The First Wild Cards Day or, the Game That Ate My Life

In the books, Wild Cards Day is celebrated every September 15, in memory of September 15, 1946, the day that Jetboy spoke his immortal last words while Dr. Tod loosed an alien virus over Manhattan. In real life, September 15, 1946 happens to be the day that Howard Waldrop was born…and Howard, coincidentally, wrote “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway,” the opening story of the first Wild Cards book, wherein all these events take place.

In the books, September 20 is a day of no special note. In real life, however, it marks the day of my birth, two years and five days after H’ard. September 20 is the true Wild Cards Day. It was on that day in 1983 that Vic Milan gave me a role-playing game called Superworld as a birthday present, thereby unknowingly planting the first seed of the Wild Cards universe.

As I unwrapped that gift, I was still a relative innocent where role-playing games were concerned. Mind you, I had played plenty of games over the years such as Betsensation. I had paid my bills directing chess tournaments in the early ’80s, while trying to establish myself as an SF writer. Before that I had been captain of my college chess team, and of my high school chess team before that. Role-playing had not yet been invented when I was a kid, but we had checkers and Sorry and Parcheesi for rainy days, and Hide and Seek and Ringoleavio and Oh O’Clock for warm summer evenings.

Although my parents never owned a house, that did not stop me from building vast real estate empires across a Monopoly board. There was Broadside and Stratego as well, and all through childhood I never lost a game of Risk (I always commanded the red armies, and refused to play if denied “my” color). After a while none of my friends dared to face me, so I’d set up the board in the bedroom and fight wars against myself, playing all six armies, inventing kings and generals to command them, merrily invading, attacking, and betraying myself for hours. And maybe that was role-playing of sorts, now that I come to think of it.

But it was not until I arrived in New Mexico in 1980 that I began to game regularly. Some of the Albuquerque writers had a small gaming group, and they invited me to come sit in on a session. I was pretty dubious at the time. I had seen kids playing D&D at cons, pretending to be Thongor the Barbarian and Pipsqueak the Hobbit while killing monsters and looking for treasure. I had read too much bad sword and sorcery in my youth for that to have much appeal. And there were all these weirdly shaped dice you had to roll to determine whether you lived or died. I would sooner have joined a weekly poker game or an on-going game of Diplomacy. I was much too old and sophisticated for this role-playing stuff, after all. Still, if this was what the local writers were into, I figured I might as well give it a try.

Famous last words, those.

This Albuquerque gaming group included Walter Jon Williams, Victor Milan, John Jos. Miller, his wife Gail Gerstner Miller, and Melinda M. Snodgrass, all of whom would eventually become important contributors to the Wild Cards anthologies. Royce Wideman and Jim Moore were also part of the group, and my own sweet lady Parris joined in with me. At the time we got involved, the gang was mostly playing a Call of Cthulhu campaign run by Walter, and less frequently Vic’s Morrow Project scenario, so those were the first two games I sampled.

They were great fun…and nothing like I had imagined role-playing to be. I had fallen in with writers, and these games were stories. Playing Walter’s game was like stepping into the pages of an H.P. Lovecraft story, except that the characters were more fully realized than Lovecraft’s ever were. There was triumph and tragedy, heroism and cowardice, love affairs and betrayals, and every now and again a shuggoth, too. Our weekly sessions were part communal storytelling and part Improv Theater, part group therapy and part mass psychosis, part adventure and part soap opera. We created some wonderful characters and lived inside them, and many a night never rolled those funny twenty-sided dice at all.

After a few months, I began to make noises about wanting to try and run a game myself. As much fun as the players were having, it seemed to me that the GM was having even more. He was the creator, the conductor leading the orchestra, the team captain and the opposing team rolled up in one omnipotent package. “God,” the group called our GMs. Who doesn’t want to play god? I finally succumbed to the temptations and designed my own Cthulhu adventure for the gang. Once I had tasted the joys of godhood there was no turning back……even though this particular lot of players were so damned sharp that they unraveled the central mystery of my game about sixteen minutes into the action.

That was more or less where thing stood when my birthday rolled around, and Vic gave me that fatal copy of Superworld. The gang had tried another superhero game before my time and hadn’t liked it much… but this was a new system, and Vic knew that I was a comic book fan from way back. I had cut my teeth on funny books while growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey. Superman and Batman had more to do with me learning to read than Dick and Jane ever did, and the first stories I ever published were amateur superhero “text stories” in the dittoed comic fanzines. Superworld seemed made for me, and me for Superworld.

What happened next was almost scary. I came up with a campaign and my friends came up with characters, and we began to play, and before any of us knew what was happening Superworld had swallowed us all. At first we were playing once a week, alternating Superworld with sessions of Walter’s game or Vic’s. But soon we stopped playing Morrow Project entirely, and then…Call of Cthulhu as well.

It was all Superworld. We would assemble at suppertime, play until two or sometimes three in the morning, then post-mortem the game we had just played for another hour or so. Many a time dawn caught me while I was driving home from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. Within half a year we were playing twice a week, with one campaign running in Albuquerque and a second in Santa Fe, and the same players participating in both. Once, at an especially dull SF con, we adjourned to my room and played Superworld all weekend, leaving the game to do our panels and readings and then rushing back.

A number of characters who would later grace the Wild Cards books made their first appearances in those games, albeit in early “rough draft” versions significantly different from their later selves. Melinda’s first character was Topper, but a Topper who had only her costume in common with the bit player who would appear in Ace in the Hole. Walter’s firstborn was Black Shadow, with powers and personality both rather different from his later Wild Cards incarnation. In the game, Shad was the brother of Vic’s character, who would become the Harlem Hammer of the anthologies. Chip Wideman played a succession of surly antiheroes and the sweet-natured Toad Man before devising Crypt Kicker, toxic shit-kicker from hell. John J. Miller had Nightmare, who never did make it into the books. And Jim Moore…well, I could tell you about Jim Moore’s characters, but if I did the PC police would have to kill you. The first incarnation of Hiram Worchester was pure comic relief: a well-meaning oaf who fought crime from a blimp and called himself Fatman. And the primordial Turtle might have had Tom Tudbury’s name, power, and shell, but he shared none of his history or personality.

Many of these early creations were retired when the players got a better feel for the campaign, and for the nuances of the Superworld rules. Topper hung up her top hat, Black Shadow faded back into the shadows, the Harlem Hammer went back to repairing motorcycles. In place of Shad, Walter introduced Modular Man and his mad creator. Vic Milan unveiled Cap’n Trips and all of his friends, and John Miller brought in Yeoman to displace Nightmare. Some of the gang had gotten it right on the first try, though; Gail never played anyone but Peregrine, and Parris was Elephant Girl from the start; the book version of Radha O’Reilly as pretty much a clone of the earlier game version.

The game was deeply and seriously addictive for all of us…but for me most of all. I was god, which meant I had lots of planning and preparation to do before the players even arrived. The game ate their nights and their weekends, but it ate my life. For more than a year, Superworld consumed me, and during that time I wrote almost nothing. Instead I spent my days coming up with ingenious new plot twists to frustrate and delight my players, and rolling up still more villains to bedevil them. Parris used to listen at my office door, hoping to hear the clicking of my keyboard from within, only to shudder at the ominous rattle of dice.

I told myself it was writer’s block. My last book, an ambitious rock and roll fantasy called The Armageddon Rag, had failed dismally despite great reviews, and my career was in the dumps, enough to block anyone. Looking back now, though, it’s plain to see that I wasn’t blocked at all. I was creating characters and devising plots every day, like a man possessed. It was the opposite of being blocked. I was in a creative frenzy, of the sort I sometimes experienced on the home stretch of a novel, when the real world seems to fade away and nothing matters but the book you are living by day and dreaming of by night. That was exactly what was happening here, only there was no book……yet. There was only the game.

I don’t know just when my fever broke, or why. Maybe my steadily diminishing bank account and rapidly increasing debt had something to do with it. I loved the game, I loved all these wonderful characters that my friend and I had created, I loved the egoboo I got from my players after and especially exciting session…but I loved having a house to live in, too, which meant I had to keep making those pesky mortgage payments. And godhood, intoxicating as it was, did not pay.

Thus it was that one day, while rolling up yet another batch of really nifty villains, I said the magic words—”There’s got to be some way to make some money from this.”

It turned out there was……but for that story, you’ll need to come back next month.