Level One Wonk: The Kitchen Sink

Welcome back! I’m the Level One Wonk, and today we’re throwing things at a wall to see what sticks! Most popular games out there exist within the framework of a genre or existing setting, and use those constraints to create interesting stories. In Dungeons and Dragons you have magic, monsters, and an underlying battle between good and evil. In Star Wars you have the Force, liberties taken with the laws of physics, and…an underlying battle between good and evil. At the end of the day, though, sometimes you want to mix chocolate and peanut butter and get something else. What if your D&D setting was invaded by aliens? Who were actually Force Ghosts…who actually came from the world of Exalted? What if they were all psychic? Why stop there? Sometimes you want everything and the kitchen sink.

A “kitchen sink” game is a catch-all term for any campaign, game, or setting that tries to take powers, conceits, and creatures from multiple settings and give a reason for them all to coexist. If you’ve ever either said or heard a sentence like “cowboys with lasers riding dinosaurs”, you understand the inherent appeal of this style. Going in, the two big things you need to do are write the setting so that it makes at least a little sense, and then figure out how to GM a game where anything goes.

A Kitchen Sink Setting

There is a non-zero chance you’re thinking “man, this sounds fun but also writing something like this sounds like utter nonsense”. Fear not! There are two fairly well-known kitchen sink games you can just pick up and play. Not coincidentally, they’re both from the 80s, but more coincidentally, both were updated to more modern sensibilities within the last year. Rifts has been Palladium’s golden goose for years, and it was recently updated to run in the Savage Worlds system. TORG, from around the same time, has recently had a new edition released as well, TORG Eternity. Both of these games come with all the gonzo you need out of the box. If you want something better tailored to your group, though, you can still write your own setting.

Top-down Worldbuilding

This is the traditional “I write the world” style of setting creation. Now, if you have a crazy idea, do this! Write it out! Try it on your players, and see if they like it. If you really want a custom brand of crazy, though, I don’t think this is the best way to do it. Getting a high nonsense utilization rate out of your world really requires player involvement; if you write a bunch of crazy stuff but your players don’t think it’s all that interesting, your kitchen sink has become clogged.

The Spaghetti Method

The Spaghetti method is named after that aphorism I already used once in the text: throw things at the wall, see what sticks. Sit down with your players and an appropriately genre-less system, and start throwing out ideas. It helps to have an appropriately crazy start point (try some of the basics: time travel, interdimensional portals, the Mayan Apocalypse, Cthulhu), but after that, just listen to setting and character ideas and don’t say no to anything. You want a kitchen sink? You need everything but the kitchen sink. When one guy suggests a travelling merchant who snatches his inventory from a pocket dimension and the next guy wants to write a space paladin from a race of amoebic aliens from beyond, it means it’s working. You’re still going to want to ask questions about how the characters are connected, but prepare for answers that are even crazier than the character concepts.

The Nexus

Nexus is my favorite way to create a kitchen sink, but it only works with groups that have a history. You’ll need a list of every game your group has ever played. The more, the merrier…include one-shots, campaigns that fizzled, campaigns so long ago that only the GM and one other guy are still in the group, include everything. Now, if your group plays exclusively in one genre or system, this is going to be pretty lame (it might be neat, actually, but it won’t be much of a kitchen sink). But, if you have several different things to work from, it just takes a little writing. Take two or three campaigns, the less similar they are, the better. Now, get out a blank sheet of paper (or Word document) and brainstorm on this question:

“What if all three (four, two, seven) of these campaigns took place in the same world?”

Now, the second part will work for anything, but is especially compelling for kitchen sink games. Take out some of the most memorable NPCs and PCs from whatever sources you have available. Write them back into the world. Plan for them to show up at key moments. You can do this not only for characters but also for items and locations. Your players, may laugh, they may cheer, or they may be really shocked, but they will be paying attention. That’s what makes Nexus work: half of it is a writing exercise designed to come up with something crazy, and the other half is getting your players invested in the setting with callbacks that they will be familiar with.

A Kitchen Sink Game

So you’ve written this crazy thing. How on earth are you going to run it? Kitchen sink games, even including published games designed to be kitchen sink games, often take liberties with such quaint notions like “game balance” and “realism”. Rifts is a great example, because the starting characters in Rifts include Glitter Boy pilots, who pilot massive shiny mechs with huge guns, baby dragons, who are in fact dragons, and Juicers, whose use of powerful combat drugs give them an extremely limited lifespan. And realistically, if you do in fact want a kitchen sink game, you want this range of characters. Having a bunch of crazy setting elements and character options in your game won’t contribute much unless they actually show up. Generally the easiest way to create a kitchen sink game is with a generic system; you’re either going to want one where it’s very easy to write everything, or one where a lot of the work is done for you.

A System Where It’s Very Easy to Write Everything

My go-to example of a system where it’s very easy to write everything is Fate. Expand the skill list as necessary, but beyond that little has to change. You may want to think about balancing power types by giving them permissioning aspects, stunts, or both depending on how you envision the power level. This way, you both can include, say, sorcery, psionics, mutations, and cybernetic enhancements in the same game, and still make it more difficult to use multiple power sets rather than just focus on one. It will be up to you to write these powers in a way that they feel unique: using the full extra rules will help with this, and the Fate System Toolkit has more guidance on how to make several power-sets in the system and have them feel different.

You can alter the Fate point economy to account for the power level you want, but you really don’t have to. Let the characters do epic things, and don’t be afraid to have your opponents be equally epic and ridiculous. The Fate Adversary Toolkit can help you take the nonsense you’ve just translated into the system, and further translate it into memorable and challenging opponents.

A System Where a Lot of the Work is Done For You

This may not be the first thing people think of, but GURPS is a prime example of a system where there’s tons of design work done for you for every imaginable power, energy source, or (about to be subverted) genre convention. The most straightforward (and probably cheapest) way to do this is to get a copy of the GURPS Basic Set and the supplement GURPS Powers. GURPS Powers gives a way to model any character ability imaginable, as well as a system of lenses to differentiate and restrict those powers based on their power source. The Basic Set has solid building blocks for the GURPS Powers approach with both a long list of advantages and a long list of advantage modifiers. Also in the Basic Set are Magic and Psionics rules, if you want to throw those in there. GURPS also has a pre-made Kitchen Sink setting available, the dimension-hopping Infinite Worlds. If you like the “shopping catalog” approach to throwing everything but the kitchen sink into your setting but GURPS doesn’t feel modular enough, you can go with the Hero System instead. Hero System uses a more flexible power creation system than GURPS, but many people feel that it’s strange creating characters where both a handgun and a wizard’s fireball are modeled from the same basic ability. That low-level system makes it very easy to create just about anything you could imagine, though.

When running a kitchen sink game, it’s important to remember what about the game is going to be fun. Generally, the driving motivation behind a kitchen sink setting is that “ten year old with Legos” feeling of putting together something crazy and feeling like you can do anything. If you are GMing this game, it is your job to reinforce that feeling. If a player says they want cybernetically-implanted chest missiles, it’s not only your job to say yes, it’s your job to make sure that at some point in the game they’re going to fire them (and if they fire them at a group of heavily armed contract attorneys descending from a helicopter, all the better).

This also means that notions of mechanical balance are likely going to fly out the window. This is often true in games like GURPS anyway, but here it’s especially important that you watch not for mechanical ability but spotlight time with your characters. Watch out for what they were most enthusiastic about in character creation, and help it come up. If players come up with crazy ideas on their own, do your best to make them do something awesome (though you are in no way obligated to have that awesome thing be good for the characters every time). I also find that when running games like this, everyone has a lot more fun if you are able to embrace the fact that a lot of the setting doesn’t make any sense. The rules of the world should be consistent, but they need not align to our conventional expectations of story structure or physics. And while you should be a fair GM, feel free to try and one-up your players with your encounters, specifically their craziness factor. And don’t worry too much about difficulty…both laying waste to enemies in a rapid and ridiculous fashion as well as running screaming from cybernetically enhanced tyrannosaurs will amp up the crazy factor of your campaign. No matter what you do, say yes to everything, and the be prepared for exactly what nonsense evolves out of that. It’s a fun ride.

TORG Eternity, Savage Rifts, Fate, Hero System, and now even GURPS are available at DriveThruRPG.

Header Image is by Jason Chan, from the cover of Sooner Dead by Mel Odom, copyright WotC 2011, set in the equally kitchen-sinky Gamma World!

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