Interview: John Jos. Miller: Wild Cards, from Game to Books... to Games Again
by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: 24 July 2008
Links: Review: Wild Cards: A Mutants & Mastermind... /
Now John Jos. Miller returns the Wild Cards series to their roots in the universe of roleplaying games with Wild Cards: A Mutants & Masterminds Campaign Setting from Green Ronin Publishing. Packed with information on this alternate Earth--where superpowered humans live, fight and die amid alien invasions, mad conspiracies, political intrigue and TV celebrity--this sourcebook is a treasure trove for fans of the series... or those looking for a truly great superhero setting for your Mutants & Masterminds game.
SFRevu is trying something different this month--we're reviewing a game supplement based on a long-running, popular line of books. Read the review of WILD CARDS: A Mutants & Masterminds Campaign Setting.
We talked with author John Jos. Miller about the Wild Cards series, writing this sourcebook, and more...
John, thanks for joining us for this interview. For the uninitiated, what is Wild Cards all about?
John Jos. Miller: Wild Cards is a shared-world universe in which twenty-some writers have participated over the course of twenty-three years to create twenty volumes of superior (if I say so myself) super-hero prose.
The universe diverges from ours in 1946 when an alien race (called the Takisians) decided to use the Earth as a scientific laboratory--with humanity the unsuspecting guinea pigs--to test a virus that becomes known as the wild card. This virus kills 90% of those it infects, horrifically twists the remaining 9% into (in the parlance of the series) jokers, and to the remaining 1% (aces) gives powers ranging from the god-like to the ridiculous.
SFRevu: You were one of the original Wild Cards writers. Can you tell us a bit about how it all began?
JJM: It is in the sourcebook in some detail, but the short form goes like this: In the mid-1980s a number of New Mexico writers and their friends, spouses, and significant others frequently got together for epic roleplaying sessions, We played a number of games within a number of systems. The Superworld game run by George R.R. Martin quickly became the most popular. It became an obsession, but, as we quickly saw, an obsession with fictional possibilities.
SFRevu: Wild Cards is apparently the longest-running shared world in SF. What are the pros and cons of writing in a shared universe?
JJM: The pro is that you get to work with a lot of great people. The con is that you have to work with a lot of great people. You definitely have to subordinate your own agenda and ego to the needs of the universe, even though at times it might not exactly be clear-cut what those needs are.
In the old days (yes, kids, before the time of the Internets) it took a tremendous amount of time and effort to tailor your story exactly to the over-all story being told in any specific volume. Now it only takes a semi-tremendous amount of time and effort. A good rule of thumb (for me, anyway) is that it takes three to four times longer to do a Wild Card story than a "regular" story of comparable length.
SFRevu: Do you have any personal favorites among the books, stories or characters?
JJM: I have too many favorites to list, probably. I think that perhaps the strongest trilogy is the Card Sharks trilogy from Baen, although all of the mosaic novels are really up there. Someday I'd like to see book six and seven get published together as a single novel, as they were originally meant to be.
SFRevu: Is there any single "great moment" that (series editor) George R.R. Martin ended up having to cut from one of your stories?
JJM: This is a bit spoilerish, because it deals with my story in the volume due out in December, but the thing I regret the most is being unable to write the sequence of Billy Ray's actual wedding.
SFRevu: Do you have a favorite "behind the scenes" anecdote about the books or working with the other writers?
JJM: Just to illustrate the difficulties of working in the wild card universe in general, when I was writing my solo novel Death Draws Five, I brought Fortunato out of his monastic retreat in Japan. I was trying to figure out who he could interact with back in New York, and sent a few e-mails back and forth with his creator, Lew Shiner, discussing some possibilities, and we settled on his mother Ichiko to play a major role in his return (which, of course, only seems natural).
Well, I wrote the first scene, then a couple more, but something was nagging me. Of course I had gone back and looked over all the previous Fortunato stories, but somehow I managed to miss the last one in which Ichiko DIED. And Lew had forgotten that he'd killed her.
So much for that plot line.
Of course, now that we have this volume, such mistakes are now much more unlikely to occur.
SFRevu: On to the sourcebook: How did you come to write this adaptation?
JJM: I did the sourcebook for the first RPG adaptation, GURPS: WILD CARDS, back in 1989 for Steve Jackson Games, so I was a natural to extend the adaptation to cover the first seventeen books.
SFRevu: Mutants & Masterminds (the Green Ronin game system for which WC is a sourcebook) is an Open Gaming License title, using the d20 system built for Dungeons & Dragons. Were there any major tweaks you needed to make in M&M's rules to accommodate Wild Cards or was the mechanical part fairly smooth going?
JJM: That was out of my purview. All the wonk stuff was done by my collaborator, Steve Kenson, so he deserves all the credit for that work.
SFRevu: Is it hard to capture the mood of the books in a roleplaying game? What challenges did you face in adapting this material from prose to game mechanics?
JJM: Nope, not at all. I think Wild Cards fans will be pleased with the feel of their campaigns. They'll be as close to the "feel" of a wild card volume as the players will care to make them.
For those unfamiliar with the Wild Cards series, I think you'll enjoy the somewhat skewed and definitely unique perspective that comes with it.
SFRevu: You're working on more Wild Cards gamebooks for Green Ronin—so what's coming next? What's the game plan for these books and how many do you expect might be made?
JJM: The next book to be published (by the end of this year, I believe) will be an adventure handbook that actually I have no hand in. The next book after that I have worked on.
ACES AND JOKERS is mainly an encyclopedia covering approximately 350 characters through the first 17 books. The (campaign setting) sourcebook contains the biographies of about 90 of the major characters; together these two books cover virtually everyone, from Jay Ackroyd to Zelda the Bodysnatcher. ACES AND JOKERS may also include updates covering volume 18, but we're still kicking around that notion. This volume will be due out at the end of April 2009.
After that, there's talk of an update to cover events from the first Tor trilogy, but nothing firm has been set, yet.
SFRevu: Does being a gamer have any effect on being a writer? Has it affected how you view your craft or how you approach storytelling?
JJM: No, not really. I was a writer before I was a gamer -- maybe being a writer affected my approach to gaming.
SFRevu: Do you still play roleplaying games? Can it be a hobby if it's also your day job?
JJM: Some time around the last decade it seems as if a couple of hours have dropped out of the day. I don't know what happened to them, at any rate. There's a few things that I don't seem to have the time for anymore, and gaming is unfortunately one of those things.
SFRevu: Finally, is there anything you can tease us with about the next WC book, Busted Flush? That is, without GRRM visiting your house with a baseball bat…
JJM: Even though this is "the new generation" of wild cards, you'll see one of my favorite characters return in an unfamiliar role, as Billy Ray becomes the head of SCARE and has to deal with the ultimate horrors: bureaucrats, budgets, and his new nemesis, Attorney General Hillary Rodham.
SFRevu: Oh geez. Poor Billy. Apart from the game writing, what's coming up next?
JJM: My current big project is my novel Black Train Coming, set in the early 1920s in the coalfields of West Virginia. There's coal miners in it, of course, and detectives and strikebreakers, and also baseball, a half-man, vampires, and a race of immortal dogs.
SFRevu: Thanks, John! SFRevu would like to thank Steve Kenson at Green Ronin for his help in making this review/interview possible. Look for WILD CARDS: A Mutants & Masterminds Campaign Setting on sale now!