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drunkonduty

World Building - Kitchen Sink or Taiored?

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First up, I'm just sharing some thoughts, looking to start a conversation. Feel free to disagree with me. Feel free to give vent to your own frustrations.

 

In responding to a post in another thread I got to thinking about world designing, specifically kitchen sink worlds vs. worlds more closely tailored to a given style. Pathfinder's  Golarion is a kitchen sink world. It is a conscious attempt to mix every style of fantasy in the one game world, thereby giving it broader sales appeal. Valdorian Age and Tuala Morna are good examples of more tailored settings.
 

Me, I dislike kitchen sink worlds. The clashing of genres bugs me. I find it very hard to come up with justifications that satisfy my need for consistent narrative. A classic example of genre mixing that bugs me is mixing sci-fi and fantasy. Now look, I love me some Thundar the Barbarian. I do. Thundar works fine as a setting. But how does one mix Thundar with Lord of the Rings? Or Tad Williams' Shadowmarch? Or Celtic mythology? Or Dracula? Worse, how would one put all of these in the same world and hope for some sort of consistent approach to that world? (Golarion, I'm looking at you.)  I don't think one can. Such a world fails at being consistent about it's own story. For me, this is a problem.

 

As well as struggling to find a single story for the world, it can be awkward to find consistent stories for the characters that inhabit that world. I don't like the idea of juxtaposing a gothic horror tale next door to a super high fantasy tale in which the PCs are able to wade through literal armies of enemies, to jump between worlds at the click of a finger, level cities with a word, force the Lords of Hell to do their bidding, etc. (You know, the usual high level DnD sorta stuff.)

 

It's also about creating a set of underlying assumptions at the start of the game and then sticking to them. If I agree to a given style of game, I want to play that style of game. I don't want to be playing a gritty, low fantasy one moment only to be whisked off to the flying castle on the back of flying rainbow unicorns where I'm told I'm the one hope against the Dark Lord. Changing gears that hard gives me whiplash and as a player I would hate it. (I hate it as a viewer too. Too many shows have gone on too long and eventually ignored their World Bible.)

 

So anyway, that's a short version of my gripes against kitchen sink worlds. How about you? Love it? Hate it? Don't know why there's any fuss at all?

 

 

 

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The all-in-one world  (if you're opinion shopping) is a serious gamble, and one I have seriously mixed feelings about.  I mean, I've done it for _short_ campaigns-- ten sessions or less, and as an occasional "hey, let's get weird for a few and cool off after that two-year arc," they work out pretty well.  (they can also serve to give you an idea of what your group might be up for next ;)  ).

 

But, at least for me, they don't have any staying power. :(  Well, maybe not just for me: you don't hear much about Rifts anymore  (though to be fair to everyone, outside of this message board, we don't _much_ about HERO anymore, either), and does anyone _really_ remember when Super World was just one piece of a larger "all-in" universe?  Not really, because it just didn't do well.

 

People like what they like, and they want what they like, and sure: it might be in that "kitchen sink" world.  The other side of the coin being that they _don't_ like what they don't like, and there's a better-than-fair chance that if you through in everything, well...   There's likely to be some turn-offs in there, too.

 

What no one really comes out and says, though, is that the world is a character, a quiet, never-addressed-directly, usually under-appreciated character, and characters _need_ personality.  They _need_ something that makes them unique, that gives them a flavor different from all the others.  Sure, sometimes that's just the ground rules of the game, or the concepts and ideas that you want to explore, but just as often, it's the way that magic works.  It's the level of danger and lethality, the elements of tone; it's the existence or non-existence of Tolkienesque elves.  It's the races and how they interact.  It's the tech level and lore unique to this one particular world.  All-in or even just copycat worlds-- that's the Hollywood, lowest-common-denominator approach. It lacks exclusion, it lacks a hard, immutable set of physics and magic and consistent history and power level....  It has no personality.  While we don't dislike them outright, none of us is really drawn to people with no personality, are we?  (No: not introverts; I'm talking about people who just have nothing in them, no creativity, no imagination, no thoughts of their own, no drive, no energy: those people who just kind of waste the skin they're wrapped in).

 

To use HERO examples:  I agree with most that Turakian Age is extremely well-written, and has lots and lots of potential plot hooks, etc.  But, while it's not an all-in sort of world, it is so incredibly generic that overall, it disappointed me: extremely well done; I will never take that away from it-- but so bland.....

 

Tuala Morn, a much less popular setting, is my personal favorite from HERO, just because it is unique (at least in my experience), and that uniqueness is both consistent and pervasive throughout it.

 

But again:  these are just my opinions; I don't know if anything here helps or not.

 

 

Duke

 

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At first Drunkonduty I thought you were talking about just monsters in a kitchen sink world and a million sub races too. For me, I’ve always wanted to play Shadow Run which is a mixed genre trope. I did originally hated the idea of sci-fi and Fantasy but not now. In some ways though aren’t basic Superhero games kitchen sink? Anything and everything is justification for Super powers? 

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1 hour ago, Duke Bushido said:

What no one really comes out and says, though, is that the world is a character, a quiet, never-addressed-directly, usually under-appreciated character, and characters _need_ personality.  They _need_ something that makes them unique, that gives them a flavor different from all the others.  Sure, sometimes that's just the ground rules of the game, or the concepts and ideas that you want to explore, but just as often, it's the way that magic works.  It's the level of danger and lethality, the elements of tone; it's the existence or non-existence of Tolkienesque elves.  It's the races and how they interact.  It's the tech level and lore unique to this one particular world.  All-in or even just copycat worlds-- that's the Hollywood, lowest-common-denominator approach. It lacks exclusion, it lacks a hard, immutable set of physics and magic and consistent history and power level....  It has no personality.  While we don't dislike them outright, none of us is really drawn to people with no personality, are we?  (No: not introverts; I'm talking about people who just have nothing in them, no creativity, no imagination, no thoughts of their own, no drive, no energy: those people who just kind of waste the skin they're wrapped in).

 

 

That's a great way of putting it! I completely agree, the game world is another character. And as such it's gotta have character.

 

I agree about the Turakian Age setting. It is just kinda bland. I like the Valdorian setting (particularly the magic system.) I haven't read the Tuala Morn setting but I keep hearing good things here. (Frankly I'd buy it and see for myself but the HERO site hasn't been willing to accept my credit card for a couple of years now. But I digress.)

 

For a world to have character it has to be definite about what it is and what it isn't.

 

 

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1 hour ago, Ninja-Bear said:

At first Drunkonduty I thought you were talking about just monsters in a kitchen sink world and a million sub races too. For me, I’ve always wanted to play Shadow Run which is a mixed genre trope. I did originally hated the idea of sci-fi and Fantasy but not now. In some ways though aren’t basic Superhero games kitchen sink? Anything and everything is justification for Super powers? 

 

Ninja-Bear, I think you've brought up a very good point. The monsters included/excluded are a very important piece of the world building puzzle. One I had not thought of. Thank you.

 

Let's look at Golarion again. The world has a range of weird and I would argue, incompatible, creatures baked into its history. Atlantis (called Azlant in the setting) was sunk by Aboleth (a sort of ersatz Lovecraftian elder race. Like mind flayers, but not WOTC IP.) They still live underground along side drow, duergar and other classic critters from the old DnD Underdark. Aboleth are presented as the all powerful masterminds behind every plot. Except in all those many cases when they're not. For instance up at the World Wound, which is a dimensional breech to the Abyss, its demons. And then there's horrifically powerful dragons. Where were the dragons when Atlantis was being sunk? I mean, they're in the setting. They just sat back and did nothing about the whole, earth shattering kaboom? And what about the Fey? There's tonnes of Fey about, living all parallel dimension-y and popping over to main stream Golarion to say hi and make a nuisance of themselves. Then there's androids. Yep, about 500 years ago a space ship crashed on Golarion. Now there's androids. Not enough? Let's throw in some kaiju. There are some monsters actually called Kaiju in some of the official Pathfinder bestiaries but there's also things called Behemoths which are the same damn thing. Oh yeah and Baba Yaga's daughters are the witch queens of a horrible Russian fairy tale country.

 

<sigh>

 

Any one of those is great. But together... It's all a bit too much for me.

 

Re.: Shadowrun. I like the setting. Yeah, it's a bit gonzo. But it started gonzo and didn't go too far from there. Over time it did expand it's suite of monsters a bit. But not too much, and not so far from  what was established in the basics of the setting. For example Bug Spirits got added in one of the adventures. That's not so bad. Animal spirits were already a thing. The Bug Spirits were different more in attitude and long term goals than in any fundamental way from spirits as  the setting already presented them. I think the Shadowrun world has the right amount of weirdness to be interesting. Caveat: I only know 1st ed. Shadowrun. I have no idea what may have happened after that.

 

As for super hero games - yeah. They are very kitchen sink. But they don't have to be. I mean, as originally envisaged the Xmen universe was meant to be its own thing and not cross over with other Marvel titles. But I guess  the $$$ potential of cross overs was too good to pass up. And now we all have to try to justify a world in which the Xmen are reviled for being weirdos with powers and the Avengers are lauded for the exact same thing. Xmen would be better served being in its own world . In all fairness it is usually written as if it is. As are many of the comics. But then a stupid cross over event happens... <sigh>

 

 

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41 minutes ago, Scott Ruggels said:

 Well I bowed out of four color, and much prefer tailored  worlds.  As a creative, I find tight limits is often a stimulus for creativity.  Kitchen sink worlds tend to breed a lack of originality.

 

I agree on the tight limits acting as stimuli to creativity. It forces me, as a GM, to think about interesting characters & interesting plots, rather than just throwing some new monster at the heroes.

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Personally, I don't consider either tailored worlds or kitchen-sink worlds (to borrow your terminology) are inherently superior. IME it comes down to how they're utilized. The former promote a specific tone, plot, and style of play, which if a particular game group is into can make for satisfying gaming. But if the Game Master and players won't or can't follow through on those elements, build from the strengths of the world, however carefully crafted it is it'll fall flat. OTOH a kitchen sink world gives a group diverse elements that they can choose from to find what's most interesting and rewarding for them; but if they don't weave those elements together into a narrative that makes sense to them their gaming will tend to be unfocused and directionless.

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LL: you raise good points. 

 

I guess I just like a specific tone and focus. But hey, I'm not suggesting one is superior to the other. Perhaps I should edit my first  post and add a YMMV. I'd certainly be happy to hear from someone who prefers more kitchen sink.

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I guess that would be me. :rolleyes: But I admit I may have a bias, since my favorite genre is actually supers; and mainstream supers is almost the epitome of kitchen-sink, borrowing liberally from practically every other genre of adventure fiction. But I like being able to play in a big sandbox with lots of different toys.

 

I've already posted to these forums that The Turakian Age is probably my preferred fantasy setting. I don't find it bland at all; yes, it has many features familiar to fantasy gamers, but I find that familiarity comforting, and that it eases new Hero players in quite smoothly. Yet TA mixes in many other distinctive elements; while its sheer size and diversity allows me to run a variety of campaign styles, depending on where in the world I set the game and what plot points inherent to those locations I want to stress. (I've posted a few examples to the forums at various times.)

 

I have nothing against the tailored setting. If it was well conceived and executed, and offers the kind of experience a particular group wants, there's no gaming more satisfying. But I also find that such a setting tends to have an expiration date. Eventually the group has explored everything it has to offer, or has taken its metaplot to its conclusion, or just tires of that style and tone of play and are ready to move on to something new. It's harder to wear out diversity, at least if it's well constructed. ;)

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I’ve stumbled upon Running the Game You Tube videos by Matt Colville. I really like them. He talks about how to start a game world with a village and he has a work sheet on questions to ask to build a rudimentary world. The point is by asking a few questions and answering them, you can create a new world.  From a different video he describes by background tweak, he changed the Dragonborn. In this particular setting, the Dragonborn are a created race and are perceived as unshakable good guys and at the start of the game because of the big bad, they are illegal and hunted down. Another video he mentioned in a game world, the Under Dark is really a different dimension. So yeah you can take generic fantasy and make it your own.

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Its a matter of individual taste, but I do not like mixing sci fi or tech elements into fantasy or I think it loses its particular fantasy flavor.  Others enjoy that kind of thing.  My Jolrhos setting is much more traditional ("familiar but unique" is the phrase I use to describe it), and some people find that kind of more generic setting dull.

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1 hour ago, Christopher R Taylor said:

Its a matter of individual taste, but I do not like mixing sci fi or tech elements into fantasy or I think it loses its particular fantasy flavor.  Others enjoy that kind of thing.  My Jolrhos setting is much more traditional ("familiar but unique" is the phrase I use to describe it), and some people find that kind of more generic setting dull.

 

I think there's a great deal of validity to that position. If science and magic are mixed haphazardly into the same setting they can definitely detract from each other. OTOH if there's a purpose behind the mixture it can become a positive. I'm reminded of Andre Norton's first couple of novels in her Witch World series, or her two books about the planet Janus. They epitomize a common theme in her earlier works, of societies based on magic defending themselves from invaders using advanced technology. In that case the contrast enhances the dynamic of the conflict.

 

Then there are settings in which the mashup of genre conventions is actually the point. TSR's classic Gamma World is supposedly a science-based post-apoc setting, but the "science" behind the technology and genetic mutations is so rubber it bounces all over the landscape. ;)  In many ways that it manifests it might as well be magic, but the setting pushes the envelope as to how far that convention can be stretched -- with tongue firmly in cheek -- to justify all manner of bizarre mutants and tricked-out cyborgs, resulting in a unique tone and experience.

 

Palladium's Rifts was mentioned earlier on this thread, and the sink doesn't get any deeper. :P  But throwing all those different genre archetypes together created its own unique synergy, in which the archetypes not only coexist, but impact and evolve each other in new ways. One of my favorite gaming supplements is Rifts' Pantheons of the Multiverse, because it shows mythic gods adopting the technology they now have access to (personal favorite is Hermes's hand-held railgun, nicknamed "the Herminator"), and aliens masquerading as gods and other folkloric creatures to exploit their believers.

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I very strongly prefer tailored.  I can't stand kitchen sink (D&D style) tropes that are included haphazardly just because someone thinks it's "not fantasy" without them.  Give me something different -- not just strangeness for its own sake either; but something really different and neat that makes me think of it in a different way.  

 

I am quite happy to see technological elements in fantasy, again not kitchen sink, especially not kitchen sink high tech mixed with kitchen sink fantasy.  The Thundarr or He-Man type mixture doesn't really appeal.  Give me something like Eberron.  

 

(I'm currently reading a web serial called Worth the Candle which is scratching a lot of those itches.  And would strongly recommend giving it a chance, up through chapter 14 -- the end of book 1, at least.  It's an isekai, litRPG style story, only good -- very non-weeb.  It's on Archive of our Own and Royal Road; easy to find via Google, but I'll provide links if requested.)

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15 hours ago, drunkonduty said:

I mean, as originally envisaged the Xmen universe was meant to be its own thing and not cross over with other Marvel titles.

 

As originally envisaged the X-Men "universe" was a single title, so, yes. But it would be a mistake to think that there was a great master plan involved.

 

Especially during the 50s, (what became) Marvel's business model was to find a genre that was selling well, and spam the shelves with titles in that genre. They continued doing that into the 60s, as superheroes became the dominant genre.

 

The X-Men was one of those spam titles. The FF and Avengers were selling well, so Marvel put out yet another similar book. It didn't sell as well, so they didn't go for a fourth one. (The Defenders, The Champions and so on were from the 70s and later.)

 

At the same time, crossovers between titles were proving popular, so the X-Men were drawn into that as a matter of course, and very rapidly.

 

So, on balance, no, the X-Men weren't meant to be their own thing. (And they were the original team back then - quite different from the present day mess, despite versions of those characters still being around.)

 

---

 

To the main point of the thread: I prefer to develop my own fantasy worlds. Naturally they tend not to be as large or elaborate as published products.

 

They also tend to be relatively narrow in terms of what they cover - I don't build kitchen sink settings, although in theory they could evolve in that direction if I were to stick with a single one and keep incorporating new elements. On the other hand, I don't get too strict with themes. If I wanted to write a novel I'd write a novel.

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These are the Elements to My Superhero World.

 

The Ancients who formed the basis of the Gods never died out, instead mating with normal humans.

 

This caused many others to develop superhuman power and longer lifespans, but at a lower power level then the Ancients.

 

Those with powers went from being Gods to Witches and Demons, and were hunted.

 

During the American Revolution King George III hired a superhuman with the power to raise the dead so he could send walking skeleton soldiers against the Continental Army.

 

George Washington offers a safe place to live for superhumans if they fight on the side of the Continental Army.  Many take up the offer and counter the British superhuman, revealing him to be a fraud.

 

Those with and without powers begin to wear costumes and take descriptive names to protect their families from British and Tory retaliation.  They are called "Fancy Dress Bandits."

 

After the Revolutionary War the right to use superhuman powers are confirmed with the Second Amendment.

 

Other countries tightly control there superhumans forcing many of them to work for their Military and Espionage forces.  The more brutal begin executing them.

 

Some superhumans take power in various counties.

 

In the United States superheroes become unofficial bounty hunters for legal purposes, and good samaritan laws cover rescues.

 

In order to promote human achievement and fairness superhumans are banned from professional sports and the Olympics.  Superhumans set up their own sports and other contests.

 

 

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7 hours ago, Christopher R Taylor said:

I do not like mixing sci fi or tech elements into fantasy

 

Gotta level with you, OP:

 

When you said kitchen sink, I kinda thought that's what you meant; either that or fantasy where every conceivable firm of magic works, or sci-fi where every possible tech and every possible method of FTL works (I actually don't mind more than one in the same campaign, as long as they are...  "equally goofy?". I don't know how to explain that with just my thumbs.  If I find a keyboard, I can likely do better....), or sci fi where freaking light sabers exist.... 

 

Or every possible whatever does exist, even if you stay in a genre.   

 

I like variety, but when everything is special, nothing is special. 

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Here’s a funny thought. When people mention generic Fantasy, they’re usually referring to a Tolkeinesq world. However Tolkien specifically kept his world to a Norse/Germanic world. I read somewhere that he didn’t like his friend, C. S. Lewis’s world which had every myth in Narnia.

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Gonna try to reply to everyone.

 

Christopher: For me, I don't mind genre mash up. Sometimes. What I really hate is just walking along, minding my own business, looking for a dragon hoard to steal, and then suddenly I'm in a new genre. Maybe literally whisked off in to outer space when the dungeon takes flight. No warning. No choice. No thanks.

 

LL: I think you make a good point: a more tailored campaign world will run its course more quickly than a kitchen sink one. Generally I'm happy with that. I want a campaign to be finite. But I get that this would not suit every game. Hell, it wouldn't suit the game I'm playing with my wife, which is a long, rambling, peripatetic sort of thing that would have long run its course in a more tightly woven game world.

 

Chris: I'm with you. I want a game setting to be unusual and well thought out and thereby provoke some thoughts from me. I don't mind a mix of elements. Just not EVERY element.

 

Cassandra: that's a nice, dare I say single origin, supers universe. I swear if I ever get to run Champions again I want to do it in a single origin universe. Well, single-ish. If I was running a mutant origin game I'd allow a certain amount of hi-tech gadgetry. On the other hand if I was running a power armour origin game I would rule out mutants.

 

Duke: Well, mixing sci-fi into fantasy is one of those things that is a marker of moving toward kitchen sink type settings. It's not definitive. But it's a marker. BTW: I also want only one type of FTL (in those games where FTL comes up.)

 

Ninja-Bear: Hmm. I guess Tolkienesque is considered generic due to its ubiquity? Or am I just throwing out tautologies?

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I think Tolkienesque is considered generic because of-- well, sure; the ubiquity.  The damned thing won't die!-- but also because it's what so much other fantasy pulls from: same monsters; same sort of settings-- the only difference I see in a lot of it is that in everything except Tolkien, magic undeniably works, spectacularly.  Every instance of it in the Rings trilogy was sort of ..... uh....   yeah....  I can see where the magic might have done that......    The only place in the whole thing I can point to and say "yep.  Magic."  was the destruction of the billy goat balrog bridge.  Even then: how do we know he didn't whack the keystone with his staff?  I mean-- he fell in, too.....

 

You can safely accept that Tolkien is, today, as generic and wide-spread as it gets just by the existence of the acrostic:  YATRO:   Yet Another Tolkien Rip Off.

 

People just seem to love his mary sues elves.  What can I say?

 

 

 

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"Generic fantasy RPG" has meant "similar to Dungeons and Dragons" for a long time now, since it dominates tabletop gaming. Gary Gygax drew heavily, although far from exclusively, from Tolkien for the races and creatures in his game, which have taken on a life of their own separate from the source literature.

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15 hours ago, drunkonduty said:

Gonna try to reply to everyone.

 

Christopher: For me, I don't mind genre mash up. Sometimes. What I really hate is just walking along, minding my own business, looking for a dragon hoard to steal, and then suddenly I'm in a new genre. Maybe literally whisked off in to outer space when the dungeon takes flight. No warning. No choice. No thanks.

 

LL: I think you make a good point: a more tailored campaign world will run its course more quickly than a kitchen sink one. Generally I'm happy with that. I want a campaign to be finite. But I get that this would not suit every game. Hell, it wouldn't suit the game I'm playing with my wife, which is a long, rambling, peripatetic sort of thing that would have long run its course in a more tightly woven game world.

 

Chris: I'm with you. I want a game setting to be unusual and well thought out and thereby provoke some thoughts from me. I don't mind a mix of elements. Just not EVERY element.

 

Cassandra: that's a nice, dare I say single origin, supers universe. I swear if I ever get to run Champions again I want to do it in a single origin universe. Well, single-ish. If I was running a mutant origin game I'd allow a certain amount of hi-tech gadgetry. On the other hand if I was running a power armour origin game I would rule out mutants.

 

Duke: Well, mixing sci-fi into fantasy is one of those things that is a marker of moving toward kitchen sink type settings. It's not definitive. But it's a marker. BTW: I also want only one type of FTL (in those games where FTL comes up.)

 

Ninja-Bear: Hmm. I guess Tolkienesque is considered generic due to its ubiquity? Or am I just throwing out tautologies?

 

The star systems around Earth have been colonized by a number of the Ancients who took some of their worshipers and set up their own societies.   Some of them created strange creatures and a few of them have gotten loose, and have tried to take over Earth in 1895, 1938, and 1947.

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It's funny (not laugh funny, odd funny) that both Tolkien and DnD are considered generic fantasy. Because there's no way you can make the average DnD game anything like Middle Earth. Even low level DnD wizards and clerics are doing stuff you'd never see in Middle Earth. 

 

@Cassandra 1895, War of the Worlds (HG Wells), 1938 War of the Worlds (Orson Welles), 1947???? I wanna say Roswell...

And if so, where/what is this well that connects them all?

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