Roleplayer #16, October 1989

Playing With a Full Deck

Wild Cards Comes to Roleplaying

by John J. Miller

Wild Cards has come full circle.

For those unfamiliar with it, Wild Cards is the popular shared-world anthology published by Bantam Books about a world very similar to ours in which some individuals have super powers and abilities. The series attempts to take a realistic look at the effects such individuals, called aces, have on the world, and the effects their powers have on them.

Its origins lay in a long-running Superworld campaign with George R.R. Martin as GM and a group of Albuquerque, N.M., science fiction writers as players. This group included later Wild Cards contributors Gail Gerstner-Miller, Victor Milán, John J. Miller, Melinda Snodgrass, and Walter Jon Williams.

We all had a tremendous amount of fun with the RPG campaign, but we were also spending a great deal of time and creative energy on it. George Martin alone has a portfolio of over a hundred NPCs and guest villains, some of whom still haven't seen the light of day. George figured that there had to be some way to make money out of our shared obsession, so he decided to turn it into a shared-world anthology. For those unfamiliar with that term, a "shared-world anthology" is simply a book or series of books wherein a group of writers invent characters that they place in a shared, co-invented setting. The writers then also swap characters, using them within each others' stories.

George and Melinda Snodgrass developed the parameters of the Wild Cards universe. They decided on a common origin of the superhuman powers. They also devised the card terminology (ace, joker, black queen, etc.) that permeates the books. George then sent out invitations to writers he thought might be interested in working in such a universe, including fellow Santa Fean and multiple Hugo and Nebula award winner Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan, Howard Waldrop, Edward Bryant and Stephen Leigh.

The response was enthusiastic, and the Wild Cards series began to take shape. The first Wild Cards book starts in 1946 with Dr. Tachyon's arrival on Earth. Tachyon is a Psi Lord from the planet Takis. He comes to Earth in what ultimately is a failed attempt to prevent his family from using the Earth as a testing ground for Xenovirus Takis-A, or as it's popularly known, the wild card virus.

The virus is a genetic tool engineered by Tachyon's family to give everyone exposed to it extraordinary mental and physical powers. Unfortunately, it works only part of the time. Ninety percent of those who are infected it go through terrible transformations and die horribly. In wild cards terminology, these individuals are said to have drawn the black queen. Nine percent of the virus' victims live through the experience, but as twisted, malformed wrecks known as jokers. A mere one percent of those who contract the virus, one in a hundred victims, are the lucky ones. They draw the ace from the deck of the wild cards and are blessed with superhuman powers and abilities.

The virus exploded over the skies of Manhattan on September 15, 1946, and the world was forever changed. Ten thousand drew the black queen and died that afternoon. Over a thousand became jokers and lived on, wishing they had died. Eventually most of these jokers ended up in Manhattan's slum areas, the Bowery and Lower East Side. As more and more victims of the virus joined them, the region they inhabit came to be known as Jokertown. Wild Cards follows Dr. Tachyon and the first aces, the Exotics for Democracy, through their initial successes on the inter-national scene and subsequent downfall during the dark McCarthy years, up to the relative enlightenment of the current day.

Book II in the series, Aces High, tells what happens when the Takisians return to the Earth to check on their experiment. Book III, Jokers Wild, follows the events on a single day in New York City, the fortieth anniversary of the first Wild Card Day, and Book IV, Aces Abroad, looks at what the wild card virus did to the rest of the world. Down and Dirty, the last volume in the series currently available, returns the action to New York City where the Mafia and the Shadow Fist Society are fighting for control of the NYC underworld while a virulent new form of the virus strikes terror into the city.

There will be at least seven more books, including solo novels. The series has proven very popular and will likely continue as long as the popularity lasts, because the Wild Cards universe has so many stories in it that we will never have the problem of running out of material.

The popularity of the series has led to the appearance of Wild Cards in other media. Epic Comics, a division of Marvel, will publish a four-issue limited series this winter. This limited series will not be a straight adaptation of the previously published volumes, but will consist of new stories and will also reveal the origins of some of the most popular Wild Cards characters.

Also due for release in the summer of 1989 is the RPG version of Wild Cards, which will be published as a GURPS worldbook by Steve Jackson Games.

GURPS Wild Cards is written by long-time Wild Cards contributor John J. Miller, the creator of such characters as Daniel "Yeoman" Brennan, Jennifer "Wraith" Maloy, Father Squid, Chrysalis, Billy "Carnifex" Ray, and the ever-popular and delightful Ti Malice.

The last chapter covers gaming in the Wild Cards universe. It discusses choosing a character from the series and also provides guidelines for creating your own aces and jokers. It offers advice in running a scenario that is faithful to the philosophy and atmosphere of the series, and discusses the Wild Cards approach to various super-cliche's such as hero and villain groups, costumes, and the use of secret identities. Also included are several short adventure seeds to get you started on your own Wild Cards scenario, ranging from adventuring in Vietnam to breaking up drug rings to swarm busters to professional wrestling in the Wild Cards universe.

Although the Wild Cards authors have stressed realism throughout the series, it doesn't mean that RPG campaigns have to be grim deathtraps, depressingly realistic, or even entirely serious. Wild Cards heroes have battled social injustice, crazed criminal conspiracies bent on world domination, normal criminal conspiracies bent on increasing their bank accounts, alien invasions, and even great apes suffering from the compulsion to kidnap blondes and carry them to the top of the Empire State Building.

As we've discovered in writing this series, sometimes it doesn't matter how strong your character is, or that he can lift tanks with the power of his mind or hurl fire with his bare hands.

But sometimes it does.

(Back to Roleplayer #16 Table of Contents)

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