The Secret Origins of the Wild Card Universe

according to John Jos. Miller

Where to begin?  That’s a good question.  About a gazillion events over a period of thirty-some years had to coalesce in the proper manner to produce the Wild Card Universe as it’s constituted today… but since I’m telling this story at this time, let’s concentrate on what’s most important to me.  And that would be, of course, me.

John Jos. Miller

As I see it, the most crucial aspect regarding the creation of the Wild Card Universe occurred when I decided to move to New Mexico.  Even that seemingly simple event is a twisted tale, but I’ll try to keep it concise.  In the spring of 1976 I was graduating from college and the big question loomed:  what next?  I figured I should do something practical with my life, and what could possibly be more practical than a PhD in archaeology?  I had a brand new degree in anthropology from SUNY Stony Brook.  I had worked on digs in my native upstate New York State and in Great Britain in York and Sussex.  The only question was where I would pursue my future studies.  One possibility was the University of Chicago, where I would study Egyptology.  The other was the University of New Mexico, which at the time had one of the great anthro departments in the entire U.S., headed by Lew Binford who was doing groundbreaking work in the field.  I thought about it long and hard and finally came to the conclusion that the winters had to be better in Albuquerque than in Chicago.


On such decisions do lives, and fictional universes, turn.


The first year in Albuquerque went just fine.  Came the end of the spring semester and I had to make another decision. What was I going to do for the summer?  I tried to catch onto something in Albuquerque, but at the time had no solid connections with the working archeological community, so I wrote to one of my Stony Brook professors and he put me onto a project out of SUNY Binghamton.  I got the job, drove back across the country, and rented the upstairs floor of a house in the small college town of Oneonta along with four female archeologists and spent the summer excavating cornfields, extracting pollen samples from swamps, and doing all the things young archaeologists tended to do, like drinking a lot of beer and going to see STAR WARS about twelve times.  As it turned out, my constant companion that summer soon became a female archaeologist (not one of those I shared the upper floor of the house with), Gail Gerstner.  It took a while (she had to finish her MLS at Syracuse University) but she eventually joined me in New Mexico.  We were married the next summer and she is still my constant companion, and if it wasn’t for her there probably wouldn’t ever have been a wild card universe.


Hang in there, we’re getting to the wild cards stuff, I promise.


I returned to my lucrative position as a graduate student in archeology and she put her Masters in Library Science to work in a job packing cheese logs and summer sausage into Hickory Farms Christmas boxes.  Fortunately, she was quickly able to move into a job where her degree would be more useful — a clerk in a Waldenbooks, located in one of the two malls that Albuquerque had at the time.  (We’ve since added a few more.)


As it turns out, an incredible number of writers lived in Albuquerque.  (Probably because it was a fairly cheap place to live.) A lot of them were science fiction writers and a lot them came into the bookstore.  The first one we met was Stephen Donaldson.  He once babysat our cats when we had to go out of town for the weekend.  But enough name dropping about cat-sitters.  Since I promised that the wild card stuff was forthcoming, let’s digress again to me.


I have always been a geek.  I was a geek before they invented the word, or at least before they repurposed it from describing people who bite heads off chickens to describe people who love sf and fantasy.  Since I started to read before attending kindergarten, there is hardly a time in my life I can remember when I didn’t love sf and fantasy, in all forms from books to movies to comics.  I don’t know how old I was when I started scribbling my own stories, but I was fourteen when I collected my first rejection slips from the magazines.  I was sixteen when I sold one and the magazine went out of business before it could print it, and worse, pay me for it, starting an unfortunate trend which was to last a few years. College and especially graduate school took away from my writing time but during those years I did manage to place two stories that actually appeared in print, along with two others while in graduate school.


So this hanging out with writers was great stuff.  At this late date I don’t quite remember who invited Gail and me to join them in this thing called role-playing.  It was either Victor Milan or Walter Jon Williams.  Let’s blame Victor, because later he gets all the blame.


In any case, we soon were caught up in it.  We played all sorts off stuff.  Oddly, never Dungeons & Dragons.  We had no great prejudice against D&D, but we were caught up by things like Call of Cthulhu. The Morrow Project.  What the heck was that name of that one set in the far future, Traveler?  Stuff like that.


We soon met Melinda Snodgrass.  She, Walter, and Victor were all friends, all upcoming young writers with terrific imaginations.  They all also had some kind of theater and acting or singing background, which Gail and I lacked, but we held our own with them.  Others joined the gaming group, among them my friend and fellow graduate student Jim Moore, and Walter’s friend Royce “Chip” Wideman. Various girlfriends, fans, visiting writers, even a college professor or two joined us from time to time, but those characters formed the core that finally coalesced into a group of hard core fanatics when a final ingredient was added to this lively stew.


That final ingredient was a relative newcomer to New Mexico by the name of George R. R. Martin.  Memory does fade with age, so I can’t quite recall where we first met.  It could have been at a Bubonicon.  It could have been at Walter’s old apartment across the street from the zoo.  Unlike the time I first saw Gail, which remains etched indelibly in my brain and always will be, I don’t remember exactly when I first saw George, though I’m guessing it was when someone invited him to game with us and he showed up with his then girlfriend (now wife), Parris.  It was probably a Call of Cthulhu game.  We all loved that setting.  For the most part game-mastering alternated between me and Victor and Walter… until the fateful day when Victor gave George a copy of Super World for his birthday and he said, “Run a game based on this.”  And the rest, as they say, became alternate history.


We were consumed by it.  George ran long, intricate scenarios that we’d play out sometimes to three in the morning two, three times a week, and some of us actually had real jobs.  (I’m looking at you, Gail.)  The intervening days we’d call each other on the phone (this was long before the time of the internet) endlessly rehash the latest story-line and try to figure out ways to defeat George’s deadly and devious villains and his own cunningly warped mind.  It was getting to the point where the game was overtaking realty.


In the meantime, hanging out with writers proved fatal to my academic career.  They weren’t solely to blame.  I was getting burned out.  It didn’t help any that I lost two out of three of my committee members to other universities and that the third was in such a state that in the near future he became a non-functioning ward of the state and passed away.  I took a leave of absence from the department when I was just short of my PhD, and never went back.  The writers in town had turned me to the Dark Side.


I wrote and worked on archeological projects around the state and played Super World. Then one day George had a brilliant idea.  “We’ve got to find some way to make money out of this.”


And the wild card universe was born.  We did not just write up our adventures.  Nothing close to what we played out in George’s complex and absorbing scenarios was suitable fiction.  But some of the characters made the switch to the written word – or at least some form of them.  My Yeoman in the game was an archer who eschewed the use of boxing glove arrows and preferred razor-sharp broad-heads.  Wraith was an alien anthropologist sent to study human beings who freaked out when she was touched while in a solid state.  Victor’s Captain Trips was already pretty damn complex; the fictional character has somewhat more nuance.  Other characters making the jump more or less intact from the game included Gail’s Peregrine, George’s The Great and Powerful Turtle and (much later in the series), The Holy Roller, Walter’s Modular Man, Parris’s Elephant Girl, and Chip’s Crypt-Kicker.


One of the earlier side projects we undertook was a source book returning wild cards to the role playing world. I wrote “GURP SUPERS Wild Cards” for Steve Jackson Games.  It came out in trade paperback form in 1989 and covers all the events of the books then published, through volume five, Down and Dirty.  I note that it mentions among the works in preparation, Volume 11, Death Takes Six, scheduled to appear in 1991.  Alternate alternate history, perhaps?


It sold fairly well and is still regarded as a collector’s copy. My own office copy has been so badly abused that all the pages have separated from the spine.  Some kid named Kevin Andrew Murphy did the follow-up, a volume of ready-made role playing scenarios.  It earned him entry into the writers’ consortium.


Green Ronin published an updated world book for role players, written again by yours truly, set in the Mutants & Masterminds system and called simply Wild Cards. Released in 2008, it exhaustively updates wild cards history through the last of the iBooks volumes, my own novel Death Draws Five.  Besides providing a chronology of every story, a list of the stories every major character has appeared in, a  recounting of alternate wild cards history and pop culture, it also provides new, detailed biographies of approximately seventy of the best known characters.  A follow-up companion publications, Aces and Jokers, provides all that is known about approximately four hundred more characters.  In addition, Green Ronin has bios of the most important characters from the Tor books (through Suicide Kings) available as downloadable PDF’s.


And yet, the world goes on and on.  We’ll never catch up to chronicling it all.  Don’t be afraid to visit.