Friday, January 31, 2020

Dystopian Fiction Review - "Travels in Nihilon" by Alan Sillitoe

Last year, Bombasticus from Future Sound of Lisbon lobbied me to start writing comic book reviews. He's going to have to keep waiting for those, but I thought I might like to occasionally write about some of the books I read. The first series of these will be dystopian novels, starting with Travels in Nihilon by Alan Sillitoe, best known to Belle & Sebastian fans as the author of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and best known to everyone else as, {checks notes} um, {cricket noises}, well.

Travels in Nihilon was published in 1971, and the text represents itself as a non-fictional travel guide, assembled from the notes and reports of five correspondents by an unnamed editor. The editor gives us a taste of things to come in the introduction, when after extolling the excitement of freedom-loving, capitalist, nihilist Nihilon, he mentions that "it will be necessary to adjust the prose here and there, since the styles of the reports too often betray touches of panic and hysteria, a tone that may not commend itself to the general reader."

Structurally, each chapter follows one journalist with close third-person narration, and the viewpoint passes between them, although not in a strict order. The chapters are quite short, so we keep moving between the viewpoints. I would describe this book as a comedy, although it's not overtly funny. It is absurd. The events described are so extreme as to be surreal; the way the native Nihilonians instantly recruit the journalists into their various schemes gives each journey a dreamlike quality. Aside from the fact that the country itself is as dysfunctional as Freedonia in Duck Soup, the humor comes from the dry delivery of events that would indeed be "panic and hysteria" inducing to experience firsthand.

The journalists are right to feel overwhelmed, because they're each in over their heads from the moment they cross the border. The Nihilonian police insist each of them is carrying a fake passport. The journalists come with 2000 klipps each, and while I suppose 2000 dollars was quite a bit of money at the time, the prices they're charged suggest that a klipp has the spending power of more like a dime or a penny. It's also a problem that everyone wanting a bribe, and the name of the currency keeps changing, from "klipps" to "klopps" to "kricks" etc, which is either because there are multiple currencies in circulation, or simply because everyone is a liar and a thief. Nihilonians are also all drunk at all time on Nihilitz, which is about the only beverage it's possible to purchase, and sounds to be either a schnapps or a full-on hard spirit. They also all carry guns. Oh, and there's a war on, a revolution against the government and counter-revolution against the populace that starts up the moment the journalists arrive, and each of them gets swept up into it in their own way.

You'd be panicked and hysterical too, and perhaps ready for a stiff drink of Nihilitz, if you'd just survived a direct assassination attempt, indirect exposure to a bombing, you'd just spent all the money that was supposed to last you the whole two weeks of your visit, and you checked your watch and realized you'd only been there an hour. It's laughable how unprepared and out of their depths they all are, leaving for what they assumed was a cushy gig reporting on a free summer vacation, and finding themselves in a war-zone and conscripted into the action.

The journalists arrive by bike, car, boat, train, and airplane. They have somewhat distinctive personalities, with Adam being especially naive and Benjamin particularly grizzled. I kind of liked Edgar, who is relatively passive and ineffectual and ends up tagging along with a strong and stout-hearted Nihilonian lady who's instantly smitten with the poor dope. I also felt kind of badly for Jacqueline, because for her the danger is sexual peril and not just the usual mobs and explosions; she toughens up the most, the quickest. Adam, Benjamin, and Richard all end up heavily inveigled in the conflict, and they all prove relatively willing to let themselves be pulled into the heart of combat. (That aspect of the story is also a bit like Duck Soup, now that I think about it.) Ultimately, the story being told is about the revolution much more than it is about the journalist's individual trips, and so the book doesn't just end with them leaving the country at the end of their assignment, it also ends with the resolution of the war.

I feel comfortable calling Travels in Nihilon a dystopian novel, but it's almost difficult to describe what's dystopian about the country of Nihilon. It's not necessarily reducible to any simple, single thing. The government is a dictatorship masquerading as an illiberal democracy, but its control is not totalitarian. There are a lot of bad laws, truly insane laws with draconian prison sentences, like ten years for driving while not intoxicated on Nihilitz. But the biggest problem with Nihilon is its nihilism which seems to mean something like a combination of laws that enforce chaos, rapacious capitalism run truly amok, and citizens who are generally apathetic or complicit in one or both the other issues.

There's a town by a lake, for example, whose dam is failing, so that at any moment the town might be swept away by floodwaters and all the townspeople might be drowned. It's one of the nicest places in Nihilon, because the prices are so low, and because the mortal terror of being seconds from death every second of every day is considered relaxing by the Nihilonians who live there. That feels like a metaphor for something, but I'm not sure Sillitoe could have possibly been thinking about climate change when he wrote it. Maybe he was thinking of nuclear annihilation. Likewise, Nihilon itself seems vaguely Eastern European, and the fact that it's a failed state that's run badly by an incompetent strongarm thug while businesses at every possible level kleptocratically snatch up anything that's not nailed down feels like a prescient warning about the fate of former Soviet republics after the fall of the USSR, and the consequences of imposing of Reagan-Thatcher era free markets and austerity ... but could Sillitoe really have anticipated events happening 20 years after his book was published?

First, let's look at a couple examples of Nihilon's laws. These are both from chapter 25:

"I'm just out of prison. I was awarded twenty-five years because I exposed the manager of the factory I worked at for swindling. The factory was going bankrupt, so I made a formal complaint. I had irrefutable proof that he was ruining the firm, but when I presented it I was arrested, and given twenty-five years as a misguided idealist. Strangely enough, even though the manager kept on with his dishonesty, the firm did not go bankrupt. It even prospered after I was sent to prison, so I hear. People won't rebel against this government, because they see that God is on the side of the Nihilists."

"It's always been hard to get people to work in Nihilon. Naturally, nihilism and work are not compatible, but President Nil, damn him, came up with the following solution. A man was granted permission to kill somebody if he paid a hundred thousand klipps into the private account of President Nil at the State Bank. On receipt of this payment, the man was given a revolver and a Killing Certificate, with the name of the person inscribed on it whom he wished to put an end to. So everyone has an incentive to work, and save, because there is no one, in this country at any rate, who doesn't have someone he wants to kill. Many people fervently saved in order to get their hundred thousand, and therefor a Killing Certificate. There was no need to produce houses or cars for them to spend their money on. True, a lot of people die, and sometimes whole families are wiped out, but people are cheap."

Tldr; in Nihilon, murder is allowed as long as you bribe the president first, but blowing the whistle on corruption is illegal.

Next, I want to look at Nihilonian capitalism. One notable thing is the absence of any kind of insurance or safety equipment anywhere in the country. Even car repair kits are illegal for motorists to carry. It's an exaggeration of the idea that we can save money by not paying for preventative medicine, even though we'll pay a thousand times more later, after an un-prevented illness has become serious enough to warrant an emergency room visit. It's less like we're saving money, in fact, and more like we're paying extra to ensure that poor people suffer. Here's the safety announcement from Nihilon's airline in chapter 10:

"In case of emergency, passengers are kindly requested to carry on talking, reading, eating or sleeping, because though your lives are in our hands, and we will do our best to preserve them, there will be nothing anybody can do about it. Like all other airlines of the world we carry highly inflammable petrol, fly at a great height, and do not provide parachutes, so in the event of an emergency it is highly unlikely that either passengers or crew would survive."

There's also a kind of parody of the way we allow businesses to nickel and dime us with fees that are over-and-above the purchase price, that appear on our bills only after we agree to buy, and that are unavoidable, even if they're for "services" we didn't really use and don't really want. From chapter 20:

"The ticket collector apologised, and said that there had been a mistake. Instead of having the compartment to herself, she was to share it with another woman. He then demanded a supplement of fifty kricks because, he explained kindly, she would have company all the way to Nihilon City instead of travelling alone as hertofore, and all such extra comforts were provided at nominal cost. She gave fifty kricks to the ticket collector, who departed grumbling and swearing because she hadn't given him anything extra."

Sillitoe also seems prescient in anticipating the push for tiered services. After all, how can you really know that you're being treated well unless you can see someone else being treated badly? What does it even mean to be rich if poor people are still treated with dignity and respect? What good is all your money if it doesn't buy you the opportunity to watch someone starving to death with rickets in a sewage-filled gutter for your amusement? In Nihilon's airlines, second-class is what we'd consider "normal" service. On a first-class plane, there are no seats, you spend the whole flight ballroom dancing in formal-wear while being served gourmet food and champagne by naked flight attendants. And third-class? From chapter 10:

"Third-class tourist-economy night-flight in ten miserable hours? Yes, people are towed in huge gliders by obsolescent bombers, or so I hear. They sit on the floor with luggage at their feet and packets of sandwiches in their hands. A continuous tape of crying babies is played from stereo-speakers to make them feel more uncomfortable, and smells of fatty stew emerge from the end of a pipe near the tail of the plane as it goes through air pockets above mountain tops. Not very nice, I must say. During the flight passports are collected, and hardly distinguishable false ones are handed back before landing on an improvised field in some remote area fifty kilometers from the main airport, so that people have to make their ways to Nihilon City by a very irregular bus service on bumpy tracks, or walk through unmapped forest, if and when they get by the police and customs tent at the side of the field. Even disorganisation is well organised in Nihilon. The aim of our government is absolute chaos meticulously regulated."

Surely arranging this level of misery is more expensive for the airline than equality would be, but people are willing to pay extra to get the things they really want.

Finally, let's look at Nihilon's government. Unsurprisingly, there's propaganda instead of news and state-run media controls the airwaves, as seen here in chapter 18:

"Visitor to Nihilon! In order to find out about our country, you may wish to tune-in to the seven o'clock lies on Radio Nihilon. This is the most important information bulletin of the day. Regarding its curious opening of 'Here are the lies', tourists are earnestly requested not to be duped by it. They may be reminded, in fact, that the inhabitants of Nihilon take it very seriously. This National Bulletin owes its inverted title to the genius of President Nil, when he realised that the people of Nihilon were no longer interested in the News. He therefore proclaimed that henceforth all news would be lies. Thus, when people flocked to hear these lies they soon realised that they were, in fact, serious truth. But whereas before they had contemptuously referred to the News as lies, they could no longer do so, because Lies became its official name."

Also unsurprisingly, Nihilon gives the appearance of being a democracy, holds sham elections with fixed results, and insists that its dictator is really a president, as explained in chapter 22:

"Elections? Not any more, my friend. There were, at first, very early on, but the people were in such a euphoric mood of don't-care and don't-know, that vast deputations went to the government building and said: 'We don't want any more voting. We're happy. So after all, what does it matter?' And the government said: 'It does matter. It's democracy. It's your right to vote. It's your duty. So if you won't vote, we'll vote for you.' And that's how it's been ever since. At every general election the people get into great moods of excitement, wondering which way the voting will go, staying up all night to hear the results. And then at six in the morning, the government breaks the tension by announcing that it has got in once more, after which it declares a public holiday, so that the grateful people, secure in their very own and latest victory, can either go to sleep or continue their celebrations."

Maybe the most frightening, most dystopian thing about Travels in Nihilon, though, is the evidence throughout that the nihilists really have won in a very profound way. The ordinary people of Nihilon are by-and-large happy with their fate. Most of the people we meet don't just accept the arbitrariness of their laws, the thievery of their economy, and the brutality of their government - they like it, they prefer it to the alternatives, and they fight to defend it. Among those who dislike nihilism, a feeling of helplessness prevails before the revolution, expressed here in chapter 24:

"For years I've been disillusioned with nihilism, at having to get up every morning and invent more novelties of disorder for the pampered populace when President Nil forgets to send his own suggestions through. I've known for a long time that it was retrograde and immoral to live under such a system. My wife has often seen me breaking my heart at the waste and burden of it all. I've been secretly praying for a safe and orderly existence, but I was so influenced by President Nil and his philosophy, which said that life should be a great lawless adventure, that I never knew how to try and change it."

In the end, the revolution appears to be successful, but we're left with real doubts about whether and how the new government will be different, and about what it will mean to live in a country that is still filled with nihilists. From chapter 29:

"I like things to stay as they are, all mixed up and dangerous. That's normal now, isn't it? I'll always vote for normal, no matter what it is."

Monday, January 27, 2020

Appendix N - Unreal Literature

I've noticed a trend recently in literary fiction. I'm not sure that it can be used for gaming, but I don't want to let it pass unremarked. It's easy to suspect that the authors creating this trend are responding to a particular element of the zeitgeist, the vertiginous dizziness of unreality, the loss of balance as the ground falls away beneath one's feet.
image by Jing Wei
It is the feeling of watching the unthinkable become fait accompli, of hearing voices deny the obvious truth before one's own eyes. It's the feeling of watching one's neighbors accept the previously unprecedented as the new normal, and realizing that one has come to expect it oneself. It is waking up to discover that while you were sleeping, ten impossible things happened before breakfast, and the unconscionable has become the routine. It is the abolition of time, as every yesterday becomes a lifetime ago, as every today you cross another red line, as every time you look behind you, you see the past has calved off and fallen away, so that what was within yesterday' arm's length has today become unreachable. It is the feeling of watching the world come unbalanced, so that with every revolution, it tips a little further off-center, wobbles a little further off its base, spins a little closer to total catastrophe and collapse.

It is the feeling of learning each day of new disasters, disrupting and destroying lives - fires, floods, shootings, assassinations, invasions, massacres, family separations, downed airplanes, territorial incursions, children in cages - of knowing that these disasters are caused by people, that people could prevent them, but that instead they are being allowed to continue, that aid is being withheld, that these disasters will continue indefinitely because people have chosen to cause them to do so. It is the feeling of watching the future one once thought inevitable come unraveled, of watching the threads tangle and fray, leaving only a horrible suppurating void in their place.

It's the feeling Hannah Arendt described when she said "The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist," when she wrote "In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. The audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. One could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness."

This is the zeitgeist I think lit-fic and lifi authors are responding to. And their response has been to imagine scenarios where facts are not facts, truth is not truth, the past is rewritten to serve the needs of the present, and leaders who hold worldly power also hold a certain dominion of the fabric of reality itself.
The Book of M by Peng Shepherd, published June 2018
In Peng Shepherd's The Book of M, there's a plague sweeping the world. The plague's victims first lose their shadows, then start losing their memories. In addition to amnesia about their own lives and pasts, they start mis-remembering the world, and the world itself starts changing to match their mistakes. Someone forgot what deer look like, for example and now deer have bird-wings growing from their heads instead of antlers.

For the infected, reality is as maleable as in Nick Harkaway's The Gone Away World, but for people who still have their memories and their shadows, the world becomes a terrifying place that responds to everyone else's desires but not their own, a world both unchangeable and constantly changing. Because they remember the truth, they struggle to adapt to a world made of lies. (I'm indebted to Electric Lit's review for bringing this one to my attention by pointing out information that wasn't in the publisher's description.)
The Heavens by Sandra Newman, published February 2019
In Sandra Newman's The Heavens, only one woman has the power to change reality, or to notice the changes. Every night while she's asleep in the present, she lives a second life 400 years earlier. When her actions in the past change history, she awakes to a present that's different than the one she remembers. Her boyfriend thinks she's crazy. At the start of the book, the world of the year 2000 is almost utopian. Every change she makes in 1600 makes the present world worse, though, so that it becomes more and more like our own almost dystopian reality. Like Star Trek's Mirror Universe, the "darkest timeline" is our own timeline; the only way we can imagine a better future is by imagining the present is already better than the one we currently inhabit.
Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess, published March 2019
In K Chess's Famous Men who Never Lived, thousands of refugees have fled a parallel dimension where the world ended in nuclear apocalypse. The refugees try to understand a world much like ours, with its alternate history, and its citizens and nations so unwelcoming to outsiders. One refugee tries to create a museum to preserve the memory of the other world, including a science fiction novel that was famous over there but was never written here, The Pyronauts.
All My Colors by David Quantick, published April 2019
David Quantick's All My Colors is also about an unwritten book, also called All My Colors. An aspiring but talentless writer has perfectly memorized poems and novels by other authors. One book exists only in his memory but nowhere in the world. So he decides to transcribe it and sell it as his own creation. But doing so seems to unleash a kind of un-reality, and as the book he plagiarized becomes more popular, he experiences increasingly unsettling incidents.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, published July 2019
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone have written This is How You Lose the Time War as an epistolary novel, an exchange of letters between two time-travelers from two different alternate futures. Each has arrived in their past, each is trying to ensure that their own future will come into existence, and not the other's. Like The Book of M, this too is a story about two people with fundamental, existential disagreements nonetheless learning to live alongside one another, without either giving up their truth or their morality, but also without either one ending up dead.

Another quote about M from Electric Lit: "We recognize 'the habit of testing everything by reason' is at best an incomplete goal - sometimes impossible. Bloody wars and public discriminations were carried out over the doctrine of transubstantiation; Catholics and Protestants didn't 'test it by reason' until one side convinced the other, we just learned it wasn't a question to kill each other over." 

That metaphor feels imperfect, because the questions at the heart of today's epistemic and are about our ability to live meaningful lives in democratic societies, or whether we will be immiserated and slain by poverty, autocracy, and carbon pollution. The war at the heart of Time War is truly a matter of life and death. If one side wins, the other will cease to exist. Their solution is compromise, mutual surrender. They have the advantage of symmetry and reciprocity, however. In the real world, we suffer from a lopsided polarization, where one side requests equality, and the other demands fealty.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogaway, published August 2019
Yoko Ogaway's The Memory Police is like a more realistic version of The Book of M. The stage is one small island, not the entire world. Objects do not undergo surrealist transformations, they simply disappear. And the disappearances aren't caused by memory loss - rather memory loss is caused by the disappearances, as the majority of the population forgets that such things as hats, or ribbons, or roses, or birds ever existed in the first place.

The terror in Memory Police is more realistic too, it isn't the fear of hallucinogenic transfigurations, it is fear of the police, a terror that is all too real. Anyone who remembers an object that no longer exists, no longer ever existed, is subject to the brutality of the titular Memory Police, who will make them forget, or punish them for remembering. (I should note, Memory Police was published in Japan in 1994, but its reissue in America now is in perfect synchronicity with a developing theme.)
The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz, published September 2019
Annalee Newitz's The Future of Another Timeline is also about a time war, but one where feminists fight misogynists, and both factions have access to time machines. The feminists mostly come from the same timelines as the misogynists; they're trying to create a better future than the one they escaped from. The misogynists occasionally tamper with history, but their leaders come from a future of maximal male supremacy. Their goal isn't to make changes, but to destroy the remaining time machines and prevent changes from being made.

Newitz imagines a world where change is possible, but violence is unavoidable, a tool that can be used to accomplish many different goals. The morality of using violence, in the world she's created, is determined moreso by the morality of the goal it's in service of than by considerations such as severity and proportionality. Whether this holds true in our world as it does in the world Newitz has written is a question left to the reader.
The Memory Thief by Lauren Mansy, published October 2019
In Lauren Mansy's The Memory Thief, memory is again terrifyingly impermanent. Here memory does not simply vanish, here it is stolen. An elite minority are gifted with the ability to steal memories from others' minds, to keep them or sell them on to others. Here debtors have their minds stolen completely away as collateral, have their entire life's memories auctioned off in parcels to pay their creditors.

In Mansy's world, worldly power in government and business is built on the elite status that comes from the ability to steal memories from others. The thief from the title is not much of an elite though. She would prefer not to use her gift because she considers it immoral, and she is essentially blackmailed into using it to pay off her mother's debts to save her mother's life.
They Will Drown in Their Mothers' Tears by Johannes Anyuru, published November 2019
In Johannes Anyuru's They Will Drown in Their Mother's Tears, a time traveler arrives from a possible future, a time when Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Sweden are confined to ghettos. She arrives in the present to prevent an Islamist terrorist attack against a blasphemous artist, and fails. She is imprisoned and spends the next several years as the conditions leading to the future she tried to prevent begin to be assembled into place.
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So how do we game with this?

In the CRAWL-thulhu game, when the players investigate Cthulhoid mysteries, the result of their investigations will help determine the fate of the world.

The player characters will be called in to investigate the cause of some sort of supernatural phenomenon. The cause will invariably turn out to be a Mythos entity making trouble. The characters can succeed or fail at their investigation. They succeed by figuring out what's going on and getting it to stop. They fail by not understanding the cause of the phenomena, or by allowing the entity to continue causing problems. In my ideal game, after the initial investigation, the players would follow up by taking the fight directly to the Cthulhoid entity in some way, putting the hurt on the Mythos monster to keep it from coming back to bother humanity again.

When the player characters fail at their investigation, things get worse. Natural disasters happen. Democratically-elected governments start getting replaced with dystopian regimes. The English government gets replaced by Big Brother, Russia becomes the One State from We, Canada turns into a brave new world. A successful investigation holds back the tide. Maybe bad things still happen, but not as bad. The consequences are less severe, or the progress of a given disaster are halted mid-way. Taking the fight directly to the Mythos can help claw back some or all of the bad changes. If the player characters fail badly or a lot, the world is going quickly to hell.

Where these recent books come in is by suggesting to me that I should employ a bit of dream logic in the unfolding of events. Disasters of this magnitude already feel unreal, so to game with them, it seems like the thing to do is to lean into that sensation and amplify it.

First of all, the cause-and-effect relationship between the monsters and the disasters should be intentionally ambiguous. It might be clear that failing to stop the monsters in some way contributed to the disasters. But were the monsters themselves directly responsible for the bad things that happened? Did their presence in the world simply make it easier for bad things to happen? Are the themselves monsters like the escaping inhabitants of Pandora's Box, something that only exists because of the evil that lurks in the hearts of humans?

There won't be a simple one-to-one correspondence between the events of the investigation and the state of the world. An investigation that goes badly carries a higher risk - you might get more or worse disasters. But things can still go wrong in the world even if the investigation goes relatively well. Probably just not as wrong. But ideally the players should be left wondering if there was more they could have done, or if that spell they cast or magic item they activated contributed to the deteriorating state of affairs, or if some of the things happening are just bad luck that no one is responsible for. Making that link too obvious and too direct would reduce the beyond-your-control feeling that disasters can evoke.

Secondly, the events should happen in multiples and in rapid succession. This shouldn't be a game where a single campaign event occurs between sessions. This should look like the "outbreak phase" of the Pandemic board game. It's not just that bad things happen. It's that lots and lots of bad things happen and keep happening. This is a flood that can't be combated or contained by trying to go after single events. They must be stopped at their supernatural source.It should feel like the world's a boat that's taking on water and sinking faster than you can bail it out.

Third, these books make me think that it's important to play with time. When a problem happens, maybe it doesn't just happen now, maybe what happens now reverberates backward through time so that instead of needing time to come to maturity, the problem arrives fully grown and fully fledged. If you defeat a monster and manage to undo some chaos, maybe it's not just fixed, maybe it never happened. It should all feel dreamlike and unreal, or what Daniel Sell calls "bumble logic". This has the advantage of letting complex geopolitical events occur and take effect on a timescale that corresponds to the rate of campaign advancement. It also creates some ambiguity around the question of which problems are fixable, and while must be endured.
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Across the titles I mentioned above, we see themes of reality itself being over-written and OVER-over-written. We see competition to write the final version. We see memories of previous realities become fragile, or malleable, or a vulnerability or liability to their owners. We see artifacts from other worlds, especially books, manifesting in our own. We see premonitions of worse futures arriving like bad dreams, and foreknowledge as little protection against the coming dark.

And if you're like me, you see the "new fiction" section of your local bookstore looking like a new genre in speculative fiction has been curated by the coincidence of so many authors writing such similar books so close together in time. These texts are coming out much too close together for the authors to be responding to one another, but as I said before, I think they're all responding to the same real-world events, and I think they're all drawing on, adding to, and responding to earlier trends in scifi and lifi.

Time Wars: Two of the recent books are overtly about time wars. Time war fiction is a physicalization of the metaphor of the winners rewriting history. I would argue that the first time war novel is George Orwell's 1984. Here the war is over, at least internally - there is no longer any serious opposition within Oceana. And here the metaphor is still basically metaphorical. But we do see the victors multiply re-writing their own history, altering historical documents with scissors and glue and typewriters, cutting out articles from old newspapers, removing the names of un-persons, inserting text to assert their preferred version of the past within the archival records.

Next comes Isaac Asimov with The End of Eternity, which provides the blueprint for all the time wars that follow. Asimov imagines his time bureau working primarily to secure its own existence by safeguarding the history that leads to its founding, primarily against saboteurs rather than an organized rival faction. All future time bureaus look more or less like Asimov's. Fritz Lieber's The Big Time has a full on "change war" between two factions trying to erase each other called the Spiders and the Snakes, which has always made me wonder if he was mashing up Asimov with West Side Story, which was making it big on Broadway around the time he must have been writing. John Crowley's Great Work of Time has a single time bureau again, although their efforts to secure their own existence are made both more morally dubious by tying them directly to British colonial imperialism, and more difficult by the problem that changes to history also ripple backward in time, so that trips extending only hundreds of years into the past end up altering human evolution millions of years earlier. Charles Stross's time bureau from Palimpsest wants to ensure the maximum longevity of the human species, but splinters into factions over questions of what it means to be human, and whether humans must be maintained on Earth or allowed to travel to other stars.

The Adjustment Bureau keeps all of Asimov's trappings, but turns the time agents into angels, and transforms their "plan" into something completely unknowable. More recently, Primer dispenses with the well-funded bureaucracies and pits two men with homemade time machines directly against each other in an attempt to rewrite the final version of events since the moment the first machine was switched on - which is the earliest either of them can travel. William Gibson's The Peripheral imagines that when people travel to the past they inevitably arrive in an alternate past that won't lead to their present, then makes time travel the province of bored rich people, who treat these alternate realities they've created as little more than video games, and the living humans within them as nothing but pawns. Tom Sweterlitsch's The Gone World inverts Gibson's premise, locating his virtual alternate realities in the future rather than the past, and having them collapse automatically when the time traveler leaves. (Gone World was also so disappointing that I feel tempted to write a review just so I can catalog its most glaring flaws. The theory of "how time travel works" in Avengers Endgame is precisely the same as in The Peripheral, although Gibson explains it much better, and no one in his world attempts to re-merge the "stub" realities back into the main timeline.)

Alternate Lives: These stories are also a way of literalizing a metaphor. All of us sometimes think back on decisions we made and wonder what would've happened if we'd chosen differently. All of sometimes imagine what it would be like to have a different life. And occasionally it feels like you made a mistake, or the world made a mistake, and that other life is the one you should have. Liana Moriarty's What Alice Forgot has a protagonist who experiences a 10 year time skip and finds her life almost unrecognizable, and the decisions she made over the past decade inexplicable. In J Robert Lennon's The Familiar, the past explicitly changes, and the lead character finds her dead son is alive and her marriage transformed. These stories often focus on the relatively mundane details of one individual's life. Carol Anshaw's Aquamarine has three timelines instead of two, and the turning point is an Olympic swim meet. Heather McElhatton's Pretty Little Mistakes goes even further, using a choose-your-own-adventure structure to multiply her lead character's alternate lives. An interesting feature of Aquamarine and Mistakes is the sexual fluidity of the lead character, whose most important romantic relationships might be with men or women depending on the path their lives take.

Another set of these stories turn on the JFK assassination as a key point where realities diverge, the same way the parallel reality stories I'll talk about next center on WWII, perhaps because for people of a certain age, that moment is the one that feels like the moment things went wrong the same way that 9/11 does for a later generation. Here the changes to the world are much more dramatic. In Jo Walton's My Real Children, the narrator is an old women remembering two incompatible lifetimes, neither identical to our own. In one Kennedy was killed by a bomb but the USSR is more peaceful and more scientific; in the other Kennedy escalates the Cuban Missile Crisis the point of exchanging nuclear strikes, although he lives and steps down after a single term. Children also focuses on intimate family details and allows sexual fluidity across the two pasts. In Kathleen Ann Goonan's This Shared Dream, it's young adults remembering two different childhoods rather than an adult remembering two lifetimes, but again, the success or failure of the Kennedy assassination is the turning point. Goonan's characters are the children of a time traveler. In 11/22/63, Stephen King makes the time traveler his protagonist. But his determination to prevent Kennedy's assassination keeps changing the future for the worse, like a more literary version of the Butterfly Effect movie. Time travel also features in Elan Mastai's All Our Wrong Todays, where a time traveler from a utopian future accidentally ruins the past and gets trapped there. Like in The Heavens, the horrible alternative is our own real world. The trapped time traveler in Mike Chen's Here and Now and Then doesn't ruin the world, but he does start a new life in our time, and lives here for two decades before getting the chance to go home to another family in his original time, our future.

A couple early versions of this sort of story appear in the films Sliding Doors, where we see possible versions of a woman's life depending on whether or not she catches a train on a particular day, and Run Lola Run, where we see several possible outcomes of a single bad day. Most later versions, however, allow the characters to meet their other selves. It's possible that the rise of these stories coincides the ability, using editing and digital effects, to show actors interacting with themselves. Another Earth uses the discovery of a counter-earth to supply its characters with alternate lives. Coherence offers up a multiplicity of alternatives, most of them mundane, accessible by walking around the identical streets and houses of a neighborhood subdivision. The show Sliders and the comic Black Science both star teams of dimension-travelers who frequently run into unsavory alternate versions of themselves. Both are arguable at least as much about those alternate selves as they are about alternate histories. Both Fringe and to a much greater extent Counterpart are about single alternate universes and multiple instances of communication across the barrier, in a way that's reminiscent of Famous Men Who Never Lived.

Another way to literalize the metaphor of alternate lives is with uncanny duplicates without dimensional travel. These are sometimes clones, sometimes inexplicable, but they always lead a life you could have been living. Also sometimes they want to kill you. For some reason that's a really common feature of the film version of these stories that pretty much never happens in the books. The Double and Enemy opened the same weekend, making them uncanny doubles of one another. The One I Love and Living with Yourself both have the doubles appear as the result of a spa visit promising to turn the visitor into their ideal self. The One and Gemini Man amplify the killer replacement angle until it becomes their entire plot. And in very different ways, Orphan Black and Us expand from single duplicate to virtual armies of them.

Parallel Realities: These stories are maybe the most overtly political, because they inevitably imagine a reversal of real-world geopolitics. It's not just incidental like the previous subgenre; here it's baked directly in to the definition. And they're not just alternate histories, especially the recent ones, because they tend to imagine a reversal whose parallels go beyond what might be historically plausible, or even possible, and because they tend to posit that at least some characters become aware of an eerie parallel world, that is, they become aware of our real world, with our actual history. They also tend to be set in the author's present day, rather than taking place in the historical past.

Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle is the origin of this particular subgenre, and it establishes all the tropes I mentioned above. Those tropes are pretty much what makes this a separate body of work from the larger world of alt-history. Dick imagines the Axis Powers winning WWII, with North America partitioned the way Germany and Berlin were in our world. Norman Spinard's The Iron Dream focuses much more on the book-within-the-book than the world surrounding it. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a recurring presents in High Castle, but Lord of the Swastika takes up most of the text of Dream. Spinard imagines Adolph Hitler immigrating to America in 1919 and become a pulp-scifi sword-and-sorcery author, whose overtly fascist fantasies are well-received by American science fiction readers.

Matt Ruff picks up much later with The Mirage, about a world where the rogue third-world states of North America launches a Christianist terror attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Baghdad, in the United States of Arabia. Lavie Tidhar, meanwhile, has practically set up a cottage industry. Osama takes place in a world without terrorism, where Osama bin Laden exists as a fictional character in a series of popular thrillers. A Man Lies Dreaming takes place primarily in a world where the Nazis never rose to power, Germany became a Communist country, and Hitler moved to England where he became a typical noir-fiction detective, still virulently anti-semetic, but rendered harmless by his circumstances. But this world is literally the dream of a Jewish man dying in Auschwitz during the Holocaust, who escapes his misery by reimagining his tormentor as a bumbling and ineffectual character in a detective novel dreamworld. In Unholy Land, a Jewish author of pulp detective novels gets on a plane to Israel and instead lands in Palestina, a Jewish state established in Uganda in 1903 after a politician had an accurate future vision of the Holocaust. Palestina has a similar relationship to the Ugandan people that modern Israel has to the Palestinians. The author experiences his visit to Palestina as kind of a waking dream.

Magical Plagues: Fantastical or science fictional pandemics have been sweeping the world at least since John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, where everyone who looks at a particular meteor show all go blind and the world is overrun by carnivorous plants. Jose Saramago wrote Blindness and won a Nobel prize for it, which I have to think is part of what inspired the lit-fic authors who started writing plague novels after that. One trend I see in the plague novel, though, is that the diseases keep getting more magical.

Charlie Huston's Sleepless, Karen Russell's Sleep Donation, and Kenneth Calhoun's Black Moon all deal with plagues of insomia. Huston and Russell both allow the transfer of sleep from the healthy to the ill, like some sort of psychic blood transfusion. (Again, I wonder about inspiration. The movie Sleep Dealer came out the same year as the film adaptation of Blindess. Its plot has nothing to do with this concept, but its name is evocative, and someone paying attention to scifi film reviews that year might have noticed the title.) Karen Thompson Walker inverts the pattern in The Dreamers, where the plague causes sleep, rather than sleeplessness. The plague victims in Ling Ma's Severance aren't exactly asleep, but they are almost sleepwalking, repeating common mundane activities compulsively in something like a fugue state.

Ben Marcus's Flame Alphabet and Alena Gradon's The Word Exchange both cross the plague genre with the premise from Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea. In Marcus's book adults develop allergic reactions to the sound of children's speech, those who don't abandon civilization for solitude end up like plague victims in Severance. Grandon imagines a flu that causes people to forget words, a problem compounded by the complete absence of printed text and the total reliance on a ubiquitous internet platform that appears to be deleting language as well. It's only a short leap further to the more recent texts, where forgetting doesn't just cause the loss of a shared language, but the disintegration of all observable reality.
ᴉɯɐƃǝ qʎ ſᴉuƃ Mǝᴉ

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Linguistic Miscellany - Anti Language, Thieves Cant, Efficient Language, Repressed Script, Untranslated Words, Dialect

The Secret Anti-Languages You're not Supposed to Know
David Robson

"Since at least Tudor times, secret argots have been used in the underworld of prisoners, escaped slaves and criminal gangs as a way of confusing and befuddling the authorities. A modern anti-language could very well be spoken on the street outside your house. Unless you yourself are a member of the 'anti-society,' the strange terms would sound like nonsense."

" 'Anti-language' describe the words spoken on the fringes of society. All borrow the grammar of the mother language but replace words with another, elliptical term. Often, the anti-language may employ dozens of terms that have blossomed from a single concept. The strange, nonsensical words render a sentence almost impossible to comprehend for outsiders, and the more terms you have, the harder it is for an outsider to learn the code."

"Secrecy was the only motive for building an anti-language. It also helps define a hierarchy within the 'anti-society.' Refusing to speak the lingo could denigrate you to the lowest possible rung of the social ladder."

Why Did "Thieves' Cant" Carry an Unshakable Allure?
Amelia Soth

"Bourgeois readers saw a lively, colorful parody of their own world. The authors of canting pamphlets spun out elaborate fantasies about a kind of anti-society of the ignominious, an upside-down mirror image of their bourgeois world. Just as polite society was populated with lawyers and doctors and merchants, the underworld had its own disreputable cast of 'professionals.' "

"Was this fantasy of an anti-society of rogues and beggars a reflection of a failure of imagination on the part of the bourgeoisie? An inability to conceive of any way of life besides their familiar one, with its orderly ranks of professionals distributed in hierarchical guilds? Or was it a moral failure, an attempt to portray the disenfranchised in their society as cunning tricksters, who only pretended to be jobless, homeless, and starving?"

"Rogue literature imagined the itinerant poor as a nation within a nation, complete with its own language. They were no longer members of the same society as the middle-class gawkers who read about them. There was no need to feel any guilt or obligation towards people who, after all, had their own society, were employed (in a fashion), and only affected illness or disaster to beg."

The World's Most Efficient Languages
John McWhorter
The Atlantic

"If there were a prize for the busiest language, then a language like Kabardian would win. In the simple sentence 'The men saw me,' the word for 'saw,' other than the part meaning 'see,' there is a bit that reiterates that it's me who was seen, even though the sentence would include a separate word for 'me' elsewhere. Then there are other bits that show that the seeing was most significant to 'me' rather than to the men or anyone else; that the seeing was done by more than one person (despite the sentence spelling out elsewhere that it was plural 'men' who did the seeing); that this event did not happen in the present; that on top of this, the event happened specifically in the past rather than the future; and finally a bit indicating that the speaker really means what he’s saying."

"When a language seems especially telegraphic, usually another factor has come into play: Enough adults learned it at a certain stage in its history that, given the difficulty of learning a new language after childhood, it became a kind of stripped-down “schoolroom” version of itself. Because all languages, are, to some extent, busier than they need to be, this streamlining leaves the language thoroughly complex and nuanced, just lighter on the bric-a-brac that so many languages pant under. Only a few languages have been taken up as vehicles of empire and imposed on millions of unsuspecting and underqualified adults."

The Return of the Repressed
Kaya Genç
Los Angeles Review of Books

"Here is an alternate history of American English: For whatever reason, circa 1920, a revolutionary leader wants to change the English alphabet for the Cyrillic one, and somehow he manages to achieve this. Fresh generations of Americans start writing the old language using the newly learned script. Literacy rates drop first, but then increase greatly, while the volume of readable texts decrease."

"Older generations of Americans, for whom the Latin script becomes a vague childhood memory, struggle to keep up and even take writing classes to be able to write in their own language. In the eight decades that follow, American writers produce great works using Cyrillic, far outweighing the Latin script books in volume. Then, one fine day, a daring American leader proposes to make it mandatory for students to learn, apart from the customary Cyrillic script, the Latin one as well."

"Arabic is one of the six most spoken languages in the world today. Unlike English, it has not exactly become the language of globalization, but it certainly has a global reach. In the past, Arabic had a strong connection with the Turkish language. Turkey’s current alphabet, consisting of letters written in the Latin script, was introduced in 1928, as part of one of the boldest language reforms in history, replacing the Ottoman script, which was a variation of the Persian-Arabic alphabet. Today, Turkey’s education ministry wants this defunct language to be taught again, having announced plans for making Ottoman language classes mandatory for all school students in the country."

Why We Love Untranslatable Words
David Shariatmadari
Lit Hub

"There is something deeply seductive about the idea that other languages contain codes that are impossible to crack. adults should know better than to believe that other cultures speak in spells. The concept of 'untranslatable words' preserves the idea that the world can never be fully mapped out and expunged of mystery. That’s a comforting thought. It keeps alive the possibility of escape - of something surviving far beyond our everyday experiences."

"It is also an easy replacement for the hard tasks of em­pathy and understanding. It allows us to imagine that we don’t have very much in common. It puts them at one remove, which fits with the strange stories we hear about them. It also saves us having to learn what the circumstances of life might actually be like there. If all that seems fairly harmless, think about it this way: when you believe people are unfathomable because they speak a different language, you’re just as capable of thinking that they’re inferior or evil, instead of charming or other-worldly."

There's No Such Thing as a Language
John McWhorter
The Atlantic

"A language is a dialect with an army and a navy. The very fact that 'language' and 'dialect' persist as separate concepts implies that linguists can make tidy distinctions for speech varieties worldwide. But in fact, there is no objective difference between the two: Any attempt you make to impose that kind of order on reality falls apart in the face of real evidence."

"English tempts one with a tidy dialect-language distinction based on 'intelligibility': If you can understand it without training, it's a dialect of your own language; if you can't, it's a different language. But because of quirks of its history, English happens to lack very close relatives, and the intelligibility standard doesn't apply consistently beyond it. Worldwide, some mutually understandable ways of speaking, which one might think of as 'dialects' of one language, are actually treated as separate languages. At the same time, some mutually incomprehensible tongues an outsider might view as separate 'languages' are thought of locally as dialects."

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dungeon Alphabet Dozen - M is also for MAPS

M is also for MAPS
Roll 1d12!

Random Maps of the Underworld

1 Architectural schematic of local 9th level NPC's stronghold, signed by original builder. Shows network of secret doors bypassing all locks and traps, leading directly to treasure vault.

2 Alchemist's field journal shows locations of abundant sources of two MATERIAL COMPONENTS guaranteed to combine successfully into ADMIXTURE.

3 Geological survey shows previously unknown CAVE under nearby map hex.

4 Partial scroll of extremely ancient religious text shows lost temple of long-forgotten dead demon god.

5 Naturalist's assay reveals single magic POOL next to otherwise mundane nearby waterway.

6 Actual buried treasure, in a wooden chest, marked with a big red X and everything. Bring the shovels, because it's 10' down, and you're going to have to dig for it.

7 Pathfinder's scouting report shows game trail network connecting several nearby map hexes. The trails are easy going, without the usual chance of getting lost or penalties for rough terrain, and there's virtually no chance of encountering a wandering monster while on them.

8 Tourist's guidebook provides walking tour of nearest city, includes locations of ultra-chic tavern, hotel, and merchant center, and coupons for one day of half-off discount prices. Each spot is a speakeasy with an unmarked door, so out-of-towners normally never find them.

9 Illustrated children's fairy tale tells story of inveterate gambler who beseeches gaming-house mascot djinn to grant him a cheat code. Story obviously takes place in nearby dungeon, cheat code totally works to unlock previously inaccessible secret door, door leads to gonzo ZOWIE bonus dungeon level, illustrations make excellent walk-through guide.

10 Hobo-code chalk markings on sign at neighborhood entrance indicate location of stash house for goods pilfered from local job-sites by underpaid laborers. Additional markings in house suggest a "take-a-penny-leave-a-penny" approach to materiel held within, encourage player characters to store their loot rent-free. Dire warnings of assassin guild retaliation against stash-theives also strongly indicated.

11 Embroidered tapestry depicts legend of ancient paladin who discovered magic sword, founded stronghold, attracted coterie of cavaliers, and was eventually entombed in catacomb on nearby ISLAND. If recovered from the catacomb, ownership of the sword entitles the bearer to claim custody over the abandoned (and now monster-haunted) stronghold.

12 Lost page torn from adventurer's diary purports to show only known secret route back to the surface

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Player Art - Two Chromatic Monsters

A friend of mine read my previous post using Le Chaudrom Chromatique's random island generator, and she decided to doodle a couple of the monsters.

Below are Lindsey M's quick sketches of the variant-appearance owlbear and fairy-dragon-like hyena.

Chromatic Owl Bear by Lindsey M
Chromatic Pixie Hyena by Lindsey M

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Procedural Generation Demonstration - Two Chromatic Islands

Evlyn at Le Chaudron Chromatique has created a minigame for referees to create island ecologies. She recommends starting with an encounter list, removing half the inhabitants (maybe they went extinct, maybe they never made it onto the island), then allowing the surviving inhabitants to speciate to enter the vacant ecological niches, and finally allowing the original survivors to evolve due to genetic drift.

Even starting from an extremely mundane encounter list, it's a procedure that's guaranteed to lead to weirdness.

Evlyn uses the Labyrinth Lord "Forest/Wooded" Wilderness Encounter Table.

For fun, I thought I'd try it again, using the D&D 5e "Sylvan Forest Encounters" from the Dungeon Master Guide. (I've modified the list to remove the non-creature entries, and to separate entries where you would encounter 2 different creatures at once.)

Also for fun, I thought I'd see what would happen if two different islands separated off the same mainland.

Step 1: First we see what species survive on each island. Evlyn suggests that half the mainland die off or fail to migrate, and half survive on the island.

1 displacer beast
1d4 gnolls
2d4 hyenas
1 giant owl
1 dryad
1d4 satyrs
1d4 centaurs
2d4 elven scouts
2d4 pixies
2d4 sprites
1 owlbear
1d4 elks
1 giant elk
1d4 blink dogs
1d4 faerie dragons
1 elf druid
1 treant
1 unicorn

1 displacer beast
1d4 gnolls
2d4 hyenas
1 giant owl
1 dryad
1d4 satyrs
1d4 centaurs
2d4 elven scouts
2d4 pixies
2d4 sprites
1 owlbear
1d4 elks
1 giant elk
1d4 blink dogs
1d4 faerie dragons
1 elf druid
1 treant
1 unicorn

Step 2: Next, we allow existing species to split off new species to fill the vacant ecological niches. Evlyn has a table to roll on to see which traits the new species "pick up" from convergent evolution into the niche, and any trait not "picked up" in this way should stay the same from the original species. 5e doesn't have Morale or Hoard Classes, but it does have official creature types and bolded descriptors used to organize the entry in the Monster Manual, so I'm going to use those instead.

1d4 gnolls - replaced by unicorn, adopts 4 traits (AC, HD/size, special ability, appearance)
2d4 hyenas - replaced by treant, adopts 5 traits (AC, attack type, damage, special ability, Appearance)
1 giant owl - replaced by treant, adopts 3 traits (AC, saves, special ability)
1d4 centaurs - replaced by displacer beast, adopts 3 traits (alignment, movement, creature type)
2d4 elven scouts - replaced by giant elk, adopts 6 traits (number, AC, HD/size, descriptor, special ability, appearance)
2d4 sprites - replaced by giant elk, adopts 4 traits (alignment, movement, AC, HD/size)
1d4 elks - replaced by treant, adopts 3 traits (AC, descriptor, appearance)
1d4 blink dogs replaced by displacer beast, adopts 4 traits (alignment, attack type, damage, creature type)
1d4 faerie dragons - replaced by treant, adopts 4 traits (number, alignment, special ability, appearance)

1 displacer beast - replaced by dryad, adopts 6 traits (alignment, movement, AC, attack type, saves, appearance)
1d4 gnolls - replaced by satyrs, adopts 4 traits (number, movement, attack type, special ability)
1d4 centaurs - replaced by giant owl, adopts 3 traits (movement, damage, creature type)
2d4 elven scouts - replaced by pixies, adopts 4 traits (attack type, saves, creature type, special ability)
1 giant elk - replaced by sprites, adopts 2 traits: (number, saves)
1d4 faerie dragons - replaced by hyenas, adopts 5 traits (number, movement, HD/size, damage, appearance)
1 elf druid - replaced by sprites, adopts 5 traits (movement, AC, HD/size, damage, special ability)
1 treant - replaced by giant owl, adopts 4 traits (movement, AC, HD/size, appearance)
1 unicorn - replaced by blink dogs, adopts 6 traits: (AC, attack type, saves, creature type, descriptor, appearance)

Step 3: Third, we allow each of the surviving species to experience genetic drift, so that they chance from the mainland baseline.

1 displacer beast - dwarf variant (reduce HD/size, increase number)
1 dryad - giant variant (increase HD/size, reduce number)
1d4 satyrs - random characteristic variant (modify: descriptor)
2d4 pixies - dwarf variant (reduce HD/size, increase number)
1 owlbear - random characteristic variant (modify: appearance)
1 giant elk - random characteristic variant (modify: creature type)
1 elven druid - hyper variant (intensify: damage)
1 treant - hyper variant (intensify: saves)
1 unicorn - random characteristic variant (modify: saves)

2d4 hyenas - dwarf variant (reduce HD/size, increase number)
1 giant owl - giant variant (increase HD/size, reduce number)
1 dryad - giant variant (increase HD/size, reduce number)
1d4 satyrs - dwarf variant (reduce HD/size, increase number)
2d4 pixies - stunted variant (dilute: number)
2d4 sprites - dwarf variant (reduce HD/size, increase number)
1 owlbear - giant variant (increase HD/size, reduce number)
1d4 elks - dwarf variant (reduce HD/size, increase number)
1d4 blink dogs - hyper variant (intensify: HD/size)

Step 4: The final step is to put it all back together into an encounter list for each island.


1d4 dwarf displacer beasts (as displacer beast, except: size medium, 10d8+20 hp)

1 gnoll-like unicorn (as unicorn, except: size medium, 5d8 hp, add Rampage ability, appearance "feral humanoid with one-horned horse head")

1 hyena-like treant (as treant, except: AC 11, attack bite +2 melee weapon (1d6 piercing damage), add Pack Tactics ability, appearance "huge fallen tree with knot-holes like spots, stalks on four limbs")

1 giant-owl-like treant (as treant, except: AC 12, save S+1 D+2 C+2 I-1 W+1 C+0, add Keen Hearing and Sight special ability)

1 giant dryad (as dryad, except: size large, 5d10+5 hp)

1d4 variant-descriptor satyrs (as satyrs except: remove Hedonistic Revelers descriptor, add descriptor Abstemious Perfectionists "satyrs spend long hours practicing and perfecting their music, forswearing any distractions or mind-altering substances, living only to prepare themselves for seasonal concerts which they carry off flawlessly")

1 centaur-like displacer beast (as displacer beast, except: alignment neutral good, creature type fey, speed 50 ft)

2d4 elf-scout-like giant elk (as giant elk, except: AC 13, size medium, 3d8+3 hp, add Scout descriptor, add Keen Hearing and Sight special ability, appearance "humanoid elk with antlers")

2d6 dwarf pixies (as pixies, except: 1d3-1 hp)

1 sprite-like giant elk (as giant elk, except: alignment neutral good, speed 10 ft / fly 40 ft, AC 15, size tiny, 1d4 hp)

1 variant-appearance owlbear (as owlbear, except: appearance "panther body, wooden face, lion's mane of leaves")

1 elk-like treant (as treant, except: AC 10, appearance "huge fallen tree with crown of antler-like branches, bounds on four limbs")

1 variant-creature-type giant elk (as giant elk, except: creature type plant)

1 blink-dog-like displacer beast (as displacer beast, except: alignment lawful good, attack bite +3 melee weapon (1d6+1 piercing damage), creature type fey)

1d4 faerie-dragon-like treants (as treants, except: alignment chaotic good, add Innate Spellcasting ability, appearance "huge fallen tree with pair of leafy wing-like branches and root tail, hops and flits about")

1 hyper-damage elven druid (as elven druid, except: all attacks increase dice by two sizes, quarterstaff deals 1d10+2, produce flame deals 1d12+2, shillelagh deals 1d12+2, thunderwave deals 2d12+4)

1 hyper-saving treant (as treant, except: save S+12 D-2 C+10 I+2 W+6 C+2)

1 variant-saving unicorn (as unicorn, except: save S+0 D+3 C+3 I+4 W+2 C+2)


1 displacer-beast-like dryad (as dryad, except: alignment lawful evil, speed 40ft, AC 13, attack tentacle multiattack, two +6 melee weapons (each 1d4 bludgeoning, 1d8+4 bludgeoning with shillelagh), save S+4 D+2 C+3 I-2 W+1 C-1, appearance "woman with dark green skin, black leaves instead of hair, two legs, four arms, two leafy vine tentacles growing from her back, cruel laugh, glowing emerald eyes")

1d4 gnoll-like satyrs (as satyrs, except: speed 30 ft, attack bite +4 melee weapon (2d4+1 bludgeoning damage), attack spear +4 melee or ranged weapon (1d6+3 piercing damage), attack longbow +3 ranged weapon (1d6+3 piercing damage), add Rampage special ability)

2d6 dwarf hyenas (as hyenas, except: size small, 1d6 hp)

1 giant giant owl (as giant owl, except: size huge, 3d12+6 hp)

1 giant dryad (as dryad, except: size large 5d10+5 hp)

1d6 dwarf satyrs (as satyrs, except: size small, 7d6-7 hp)

1 centaur-like giant owl (as giant owl, except: Speed 50 ft, Attack: Talons +3 melee weapon attack (2d6+4 bludgeoning damage), creature type monstrosity)

2d4 elven-scout-like pixies (as pixies, except: attack multiattack, two shortswords +4 melee (each 1d6+2 piercing), two longbows +4 ranged (each 1d8+2 piercing), save S+0 D+2 C+1 I+0 W+1 C+0, creature type humanoid (elf), add Keen Hearing and Sight special ability)

stunted-number pixie (as pixie)

2d6 dwarf sprites (as sprites, except: 1d3-1 hp)

1 giant owlbear (as owlbear, except: size huge, 7d12+28 hp)

1d6 dwarf elk (as elk, except: size medium, 2d8 hp)

1 giant-elk-like sprite (as sprite, except: save S+4 D+3 C+2 I-2 W+2 C+0)

1d4 hyper-sized blink dogs (as blink dogs, except: size huge, 4d12+12 hp)

1d4 faerie-dragon-like hyenas (as hyenas, except: speed 10 ft / fly 60 ft, size tiny, 4d4+4 hp, attack deals 1 piercing damage, appearance "cat-sized hyenas with rainbow-hued fur and butterfly wings, they wear sharp-toothed grins and their tails twitch with merriment")

2d4 elf-druid-like sprites (as sprites, except: speed 30 ft, AC 11, size medium, 5d8+5 hp, attack deals 1d6 damage, add Spellcasting special ability)

1 treant-like giant owl (as giant owl, except: speed 30 ft, AC 16, size huge, 12d12+60 hp, appearance "a huge owl with feathers like green leaves, its face like a mask carved from wood")

1d4 unicorn-like blink dogs (as blink dogs, except: AC 12, attack multiattack, horn +7 melee (1d8 +4 magical piercing), paws +7 melee (2d6+4 magical bludgeoning), save S+4 D+2 C+2 I+0 W+3 C+3, creature type fey, add Divine Guardians descriptor, appearance "white furred dogs that twinkle like starlight as they blink in and out of existence, a single spiral horn grows from each of their foreheads")

Final Thoughts: There's always something meditative about solo procedural generation, but trying to do this for a 20-item list (twice!) is maybe pushing the boundaries of what's feasible as preparation. This would probably work best with a shorter initial encounter list. More cosmetic and fewer mechanical changes might actually affect the player experience more.

It might also be interesting to utilize something like this method for an island-hopping game where the players will get to see multiple alternate ecosystems - especially if they can see them without having to fight all of them.