You're strolling through a large open space, larger than any
you've seen before.
Above you is an endless blank expanse of blue more exquisitely perfect
than any television picture of the outside you've ever seen. It seems
to go on... forever. The light
seems to come from nowhere, and everywhere. Below you is a
dirt-encrusted floor that
stretches out just as far. The floor itself seems to be made
of dirt. Covering the floor, blowing about in eddies and whirls are an
endless plain of papers. Forms, notes, countless authorizations.
A dilapidated old man strolls beside you. The ornate blue uniform of the long-extinct Clerical Guard hangs off him in threadbare faded tatters. He stares off into the distance as you walk along...
The only place you ever find that word now is in Snyder's Anthology for Children... for the six-to-eight-year-olds in their oh-so-shameful, frivolous youth. I suppose, yes, the latest bulletins from Computation Division say "Oh, Our new filing system: 1866 nonsynchronous lookups per minute! It must be magic!", but they don't know the real meaning. It's been lost.
You might not know it... barely a soul alive in this wasteland knows it... but this world was once awash... neck-deep in magic. No, I'm not talking about high-volume search algorithms that mysteriously work at 105% of spec... that's just big talk. I'm talking about honest-to-goodness power-and-might, color-and-light magic. Each town back then... you remember the old towns, from your Social History classes, I'd imagine? Back before the Big Buildings? Well, each small town had their own Town Wizard, and in the larger cities, the Grand Academies were grand and beautiful structures where the enlightened ones from miles around converged to study the mystical arts. Why, right where the A Building stands, 200 floors down, was the Great Northern Academy, one of the most prestigious magical institutions in time or history. Three-thousand odd of the world's greatest magical minds, all in one place, learning how to control the forces of nature. There was power there so great it could move mountains, not that they would.
But it all just... dripped away. I don't suppose they taught you about the Great Modernization in that rat-infested Municipal School, did they? The academies, the Guilds, the Wizard's Societies, they all tried to keep the craft alive, but the magical world was dimming. As industry took away our best and brightest to the cities, wizards aged and died, and important rotes and techniques began to die along with them.
Of course, they called it the one saving stroke of the magical era-- The Great Modernization! Codify the rotes, make the spells into recipes, ship them off to the Academy to be tallied, tabulated, sorted, filed, and locked away for safekeeping. Bit by bit, though, the system began to grow and to corrupt itself under the weight of "Modernization". The great wizards became file clerks, the great Academies grew into lumbering cancerous bureaucracies that swallowed whole cities. Layer upon layer, the paper-shufflers created the System, a beast that got so tangled that its core rotted out from under it. The System became the only reason for its own existence, and still it grew. The towns became the Big Buildings, the people a race of blind Approvals Pending clerks and Efficiency Tabulation Experts. Generations of people-- like you-- live sad little lives never once seeing the sky. The man gestures up, Is it like you imagined?
And it's weakened, beaten, bruised, and gravely in danger of dying, but the old magic still has a heartbeat. Below all the noise of shuffling paperwork and clacking typewriters, you can hear it. This System you live every day, this sea of forms and authorizations, somehow the true purpose of it all still softly whispers.
You come upon a simple desk in the emptiness. Papers flurry and swirl around it in the rising wind.
Here, now, we've arrived. I believe I have something vitally important you need to authorize.
From his coat, the man slowly produces a yellowed old form.
This should serve you well. He gingerly places the form on the desk-- 9900: License and Approval for the Practice of Magic-- and raises his stamp.
You snap awake into tepid darkness and the sound of a slowly dripping faucet. You're back in your same old tiny room, in the same old little bed you sleep in every night, in the lodging quarters area on the 193rd floor of Building A, where you've lived your entire life. You stare up at the ceiling. Something feels different. There's a feeling within you, something both terribly frightening, yet... what is that? Exhilarating. Even in the darkness, you feel like a fog has lifted from your sight, as if you've been asleep, half-dead all these years. And perhaps you have-- you've never been bored by your life as an Approvals Pending clerk. You give to the System what it demands of you. You could never really hack the exciting life in Physical Plant or Technical Support, anyhow.
The System is part parody, part exploration. The game centers on a race of creatures with their lives shaped entirely by an all-encompassing bureaucracy, for which they work and live. The characters all live and work in the middle floors of a seemingly infinite office building. Few have actually been to "the roof", and to see the sky is something seen on television programs, books, and spoken of in third-hand accounts. Life is lived entirely under shoddy flourescents, walking through hallways, and existing in a series of tiny apartments and offices.
The power abilities of characters, both PC and NPC run from dull to extraordinarily weak. This is not to say that they are at a disadvantage to their environment-- the environment itself, at least initially, presents few challenges which would overtax the characters. This lowered-yet-paritied conflict model enhances the absurd environment of the game, and lends itself to the texture. People in this bureaucratic swamp are bred to be confoundingly dull, cowed, frightened of the outside world, frightened of each other, frightened of change, entrenched in routine, and largely contented-- happy, even-- just to sit all day and perform the menial task of "sign here, stamp here" for their entire lives.
This world is built on the power of the form, the signature, the authorization, and the snarled, overwrought procedure. The environment is, one might note, somewhat anachronistic in that technology, as most innovation, has stagnated at a level roughly, at best, of the 1970s-80s. Most "business" (if one were to count the aimless shuffling as such) is performed on an endless supply of paper.
The place where the characters live and work, and many storylines need never leave, is Building A Built after Modernization upon the Great Northern Academy, the organization that proposed the transition, Building A stands as a symbol of this Modern life. Few residents of the building actually know the dimensions of Building A. It spans for countless miles in every direction, including upward and downward. Many have lived and died without ever seeing its windows, rooftop, or the sky outside. Building A is, for most intents and purposes, endless.
The term The System encompasses this entire tangled universe, and serves as both the purpose and the definition of the seemingly pointless tasks of everyone in it. No one actually knows the purpose of The System-- the most any one person may ever usually grasp is that, for instance, an Approvals Pending clerk works to stamp "Authorized Pending Supervisory Approval" upon submitted copies of Form EEE#961692iv-NJM-38283881, Request for Clarification Documents Regarding Proper Timely Filing Procedures for Form EEE#961004i-NJM-39402910, so that they may be sent to the proper Group EEE "Department for Approval of Pre-Authorized Supplementary Documentation Requests" office, at which point they become authorized, and so The System continues.
The System, unbeknownst to its cogs, is the cancerous overgrowth of a long-forgotten ancient innovation to try and categorize and codify the disparate and quickly-disappearing arts of magic. As such things are, though, the trickster magic had its own way, and the system grew, and grew, and grew into The System. As it stands now, The System is in fact self-driving-- it is merely a circularily-referential giant of bureaucracy that does nothing but utilize obscure filing departments in order to support other obscure filing departments. However, in the strands and interconnections of the system, some remnant of the original magic, the energy, remains, shaping it and preserving it. The System itself has awoken, become aware, and has chosen a select few to try and reawaken the lost magics.
Lost even beyond myth, there is one keystone to the entire System still exists, which holds inconcievable power. It is Form 1: A Modernized System for the Classification of Rotes, Rites, and Other Magical Knowledges-- An Overview. It is the form which created The System so many ages ago, and it is often referred to (when it is referred to) simply as The One Form.
When the player-characters are "awakened" by the spirit of the System, they are given a rare authorization: Form 9900: License and Approval for the Practice of Magic. Although this form does not immediately grant the PCs the right to start creating magical effects, the form is essential to the practice of magic later on, and it does have its own "abilities". Although the PC cannot control the outward appearance of Form 9900, it never actually appears as itself to others. Form 9900, to the outside observer, disguises itself as any number of other Forms [this needs a mechanic]-- sometimes useful, sometimes simply benign, rarely detrimental, unless the PC needs somehow to be diverted or taught a lesson. The catch with this is that the form always looks like 9900 to the PC.
As the game progresses, things should tend to weigh more heavily toward the "magic", and mystically strange, side. One method to achieve this is to use floor decay. As Building A grows upward and outward, the core of it shrivels and dies. As one goes down the levels, the terrain turns more run-down and rickety, the population thins out to nothing, and the abandonment grows longer and longer past. Here, more fantastic elements can be added-- strange beasts and creatures, the seeping spread of magic, beings from outside The System.
Idea-- Perhaps the awakening is only experienced by the descendents of a particular few dissenting wizards.
Remember-- I want to have some gigantuan semisentient filing computer that is the agent of the pointless-bureaucracy and the antithesis and enemy of the magical part of The System.