Modular Man: Fresh Out of the Box


by Walter Jon Williams

Modular Man is probably the strongest character in the Wild Cards universe who isn’t actually a wild card.  He’s got superhuman reflexes, superhuman strength, superhuman perception.  He can fly.  He’s immune to mind control.  Depending on the situation, he can carry into battle a variety of powerful weapons.  When he gets low on energy, he can recharge by sticking his fingers into an electric socket.

But he’s not a wild card.  He’s an android, and I created him because I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around a complicated set of rules.

It’s been related elsewhere how Wild Cards had its origins in a roleplaying game run by George RR Martin— and later, by myself and others.  (Dr. Tachyon, for example, originated in my campaign, not George’s.)

But Superworld was what they call a “rules-heavy” system, meaning that the rulebook was very long and very complex and featured a lot of complicated interactions.  Rules-heavy game systems reward the sort of player who can memorize hundreds of intricate rules, exploit ambiguities, and quote rules with the expertise of Thurgood Marshal arguing before the Supreme Court.

What can I say?  Rules-heavy systems were what the Eighties were about.

Rules-heavy systems can often be hacked in one way or another in order to give your character an edge, and I did my share of Superworld hacking.  But that was later, when I actually understood the system, and began to exploit its hidden potential.  At the beginning, I made a lot of mistakes.

My first mistake was creating Black Shadow.  The character in the game (as opposed to his appearances in the Wild Cards series) was very much a tentative exploration of Superworld’s character-creation setup.  The character was very much a fix-up, and eventually he needed a good deal of fixing up to be a viable RPG character.

But worse, Black Shadow was a Dark Avenger of the Night.  He was a solitary hunter who spent a lot of time on the rooftops brooding, and I was playing Superworld with a bunch of friends who enjoyed hanging out together.  I needed to create a character who worked and played well with others, which Black Shadow did not.

And also, I wanted a character I could fix.  I didn’t yet have confidence in my ability to create a character that would succeed in terms of the game, so I decided to create a character that was, well, modular.  If a particular module or talent wasn’t working, I wanted to be able to swap it out for something more useful.

So I created an android that could literally swap his parts in and out depending on what was needed.  And of course an android needs a creator, and Superworld allowed a player to give his characters sidekicks, and so Dr. Travnicek was born.

In Superworld, Travnicek lived in Kansas City, and would send Modular Man to New York (or wherever) to engage in heroics.  Travnicek was very much offstage.  He was a crackpot mad scientist, and was always giving Modular Man eccentric commands that sometimes conflicted with his principal duty of fighting crime, but Travenicek’s existence was a secret to the other players, who were sometimes bewildered by Modular Man’s insistence on carrying off weapons, choice bits of lab equipment, or sometimes whole villains so that Travnicek could study them.

Eventually I decided to play Travnicek as well, which meant engaging in demented dialogs with myself, and the contrast of Modular Man’s logical personality with Travnicek’s crazed ravings made some very funny theater, for all that it unleashed my own latent schizophrenia.

When Wild Cards was created, Modular Man probably required the smallest amount of adjustment of any character to fit into the new series.  He stepped from one to the other without gaining or losing anything important.  In the series, Modular Man wasn’t a wild card, but Travnicek was, and his wild card power became his ability to create a super-powered android.

Modular Man was a hugely powered character, and it was difficult to find opponents who would give him a challenge.  I intended for Modular Man’s nemesis to be the alien Swarm, which he would fight from one book to the next.  Then George decided that the Swarm would be introduced in Volume II, and then dealt with by the end of the book.  This left Modular Man at loose ends, but then Lew Shiner blew him up in Volume III, and I wasn’t able to place him again until Volume V, when Travnicek rebuilt him and sent him out again into the universe.

Modular Man’s rather endearing personality is more an artifact of the books than the game.  He’s actually the Wild Cards character you’d want to hang with.  He’s inhuman, but he longs for human contact.  He’s a brand-new innocent, but he’s under the thumb of a ruthless sociopath.  He died, but he came back, and he finds himself with a newly-grown sense of mortality.  He enjoys partying, for all that alcohol and drugs have no effect on him.  He has a number of girlfriends, but none of them stick around for long.

(One of his girlfriends is named Alice, married to a guy named Ralph.  I always had a thing for Audrey Meadows.)

At the end of the Jumper trilogy, Modular Man is finally rid of Dr. Travnicek, and he flies off into the sunset, carrying several other characters on the Statue of Liberty’s torch.  He’s got a joker girlfriend named Patchwork, and we sense that she might stick around.

People have asked me what happened to Mod Man after that.  I know, but I’m not telling.

Maybe he’s waiting for the world to be menaced by something sufficiently terrifying that we need someone as powerful as Modular Man to save us.  Or maybe he just wants to live in retirement with Patchwork, hoe his bean field (or whatever), and work the crossword.

Some day, you may all find out.