Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Borgesian Bibliophiliac Megadungeon

In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ...

- From The Library of Babel

All this talk about megadungeons has me thinking about Borges.

Long term readers of this blog will know that I'm a bit of a Borges nut. The man was one of the very few writers who I would describe as a genius, and one of even fewer I would call visionary. His ideas are like drugs for anyone with an imagination.

In May last year, when Monsters & Manuals was knee-high to a grasshopper, I had an idea for a campaign based on Borges' Library of Babel. You can read the original post in its entirety here, but to sum up:

The Library of Babel is a Universe of books. In it are exactly 251312000 volumes. Each book contains exactly 410 pages, and each page contains exactly 40 lines of 80 characters. No book is the same - their contents are made up of random letters, spaces and punctuation marks.

Now, most of the volumes are of course gibberish - just garbled text. However, it is also the case that the library contains some books of coherent text, by virtue of the fact that it contains every conceivable combination of letters, characters and spaces. Indeed, it contains not only every novel ever written, but some novels that have not yet been written; it also contains all variations on those novels - so that not only is a complete copy of, say, The Catcher in the Rye hidden somewhere in the middle of one of its volumes, but there is also somewhere a Catcher in the Rye with one different letter somewhere in the text, one with two different letters, one with three... And of course another one with one other different letter somewhere in the text, and one with two other different letters... And the same for every novel ever written. Every non-fiction book too, of course. And, more interestingly for our purposes - every spellbook.

You can probably see where I'm going with that.

The point of the Library of Babel, however, is that there is no catalogue. The books not only contain random text; they are also organized randomly. Whole sects of people live in the library, trying to make sense of it and quantify it, but the task is too great. They disagree not only on the system they should use, but also on the very philosophies underpinning the system; some go so far as to believe that even the random volumes - which make up the overwhelming majority of the Library's books - contain hidden meanings which, once deciphered, will unlock the key to a new reality.

This is perfect for a Planescape campaign, in which the characters are sent to recover a single mighty spell book from the Library. How do they find it amidst the effectively almost infinite shelves? How do they make sure the copy they have is perfectly correct, and not one of the multitude of volumes which contain one or two crucial mistaken characters somewhere in their midst? How do they deal with the mysterious denizens of the Library's honeycomb hallways and archives: the different sects and cults and philosophers, and the monsters who prey on them? How do they find their way around its labyrinthine shelves? What arguments occur between the Bleaker who revels in the apparent meaninglessness of the place, the Godsman who believes it will reveal the path to Godhood, and the Sensate who wants to read every one of its volumes?

What a good idea this is for a megadungeon, even if I do say so myself. I might even use it to meet Amityville Mike's challenge.

The problem with the Library of Babel as a megadungeon is that its appearance and layout is uniform. It is more like a maze than a dungeon because everything in it is more or less exactly the same. The only things that distinguish one area from another are the inhabitants and the contents of the books - which are rendered almost indistinguishable all the same by their incomprehensibility. And without landmarks, finding a way around could become a chore beyond all reckoning.

How best to get around this problem is something to think about.


  1. "And without landmarks, finding a way around could become a chore beyond all reckoning.

    How best to get around this problem is something to think about."

    Perhaps the inhabitants of the library (bibliomanes, historians, l-space entities, purple bookworms, etc.) are going to start adapting the endless shelving to their own needs.

    Knock a partition out here. Add a lean-to there. And within a little while the shelves become a cross between a slumtown and a traditional dungeon.

  2. Didn't Pratchett have libraries whose trans-dimensional stacks blended into the trans-dimensional stacks of other libraries? Sort of a "wood between the worlds" but with books? That might solve your uniformity problem, make it so that characters in the Library of Babel can walk a certain path among the infinite stacks and find themselves in a different library all together. You can still have your roving tribes of lost research students, but the Library of Babel serves as more of a transitional space, infinite in and of itself, but leading to finite and varied locations as the campaign's needs dictate.

  3. Oh man, what they said and more...

    After all, each group has regrouped the books, the shelves and the structure to support their worship and ideas. I'm sure things have changed, there are some areas of decadent book reading orgies, and other areas where if you don't read 5 books a day, you are burned at the stake!

    This just stokes my imagination...

  4. Lots of books is a good thing. What about a library with all books?

    First it has all books with only single character. Then all books with 2 characters. Then three. Then ...

    Infinities are fun.

  5. Chris: Yeah, that works. I like the idea of Purple Book Worms, by the way. Very nice.

    Fitzerman: That's a nice idea - more of a library to which all other libraries are connected?

    Chgowiz: Pretty cool, eh?

    Thanuir: Well, of course, the Library of Babel somewhere contains a book where all 410 pages are filled with the letter 'a'. To find that book could be a quest in itself. Then there's the book which is 410 pages of unbroken commas. There's also one which contains the word 'and' over and over again. And one which manages to perfectly replicate Hamlet within its covers, except the main character's name is Turdbrain.

  6. Yeah, but only if you know the routes. Otherwise, it's infinite space, stack after stack. Certain tribes know the way to certain places, there's a barter in maps, perhaps...

  7. Planetext? :)

    Somewhere within the library is this ultimate book of course. Its location is forgotten. But somewhere in the library is the book that contains that book's secret location, but THAT book itself was destroyed, yet it is known that there are four books each of which contain within them a fourth of the book that contains the key to the location of the ultimate book...

    It is said that if you destroy a book in the library, any book or other piece of writing existing as a sizable subset of that book is wiped from existence. Thus the fiercest guardians of books sent into to protect the genesis of their culure. Thus the greatest attack on the library ever, of the demon ____ who sought to destroy any text that included his name. Finally he was banished as the list of books was found that contained the progressive letters of his name each as the 6th letter of the 66th page. The damage was done however, and still loyal cultists of his seek to destroy any --

  8. Fitzerman's: Aha, guides. Preferably semi-insane ones. I like it.

    Kelly: Demons' names! I hadn't thought of that angle. Very good.

  9. noisms;

    Your library is still finite. It may be big, but it is finite. Infinities are, at least for me, more interesting. The library with all finite books, which I suggested, is an example of such, even though it only contains countably infinite books.

    I think a library that contains all books would be even more interesting. It would contain books of infinite length, too, and those are very interesting. It would have uncountably infinite number of books, which is somewhat difficult a concept to wrap one's mind around. It literally could not be catalogued, as opposed to cateloguing being merely practically impossible.

  10. Thanuir: It's an interesting thought experiment - a bit like the famous infinite hotel. The problem is how to use it in a game: what does an infinitely long book look like?

  11. I have run this campaign. It ran regularly from about 2003-2006, and is theoretically still active.

  12. Cole: I remember you posting a comment about it on the last entry. Wasn't it set in a kind of space station?

  13. noisms;

    The page one happens to be perusing is thickest while other pages get thinner as they are farther away from the one that is being read. Infinitely long books have a good chance of being magical.

    Alternatively, most of the pages are of the current chapter, while other chapters are reduced to mere pages.

  14. thanuir: Very nice. I think that would still be finite, though. The pages furthest away from the one your are currently reading might only become the thickness of an atom, then an electron, then a quark... but an infinite amount of quarks is the same thickness as an infinite amount of miles.

    I think you would have to just settle for saying that with an infinite book, every time you turn a page you get no closer to the end. Because there is no end.

  15. noisms;

    Finite only if one limits oneself with such things as physics (or chooses a wrong series).

    There exist series of numbers such that the numbers get smaller, stay positive, and the sum of the series is finite. For example: 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + ... = 1. This particular series would not be a good fit, probably, but something similar could work. 1 + 9/10 + 81/100 + 729/1000 + ..., perhaps. The page one is viewing would be of thickness 1 (say, normal page thickness of the world in question), the next and previous page would have thickness 9/10, the next ones 81/100, and so on.

    Never approaching the end is a good alternative. In my game there is currently one book where the beginning can not be found, but the end is easy to find. (The book records everything that happens to dragons and has done so for roughly an eternity. But only one eternity. Not many.)

  16. I recall the Library of the story being composed of identically shaped rooms laid vertically in a "tower" that extended infinitely up and down.

    Even if we gave it a definite bottom or top floor (or point of entry somewhere in the middle), it would be a rather...linear experience. I assume you'd be looking for a more maze-y/labyrinthine, since your intent is to have a strange place filled with dangers and treasures, rather than a thought experiment that encroaches on insanity.

    And (without going into the various species of infinity), if the library were infinite, wouldn't it have an infinite number of copies of each book?

    Now I want an rpg that, instead of dice, uses the "blue tigers" of [a story of his whose name I can't remember] as a random number generator. You take a handful, throw them, and count how many there are at that moment.

    Or maybe an adventure the PCs are all part of one continent's civilization/culture that is being rapidly burned and pillaged by advanced invaders from over the waves, and the land's only hope is for them to find the one tiger upon whose hide is written the word which was spoken to create (their part of) the world. Beats looking for a scroll or piece of jewelry in my book.

    I'd love to see a story game that begins with your character having just finally accomplished the one thing they absolutely had to do before killing themselves, and ends when they reach the location where they are going to kill themselves, and the path there is strewn with descriptions of beauty to appreciate or unrighteousness to correct, basically things that pull on them to forsake their oaths and live...a Boddhisatva vs. Mahayana game.

  17. Nick: The original Library of Babel may be infinite and it may not; the story isn't clear. But the maths seem to suggest that it is finite, seeing as no book is the same as another and they are all the same size and length.

    I'm not looking for anything mazy or labyrinthine; I like the linear honey-comb aspect of the Borgesian idea. I don't think that precludes the existence of strange creatures, treasure etc. In fact it would be a nice change from the traditional dungeon, I think.

    I like the Boddhisatva vs. Mahayana game. Why not write it?

  18. Nick;

    And (without going into the various species of infinity), if the library were infinite, wouldn't it have an infinite number of copies of each book?

    If the length of books is limited, it would necessarily have infinite copies of at least one book, but potentially all of them. If the length of books is not limited, than it may or may not have infinite copies of anything or everything.