Saturday 31 May 2008

Planescape Borges and the Library of Babel

I'm taking a break from discussing my new campaign, because I want to jot down some words on Jorge Luis Borges. I haven't read enough of his work to call myself a fan, but everything I've read I've loved; like China Mieville he's a writer who you can enjoy reading even if you disagree with the politics, and also like Mieville he has an irresistible affection for the weird that comes across in all his work (although of course Mieville has nothing on Borges).

I recently put a thread up on in which I speculated on using Borges' Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Recognition as the basis for a campaign setting; I intend to one day write the idea up for a system like FATE or a heavily doctored SOTC. Recently, though, I've also been thinking about The Library of Babel as something to use in a Planescape campaign. (The story is out of copyright, and a translation is available here, if you're interested. It's a highly recommended short sharp shock, of Argentinian-Magic-Realist weirdness crossed with a Socratic philosophical thought experiment; perhaps that's as much your bag as it is mine.)

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?

It is the stuff dream Planescape dreams are made of, and the kind of thing that makes me wish that the thing was still supported. I guess it was always just too different.

(Incidentally, for those who've never read or played a Planescape product, and for those who tried it but didn't like it, check out last month's Godzilla Gaming Podcast [April 22, 2008]. In it there is a lengthy retro-review of the setting from two self-declared fans, and also a half-hour chat with the famous Monte Cook, who with Zeb Cook and Tony DiTerlizzi came up with most of Planescape.)


  1. Beautiful and brilliant, noisms. Of course, in order to find the Library of Babel the adventurers will first have to find a way to unfold the map that tells of its location...

    What's more, Borges has already supplied a wandering monster table.

  2. More Borges -- thrilled to find so much on the web: from the bestiary entry An Experimental Account of What Was Known, Seen, and Met by Mrs. Jane Lead in London in 1694

    "...the creature whose substance is Bliss is everywhere at home. All sounds, even to the roaring of Lions, the screeching of the nightly Owls, the laments and groans of those entrapped in Hell, are as sweet Musick to her. All odours, even to the foulest stench of Corruption, are to her as the delight of roses and Lilies. All savours, even to the banquet-table of the Harpys of heathen lore, are as Sweet loaves and spiced Ale. Wandering at noon through the Waste Places of the world, it seems to her she is refreshed by Canopies of flocking Angels. The earnest seeker will look for her in All places, however dim and sordid, of this world or in the seven others. Thrust a keen Sword-blade through her and it will seem as a fountain of Divine and Pure pleasure."

    I'm no Planescape expert, but if I don't miss my guess that sounds like a Sensate?

  3. I love it. A near infinite map of a near infinite location!

    I read the Book of Imaginary Beings a long time ago, and sometimes think about D&D-izing the contents.

  4. There's a very similar idea in a thread over on the story-games board right now: The Sigil Planar Library

  5. I actually run a campaign of a 'Borgesian Library,' having started it around 2004 or 5, and still run it once in a while when all the players are in town. It's more of a "mutable orbiting structure in space" rather than a planar thing.

  6. That sounds great. Is it D&D or something else you're using?

  7. Of course, there are some books that can't be found there... at least not in one volume. Those with more than 410 pages....

  8. Scott: That could be a quest in itself: recover all the volumes which together make up a perfect copy of War & Peace.