Tom Clancy, Gamemaster

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Harpoon WargameWhen I learned that Tom Clancy passed away, I was surprised, because I didn’t think he was that old. He wasn’t. He was just 66.

I’ve been meaning to read some Clancy since, well, forever. I didn’t realize that he used the wargame Harpoon to develop The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising:

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of later editions of Harpoon published after the collapse of the Soviet Union reveals that these generic listings have been replaced by their correct identifications.)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!


  1. If you’re interested in trying out a modern, open-source version of Harpoon, check out “Global Conflict Blue.”

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