As many PAXsims readers will already know, Tom Clancy—author and gamer—died on Tuesday at the age of 66. You’ll find his obituary here (New York Times), here (Washington Post), and here (CNN), among many other places.
Matthew Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland) has kindly contributed the following piece to PAXsims, examining the way in which Clancy used the wargame Harpoon to develop the plot for his book Red Storm Rising.
* * *
Tom Clancy, Gamemaster
Tom Clancy’s connections to the games industry are well known, especially the signature Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and Splinter Cell franchises. Long-time wargamers, however, will know that his interest goes back much further than that.
The story starts with Larry Bond’s Harpoon (today also stewarded by Chris Carlson), which first came out in 1981 as a set of tabletop rules published by Dave Arneson’s Adventure Games. Clancy, so the story goes, saw an ad in the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine and purchased it on a whim; when the game arrived he realized that he had a trove of data that it would have cost thousands of dollars to duplicate through the usual library of reference works. This material became instrumental to writing The Hunt for Red October, Clancy’s first novel and breakthrough best-seller.
Clancy’s hallmark, of course, is his realism, particularly his attention to detail in weapons and technical systems; and here we find tell-tale indicators of Harpoon’s influence. For example, when the V. K. Knovalov fires off a pair of “Mark C 533-millimeter wire-guided torpedoes” in the climactic underwater confrontation at the end of the novel, the weapon type and characteristics are taken directly from the data annex in the Harpoon rules; as Larry Bond has told me, the game system’s “Mark C” wire-guided torpedo was simply a generic extrapolation from assumed real-world capabilities since there was no public data for this weapons system at the time. (An examination of later editions of Harpoon published after the collapse of the Soviet Union reveals that these generic listings have been replaced by their correct identifications.) At some point in this process, Clancy struck up a correspondence with Bond over some of the ship data, and the two met in person at a convention not long after.
This meeting was to be the basis for one of the more interesting literary collaborations of the era. Despite enormous pressure from his publishers for the next Jack Ryan book after Red October’s success, Clancy instead pursued an idea he had hit upon with Bond: to write a lightly fictionalized account of a full-scale conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact using Harpoon as an integral part of their creative arsenal to “game” the scenarios and situations in the book. Bond, at the time, was still a naval consultant and not the best-selling author he is today. Understandably, people were nervous. In correspondence to his New York City editor, Clancy declared that the outcomes of the game sessions would furnish “a matrix of detail within which our characters will operate” (the book, meanwhile, had just been given a million-dollar advance). Red Storm Rising, whose working title was “Sunset,” thus became a best-selling work of fiction some of whose key sections—notably the “dance of the vampires” carrier battle and the Soviet airborne seizure of Iceland—were gamed using a tabletop wargames system. (Bond, for his part, was not just the gamemaster, but took an active part in the writing as well, as Clancy’s author’s note at the beginning of the novel makes clear.)
But while Harpoon was integral to the plot, it was not deterministic. For example, the gaming sessions suggested the Soviet bombers might not get through a carrier battle group’s outer air defenses, but Clancy and Bond knew that the “bad guys” needed to win a big one early on for the book’s dramatic arc; Clancy thus independently arrived at the Soviet drone tactics, which is one of the most dramatic (and prescient) episodes in the book. The games did allow Clancy and Bond to maintain consistency as regards the complex interplay of ships and systems and sensors that make up a modern naval battle. The game sessions (dubbed “Vampire I, II, and III” in Bond’s notes) thus quite literally plotted the book in the sense that they offered precisely the temporal and spatial “matrix of detail” that Clancy had promised to anchor the detail-driven narrative prose (I describe the integration of the game sessions with the novel’s plotting in more detail here based on access to Larry Bond’s personal papers).
Red Storm Rising was published in 1985 and immediately shot to the top of the best-seller lists. If portions of it read like what grognards would call an After Action Report, that’s because that’s exactly what they were. For an English professor like me the novel represents a unique example of how games can influence fiction. (Interestingly, the Dragonlance novels, derived from an AD&D campaign, were being published at about the same time.) Moreover, eventually board game versions of both The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising were released, so we arrive at a situation where games have influenced novels that have then had games produced from them!
A Red Storm Rising computer game was produced by Microprose in 1988. A year later, Harpoon itself got the first of what would become many subsequent computer implementations based on Don Gilman’s work for Three-Sixty. Clancy contributed the forward to the rules manual (this was when computer games still came with rules manuals, as well as floppy disks . . .) There he wrote, “Harpoon is a tool for understanding things that happen in the real world.” This very much reflects the grognard’s view, one where games are analytical tools to be used alongside of conventional histories, primary source documents, field data, oral testimonies, and everything else in a good researcher’s toolbox.
Clancy (and Bond) were both too good as storytellers for anyone to suggest their success was the end-product of a game. But their work in the 1980s took us much deeper into the potential for rich interaction between fiction writing and games than today’s marketplace, driven by tie-ins to triple-A titles, typically allows. Wargamers could do worse than to look (again) towards fiction writing and storytelling as vehicles for communicating lessons and outcomes (Clancy would later swear that NATO doctrine had indeed changed in response to the Iceland scenario in Red Storm). And novelists could perhaps do worse than to think of games as merely something to pass the time when they’re stuck with writer’s block.
University of Maryland