by Walter Jon Williams
That an RPG run by George R.R. Martin became the stimulus for Wild Cards is well known. George spent years obsessed by Chaosium’s Superworld, and his set of gamers— Victor Milán, Royce Wideman, John Jos. Miller, Melinda Snodgrass, Gail Gerstner-Miller, Parris, Jim Moore, and myself— participated in that obsession, though perhaps not to the degree that George did. (There were also more casual or occasional players, like Rob Pruden and Laura J Mixon.)
It is less well-known that there was more than one Superworld campaign going on during that time. John Miller and Vic Milán each ran a campaign briefly, but the only campaign to last nearly as long as George’s was my own.
Because George came first, I was able to learn from his experience. George’s campaign featured a lot of fairly eccentric or obnoxious characters who didn’t work or play well with others, including my own Dark Avenger of the Night, Black Shadow. Shad was a solitary hunter, and in order to play with the group I had to invent a more sociable hero, Modular Man.
In my campaign, I told everyone from the start that I wanted them to play characters who were willing to be part of a group. This disappointed Vic Milán, who badly wanted to play Freddie Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street. I had to give Vic the disappointing news that a superhero character with a hobby of serial child murder was not likely to be accepted by my version of the Justice League. Vic responded by creating the most amiable character imaginable, a disadvantaged black hispanic fourth-grader whose helmet enabled him to control giant fighting robots based on those of Japanese anime (at least when his teacher let him wear the helmet in class).
George had a typically ingenious approach to creating his own character. Because he’d spent literal years creating Superworld characters, he had dozens of them that hadn’t yet actually made the journey into his own campaign. In my game, his character— a paraplegic named, ahem, John Snow— possessed a superpower that enabled him to incarnate himself as a random person from George’s game, which proved frustrating when George decided he should be elected the group’s leader, and lost the election because a random die roll incarnated him as a mute giant who could only make his case through the use of sign language.
The campaign contributed two important elements to Wild Cards. The first was the central character of Doctor Tachyon, the Takisian alien who was created for my game, not for George’s.
The second was the Takisian responsibility for the superpower epidemic. In Wild Cards, the wild card virus is an experiment on human beings by Doctor Tachyon’s clan, hoping to create a weapon to use against rival clans. In my campaign, while the characters believed they had typical comic book-style origin stories— exposure to a weird glowing meteor, a dunk in a chemical bath— the actual cause of their superpowers were “chaos rays” beamed toward Earth by Takisians in the recently-discovered “dark moon” orbiting our planet. (This may not be the most plausible backstory, but there’s no real way to make superpowers plausible no matter your storytelling gifts.) These moon-based Takisians were rivals to Tachyon’s clan, and he’d traveled to Earth to stop them, only to be shot down and stranded on our world. The characters in my game never actually made it to the dark moon to confront the enemy Takisians, in part because the chaos ray was too successful at producing villains for them to fight on Earth.
Other than Tachyon, I believe the only other character from my game to make it into Wild Cards is the romance-writer-turned-cat-burglar Lady Light. I can’t be certain of this, because despite a week-long search I’ve found that all the records of my Superworld campaign have apparently gone on holiday. (Not permanently, I hope. I’m sure I’ll find them about two hours after this essay goes live.)
My Superworld campaign went for several years, and was filled with the usual hijinks: a billionaire who wanted to impress his girlfriend by conquering the world; a cyberneticist who wanted to impose rational control on humanity; a superpowered punk-rock band who staged anarchic concerts that forced citizens into a giant mosh pit. In each case the heroes’ response was coordinated by General John J. Pershing, who had been resurrected by the chaos ray in order to coordinate the efforts of mankind’s defenders.
Both George’s campaign and mine were brought to an end when George and Melinda created Wild Cards, and the groups’ creative efforts were focused on bringing the shared world into being.
That story, of course, has been told elsewhere in these online pages.