Vampire: The Masquerade: Northeast Passage

On the Reeperbahn, late half past one
If you got a girl, or got none
You will have great fun, that’s the way it’s done
On the Reeperbahn, late half past one

Who never in one cozy night
Strolled past the Reeperbahn’s lights
Is a sorry sod, ’cause he knows you not
Oh my Saint Paul’s, my Saint Paul’s by Night

Basically as soon as I started considering working on a Vampire campaign, I decided that it would have to be set in Hamburg. The premise of the game requires that it’s set in a major city (unless your deliberately want to run a nonstandard campaign), and every time I start worldbuilding on something, I always take a few moment to think if there’s anything from the Baltic Sea region that I can use. We almost never get to see our regional history an heritage make an appearance anywhere. The only thing you ever get is Vikings, and even those seem to always be shown far away from home. Hamburg is the biggest city in Northern Europe between London and Saint Petersburg, and it also happens to be where I was born and lived as a kid for 10 years (and I still pass through there pretty regularly). So it really was the obvious choice with no other contestants. And it turns out to actually have a lot of recent history that is great material for a Vampire campaign.

Hamburg

As a major city with a metropolitan area of 5 million people, Hamburg obviously qualifies as a perfect setting for a Vampire campaign. But once I started looking up various barely remembered details from places I remember from my childhood, I rediscovered so many things that not only make it suitable but amazing for that task.

While not nearly as old as the Roman cities in southern Germany, Hamburg has a long history that stretches back over a thousand years. The city really came into its prime with the rise of the Hanseatic League in the 13th century. Merchants from many important port cities on the Baltic and North Seas formed an extensive network of relationships that eventually grew into something akin to one of the world’s earliest megacorporations. In many of these cities, the Hanse merchants formed their own aristocratic class that often came to govern the ports as independent or autonomous republics. The capital of the League was in nearby Lübeck, which with modern city growth and transportation infrastructure is now part of the Hamburg metro area. In the Holy Roman Empire, Hamburg and Lübeck were among a small number of cities that had no lords and owed allegiance only to the Emperor himself. This arrangement lasted until the 1920s, and even today the city of Hamburg is one of the 16 states of Germany, only one administrative level below the Federal Government. The merchant aristocracy of Hamburg was so proud that they would not accept any medals or join any orders of foreign powers, as they would recognize no authority other than their own. There really is no doubt: In the World of Darkness, the Hanseatic League was undisputed Ventrue territory.

Early on in the 30 Years War, Hamburg invested heavily in new massive fortifications to surround the entire city, and it was one of the few major cities in the Empire that were never besieged or pillaged, but still had the war come right to its doorsteps during Wallenstein’s campaign against the Danish king Christian, whose possessions included the northernmost parts of the Empire. Hamburg and Lübeck marked the greatest extend of Naploeon’s empire in the North at the start of the 19th century. After a great fire in 1842, the rebuilding of Hamburg led to a great industrial boom. Growing into the third largest port in Europe and becoming the gateway for emigrants to America and where exotic goods from around the world would come into Germany.

24 Then the Lord rained sulfur and fire out of the sky from the Lord on Sodom and Gomorrah, 25 overthrowing those cities, all of the plain, and everyone who lived in the cities. He also destroyed the plants that grew out of the ground.

– Genesis 19

Ruin of St. Nicholas’ Church, destroyed in 1943.

In 1943, the British Royal Air Force launched Operation Gomorrah, and for a full week they attacked Hamburg with incendiary bombs. One night the relentless bombing exceeded their wildest expectation, with the inferno turning into a giant tornado of flames that incinerated much of the city. Later the amount of destruction and deaths from the atomic bomb in Nagasaki would be rated as “not nearly as bad as Hamburg”. Along with tens of thousands of humans, the fire destroyed a majority of the city’s vampires, including many elders of many centuries. There are few things that scare ancient empires, but this night haunts those who survived to this very day. Not even 20 years later, Hamburg suffered a great flood that devastated the poorest parts of the city in the South, there the old dykes had still not been properly repaired. Since then, things have been looking upward for the city.

Hamburg by Night

The classic style of Vampire: the Masquerade is one of urban decay and street gangs. While this was a very contemporary style in 90s America, it just really doesn’t make any sense for Hamburg in the 2020s. You could do such a version of Hamburg, but it just wouldn’t reflect the character of the city, even in a darker and more twisted way. With most of the historic buildings being completely destroyed by the two fires in 1842 and 1943, most of the current city only 70 years old. And with the hastily constructed concrete blocks from the 50s now showing their age and being considered eyesores, the city is giving itself a makeover of shiny glass and gleaming lights. It just looks very modern and crisp, with a booming economy. Industrial ruins and burning cars simply don’t fit into this place.

But even with such a shining exterior, there is absolutely room to fill it with evil and corruption. There are persistent stereotypes and jokes about German society and culture, which are so persistent because they are not exactly wrong. They don’t get it quite right and miss many of the finer nuances, but there is a lot of truth to that. And even with Germany as a whole, the “Northern Lights” have a reputation for being dour, joyless, and lacking in courtesy. In my experience, “Germany” is really just a language area. Culturally, people in Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Mecklenburg are Scandinavian. When we look South and see the Rhur Area with its Karneval, and Bavaria with its Oktoberfest, we just think they are all mad and an embarrassment to the whole county. It’s not that we mean to be rude or have no sense of humor or enjoying fun, but our regional culture puts a much greater emphasis of giving other people their space and being unobtrusive. We like not being bothered and extend that common courtesy to others.

Hamburg City Hall

But even so, it does take very little to go from courtesy to callousness. There is only a small step between not being nosy and willful ignorance, and between not rocking the boat and complacency. It’s easy to find yourself kicked out into the freezing rain. And the 1930s were not our proudest moments. This version of Hamburg that I am going for is one of order and oppression, but not enforced by police with clubs, but by social pressure. The police is not the hand of the oppressor, but the foot of the people, put down on those trying to disrupt a good thing. Corruption is not a serious concern of the people, as you don’t see it unless you want to. It’s not the drugs that bother people, but the junkies passed out on the sidewalks. Fighting crime is not about dealing with the causes, but removing it from sight.

Hamburg is an old Ventrue city. Shaped just as much by the vampires who infest it, as they are shaped by it. It is orderly, efficient, and makes a whole lot of money. It’s running smoothly, and the masses just hovering ever so slightly above poverty is by design. People who can’t afford to lose their job don’t ask questions or make demands. With Ventrue pulling many of the leavers that control the city, “Human Resources” take on the full horrific meaning that the term implies. The city and its industry does not serve the people. The people are the fuel and the grease that make the city run.

A City of Steel and Sin

While Hamburg is generally not considered to be among the fancy global cities of Europe, like London, Paris, Berlin, or Moscow, it is still a quite impressive place of its own.

The port of Hamburg is the third largest in Europe, after Rotterdam and Antwerp. Aside from its massive container terminals, it also includes several shipyards and oil refineries on the south side of the Elbe. Hamburg is also the site of the largest copperworks in Europe, an Airbus production site, and countless machine factories. It also has a major airport and a main train station with 12 platforms inside a single 150m long and 75 meter wide hall of steel beams and glass.

Hamburg is also home to the second largest cemetery in the Old World. Most cemeteries have a but stop. Hamburg Ohlsdorf has its own two bus lines with 24 stops. Right nearby are the Fuhlsbüttel prison and the Ochsenzoll Asylum, making for a quite unique neighborhood.

The Reeperbahn in the St. Pauli neighborhood is probably the second most famous Red Light District in Europe after Amsterdam. Originally the area started as a shanty town outside the walls of the cities Hamburg and Altona and became the home to all trades that were forbidden inside the cities. In the 1920s it fancied itself to be a glitzy and glamorous entertainment district the likes of Berlin, but after the war it was never properly redeveloped and turned into a crime-infested slum. In recent decades great efforts have been made to straighten it up and return it to its glory days. But it never lost its pride in its self proclaimed title as “The most sinful mile in the world.”

Synthwave-Noir is the new Gothic-Punk

Vampire: The Masquerade was created at the start of the 90s, with the first rulebook explaining it’s stylistic and aesthetic vision as “Gothic-Punk”. Some years ago, I had a long discussion with several people about the very question if this overall dominant style dates the game so much as a product of the 90s that it would no longer work for current groups of players unless you deliberately aim for retro-nostalgia. I think it was when I saw something or another about Bloodlines 2 (a Vampire videogame currently in development), that I had the thought whether the Synthwave aesthetic of recent years could be a viable way to transform Vampire into something that evokes very similar conceits in the present day.

Synthwave is a electronic music style that came to prominence in the late 2000, which makes heavy use of synthesizer sounds that strongly evoke the sound of 80’s electronic pop, and was hugely influenced by the music from the movie Blade Runner. But it uses these references and influences as a starting point for something that is new and actually quite different rather than being actual 80s retro music. For reasons unknown to man, Synthwave also has an extremely distinctive aesthetic for album covers, dominated by abstracted vector-graphic shapes in bright pink, blue, and orange.

While I personally think it’s very cool music, it also has a strong overlap with various visual arts. Probably the two most influential places where Synthwave got mainstream exposure are in the movie Drive from 2011 and the videogame Hotline Miami in 2012, both of which combine extremely brutality with detached coldness in a world of extremely evocative colors and lighting. Again, it is a style that is very reminiscent of Blade Runner, which also just got it’s own return in 2017, again with stunning visuals and sound. A similar style was also used earlier in Collateral from 2004, and in the super successful John Wick movies.

I think Neo-Noir and Synthwave in 2020 are really the spiritual successors that Gothic and Punk where in 1990. Back then, the name of the game was radical extravagance. Clothing, hairstyles, and makeup all carefully crafted to the smallest detail to be as eye catching and provocative as possible. Punks look dirty and sit on the curb with broken beer bottles, but their outfits are as deliberately designed and customized as the most dolled-up goth. Make no mistake, goths are totally aware that their outfits with full war paint makes them look like lunatic weirdos to most people. That’s entirely the point. And I think this is something that doesn’t really translate properly into the 21st century. It no longer comes across as edgy, just silly. Street gangs are no longer the boogeymen of the middle class, and today’s youth has more serious concerns than rebellion without a plan against the establishment. Maybe society has become more open to individual expression as well, and when your outfit can no longer provoke the boomers, then what’s the point of spending all these hours on it?

But while the typical Brujah and Gangrel styles may no longer be considered the cutting edge of what is cool, I think we’re currently at a point in popular entertainment that gives the stage to Ventrue and Tremere. It’s now the time of nice suits and Mercedes. When you can’t beat them, joining them starts to become attractive. Even if you first tell yourself that it’s to beat them at their own game. You also have that look in Kingsmen and the current James Bond movies, which despite being about public servants leaving carnage across the world in service for their states, really don’t have any love for authority.

And look: It’s our old friends pink and blue again.

It’s probably not quite an aesthetic you can go for with an Anarch campaign. But for a campaign centered around Ventrue, Toreador, Tremere, and Lasombra, I think this is perfect! And when you think about it, John Wick and his pals are living in their own Camarilla. And vampire society in the World of Darkness has always been filled with endless parallels to organized crime.

But Vampire is not only a game about politics. While it often seems to be forgotten and glossed over, it also presents itself as a game of horror. Big influences on me for what I imagine horror in my campaign to feel like are True Detective (Season 1, of course), and also Twin Peaks. I’m probably not able and also have no intention to make something as funny as David Lynch, but I really like the sense of eerie wrongness and malevolent evil in that show.

What’s so horrific about being a vampire anyway?

So in my old days, I actually started getting interested in Vampire: The Masquerade. Who would have thunk? It actually was one of the big games when I first came into RPGs at the tail end of AD&D, along with DSA, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, and Legend of the Five Rings. I would have been too young for it when it came out, and already felt too old when I started looking at other games. By that time I already had it filed away as the game of leather jackets, frilly shirts, and terrible makeup. I leafed through a rulebook once, but didn’t find anything of interest back then, and basically forgot about it after that.

I don’t know how I got to that, but a few weeks ago I somehow ended up hunting down a rulebook for the 1998 Revised Edition and the 1992 Storyteller Handbook to get a glimps of how the game was originally presented, and then got the pdf for the 2012 V20 edition to have all the basic info and crunch for all 13 clans in one neat package. The game always proclaims itself to be “a storytelling game of personal horror”, but in no point in any of the three books is there any mention of what that means. Or what horror in general looks like when you play as a vampire. It says existence as a vampire is horrifying, but does not mention why. Like virtually all RPGs (except d6 Star Wars), Vampire assumes that it is completely obvious to every new gamemasters how you run a campaign, and that the setting is self-explanatory. You have superhuman powers and are immortal. Go and be scared.

But if you really comb through the text with arduous care, and keep pestering people on the internet what this game is about and what you’re supposed to do with it, there is indeed sufficient implication that it is a game about keeping hold of your humanity in the knowledge that you will turn into a monster that destroys everything still dear to you eventually, and that you’re stuck being a pawn of much more powerful people who will still be your uncaring asshole bosses centuries down the line. The game then sabotaged itself by getting sucked up in its own metaplot hype about the world ending next week, which would completely negate it’s own premise. But that’s one of the reasons I wanted to start with really old rulebooks. The initial vision and concept for games and game setting is universally much more interesting than the lore snarl that build up over time. Those are stuff for novels, but not playable game material.

But after a way too long introduction to the topic, here now my actual ideas how the premise of Vampire: The Masquerade can actually be used to make it a horror game. A fundamental part of being a Vampire is that the vampiric instincts called the Beast are completely inhuman, and that any humanity still left in a vampire is really just force of habit. Vampires act and think like people because that’s what they are used to and they are actively forcing themselves to repeat the familiar patterns of their life. But over time, keeping up these appearances becomes less and less important to a vampire, as they become nuisances and their original meaning forgotten. At the end, all that remains is a monster that has no concept of friendship or affection and exists only to kill. Not sure if the creators were thinking about it this way 30 years ago, but what this is is fear of dementia. The understanding that you will become something in the future that is horrifying to your current self. Something that you can do nothing to prevent it even while you watch it happening, until in the end you don’t even understand that anything is wrong. And on top of that you will also kill and destroy everything that matters to you and you hold dear.

But this is a very long and slow process that will stretch for centuries, unless you get killed before that. Not really something you can play out during the game. But what you can do is to have the players be confronted by the the things that await their characters in the future. You can show the players how other vampires lose the remainders of the humanity at different stages, making it clear that “this will be you”. Here’s a couple of ideas I’ve come up with myself. (Which totally should have been in the books from the start.)

  • Some vampires in the city have been killed one way or another. An elder tells the PCs that a moving company will be clearing out their places, but before that they need to get over to the dead vampires homes and kill their ghouls. Can’t have mortals with knowledge of vampires out in the street uncontrolled, with a terrible craving for vampire blood. If possible, the players should know the dead vampires, and perhaps met and talked with some of the ghouls as well.
  • A human friend of the PCs gets killed by another vampire. He apologizes that he didn’t know the person he killed was connected to them. He would have murdered someone else otherwise.
  • A young neonate calls the PCs because he urgently needs their help. He had a little accident while feeding and now has remove a corpse before it is found by humans, and really hopes to keep the whole thing from his sire.
  • The PCs are visiting another vampire at home, and as he lets them in, he apologizes that there’s still empty bodies lying around in his living room that he hasn’t cleaned up yet. Maybe rolling a corpse from the couch before offering them a seat. Or it’s wrapped in a tarp in the hall, next to a garbage bag that needs to be taken out next time he leaves.
  • If you want to take it a gear higher, a vampire could have a half-empty and half-conscious vessel around that he’s keeping for later.
  • The PCs are called to take part in a blood hunt for a vampire that has lost its last humanity and now threatens the Masquerade. This will be them at some point. For bonus points, make it a vampire the players know and have recently talked to.
  • Diablerie is considered the most evil and horrible crime that vampires can commit against each other, as drinking all of a vampire’s blood to gain his power is believed to also devour his soul. (And it can only be done by younger vampires against older vampires, and the old vampires make the laws.) A good introduction of this concept to new players would be to show how everyone is in a frenzy because a vampire friend of the PCs has been diablerized. For bonus points, the murderer was one of their friends as well.
  • During a blood hunt, a vampire the players consider to be quite decent gets really excited, because he assumes there won’t be any punishment for diablerizing the outlaw, and he has always been waiting for an opportunity to do it.

Look at my Works, you Mighty, …

When I wrote my first post outlining the purpose and goal of my latest worldbuilding efforts, I got a lot of replies, including this interesting link from Oliver Simon to a great academic article about the role of the environment in Conan: Exiles. .It gave me a couple of great ideas for Planet Kaendor and I made some notes for a new post, and then completely forgot about it for the next six years while writing other posts I had already planned. Of my three notes, I only remembered the meaning of the first one, and I had to reread both the entire article and my post that led to ot being recommended to me to figure out the second. And I still have no clue what idea the third note was supposed to be about. Don’t be me! Take better notes when you get great ideas for your own work.

The article takes a look at the open world survival game Conan: Exiles as a horrifying analogy of the cruel exploitation within human economic activity. While many of these survival games have the killing of other player characters and the looting of their equipment and resources as a key gameplay element, this game uses the well established and accepted norms of the Hyborian Age to take it to a much more grotesque level. Not only can you loot the possessions of your slain foes, you can also butcher their dismembered corpses for meat and crafting materials. Nonplayer characters can be taken alive and made slaves, that are a hugely important resource for expanding your own base. And some magical powers require human sacrifice to attain. Other people are reduced to “human resources” in the most literal sense. They are commodified as tools to be exploited for your own quest for wealth and power.

Being basically a sociological paper, it’s not an easy read, and the first part is crammed full of attributed quotations of other writers that don’t really add to the topic and mostly seem to be there to pad out the references list at the end to boost academic credibility. But after that it goes into how the environment with its ruined buildings, abandoned weapons and tools, and human remains also tells a story of how economic exploitation build the fallen civilizations as well.

I didn’t expect Marx and Derrida to contribute to my worldbuilding, but I guess stranger things have happened. One passage in particular really got me thinking about how I can give the ruins that fill the environment of Kaendor a more meaningful presence in the actual game instead of being irrelevant pieces of lore in some file.

Faithful to Howard’s original Conan stories, the landscape is one which Derrida would have recognised as being distinctly hauntological; it is a world scarred by its past. This environment is shaped by forces which still have agency but no agent, generating effects which exert great power over the player’s experience of and interaction with their surroundings.

Agency without an agent. Now that’s an expression that really appeals to me. In this case, we have to treat agency as different from the concept of player agency in roleplaying games, which is the ability of players to make choices about the actions of their characters that meaningfully affect the outcome of the developing story of the game. Without an agent, there are no choices that are being made or actions that are being taken. Instead we have the idea here of choices that were made and actions that were taken long ago by the long dead builders of the ruins that led to the creation of the current environment. The choices were made many centuries ago, but their consequences still affect and constrain the options that are open to the player characters in the present. The idea is that the ruins are not simply featureless and inert stones that litter the surroundings, but active entities that challenge and threaten the intruding explorers.

(At this point I want to apologise for falling into academia speech and getting abstractly philosophical. Four years in cultural studies do this to you. It comes automatically and leaves it marks on you forever.)

As a simple example, take an ordinary arrow trap that shots an arrow when someone steps on a certain part of the floor. To quote the endlessly poetically and quotable Darkest Dungeon:

Curious is the trap-maker’s art… his efficacy unwitnessed by his own eyes.

A trap is not simply a feature of the environment, even though many games treat them like that. An actual trap is not simply just there. It is there because someone made a choice and took action to put it there. With an intent to kill. The builder of the trap does not know who will fall victim to it, and the people it injures will most likely have no idea who caused them harm. In a ruined dungeon, the builder will have died centuries before the victims were born. But still, one person exercised agency to cause serious harm to another person. The agent is long gone, but the effects of the agency are present in the present.

It is not just traps. Every artificial obstacle that characters encounter is there because someone put it there with intent. Every constructed tool or weapon they find is in its place because someone made it for a purpose and put it in its present location as a consequence of choices and actions. And this even carries over to much larger scales. Planet Kaendor is conceptualized as a world in which the natural environment is outside of the control of mortals. Whatever they do in their attempts to shape the world that surronds them will quickly be negated once the wilderness returns. But things look very different when it comes to the marks left behind by unnatural sorcery. A charred wasteland of ash haunted by ghouls attacking cateless travelers surrounding a ruined city does not exist randomly. Its existence is the consequence of choices mafe by a sorcerer long ago. A consequence that directly affects the characters in the present. And the natural world in Kaendor is often directly controlled by spirits, who can exercise their own agency as well. Though being essentialy immortal, this does not fall under the agency without agent. They are merely agents with an invisible presence, but I think the overall effect is quite similar.

The key idea that is presented here (indirectly) to worldbuilders is to create environments for adventures that are not simply passive and interchangeable backdrops that maybe have a couple of unusual but random backgrounds in them. Instead, they should give indications that obstacles and useful finds are the result of someone’s deliberate exercising of agency. Bad things don’t exist in the present at random. They exist because someone in the past wanted it or did a careless mistake. There was a purpose behind it and it was someone’s fault. And that someone’s presence should still be felt as a malevolent force seeking the destruction of any intruders, or a shade lingering among the ruins of its crumbled dreams. Of course this might not be a universal requirement for all fantasy environments. But I had written about looking for ways to give ruins and magical places are more active role in my world, and this article provided great insights on how I could be moving closer to that goal.

All the mentions of cannibalism also got me some interesting idea for ghouls, which have been a favorite of mine since I encountered a new take on them in Dragon Age, and have held a very important position in my deliberations about the nature of the supernatural in Kaendor basically from the start. But those deserve an entire post of their own.

Planet Kaendor

I just discovered that I never actually finished writing this post that I had started five weeks ago. I guess better now than never.

So, Planet Kaendor. I used the name in several posts last two months ago as a tag for a new campaign I am planning, which is set in the same world as the Green Sun campaign I ran for the last half year, but with a very different approach. The world Kaendor is undergoing constant evolution, changing after every campaign to reflect what I learned from my experiences. Mostly this consists of throwing out stuff that I put into the world because I considered them regular staples of fantasy campaign settings, or I saw it somewhere and thought it is cool, but I realize as being either useless baggage or stuff that actually conflicts with the core ideas rather than add to them. The world started basically as “everything in fantasy that I like and could work in a Bronze Age setting”. But since then I moved on to the paradigm of “perfection isn’t when there is nothing left that can be added, but nothing left that can be taken away”. Better have a setting that does three closely related things very well than a dozen things that somewhat randomly sit side by side. Of course this frequently leaves gaps that need to be filled in, but that’s always also a potential to bring in great new elements.

Why Planet Kaendor?

While I always intended Kaendor to be purely a fantasy setting, many of the aesthetic influences I am aspiring to evoke come from the Planetary Romance genre and pulp stories that made little distinction between fantasy and science fiction. Going all the way back to A Princess of Mars and its world of Barsoom, and also including the Zothique stories, the movie Wizards, the visual style of Moebius, various adaptations of Dune from the 80s and 90s, and of course also The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. And I always loved reading about Planet Algol. The working title “Planet Kaendor” is meant to be a constant reminder for me for what the ultimate goal of the setting is.

Many worldbuilders really like to just head out into the unknown and see where the process leads them. But in my own experience, this approach of adding whatever feels cool and like a good fit in the moment always leads me down to follow the established generic paths of the Standard Fantasy Setting. And there are more than plenty of those already, and I am doing worldbuilding primarily because the kind of setting I really want to see doesn’t exist yet. So ending up with another version of Fantasyland would completely defeat the purpose.

The Basic Premise

Kaendor is a world inspired by the continent Pangea during the Permian period, before the age of the dinosaurs, the Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean Sea (Mycenaeans, Hittites, Egyptians), and the Hellenistic Period (Macedonians, Achaemenids, Mauryas, Scythians). But the focus is on “inspiration”, not “adaptation”. A fantasy version of the Persian Empire surely exist somewhere, but Planet Kaendor is nothing of that type. Instead they are references for what kinds of animals can be found in the world, what technologies are available and what forms of social organization exist, and what kinds of sounds are used in personal and place names of the different cultures.

Two fictional settings that were hugely influential for me in inspiring the tone and aesthetic I am aiming for are from the videogames Morrowind from 2002 and Albion from 1995. Morrowind is really the gold standard for me for how alien you can make a fantasy world. The one thing that I found most disappointing about it was that the Dunmer, Drakonians, and Kajiit are sharing their amazing world with Romans and Vikings who live in English villages and castles on the southern coast of the great island. Their presence always broke the spell of having a unique fantasy world that isn’t like the regular generic stuff. Not too much to say about Albion, other that it made a huge impression on me with its alien jungle world. And again, it’s actually a sci-fi story about human astronauts crashing on an alien planet, which turns out to feel a lot like a fantasy world.

“Humans” Only

In the early years when I came up with the idea for Kaendor, I had the goal to make it like a classic Sword & Sorcery world. In hindsight, I think this desire held me back by years, as many of the elements that are rightly considered “classic” are not actually things I much enjoy in games. In particular the personality and motivations of Sword & Sorcery protagonists are not exactly what I consider fun to play for prolonged time.

One of these aspects that many people adamantly insist on as being essential is that a Sword & Sorcery world must only have humans. Which I disagree on, and creating an archetypal Sword & Sorcery setting is no longer a priority for me. But after my recent experience with planning encounters for a D&D 5th edition campaign, I really see how it’s not just dwarves and halflings being tonally out of place, but also orcs, goblins, lizardmen, and githyanki becoming a real crutch to pad out content with meaningless fights. Following the D&D encounter model is also something that has stopped being relevant for the Planet Kaendor campaign, but it still had me thinking about the subject.

Now because I really like the idea of a fantasy world that also is an alien planet with its own unique life forms, there are no people on Kaendor who call themselves humans and who look like humans. But for all intends and purposes, the Kaendorians are identical to humans. In the same way that Red Martians, Arkanians, or Quarians are virtually indistinguishable from the humans of their settings, except for exotic looking colorations. I also like about this approach so that you can’t say that these guys are the Europeans of the setting, these guys are the Africans, and these guys the Asians, and so on. As with their cultures, it doesn’t make much sense that you have direct analogs to human phenotypes on a planet that is meant to have evolved completely independently from Earth.

But in the end, I decided that the Kaendorians are still just like humans in all the ways they count. I did at some point consider making them like alien species in a world with no humans, but in the end we are dealing with a medium that is entirely verbal, and where the characters are played by people who are stumbling around trying to improvise a person more or less on the spot, which does include the GM, and so they all will act like humans anyway.

Mystical Magic

To some degree it lies in the nature of roleplaying games as systems of rules and mechanics that the applications of magic become formalized and follow regular structures. As someone who really got into RPGs with D&D 3rd edition, which is quite possibly the most mechanical and structured game that ever reached the market, this has been something that’s really been bugging me for a very long time. Magic does not feel magical when it consists mostly of math and geometry. The magic that you encounter in stories (which are not based on RPGs) is much more elusive and uncertain. You rarely have spells where a beam of light shots from the finger of a wizard and a breastplate of glowing light appears on the person it hits. What you have is sorcerers mumbling strange chants and throwing powders into a fire, and there might be hints of images in the flames or the shadows surrounding the clearing, and the sorcerer says that the deed has been done and whatever had been your problem or your wish has been taken care of.

That’s magical.

Magic in Kaendor is not quick, easy, convenient, and reliable. There is no magic to fart lightning or make a lantern hovering over your shoulder and following you around. Magic in Kaendor is mostly invisible and concerns itself with knowledge, the manipulation of minds, and the control of spirits. There is limited transformation of living things, but a wizard won’t turn into a huge dragon in a puff of smoke or turn a pumpkin into a luxurious carriage.

This elusive uncertainty also extends to magical creatures. The world of Kaendor knows only one kind of supernatural creatures which are simply spirits. No complex system of opposing cosmic armies with detailed hierarchies modeled after human societies. While spirits in physical shape resemble people, animals, or even plants, in their minds they are truly alien beings with incomprehensible thoughts and unknowable reasons. They are not helpful guides or protectors to mortals or demonic slavers and conquerors, but wild forces of nature whose reasons and motives are their own, and who generally care very little for the affairs of mortals.

Ruins of the Past

Something that has always been central to the concept behind the world of Kaendor, but never really became important in any of my past campaign, is the dominant presence of ancient ruins. The final act of the Inixon campaign played out in the ruins of a naga city, but in the end it really was just a backdrop and not an actual story element in itself. Nothing was learned about the city and there wasn’t really anything to learn about it. This is perhaps the biggest element that really needs to get a very different treatment as I am going on with Planet Kaendor.

Kaendor is a world drifting in time, with no clear understanding by the people currently alive about its ancient history, and no real sense of a meaningful future that lies ahead. As the people of Kaendor are concerned, the world now is the same as it has always been, and as it always will be. Evidence for this is found everywhere with countless ruins covering the forests and islands, lining the coasts, and sitting atop mountainous peaks. In fact, almost all major cities and towns are build on the ruins of older forgotten civilizations, with even older passages and halls being found beneath them. Constant slow changes of the environment regularly force people to abandon their cities as rivers dry up and fields turn into swamps, and castles fall into the sea. But they also open up new places that become suitable for farming and habitation, and each time new settlers arrive in these places they find that they are not the first ones to make them their homes. It is impossible to say for how long this cycle has been going, and the inevitability of all mortal achievements falling into ruins and being forgotten is an accepted fact of life.

Yet even when the people abandon a place that is swallowed up by the forests or sinks beneath the waters, there are always many things that are left behind. Vaults that were sealed by lords fleeing disasters, but who never returned to claim their riches. Treasures hidden away whose secret locations died with their owners until they  are revealed again by crumbling walls and eroding hills. As well as ancient evils trapped where no one would disturb or free them. Sorcerers are notoriously secretive about their arcane knowledge and rarely share their discoveries with others. Countless magical secrets were discovered and their knowledge shared only among a handful of people to be lost to the world with their death, but still exist on ancient crumbling scrolls beneath overgrown ruins in the wilds, waiting to be found by whoever stumbles into these old places that have seen no mortal feet for centuries.

Planet Kaendor is being written specifically with searchers of ancient magic in mind. Outside and beneath the major cities, ruined tunnels, castles, temples, and towers make up the majority of important places.  The various factions playing major parts within the politics of the setting are all greatly invested in the rediscovery and control of lost magic. These take the center stage in the design of the world, with other elements like economics, religions, and the everyday politics of the various city states fading into the background. The politics that are important to the setting are the relationships between powerful sorcerers and high priests who have the wealth and armies of their cities at their disposal, but whose conflicts are centered around the control of magical power.

Beasts of Kaendor, Part 3

Saruma

Saruma

(quality 3, scale 3)

The saruma is one of the biggest and most feared predators hunting in the jungles of Kaendor. This giant lizard can grow to a height at the shoulders as tall man and can take down most animals smaller than a burak. Not being an efficient runner, a saruma usually attacks from ambush in an attempt to land a fatal bite wound and then follow the blood trail of wounded prey. While a saruma is not particularly fast, it will often follow prey for hours or even days.

Straig

Straig

(quality 5, scale 4)

A straig is a giant winged reptile found in the mountains of Kaendor. It mostly hunts large herbivores like drohas and krats and is the only predator large enough to bring down a burak. It has a very long serpentine body and its short snout is filled with poisonous teeth that paralyze creatures of any size within minutes. As they usually hunt large animals, the bite of a straig is almost always lethal to even the largest and healthiest people.

Sural

Sural

(quality 2, scale 2)

Surals are large aquatic animals similar to fish or eels that have some resemblance to snakes. Surals are found mostly in swamps and slow flowing rivers where they have few natural enemies other than mora. Surals mostly feed on small aquatic animals but will readily attack larger creatures that are going into the water and can easily kill hunters or fishermen. If a sural can’t kill large prey quickly with its bite, it will try to kill it by drowining.

Tareg

Tareg

(quality 2, scale 2)

Taregs are large arthropods that have some resemblance to a spider, crab, and preying mantis and often grow to sizes bigger than a large stag. Taregs are semi-aquatic creatures that are usually found on rocky stretches of coasts and reefs where they hunt for smaller animals, but readily attack anything that presents itself as potential food. While no more or less dangerous than other predators of its size on an open beach, they spend most of their time crawling on jagged rocks where other large creatures have a very hard time to run away or fight effectively.

Tasdar

Tasdar

(quality 2, scale 3)

Tasdar are large reptiles similar to a long-legged crocodile with some resemblance to tigers. They are found in many of the warmer forests and mountains and known as feared predators. While considerably smaller than the much larger sarumas, tasdards often hunt in small packs of four to six animals and pose a much greater threat to hunters or even bands of warriors than arags.

Taun

Taun

(quality 1, scale 1)

Tauns are small and stocky reptilian animals with beak-like snouts and strong claws that are found throughout all the forests of Kaendor where they feed on roots, mushrooms, and young plants. They are one of the main prey animals for arags and tasdars and one of the most widely kept farm animals after ogets. While their teeth can cause very severe injuries, tauns are usually very agreeable animals when they are kept well fed and content. They are kept primarily for their meat but taun hides also make a good leather that is considerably tougher than that of ogets.

Toba

Toba

(quality 2, scale 3)

The toba is a giant snake that is found almost everywhere in Kaendor except for the most northern lands. They come in a wide range of colorations that are usually green or brown, and as they age they can grow to enormous sizes. Unlike other large snakes, the bite of the toba is poisonous and it will attack even other large predators.

Uba

Uba

(quality 2, scale 3)

While ubas are not predators, they are very ill tempered and highly territorial, and even though they are smaller than krats, they are much more dangerous. Ubas are semi-aquatic animals and spend much of their lives in lakes and large rivers where they feed on aquatic plants. An uba resembles both a rhino and a hippo with two thich horns on its forehead that it uses both for stabbing and bludgeoning anything that provokes its anger.

Beasts of Kaendor, Part 2

Kina

Kina

(quality 1, scale 1)

Kinas are large flying reptiles similar in size to big eagles. They primarily feed on fish and are common sights along all the coasts, but also frequently found living near major rivers and great lakes. While they usually don’t hunt people, they can be quite aggressive fighting off intruders getting close to their nesting sites, which are often found on steep cliffs or atop rocky hills.

Kesk

Kesk

(quality 0, scale 0)

Kesks are large flying insects similar to bees that grow as big as a medium sized bird. Like bees or ants, kesks live in large swarms that build extensive hives, which are often found in caves that are surrounded by dense forests, but might also dig into the sides of earthy hills. Kesks store large amounts of honey in their hives that is a valuable resource for nearby villages. Kesk keepers use smoke from various plants to pacify the swarm to allow them to harvest the honey, but have to take extreme care to not get too close to any larvas, which will result in a violet attack. Kesk keepers also usually wear suits of heavy leather, as a sting from a kesk can be very painful, and multiple stings quickly lead to death. Kesks hives that are located in caves large enough to be passable by people often make up a large part of the economy of villages that control access to them.

Krat

Krat

(quality 3, scale 5)

The krat is a very large and heavy reptile found in some of the more open forests of the south. Their size is similar to an elephant but with shorter legs and a long tail, and they have to very large and thick horns on their heads like a bull. While krats are extremely strong, they are not very fast, slow to train, and require great care and attention from handlers, which makes them rare as pack animals, but highly valued by those able to keep and maintain them. Wild krats can be quite mean creatures and only a small number of them is suitable for training.

Liak

Liak

(quality 0, scale 0)

Liaks are small mammals resembling deer or antelopes. They are found in forests and mountains everywhere and commonly hunted for food, but rarely kept as lifestock, as they have a tendency to constantly escape from enclosures.

Mora

Mora

(quality 4, scale 4)

The mora is a huge otter-like creature that can be found in many of the world’s major rivers. It can grow as long as four or five men and preys on large fish, crocodiles, snakes, and almost anything else that comes close to the water to drink. Fortunately, moras are mostly solitary creatures with large territories, and they don’t usually attack larger boats, so they are not seen very often. But moras that start preying on people often become very serious problem and are very difficult and dangerous to hunt and slay.

Mutak

Mutak

(quality 1, size 1)

The mutak is a large insectoid predator with a body that can grow as long as a big man’s lower arm. While they mostly hunt animals smaller than themselves, their poisonous sting is quite deadly to creatures considerably larger and they can be a real threat to people. Mutaks are solitary creatures and not territorial, but it’s not unusual to see up to a dozen hunt in the same place.

Neska

Neska

(quality 2, size 2)

Neskas are large two-legged and feathered reptiles with beak-like maws that inhabit many of the forests and islands of Kaendor. A neska typically grows as tall as a large man, but large males can grow several heads taller than that. Neskas are predators who hunt various small forest animals, but when provoked they fight back viciously and their bite can easily kill a man.

Oget

Oget

(quality 1, size 1)

Ogets are common farm animals that are found in villages and town throughout all of Kaendor. They resemble wild goats or sheep, but many breeds grow as big as a donkey and can be trained as mounts, though they are more commonly used as pack animals. Most breeds are smaller and are kept for both milk as well as meat and leather. While they are found in many coastal settlements, ogets are particularly important in villages in the mountains, where they are often the main source of food for people, as they can graze on hardy grasses and shrubs where few crops can be grown.

Beasts of Kaendor, Part 1

One of the things that really impressed me about Dark Sun and Morrowind, and which are a great part of the inspiration they have on Planet Kaendor, are the very unique wildlifes that inhabit these settings. They are creatures that look very different from the animals that are common in Europe or even outright alien to anything that can be found on Earth. It’s one of the things that makes these settings feel like alien worlds instead of alternative versions of Earth, and something that’s found in others of my favorite settings like John Carter’s Barsoom, or the old videogame Albion.

The wildlife on Planet Kaendor is dominated by giant reptiles and many kinds of huge arthropods. Some well known ones like crocodiles and snakes don’t seem to stand out too much, I think, but most of them are loosely based on obscure extinct animals that your average four-year-old won’t be able to name in under a second. I want to avoid animals that feel immediately like being specific to Europe and North America, so there are no wolves, bears, or boars, and also no horses, cows, or ducks. I’m also avoiding spiders and scorpions, but I am making some concessions to deer and antelopes, as well as various kinds of weasels. (Because weasels are cool.)

I am writing under the assumptions that my next campaign will be using the Forged in the Dark rules from Blades in the Dark, which don’t really assign specific stats to NPCs and creatures. But in some cases it’s useful to have some number to judge the relative strength of beings the PCs are facing, to determine the specific effects and consequences of a confrontation with them. I use quality as primarily a measure  of skill in a fight, which can be relevant to judge the severity of injuries if PCs get hit by them. It’s also an important number for rolls when a PC tries to lead them into battle against an enemy. Scale is simply an estimate of a creatures total mass. It’s usually used to estimate the size of groups of people, but also seems useful for particularly big creatures. It can serve as a guideline for how much effect common attacks by PCs have on a creature. A relatively small insect could easily be killed with a single kick, while much more massive creatures would barely notice getting hit by arrows. Ratings go from from 0 to 6, but these are purely ordinal numbers. They indicate which creatures are more or less dangerous, or larger or smaller than others, without stating specifically how much.

Arag

Arag

(quality 1, scale 2)

This common predator is found throughout the known forests and mountains. It’s about the size of a very large dog, with a big head that resembles both a lion and a fish. The hide of an arag resembles a snake with a gray-brown coloration that sometimes has greenish streaks that help it blend in with the environment. Arags hunt in small packs that generally stay away from settlements, but can be very dangerous when they attack small groups of travelers in the wilderness.

Burak

Burak

(quality 3, size 6)

The burak is a giant behemoth that has some resemblance to a rhinoceros, a horse, and a giraffe that towers about anything else moving through the forests. Because of their massive size buraks have very few predators and generally ignore other creatures unless they are guarding a nest or recently hatched young.  While nesting, pairs of buraks while share the guarding of the nest while the other goes off to forage for food. Once the young are hatched, families rejoin small groups of up to a dozen adults. While some buraks have been captured alive and tamed to some degree, nobody has ever had any success with training one.

Droha

Droha

(quality 2, size 3)

Drohas are large four legged reptiles that somewhat resemble very big and heavily build camels. They are primarily found in the south, where they can often roam in large herds across the open swamps and heaths, but can also be found in smaller numbers all the way up to the shores of the Misty Sea. Drohas are relatively easy to capture and train, and are one of the most common pack animals both among the city states and wilder tribes. They are not particularly fast compared to other mounts, but can carry huge loads over long distances.

Gira

Gira

(quality 2, scale 4)

This huge animal resembles antelopes, giraffes, and horses and is the largest mammal to be found anywhere in the forests of Kaendor. While larger and stronger than drohas, giras are more difficult to train and not very popular as either mounts or pack animals.

Gren
Gren

(quality 1, size 1)

Gren are large, four legged arthropods that resemble crabs and spiders. They primarily live in large burrows under the forest floor, but sometimes also make their nests in caves higher up in the mountains. Grena can grow as high as a man’s waist and often hunt in groups to take on prey significantly larger than themselves. A gren’s bite can kill either by blood loss or poison.

Heor

Heor

(quality 1, size 2)

The heor is a powerfully build deer found throughout the northern forest and roaming the heaths of Venlat. Like all deer, a heor can be quite skittish, but it’s large enough to carry a rider even across difficult frozen ground. Domesticated heors are calmer than those found in the wild, and have been bred with shorter antlers to decrease the risk for riders, but they are still not easy animals to train and control. This makes them somewhat rare as mount, but they are highly prized for messengers and scouts.

Huliar

Huliar

(quality 3, size 2)

This large feathered reptile is found in many parts of the Mountains of the Moon and the Mountains of the Sun. The huliar is a dangerous predator that makes its home far from civilization, but its size and intelligence makes it an exceptionally valuable mount, as well as an exceedingly rare one. Huliar’s can have a wide range of coloration, which come in various patterns of orange, yellow, red, black, and gray feathers.

Kerik

Kerik

(quality 1, size 2)

Keriks are giant centipedes that grow up to three yards in length and are found throughout all forest, as well as many mountain ranges and islands. They are ambush predators that mostly feed on small animals, and their large size is mostly for defense. But they can be very aggressive when threatened by other creatures that are getting too close for them and have a very painful poisonous bite. Fortunately, keriks are not particularly fast runners and rarely pursue fleeing enemies for more than a few paces.

Back to whence you came

I was browsing through some of the oldest post I’ve written way back when I started this site, and discovered that I first wrote about pre-medieval wilderness worldbuilding almost exactly seven years ago. (I’m also well over 500 posts currently. Yay, me!) I often feel frustrated that despite my years of work, I seem to be making barely any progress. The amount of material I have doesn’t really appear to grow and it often feels like I am only moving pieces around a bit instead of actually creating anything new.

Reading again through What are the Ancient Lands? and Laying the Foundations for the Ancient Lands turned out to be quite interesting reads, though.

Of course, my motivations and inspirations to work on a setting of this style have not really changed since then. A dissatisfaction and boredom with Fantasyland, and a great appreciation for Conan and The Witcher. And some of my favorite elements of Planet Kaendor can be found all the way back in those early posts about the Ancient Lands. Even back then, I was already writing about populating the world with giant reptiles and insects and forests of giant mushrooms. I wrote about wanting a lower amount of magic and a stronger presence of spirits. But quickly I started to run into surprises.

Looking at them side by side, Planet Kaendor really isn’t Ancient Lands v4.0. A blend of cultural elements from Northern Europe and East Asia? When did I ever had that idea? Well, in 2013, according to the date. I do remember having had such an idea, but I had totally forgotten about it for years. Planet Kaendor is very much inspired by the Mycenaeans, Hittites, Egyptian New Kingdom, Achaeminids, and Mauryans. Those aren’t even remotely similar.

The Ancient Lands were meant to be a setting about the age of the great empires of elves and dwarves who shared the wild world with tribes of human barbarians. A contrast of city states and barbarians still exists in Planet Kaendor, but there aren’t any empires. Or even elves and humans.

The Ancient Lands also had major populations of gnomes and beastmen. And a great underground city that was ruled by demons bound into giant crystals, south of which live dark elves and lizardmen. None of these have anything comparable in Planet Kaendor.

The new setting is certainly drawing from the same well of ideas. Or perhaps better, it is being build from the same big box of Lego pieces that I used seven years ago. There are a few elements that I spotted that have endured through my various setting to this day with seemingly very little change. The Sorcerer Lords of Ven Marhend, who rule an an oligarchy over a great port city build into the side of a huge cliff are still there. As is the fey witch Queen Meiv of Halva, a city build of white stone at the feet of a great northern mountain range. But at the same time, there seem to be more things that are completely different.

The truth remains that I don’t really have more material now than I had five or six years ago. But it doesn’t mean that I didn’t make any progress in all that time. For every step forward, I seem to have made a step back. But I now realize that at the same time I have made a huge number of steps sideways, finding myself in a very different place from where I started.

Describing Consequences and Resistance Rolls

One thing that I always felt somewhat ambivalent about with PtbA games is how much they stress that the GM isn’t preparing the story for adventures and campaigns, but that everything is collaboratively decided by all the players. Apocalypse World  takes it to the extend that the setting is not defined at the start of the game but procedurally generated as the players get to come up with theit own answers about the world that they ask the GM.

Now I absoutely understand where this approach comes from and the motivation behind it. It is all too easy as a GM to get fixed on a specific idea how things should play out in the campaign, how everything looks and works in the setting, and how characters in the setting talk and behave. Players can’t read the minds of their GMs to understand the setting in the same way they envision it (unless the camapign is set in Fantasyland), and so their characters will never act quite like their culture is supposed to be, and they create backstories for their characters and declare that the do things which include technologies, institutions, and customs that don’t match the GM’s vision. Not getting too attached to the specific details of your setting and adjusting your plans to what the players do is good practice for all GMs. Creating the entire setting collaboratively during play certainly is one way to deal with this, but I consider it overkill. I think even when running a PtbA game, you don’t strictly have to do everything collaboratively and can have a perfectly good game by simply being accomodating  and working with the players’ initiatives instead of shutting them down.

It’s not how these games are supposed to be run, but it’s something where I am putting my foot down and assert that I know better than the writers. Giving the players considerable agency over their characters is important, but letting the players not only see how the sausage is being made, but participate in its production, is detrimental to the experience of discovery and mystery. In the case of Blades in the Dark, I am really not sure when the author intends for a question about a ruling to be considered internally by the GM, or openly discussed among all the players. But many sections make it appear like you’re supposed to discuss with the players the entire consequences that will happen if an action roll comes out as a failure or partial success. That’s collaborative storytelling to me, but seems antithetical to roleplaying. As a player in a roleplaying game, I want to experience the world and events from the perspective of my character, not as a member of the writing team.

I am fully on board with discussing with the players how they imagine things to play out of they succeed on the roll for their action. That’s perhaps my number one favorite piece of advice I like to give new GMs asking for help: “Always make sure you understand what a player is trying to accomplish.” The mental picture of a situation in a player’s head is always somewhat different from the picture in the GM’s head. Almost every stupid, random, and suicidal action that a player announces makes complete sense in the situation that the player envisons. When a player randomly start to fight a gazebo to the death, it’s almost always because the GM did not successfully communicate the situation for the current scene. As GM it’s your job to first solve this confusion before having the players make hopeless rolls that make them upset about being randomly punished by the consequences. That part of the BitD action resolution system I get fully behind.

But the way the game explains the handling of negative consequences seems actually utterly bizarre to me. To quote the game itself:

The purpose of threatening harm is not always to inflict it, it’s to describe it. The threats become manifest in the minds of everyone playing, even if they’re avoided.

The bad outcomes are spoken aloud. They hang there in the room as horrible potential. They’re scary. Then the player gets to roll their resistance, look you in the eye and say, “No. It’s not that bad. I take the stress instead.” It’s empowering.

If you do it like this, then you are already describing the entire scene and stating it as fact. And then you ask the players if they want to use their option to rewind the scene, make a Resistance Roll, and have the scene play out less severely in exchange for taking stress.

That just feels completely wrong. Again, this is collaborative storytelling. This is not putting yourself in the role of a character who is actually experiencing these events. This approach creates distance between players and characters, the opposite of what we want in a roleplaying game.

And it’s completely unnecessary to implement the existing mechanic in actual play. Instead, you can simply phrase it like this:

You slip off the roof and fall down to the street below, crashing onto the stones which causes a terrible pain going through your leg. Is it broken?

Now the player can decide to say “Yes, it’s broken” and take a level 2 injury “broken leg”. Or declare “I roll on my side and check my leg, and realize that fortunately it’s only a twisted ankle” and make a resistance roll to see how much stress he takes and a level 1 injury “twisted ankle”.

Or take this:

He deflects your blade with his shield and you see his sword hitting you right in the hip. Did the blade impale you?

Again, the player can say “Crap, that got me, I am done for” and take a level 3 injury “impaled”. Or he can say “There is a lot of blood and terrible pain, but my armor just deflected it enough to save my life” and take a level 2 injury “slashed side”. (No stress because armor allows you to resist one hit for free.)

You can do this with any consequence that a player can chose to resist. Describe the consequence to just before the “point of impact” and ask the player if it’s really as bad as it looks. You still describe it, you still speak it out loud. You still get the effect of all the players knowing “this is what would have happened if he had not resisted”. But by phrasing it as a question first you don’t need to retcon something that was already described as having happened. Yes, you could have described in gruesome detail how a PC has his head sliced off and fountains of blood cover all the other PCs nearby before asking the player if he wants to resist. But you don’t need that to make the players feel the gravity of what was just avoided. Movie directors and comic artists figured out a century ago that you don’t need to show all the gory details. It is often much more effective to merely imply it and let the audience fill in the blanks. Telling the players “you swing wide and suddenly see the heavy axe blade falling right on your neck” is completely sufficient.

Instead of calling Cut! and winding back the action, you have the player right at that moment where you felt the impact but are not yet sure how bad it is. It’s the moment between your hand getting caught and feeling terrible pain,  but not yet having it pulled back to see the state and remaining number of your fingers. These are the moments where the adrenaline kicks you righr in the chest. It’s the exact moment in a story when the tension is highest. Why would you cheapen this with a tension deflating retcon?

I think it might actually be more memorable to let the players hanging with “what could have been”. It’s up to their own fears and anxieties to fill in that gap with an undefined feeling of dread, which is much more unsettling than telling the players the details of what did not happen.

When it comes to players having the option to use a mechanic to alter the outcome of an event on their characters, simply phrase it as a question. No need to make it a statement and then having to undo it.