The Deep Queen (Gen 4, returned crown)
Experience: 150xp per room explored, awarded on descent
Party at End: (Gen 4) Academic 14, Cook 10, Fisher 11, Slug Farmer 11

Also holy crap I had forgotten the Academic was level 14! Snorting artifacts for sand (XP) is a hell of a drug. Also my buddy Vegas made me a thank you card afterwards with the most adorable art of a CHUM and it melts my heart every time I see it.

Pen and crayon drawing of a short, round little fish person creature. They have big bug eyes, mouth slightly agape in a friendly / clueless expression, and a necklace with two skulls on it. They are holding a long spear and are mildly threatening and welcoming at the same time.
Chum, by Vegas

We talked for a bit after the end about how the game encouraged player expertise and gave a different vibe in terms of lethality. Yes, you can die pretty easily but also that’s fine! gg go next! The driver in not dying is not preservation of character but that next bit of information that you can glean to make the next run easier. As Gen 4 continued the players did start to become more careful with their characters but that could have been a function of time spent playing (Gen 4 took by far the most time) or perhaps the idea that they were so close was a stronger motivator. I think if they had died at that point, after so long, I’m not sure I would have had it in me to run another long generation.

After returning the crown to The Deep Queen, we had all agreed that we didn’t think we’d want to play A Rasp Of Sand for a bit, at least not how we had been. Someone threw out the idea of trying to see how far we could get in a single, dedicated day and I latched on to it immediately. So here we go!

Going to start at 930am on Saturday and go till we can’t or we win. I’m making only a few changes from stock A Rasp Of Sand but these are all things I had also changed from the beginning, when I ran it the first time.

Temple level maps will be generated ahead of time. Originally I would roll them up and draw them by hand, before going to sleep, and it was a very relaxing process. I didn’t want to make them on the fly at the table because all the rolling seemed too cumbersome for live play. It also allowed me to connect the rooms in somewhat more organic fashion. This time rather than hand drawing I am going to use the excellent and very pretty Shifting Sands generator to roll up the maps to save myself some work.
Generating maps ahead of time requires changing the Sailor 4 ability “Current Construer.” Rather than allowing the Sailor to influence the room generator roll, they instead get an idea of the relative danger of adjacent rooms.
Doing XP per room, 150 XP each like in the book, but since the map is generated ahead of time it creates a choice for the players of if they want to push on exploring when they find the stairs down or if they want to keep pressing on.
Slugs effects do not reset between generations. I wanted the players to be able to hold on to the little bits of knowledge they scrape from the temple and this seemed a good way to contribute to that. This meant I had to change the Academic 5 ability that let the players prevent slugs from re-rolling. Instead, an Academic 5 can now simply identify any slug on sight.

That’s pretty much it though! I really liked this game the first time and hella pumped to run it again in a different way. It’s funny, was talking with my crew last night, about how I enjoyed popping off little stories when the Academic would hoover up sand from artifacts and Vegas said something like “Oh no, we don’t have time for dialogue or cutscenes, this is a speedrun!” Their wheels have been turning for a minute, it’s gonna be good.

Speaking of minutes, I definitely want to try and capture some stats, maybe like time per level / generation, number of rooms, something, but not sure yet. Will marinate on that as the day goes on.

This kind of turned into more of a review than I intended but can't talk about what I’m gonna do without talking about what I changed the first time. When my comrade’s review drops I’ll link it here, I’ve seen the draft and it’s a good read.


Five Things: STS Fulton

It's looking more and more like my A Rasp Of Sand game is going to come to an end in the next couple of weeks so I've been trying to get things together for the follow-up game. I do not like using lore dumps or giving reading homework for games, much preferring to have players learn about (or create!) the world through play. I use this "Five Things" technique to help hit the right balance. I picked it up from someone way back on google wave and I've found it very useful.

It's simple enough: you need to write exactly five interesting pieces of information. If you have too many things you want to say then it forces you to whittle down to only what is essential for the topic. If you can't come up with five things then maybe the topic needs some work to make it pop more for the players. Here's what I wrote up and sent to my potential players to pique their interest in the game.

  1. You have been decanted from cryosleep aboard a massive space station orbiting a blue planet by an entity calling itself H3LENE, or the Human Habitation Host, Limited Emulation Neural Entity.
  2. H3LENE has informed you that the station's orbit is decaying. They need your assistance to retrieve whatever is necessary from the planet to maintain the station's orbit.
  3. There are thousands of cryopods still sealed and frozen in the main body of the station. If you are not successful they will all die.
  4. The original mission of the station you are on, the STS Fulton, was to ferry humanity from a dying Earth using an experimental space folding drive. The Fulton was stocked with enough people and supplies to create a thriving colony on a new twin to Earth.
  5. It is unclear what happened to the original mission crew or how much time has passed.

Hopefully it worked! In my last campaign I used Five Things at different world levels to highlight important things that the characters would know, taking it a step further than just the campaign ad. Start off with Five Things about the game / world overview, then give a Five Things for major political entities and so on as needed. You could do historical events too depending on how complex they are, or just put them under some other topic's Five Things.

It's not a world-shattering technique, just one that helps me focus on doing only exactly the amount of prep work that I need and nothing more. Everything else can be invented or decided along the way.

One of these days I need to write an actual review of A Rasp Of Sand but the short take is that we've been having a lot of fun and it's real good.


AROS: Random Tidbits

I had a post drafted up about running A Rasp Of Sand, call it halfway between impressions, tips, and a review. I have kind of a need to be thorough and detailed so there were a lot of different aspects to it. I made the mistake of drafting it in the actual blogger post drafting interface on mobile, so it's gone now. BOOM. 

Oh well. Instead, here's a sweet Family logo that my player Vegas made. His family's trade is Slug Farmer.

Brown shield on a purple background. A light green slug with dark green stripes is flanked by two red hearts.
DeGastropoda Family Crest

I cannot describe how tickled I was! It was so great. We were starting our fourth session with two dead generations and I asked for everyone's family crest. Vegas was all "hold on lemme get out mspaint." Truly someone committed to the glory of slug farming.

That third generation died in the first room (sometimes two awful shark people show up), so they quickly rolled up new characters and started Generation 4. We'll see how far they make it!

Overall A Rasp Of Sand has been a fun diversion after a multi-year campaign and we're all enjoying the change of structure. Maybe deeper thoughts later if I end up re-writing that post and I'll release the (SUPER BASIC) character generator I made sometime soon.


Campaign Retrospective: Decaying Lands

 After ~5 years and exactly 75 sessions my group has finished our Decaying Lands campaign. This campaign started off the first tabletop RPG I had ever run at the inaugural IntroCONso, with James, Vegas, and Peanut Butter navigating The Trail of Stone and Sorrow (Sugarplum observed). A one-shot turned into a five year campaign. I almost feel like I should just quit running games because I'm not sure how I can even pretend to follow this up. I wanted to talk about what worked and what I could have done better in the hope that some of this is maybe useful. The headers started off on topic but then got less and less focused so don't rely on that too much.

Game Setup / Logistics

I mostly ran around in Google+ RPG circles and read stuff there and on blogs so I ran that first session in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Art-free editions of things are a great introduction to a game. Raggi / LotFP has guaranteed that I won't make that choice again but from a game perspective I am definitely burned out on B/X in general. There are plenty of other games that embrace a focus on "grant[ing] primacy to the imagined physical space" (Evey NAILED it with that line). For this campaign though using a retroclone was useful in that it enabled a huge amount of general compatibility with stuff I could mine for ideas. Dungeons, classes, monsters, all of it. I don't have a good knowledge of monsters or internalized idea of strength so even something as simple as pulling up a Labyrinth Lord bestiary was a help. And all the wild classes were great! LS writes some of the best ones.

We played on roll20, cycling through various video and chat solutions. Hangouts, despite being the G+ goto, never worked reliably for me on my computer. We did roll20 video for a while (not great), discord video (pretty okay), Zoom when it was available (great video but fuck them), and then finally settled on Jitsi. Jitsi is open source, their FAQ makes me feel good, and their service is pretty solid. Go use Jitsi.

Roll20 is great for me but I also don't use almost anything in its feature list. I scribble maps and hide things on the GM layer. I didn't even think about searching for tokens until a month or two ago. I probably could have made do with just a login-less whiteboard but having the persistence between sessions for maps and characters was really helpful. Half the time we'd forget how to play combat, so roll20 was a good reference.

I setup a player trello board and two private ones, one for my secret notes and another for ideas and "to-do." The player one got some initial use and then was mostly for me to refer to for stats on items we came up with in the game. It was also pretty handy to have a list of cards to point someone at and say "here, that's how you make a paper person, follow those steps." Keeping my notes and inspiration on separate boards was definitely useful though, would recommend that for sure.

I also had a bunch of spreadsheets that I used to help manage information. Maybe halfway through, right before a big hex crawl, I tweaked James Young's inventory sheet (maybe here?) to make it calculate encumbrance more automated and basically took care of everything for the party. I did this because I could (in a spreadsheet I mean), I enjoy automating things, and the session we spent mathing out and planning that expedition was probably one of the worst in the whole five years. I now love games that have "here's 12 slots" for their inventory. The experience tracking spreadsheet was way better though, and more broadly useful. There were google docs for rumors and "prep" too but that second part was almost non-existent. More on that below.

Play(er) Frequency

Since this started as a very intimate one-shot in a high lethality kind of world and system I wanted to schedule so that everyone would be there every session. With four players and one referee it turns out that's pretty challenging. We started at IntroCONso 1 and only played our 7th session by the time of IntroCONso 3, a year and a half later. No good. We decided to change to a fixed, every other week, schedule. To accommodate this we bumped up the number of players in the group and made some rules to work around it.

  • Party size 6-7
  • As long as 3+ people show up, we run the campaign
  • If you can't play, your PC is safe from any harm but cannot assist
  • Players can choose to make their PC available for other players, exposing them to harm
  • You only get XP for sessions you attend
This last rule about XP was really dumb in practice and it took me WAY too long to change it. The only upside was that I made a fancy spreadsheet to automate XP allocation. The enormous downside was that the pace of the game (and the players) was INCREDIBLY slow. This meant that a PC could participate in multi-session build-ups and preparation for some score and then miss the actual session with all the XP. Awful, not worth it. I could see this kind of XP system working in a game where each session was a self-contained delve where the party MUST end it in safety but ain't nobody got time for those kinds of constraints when you're playing after the kids go to sleep on a weekday.

I can't think of any occasions where an absent player offered up their PC for use by the rest of the party. I think even if they did, given the risk of death I'm not sure the party would have taken them up on it. Not that death actually happened a ton, but it was enough for the possibility to be there. Checking the rolls of the dead, there were only five PCs that died over the course of the game (although substantially more retainers). Will get to that in a moment though.

When a bunch of folks were absent and we didn't get the "3+" I'd still run some kind of pickup game. I think having a set of "emergency dungeons" on hand for these occasions is really helpful and I hope it contributed to the players always feeling like if they showed up, they would get to play something, no matter what. In fact the very first one turned into its own little sub-campaign universe, which I love.

On the flip side, one of my players said that they appreciated that there wasn't any pressure to always show up. If they were having a long day or just weren't feeling it then no big deal, there would still be a game for everyone else. I think that probably helped to contribute to the staying power of the campaign, as well. It's also worth noting that though the group size was consistent at 6-7 players the makeup of that group changed over time as people's availability shifted and changed. In total we had 9 players (with one special guest) as people came in and out of the game. That also kept things fresh and the momentum moving.

In general, I'd count the regular schedule and larger group as incredibly important for the game's success.

Prep / Refereeing

Session Summaries

If you checked the campaign summary link above you may have picked up on a disconnect: 75 sessions in a campaign but summaries died at session 46. What gives? While I did enjoy writing the summaries I would sometimes get behind. I also have a need to be complete and not leave out details. Eventually the summaries got to be this huge mental weight that were not worth the payoff. I didn't write them for views, I wrote them for myself and my players, but it was important to recognize that they were not helping anymore and cut them off. 

On the flip side, the summaries were a handy reference but I was able to trim them down to just be a few sentences of major events on a comment on the "Today is Day 196 / Winter 16" trello card. It served the same purpose (for me) as the summaries but was something I could bang out right after the game session. I still can't believe that 75 sessions played out over the course of only 196 days...
Speaking of days, I think I got this calendar from cecil howe but this helped to keep track of things.


  • Started campaign on Summer 1
  • 90 days per season (3 months of 30 days)
  • Season is 9 weeks of 10 days each
  • Every 5th day is a rest day
  • Moon phases (day of season)
    • 1           New Moon (31, 61)
    • 2-14     Waxing to Full (32-44, 62-74)
    • 15-17   Full Moon (45-47, 75-77)
    • 18-30   Waning to New (48-60, 78-90)

Referee Style

My main goal is to give players the freedom to drive the game wherever they want to go and an environment that is interesting enough to facilitate that. I got a lot of mileage out of rumors but the one-shot setup with The Trail of Stone and Sorrow helped to set the stage because the players were invested in saving Polde, a very unfortunate farmer from the adventure. It gave the players a purpose while exposing them to larger portions of the world which I could riff off and build connections from.

I don't push, though. Even that first one-shot setup had a handful of hooks; they could have ignored the trouble with Polde and gone through the town to somewhere else or rambled off into the woods. Since I don't push and the world was pretty dangerous it meant a pretty slow pace. Bertilak le Vert's player joined in the last six months (ish?) and was completely shocked that the highest level PC was only 5. Then after playing for a while, seeing the pace of play, and getting into the swing of things it started to make a lot more sense. This careful play was further encouraged by my removal of Search and Traps as skills, relying solely on telegraphed clues and clever play to discover things.

This slowness caused me a lot of anxious wondering that I was dragging my players down into minutia (like the details in the summaries). So I had to talk to them! A lot! They affirmed that they enjoyed the slow pace because it was caused by their considered interactions with a world that "made sense." This last part I think is the crucial bit. The game was slow because they wanted it to be slow because their choices mattered and would affect the world in "rational", predictable ways. The term for this kind of "making sense" is (I think) Gygaxian naturalism, and it goes all the way back to James M.

This is all getting rambly, so the last bit I wanted to note is that the tendency towards naturalism meant that I didn't have to write down almost anything. I mostly just spent time between sessions (driving, showering, pooping, etc) thinking about how things would make sense and be laid out according to motivations and logic and running it like that. That caused me to miss something the players should have found in a dungeon or two but overall it was a big help in running the game. I don't mean to say that I used any quantum ogres though, just that I didn't write much down beyond vague map scribbles and some key words.


If I had to pull out some guidelines from my experience, it'd be just as generic as all the other stuff I've seen online. Still, here it is.
  1. Keep a larger group of players so that it doesn't matter if someone doesn't show up
  2. Set a fixed gaming schedule, set a minimum number of players (e.g. half+) and play with whoever is there
  3. Check in with the group and make sure folks are still getting what they want out of the game
  4. Don't over-complicate support systems (like encumbrance or XP). Get or make tools for the ones you really care about, especially if the players don't have as much focus for it.
  5. Change rules / rulesets if they are not working
  6. Be able to recognize if part of your referee process is hurting you and cut it
  7. Make incidental things easy for yourself so you don't have to think about them (e.g. calendars, weather)
  8. It's okay to give a push in the beginning to get things going and give the world some space to develop.
  9. Don't get in your own head too much; TALK to your players and check-in on how everyone is doing, what they like, what they don't.
  10. If you make the world function according to consistent logic you don't have to remember or think about nearly as many things.
  11. Put more treasure in, especially for a game where you advance with treasure...

What's Next?

Decaying Lands ended last Thursday and I've already sent out the invite for next Thursday's session. I'm going to run A Rasp Of Sand from Dave Cox as a palette-cleansing interlude campaign. Everyone got a short summary of the situation of a the flooded world and the d12 list of possible family careers which is all they really need to know. We'll see what happens this coming Thursday!

After that, going to run a sort of sci-fi / fantasy game. Party thaws out on a space ship / station orbiting a planet, thing is falling apart, computer cores are damaged and the AI can't explain much. They'll need to go down to the planet using a sort of pod that can be picked up with a balloon when the ship / station comes round again. I've got some ideas, will post them up if I get a chance. Trying REAL hard to not get stuck in posts needing to be actually fleshed out but I am doubtful I can actually manage that.


Thanks I Hate It

I screwed up the blog colors / theme and this interface is dumb.

Edit: I think the colors are better now but new blogger still sucks.


Cauldron Cooked PCs

My players have been having quite an extensive back and forth discussion with one of Benton's Incunabula and it has been SO much fun. You should go read the post (and all the rest too) but an incunabula is an incredibly powerful sorcerer from an age past that's had their brain rendered into book form, bound in flesh. To communicate with such an entity one must write in their own blood which is then pumped through the brain matter and used to form veiny responses.

The party has spoken a lot with this one. They also have access to a "cauldron of creation" that the book's previous student was able to construct. THEN they removed a black sorcerer's heart from said (newly?) monstrous student, with the incunabula telling the group that they have all they need to "improve themselves." Lot going on here, basically, but we had three cauldron takers!

How Does It Work

  1. Player decides what they WANT to get, player and referee figure out how many cauldron uses that would equal. Each "uses" will require a roll on a mutation table.
  2. FUEL the cauldron up with number of uses of alchemical components needed
  3. Magic-user / cook makes a SAVE vs Magic (with a bonus for being guided by the Incunabula)
  4. If the wizard passes, the player can CHOOSE which table to roll on. If the wizard fails, all the rolls will be on the d100 table.
  5. The PC gets whatever it was the player wanted plus whatever they rolled for.


Tenkos, played by Sugarplum, took the first dip to regain his arm, amputated by way of second-guessing a partially entered portal. He came out with an arm, a batlike face, and the ability to echolocate by screaming (came with the face). Good thing Tenkos wears that plague doctor mask a lot!

Bertilak le Vert, the new guy, saw that and thought hell yeah! He's a big fighter lad so he wanted to get stronger. He came out with a +2 to his Strength modifier and the ability to apply that modifier to damage rolls (usually in Lamentations there's no bonus to damage). However he ALSO came out with translucent skin full of leprosy juice, spinnerets on his butt, and some extra joints on his limbs that mean he can't walk when he's upright. Like a raccoon, apparently!

Raccoon skeleton. They can't walk if they're upright. I had no idea.

Bertilak still had a hankering for the cauldron. His newly picked up retainer with nothing left to live for, Cyril wanted in on it too. Player suggested a bunch of different ideas and he locked in on "body made of stone" to "match how his heart." (He's a bit drama). We settled on three uses, this is what he got:

Cyril's Cauldron Dip

  • Benefit: Body made completely out of stone
  • d100 - 20 (Spider Legs spider-centaur. climb on walls and ceilings)
  • d100 - 21 (chest cabinet, skeleton key opens slot)
  • d100 - 71 (quadrupedal, can't walk while standing, no 2h weapons)
We balanced out spider legs with quadrupedal but saying that his arms got the extra joints so still can't use two handed weapons.

Bertilak wanted to go in AGAIN after that (party still had enough for two dips). He wanted to regain some of his lost constitution from his first dip. He got that and then NEARLY died.

Bertilak Dip 2

  • Benefit: Gain 4d3+1d6 (+10 total)
  • d100 - 70 (no nose, turns flat)
  • d100 - 96 (lilliputian, 3" tall)

This combined with his prior dip equaled:

Bertilak le King of Cauldron Swimming

  • Benefit: +2 Str mod, apply Str to damage
  • d100 - 19 (spinnerets, 100' per day)
  • d100 - 71 (quadrupedal, cannot move while standing, no 2h weapons)
  • d100 - 87 (translucent skin, lose d6 con [-6 total], bodily fluids spray leprosy)
  • Benefit: Gain 4d3+1d6 (+10 total)
  • d100 - 70 (no nose, turns flat)
  • d100 - 96 (lilliputian, 3" tall)

So now the 3" tall super strong super hardy fighter with leprosy fluids and spinnerets is going to ride around in the chest cabinet cavity of his spider-centaur retainer made completely out of stone. Hooray for mutations!



I haven't really read any blogs since g+ got shut down. Then someone shared a link to noise sans signal and I got reminded of everything I was missing out on.

Part of the reason this blog has been dormant for so long is that I had play reports backlogged. The last two session reports are from more than fifteen sessions ago but they sat unfinished. Writing the reports was fun, and maybe useful for my players (the main purpose), but in the end it turned into a draining obligation of my own doing. Self-assigned homework. So I stopped. I'm especially glad to have made that call now that we started playing every week. I'll still note any deaths on the campaign page though, that's just fun.

The other reason it's been so dead (forever, not just recently) is that I never finish anything. Like forty drafts and nothing to show for it. In a bit of back and forth about blogging under their "on abyss" post (I think?), Kyana shared some similar thoughts but encouraged me to blog more and not worry about length or completeness. Just get it out there. Good advice, and something I definitely needed to hear.

So that's what I'm going to try and do. In a related spring cleaning note I nuked my blogroll and am going to slowly build it back up. Gonna call it here  in the spirit of finishing things.

Thanks again to Kyana for the push.