Before Theseus entered the labyrinth, Minos’s daughter Ariadne gave him a spool of string to mark his path. After slaying the minotaur, Theseus retraced his steps along Ariadne’s thread and became the first ever to escape the labyrinth.
There are four types of labyrinths.
The Unicursal Labyrinth
This labyrinth has one entrance/exit and one linear—albeit meandering—path. Navigating a unicursal labyrinth involves no choice other than the choice to enter.
The book Stygian Library is a unicursal labyrinth. It has a first page, a last page, and it plots a linear sequence through them.
Unicursal labyrinths are cyclical; the exit is the entrance, and the completed path places the maze-treader right where they started. Likewise, The Stygian Library is cyclical, explicitly instructing the reader “read the book cover-to-cover a few times” before running the Stygian Library in a game.
Textual labyrinths don’t simply describe labyrinths; they attempt to mimic or model labyrinthicity.
Basic textual labyrinths are labyrinthine texts. They are convoluted, opaque, and challenging. They demand intellectual work from their reader and reward the intrepid with knowledge and meaning.
Other texts take more literal, physical, and visual approaches to becoming labyrinthine. Some literary works approximate labyrinths, but print’s fundamental restrictions prevent true realization of labyrinths in textual forms.
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is a cyclical unicursal labyrinth. As a book, it proceeds in a straight line, but its purpose is to disorient the reader before delivering them to the exit, where it prompts them to re-enter.
Despite being a labyrinth, the book also mimics a library, the practical purpose of which is to organize information and make it easily accessible. The Stygian Library is beautifully organized into regions that range from a basic overview through various categories of contents like rooms, ornamentation, entities, treasure, and books. Important tables are marked by full bleeds, making the pages easy to locate and flip to. Major sections—like descriptions of rooms and monsters—are marked by stylized glyphs at page corners, much like a reference volume. As a whole, the book is easy to navigate, from beginning to end to beginning again, as any unicursal labyrinth should be.
The ordinating point of the unicursal labyrinth is not its entrance/exit but its center, where something is either guarded or hidden. The reader’s prize is knowledge of the total library, which they require to move beyond the book to the game.
The Multicursal Labyrinth
When the reader stops reading The Stygian Library and starts running the Stygian Library—using the book in play rather than treating it as material to be read—it becomes a multicursal labyrinth.
This multicursal labyrinth is a maze: there are multiple paths, most (if not all-minus-one) of which are dead ends. This form demands choice from the participant, and not all choices are good ones. This library is not designed for player characters to find what they’re looking for. If it were, there would be no challenge, no conflict, and no game. The fact that the player characters struggle to find the knowledge they seek makes this library a labyrinth.
The Stygian Library is procedurally generated. The layout changes each time the characters enter, and once they have, they progress by going deeper to other layers, where they’re more likely to find what they seek.
When the characters choose to go deeper, the GM must likewise delve deeper into the book. “Both the player and the GM discover the library’s layout and contents at the same pace.” They roll on tables and follow page references to find the content they’re seeking in in The Stygian Library as the players create a path to the content they’re seeking in the Stygian Library.
The GM marks their path with the book’s physical ribbon, enabling easy reference without losing their place in the unicursal labyrinth. The players mark their path with a map charting locations and layers, a visual thread delineating the course taken through the multicursal maze that, like Ariadne’s thread, simultaneously delineates a labyrinth-in-negative.
This map is a decision tree. Unlike decision trees for other games—for example, moves in chess or Tick-Tack-Toe—which are tree-like abstractions, the path through a multicursal labyrinth is an actual, point-for-point, transformed image of its decision tree.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves strives to be a multicursal labyrinth through textual and visual representation of the labyrinth it describes (and seeks to embody). The Stygian Library adopts the house on Ash Tree Lane’s tendency to rearrange itself and thwart easy navigation.
William Blake’s The Four Zoas manuscript is labyrinthine in its revisionary marks that demand greater effort in navigating the divergent, nonlinear text. There are many routes through the text, but they all lead to the same place: “The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns”.
Choose-your-own-adventure books—analog hypertexts—offer another labyrinthine experience. Wikipedia offers yet another. But The Stygian Library is the rare text that truly achieves labyrinthicity by moving away from solitary reading into the realm of shared play experience.
Viewed from within, it is a maddening and confounding obstacle to be overcome. But a labyrinth’s character is determined by perspective. Viewed from above, it is an intricate work of aesthetic and structural craft to be contemplated and admired.
The Abysmal Labyrinth
Active engagement with the material book constitutes the Stygian Library as a labyrinth. But that labyrinth is also a storehouse of books. It is “potentially infinite in its scope and complexity,” and if so, it must somewhere house a copy of The Stygian Library. This is true of the Library and the Library: it/they contain it/themselves in multiple transformed figures.
This structure is analogous to a relatively obscure literary device called mise en abyme (“placed into abyss”). The trope derives from the heraldic practice of placing a coat of arms within a coat of arms, repeating the larger structure within one of its components.
The library placed en abyme within itself is the recursive, self-similar and self-referential labyrinth of mirrors. Exploring this labyrinth risks falling into infinite regress, an inescapable maze of reflections and recursions. Despite the risk, the Stygian Library is a labyrinth that contains labyrinths, and The Stygian Library is a book that contains books (and vice versa).
Phantoms are souls collected by Librarians who “pump them through glass tubes” to operate the library’s mundane and esoteric machinery. The Librarians themselves scurry “like ants through a glass maze” serving the Library’s ultimate purpose. This image of a complex glass structure marks these labyrinths en abyme (while ironically reiterating the clarity provided the artisan’s-eye-view of the labyrinth).
In House of Leaves, Navidson carries a copy of House of Leaves with him into the house on Ash Tree Lane. He ends up burning pages for light so he can continue reading it—until his reading catches up to his own narrative progress, at which point he must either let his fire die or burn the page he is trying to read.
In The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot positions this sort of structural recursion as the fundamental organic form found at all levels of the natural world.
Entrances to the Library appear when “enough books in one place … distort the world,” which occurs because “books are condensed collections of knowledge.” If you “put enough knowledge into something … it will inevitably start to overreach itself, behaving in ways it was never meant to.” This is true of the Library and of its component books, which may animate and take on characteristics of the Library itself. The text emphasizes and indicates this identity—as procedurally generated and semi-autonomous entities—by repeating in their descriptions the line “Knowledge is power. Power corrupts.”
Both manifestations—the Stygian Library and its animated books—are confounding to navigate. They embody the twin aspects of the labyrinth as a spatial conflict as well as a conflict with the inhabitant lurking within, and they also enfold the goal of knowledge that drives the maze-treader to face and overcome these obstacles.
The Rhizomatic Labyrinth
The rhizome is a network. Modern digital media, with its hypertextual language and form, are founded on this architecture. And it is the form the Stygian Library adopts in extremis.
Jorge Luis Borges’s “Library of Babel” depicts a rhizomatic labyrinth: “the universe, which others call the Library.” Each room is a hexagon connected to six other hexagonal rooms, all of which constitute a vast network.
The work of becoming a rhizome begins with flattening three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional map, the decision tree. Rhizomes exist in a flattened plane of consistency, which is entirely defined by interconnected vectors. Any “point” in a rhizome (which doesn’t actually exist in points, only in mappings of intensity and flow) can connect to any other “point” in the rhizome. Nothing exists outside of the rhizome. The rhizome never simply is a rhizome; it is only constantly becoming a rhizome.
The library becomes a rhizome only through lines of flight (a fundamental feature of any rhizome). When adventurers face a threat they cannot overcome, they may flee, but only by blindly delving deeper into the Library. They divert themselves from the decision-tree diagram used to chart their path, become lost, and must then draw a line back into the network of explored rooms.
When this flight occurs, the newly realized rhizome reterritorializes the multicursal labyrinth—simultaneous with the PCs’ reterritorialization of a library as a labyrinth/dungeon—and transforms the vertical, depth-oriented, arboreal decision-tree structure into a flattened map of routes across a complex space.
Lines of flight always connect back to the rhizome, forming assemblages with whatever is outside but adjacent by establishing rhizomatic interconnections with those previously external objects or systems. These include the diegesis outside the Library and the metagame environment.
The Stygian Library, like any rhizome, has many shifting points of entry that also serve as points of egress. Any space possessing sufficient density, breadth, and death can become an entryway into the Library. Any search for esoteric or rare knowledge can potentially lead back into the Library.
The Library’s rhizomatic structure does not solely manifest in its spatial layout and diegetic nature. The recurring characteristics and shared aspects that link disparate existents and establish identity en abyme—there are many more than those discussed above—are also trajectories of the rhizome. Roleplaying games are multilogues that consist of constant, non-hierarchical communication amongst players, and this too enters into and becomes the rhizome; the “metagame” social dynamic and the individual neural network enter into an assemblage with The Stygian Library, becoming part of the same rhizomatic labyrinth in the act of play.
There are four types of labyrinths. They all converge in one library.
You can find entrances to the labyrinth at SoulMuppet Publishing (print), Exalted Funeral (print & digital), DriveThruRPG (digital), and Technical Grimoire (library generator).
You can go deeper into the library with Umberto Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (pp. 80 – 84), Penelope Reed Doob’s The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, Lucien Dallenbach’s The Mirror in the Text, and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (“Introduction: Rhizome”).
Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.
Tabula Rasa: a (p)review
An exclusive first look at the groundbreaking rules-minimalist, experience-maximalist TTRPG
Games & Systems
The tradeoff between flexibility and direction, and the pitfalls of thinking about both
Callers, Multilogue, and the GM as Ant Queen
More musings on communication and structure in TTRPGs
8 thoughts on “Ariadne’s Ribbon”